Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I'm in Niger

NOTE: I wrote this entry a few months back and completely forgot to post it. Enjoy!

The plane finally came to a complete stop. Seat belt signs were off. And I was now standing in line, waiting to step outside and walk through customs to see her.

I have to admit that as I neared the airplane door, I imagined my reaction to the intense heat that I’d heard so much about. I would collapse onto my knees, sweat pouring out endlessly. ‘I need more air!!’ I’d cry out to amused onlookers. Most of them wouldn’t have understood me anyways, since a vast majority for some reason only spoke Chinese, but my humiliation would be complete regardless.

The reality, of course, couldn’t have been more different as I walked through the door onto the runway stairs. I looked out onto the tarmac and focused on the tiny airport than didn’t look much different than the one in Maputo. I was met with heat, yes, but it wasn’t horrible. A strong sun, but a noticeable dry feel to the air. Sure, even wearing jeans and close toed shoes, I felt alright. I walked down the stairs and onto the tarmac, my British WWII era satchel bouncing lightly on my side, as my mind ignored the unusual spectacle of endless sand in the distance and went to the next inevitable thought. Where is she?

The customs line inside the small airport took forever, especially once our eyes finally met. She was waiting for me in the next room with a Tupperware container and a huge bottle of water, which I’d later come to learn was the best present ever in a place as warm as Niger. All we could do was smile as I stood there like a goofball waiting for the line to get shorter. My heart was pounding, she was still smiling, and all I wanted to do was hop out of line, go run over to pick her up and hug her tightly. My God, was it wonderful to be in Niger…

There’s something to be said about anticipation and suspense, about those moments that lead up to the inevitable high point.

The good guy in the movie is about to pull it together and save the day.

Oh my gosh! That ball looks like it could just make it over the fence!

‘I’m going to be able to hold my fiancĂ©e again.’

For some reason, that scene is one of the most vivid in my mind. And of course, it is the starting point in my little series of adventures that began in a tiny airport in Niamey.

In the time following our first rendezvous, Leah and I had a lot of fun together. We spent time helping me put faces to the names I’d heard so many times before on the phone. She showed me around her town, her work, where PCVs hang out, and even introduced me to her host family. Best of all, we got to spend some time together relaxing and just enjoying each other’s company. Did someone say Scrabble?!

Along the way, I made my share of observations about Niger, taking care to just sit back and let it all sink in. I admired the beautifully crafted Mosques as well as sand colored houses and buildings. I noticed the effects of under development: the piles and piles of trash on the side of the road, plastic bags covering trees, and people throwing trash out of bus windows onto the road. I experienced the genuine kindness of Nigeriens in the street and at Leah’s home. I ate delicious food such as… oh gosh I don’t know how to spell it, but it’s pronounced ‘kill-she,’ which is a type of jerky covered in peanutty or barbequey sauce. And of course I got to have a taste of Peace Corps life in Niger.

My overall analysis: Niger is an absolutely amazing country. Beautiful and friendly. Good food and better people. And even though getting back to Mozambique was a huge issue, I’m so happy to have visited. It was great to see just what another side of Africa is like. And it was wonderful to see Leah, to share her experiences with her, and to (for once in a long while) be in the same place to share our mutual excitement and anticipation for that high point to come this June.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Top Five Ways Chapas Make Me Want to Overturn Tables in Rage

One would think that by now I’d be used to the unpredictability of riding in a chapa. I mean, seriously, it’s been almost two years now of traveling in such a cramped vehicle (which very closely resembles the outside of the Ninja Turtle van by the way). From Maputo to Maxixe, from Maxixe to Chonguene to Chibuto, from Maputo to Quissico, the inconveniences often come up seemingly at the worst time possible. And of course, as these things happen, I almost always find my patience pressed to the breaking point.

That being said, in my hopes to better share another piece of my Mozambican experience with the 4 or 5 people that follow this blog, I have created the following short list: The Top Five Ways Chapas Make Me Want to Overturn Tables in Rage.

And so without further ado…

5) Break Downs- Less frequent that I initially imagined, breakdowns still happen more often that I’d like and during some of the worst times at that. You might ask, what’s bad timing in a country as reserved about schedules and deadlines as Mozambique? I answer: Needing to go to the market to buy food for dinner, but having your chapa break down and ensure that you won’t arrive home until way after the market’s closed. How about the very fact that the car breaks down for a few hours, forcing you into the undesired situation of traveling at night? Whatever the case, it’s almost worth the inconvenience sometimes just to see how a Mozambican driver manages to MacGuyver the engine into working with a hammer, some water, and some wire…

4) Cramped Space- Rows of seats in chapas fit three comfortably, but here in Moz we like to roll with four. It may be a little cramped, but hey, it’s another three to four people’s chapa money for the driver and his cobrador. Why not, right? In fact, let’s up the ante a little bit and add people on laps, people standing, people crouching, etc. There. Uncomfortable and unsafe. That’s the way we like our chapas.

It’s a beautiful thing indeed when a local chapa goes down the road with people’s backs and butts and arms pressed hard against the window. I swear, it’s an even better sight when the door opens, 10 people come out and the chapa still looks full.

3) Getting Ripped Off- There often seems to be two kinds of prices in Mozambique depending on where one goes: the price for Mozambicans and the price for foreigners; or Mulungos, as we’re called in this province. In chapas, the Mulungo rule (as I like to call it) applies moreso than in most places as cobradores (the guys who take the money) try to charge us 50 or even 100 over the usual price for a given trip.

Just the other day a cobrador tried to charge me 250 for a trip that should have been at most 200 meticais. I promptly called him out for lying to me, argued with him for a good ten minutes, and paid him his 200 meticais. If you’re struggling, then of course you can ask me politely and I will cheerfully oblige. But don’t you ever dare disrespect me, especially in front of a busload of people that also know the right price.

2) Crazy Driving- Chapa drivers notoriously are very bad drivers, swerving around and trying to pass people while going up hills and remaining unaware to the possibility of oncoming traffic. Meanwhile, PCV’s will swear that drivers are trying to hit people, which if you’ve read one of my older blogs you know that does indeed happen. And even if someone doesn’t get hit, there are so many close calls. I myself have gotten clipped by chapa mirrors a few different times and believe you me, it’s extremely infuriating.

Now imagine being on the inside of the car. PCV’s have another joke about how they like the front passenger seat since it’s the only spot in the car with so much room, but don’t always know if it’s worth the view of all of the chapa driver’s close calls. We almost hit somebody! Why are we trying to swerve through oncoming traffic?! Loook ouuttt!!!!! Honestly, sometimes it’s almost like they’d learned to drive in cooking school.

And finally…

Drumroll please… Thanks…


1) Constant Stops/Waiting for the Chapa to Fill up- The thing about chapas is that they don’t run on time like buses do in the states. Everybody simply waits around until the car fills up, be it 30 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours, or (gasp) a three-hour-wait! Then, when the car is finally filled up, if I’m not already frustrated about the long wait, our chapa driver has decided to stop every 5 seconds. ‘Welp, it looks like we can fit that family of 5 on the side of the road with their 20 bags. Let’s stop.’ ‘Yeah well my friend asked me to pick up his lumber which he strategically hid every 100 meters behind some trees.’ (Lol… that last one is a true story.). Please Senhor Chapa Driver, can you please not make this 45 minute trip take 2 hours?! Thanks…

Well, there you have it gang, the unfiltered truth about chapas. I hope you enjoyed it. We’ve shared some laughs, looked back on some dark moments, and hopefully learned something about ourselves, whatever that may be…

Friday, April 30, 2010

Random Tibdit #2: Things Happen... All the Time

Back in December, even as I was counting down in the last week before my flight home to the States, I didn't completely believe that I would actually make it. I kept thinking about all the possible things that could go wrong: the chapa on the way to maputo breaks down, being late for the bus to Johannesburg, the plane having technical difficulties, or maybe the flight I was supposed to be on would just be cancelled for no reason.

I am sure that this sense of trying to prepare for the worst has come about only since I've come to Mozambique; and why not? As volunteers here know, and as the newer ones are finding out, things happen all of the time here. In fact, they're so frequent that my friend Anthony and I refer to them as 'Vamos vencer' moments, a play off the Mozambican national anthem which literally means 'we shall overcome.'

For example:

1)It took literally 6 weeks last year to find out from Barclay's Bank that I could not in fact transfer money from my account here to my account in the states to be able to pay online phone credit. This of course was after a visit everyweek, filling out paperwork, and waiting an average of an hour, hour and a half per visit. Va-mos vencer...

2)A normal 7-8 hour trip to or from Maputo has taken 10-11 hours because either the chapa driver wants to stop every few minutes to greet a friend, pick up beer, pack the chapa to insanely uncomfortable levels, the car broke down (a common one)and or simply because he feels like it. Va-mos vencer...

3)"Ok, winter is coming... and so we can't start this chicken project until we get electricity installed to make the coop heated. Of course, the guys who were supposed to come install the wires delayed their visit for three weeks and finally, when they did show up, I wasn't there to let them know I had already bought the pieces they needed. Now, I'm not sure when they'll come back... Hopefully soon though..." Va-mos vencer...

That's the way things roll on this side of the world. Transportation is often unreliable. Time is mostly irrelevant. Customer service is about as useful as the help page on facebook.

Now, the way I see it, there are few ways that the volunteer can adapt. She can go crazy and quit the Peace Corps. He can become extremely bitter and angry, maybe even take out his rage on locals and/or other volunteers. Or you can take option C: suck it up, assume that you can't assume anything will go right, and just hope for the best.

Ya know... I did end finding out that my flight to the states was cancelled... a month before, without anyone telling me. But at least I eventually made it home, right?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Looking Towards the Finish Line... and Beyond

November 15, 2010

That's when my exit interviews begin to take place in the Peace Corps office in Maputo. Close of Service, as it's formally called, is the week of medical tests and questions about my life in Mozambique that proceeds my departure. They want to know how I measure up with my language abilities, how much I learned from my experience living and working in the Maxixe community, and most importantly... what exactly I accomplished during 26 months in country: Where did I fail? Where did I succeed? Do I have any suggestions that can help future volunteers? Then comes the inevitable end: 'Ok, thanks Vic. Have a safe trip home!'

Finding out about my COS date this past week hasn't exactly been jarring, despite my initial surprise at hearing about it so soon. I'm not afraid of disappointing myself or anyone else with what I've done thus far and I'm not afraid for the next stage... I'm actually extremely excited about everything. :) But it's still very much an important point in my life here, a time to think about how exactly I can do what I need to do before I leave.

I suppose when it comes down to it, my thoughts very closely reflect the way I felt back in my days at Canisius, making a final lap in a cross country race. I know the course very well by now... where to go and what strategy to take when I get to certain points. I know that pacing myself is beneficial, but that it's also time to pick it up and make sure that when I get to the finish line, I will have given it my all; mentally, emotionally and physically.

The digression from the running metaphor of course comes as I prepare for life after COS. I mean, I couldn't possibly imagine running a race and thinking, 'Hmm, I wonder what I'll do when I get home. And what am I going to do right now that will positively affect my life after I cross the finish line?" That's where I am at currently as I look forward to applying to law school, working when I get home, figuring out a place where I might live, and of course, marrying the love of my life.

I'm excited for the future, but I have to try and balance that with the present and all of the things I'm juggling. I want to focus on what I need to do in terms of preparing for post PC life and do it, but I also want to see the programs that I am working on thrive and succeed. It's a tricky balance, but one that I think I can pull off.

At this point I know I can fight the good fight. I know I will absolutely finish the race. And I will, no matter what happens, keep the same faith that has sustained me along the way. Just one more lap to go... and less than seven months to the finish line.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Random Tidbit #1: Cutting the Grass

Rather than always writing long blogs about things that are going on, I thought it might be interesting to every so often write about something random about life here… just a way to give people back home more of an idea about the Mozambican side of things...

So without further ado, I present Random Tidbit #1:

When I first came to Mozambique, one of the coolest things I immediately noticed right off the bat was the way my host family cut grass. Apparently the way to go, as is true here in Maxixe as well, is to use something that looks like a cross between a dull sword and a golf club. Then using one hand, the person cutting the grass swings the ‘sword,’ only to have shooting bits of grass fly all over the place.

Of course, as useful as the sword putter (as I like to call it) can be, a katana sword is what one would use when it comes time to trim the bushes. Yes… a katana… a la Leonardo from Ninja Turtles or even Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. This little sword might not be wicked sharp, but it cuts through most whatever, including the occasional coconut treat!

In the end, I’m sure you can surmise that hacking at grass and bushes are most likely not as time saving and simple as say a lawn mower or a plug-in bush trimmer. But I can honestly tell you that whatever the case, it’s sure as heck way more fun… :)

A good week for secondary projects

This past week I met with some success in working with both Sal do Mundo and Future Business Leaders. Some of you might recall that Sal do Mundo is the project that is run by a local Methodist Church which involves visiting and caring for orphans and vulnerable children. Meanwhile, Future Business Leaders is a project for which I serve as a National Coordinator. In its basic form, it’s an 8 week crash course that ends in 15,000Mt implementation prize for whichever group of students has the best developed business proposal.

Sal do Mundo

This past week, the leadership of Sal do Mundo and I started two very important activities together: First, I sat down with the treasurer to begin explaining double entry accounting (Of course, that in particular is an ongoing process/could not possibly be a onetime explanation type thing). Second, we had a rather successful two day training on HIV, AIDS, nutrition, and hygiene.

The training itself, like I said, wasn’t very long… just two days, but it sure had its share of material. On the first day we had some good ice breaker activities, but also talked topics related to HIV and AIDS. What are HIV and AIDS? Who do they affect? What are symptoms? What are ways to transmission? What are ways of prevention? For me, the most encouraging part was the next morning’s quick 30 minute review, in which the activists showed me how much they actually retained and even talked about some areas that had been helpful/ clarified things better for them.

The second day, we talked about nutrition and hygiene. What are some of the bad hygienic practices of kids today and how can we address them? There was also my favorite segment in which we discussed nutrient categories, what each nutrient does for our body, and why we should have a little of all of them in our diets. In the accompanying exercise we talked about how to get all of the nutrients in someone’s diet that doesn’t have the money. The responses were extremely practical and left me impressed.

At the end then, we did what we’d do in any other Mozambican training. We sang, we danced, and we offered up a prayer to God. It was a good week for Sal do Mundo.

Future Business Leaders (or FUEMO as the Portuguese acronym goes)

As I’m waiting for the FUEMO project proposal to go through, Pete (the other coordinator) and I have been anxiously awaiting ‘IST reconnect,’ in which the newest volunteers are all together for a Peace Corps training/ reflection about their first three months at site. Having already pitched the FUEMO program like crazy to all of the country’s 120 or so volunteers over the past few months, IST would be the time to actually gather interested PCV’s together and assess the direction of the year ahead.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that last year we had room in the budget for 15 volunteers to have FUEMO groups, while only 5 came through. This year we decided to take a risk and up it to 20, believing that we could absolutely achieve that number this year. And we more or less have. In fact, it appears that we might have a problem because too many PCV’s are interested and we didn’t include enough money in the budget for so many!

The reason I thought this was worth noting was because of the fact that I believe very much in FUEMO. Its objectives and goals, unlike many other projects in the same area, are clearly defined and measurable. In addition, no matter what, there will always be a new group of kids forming a business from every PCV’s group. If that’s the case, and we get 20 new businesses that we can support with information and our own personal guidance during the first few months of implementation, then the hope is that we’ll have these same groups continuing on even after volunteers have left. They will be earning money and providing for themselves using the skills that they picked up in our class. At the very least, we will have 25 students x’s 20 classes who have gone through the basics of business and have picked up various skills to use as they attempt to enter the professional world.
Now that’s something worth striving for.

Life with IRD

Since August, I have very much enjoyed working with International Relief and Development. Their work throughout the province is both inspired and affective. The people who are involved, from Coordinator down to the activists in the field, are focused and passionate about what they do. Meanwhile, on my side of things, not only is the atmosphere encouraging, but it has also left much room for personal growth and learning.

Based in Washington, IRD opened up a branch here in the Inhambane province in 2006 to work in Home Based Care. Simply put, home based care involves activists going from house to house within various communities and acting as liaisons between the seriously ill (mostly HIV positive) and the local hospital or health clinic. Currently we work with ten partner organizations that we fund and train to do the work, helping them to recognize the difference between diseases as well as giving them basic information and caring methods to both practice and pass on to clients and their families.

This past month, despite the usual office busy-ness, we welcomed a visit from a consultant from the states to assess our work and that of our supported partner associations. Our consultant, Suzanne, and I traveled all over the province to visit our partners for two days each as we assessed their weaknesses as well as strengths through interviews and big group activities with the activists themselves.

Now, having been on the road so long I’m happy to say that I myself have an even better grasp than before of things that I as a Peace Corps Volunteer might be able to offer. Currently I am already planning on trying to develop some of our partners’ programs directed towards orphans and vulnerable children; and am also working with my counterpart to set up a new financial management system modeled after one provided to us by our consultant. While these are more things that go with my job description already, I am all the more encouraged on working with our partners one on one so that we can address some of the issues that came up during the consultancy.

More specifics coming up soon… :)