Author Archives: Happily Lost with Cece

Vietnam: West of Water Mountain

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Marble Mountains, Danang, Vietnam

“Hello, hello. Where you going to now?”

This has been a fairly common question in our few days in Vietnam, usually followed by an offer like, “Taxi?” or “Hotel?”

Today, it was followed by, “Buddha buddha,” and a big hand gesture to follow.

“We are just walking, thank you,” we replied.

“Buddha! Buddha! Come.”

We looked across the road, toward a small, green mountain, guarded by a golden yellow building and the same neat rows of parked motorbikes that make every establishment in Vietnam seem like a moto dealership.

We followed.

As we entered the complex, walking quickly, I talked over my shoulder to Alex.

“How much do you suppose we’ll pay for this?”

I tried multiple times to tell the man ‘Thank you so much, we will go alone from here.’ But he was not about it.

“How can we ditch this guy??” I asked Alex.

We passed a table of 6 Vietnamese men, playing what looked to be some form of checkers, and drinking beer. While they spoke to our impromptu guide and laughed as we passed, I did my best to greet them in Vietnamese: “Xin Chao.”

“Chao, Chao,” they greeted me back, chuckling.

We saw in front of us something that seemed liked an outdoor cafeteria, with tables in long lines, everyone moving among each other to get food and find a seat.

“Alright….I guess let’s just go with it,” I told Alex over my shoulder, still moving through the streams of people, no tell-tale signs of tourists to be found.

A second later our guide ducked into a hole in the side of the mountain, slightly larger than himself. We followed.

“Buddha,” he said, pointing ahead and switching on a dim flashlight.

We followed him through the drippy tunnel, into an open cave, where a marble Buddha statue sat in a glass case, fronted by offerings of incense and fruit. The guide gestured for us to bow. We did as we were told. He gave us each a stick of lit incense, and gestured for us to place it with the others, in front of the Buddha. We did.

We stood there quietly for a moment, just us three in this cave temple, silently staring at the Buddha. I noticed my ears were ringing, perhaps an after-effect from the crush and chatter of tourist crowds at Water Mountain- the main ‘attraction’ of pagodas, temples, and tea houses in the Marble Mountains- which we had left just about 15 minutes earlier. We had taken our time there as well, visiting each cave and marveling at the huge marble statues. But the shorts-and-tank-top clad tourists, all hustling for a picture, and talking loudly about finding a snack made this holy site feel more like an amusement park.

After leaving Water Mountain, knowing that there were other Marble Mountains, we went exploring. We walked west until the road ended, turned left until we reached the next big road, turned right. At the end of this road is where we met our guide.

Now, he shone his light on a face carved into the rock, another carved into a slimy stalagmite. He led us back toward the entrance, holding back a large stick of incense stuck in a side path so we could enter a new tunnel. There too we found small shrines surrounded by offerings. We left that cave. We climbed a ladder to a small rock platform to find another small shrine, more offerings.

Within five minutes we were back in the open air, and he gestured for us to climb a set of stone steps, then walked the other direction.

“Huh..maybe he wasn’t expecting money,” I said, naively and not quite believing myself.

Set into the rock face next to the steps were more small shrines, all abundant with offerings: now fresh cut flowers, cakes, cookies, bottles of water, and incense and fruit. We reached the top of the stairs and stayed there, on the outskirts of the activity, unsure of what was appropriate. A small group ate on a mat on the floor of the stone platform. A group of women- some in gray robes, others in street clothes- knelt in front of a large Lady Buddha that was surrounded by more offerings than all of the others we had seen so far. More and more people arrived at the top of the stairway. One of the women in gray robes played a singing bowl, which seemed to indicate the start of prayer, as the women began chanting and bowing. More women streamed up the steps, one giving loud high-pitched shouts at intervals, some carrying spiral-bound books that seemed to contain prayers, all carrying offerings.

“They’re praying,” I said. “Let’s not be in their space.”

But as I turned to go, I hesitated. I debated quickly in my head whether or not our presence was disruptive or disrespectful. I looked around, trying to gauge people’s faces or see if anyone was staring at us, urging us to leave. Nobody was. People were praying, people were putting down offerings, people were eating together.

We stayed only for a few more minutes, helping elderly women down the steps as they passed us to descend. Soon enough, we too turned for our descent. About halfway down, one of those elderly women grabbed my hand tightly, and we went together, me as her mobile railing. I nearly slipped once and her hand flew to her heart, in that universal gesture of quick-passing worry. When we reached the bottom, she squeezed and patted my hand, nodding, bowing, smiling before she disappeared into the stream of people.

Alex and I turned to go.

And there was our guide.

“Money,” he said, rubbing his fingers together, as if he couldn’t let us forget for too long the universal element that makes a tourist a tourist, no matter how far afield one may wander.

 

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After the R: How was Leaving?

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Meant to fill a void I have observed in the Peace Corps blogosphere, this series will address personal elements of life after earning my ‘R,’ a designation that changes a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) to a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), after 27 months of service. Look for posts that answer common questions, address elements of transitioning back to life in the U.S., and reflect on Peace Corps service.

Feeling still in very emotionally close proximity to Mozambique and Peace Corps Service, I want to start this series in the most objective way that I can think of: by addressing a question that has come up a few times already in the ten days since we left Mapinhane, our Peace Corps site for the past two years. It’s only appropriate that this post comes exactly 2 years to the day since we arrived in that little town in southern Moz, sweaty, naive, and maybe even ready to change the world.

The question is: How was leaving?

Pause. Let me first apologize for how melodramatic the short answer will sound. If you take away anything from this blog series, let it be that the short answer is difficult to formulate and sufficient mostly for a moment of small talk, but will probably bring very little understanding. But here it is.

The short answer: The most similar feeling I have had to this was the feeling I have had after someone I knew has passed away.

The next question then becomes: So, why do I say that leaving Mapinhane felt similar to how I have felt after someone I knew had passed away?

The short answer: Because of the realization that I will never ever have that again in any form.

But to contradict that: That statement seems obvious enough, and even similar to how other moments of change might feel:

‘I am moving houses; I realize that I will never have this house, this view, these neighborhood sounds again.’

‘I am changing jobs; I realize I will never have these coworkers, work environment, schedule, students again.’

‘I am moving cities; I realize I will never have these restaurants, views, vibes, friends on the day-to-day again.’

So, this feeling of something never being the same as it was in that exact time in life is starkly universal; everyone has faced big changes.

To elaborate,

I had those above-mentioned realizations about leaving the physical house: I will never again wake up to the sound of women raking dirt outside our window pre-dawn. I will never again open my eyes to the early-morning sun shimmering through the little holes of our mosquito net. I may never again feel the near-constant presence of students all around the neighborhood and I will never again see my students 7 days a week, at any time of day, in any dress, for any reason that arises in their life-including but not limited to: charging their phone, asking for water, needing advice, oh, and schoolwork occasionally. I will never again open the front door and say ‘Bom dia’ to our nieghbor Cristovao across the way, watering his garden at 6 a.m. as he blasts the morning news from his TV inside. I will never again deal with bats falling from the ceiling. I WILL NEVER AGAIN visit the dreaded communal bathroom. I will never again find solace in the coolness of the cement floor on a 100+ degree day. I will never again walk out my front door to get mangoes from the tree, and out my back door for limes. I will never again brush my teeth under the stars every night.

I had those realizations about leaving the job: I will never again have the stimulating challenge of working with no more than chalk and a chalkboard. I will never again reside in the place between the blurred lines of teacher/mother/big sister/friend/ counselor to my students. I will never again read books to 3rd graders in Portuguese. I may never again encounter 3rd graders who can’t read, or hold a pencil. I will never again have a class size of 50. I will never again (hopefully) storm out of a classroom in a moment of complete rage about the chaos surrounding me. I may never again work with girls so under-served that speaking quietly to the floor is the norm. I may never again work with girls that have such a unique combo of toughness and lightness in their spirits. I may never again teach English to a uniquely dedicated group of rural adults, or see these people that came to be our closest friends.

I had those realizations about leaving the town: I will never again walk a sandy path between peanut fields to go to my outdoor market. I will never again sit in Marcia’s storefront, sharing stories, seeking advice, peeling the spines off pumpkin leaves. I will never again see the same form constant life, colors, and movement along the side of a two-lane highway. I will never again walk around to shouts of ‘Teacher Cecelia’ from inside tin buildings, the shouter obscured by shadows. I will never again buy beer and soda by the bottle, and be trusted to return the empty the next day. I will never again have a bread lady. I will never again eat really quality grilled chicken at a truck stop/the only restaurant in town. Let me be straightforward, as a Coloradoan, I will never again see so much black skin on a daily basis.

Let’s dig deeper than saying tchau to a house, a town, a job, those things that were the threads of daily life. Let’s talk about saying tchau to the fabric those things were all woven into.

I had realizations about leaving the culture: I will never again be told to ‘help myself’ from any plate a person is eating from. I will never again be asked by someone I don’t know for money, my clothes, that banana they just saw me buy, an egg, water, gum…or anything else. I will never again turn a ten minute grocery shop into a 2-hour-long opportunity to catch up on the news of everyone I know, daily. I will never again receive an extra tomato or handful of peanuts for free, just because. I will never again be considered ‘disappeared’ if I don’t see someone for 1 day. I may never again wear a capulana, wrapped perfectly snug around my waist. I will never again be met with shouts of pure joy and disbelief for greeting someone in their local language. I will never again be referred to as ‘big sister’ Cecelia. I will never again function in at least 2 and up to 3 languages on a daily basis. I will never again (hopefully) be so unable to express anything more than thoughts on the weather as I was in the beginning. I will never again have the strangely wonderful feeling of constantly hearing a local language, and revel in the freedom of not understanding what is being said around me. I will never again pilao peanuts, ralar coconut, or make true Matapa. I will never again be surrounded by women always singing softly, children so wild that if I can only hear them I often mistake them for animals by the sounds they make, and men- the ones that were what I was told to expect, with their relentless harassment, and the ones that, sadly, weren’t what I expected with their unending kind spirits, forward-thinking, and bottomless work ethic. It will never again be appropriate to spend hours chatting under a tree, in the middle of a workday. I may never again have people that knock on the front door just to say hello, or to offer me things from their garden.

Are you still able to draw connections between this move and any other? Are you still able to feel like you’ve experienced these ‘never agains’ as well, albeit with different details? This is a good thing, a way for you as a reader to understand, a way for me as a writer to normalize it for myself and for you. I hope you can draw connections between this change and changes you’ve had; that’s how understanding starts.

But what I want to do now is get into an uncomfortable space, a space where those connections may not reach.

This change is different because of the sheer quantity of individual elements involved; Picture this: if house, town, job, day-to-day stuff, sensory stimulus are the threads and culture is the fabric then leaving is grabbing a frayed edge and pulling until it all unravels, and what’s left are two threads, 2 elements still in place.

I can think of only one other moment of change even close to- but still less- the level of intensity of this change, and where the only things that remained the same were the presence of one person (my lovely husband Alex) and my ability to do things to take care of myself.

That moment of change was when we came to Moz. So why was leaving so different than coming? For the sake of not getting too much into that, let me give you the short answer: in coming to Moz, life in the U.S. was put on hold, in a way. What I mean is that leaving the U.S. came with knowing that we would one day be back and that our life would once again contain some elements of what it contained pre-Moz. Leaving Moz is much more final; life will never again contain tmost of the elements of life in Moz.

This is why leaving Mapinhane was followed by a certain type of grief, an uncomfortable feeling of irreversible finality, the unraveling of a tapestry that can never be recreated to look exactly how it looked, even if some of the threads come back into our lives someday. In this way, there are parallels to how I usually feel right after someone I know has passed away: I feel a huge loss in my life, but at the same time a gratitude for what I had. I feel a flatness, a difficulty in being excited about what’s in front of me without feeling like it’s a strange form of betrayal to what’s just passed. I trust that something will remain, but I don’t know yet what it is.

Whether or not this resonates with other Peace Corps Volunteers, or other readers, I can’t be sure, but for me, this change can’t be processed with only the tools used to process change. It has to be processed with the tools used to process loss too.

Based off of past experiences of change and past experiences of loss, I know that this specific form of discomfort will pass, or will maybe come and go in waves. Lucky for me, Peace Corps taught me how to sit with pretty extreme discomfort, and how to view it as a sign of impending growth.

So, the question now becomes: What remains? When a person changes their hemisphere, time zone, continent, country, town, home, language, diet, routines, habits, job, and friends all at once, what remains?

The Third Third

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Each time that I post one of these ‘Third’ posts, I say that I can’t believe how quickly the past third has gone. Well, of course, it is no different this time around than it was for The First Third or The Second Third, but I really can say that this one went by the fastest of all.

We are now in the capitol of Mozambique, in complete disbelief and slight confusion, where we have spent the last 4 days wrapping up medical and administrative tasks to officially close our Peace Corps Service here in Mozambique.

Here are a couple of highlights from this third and final third.

My 3 biggest personal successes

-Completing 27 months of Peace Corps Service.

– Feeling so at home in Mapinhane. It came as a surprise to me that our last day in Mapinhane was one of my favorite days at site. No, it was not because I was overjoyed to be getting out of there. Quite the opposite. In those final moments it was easy to feel how much Mapinhane had come to be home, and this was demonstrated in large part by how that last day passed in the company of some of our best friends at site, spending hours chatting right up until the moment we got in the car to leave.

– Completing a 100 Days of Yoga challenge to myself.  As I wrote about in The Second Third  post, a big challenge of Peace Corps service was maintaining my health, especially coming from a very active mountain lifestyle. After completing a 30 day yoga challenge, I felt so good that I challenged myself to 100 days, and succeeded! This challenge helped me feel strong and healthy again, and got me on a good track for the rest of service. The challenge ended June 1, but I’ve still been practicing yoga 5 or 6 days each week.

My 3 biggest personal challenges

-Staying calm and grounded through the transition leading up to my ‘Close of Service,’ especially with the anticipation of change.

-Prioritizing my health and wellness by being more conscientious of exercise and food choices when there was a choice.

-Leaving site. Leaving Mapinhane was honestly much harder than leaving home in the States 2 years ago. When we left home, we were comforted by knowing that we would see all our friends and family there again, and that someday our life would once again come to resemble the life we had pre-Moz. On the contrary, when leaving Mozambique, we left with an uncomfortable uncertainty about when or if we will ever see our friends here again, and a heavy certainty that we will never have a life similar to what it was in Mapinhane.

The 3 things I am most proud of at school

Culture Week. I was a ‘Director of Stream’ (kind of like a homeroom teacher) for one of the 8th grade groups this year, and one of my biggest duties was to help them organize and rehearse for a 4-day, school wide, competition that involved 14 cultural events. Although preparation felt a little intense, this ended up being one of my all-time favorite events of Peace Corps service, and a great bonding experience with my students. I am so proud of them!

– Seeing my REDES girls group members grow hugely in their confidence and become the most participatory of the 45 students in their class.

-Finishing 2 years of teaching in a Mozambican Secondary School.

The 3 biggest challenges at school

-Collaborating with my ‘homeroom’ students on Culture Week activities. This experience was a whole new challenge at a point in my service when I thought I would be coasting through to the end. The challenges came in organizing a large group of students, a lot of trying to decipher what was being said by them in their local language, and figuring out ways to get things done that I had never done before.

-An ongoing challenge throughout service was classroom management with large class sizes and finding a balance between using some strategies the students are accustomed to- which is often punishment based versus rewards based- and exposing them to new rewards-based strategies, which often take time for them to buy into.

-Staying motivated to teach creative lessons when I was frustrated with student behavior and participation, and feeling unappreciated as a teacher.

My 3 most worthwhile contributions to secondary projects, and progress made on goals

-Bringing 3 8th grade girls and a 12th grade student leader to the annual REDES girls group regional workshop. Along with Culture Week, this was one of my favorite events of Peace Corps service. It was a weekend full of learning and playing, and a great experience getting to know 3 of my REDES girls better.

-English Club Certificate Program. The Adult English Club that we started last year was probably my overall favorite project from my service. I am so proud of how much these adults have grown in their English, and how dedicated they are to their own learning. This year, we introduced an incentive program that allowed them to earn a certificate of accomplishment if they had more than 20 hours of attendance at English Club. We had 8 students that exceeded 20 hours, with most of them having more than 30 hours, and 2 of them more than 40 hours. Certificates in Mozambique are highly valued, often added to portfolios and used to show potential employers. It was great to celebrate our adult students ongoing dedication with them at their certificate ceremony during our last week of service.

-Completing a Procedures Manual for our Primary School Library. I worked on and off for months this year to put into writing everything we have been doing at the library for the past two years. The manual includes everything from teacher trainings to library maintenance and basic procedures, and a whole lot more. I am hoping that after I leave this project, the manual will help the project continue to grow in the direction it’s been going.

My 3 favorite things about life in Mozambique

-The high value on relationships. The more time I spent in Mozambique, the clearer this value became. This value shows in small ways, like in the constant stream of greetings while walking anywhere, and in big ways, like the willingness of most Mozambicans to drop whatever they are doing and help someone else. Mostly though, it is seen in the shade of trees, where people sit for hours and hours chatting and enjoying each other’s company.

-The colors and textures that make up every scene; the richness. Green plants and red dirt are the constant background of Mozambique. Laid over the top are women wearing a rainbow-spectrum of capulana fabric, walking with a baby on their back and/ or a bundle of wood on their head, sitting beneath a tree selling fruits, walking and talking in groups. Laid on top are kids pushing homemade soda-can-and-wire cars or marching to school with rakes for their ‘community work,’ men talking on verandas or fixing cars or pushing carts of goods.  Laid on top is laundry on lines and wood cooking fires, rusty cars and goats on bus tops. Everywhere you look in Moz, there is life and color.

-Being a part of the communal thread that runs through every aspect of life. One of the most demonstrative examples of this came recently when Alex was sick in the clinic with malaria. The clinic didn’t serve food, and there were no restaurants nearby. Knowing what I know about Moz, I walked into the neighborhood to find him some rice. I saw a woman sitting under a tree in her yard, asked permission to enter, and was welcomed in. I explained the situation to her and asked if I could pay her a little to cook Alex some rice. “Sim sim,Somos iguais” -Yes, yes we are equals- she said and immediately got up and lit a wood fire to cook him rice. I sat in her yard chatting with her and her children and a neighbor until the rice was finished, at which point she did not even want to accept my payment of 50 meticais (about 75 cents). This is a big and clear example of community in Moz, but we experienced it in much more subtle ways in our day to day life as well, and feeling such a part of that give and take culture – something that was incredibly awkward 2 years ago- has come to be one of the most satisfying parts of life in Moz.

My 3 favorite things about Mozambicans and Mozambican culture

-That there is always time to stop and chat.

-That sentiment is easily expressed and unguarded.

-The ease of giving.

The tough stuff

This third third has been the smoothest of them all, and I can only think of one really tough thing, which was leaving. Leaving Mapinhane was much harder than leaving home in the States 2 years ago. When we left home, we were comforted by knowing that we would see all our friends and family there again, and that someday our life would once again come to resemble the life we had pre-Moz. On the contrary, when leaving Mozambique, we left with an uncomfortable uncertainty about when or if we will ever see our friends here again, and a heavy certainty that we will never have a life similar to what it was in Mapinhane.

The things I have missed most about the U.S.

I think these 3 things have stayed pretty steady through all three of the thirds.

-Seeing family and friends on a regular basis.

-Mountain lifestyle and access to lots and lots of recreation.

– Access to natural remedies, good quality supplements, and varied diet.

My 3 favorite moments with other PCV’s

-Collaborating with other Peace Corps Volunteers in southern Mozambique at the REDES workshop in June.

-Celebrating the end of our service with our Moz25 cohort group at our ‘Close of Service’ conference in Maputo in August.

– Meeting our replacements and getting to know them during their two weeks in Mapinhane in October. We leave feeling like we are leaving projects in good hands with them.

My 3 favorite travel moments

-Spending time on the Bazaruto Archipelago off the coast of Vilanculos.

Driving Cape Town to Durban with Alex’s family, especially our stop at the southernmost tip of Africa, our stay in sleepy Chintsa, and delicious curries in Durban.

-Finally visiting the beautiful and more isolated beach at Zavora, and spending an afternoon drinking Pina Coladas and watching humpback whales breaching.

The 3 most exciting things to look forward to

-Our upcoming COS (Close of Service) travels in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

-Reuniting and catching up with all of our friends and family in the United States.

-The big, wide open future…our next adventure, whatever it may be.

3 Smiles and A Struggle: Culture Week, Anniversaries, Small Stuff, and Fizzling

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The first month of this trimester found me in a state of rising momentum and energy, as we prepared for Culture Week. This year I am a Directora da Turma, kind of like a homeroom teacher and class mom rolled into one, for one of the streams of 8th graders. One of the biggest tasks of a DT at our school is helping your class prepare for Culture Week, which is a long weekend in which each stream of students competes with the others in a variety of activities. Preparation included weeks of putting together and rehearsing modern and traditional dance, musical imitation, traditional storytelling, poetry, a class anthem, and modeling capulana clothing, plus making some recycled art, drawing and painting a class banner, and ordering matching shirts and capulanas.

The experience of preparing for Culture Week was a whole new one for me, something completely fresh at a point in service where I expected to be coasting through to the end. It made me feel like a real newb again at points, like when one of our colleagues chuckled because I didn’t know how we would order shirts from Maputo and get them the 700ish kilometers up here to us in Mapinhane.

“Don’t you know someone in Maputo that can just put them on a bus for you?” he asked.

‘No. No I don’t,’ I wanted to say. ‘Because in my country I would order on the internet and they would arrive at my doorstep via UPS. Do you know someone that can put them on a bus for me?’ Lucky for me, he did know someone.

Or when I got flustered amidst the yelling of all the 8th graders and accidentally told them to form bichos (small bugs) instead of bichas (lines), a language error reminiscent of my first couple of months here.

But any experience that can bring service full circle like this is one worth having; I thought of myself trying to accomplish these things 2 years ago, or even 1 year ago: coordinating rehearsals of 44 8th graders arguing in local language, collecting money and ordering clothes, dealing with all the small hiccups that inevitably arise during a big event like this, and just being a leader to kids, all in a second language nonetheless. In thinking back on how it may have gone for me a year or two ago, I realized just how much I have learned and grown here. Not to say it all passed without stress, frustration, and confusion, but I could notice starkly the difference in how I deal with those things now in comparison to how it would have gone a year or two ago.

As if that weren’t reason enough to smile, Culture Week in itself was a huge high point of service. I realized how much I love working with students outside the classroom, and how interesting it is to see their personalities and skills in a different setting. In addition, it was awesome to watch them take ownership, and come out of the event feeling proud, excited, and united. When it came down to the actual event, I was so impressed with them, and happy with the level of ease and comfort in the communication between myself and them. On the last day of Culture Week, I was feeling a bit of pre-nostalgia about leaving Moz and leaving our students after spending these weeks getting so close to them and seeing them in a new light.

Check out this video we made to share the best of Culture Week!

 

My next smile came this past weekend, when Alex and I got to celebrate our 4th wedding anniversary, as well as our 12 year anniversary of being together. With the passing of each year together, we are always given a marker from which we can look back and see how we have grown and evolved. This year, so close to the end of Peace Corps Service, we have another marker to look back on and see the changes and, at the same time, a lot of changes to look ahead to.

“It won’t be the hardest thing we’ve ever done,” Alex said about going home and readjusting, finding jobs and a home.

“What is?” I asked him.

It only took a few moments of contemplation before we both decided that it was this. Peace Corps is the hardest thing we’ve ever done together.

For this, we were happy for the opportunity to spend the weekend in a peaceful, quiet place, have quality time together, reconnect outside of our daily routine, and have physical space to wander, anonymously, and without interruption.

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The third smile is in the small stuff. After the build up to Culture Week, the couple of weeks since then have brought a steady decline in momentum and energy; after all the newness and excitement, the day to day feels a little flat and boring. Despite knowing that this is probably the last chunk of time that I will have the luxury of feeling bored for a while, I still feel the need to combat the humdrum a little bit. I have been challenging myself to try a number of new, small things lately to keep my energy up a bit. Mostly, I’ve been experimenting with new recipes, passed along by friends-coconut oil fudge and chocolate banana ice cream to name a couple, and trying out new types of yoga- like a Chakra series and Yoga Fit. It doesn’t sound like much, but the feeling of a little freshness has helped me keep on smiling through this stagnant period, and has helped me remember how powerful all the little stuff is.

On a similar note, my struggle lately has been with the feeling that my Peace Corps Service is kind of fizzling out. What I mean is that all signs point to us NOT going out with a bang. In the 7 weeks we have left, there are no more big events coming up, like Culture Week or a REDES workshop, and with the school year winding down, everyone’s energy is winding down too. Although we will have small going-away parties, there will be no big send-off, no ‘cymbal clap’ on the day we leave. Our last goodbye will probably be us standing on the side of the road, just like any other trip to Vilanculos, sweating and trying to flag down a ride.

It was getting to be a pretty sad image, until I realized that this is Mozambique’s ultimate test to me. This is Moz asking, ‘Have you learned yet to appreciate all the small things? Have you learned to soak up the little smiles along the way? Do you know yet that it’s much less about the large accomplishment and much more about all the little moments?’

 
For me, this has been by far the biggest lesson of these two years, something I of course knew before in theory but has been tested relentlessly here, and has subsequently become a major value of mine. So, as is often the case, life is not full of energy and excitement right now, but still there’s always something of a smile around the corner.

With that, I keep asking myself, ‘When I am standing on the side of the road for the last time, sweating and flagging down a ride like it’s any other day, will I choose to feel satisfied with all the little smiles that have made up these two years?’

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Sunday Snapshot: Marcia’s House

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Yesterday we finally made it to the home of Marcia, one our best friends here in Mapinhane. Despite Marcia being one of the most important people to our service, we had not yet visited her home since arriving here in December 2015. Marcia is one busy lady: she works at a shop 6 days a week, goes to church 3 or 4 nights a week, and on Sundays until 2. Finding a chunk of time to go visit her at home was one of our top priorities for this home stretch of Peace Corps service.

We wandered around her property, looking a her small garden and all of her fruit-bearing trees, picking some lemons and moringa to take home. We helped her cook Matapa, one of our favorite dishes and the one she had been promising us for months. And we spent a lot of time chit-chatting.

Marcia was one of the first people we met in Mapinhane, and has been a pillar of support ever since.

When it was so hot that my brain was boiling in my head in the first few months of service, Marcia was the one that humorously recognized the struggle. “Go home Cecelia. I can see you can’t speak Portuguese right now. You’re too hot.”

When we started teaching Marcia English, she cracked us up when she shared one of her reasons for wanting to learn: “So if someone bad is following me in America, I can tell them, ‘I will kill you!'” she explained with her fists in front of her scrunched-up face.We chuckled, slightly uncomfortable, at the image in our minds.

When I came to her toward the end of last year, exasperated about my wild 8th graders and their constant criticism of my ‘disorganized hair,’ she gave me sage advice: “You just tell them ‘Estou bem como estou’ (I am fine how I am). Now, instead of worrying about my hair, you worry about your future!”

When I gave her perhaps the 15th little sampling of a food I had cooked, she nodded her head and told us, “Yeah, Cecelia is the best in the kitchen,” sprinkling in ‘the best’ in English in the otherwise Portuguese sentence.

And it’s not uncommon for her to laugh and tell us she’s been practicing her ‘ginasticos’ so she can fit in our suitcase and come home with us to nanny our future children.

After our lunch had turned into dinner, she walked us back to the main road, 5 and a half hours after we had met her there. I said goodbye with the customary kiss on each cheek, her telling us ‘see you tomorrow’ in English, and us telling her the same in Shitswa.

“Até manziku mana Marcia.”

Like the Sunday Snapshots? Follow happilylostwithcece on Instagram to catch more Moz snapshots. 

Smiles and Struggles: The Home Stretch, Looking Back, and Looking Forward

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I began this post in the traditional format, as another edition of 3 Smiles and A Struggle. Within a couple of minutes of starting to write, I realized that something about it felt a little off this time around.

We are starting to get the question now: “How do you feel about your Peace Corps service ending?”

This question can best be addressed by realizing that at this point, there are a lot of smiles and struggles that are flip-flopping between being one or the other, depending on the day-let’s get real…the moment. Most of the big-picture smiles and struggles right now – of which there are quite a few- can be broken down into three general temporal categories: past, present, and future. Easy right?

Let’s talk about the present first:

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We are in home stretch of Peace Corps service.

Along with just regular, everyday stuff, I am currently wearing the following ‘professional’ hats, the same ones I have been wearing all year and some all of last year : 8th grade English Teacher, ‘Homeroom’ Teacher to one class of 8th graders, Adult English Club co-facilitator, Primary School library co-facilitator, REDES girls group co-facilitator, English tutor, potential 9th grade English teacher for the next couple months…

I smile right now because:

  • I realize how much I love having a varied work schedule.
  • I am doing what I came here to do and I feel like my efforts, energy, and frustrations have been worth it.
  • Time spent in this variety of settings is time spent with a huge variety of people that have been the most important part of my time in Moz.
  • Being busy pulls me into the present, forces me to focus on now, and doesn’t allow too much time for mulling over what’s coming.
  • I am documenting this important time in life.
  • I share this all with my lovely husband.
  • I am daydreaming about upcoming adventures.

I struggle because:

  • All of those hats come off on November 24, the day classes end and we leave Mapinhane.
  • The fact that all the hats will soon come off means spending a great deal of time and energy right now tying up loose ends and finding a way to feel satisfied with how I leave things.
  • This chunk of time serves as a slow and final goodbye to the work and people that have been my day-to-day for 2 years.
  • So much is happening that I hardly have a moment to even realize what is happening, or pause and actively take it in.
  • I am struggling to articulate things.
  • I worry not only about myself, but equally about my lovely husband during this transition.
  • This is the final phase of this particular rich and adventurous time in life.

Part of this home stretch period of service also brings a natural tendency to start looking back, noticing slowly what has happened in these two years, and reflecting.

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I am sure that all PCV’s (Peace Corps Volunteers) and RPCV’s (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) would agree: making it through these 27 months is a big personal accomplishment that probably did not come easily, as well as an extremely meaningful personal experience. As we begin the process of closing our service, I can begin to reflect a bit on some of the general, and universal, smiles and struggles of Peace Corps service.

By the time Peace Corps service ends, a PCV can smile because they have:

  • Lived within a culture that is not their own and, therefore, can never be fully understood by said PCV, as culture is the thing ingrained in us since birth and dictates…..99% of what happens in a place, in my opinion, whether obvious or hidden, big or small.
  •  Learned a new language, and learned to express themselves in that language, work in that language, yell angrily in that language, joke in that language. And maybe even learned to love that language a little bit.
  • Done solid work in an environment flush with foreign norms, behaviors, thoughts, actions, languages, processes, and expectations.
  • Become familiar with the shadowy parts of their own internal environment.
  • Become familiar with which personal tendencies, habits, worries, etc. are a product of cultural context (common example: ‘I used to constantly feel guilty about the food I ate when I lived in the States. Here, I never feel that way.’) and which things are traits that stick no matter the cultural context, and are therefore the fabric of someone’s true self, and not a product of their context or surroundings.
  • Been deeply affected by their country of service.
  • And, more satisfying than all of the above, formed relationships that are the glue that holds this whole experience together.

The struggle is that by the time a PCV is at this point in service they might be realizing that:

  • That foreign culture, while still not fully understood like their own, has become familiar, comfortable, and normal in all its idiosyncracies.
  • They may not have many opportunities to speak that foreign language at home. They put a lot of time and effort into learning it and speaking it works their brains in a nice way. Hearing, usually, more than one foreign language being spoken around them at any moment gives their surroundings a rich texture. And, NOT understanding everything that’s being said at all moments has become familiar and freeing. For this, the foreign language (s) will be missed.
  • All their solid work could potentially a) turn to dust b) be the only opportunity they ever have to do this type of work c) yield many benefits that said PCV may never see or enjoy.
  • They have to find a way to turn the intangible, meaningful aspects of their service into an answer to the question, “How was it?”
  • They will most likely never again see most of the people that they have formed strong relationships with.

Alright, we’ve covered what’s happening now. We’ve talked very generally and objectively of what’s happened these past two years. So, I’m sure it comes as no surprise that a big part of this home stretch includes looking forward, figuring out next steps, containing excitement for what’s to come, and anticipating how this impending change might feel.

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When I look forward, I smile when I see:

  • My family
  • Travel and outdoor adventures
  • New work opportunites
  • My own transportation
  • A clean, private bathroom. A clean, private bathroom. A clean, private bathroom.
  • Food
  • Running water
  • Snow
  • Libraries
  • Anonymity and privacy
  • Not being asked for things every day: the eggs I just bought, the skirt I am wearing, the money in my wallet

I’ll stop there and tell you that recently, instead of counting sheep to fall asleep, I count Things That I Am Excited About In America.

That being said, when I look forward, I struggle when I see:

  • How disconnected we have become from the day to day lives of our families- and vice versa- and how many big things have changed at home.
  • How disconnected we have become from our home culture.
  • How nonsensical certain things in our country seem to have become.
  • The ugly sides of an individualistic culture: the part that says having doesn’t mean giving, and the loneliness that can come with relative anonymity.
  • The high level of expectations as to what should be accomplished daily in our home country.
  • Visions of the cereal aisle at the grocery store.
  • Temperature readings below 60  degrees Farenheit.

My struggles when looking forward are informed by close friends that are Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. The biggest struggle in looking forward comes from knowing that it is expected that you should feel normal in your home culture when you return because you grew up in it, but it won’t feel normal for a bit because of the new lens through which you are looking at it.

All new experiences- big or small- change a human’s overall perspective, or lens, through which they look at the world; my mom recently told me that since moving into a house that uses well water it drives her nuts when people waste water by leaving it running.

What Peace Corps feels like is two years of continually, metaphorically moving to a house that uses well water. [Read: life change/new experience].

What I predict as the biggest struggle of coming home is that it will feel like the water is always left running. [Read: uncomfortable re-adaptation after realizing that life change/new experience has caused perspective shift toward previously accepted behavior or norm].

Whether we are looking at the past, the present, or the future, there are guaranteed to be plenty of smiles and struggles, as always.

So, how do I feel about Peace Corps service ending?

I feel too rushed, and also impatient. I feel anxious, and excited. I feel nervous, and ready. I feel unfinished, and accomplished. I feel energized, and worn out. I feel vulnerable, and strong.

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Sunday Snapshot: Challenges

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About a year ago-on the verge of throwing the towel in and saying tchau to Moz- I started writing down 3 smiles each day and sticking them on the wall.

What started as a search for positivity in days that felt overwhelmingly challenging has become a record of my service, a necessary mental health practice, and a constant reminder of not only the beauty I have found, but the challenges I have  faced too.

Some days, I sit staring at the blank page for minutes, searching back through my day for any little glimmer. Some days I almost skip the practice, knowing for sure there will be nothing to write down, or feeling that smiling at all is a betrayal to how the day actually felt.

But I’ve found that a smile always comes out on the page, and then it brings to mind a few more, and then it opens my eyes to a few more the next day.

As wall space fills and the smiles get glued into a journal, the above quote stays.

“If you are living life without facing problems you are living life like a stone,” one of our favorite neighbors told me one day. A stone does nothing, he told me.

Like the Sunday Snapshots? Follow happilylostwithcece on Instagram to catch more Moz Snapshots !

A happy and smiling Sunday to you 🙂

Sunday Snapshot: Eating Well

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For about a dollar in Mozambique, today we’ll eat quite well. I’m making Kouve (that’s the big ‘ole dinosaur leaves pictured above) and green pepper coconut curry and dumplings.

In Mapinhane, this is a happy time of year for taste buds and tummies. We have an itty bitty market here and during the hottest time of year -December to February- it’s not uncommon to find nothing more than tomatoes, onions, and coconuts. I don’t hate that I’ve mastered spaghetti sauce, salsa, and all things tomato, but it sure is nice to get more variety during this cooler time of year. Summertime deprivation makes everything thereafter feel like a feast.

Like the Sunday Snapshots? Find more Moz snapshots on my Instagram, happilylostwithcece or under #100daysofmoz or #happilylostinmoz. 

Happy Sunday 🙂 Hope you’re eating well today too!

100 Days of Moz

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Well, I don’t think I quite believe it myself, but today marks the beginning of our last 100 days as Peace Corps Volunteers in Mozambique. The time is so short, but still there is a lot to be done, and more than that even, just a lot to be soaked up.

In the next 100 days we will complete our third trimester at school, and participate in some fun, festive holidays, like culture week and teacher’s day. I will move into the health-centered curriculum with my REDES girls group, and wrap up our year together with an end of year celebration, as well as prepare my lovely counterpart Marizia to run a group on her own wherever she goes after graduation at the end of this year. I have a few loose ends at the library- finishing a policy and procedures manual, leveling new books. And we’ll keep on enjoying our favorite piece of work each week: Wednesday evening Adult English Club.

More than all these tasks to be completed, though, we are focusing on spending time with the people in our community that we have come to love so much, whether that means visiting their families, having them over for dinner, taking a bit more time than usual to chit chat, or including them all in our eventual going-away party.

I expect the next 100 days to be a bit of a blur, really. Especially considering that I am sitting here wondering where the last two years of Peace Corps have gone. So, I am committing to documenting these next 100 days with images, to give you snapshots into our day-to-day lives before they change drastically, and to give ourselves something solid to look back on after it flies by.

You can find this photo series on my newly-created Instagram: happilylostwithcece, under #100daysofmoz.  And you can look for a bit more story to accompany the images that fall on Sundays, as I will post them in my Sunday Snapshot post here on the blog as well.

Looking forward to sharing these final 100 days with you!

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Sunday Snapshot: Parabéns Moz25

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We’ve just returned from our final Peace Corps conference in Maputo, where we had a whirlwind two days learning about our upcoming COS (Close of Service) and life after Peace Corps, and saying tchau for now to our Peace Corps group.

After almost two years in Moz, the 50 of us have just three short (or maybe long…) months of service ahead to wrap up our work and projects and to bid farewell to the people and communities we have come to love so much.

So I’ll take this opportunity to say parabéns (congratulations) Moz 25, and happy last 3 months!