Life talks, mountain hikes, and alligator pears: ‘tis the season – 21 Nov 2017

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I wrote a letter to a few friends today and realized that it’s getting to be the holiday season, though it doesn’t feel like it here in hot and sweaty Dar es Salaam. But while the weather won’t bring the sentiments of the season, time with my close friends/Peace Corps family certainly will.

I’ll spend Thanksgiving on Zanzibar with the few friends from my training class who remain in country. Then I’ll spend Christmas with friends from my adopted training class here in Dar – a cozy couple of days filled with delicious meals, baking, movie marathons, peppermint patty shots, dance parties, and lots of laughs. Together with three of those friends, I’ll then go to welcome the New Year in Madagascar!

In my letter, I wrote a few things I’m thankful for. I think I’ll continue that list here, just for a bit…
-Large and solid glass windows
-Hot chocolate
-The sound and sight of beach grasses waving in the wind
-Incense
-Black on white
-White on black
-Thimbles of strong street coffee with a bite of kashata
-Inspiration
-Hula hoops
– The ingenuity of airplanes
-“Howl”
-The stars when it’s time for the moon to take a step back
-The moon when it’s time for it to shine greater than the stars
-Quiet and solitary Sundays
-Creative liberties
-Rain and sun
-The inside and the outside
-The deepening of friendships
-Music
-Feeling
-Ubuntu
-The flight of birds
and
-Alligator pears – aka avocados!

…The alligator pears are what started this all… I wrote the letter mentioned above on a postcard with the painting Alligator Pears in a Basket by Georgia O’Keeffe on it. The painting looks more like a couple of blueberries encircled by a black ribbon to me. But I know how Ms. O’Keeffe loved to paint flowers and they actually look like vaginas, so I can’t say I’m surprised, and will simply change the focus of my imagination to humor her. (And then will let it run wild again to see the blueberries…)

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Anyway, how about some pictures of my own! I recently traveled for about one week to do four site visits up North – beautiful, expansive country that I had the privilege of seeing from way up high in the Pare Mountains. I was able to follow up on project progress after the bees and chickens training conducted back in August, attend an HIV/AIDS education event at a secondary school (118 students attended!), meet some awesome teachers and Counterparts of Volunteers, hike hike hike, and have some excellent discussions about life as a PCV – the decisions we make, the priorities we set, the strategies we use, the challenges and successes we have…

Here are a few pictures from my adventure:

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The Comoros Comparison – 21 Oct 2017

Calm and peaceful, black rock white sand, bananas/cassava/bread fruit/soursop, big ol’ bats, bonjour/ca va, Swahili!, warm ocean waters, tiny nation, HOT, houses of painted cement/warn cement/wood/iron sheets, kebabs with spicy chili sauce, electricity, running water, narrow but paved roads, community libraries, spiced fish, mosques, calls to prayer, trash trash trash, slow goin…

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Grande Camore, the largest of the Comoros Islands (a set of volcanic islands between TZ and Madagascar). I went for a Peace Corps workshop on Information Resource Centers and Library Development, which was extremely well organized, informative, and had us doing some good projects and action planning – hats off to the organizers and facilitators from HQ.

Not only did I have the opportunity to walk around and explore during the week of the workshop, I also stayed for the weekend following. Saturday held an ocean adventure – a boat ride to a calm and beautiful beach, and then a real ride back as the winds grew strong and threw massive waves at us to climb and fly over (so much fun!).

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Sunday was filled with non-stop walking – to the market, to the downtown Medina streets, to the other side of town, to old mosques, to the wood carvers and boat makers, and along the coast to a delicious sunset dinner and mojito with the freshest mint I’ve had in a while.

There are quite a few similarities between life in Tanzania (especially coastal TZ) and life in Moroni and the Comoros in general. There are also some pretty extreme differences… The Comoros are at least a few years behind TZ in terms of development, although they now have electricity, and there is running water in a lot of places, and some of the roads are paved (though often quite narrow).

There is no corn, and very few people grow beans – a big difference from TZ. They import rice, and grow bananas, cassava, breadfruit, and sweet potatoes (not the orange kind Americans are used to). Goats are common, and a few people have chickens, but a lot of meat and eggs are also imported.

Another similarity is they also have mishkaki/kebabs, and homemade chili sauce, although theirs is much spicier than in TZ. Speaking of spices, they use them! more than just salt or sugar, and their fish curries and spiced fish are delicious meals… They also make extremely flavorful juice out of soursop – mmmmmmmm.

Comorans speak a mixture of French, Arabic, and their local languages – for Grande Camore that’s Shingazidja. Surprisingly, there are a lot of Swahili words mixed in there!

The schools are pretty nice, and community libraries are actually present – that is not so much the case in TZ.

The houses are this interesting collage of painted concrete, fading concrete with the shade of black volcanic rock showing through, wood, and shacks made entirely of sheet metal.

Pollution is an issue in many developing countries, and I’ll never get over how people just throw trash out the bus windows and into the fields and down on the streets here in TZ. The issue is even worse in the Comoros – there is trash everywhere, and there is trash burning everywhere, and it is a somewhat startling contrast to the lush tropical vegetation and flowers.

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The trash doesn’t stop the fruit bats from flying, though. The flying fox/fruit bat species are huge in the Comoros, even bigger than here in Dar. And apparently on one of the islands, there is one species that can have a wingspan of about one and a half meters! Terrifying… but also pretty cool.

All in all it was a very relaxing visit – the low-key, slow goin way of life there certainly helped with that. It is important to embrace the fact that no one is going anywhere fast; it’s best to simply stop to smell the ylang ylang, feel the slight ocean breeze, and look out along the coastlines of white sands mixed with black and rugged volcanic rock (and trash).

Unfortunately, the journey back was taxing…
-I stood in the slowest moving airport lines I have ever experienced
-My flight was changed to involve a trip down to Antananarivo before retracing our path to Nairobi to then retrace the path again back down to Dar (see the map below)
-After boarding our flight was delayed because they accidently loaded “dangerous cargo” aboard (?!)
-We took longer than expected in Tana so I then had to run to make the change in Nairobi
-When I arrived in Dar at long last (2am) the taxi my office arranged for me was a no-show
-The taxi driver I was able to get from the airport of course tried flirting with me so I made up a story about my imaginary husband who was waiting for me at home and proceeded to invent quite the back story for him despite the creative struggle it was for my tired mind…

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The little dot of land along the green line above Dzaoudzi is Grande Camore. We went along that green line South to Tana, then followed the green line up to Nairobi passing directly over Dar, such a tease, and then yes returned along that green line to Dar… I took this pic just as we were landing in Nairobi and thought the route was just too ridiculous not to take a picture…

At least there were good views as we took off from Moroni… of the volcano and the coast line…

And I made it home eventually, safe and sound, then showered off the hours of sweat and slept hard.

On the Road – 1 October 2017

I’ve been living the life of the nomad these past few weeks! While it’s been tiring, it has also been great fun. I certainly feel my most useful as a PCVL when interacting with other PCVs, and two plus weeks of technical assistance site visits have given me a sense of fulfillment. I was able to return to my old stomping ground of the Southern Highlands – a cool high-altitude and pine-filled wonderland of either pounds of dust whipping through the air, or foot-deep mud in which to slip and sliiiiiiiiiiiide, depending on the season… oh how I miss it…

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I was able to explore Ludewa a bit – a hillier (and dustier) land further south from my previous home in Njombe. Beautiful. And I also returned home! While visiting a volunteer who lives about 13 Km from my village, we took a day to walk over to greet my old friends. It was certainly not enough time, but it was still great to be back and see familiar faces.

I saw some gutters and gardens, and all but one of the wells are working (they’re contacting the water engineers to fix the one – it’s more of an issue than just a broken rope). I gave a speech at the village meeting that was just ending as I arrived, shared meals with my best friends, and even ran a little bit with the neighbor kids – just like old times, a happy day.

During my site visits, I mostly assisted with project planning, helped prepare for and implement trainings, and was just there to see, experience, and help digest volunteer life with those volunteers living it. I must say it was motivating and impressive seeing these volunteers in action: the different ways they navigate their communities, the different projects and activities at every stage, and the different methods they all have to navigate the Peace Corps experience.

It’s good to be back home, but it was even better to get out of the office on my own for a little while to visit these volunteers. Asanteni wote. There’s nothing like a little time on the road to put things back in perspective…

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Taken with the Tides – 9 September 2017

Tides flow in, pull out
People come and people go
Still, the sun will rise

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Time again to say farewell… In Peace Corps people really do come and go. There is the opportunity to make so many connections, some deeper than you’ve ever experienced before, but so often the people you connect with are gone before you know it. Those in your training class, those in your region, those in your village are often gone just when you feel you’ve at last caught your breath, have at last found someone else who is grounded in the same soil, who looks in the same direction for the same reasons. They are off to different places. Some you’ve planned to see, others you know your paths will cross, for many it’s more uncertain, and some are lost for eternity, gone where you can’t reach…

The people in my life are my tides: they pull me; they flow me to feelings of flying free; they ground me. They can also leave me feeling my most alone (at no fault of theirs). That is just a fact of life: one we all must deal with, one that has pivotal power over who we become. I am thankful for that influence. Another fact of life, one that is even more crucial to comprehend, is that the sun will always rise tomorrow. No matter who has gone – those you know you will see again, or those you know you will not – another day will always come, and with it the ever-changing tides. For that, I am also thankful.

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Tides flow in, pull out
People come and people go
Still, the sun will rise

We are all only people… 27 August 2017

Sitting in the early morning on my friend’s balcony, looking up at the glowing yellow clouds: illuminated from the side by the soft light of the rising sun, surrounded by the subdued splendor of a sleepy sky adjusting to wakefulness – like me. Sipping coffee, appreciative that the hour of my awakening coincides with the natural rhythm of the earth in its slow spin. I belong here, in the place, at this time, and the birds tell me so, and the breeze tells me so, and the faraway view of the sea tells me.

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I think of the beauty in all this, the relaxed feeling it gives me. My mind wanders to recent conversations with people, conversations during which deeper feelings were revealed, shared experiences realized, support given. People are only people through other people. We lift each other up. We would be nothing without each other. There is a certain beauty within humanity. This thought makes me happy, but also…

I ask myself: why does the beauty within humanity have the seemingly contradictory effect of bringing feelings of sadness? I ask the question to my friend, also sipping coffee, staring out towards the sea. It’s sad because that beauty is so fleeting, so infrequent.

It’s true. And that can also make it extraordinary, which is powerful. But it still leaves us with the fact that humanity is lacking. While we experience small kindnesses, levels of connection, solace and support, from our family and friends and even some strangers on the street, there is still a disturbing lack of appreciation within humanity – of care for our fellow human beings.

People forget that they are only people through other people; people forget what it means to be human; people forget that we all need love and a helping hand, are therefore the same, equal in that basic fact; people forget to forgive. The world out there, the world right here, suffers from a lack of appreciation. Humanity suffers from it.

We all need to take a step back, understand how we coincide with the natural rhythm of the earth, see the beauty of the rising sun, see how it illuminates the rest of the world and brings a sense of belonging to everything it touches. We all need to be touched by that light, be beautiful ourselves, and radiate it out to others. We all need solace and support; we all need love and understanding; we are all only human; we are all only people made people by other people.

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It has been well over a month since my last entry, and a lot has happened both here and everywhere else it seems. As people have been killing each other, and hating each other, and living in fear and anger, I’ve been connecting to some of my friends here in those deeper ways that let a person feel the beauty that can exist within humanity. And it’s there, that beauty, but it can be so fleeting, so ephemeral, one can easily lose sight of its importance. I feel lucky to have seen it, felt it, and realized it as the world seemingly struggles to remember…

We all know what has been happening everywhere else, so here is a little bit about what has been happening here, in my life. I spent three long weeks in Morogoro, a lovely town beneath a majestic mountain. They were long weeks, and quite a journey, but they were filled with both formal and informal interactions with other volunteers, which is what I love most about this job.

The first two weeks were spent organizing, managing, facilitating, and leading parts of the early service training for the health/agriculture 2017 volunteers. Our team worked together to provide a meaningful experience of capacity and relationship building for volunteers and their counterparts. Some of my favorite sessions throughout the two weeks: permagardening, making tree nurseries, and budding and grafting, all with our master agriculture trainer…

Following the early service training are various optional in-service trainings. Together with the gender PCVL and the Ag training team, I stayed to help manage and facilitate the food security-focused training on gender and agribusiness, bees and chickens. Not only did volunteers and their counterparts receive training on beekeeping and chicken-raising, they also focused on how to get women involved in the business of bees and chickens, and why it is important to do so.

We taught about gender in agriculture in the context of Tanzania, best business practices including budgeting/record keeping/marketing, and also facilitation skills to give the participants the ability to return to their communities and teach others.

My hope is to be able to travel out in the coming months to visit the sites of volunteers who attended the training. I’ll be doing follow-ups and check-ins while also collecting pictures and video clips for a media project. This will be a short movie showcasing the PCTZ agriculture sector, revealing the lives of volunteers, and the process of going from a training back into the community with their counterparts to plan and implement projects.

By displaying the different stages of project implementation following a training, and by interviewing both volunteers and counterparts, I hope to paint a picture of what life is like for volunteers here in Tanzania, and to showcase how and in what ways the Peace Corps process of small-scale development is so impactful.

Being a Peace Corps Volunteer is a long-term commitment, one that takes you up and down and all around. But it’s worth it. I would love to help others who have never personally experienced it to see, and try to understand, why we decide to make such a commitment and why it matters.

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Understanding is the first step to peace, after all: an understanding of ourselves; an understanding of how we each fit into the world; an understanding that we are all only human; an understanding that we are all only people made people by other people…

Full circle, moving on – 16 July 2017

I had the pleasure of leading some of the new education class around the city yesterday (Dar) to see the sights, learn the essentials, tell some stories, share some (what may seem like) wisdom. It brought me back to the very beginning of my service – week zero as it’s known, the week of arrival, the week prior to joining home stay families, the week before it really all begins. It feels so very long ago, and I suppose two and a half years is a chunk of time.

I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on my service lately, thinking back to the beginning, and to all the in-between. Going back to the States for home leave sparked the reflection. Returning to the house, the room, in which I spent the days leading up to my departure for service, coming full circle in a way, inspired some looking inward. A lot can happen in two point five years. And sometimes you need to be uprooted from the place where everything has happened in order to realize the roller coaster you’ve been riding.

On home leave – out of the context of Peace Corps, of Tanzania, of village life, of crazy motor vehicle-filled streets in a dirty, smelly, multi-faceted, conglomerate rock of a city – I could look back at my two years in the village more holistically. Yes, I am still serving my third year, but I am living a different life in Dar, with a very different role as a volunteer leader, so I look back at my two years as a regular agriculture volunteer and see it as a separate experience that is now finished. And I’m okay with seeing it that way. It’s almost a relief to see it that way. I finished. I did it.

Being in the position to train new volunteers, being asked the great array of questions trainees bring to the table, is always a welcome forced-reflection on various parts and aspects of service, and it feels good to be able to share my experiences as things of the past, hurtles I have leapt, ranges upon ranges of mountains I have climbed, descended, climbed again… And now I look back upon them from some distant plain, as the sun rises and sets and rises and sets, and I see all the glorious hill tops and peaks shining in the varying glory of the sun, and I see the ridgelines and the ravines, the chasms and the cliffs cloaked in all their shadow…

But it is far away now, a land I intimately knew, a land I will always remember. Like a carpenter who spends years sanding the top of a single table, deeply absorbed in the study of the waves of grain, so I too know the ranges in which I walked, see them from afar, still know them, understand them, love them – but love them all the more because they are now behind me, in the distance, light and shadow made sublime when seen all together as one, the yin and yang repeated again and again, overlapping, intertwining, twisted in such complicated confusion until the sight becomes… simply and wholly beautiful.

I have no words nor will at the moment to delve into the details of those light and dark places and moments during my service in the village. I am just happy to be in a place both physically and mentally where I can glance behind me on my current path, and see those mountains in the distance. Navigating those undulating hills was a challenge the likes of which I’d never experienced before. And now I feel a certain strength, and a certain calmness, looking back at my accomplishment.

But enough on that! How about a few words and pictures from my visit back home? I packed so much into my four weeks… it was an exhausting but extremely fun, relaxing, and (most importantly) rejuvenating month of home leave.

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The first week I mostly spent hanging out with some of my best friends from growing up. We went to some of our favorite haunts, some new favorite places, and just spent quality time catching up as the weirdoes we’ve always been.

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I then went to the Adirondacks for the weekend with a few college and a few Peace Corps friends. That trip was exactly what I needed – staying with friends at a cabin on a loon-filled lake with canoeing and hiking adventures, skinny dippin in the moonlight, bon fires and some delicious food…. now that’s the freedom of my America.

When I returned from the Adirondacks, I had a lovely visitor for a few days: a friend from my summer working up in Homer, Alaska. We had a fabulous time (as usual) exploring some of the Finger Lakes and the glens in between, with the valued assistance of my best buddies from childhood.

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The same day she departed, I left with my parents to head to Portland, Oregon to visit my brother and his wife. Downtown exploration, yummy foods and wines, barefooted frisbee in the park, dog walking, Father’s Day brunch, bocce by a bon fire, bookstore wanderings, etc…. the perfect trip.

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Next up, my Mom and I went to Niagara-on-the-Lake for the Shaw Festival, wine tasting, and low-key shopping. It was so good to get back to our tradition of this trip! I’ve missed it these past few years.

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Then after that, I went to three nights of the Rochester International Jazz Festival with my Dad – so nice to be able to tap into some of the music scene I know and love. (And since I have no picture from the jazz fest, here’s a pic from one of our hikes while I was home…)

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After a few final meet ups with friends/family for breakfast or lunch here, a day in the park or dinner there, and a few precious moments to myself, I then got back on the plane and hopped across the world back to Dar es Salaam. Quite the trip!

And of course I gave myself no real time to recuperate and absorb it all. Instead I climbed onto a bus after a day of fitful, jet-lagged rest to head North to coastal Tanga, and then up into the Usambara Mountains to Lushoto and Mtae. The highlights: visiting my home stay family again at long last, visiting fellow volunteers and doing the village thing in someone else’s village, and seeing some majestic views from those mountains…

And now I am back in Dar, preparing myself for assisting with the upcoming three weeks of training (two weeks of the Health/Ag Early Service Training, and one week of the optional Gender and Agriculture Training). I’m looking forward to it – being on my toes for a bit, organizing, facilitating, leading… It’s what I signed up for after all, time to get back to it and have some fun.

I’m comin’ home – 29 May 2017

I am sitting here on the water at a lovely little ocean-side restaurant drinking a vanilla milkshake. Taking a dive into the safi life of Dar (the fancy life), and it is lovely to indulge every so often.

Thinking of indulging, I will be doing more of that starting in just a few short days (which will probably seem like a lifetime each). I will be returning home for the first time in about 2 years and 4 months – a trip long overdue.

Things have been going well here in Dar. I’ve really settled in, have been focusing my energy in the office on some fun projects, have run a successful regional conference, and have had some fun times with friends finishing their time here in TZ (both volunteers and some expat friends). I’ve also been meeting some cool people who are new to the area as well, and deepening friendships with others. I am definitely not missing the solo life of the village. Not yet at least…

Up on the agenda for my month of leave:
-Some solid family time
-Runnin around my home town with best friends since elementary school
-One of my best buddies from Alaska visiting for some hiking and exploration
-A camping trip in the Adirondacks with a best friend from Peace Corps and a best friend from college
-Trippin out to Portland, Oregon to see my bro and his wife at long last
-Visiting Niagara on the Lake with my mama for the arts and theater scene
-Other best friends from college visiting for a day or two
-A few nights of the Rochester International Jazz Festival with my Dad
-Some lake time with old family friends
-And in general, quality time with my parents, and the most loving fat cat there is, in the environment that shaped who I am today

Can’t wait for the adventures to come in the next month, some freeing of the spirit… And then back to it in TZ.