Category Archives: Uncategorized

Cambodia: Same, Same but Different for Peace Corps Cambodia

Standard

“This is Cambodia. It’s like the freakin’ Wild West sometimes.”

This from the mouth of Carley, a PCV about 6 months into her service in Cambodia.

She goes on about one of the many factors that back up her Wild West statment: the government dismantling entire political parties, sub-par transportation that often contains animals, the fact that she sometimes washes her hair in a reservoir near her home. We talked about a lot of things that night. I can’t remember which, specifically, sparked the Wild West comment.

To me, they all apply, and I most likely looked like some sort of frenetic bobblehead doll there in front of her, my head going in a non-stop nod of agreement and ‘yeah, I get that,’ as she described her service.

After our 36 hours with Carley I drew one big conclusion: her service is pretty much the ‘same, same but different’ to my own. In fact, when I said this phrase aloud she excitedly noted, “Yeah! We see shirts all over Cambodia with that phrase on them.” I, too, saw shirts all over my Peace Corps country with that phrase on them. I thought it came from South Africa. She wasn’t sure where she thought it came from. See where I’m going with this?

So, how else was our glimpse into Peace Corps Cambodia the same, same but different to our service in Peace Corps Mozambique?

Same, same: Carley frequently talked about being hot and sweaty. We, too, often talked about being hot and sweaty.

Different: I think it even gets hotter in Carley’s site- God help her- but she does have a beautiful reservoir nearby for all of her swimming, and hair-washing, needs.

Same, same: Learning a second language (read: spending at least 6 months speaking at the level of a primary school child and embarrassing yourself with later-hilarious errors) is hard.

Different: Carley is learning Khmer. What looks like beautiful and indecipherable doodles on all the signs is now Carley’s alphabet, although I noticed she uses the Latin alphabet in her own writing of Khmer. What sounds like beautiful and indecipherable words is now Carley’s language. I may have never been more quick to call Portuguese easy than after hearing Carley put her Khmer to use and arrange a Tuk Tuk trip for us.

Same, same: Living in a country torn up by recent civil war, not that far past independence and with many of the effects of colonialism still starkly present. We talked about goverment and corruption, about people living in fear, about why children look at the ground so much and why adults rarely express dissent.

Different: Of course, no two wars are ever the same, and every war is incredibly complex. Let me direct you to better sources if you’d like to learn more about these 2 wars. To learn more about Mozambique’s civil war, go here. To learn more about Cambodia’s war, go here.

Same, same: Many of the sights and sounds of daily life: women calling out in greeting, kids walking to school without adults, red dirt roads, a small and minimal health center, small and minimal schools, soccer fields, dirty criancas, coconuts and their trees, fresh fruit, having a bread lady and knowing she’s probably run out of bread by 2pm., bags of charcoal for cooking, ridiculously large speakers outside of people’s modest homes, the absence of visible knees, and also of privacy.

Different: Many of the sights and sounds of daily life: houses made of wood and cement and raised on stilts, motos buzzing about, many many children riding bicycles, volleyball courts, raw meat hanging in the market, living two years with a host family and all that brings to daily life, using a high-quality Peace Corps-issued mountain bike to get from here to there much to the chagrin of us PC Moz RPCV’s who received nothing more than an ill-fitting helmet and enough money to buy a bike that used up more of our time in repairs than rides.

Five weeks after leaving Mapinhane, our Peace Corps site for two years, a visit to another Peace Corps site, albeit half a world away, brought a strange sort of comfort: a taste of Peace Corps life again, saudades for our daily life in Moz, and a new type of reminder of what a strangely unique but universal experience Peace Corps service is. Perhaps the same, same, but different wherever a PCV roams.

image1

 

Advertisements

Cambodia: Feeling Ghosts

Standard

We are on the grounds of a high school, one that looks like many other high schools that we’ve seen in developing countries: a few buildings facing a central courtyard area, basic brick and cement, barren classrooms on two levels, a wall surrounding the complex Outside of the wall motos buzz, horns honk, people on the street yell to one another. It could be any city street anywhere, but the barbed wire on the wall, spilling over like frozen, threatening tumbleweeds, are the first indication that it is not.

This is no longer a high school. It is the remains of the S-21 prison grounds, one of many such complexes used by Cambodia’s Khmer-Rouge in the 1970’s. The Khmer-Rouge was a wing of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (Cambodia) and were responsible for the killing of 2 million people in the four years that they ruled. The Khmer-Rouge drove people from cities- like Pnomh Penh, where S-21 is- to work on communal farms. Many of these people died of heat stroke, starvation, exhaustion, and a number of other conditions.

The people we learn the most about during our informative, self-guided audio tour through S-21 are the people that were imprisoned there for being intellectuals. To be honest, the complexities of what happened in Cambodia in these few short years is new knowledge for me.

The tour through S-21conjures ghosts. The old classrooms in Building A were used as rooms for administering various forms of torture. If they choose to enter, visitors see the blood stains on the floors and walls, by now more than 40 years old. The original bed frames and chamber pots remain, and each room holds a picture of one its former occupants as they were during their time at S-21. Outside of building A are the few graves of victim’s whose bodies were recovered.

In Building B, the classrooms were converted to crude, brick cells about 5 feet by 5 feet. When I entered, I could feel the prisoners here. I ran my fingers over the bricks, and quickly pulled away in a sort of shock at realizing that this all remains as it was when innocent people were held here; prisoners of the Khmer-Rouge touched the same walls that my fingers now grazed.

Past the cells and into Building C are countless display cases full of mugshots of the inhabitants of the prison, men, women and children alike. Mixed in are pictures of the the Khmer-Rouge higher-ups. Pol Pot, the leader, is pictured in glasses; he ordered many to be killed because of their glasses and the subsequent assumption that those who wear glasses are intellectuals.

Beyond that, Building D holds displays and paintings-done by a survivor- of torture tools and methods. And finally, a shelf of skulls. The magnitude, the human side, the reality of this war finally sets in.

I find myself rushing through the last rooms in utter disbelief.

I am in disbelief that so much remains as it was, the record-keeping of communist leader proving his efforts for the advancement of his party.

I am in disbelief that humans can do these things to other humans.

I am in disbelief that we always say the world will never let it happen again, but it does: Nazi Germany, the Khmer -Rouge, Rwanda.

I am in disbelief that I never learned about this war in school. In fact, it hits me, I don’t recall one ocassion in school when we learned about a war that wasn’t centered around developed nations and- for lack of more eloquent phrasing-white people.

I knew almost nothing of Robert Mugabe and the land takeovers before I moved to Mozambique and had conversations with the Zimbabweans living there that were driven from their country.

I had only once heard of Mozambique’s decades of war, and that from a Mozambican who was studying at my university.

I knew so little about colonialism and how deep the effects really run and how long they last for those colonized. This I felt in Mozambique too, and now I feel it here in Southeast Asia.

I was blown away by the complexities of South Africa when we were searching for our lodging there and asked directions. ‘Is the owner white or black?’ we were asked. ‘If white the house will be on that side of the street, if black it will be on the other side.’

I learned of the 1980’s Contras in Nicaragua when we ate dinner in a military airplane turned sundowner restaurant in Costa Rica

And sitting on a bench in the S-21 prison courtyard, imagining students there and then innocent victims of civil war and genocide, I bowed my head in sadness for the Khmer people that endured their war in the 1970’s and for the American involvement in this region- known as The Secret War during the years that the U.S. Was in Vietnam- of which I knew nothing about.

The realization of how little I know always creeps up in new places. I can read books, watch documentaries, and devour news. I can talk to people. I can listen to people. I can learn so much invaluable information in these ways. But I become only more and more convinced that there is no better way to learn about the world than to go to somewhere unfamiliar to me, be among its people, and to feel its ghosts.

Thanks Readers, and What’s New for 2018

Standard

Hello lovely readers. Happily Lost is now in it’s 6th year, and it’s become a bit of an end-of-year tradition to check in with my stats from the year one last time. I love to see how many of you have read the blog each year and which posts were your favorites. I also LOVE seeing how many countries Happily Lost was read in each year… this always blows me away.

In 2017 Happily Lost had 5,601 views from 3,390 readers in 89 different countries (including 1 I’ve never heard of 🙂 ). Your top 5 favorite posts were Recipe Review: Thai Curry Soup (Noodles and Company Copycat (this is definitely the post that keeps on giving…hundreds of views year after year!), Health in the Peace Corps and Why I did 100 Days of Yoga, The Heart of A Mozambican, After the R: How Was Leaving and Sunday Snapshot: Parabens Moz 25.

Thanks to all of you who read in 2017! No matter where I go, sharing my own stories and reading those of others is one of my greatest pleasures. During these past 2 years, writing during Peace Corps service from rural Mozambique, my readership continued to grow steadily. I’ll be heading back to the States in a month, and I hope you’ll stick with me through the changes for a truly Happily Lost 2018. Here’s what I’ve got lined up for you!

Check out the Travel section to be Happily Lost Around the World:

Check out the Trails section to be Happily Lost Outside:

  • Adventures in our beloved home mountains..as long as we can still breathe at such eleveation. Colorado, we’re comin’ for you!
  • Other outdoor fun TBD. We’re hoping to spend some time with our neighbors, New Mexico and Utah. And perhaps mosey over to Arizona, California, and Oregon.

Check out the Our Table section to be Happily Lost in the Kitchen:

  • A recipe index with all past recipes organized by meal, as well as alphabetically, so you can follow along more easily and feed your body and soul to fuel your adventures too!
  • Culinary creations that are minmalist and truly from-scratch- we’re talking tomatoes, onions, spices> spaghetti sauce and flour, water, oil > tortillas- as I try to stick to the clean diet we had in Mozambique.

Happily Here-** Coming Soon**

  • The Monthly Mindfulness Series, in which I will be featuring a new mindfulness theme each month. I am so excited about this new, year-long series: exploring a topic that I have touched on here in the Just Talk section, and have grown more and more curious about, experimenting with podcasts/audio posts for the first time, and facilitating an interactive, peer-based, virtaul learning community for you lovely readers that choose to sign up and join in. Look for a post at the end of this month with more details about this series.

Happily Lost Snapshots:

If you’re not already, follow @happilylostwithcece on Instagram for more snapshots and mini-stories from all of the Happily Lost categories.

Looking forward to getting happily lost in 2018, and I hope you are too.

happily lost logo

After the R: Home(s)sick

Standard

If you’ve been following along with Happily Lost, you know by now that I am writing to you from Southeast Asia, where Alex and I decided to do some post-Peace Corps traveling.  A lot of Peace Corps Volunteers decide to take a trip after their service ends, or at least that’s the way it seems for Peace Corps Mozambique. Traveling before going back to the U.S. serves a variety of purposes: decompressing, processing Peace Corps service, providing physical and mental distance, and re-energizing before heading home to start anew.

I plan to write more about traveling through this transition, but for now I want to focus on a strange recurrence I have noticed while traveling for the past month or so: a dual homesickness.

When Alex and I travel, we tend to travel slowly. We usually take close to two months for a trip and like to stick to just a couple countries per trip. Each trip brings with it moments of homesickness, and this trip is no different in that sense.

What’s different about this homesickness, though, is that as we work our way through Southeast Asia, I feel certain moments of homesickness for Mozambique and other moments of homesickness for the U.S.

Undoubtedly, the biggest ‘missing’ that is shared between both places is missing people. In a messy, swirling place in my mind there are unsettling blips like thinking I need to go visit my good friend Marcia at her shop in Mapinhane but then realizing I can’t, and realizing how odd it is to see my oldest nephew with new braces, like some sort of big kid.

But the majority of these homesick feelings are distinct and unique to only one of the two places that my brain currently considers home.

When I crave the type of comfort that comes with familiarity and normality, I am thinking of Mozambique.

When I miss my physical home, that traveler’s feeling of ‘I just want to sleep in my own bed and cook my own food,’  I am thinking of Mozambique: our bright, sunny bedroom, our neighbors, our garden, cooking and sharing clean, simple meals around our big kitchen table.

When I miss day-to-day stuff, that travelers feeling of ‘it’s been nice to get out of my routine but it will be nice to get back into it,’ I am thinking of Mozambique: seeing friends every day, our outdoor market, slow mornings, afternoon yoga, the flow of students and colleagues, and the routines that were different depending on the day.

Of course, these two ‘traveler’s feelings’ will not be satisfied for a good long while, no matter where we go; I no longer have my own physical home anywhere and I certainly no longer have any semblance of daily routine.

When I crave stability as we are on the move, I am thinking of the U.S.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the other things that I am homesick for in the U.S. aren’t much different than they have been for the past two years: seeing family and friends, amenities, cleanliness, elevation change, waffles, and the type of comfort that can only come from the place where your roots first grew.

Of course, these things will be satisfied before too long, and it’s been a long time coming. I’m pretty pumped for reliably scalding hot showers, snow, and breakfast food.

The choice we’ve made to travel through this transition allows me to reside in this strange ‘no man’s land,’ taking a two-month pause between two very different but familiar cultures, between two sets of people that are so important in my life, between the immediate past and the immediate future, between two homes, after saying goodbye to one and before saying hello to the other.

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.

 

Vietnam: Floating through Cai Rang Market

Standard

Can Tho, Vietnam

“We’re leaving now,” Alex popped his head into our hostel room. “Everyone’s on the boat.”

It was 5:30a.m. on the dot, which is the exact time we had been told we’d be leaving the hostel.

Vietnam , we continued to learn, does not run on this thing we’d become accustomed to: Mozambique Time. Buses in Vietnam run on a schedule- and they actually run on that schedule. Taxi drivers arrive to pick you up at the time previously agreed upon. Watches aren’t just status symbols, but useful tools for your daily life.

I was in mid- hair-brush when Alex popped in.

Now, now?” I asked.

“Yep now, now.”

So it was that coming from the ‘always at least 30 minutes late’ culture we’d just been living in, we were the last two to step onto the wooden boat, mumbling an embarrassed ‘Good Morning,’ to the 6 punctual guests, the boat driver, and the spunky guide.

Before arriving in Can Tho we had booked our room at the Nguyen Shack Farmstay – not so much of a farmstay as a rural hostel stay- about 10 kilometers out of town. Not being city people,we were really missing the mato– bush- and the constant buzz of motos, sight of cement, and horrific blaring karaoke that permeate Vietnam’s cities and ‘small towns’ were grinding on us.

The Nguyen Shack and it’s nearby farmstay were just what we needed. The two neighborhood hostels are made up of a few sets of rooms, right on the edge of a Mekong Tributary, where you can laze in a hammock all day and wait for the heat to pass. They offer use of their bikes for free, as well as cheap tours, like the one we were on.

Now, we puttered down the tributary in our wooden boat, the water completely still as dawn approached. We passed small houses built one next to the other on stilts right on the river bank. Our chatty guide- a recent university grad- informed us that a lot of people build on the river because it is cheaper to buy land there. Despite my constant resistance to being up at this hour, I realize its special charm. The houses are so close to the water that unless we looked squarely ahead, we had no choice but to witness this little corner of the world coming awake slowly:  a man sitting in his doorway eating noodles with chopsticks, a child watching cartoons in his pajamas.

Within a few minutes, we turned left into the Mekong, passing under a neon sign fixed to a bridge above: Cai Rang Floating Market. The floating market is full of boats full of goods that are sold to vendors that sell them to customers at the land market. Before so many roads and bridges existed, the floating markets of this region were vital to bringing in goods from further afield. Now, people say, they are disappearing as the infrastructure of Vietnam grows.

If I wasn’t awake during our slow glide towards the market, I certainly had no choice but to wake up once we arrived. Here too the world was waking up; it seemed that many of the vendors live on their boats and as we passed they were getting ready for their day: brushing teeth and washing faces on the edge of the boat, hanging clothes to dry, lounging in hammocks. Some were already hard at work as smaller boats approached to buy; pineapple after pineapple was being passed between hands, vegetables being organized on upper decks, each boat with a tall pole stuck up to proudly display the goods sold there.

In between the bigger boats selling goods for the market, mobile noodle and coffee shops bobbed on the gentle wake of all the passers-through. Some putted between the boats, and hugged in close to make sales.

 

As we left the floating market for a visit to the land market, I had a feeling I’ve had before in developing countries: knowing that the development that will eventually erase this unique thing is a good thing, but knowing that the erasing of the unique thing is a sad washing away of part of a place.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Vietnam: The Christmas Spirit and Country Roads in Hoi An

Standard

Hoi An, Vietnam

Our ears ringing with motorbike buzz after too many days in Vietnamese cities (for us that’s about 5 days…), we headed an hour south of Danang to the charming little town of Hoi An.

Hoi An has been one of our favorite spots on this trip so far. While it has it’s own unique form of hustle and bustle around the many souvenir shops, the river promenade, and the night market under the charming lanterns, Hoi An still felt like a welcome reprieve from the overwhelming cities we had found ourselves in thus far.

We stayed about a ten minute bike ride outside of the main town, at a place called Viet Nhat homestay. We’ve quickly learned that the word ‘homestay’ in Vietnam means something a little different than it has in other corners of the world. Here, it  encompasses nearly any lodging where the owners or managers live in the same building where the guests stay. And this seems to be common. Our ‘homestay’/hotel was on one of the river islands, and helped us find the peace and quiet we’d been looking for.

Both nights in Hoi An we biked into town to visit the night market and stroll through the narrow, motorbike-free streets under the colorful lanterns. Immediately upon seeing the streets at night, I was put in the Christmas spirit. There was something so warm and charming about the lights that reminded me of the big, multi-colored bulbs that my dad would hang outside my childhood home every year.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

During our full day in Hoi An, we decided to rent a motorbike-which cost about $4.50 for a full day- and go in search of the ocean.

We spent hours snaking around the skinny river-island roads, taking in scenes of daily life: women hanging clothes out to dry, children in uniforms riding their bikes to and and from school, men pushing carts of goods, people chatting on front porches. I don’t know if it’s always been this way, or if this is a post-Moz feeling, but seeing people going about their business in a messy, rural little town, somewhere far far away from my own home, brought me a strange sort of comfort. There’s almost nothing I have enjoyed more in Vietnam so far than putzing through these little towns, just seeing what there is to see.

Finally, we did find the ocean, and continued from there through alleyways of a little town, ending up at an open air ‘mom and pop’ shop, where mom and pop jumped up to make us a couple of cups of-what else-Vietnamese coffee. We sat there for a while, looking at the boats in the estuary bay, trying to pronounce some words in Vietnamese with the help of Google Translator.

From there we buzzed back into Hoi An town center to try their own personal style of noodle bowl for lunch before heading back to our quiet ‘homestay,’ and a few hours at the twinkling night market.

Vietnam: Hai Van Pass and the Lady Buddha

Standard

Danang, Vietnam

P1330099

On a misty morning, the Hai Van Pass road skirting the edge of the mountains.

Our motorbike jaunt up Hai Van Pass started early, at about 6:30a.m. We’ve found that an early start is one of the best ways to avoid tourist crowds, in most cases- unless you’re hiking up Lion’s Head Mountain in Cape Town or visiting the floating markets in Can Tho Vietnam. While the streets of Danang were already buzzing with motos and people going about their daily business, the early start did seem to help us avoid traffic and crowds going up this famed pass.

Hai Van means ‘Ocean Mist,’ Alex had read, and soon enough we knew why. The morning was already gloomy, but as we climbed slowly up the pass we found ourselves in a light mist, with ocean views off to our right.

P1330093

The top of Hai Van Pass serves as the true dividing line between northern and southern Vietnam.We had read about this 19 kilometer road being not only breathtakingly beautiful as it winds over the jungle-covered mountains, but also steep, and even ‘treacherous.’ Going on our own rented motorbike, we had decided that not making it to the top wasn’t out of the questions, since we/ Alex the driver have very little moto experience.

What we found was quite different than what we expected, however. Coming from the good old state of Colorado, we immediately realized that ‘mountain pass’ drew up a much more formidable image in our minds than what we found driving Hai Van Pass.

We’ve certainly never driven a Colorado pass-or any pass for that matter- on a moto, but the combination of Hai Van being less steep and scary than we had imagined, going very slowly, and driving up at a time of day where there were very few other vehicles out made the drive pretty relaxing overall. The biggest challenges for us were 2 tighter hairpin turns and the slightly wet roads from the drizzle. Even so, the drive was quiet, calm, and overall stress-free..but not completely:

P1330097

Alex having the time of his life driving a moto, and Cece feeling a little nervous.

From the beachfront in Danang city to the top of Hai Van Pass only took us about an hour. At the top we explored an old fort that was built by the French, and sat down for a cup of perfectly strong and steaming Vietnamese coffee at one of the shops, munching on some light breakfast that we had brought along with us.

As we had to catch a train early in the afternoon, we didn’t drive all of Hai Van, but descended on the same side that we had come up, dropping back down into Danang City. But before turning in our moto, we drove out to the the large Lady Buddha statue and temple just a little bit outside of the city. This immaculately clean complex includes a large Buddhist temple, the towering Lady Buddha, and a plaza full of quirky bonsai trees and various Buddhist statues.

P1330206

P1330221

Like any good little adventure, our morning moto trip up Hai Van pass and around the outskirts of Danang made us step outside our comfort zone just a smidge, but it was a worthwhile jaunt for the views, the challenge, and the feeling of exploration.

For more info, visit the Hai Van Pass page on Travel Fish.

 

Vietnam: West of Water Mountain

Standard

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.

 

PC050198.JPG

 

 

After the R: How was Leaving?

Standard

 

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

Standard

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.