Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Nasara Bye-Bye!

Two years? Two years! Two years. Where does it go? I can remember perfectly the ride with Mike to Philadelphia on September 25th, 2006. I can remember the goodbye, and the crazy leap into the unknown. Burkina Faso? I didn't even know that country existed until I was invited to serve there! How do I put into words how I feel, looking back, almost two years later. I have seen, experienced, and learned in these last two years. It overwhelms me to even think about it.

After an intense 2 months of learning French (although by the time I left training I didn't feel like I knew anything) and culture...of we went! December 1st, 2006 I headed off to Banzon not knowing what it looked like, the language (for the most part), or the people. I was SO scared, but in the Peace Corps you aren't given a lot of time to be scared. You just keep moving forward because that is all you can do. The first few months were hard...people laughed at me and asked me for money. Then, as time went by, the transformation happened. People started calling me by name, and recognizing me as something other than the "toubabou" in village. Slowly friendships began to form, and it is only now, close to 2 years later that I realize the significance and importance of these people in my life. Normally, I am not one to dwell on the past (or sadly all that much on the present). I tend to focus my eyes forward in a planning mode, which for most of my life caused me to miss out on all the wonderful things that were happening to me at the present moment. When I moved from one stage of my life to another I never wasted time on sentimentalities...I just moved forward with excitement. However, I am realizing that Peace Corps has changed that. Leaving my village was the first example of this. As my last few days crept up on me I found myself looking around everywhere and trying to suck it all in. I would tell myself, "Remember this view. Remember this smell (even the bad ones). Remember this moment. Don't let it slip away through the cracks of your memory." Every where I went the thought of it being the "last time" I ever did this would overwhelm me. It got to the point that I could barely walk through my market and greet my friends for fear of breaking down into tears. Here I am with a free ticket back to the "promised land" and all I could think that I wanted was to stay here with them forever. It just didn't seem fair that they stayed while I got to leave. As the day of departure approached my house began to swell with gifts. My friends who have so little had bought me baskets, calabashes, pagnes--and not just for me, but for EVERYONE in my family. I have gifts for my grandma, my brother, my sister, my nephew, my mom, and Mike...and they have only met one of those people in that list. To say that the Burkinabe are a generous people is definitely understating it.

On the last day my friends came over and were shocked to see that I wasn't completely finished packing--yeah, I am still a procrastinator...something Peace Corps didn't manage to change. They all sat in my house while I finished the last of my packing, and I gave out various gifts of things that I couldn't fit in my bag (you would be surprised how popular bra's are...big sellers!). After a couple of hours I announce to everyone, "well, I'm ready. I am just going to shower now, and then I will meet you guys outside." Everyone just stared at me and then my salad lady said, "go ahead. we'll wait here." Okay, my shower is I had to grab my towel and walk into my bedroom and shower while everyone was waiting outside. AWKWARD! When I came out wrapped in a pagne and a towel on my head they thought I was attempting to dress "African" and all applauded. Where will my applauding audience be when I step out of my shower in New York? Where will my excited children be yelling "bonjour" when I walk into my courtyard? The days of being interesting and different are kind of over...a white girl in New York City doesn't exactly stand out. :-( As I boarded the bus to go to Bobo for the last time a crowd congregated out in front of my house to say goodbye. This time I was smart and wore my sunglasses so people wouldn't see me cry...even though they did...which then started a domino-effect of everyone else crying. It took all my strength not to jump out of the bus and say "I'm just kidding. I'm staying!" But, sadly, that isn't an option for me at this point...and as hard as it is to move forward, and as much as I am resisting it, it is something that must happen.

So, here I sit in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso--where it all began. I look back on these two years of my life in awe. In awe of all the wonderful things I was blessed to have experienced and witnessed. It seems like a dream or some movie of someone else's life...not something that I actually lived through. People ask me how I feel about leaving, how will it be to go from the poorest country in the world to one of the richest...or from a small village to one of the largest cities in the world. Honestly, I am not sure how I will feel about it. Everyone says that I should be happy because I can't get anything and everything my heart desires...but I feel that it doesn't have the same meaning when it is so readily available and in such overwhelming quantities. A glass with ice...or a hot shower...none of that is novel. So I wonder how long it will take for me to fall back into my "American" attitude and begin viewing my life as mundane. I can only hope and pray that these feelings and these lessons stick with me. I want to value every little perk in life, from an ice-cold glass of water to a good coffee (not instant...blech!). Something I think we could all work on a little bit. I am by no means a sage, but the advice I would give to everyone is to (as cliche as it sounds) stop and smell the roses. Stop and be thankful for all that we have (even in our recession) because compared to the rest of the world it is a HELL of a lot.

Alright...I am going to get off my little soapbox of the value of this experience in my life (which, by the way, if you weren't paying attention, is immeasurable!). I am going to try to turn my eyes forward (never forgetting the past), and focus on the next step in my life...New York City, a job, and re-starting the life that I left behind there. For now, I have to focus on doing all my last minute departure stuff and willing myself on that plane. As we leave we have to take language tests to see how far we come, and although language is no broad indicator of how we fared here...I feel like it sort of represents my growth. When I started I was Beginner-Low (you can't go any more down than that) and as I learned yesterday I am Advanced-Mid (one level from the top)...not tooting my own horn or anything, but that is quite an improvement if I say so myself! :-D

I will leave you with one little story (although there are so many that it's difficult to know where to start) that I wrote back in June. Interestingly enough, this story will be published in an anthology "Peace Corps at 50" which will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Peace I can add published author to my resume...WOO HOO! This by no means encompasses my entire service, but I feel it embodies the idea of getting back to the basics, and that it is these connections that are most important in life. Sadly, I don't know if my friend Brahim will even remember me when he grows up, but I did give him a picture of me and I can only hope that I am given the means to return. Thank you all for following along with me on this two year journey, and I hope that maybe you learned along the way with me. I may update this from the States, but really, what is so interesting about a white girl living in NYC? Thank you to everyone for their love and support, and as always (and for the last time while in Burkina Faso) Stay Safe!

A picture of me and my running buddy, Brahim...he looks scared here, but every time I pulled a camera out he got scared...
The sun peaks through my straw hangar, the thwack of the axe can be heard fro across my courtyard, and the naying of the donkeys signal another day has begun. In Burkina Faso the last thing that I need is an alarm clock. As if set to a timer--even though usually NOTHING runs on time--my village comes to life as the sun peaks over the horizon. The people--and animals--start their day, whether I am ready for them to or not...there is NO snooze button.

I jump out of bed, thankful for the morning coolness as it flows over me, knowing that in 3 hours the sun will beat down and I will have to take refuge for a while from its rays. The mornings have always been my favorite, not only for the gracious breeze and cool air, but for the sounds and sights of my village coming to life.

For me, my mornings are the same. I lace up my shoes, take a gulp of water, and I set off. I pass several of my neigbors, all of whom have been up for hours already preparing breakfast and lunch, washing the children, cleaning the house, and preparing to set off to the fields--it is the rainy season and everyone has a field to tend to. As I run past I wave hello and pass my morning greetings to my neighbors--"Aw ni Sogoma," I shout as I jog by--Good morning in my village's local language of Joula. We rush through the greeting ritual as I pass by. At this point the odd looks have subsided, and most people just know me as the crazy american girl that "faire's le sport." Running is never done unless trying to get away from something, or in playing soccer...and most certainly not done that often by a girl.

I continue on my path through the mango groves which are teeming with ripe mangos. Their scent fills the air and I have to resist ripping one off the tree and eating it right there. I don't know if I will ever be able to buy fruits from a supermarket again. I wave to the villagers and children who are already in the grove, picking the mangos for sale in the market. I pass as the children make their way to school in the morning, carrying their little rice sack backbacks as they bound along. I dodge the various cattle, goats, and pigs along my route, Passing the river, and continuing on into the rice fields. The view is spectacular, and a far cry from 9 months ago when I was staring at the New York skyline from my office window. Oh, how much my life has changed in such a short time.

As amazing as all of this is, it is the end of my run that I look forward to the most. As I crest the hill out of the mango grove the familiar cry pierces the air. There is Brahim, my two-year old neighbor. "Madame! Madame!" he cries as he sees me come over the hill. He darts towards me from his courtyard, his little legs carrying him as fast as he can go. His eyes are lit up, and there is a smile on his face
that could light the world. Normally we shake hands, high five, and I pat him on
the head...but today is different. As he runs up I put my hands out and UP he jumps giving me the biggest little bear hug that he can muster. He has always been so shy to this point, and his affection surprises me. "Bonjour," he says...the only word of French I am sure he knows. He props on my hip and I jog him back to his mother. He pops down to the ground, gives me a hug and then runs back to his house.

I wave goodbye and finish up my run, just a little more energized than the moment before. Happy...content...that his hug is one of the highlights of my day...and something to look forward to every time I crest that hill to make my way home.

To Burkina I say Thank you, Merci, Aw ni ce, Baarka, and Fofo! Quoting the hundreds of children that have probably said this in my service...NASARA BYE-BYE!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Morockin' Around the Clock!

I am coming to you live from Burkina Faso, having just arrived from our whirlwind Moroccan vacation! I am running on about 3 hours of sleep, so I apologize if this post is bad, random, boring, etc.

I can first open by saying that Morocco is AMAZING! In 7 days we climbed the highest mountain (in North Africa anyway), sailed the shining seas (or at least stared at them), and crossed the scorching deserts (in an air-conditioned train car). Before my friend Rose suggested we go, I had no intention or interest really in visiting Morocco. I had heard different things about it...but I didn't put it at the top of my list. However, after our quick 7 day tour, I am already planning my return trip.

It is impossible to even begin to compare Burkina Faso to Morocco. Everything is different from the landscape, the culture, the people, the food, and the level of development. It is like taking a step in to Europe or Israel. Morocco is crazy and vibrant and alive...and it was an interesting contrast. I think I am having culture shock just coming back to Burkina.

On our first day we headed straight to Marrakesh to get a taste for the bazaars, markets, and lively Moroccan culture. The market streets and alleys wind for miles and we could get lost for hours just walking, staring, eating, drinking coffee, eating some more, and drinking coffee some more (I thought no one could bypass me for coffee intake...but I can't hold a candle to these caffeine-infused might as well hook me up to a coffee IV to keep up). On our first day in Marrakesh I don't think that we were prepared for the forwardness and abrasiveness of the Moroccans. Within our first 10 minutes walking through the main square
we were accosted by pre-teen henna girls. Before I knew it they had grabbed my hand and were squirting the henna cream in a design and saying "No money, no money! Good luck husband! Henna good luck husband!" Well shoot, if it's no money, and I get good luck in the husband department...SIGN ME UP! Yeah, well, that is until the moment that they finished. "Money. Give Money. WE WANT MONEY!! GIVE ME MONEY!" I tried giving them 10 durhams (a little more than a dollar), but they threw it on the ground in a theatrical which I took it back and said, "fine then. You get nothing." She then gets very close and agrees under her breath to take the money. Me and my friends agreed that the next time they girls tried to attack us we would bitch slap them...little twerps. For the rest of the night we walked around with this ugly smeared henna on our hands, and with the shame of knowing that two 10 year-olds basically held us up. Sadly, this wasn't the only time that we got cheated, hosed, rinsed, etc. for money. Thanks to a pretty horrible deal on a wooden camel...we nicknamed getting ripped off as "getting camelled." Oh well, I think it is the Marrakesh experience.

Here is a picture of the lively market at night. All the stalls are steaming with wonderful foods like snails, meats, couscous and more!

Orange juice stalls are everywhere, and you can get a fresh-squeezed glass of OJ for .40 cents!

Here are Leslie and Rose enjoying what Marrakesh has to offer...cappuccinos and grapes! YUMMY!

Here is a pic of the square lit up with the Mosque tower in the background!

After a wonderful time in Marrakesh shopping and eating and eating and eating some more, we decided to get our fat rear ends in to the mountains for a hike. We took a taxi to this quaint little village called Imlil, which sits at the base of Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa--around 12,000 feet. Our first mission was to find the hotel, which my friend Leslie had booked for us. She had no idea where it was and as we asked around we kept being pointed up the mountain. Here we are, hauling all of our luggage hiking up the side of a mountain...not even knowing if our hotel was that way or this way. 10 minutes into our hike sweat is pouring down my face, and I proceed to curse Leslie out for her poor choice of accomodations. After asking 5 different people, and walking through various courtyards we come upon a metal door with the hotel name scrawled in chalk across the top. VOILA! Our hotel...way to go Les. Upon entering though, we discovered that we had found quite a gem. All that hiking to get to the top of the cliff paid off as we had amazing views from the balcony. Like most Peace Corps volunteers we came mostly unprepared and me and my friend Rose only had flip-flops. We had no idea that an 8 1/2 hour hike on the highest peak in North Africa laid ahead of us. As we start the hike we pass people in full mountaineering gear...hmmm....and we in Chaco flip-flops. It was a 10k hike both about 12 miles on some seriously rough terrain in Chaco flip-flops, and aside from a pretty nasty stubbed toe we did pretty well. It is also worth noting...for those that like to get a kick out of bad things happening to people, that I got pooped on twice by the stupid pigeons that fly around on the mountains . TWICE! Someone told me that was good luck...but at the time I don't think I saw it that way.

Here are some pics from the hotel, and one really bad one of my feet (beware!).

Leslie and Rose posing on the porch of our hotel

A picture of the view from our hotel...just beautiful

A picture of my battered feet....and this was just halfway through...pedicure please!

While we were there we met a Peace Corps volunteer that gets the lucky fortune of living in a nearby village in these mountains. I have to say that I was VERY jealous!

After our mountain climbing adventure...which even to now is leaving my calves screaming for mercy, we decided to fit in the last of what Morocco has to offer...the beach. Off we went to what most volunteers in Morocco refer to as the best place in the country, Essaouira (sp?). It is a little fishing village south of Casablanca. It has a huge market (Medina), and fresh fish everywhere. The city itself was beautiful, and the food was amazing (as it always seems to be here) we couldn't complain. It gave us all a chance to relax, eat some more, drink even more coffee, and Honestly, if one verb had to be used to describe our trip it would be "eat."

After lazing at the beach we hopped an overnight bus to get back to Casablanca so that Rose could get her flight back to the good ol' US of A. Leslie and I hung out for the afternoon exploring the city...which really just consisted of oohing and aahing over all the wonderful things to eat (including McDonald's and KFC!!)...and then eating all of those things...haha! We took a trip to see the 3rd largest Mosque in the world, which was quite a site. It is built right along the water, and it was beautiful to see. After that I convinced Leslie to come with me to "Rick's Cafe" which was built in memory of the movie "Casablanca." We walked in and were greeted by the most luxurious looking restaurant we had ever seen (or maybe we've been in Burkina too long). Here we were in jeans and tops...and we just waltz into this 5 star restaurant. We sit down at the bar and realize that we can't afford anything that is on their menu and we start discussing whether it would be appropriate to split a daquiri. The bartender sees our discussion and offers up wine by the glass, which is much more in our range. As we browse the wine list we glance at the menu and immediately our mouths start to drool. Leslie gives me a look, and I look back at her, and before I know it I am asking the bartender if they take credit cards and we are ordering ourselves a goat cheese and fresh fig salad....and then the roast duck entree...and then another salad. Hahaha! We couldn't help ourselves. It isn't like food like that comes along everyday in Burkina...give me a break! As we ate our fabulous meal the music of Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole streamed over the restaurat and we really felt like we were transported back to a time of class and sophisitication...that is except when I caught of whiff of how we smelled. It was a great way to end our Moroccan vacation!

All in all we did a lot, saw a lot, drank A LOT of coffee, and ate a HELL of a lot of food. Aside from another onslaught of Staph infection in my foot, it was the best vacation I have been on in a long time! We thankfully made it back to Burkina in one piece..happy and healthy, and that is all you can really ask for.

Alright...well, I will update you guys later as I prepare for my final departure from Burkina Faso...Stay safe!