Tag Archives: Peace Corps Mozambique blogs

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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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: 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!

Sunday Snapshots: Happy Birthday Alex

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Today was a day to celebrate my lovely husband, Alex, or, as he is often known here in Moz, Alexi. Today Alex turned 28, and we spent the day in Vilanculos to celebrate

The day started with a super delicious brunch.

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Followed soon after by a cocktail, enjoyed in a similar fashion to last year’s birthday beer that was thrown out the window of a moving car, by some new friends we had made in Malolotja Nature Reserve in Swaziland.

We then set out for a fatbike ride down the beach, to some red dunes in a sleepy bay north of the main hub of Vilanculos.

Of course, we made some new crianca (child) friends along the way, as is the norm nearly anywhere you go in Moz. We were quite thankful to have them later, as we searched for a path to the road at the top of the dunes.

 

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Happy Birthday Alex! Cheers to another year of adventuring behind us and many more ahead.

Sunday Snapshot: Home Sweet Sweet Potato

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It’s always nice to go away, and it’s always nice to come home, especially when the garden is growin’. After getting home from our recent travels in South Africa, Alex and I began our first sweet potato harvest. We dug and dug, following long, reaching roots to their ends, where we found some sweet potatoes as small as cherry tomatoes and others as big as grapefruits.

Photo Cred to Alex.

Health in the Peace Corps, and why I did 100 Days of Yoga

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It started in a hotel room in mid-January, I think. I sat crying on the bed, with three lovely ladies from our Peace Corps group listening and comforting me. It was a mental breakdown about a mental breakdown, a layering of struggles that I had never experienced before Peace Corps.

The breakdown that spurred this one had come about a month earlier, about halfway up Table Mountain in Cape Town. I had struggled up the devil switchbacks of that mountain. I slogged forward,a sweaty mess in the blazing summer sun. I felt, at one point, the wheezing breaths of the start of an asthma attack, something I hadn’t felt for more than ten years.

“I really don’t think I can make it to the top,” I told Alex, tears starting to flow. I rested for a long while, trying to catch my breath, halt my tears, and come to terms with the fact that I may not get up the mountain.

If I turned back, it would be the first mountain that I had ever retreated from. And, despite the suffocating heat and steep incline of the trail, it was still just a couple miles, barely above sea level.  For a Colorado gal who had lived above 8,000 feet and climbed much more formidable mountains before arriving on this side of the world, the possibility itself felt like defeat.

I did make it to the top of Table Mountain, and I felt a restrained triumph when I arrived: I had done the thing I thought I couldn’t, but I had struggled more than I thought I would.

So it is the metaphor for Peace Corps, I suppose.

It was that moment, that feeling, that brought about breakdown 2, the one in the hotel room. I hadn’t entered the room with the intention of airing my troubles or seeking comfort, but I was distraught deep down inside, and I couldn’t hold it in. Earlier that day I had seen one of the girls in the room working out, doing cardio stair-steppers in the deserted hotel stairway.

‘I can’t do that,’ I had thought. ‘I haven’t been able to work out for months.’

At that precise moment, I was feeling a nagging pain in my left lower abdomen, which had come and gone for the past three months or so, and which I had dubbed The Mystery Pain.

Three months with The Mystery Pain hadn’t been the start, or the worst, of my health struggles since coming to Moz. Before that I had spent about three months with ongoing cramps; before that I had suffered from insomnia for about two months. And, just to round things out, I had a few bouts of pretty severe food poisoning sprinkled in there too. It seemed that when one problem got sort of solved after multiple, multi-day trips to Maputo to see doctors, another would spring up.

So it was that I sat on the hotel bed in mid-January, not having made much attempt at exercise-except on-and-off yoga- since the previous April. For so many months, the health issues were so severe that I felt like I couldn’t exercise intensely. Not only was I exhausted and unmotivated, but I had a fear of making things worse, especially when it came to the pains and cramps I was having.

As it was, I hadn’t ever formed a good exercise routine in Moz to begin with. In the first few months, when I felt healthy and fit from our previous life as mountain dwellers, we tried a number of times to find a routine. We went running a few times during training, I tried an 8-week walker-to-runner program when we first got to site (which quickly melted away in the brutal summer sun), we did a part of a 6 week body weight calisthenics plan, and I did yoga on and off through it all.

Before the health issues ever started, there were two big struggles in finding an exercise routine.

One was that Alex and I had never had an exercise routine. Pre-Moz, we were very active, but it wasn’t a plan or program and it took close to zero motivation. We lived in the mountains and the mountains were our gym. We stayed healthy by doing the things we loved doing: biking, hiking, canoeing, snowboarding, and cross-country skiing, with lots of walking and yoga and occasional runs. The fact that it was this easy meant we hadn’t really had to think much about our fitness for about 4 years before Moz.

The other big challenge from the start was finding an exercise routine in a new life that felt completely void of routine. Our schedule in Moz is different every single day, and this took a lot of getting used to for me. There isn’t one specific time each day that can be set aside for working out, unless it’s 5a.m. Some days, I have to be out of the house by 7a.m. for work. Other days we get home from working at 8p.m. There’s a lot of free time in between, but it happens at different times each day. I had the idea that if I was going to do some boring workout plan- for the sake of staying in shape-and not really want to even be doing it, I had better make it a routine or I wouldn’t do it at all. Exercising wasn’t the only thing I tried to fit into a consistent block of time each day, and failed at doing so. It’s odd now to think back at myself trying to compartmentalize my time in this way; the inconsistent schedule that bothered me so much then hardly phases me now. In the end, I did find small ways to build a bit of routine into my days, to have tiny but vital moments of predictability and consistency. But exercise never became one of them.

After mental breakdown 2, the defeat and frustration just kind of brewed and brewed, until finally I told myself that, even with The Mystery Pain lingering around, I could at least start doing something easy, to commit to taking care of my mental state and maybe start regaining my physical health. Through all the ups and downs, yoga had been a go-to for me, a way to calm my thoughts and give gentle exercise to my body, and a way to have time to myself each day.

So, on March 1, I started a 30-day yoga challenge from YouTube (shout out to SarahBeth Yoga). It started so simple, at 10 or 15 minutes a day, and built up from there. I could tell that even the simplest things felt challenging. But when those simple things became simple again, I noticed. That was a positive about losing so much health, I told myself: getting to actively notice it building up again.

At the end of the 30 days, I felt so good and had gotten into the habit of finding time somewhere in the day each day for intentional movement and self care. So I kept going. I think it was at about day 45 that I decided to commit to 100. At first it felt a little extreme and unnecessary; I asked myself if I was being obsessive, expecting myself to exercise every single day. But I wasn’t pushing or forcing, or training for hours each day. I was spending 30 minutes each day doing a good thing for myself. I was listening, paying attention, and taking care of myself.

What finally came out during that long hotel room cry was kind of a raw and sad truth: I was having an identity crisis. An active, snowboardin’, mountain-climbin’, outdoorsy Colorado girl was my identity, and I felt like I had lost it. Never before had I felt limited by my physical fitness; if there was a mountain I wanted to climb, there was no doubt in my mind that I would stand at its peak.

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Now, there was doubt. “That’s who I was,” I cried. “It feels gone now, so who am I now?”

There are a lot of answers, of course, because for everything I’ve lost I’ve gained a whole lot more. But it’s not always so easy to remember this.

With my brief mentions of my 100 days of yoga on Facebook and here on the blog, I felt that all these other things could not be left unsaid.

My 100 days of yoga was not a challenge made for the sake of accomplishment. It was a saving grace after a year and half of mental and physical turmoil. I did not do it to achieve a beautiful pose and post daily photos, because my goal was not to impress, or even inspire, anyone but me. So, the 100 days were for me, but this story is for you.

It was important to me to share all this so you can know why my contented smile in the picture of tree pose I have shared feels like one of my largest triumphs. And it feels crucial to me to say that the crow pose I shared didn’t come until about day 80, and that those seconds spent in it were my strongest, physically, in nearly two years.

But maybe the most important thing that came from my 100 days of yoga, and the journey that led me there, was this thought that started springing up in the quiet, blissed-out moments at the the end of each practice, the things I started saying to myself: thank you for taking this time for you, for listening and paying attention, for playing, smiling, and challenging yourself.

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3 Smiles and A Struggle: 100 days of yoga, Visitors, The girls workshop, and What’s Next

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June was a joyful whirlwind of a month for us, as seems to be the theme of this second year of Peace Corps. I was lucky to go into this busy time feeling solid and well-grounded. The reason was that on June 8, the day before our lives got a little crazy, I completed 100 days of yoga. The 100 days of yoga was something that I had decided to challenge myself to after completing a 30 day yoga challenge in March and feeling really darn good by the end. The whole idea had come about as a way  to start getting back into shape and bring back at least some of the health that I felt like I lost during the first year of Peace Corps. The 100 days did just that, and more. My daily time spent doing yoga became my guaranteed Cece time, to take care of me. What a comfort this was! The challenge also brought about the realization that it is definitely possible to find time every day  for intentional movement and self-care. There were a number of days that I was certain I did not have time for yoga that day but, in the interest of not bungling my  whole challenge, had to find the time. In the end, I found it each and every day, even if it was just ten minutes spent in legs up the wall or a gentle stretch after getting over a stomach bug. I came out of the challenge feeling strong mentally and physically, and full of smiles for this and for having accomplished my goal.

 

A lot of smiles this month came from having visitors. Our first visitor was one of our best friends, Sarah. Sarah was in the Peace Corps in Tanzania from 2010 to 2012 and visiting her at her Peace Corps site was a big part of our Kenya/ Tanzania trip in 2012. In fact, this was the first time that I remember thinking, ‘We could do something like this. We could definitely do Peace Corps.’ From the moment we told her we were going to Peace Corps, she was set on visiting us and seeing our site. You may recall that we met Sarah and our friends Liesel and Jared and Victoria Falls for New Year’s. At the time, they were on a quick 3 week trip in this part of the world. Because of visa costs and time factors, they didn’t visit Mapinhane. However, soon after, Sarah got a job in Tanzania for June and July. She immediately began scheming to visit us here in Mapinhane first. So, we are beyond lucky to have received not one but two visits on the African continent from such a good pal. We spent our short week with Sarah soaking up the sun in Vilanculos, stand-up paddle-boarding, and enjoying perhaps more seafood in one sitting than we have in the last year combined. We then headed to Mapinhane, where Sarah tagged along to class with us- just as we had with her 5 years ago- hit it off with our beloved adult-learners at Adult English Club, sat in front of approximately 40 pairs of staring eyes while I read to primary school students at the library, labored through making Matapa, and got the first-ever full tour of the 7 Wonders of Mapinhane (detailed post coming soon).

We saw Sarah within the last 6 months of her service, when a PCV seems to be constantly oscillating between anxiety and impatience regarding the future, and nostalgia for and weariness toward their country of service. I remember her at that time, thick-skinned and mildly irritated half the time, and downright revelatory the other half. She too, visited us at this same point in our service.

In a week’s time, it felt like something in our friendship with Sarah had come full circle: we visited her Peace Corps site, where the seed of the idea of doing Peace Corps was planted, only to have her visit our Peace Corps site almost exactly 5 years later, and find us in, probably, a similar state to where she was herself at this point 5 years ago.

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We parted ways on opposite sides of the highway that runs through Mapinhane: Alex and Sarah heading north to Vilanculos, where she would catch her flight out, and me heading south the Tofo, with 4 female students from school.

This brings us to the next smile: this year’s REDES workshop. You may remember a bit about REDES, and about being a female from Mozambique, from my post after the workshop last year. REDES stands for “Raparigas em Desenvolvimento, Educação, e Saude,” or ‘Girls in Development, Education, and Health.’ The program is a curriculum of 15 meetings, designed for adolescent girls and covering subjects like good communication, healthy friendships, goals for the future, puberty, reproductive health, HIV, and much more. Last year, I never got a group up and running at school, but was continually nudged by my amazing counterpart, a 12th grader at school named Marizia,to keep trying.

So, this year, the two of us finally got a group of 8th grade girls together that meets twice a month. Each year, Peace Corps Moz puts on regional workshops for REDES, and other such youth groups, in which leaders bring a few of their group members to meet other groups from the region and do more intensive learning about the topics covered in regular meetings. The workshops help create a strong network between the participants; Marizia still talks with a lot of the participants she met last year. They are also meant to be a type of mini-camp, reminiscent in some ways of weekend Girl Scout getaways. There’s a lot of singing, dancing, game-playing, and pillow talk.

This year’s REDES workshop was one of my favorite things that I have done during my Peace Corps service so far. I was so impressed with the PCVs who organized the event; it was dynamic, fun, productive, and full of a constant, buzzing energy. The group facilitators got to work with girls in small groups, for an extended time to talk more in-depth about topics like HIV, puberty, menstruation, and life skills. This led to a lot of great discussion and participation between the girls. The girls amazed us with theatrical performances on the last day, centered around things like higher education and drug and alcohol use. We also played A LOT. The girls and facilitators seemed to always have a song or game in their back pockets, and we spent some time one evening doing Zumba as a big group.

After an awesome and exhausting 3 days, the groups cleared out pretty quick to travel home after breakfast on the last day. All was quiet, and the beach in front of our accommodation was deserted.

“Teacher, vamost mergulhar!” my girls proclaimed. ‘Teacher, let’s swim!’

Having arrived later than expected on the first day, the girls hadn’t had as much free time at the beach as I would have hoped. There was free time here and there during the days of the workshop, during which there would be a mass exodus of girls headed for the beckoning sea just 2 minutes away. Still, I could tell my girls wanted more, and I had promised them some uninterrupted, free time on the beach before our journey home.

There are moments here when I see joy that is so uninhibited, all I can do is watch and try to soak it up in hopes that it will settle into me. This kind of joy isn’t fleeting; once you’ve seen it, you have it with you. A brilliant early morning sun rendered the girls silhouettes as I watched them, at first, jumping waves, laughing, and running from the surge of foamy water. Claenencia, tiny in stature but bursting with a sassy sense of humor, had never seen the ocean before and her string of giggles as she clung to my side were like bubbling purs of a happy kitten. Artezia, always quiet but with a look of contemplation, knowledge and strength, ventured a bit further, holding the hand of Meyvis. And Meyvis.

“Meyvis!” I reveled at her. “O seu coração…está no mar!” ‘Your heart is in the ocean.’

Meyvis often looks serious, angry or irritated even. I see her this way in class and in our REDES meetings, and I saw her like this all weekend. I’ve learned, though, that she isn’t usually angry or irritated. I will have seen her looking this way, and then later overhear her telling her friends how happy she was about whatever it was that was happening when she was glaring, sullenly, from the corner. Although I know this, seeing her smile, seeing her joy come out as she played among the waves was enough to make me smile and laugh too.

In the waves, Meyvis couldn’t stop beaming and laughing. She watched the waves like they were alive, deciding her next move among them, experimenting with a little bit of swimming.

Before too long, I had waded out with the girls. Artezia and Meyvis wanted to do more than jump waves, they said. They wanted to learn to swim. Laying belly down on the sand, I demonstrated the motion of swimming. They practiced. “Consegui!” ‘I succeeded!’ Meyvis told me. Watching them splutter as the water splashed into their faces, I taught them how to hold their breath. They took turns practicing, floating, face down in the water, holding my hands while the water sloshed them around the shallows. ‘Consegui!’ Meyvis beamed after a few rounds. I showed her how to blow bubbles out her nose. She practiced, coming up with her eyes closed, spitting water as she told me “Consegui Teacher!”

“Vamos para lá!” she said next, pointing east to the breaking waves. ‘Let’s go THERE!’

A few times, while they played on the beach or splashed in the shallows, I swam out into the waves alone, diving under them. Now, Meyvis wanted to go.

I explained to her first the principle of diving under the waves. If you are under them, I told her, everything is calm and they can’t batter you. If you stay above the water, that’s when the waves batter you.

We swam out a bit, not as far as I had gone, holding hands the whole way. I told her I would say when to dive under. We watched the waves growing, rolling under the water, before cresting and breaking.

“Agora!” I shouted as one approached us. ‘Now!’

We dove under, and she came up laughing out loud. Again, again, again we dove under.

“Consegui!” She kept telling me.

More then two hours had passed by now, and I practically had to drag them out of the ocean. The busy and productive weekend, seeing their pure joy, and having the chance myself to be free and play left me full to the brim.

 

 

It was also during this REDES workshop weekend that we received our second group of visitors. In fact, this group, Alex’s mom, aunt, uncle, and aunt’s mom, had ended up at the same beach at which the REDES workshop was being held, and were there when I arrived.  They are in southern Africa for two months, completing a big loop that was spurred by coming to visit us in Moz. Because their travel is so long, it is also very flexible, and some switching of plans is what led them to Tofo beach at the same time that I was to be there. Between the activities of the workshop, I was catching up with them, trying to make up for the 20 or so months since last seeing them.

From the REDES workshop, we all traveled back to Mapinhane together, where our family spent a few days tagging along to school with us, meeting all our favorite people and, again, laboring for their Matapa.  Our time with them was rich and satisfying. Just simply having the time to spend together, chatting and catching up, around the dinner table was more special than anything else we could have done.

As we try to prepare for our last leg of Peace Corps service, it’s stuff like this that fills the tank, gives us the energy to finish strong. As if the time spent catching up and hanging out with people we love wasn’t enough, having visitors also meant getting to experience the strange kind of magic that happens when you see your Peace Corps service through new eyes, as a visitor sees it.

For the second week in a row, our service got to be new and fresh again, perhaps more so with Alex’s family than with Sarah, who could draw a lot of similarities to her own service. Suddenly,  the things that are normal to us now seemed a bit adventurous once again: chickens on the bus, people who think you’re just another tourist mulungu, the energy of a Mozambican vegetable market. The slow pace of life that we have adapted to felt fleeting and precious: nearly nothing runs by a clock and we nearly never have too little time to stop and chat with someone. Our uncertainty about progress in our work got put on pause to the compliments of someone seeing it from the outside: it’s an accomplishment to teach with nothing more than a blackboard and chalk, and do it in another language, it’s impressive to manage 45 8th graders at the same time, it’s incredible to see the confidence of our adult English learners as they read aloud. The friendships and sense of community that we are used to were marveled at: we pick Matapa leaves off our bread vendor’s trees, there’s a give and take of resources between people in the community , and some days we can’t get through a full sentence while we walk through town without the calling of one of our names interrupting. In just a few short days, all of these re-realizations were a reminder of what a special and unique time this is for us.

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Alex’s fam at Adult English Club.

While the presence of visitors has the ability to really ground us in the present and let us observe our service as they do, it also brings about lots of questions about life after Peace Corps, which seems to be barreling toward us at a somewhat frightening rate. This struggle is twofold. First, our visitors reminded us what life in the States is like. Yes, some days it feels like we’ve forgotten what it feels like to live in the States, as strange as that sounds. But it seems there is no better way to remember than spending time with Americans straight out of America. Over the course of our two weeks with visitors, we noticed a number of American tendencies that now seem to be less a part of our life than they once were: an attachment to schedules and plans; an unbridled optimism towards problems and the presentation of solutions in the form of “Why  don’t you just…..” statements; and a probably normal but high-for-us standard of hygiene and cleanliness of self, home, and possessions, as seen in Sarah’s diligent sweeping of ants off the outside of our house and Alex’s aunt’s suggestion-before seeing them and realizing they may never have been cleaned properly- that we clean our shared toilets with baking soda and vinegar. Needless to say, our response to both: “Not worth it….” All of these little things remind us of what’s next in our life, of all the things about American life that we will have to re-remember and re-adapt to .

The other side of the “What’s Next” struggle comes in the answer to the question, “What’s next?” The answer is this: We don’t know.

We do not begrudge our visitors for bringing to light the fact that it’s time to start thinking about the future. Not at all. With or without the presence of visitors, trying to answer this question, if only for ourselves, has certainly been a struggle lately. It’s not that we haven’t thought about it, it’s more that we just still don’t know. We know it’s time to think about it. We know that ‘having a plan’ is the thing that’s supposed to come next. We know that some of the PCVs in our group are already there and lots of others aren’t. Perhaps it’s in realizing how much less attached we have become to long-term plan-making. Perhaps it’s that life in Moz has drilled in to us a sense that most things are utterly unpredictable, and, subsequently, left us mildly resigned from any attempt at control. Or perhaps it’s that our whole sense of time here has slowed waaaaayyy down, meaning that our five remaining months still feel like a lot of time. But more than any of this, I think it’s that, for all of the ideas and dreams and schemes that we have thought about for life post-Moz, committing to anything feels like a weird betrayal, like Moz is already in the back of our minds as we jump ahead to the next plan. Every time we try to make a set plan for how the next year or so of our life will look, it feels horrible and forced and completely unnatural. Right now, we don’t want to be planning our next big chapter. We want to be in this chapter, because we know this time is going to fly and we know we will never have anything remotely like it again.

I know that all of these changes will reverse, to some degree, one day. I know that we will once again become plan-,makers, even if it’s to a lesser degree. I know that life one day may feel slightly more predictable, whether or not we will like that, I don’t know. I know that some day I will probably try to regain a sense of control on things, but maybe it will never be to the level that I tried before. I know that it won’t be long before our sense of time changes again and 5 months feels like nothing instead of an eternity. These are products of the culture you are surrounded by.  Although we didn’t know it 2 years ago, these changes were inevitable in coming here, and their reversal is inevitable in our return. And I know that we’ll find a balance, eventually, of enjoying our last months here and thinking about what’s to come.

But for now, ‘What’s Next’ is nothing more than the hours that will pass today: going for a run on my favorite path, hoping that bread comes in to the market from Vilanculos, and cooking up a hearty dinner.

We have 5 more months to enjoy a life that’s this simple, and that’s what’s next on the list of things to do.

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The Heart of A Mozambican

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I am struck by an image, a simple thing: 2 oranges in a bowl.

“Servido,” Laila says to me. ‘Help yourself.’

We have been sitting together for more than an hour on a straw mat on the floor of her newly rented room. We talk about her 10th grade studies, her little sister, her new boyfriend, her twin siblings. We talk about my 8th grade students, my nieces and nephews, my sisters.

There is a lot left unsaid.

“Gosta de beber vinho?” I ask, pointing to a half-empty bottle of wine in the corner. ‘Do you like to drink wine?’

Only some days, when my head is really full, she tells me. I think a lot, she says, calmly.

I feel squeamish, instinctually, about a 10th grader drinking. But Laila is 20, past the legal drinking age, and long ago an adult in every sense of the word.

She asks if I drink. Just once in a while, I tell her.

A neighbor stops by and peeks into the room.

Já dividiu o quarto. É bonito como assim,” she says with approval. ‘You already divided the room. It’s beautiful like this.’

Laila has strung a rope from post to post across the middle of the room and draped two kapulanas over it as a divider. On one side there is a twin matress on the floor, the bed neatly made and the blue mosquito net tucked in tight around the bottom. We sit on the other side, slightly wider. Here is the straw esteira mat that is a staple of the Mozambican household; the esteiras are often laid down outside in the shade and here people will relax together, nap in the heat of the day, shell peanuts, do homework, braid hair. Propped against one wall of Laila’s room are her school notebooks and the notebooks of her younger sister, who lives with her. Her hair pieces and cosmetics are lined up between the notebooks. In one corner are her three plastic kitchen shelves, some food, and a couple pots and dishes. Along the wall are her jugs for hauling water and her larger basin of water. I feel a breeze come through the caniço grass walls of the room, and feel the soft evening sun rays come through the door. People pass by and greet us. A pan clatters to the floor in the room next door and Laila says something in the local language to the neighbor. A colleague from her class comes in and sits down for a couple of minutes, talking about Physics homework.Laila’s collection of brightly-colored, freshly-washed plastic sandals dry outside the door; A number of neighbors have left her smiling since I arrived with comments about her beautiful shoes.

In the extended moments of silence that are the norm in any conversation here, I sneak glances at her face. What I see there feels familiar now: a thoughtful calm. If she is stressed, it doesn’t show. For the longest time, I mistook this absence of apparent stress in Mozambicans for the absence of stress. ‘Mozambicans are so resilient, they never seem to worry,’ I used to think. I am embarrassed to admit that now; all people worry. My gaze moves to her hands, a knife in one and a kakana plant seed in the other. They too are calm in their task of dissecting the seed. Seeing her there, so grounded and almost stoic, I begin to uncoil slowly. It is comfortable here, and my own mind is more settled than it has been in days. The feeling that visiting her felt like an obligation after a full week of work seems ridiculous now, and I feel guilty for it.

Laila is a former student and good friend of our first sitemate, Sarah, and I said I would continue to check in with her this year. She is a hard worker and a good student. She supports herself and her little sister with minimal help from family; This situation is not uncommon here. These students struggle, undoubtedly. In their communal culture they are supported by friends, neighbors, teachers, each other. Many of those that support them have been in this situation themselves.

The day before this visit, Laila had texted me asking me for help buying food. I do not come from a communal culture; requests such as this make me feel at once responsible,unsure, and guilty. I did not reply that day and by the time I arrived the next day, someone had brought her the vegetables for dinner, a coconut, some rice, and the two oranges that she then, without hesitation, insisted on sharing with me.

I apologized for not replying to her message. I couldn’t tell her it was because I wanted to help but just didn’t know what to do, that I didn’t feel I could just buy her food, that I feared giving to her meant that I would inevitably be asked to give to an unpredictable number of others in similar situations. I couldn’t say that it was because I have never in my life known people that run out of food, and that I don’t have an instinct for this situation. They all seem lame excuses now for not responding. But I couldn’t tell her that either.

All I could say was, “Desculpe.” Sorry.

In the peels of the two oranges that lay between us now, in her tidy and calm and comfortable room, after two hours of conversation, I see the things that I consider to be the heart of Mozambicans: an unending and unquestioned generosity, pride in what they have, and a priority on the people around them. These are the things that all at the same time make me feel welcomed and starkly foreign, guilty and grateful, naive and a smidge wiser. These are the things I ache for within myself, the things I aspire to in this life.

I rise to leave and Laila insists on accompanying me outside, three short steps to the front door. In the fading sunlight she gathers her shoes, and I promise to come over again soon.

Newton’s Third Law in the Peace Corps

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Bits of cardboard, plastic water bottles, duct tape, balloons, sewing thread, and popsicle sticks have become a constant presence in our house. Alex is testing out ideas for the science club he plans to start this year, and these are the makings of all his Alexperiments.

On one recent day he explained to me how Newton’s Third Law was at play in the launching of a plastic water bottle rocket; If Newton’s Third Law says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, then we can see that as the air pressure shoots out the bottom of the ‘rocket’ the ‘rocket’ shoots up into the sky.

A refreshing lesson in physics, sure, but the other side of my brain got to thinking about how Newton’s Third Law applies to my everyday life in Mozambique.

One thing that I’ve noticed starkly about this second year of Peace Corps is a sense that, although I am still affected by the environment around me, I am much more grounded overall. Last year I frequently had images of myself being drug along or kind of just ‘blowing in the wind’ until it stopped for a second and I could put my feet on the ground. Recently though, I have had images of myself like one of those spring-legged figurines that can be suctioned to any surface; there are forces that tip me to this side and that, but I spring back pretty quickly and my ‘feet’ are always in the same place.

One side that I see myself tipping to, I call the ‘chega’ side. Chega in Portuguese means ‘enough.’ So, when I am pushed to this side it is by something that makes me say ‘Ok, chega Mozambique. I’ve had about enough of your hijinks.’  Or simply, ‘Chega. I am ready to go home now.’

The other side I call the ‘fica’ side. Fica in Portuguese means ‘stay.’ So, when I am pushed to this side it is because something lovely has happened that reminds me this a good place to be right now and I want these moments to ‘fica’ in my mind.

Now, how does Newton’s Third Law tie in?

First, we must tweak it a little bit to say that for every action in day to day life here, there comes an equal and opposite action that causes an equal and opposite reaction.

For example:

I am walking on the street and a man I don’t know says to me in Portuguese, “You’re beautiful!” as he looks me up and down, raising his eyebrows. Chega.

I am walking down the street and a woman smiles and says to me in Portuguese, “You’re beautiful today!” as she looks me up and down. Fica!

Or:

I miss the peace that being in the mountains brings me. Chega.

I have come to find peace being at the nearby ocean. Fica!

Or:

I feel disconnected from friends at home when I realize I haven’t talked to certain people for months and am anxious to reconnect with them. Chega.

I feel connected here when I talk daily with Mozambican friends about their health, their job, their worries, and their desires. Fica!

Or:

Someone relentlessly calls me ‘Mulungo’ (white person), even after I tell them, ‘I am not just a white person. I am a teacher here. You can call me Teacher.’ Chega.

When this person still won’t stop, someone else relentlessly argues that I am a teacher here and should be addressed as a teacher, or by my name. Fica!

I realize more and more each day that Peace Corps is one big mind game with myself. Strengthening the ability to feel gratitude and stay positive is important anywhere and at any phase of life. Here, as it is normal to feel slightly uncomfortable all the time due to heat, language, cultural differences, homesickness and so on, I find this task of learning how to put things in perspective to be at the forefront of my mind; I am happy each time I find a little trick that helps me do so.

Now, thanks to the launching of water bottle rockets in the backyard, for each grumble I make, for each time I think ‘Chega Moz!’ I can try to let go of that moment by remembering that the equal and opposite ‘Fica’ moment will make itself known soon after, as long I am looking for it.

3 Smiles and A Struggle: The 2nd Year Feeling, The People Around Me, Normalcy, and Fearing the End

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‘I’m not afraid anymore! You hear me? I’m not afraid anymore!’

I left the second day of school on Tuesday, chuckling to myself as these words, originally spoken by Kevin McCallister in Home Alone, drifted into my head. No, the thought was not spurred, as it was for Kev, by scary burglars outside my house and a plan to blow torch their scalps and zipline away to my treehouse. It was spurred by a feeling of elation as I realized how comfortable I had just been in front of my 8th graders.  Not quite as exciting, really, but kind of a big moment for me.

Big kids used to scare me perhaps as much as Marv and Harry scared little Kevin at first.

Before coming to Mozambique, I had worked with children from about 1-11 years old in preschool and elementary school settings. They loved me, mostly, and thought I was super cool. That felt good. Big kids, on the other hand, seemed to stare into the souls of their poor teachers, ticked off and rarely complimentary. So, when I came to work in a secondary school here I was at once excited for the Big Kid experience and intimidated by them. Although I didn’t think I was afraid of them last year, looking back I know I was. They were new creatures to me; I didn’t understand their habits or what their looks meant or what motivated them or much of what they even needed from me as a teacher and as an adult in their lives. But I learned a lot along the way.

I’m no sage now, but I know enough to at least not be scared of the big kids. So, the first smile is about the 2nd-year-feeling. For me, this has two sides.

The first side is this: Since graduating college almost five years ago, I have switched jobs every year. While I am ultimately glad that I have dabbled as much as I have, and while I feel that I learned immensely from each job, it was an incredible feeling to start this, my first 2nd year in any job ever. It was amazing to not feel like the new person, to know at least the basics of what is going on and what is expected of me, to understand the routines of this job and how to accomplish what needs to be done, and to feel a level of general comfort that I have never felt before in a work environment.

The second side of this feeling is the sense of disbelief and accomplishment that we are actually starting our 2nd year of Peace Corps Service. While many days of the first year dragged by slowly, and while so many chunks of time felt filled up with little more than struggling through, I stand at this point, this marker of an end and a beginning, and it feels like that first year flew by. Because of the moments of wanting to throw my hands up and go home, of feeling lost, and generally unwell, I am now starkly aware of being so glad that we stayed for this second year.

Along the lines of feeling this lovely comfort on the work side of my service, the second smile comes in noticing the comfort and connectedness with our community. After spending most of our summer break away, we are settling back into life in Mapinhane now and, although they might not know it, the people around us are making it easy. The moments of interacting with all the people here who we have formed relationships with make it feel like we are picking up right where we left off. Some of these moments leave me smiling about people’s motivation: a student from last year asking that I continue to give him extra English work like I did last trimester, my library counterpart asking me if we will work there again, my 12th-grade REDES counterpart coming over to ask when we are starting our girl’s group, a colleague telling me he wants to do a student English Club this year, the start back to Adult English Club. The other moments are those that I have come to appreciate so much, the ones that make me feel a part of this community: a parent and fellow teacher coming over to say her son is excited to have me as a teacher, a friend bringing us food from her garden, Marcia telling me not to be nervous with my students, and the greetings and easy conversation with last year’s students.

With these first two smiles, there comes a realization that life here feels normal now. It is normal to have friends and students stopping by. It is normal to spend an hour getting to the market 5 minutes away because of stopping to chat with people along the way. It is normal that our class schedule will inevitably change 5ish more times. It’s normal to be pulled in many directions and wear many different hats each day. It’s normal and ok to not understand what’s going on sometimes. It’s even normal to feel sweaty all the time. Whether it’s in relishing the wonderful ‘new-normal’ moments, or in learning how to better handle the frustrating ‘new-normal’ moments, it’s a bit mind boggling to realize how much change a person can get used to over time. And thus comes the third smile: for not feeling so much like a lost foreigner anymore.

Finally, with all these happy feelings bouncing around lately, my struggle is in fearing the end. As I wrote about previously, it took a real long time for me to feel mostly comfortable here because it took a real long time to form all of these delightful abovementioned routines and relationships, and these are the things that most satisfy me here. Although there were many happy moments and successes personally and professionally throughout the months, I don’t think my mind and heart really settled in Moz until about last October. So now, with less than 12 months left, I am having mild sad feelings that the end seems in sight just as it is getting so good, and mild fear that the time is going to pass so quickly that I won’t be able to properly soak it up. The real struggle is in reminding myself how much can happen and change in a year’s time-as proven by the past year, and by life in general- and in reminding myself how much more is still yet to come and how many inevitable ups and downs there will be along the way.  The strategy for combatting fear of the future: continuing to actively notice good little moments each day, and in deciding to take notice being able to savor them.

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