Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Return: Re-adjustment Week one

It has now been a week since I have been back from Guyana, and living at my parents' on Cape Cod. Sleeping in my childhood room, looking at the same ceiling I spent years looking at, but somehow it is all different. I am different. I am not the same person that left Miami 27 months ago. I have experienced good and bad, seen overwhelming sadness and then with a turn, the deepest of love from my students and Guyanese families. I have made friendships with volunteers and Guyanese that I hope to hold onto for many years to come. Memories to last a lifetime, and adventures to tell over and over. Now home, there are things that are surprising to me that I don't think anyone can understand unless they have been in a developing country for an extended time. It may be weird, but it is strange to walk into grocery stores, seeing all the varieties of food, feeling overwhelmed with a sudden quick heartbeat of panic as I peruse the aisle in search of everything I missed over the last two years, which is a lot. Going into a Packy (liquor store for all you non-cape people), my first purchase was rye bread, Cisco Brewery beer, and a Dunkin Donuts pre packaged mocha iced coffee... a strange mix, but it hit me. I needed that rye bread then and there, and pre-made iced coffee from Dunks - what a novelty! Today I spent 10 minutes looking at olives deciding which ones to get. At my grocery store in Guyana, there was one jar of green olives... if they were in stock. The other day I spent 2 hours at Petco with my very patient brother deciding what dog and cat food to buy for my Guyanese animals I brought home... and what treats and collars and pooper scooper and toys.

My dad made me coffee my first full day back and for some reason the Keurig didn't get the coffee piping hot... I hesitated drinking it because it hadn't boiled for long enough. My dad thought that was the funniest thing ever... in Guyana, boiling your water is no joke!

The other night, my nephew wanted to eat raw carrots so my mom peeled him some. He ate a bite and said he didn't want it after all... my mind traveled to purchasing carrots in the market in Guyana, and how expensive they were... how much of a luxury item they were for some families. I am sure my poor nephew didn't mean it, but it hit me hard the waste that we don't even think of. Disposing/recycling boxes and plastic/glass containers I can't help but think of all the school supplies and storage containers we could make out of them.

Another situation that I find myself in throughout the day is greeting people. In Guyana you say hello to everyone, whether it is "Good Morning", "Afternoon", or "Good Night (as in hi how are you tonight?"). I say these things to persons as I pass them on the street and I get the funniest of looks, like I am offending them by talking to them, or am a crazy person. It bothered me the first few times and made me feel like an awkward person... but after reflection, I decided this is something that I am going to keep doing, regardless of the response I get. Some people may appreciate a hello and you never know who you will meet. So if someone passes you on the street and  wishes you a "mornin", just smile and say "mornin" right back.

So these are just a few of the things that pop out as hitting me weird. A few more quick ones: ordering coffee at Coffee Obsession; pumping gas; using the "Chip" card on my debit card (it takes me forever to figure out); Spotify; I forget all the radio stations I listented to for years and had to scan to find them; customer service (being served promptly when out to eat); a variety of beer or ANYTHING really; an endless supply of ice out of the ice maker; my dog not getting attacked by dogs; iphones; being cold in 80 degree weather; my buffalo chicken not being spicy enough because Guyana Pepper Sauce burned my tongue off for two years.

Please just be patient with me.

So before I left Guyana I wrote up a little thing about lessons learned. Here it is:

Lessons from serving in the Peace Corps:

Understanding: We all come with our own host of experiences, education, social and economic backgrounds, religious or spiritual beliefs, customs, and superstitions. No person is better or worse for what they have grown to become or believe. All of our cultures are different and that is what makes us as a human species special. It is important to take time to understand why a person has a certain belief before jumping to conclusions or judging them. I have avoided many conflicts or getting myself into a tizzy by taking a step back and simply asking, “tell me about why you think this, or why you said this?” I avoided many conflicts by asking this, and in turn, explaining my beliefs as well, which is one of the Peace Corps goals (sharing about American culture, values and beliefs). It would be so easy to call my host family crazy for telling me I have to walk in the door backwards after night falls to confront the jumbies (ghosts/evil-doers) that may have followed me home, and ask them to stay outside. But this is their belief; it would be disrespectful to ignore it or criticize them. And let's face it, we could all afford to ask the jumbies to stay out of our lives.

Compartmentalizing: As a humanitarian, I can't change behaviors in every person, feed every child, rescue every animal or save every tree. The list can become overwhelming when you think of all that needs to be done, or see an animal suffering or children coming to school without food every day. It is so easy to fall into the trap of “I must do this this and this and this and this,” and then in the end, not follow through on what you can accomplish to build capacity. What we can do is all we can do. It may sound bad, but you really have to pick and choose your battles; whether it is what can be done, or giving in to locals when they are adamant about something in a project you want to do differently. I like to think of the Starfish Story when thinking about the work I have done here: I may not have reached everyone, but those I did, I made a difference for these kids, families or animals, and that is what matters. Someday, those kids that I worked with will hopefully spread the lessons and love I showed them to others.

Reactions: Bad things happen to people all the time, all over the world. We can't control many of the bad things that happen, but what is within our control is how we react. I could either curl up, call it a day, want to give up and go home, or I could choose to dig deep, find a lesson in what happened and know that if I can get up and keep going it will make me stronger and more resilient. Looking back, I will know that if I could overcome this thing that happened, I can overcome anything. Empower yourself.

Necessity: We are very resourceful as human beings. I didn't think I was in this category before I came to Guyana, but now, after 2 years in Guyana, I know for a fact I can put this on my resume. I have found ways to re-attach a bicycle basket with limited supplies while riding from the village water pump; I made a cone from a strainer for my dog after she was spayed and almost pulled her stitches out; I desperately craved pizza and figured out how to cook one on the stove in a pan WITHOUT an OVEN or Trader Joe's ready-made pizza dough and sauce; I made my own table out of scrap wood; I made my own closet system out of rope; I discovered how to cook a cake by double boiling it; I replanted basil from the market and now have the biggest bush of basil I have ever seen... and, out of craving, taught myself to make pesto and homemade marinara sauce. Finally, sick of cold showers every day, I made myself a hot bucket bath by boiling water. All the comforts of home can be found out of desperation, when you just put a little thinking into it.

Peace Corps: There are certainly ups and downs. There are days when you wonder, am I getting through to people? What am I doing here? Am I actually making a difference? There were days when I couldn't get out of bed; I felt like I was constantly being watched and judged 24/7 because I was a foreigner, almost like I was a novelty. I learned to ignore the stares and came to embrace the fact that I had a responsibility to get out of bed and show them who I am as an American, what I believe and how I really do care about what happens outside of my American bubble. Because I chose to get out of bed, I discovered that there would also be days that made me realize that no matter how small a difference I may be making, it is worth it. When the community comes together to help run a library; when my students are now reading chapter books and washing their hands with soap; when my neighbor called me to tell me she rescued a kitten like I did; when students tell me their mom or dad read them a story before bed; or when parents tell me how their kids always talk about Miss Aly and how she is teaching them to read and be nice to each other, because she loves them. So was the Peace Corps worth it? Yes, absolutely, without a doubt yes.

Sunday, February 19, 2017


I used to think the worst sound and sight in the world was my alarm clock, rudely waking me up blinking the hour to leave my warm and comfortable bed. What would follow was the beeping and constant stop and go of Boston traffic. As I sit here in my hammock, with a little over four months left in Guyana, my perspective has changed greatly. Traffic is just a minor nuisance in the grand scheme of life. What I know I will always remember as the worst sound and sight to me, after my experience in Guyana, is the emphatic anguished screams and starving practically dead eyes of the animals here. I hear this sound pretty regularly, from the comfort of my hammock or bed, animals getting hit by speeding drivers too busy to slow down. Riding my bike to school or walking the streets of New Amsterdam, I see dogs with ribs sticking out, covered in ticks and mites so bad their backs are like leather. It stops me in my tracks and makes me cringe. Some dog trying to get a scrap of food, getting pelted by a rock or kicked. Some cat getting it's tail pulled. Seeing the body of a puppy, undoubtedly following its mom across the road. I empathize with this poor animal and my heart breaks a little inside whenever I see or hear their plight. An alarm clock has nothing on this.

The obvious difference between persons who value pets and those that don't is not values and morals... it is economics. It is also important to recognize and note that it is not Guyana alone that struggles with animal care; I saw it in Chile when I studied abroad and in Mexico on vacation. I have heard other Peace Corps Volunteers at other posts, or friends who have traveled outside of the United States, lament about the plight of animals in said developing country. It is not that persons in developing worlds are apathetic to the struggles of animals, it is that they can't afford to be empathetic. I see the disparity in economic distribution even within Guyana. The very fact that the grocery shops in the Capitol and in the major towns carry cat and dog food, shows me that there is a vast discrepancy in financial situations between the major towns and country areas in Guyana. There are even several pet stores in the Capitol that sell “foofoo” pet clothes and toys, that makes me wonder... where are the animal lovers in Guyana that are buying these things? Clearly, they have a customer base in the Capitol, so these people do exist. These people can afford it as most of the economic activity is centralized around the Capitol and major towns in Guyana. 

I live in a country area and must travel into the nearest major town to purchase my animals' food. When I travel home, the taxi drivers always give me funny looks as I lug out the bag of dog and cat food, calling out to my dog or cat to let them know I am home. Walking my dog on a leash around my neighborhood causes a commotion and is such a foreign concept to persons, I often hear as I walk by, “crazy white lady.” Traveling with my pets to take them to the vet in the Capitol, I have received my fair share of questions and comments. I am constantly explaining to taxi drivers and travelers that my dog is a pet, not a random stray. She will not bite you and she has all of her vaccinations (although I often clarify for safety sake [as everyone seems to know where the “white girl” lives], she won't bite you now, but if you come in my yard she will bite your head off). Never had I had to explain why I was walking my dog Freckles (RIP my little furry friend) in my neighborhood back home.

When I told some members of my community about spaying my pets to avoid overpopulating my home and neighborhood with animals I couldn't take care of, they looked at me puzzled. The response I got was, “anyone would be glad to have a puppy or kitten like mine- why would I do that?” My response naturally was, there are so many starving, neglected and abused animals here, if anyone wants one all they need to do is pick one out of the hundreds digging through trash piles. Perplexed, they shake their heads saying, no, people would want a dog like yours. What they don't realize, is that Bora and Phoenix were once street animals, covered in fleas and ticks, starving and begging. There is nothing special about them that makes them different from the next street dog or cat; it is how I treated them that made them different in the end. It made them playful and goofy because they didn't have to devote time to finding food and begging. My cat loves to snuggle and sleeps in my bed every night because it is her home. They both come when I call their names or yell out “breakfast” to my cat because I am their pack leader. Their coats gleam because they are vaccinated and bathed. They don't look like typical Guyanese stray animals because their bodies haven't been decimated by parasites, numerous pregnancies, or starvation. They are loved and cared for, so this is why they are who they are today.

Conversations always seem to lead to the same place when I talk about my animals. I am asked if I am taking my animals home. I uncomfortably say, “yes.” It is uncomfortable because I can see the wheels turning in their head, undoubtedly thinking, “Oh wow! These animals get to go to America and get their “visa” and I can't even afford to leave my region.” It is always a humbling conversation that makes me reflect on the circumstances of my life. Had I been born in a developing country, where would I be? Who would I be? Would I be judging this crazy white lady who spends precious money on her animals and lets them sleep in her house at night because she doesn't want them to be lonely?

It can only be my American background from a family that cherishes its pets that makes me care here in Guyana. Let me rephrase that, it is my economic background as an American that has afforded me the opportunity to allow me to care. When I see a stray, I see what could have been. If only someone gave him or her a bath, fed it some food (regularly), taught it to do tricks, gave it a kiss on the nose, vowed to protect it from life on the streets. But that is not the reality here in Guyana, or in the majority of the world for that matter. It can never be the reality until the human condition improves. I struggled for a long time, and still struggle to understand. But given the economic situation of most Guyanese (or citizens of the world outside North America and parts of Europe), who must often times struggle to put a hot meal on the table for their children... how can they be pressed to feed an extra mouth? It is a struggle to survive and a thieving cat or dog is taking away from the family survival. I am certainly not justifying animal abuse or neglect... absolutely not. Just because you live in poverty does not give you a free pass to be cruel.

Part of living and integrating into another culture is to understand where another person is coming from. One must understand their values, their education, their opportunities (or lack thereof), and their beliefs. All of these factors led them to be who they came to be today. Change can only happen when one understands why something is the way it is. It is so easy to sit on your pedestal and condemn without taking the time to verify facts or motivations.  I can understand how people choose their family over a dog or cat. I don't like it, but I must recognize that were I in the same situation, I am certain I would choose feeding and clothing my child over a dog. I don't have a quick fix answer to change or improve what is happening to animals in developing countries; I wish I did. Until things change in the developing world and poverty is eradicated, this is how it will continue to be because family always comes first.

I know Guyanese are a loving, vibrant people with the capacity to love animals. I have seen them interact with my cat and dog, at first a little shy, but then growing to adore them like I do. My students eagerly ask about my cat Bora or dog Phoenix, or the kittens I rescued over the school vacation. When I tell them that my animals were once “homeless” like the puppies and kittens on the street, I get incredulous looks of disbelief. Time and again, I tell them that they can find an animal on the street and take steps to make it like mine... but the chance that they will actually do this is virtually zero. These kids don't need to worry about providing for a family yet. They don't worry about work or buying groceries or soap... but their parents do. It is why I found a litter of cats strayed on the side of the road. Everyone saw them, knew where they came from and who dumped them in the ditch. They heard their hungry screams the day and night they were abandoned until I picked them up. The simple fact was, no one could take them in- not out of indifference, but because their priorities were to their families. One could easily judge this person without understanding their motivations. But we are all human; I can't imagine the torment the person went through as they abandoned those kittens to their fate, knowing full well that separating them from their mother would mean death for these kittens. Perhaps they drove them to the next village to spare their children from having to witness sweet little balls of fur shriveling to nothing, suffering and starving. Perhaps they did it out of fear that their children would learn too young that life is unfair and there is so much pain and suffering in the world for those in poverty. Until these parents are able to not worry daily about feeding or providing for their families, they will continue to hear the cries of these animals and be able to do nothing.

Being an American in Guyana with this situation is definitely a challenge. My eldest brother, Peter, when discussing a situation that affected our family that I wanted to change, told me before I left for Peace Corps two years ago, that I needed to recognize that there are some things that are completely out of my control and I can only do so much. Applying this theory to Guyana: what was I going to do when I got to here? Feed every child, adopt every animal, change every school system? It is simply not possible. All a person can do is what they can do. Perhaps knowing me, he recognized that I am an overly empathetic person and would struggle with what I would see or hear not only here, but in life, and this led him to utter those words of wisdom to me.

His advice has guided me over the last two years. What can I do? The simple answer is, just because I can't save all the animals or feed all the kids here, doesn't mean I should give up and do nothing. While I can't provide for these kids financially, I can certainly love all of the kids I come across in my community. I can show them kindness, support and that I care about them and their future. I can give them my time and listen to them when they want to talk to me. I can give them a hug and bright smile (even if I am struggling myself that day) in the morning when they run towards me as I walk down the walkway at school. As to the animals, with my two pets I can lead by example, showing that there is another way. When I see kids pelting a cow or dog I can tell them that animals have feelings. I can set food outside my gate when I have leftovers. I can bathe and cuddle the puppies that wander into my yard when I have the resources. I can answer the questions of persons asking me why I treat these animals like I do. It isn't much, but it is one act of love towards these puppies and dogs than they knew previously. Unfortunately, volunteers have adopted animals that succumb to the elements, natural and man made, here in Guyana. When offering my condolences to another volunteer after the loss of her cat, she said to me, “you know what though... I gave that cat a better two years than she ever would have known had I not picked her up and taken her home. I loved that cat and she knew it.” At the end of the day, we all have limited resources and can only do so much, but our actions are what will make a difference. Our actions are always priceless.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Plant dem seeds, watch dem spread.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, it is grilled into you, for your long term sanity, that if you plant a seed (the work we do) you will never get to sit under the tree's shade (see the results). I have always been okay with this, understanding that working with children, you won't see the end results until they grow up and make choices about the way they will live their lives. Will they continue on and go to secondary school or university? Will they pick up a needle and choose to do drugs? Will they choose to raise a family and teach their children to read, about proper hygiene, acceptance and to love all creatures big and small? Will they choose a life of crime?

Fact is, we don't really know how any of our lives will turn out. People come in and out of our lives all the time planting these little seeds. I can't pin it to one particular seed that made me who I am today. It is each person who has come into my short life that has made me who I am. My hopes, fears and joys are shared with my friends. My family taught me discipline, respect, and showed me how to love unconditionally. My teachers guided my values, and encouraged socialization, teaching me more than just reading, writing and math. My colleagues have taught me team work, compromise and communication. The reality is, there is no one person that makes a person who we are. Everyday we learn something new from someone; everyday we make choices that could change the direction of our lives. So whether these children turn out good or bad, it won't be because of me alone; it will be because of all of the people in their lives.

I would like to think that the seeds we plant within the kids we work with as Peace Corps Volunteers will ultimately flourish, not withering up and disintegrating shortly after we leave. As we all know, seeds need careful attention, care and nutrients to blossom. When we leave after our service is up, what will happen to these seeds? This is, I think, every volunteers fear... will what I spent two years on matter? As I approach my close of service, it is my hope that the seeds I have planted will stay deeply rooted and will find what they need from their community, teachers, and friends, who have also received their little seeds.

The other day a parent came into school to volunteer in the school library. We had a very interesting conversation that clarified for me, that even though we volunteers may not be able to see how the children will turn out, we are making a difference in their lives NOW, and in the long run, that is all that matters. She informed me that she hears her child and his friends always talking about this Miss Aly lady, and how Miss Aly always helps them pick out books and helps them and is so nice. How I comment on their school work and tell them good job, even if I can't tell what they are drawing, or if they can't spell something correctly but tried their best. She sees changes in her child.

Then she told me a story that while it kind of blew my mind, and showed me that seeds can be replanted by the most unlikely of little ones. One day, she was in her yard and she heard one of my little girl students telling her mom, "Mommy, why do you beat me? It is because you don't love me isn't it? But that is okay, because I have a miss who loves me." The mother replied, "Who is this miss?" Student: "Miss Aly". Mother: "Well she doesn't know you are bad." Student: "Yes she does. And when I am bad she tells me I am bad and tells me how to be good. She doesn't need to beat me. She loves me." I don't know the response of this parent, but I can imagine it stopped her in her tracks and provided a moment of reflection. Her child just made her think.

The parent volunteer told me that overhearing this conversation got her thinking and started a conversation with her sister about how she believes many Guyanese parents raise their children. The children had replanted some seeds of their own! She said she now sees clearly that many parents in her sphere think that the role of being a parent is to provide, "food, clothes and send them to school,” and their work is done as a parent. But seeing this interaction between the little girl and her mother, coupled with the joy in the kids faces talking about their school work or books, or hearing about the small attentions I give to them at school, made her understand that there is more to being a parent than providing the bare necessities. She said these interactions made her realize that being a parent is about taking care of their happiness and their little souls, guiding them morally and showing them you love them and care, whether they do good or bad. She told me that she wanted to give back to her son to show him how much she cared about him, and one small thing she could do was help in the library, a place he loves. With this attitude, I can already see that her tree will be strong, and I know that her son's tree will grow up strong and beautiful, nurtured and loved. It would be plausible that many others who pass through the library and come into contact with her will continue to be cared for under her shade and love.

So we may not see the end result of the seeds we are planting, but we must push on and plant as many seeds as we can, in as many places as we can. You never know who will replant some seeds of their own, and where. With the grace of whatever higher power is out there, some seeds will grow strong and powerful and provide shade and protection for those that aren't yet strong enough to care for themselves. Since we are all interconnected, impacting everyone we come across, in some way, it makes sense that we should all strive to be unconditionally accepting, be utterly kind and patient, be a mentor, a friend, a shoulder to cry on, an empathetic ear, be someone's teacher or their personal hero.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Is the Earth spinning weird for me down here? Me clumsy bad bad.

I knew that when I joined the Peace Corps, my mental health would be challenged in ways I couldn't even predict. I knew homesickness, loneliness and change of routine was expected. Culture clashes and language miscommunication would be obvious challenges. What didn't even cross my mind was the impact the Peace Corps would have on my body. It is interesting to reflect on all that has happened in the last 18 months; and the moment when things just came to be it is what it is....oh a rash... eh, Peace Corps... oh, a worm... obvi, that is so Peace Corps. Because this is supposed to be informative for ya'll, I am going to share with you what has happened to me since I left for Guyana over 18 months ago, to today. Don't let it scare you if you are thinking of joining the Peace Corps. Some volunteers never have any issues and are in perfect health the whole time. I think of it as building up my immune system. If you don't like feet pictures... just ignore the feet.

 1. The first week or so of training I bashed my head on things a few times. I rarely do this. This has continued to be an issue throughout my service. I am short. Why the heck am I bashing my head on things? Twice on a boat - HARD;  ran into a boxcar mirror; climbing my stairs (low ceiling);  standing up and bashing my head on open cupboards. I don't know what is going on. I think it is because I am close to the equator... maybe the earth's spin is getting to me. I am out of whack?
2. Strep Throat (or something of the sort - nasty throat bumps) - don't remember the last time I had strep... if ever?
3. Common Cold - numerous times- SOAP SOAP SOAP
4. Sprained right ankle walking down a dirt road, fell in a pothole
5. 5 days later... sprained my ankle worse x 1000 - possible micro-tears in ligament. THIS IS STILL A MESS and has been paining me all service
6. Hang Over(s) - Alcohol + Heat + Dehydration = nasty hangover
7. A bout of  Depression/Anxiety - more to this story at a later time
8. A WORM! I named him Frank. Luckily Frank didn't find a girlfriend, otherwise I would have had a ton of little Frank Jr's in my tummy.
9. Ankle Sprains led to tendonitis in ankle. needed phisiotherapy.  bad bad bad
10. Fell off my bike and busted up my knee - again - can being close to the equator mess with coordination?
11. Respiratory/lung infection - possibly asthma/allergy related
12. unbelievable heat rash in crevices that shall remain unnamed - Guyana is known by volunteers as the FUNGAL JUNGLE
13. sleep issues - insomnia and/or nightmares involving death of loved ones (lots of people, including family and close friends have died unexpectedly since I have been here)
14. weird skin rash on knees - ezcema? (note I have never had ezcema that I can remember, soooo...?)
15. Really bad HUGE unknown rash on arm and chest ------------>
-contact dermatitis - WHAT did I touch? no clue. Now I have a        crazy trail of scars down my arm. Cool.
16. PLUS SOOOOOOOO many scars from mosquito bites
17. Nose ring infection from the lovely water situation here + sweat and dirt
18. Sliced my foot open in a the Mahaica River on a branch
                                                                                                  Foot infection -->

19. Possible scabies eh, not sure about this one (in denial)
20. Rash on hands - contact dermatitis - still no clue what I am touching. I am so itchy! (Still going on)
21. Rash on foot - is now infected, puss, painful and puffy (as of today)
22. Hair loss - my hair is so thin now
23. 3 really bad sunburns - I have scars on my forehead from one burn
24. I almost had heat stroke at school sports last year - I was on the verge of passing out (nausea, loss of coordination & mental clarity, shivers) and had to get inside asap- luckily my friend Jenny rescued me and got me home and in a cold shower. FUN TIMES near the equator.
25. my boobs shrunk 2 cup sizes - agh ....
26. BUT,  lost 50 lbs.... gained back 10. Down 40 total as of now. Not complaining about this one.
27. I got bit by some sea creature at 63 beach while swimming (ok I was peeing in the ocean, maybe it was revenge)                                                                  ------------------>
<--------------28. Gigantic blisters

29. Sliced my heel opened (now resulting in a cool jagged scar!) on a rusty gate while searching through a field for another PCV's cat, which escaped from my house while I was supposed to be kitty sitting
30. Oh, and the obvious... diarrhea, dehydration and stomach bugs galore

So this is the list with 8 months to go, hoping it will stop right here. A lot of my friends have gotten dengue or Zika... crossing my fingers, knocking on wood, using endless bug spray, hoping I don't join that list. Please note that I was in excellent health (besides overweight) before I left, rarely sick and hardly ever clumsy. I don't know what the heck is happening to me here. Maybe it's just new germs and change of latitude/longitude. Despite all of this, I am glad that I am still here - the adventures I have had, people I have met, and work I have done, make it all worth it. Since I never want to end on a depressing note... Here is a list of awesome things that have happened over the last 18 months:

1. Adopted Bora (my cat)

2. Adopted Phoenix (my dog)
3. moved to Adelphi and met Seeta and co.
4. climbed a mango tree & climbed my windows/walls to hang hammocks like a spider monkey- - proving age is just a number
5. Re-discovered bike riding - I get to ride my bike to work everyday!
6. Done a ton of cool stuff at school:
                a. Library
                b. literacy lessons
                c. girls club
                d. staff development sessions
                e. holidays at school like Diwali, Phagwah, Christmas, Guyana 50th Independence
7. Met some awesome people, kids and friends at school
8. A few kids told me they wanted to be like me when they grow up ... scary but cute lol
9. grew my own basil from seeds
10. learned I was more creative and resilient than I ever thought possible
11. Went to Kaieteur Falls with Steve & Saba
12. Trip to Orealla and Siparuta with Seeta & Company (see blog) - was amazing!
13. Brittany came to visit!
14. Christmas with Suzy and Cassie in Alness Village - going to the beach on Christmas... yaaaas!
15. Adventure to Mara village
16. learning to make pizza on a towa on the stove (No oven)
17. Speaking Creolese - so fun - and endless entertainment for my neighbors
18. Heritage at St. Cuthberts with my PC friends!
19. My host family during training - love them!
21. FINALLY read all the Harry Potter books (and over 50 other books, including ones on the list for years like: Uncle Tom's Cabin, A Long Walk to Freedom, and some old favorites like: Pride & Prejudice, Clan of the Cave Bear)
22. discovering the pointy broom. I am obsessed.
23. Seeta's Jandi - participating start to finish - blog coming jus now
24. Phagwah - my favorite holiday ever now!
25. Pandama Winery
26. The great kitten rescue! 
27. My house, community and school.
28. Peace Corps friends!
29. Endless adventures with Peace Corps and Guyanese friends

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

On Racism, White Privilege, and the journey towards acceptance and peace

I have mentioned before in a past blog, but the subject of race and diversity just keeps coming up and is o-so important a subject to keep on discussing. I am hearing from an international setting about the continuous murders of black men at home, and the American peoples response, or lack there of of a response. Race and diversity are also relevant to my experience in Guyana as a white Peace Corps Volunteer amidst a sea of brown. I am experiencing being the center of attention simply because of my white, (sometimes pink) skin and blue eyes; but in contrast to the experiences of minorities in the United States, I am constantly told how they want my skin color and how beautiful it is. I am envied for my white skin, and it is as uncomfortable as it sounds. I didn't ask for it, it was what I was born with and for the first time I am seeing that I can get away with things that my fellow Guyanese friends or volunteers of color can not. I am truly seeing and experiencing first hand the privileges that my whiteness grants me and it is eyeopening and scary. Before my Peace Corps experience, I had heard about white privilege, but never experienced it firsthand; I was naive to it being very real and very much alive in America. When I look back at my life before Peace Corps, I can see the times when white privilege reared its ugly head and popped in and out of my life at various points.

The other day, I was riding in a car with a few other Peace Corps Volunteers and a Guyanese Peace Corps staff member. The conversation turned to the upcoming election and race issues in the United States. This staff member asked us why WE thought there were so many race issues in the United States. Collectively, without even thinking, we three white gyals immediately responded, “lack of education”. When I was talking about education, I was talking about education pertaining to diversity and the very real, very relevant and very much alive issue of racism in America. The general consensus seemed to be that if you grow up in “white, suburban middle-class America,” you probably aren't aware there even is a race-war going on in the rest of the United States, or if you are aware, you don't understand it; it isn't palpable. Most white people have no personal relationship or experience with what minorities go through every day; of the way they are treated differently, ostracized in social settings, stared at and publicly humiliated; or are receiving sub-standard educations, different – inadequate - resources and poorly configured infrastructure in certain neighborhoods and communities throughout the United States. Or the fact that their very life is at risk everyday because of the color of their skin. We (white people) simply cannot understand the challenges that minorities have faced since the beginning of colonization leading to slavery, and continuing on to even today.

I will admit, that I fit into this category of the unaware. I grew up in a white, middle class neighborhood, with very few minorities represented as my classmates. Everything I knew about being black, Muslim or gay, was from what I read about, saw on television, or heard about from other people. I had no real first hand experience or understanding of what diversity truly was. Throughout my Peace Corps experience, we are constantly challenged to question the world around us, break down cultural barriers, let go of our own personal tunnel-vision and stereotypes, and to embrace the uniqueness and beauty of the people around us; of not only our host country but also our fellow diverse group of volunteers. I will freely admit that before I came to Peace Corps Guyana, I thought myself to be an open, accepting and “color/race/ethnic blind” person... but that was simply naive. Even if I thought I was “color blind”, I, grew up and came with my own host of life experiences, interactions (or lack of interactions) and understanding of what race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation were. These “background informations” amassed into my own personal rolodex of stereotypes. Maybe I considered myself “color blind” because I didn't believe some of the most outrageous, hurtful or hateful stereotypes, but there was still enough in that card system to consider me racist. Admitting that I was indeed prejudiced, in some way, towards people unlike myself in appearance or belief, and that I was susceptible to even the simplest of stereotypes has been a good first steps towards acceptance. I still have a long journey to go. There are frequently times when old stereotypes pop into my head that I must remember to stop myself and mentally question their origin. I ask myself, “Why did I just think that?” “Where did that thought/belief just come from?”

I think the first step towards our countries liberation is for us all (white, black, brown, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, gay, straight etc.) to simply admit that we are, individually and collectively, in fact prejudiced and racist towards each other. When we can accept this fact, we can then move forward and break down the stereotypes that we have been holding towards and about each other. It is then that we can question their origin and validity, and can challenge the misconceptions and squash the seeds of hatred towards the different and unique. It is only after we admit our weaknesses that we can start the healing in the United States and begin the journey towards true acceptance of each other, creating a stronger, beautiful, more unified United States, and in turn, becoming a true leader of peace in the world.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Adventure down river - latrines, piranha and jungle

My day began early in the morning (early for me for summer vacation), meeting Seeta, Vanie and the gang at 8AM. Not too difficult when you consider they live across the street from me, but nevertheless, if you know me well, early for school vacation. I rolled up with my camping backpack full to the brim – considering it was full of food supplies, a first aid kit, blankets and two hammocks, it was quite a light packing for me. The 63 Bus arrived to the house and we piled in, loading all of our bags, the kids and the fishing gear. Down the Correntyne highway we went, racing towards Suriname. We had no expectations; just excitement. Arriving in Skeldon at 10AM, we learned our boat wouldn't be making the journey until 2PM. Thank goodness I have adjusted to the “Just Now”. So we headed on over to a local Halal restaurant for some fried rice/Chow Mein and chicken, and a few cokes. I showed the kids a magic trick my uncle Buddy taught me when I was about 9 – still was as
impressive as ever... except the 7 year old solved the magic trick immediately after – perhaps he was watching me lay the cards a little too closely. Finally the time arrived and we jumped the sea wall (well, climbed down a rickety old ladder to the concrete beach). We literally walked the plank to get onto the little boat (see pictures) and quite proud of myself I raced across only to bash my head on the low roof... an excellent way to start a vacation no doubt.

As I climbed on, my first thought was “oh my god, I hope it floats” , quickly followed by, “Now THIS is an adventure”. After stringing up our hammocks across the small boat with the other passengers the boat looked like it was swathed in a multitude of beautiful fabrics floating in the air (see picture). We waited while bags and bags of cement and rocks were loaded high into the boat, again making me question the sturdiness of the floating vessel. Finally we were on our way. We left Skeldon, traversing down the brown river, surrounded by a green ocean of jungle on both sides: Guyana on our right, and Suriname on our left. The contrast among the blue sky, brown river and green trees was breathtaking. I looked hard for monkeys, but unfortunately didn't see any. What we did see however, was a beautiful rainbow high in the sky woven through the clouds. Eventually, as the sun set, I crept over food supplies, luggage, bags of rocks, and lumber and nestled into my hammock for a night time rest.

We docked at Siparuta late in the evening (or early in the morning depending how you look at it: about 1 or 2 am – long before we reached Siparuta my cell service had gone down so my phone didn't know the actual time), and loaded with our luggage, climbed the sand hill to our hosts house. The house was on stilts overlooking the river and during the day, would have the most gorgeous view of the river, looking across to Suriname. We strung up my hammock across the veranda and piled mattresses out for the rest of the gang to sleep on (4 adults and 2 kids, with me in one hammock and a teenager in the second). Before bed, we filled buckets and took nice cold bucket baths under the house. I have said it before and I will say it again... bucket baths are a MUST try – they are beyond refreshing after a long hot day!

The day started even earlier than the day before, at 4am the rooster began to crow and by 5:30, the whole house but me was up and going about the day. We met more of our hosts children and our tour guide for the few days we would be there. I greeted him as I stepped out of my hammock – what a sight and first impression I must have made; hair flying everywhere, crinkled pajamas, 3 hours of restless sleep. But time doesn't wait for you in the jungle... so up I went in search of the bathroom. It was discovered that the
bathroom was outdoors and was a small latrine. This proved quite difficult for me, as up until now, I had never had to really face a latrine for an extended period of time (if you get what I mean). My host family didn't have one and no one I knew had one, so I legit had to be taught how to use the bathroom – YOU DO NOT SIT ON A LATRINE HOLE... lets just say, my quads got strong on that trip from squats. You Climb on up and squat over the hole until your business is done... Sorry to be graphic... but who knows when you will come across a latrine... this is very useful information.

Moving along... our guide took us all over Siparuta on a hike – through the village, by the river, passed the schools and town volley ball net, to the sandpits and to the black water creek. (see pictures).

Siparuta is a remote, isolated, Amerindian village far down the Correntyne River, beyond Orealla. There are approximately 600 people living in Siparuta. The major employment of the villagers is in the timber or sand business.
Later in the day, we loaded up a boat with the adults and headed out on the river for a fishing adventure. FIRST however, we needed to catch bait. We crossed the river and ducked beneath overhanging branches to the bank. Out we waded and entered pure jungle. The sounds and smells were invigorating and fresh; this was untouched jungle here. We found a small little creek and were taught how to flick the muck up on the bank and search for little fish... All I could think was.... SNAKES SNAKES SNAKES. There was a strong possibility that they were in that creek with us, but eventually, and probably stupidly, we were having so much fun slinging muck I forgot about my fears. In time, no thanks to me, Seeta and Vanie, we had enough bait. We had about 6 lines loaded with hooks and bait, for about two hours of solid fishing... and didn't catch a single fish. My ancestors would be extremely disappointed in my fishing skills. We passed by a lone fisherman in a hallowed out canoe and he proudly held up five fish that he assured us he just caught in the last hour. Giving up fishing, we parked the boat by the biggest sandpit I have ever seen and mountain climbed up the cliff to reach the top. Once we were racing around frolicking through the sand, my tour guide and some of the local teens who went with us pointed out some tracks in the sand they said were 'tiger'... I am pretty sure there aren't tigers in Guyana... but what do I know. Jaguar? Ocelots? Panthers? OK – when you are in the jungle... same difference!

The next day, we piled onto a tractor for the most unique hay ride I have ever been on... through the jungle to the savanna! The flat, grassy savanna dotted with trees and flowers was breathtakingly beautiful... until one of my travelers showed me a giant metallic silver spider... but I was assured that this wasn't one of dem biting spiders. Even still, keep it away. 

We went back and swam in an icy cold black water creek. There is a saying in Guyana that you won't leave if you eat the wild meat (labba) and drink the black water... who knows what is floating in there, so I haven't yet drank it... jus' now.

We packed up our bags and said goodbye to our wonderful host and tour guide, who quickly became our friends. We piled into a much larger boat with several decks and spots for hammocks, but as our trip was short, just up river a few hours to Orealla, we skipped the hammocks and limed on the top deck watching the scenery pass us by and gaffing. We saw another beautiful rainbow on the trip.

As we docked into Orealla, I looked out over the village and saw that this was much more tourist geared than Siparuta. There were snackettes along the river walk, a gazebo and even a volleyball court. When you arrive at an Amerindian village in Guyana, the first thing you must do is find the
Tochou (“too-shou”) or chief of the village to ask permission to stay in the village. With this accomplished we began a short walking tour before the sun set. In Orealla, you better be prepared for some leg work – there were houses nestled into the mountain cliff and to reach them, you hiked straight up the hill. We watched little old ladies race up past us as we fought for breathe. The view looking out over the bay, yet again, was breathtaking. The bay looks out onto three islands called “the three sisters”. We watched boats come and go, birds of all variety, including giant carrion, and people going about their afternoon.

The next day we hiked up the giant hill and waited for a tractor to take us and about 60 other people to the resort that was being created deep past the savanna and into the jungle. When you hear the word resort, like me, your mind undoubtedly goes to those fancy Marriott or Hilton beach side resorts... but this was not that kind of resort. The resort had benabs to sit under, campsite fire pits for cooking and latrines. The beach side water was typical black water creek... but surrounded by lush jungle. The owner of the resort was training the locals on guest hospitality to promote ecotourism. We were their guinea pigs. After a meal of ramen noodles, we jumped in the cool water and swam for a bit... realistically... I swam... my fellow friends are not the swimming abled. Yet again, I wondered how many snakes we were swimming with. A small boat pulled up from down the creek and I immediately volunteered to be the trainees guinea pig to take me on a tour through the jungle creek. Initially, we had about 12 people pile in the boat and as it rocked back and forth, I wondered yet again about the buoyancy of Guyanese vessels... 
fortunately, my tour guides realized that the boat was way overloaded and quickly turned back. We cut the number in half and went on our way.  I asked my guides how old they all were, and they responded from age 16-18... MY LIFE WAS IN THE HANDS OF A BUNCH OF TEENAGERS! Once we left the other trainees and my friends, we were surrounded by silence broken by chirping of birds and the rustling of jungle leaves. White bright light poked between the thick jungle canopy. The feeling of being alone with nature was overwhelming. The boat rocked back and forth with every move we made and I asked my guides if there were snakes in the creek. I probably shouldn't have asked the question, but my curiosity got the best of me. “oh yes,” they said. “The bone crunching kind.” GREAT! I chuckled thinking they may want to work on a better answer for their tourists. As we went along, our path was suddenly blocked by a downed log. We simply could not pass over, so my tour guides got the idea that we would lift the boat over the log. Now mind you, we are in a creek that is way over our heads, with bone crunching snakes. I did what any reasonable Peace Corps Volunteer would do... I agreed that the adventure needed to continue and precariously climbed out of the boat onto the log. All 6 of us balanced on this one log and put our efforts into heaving and lifting the heavy boat over the log. After about 5 minutes of teamwork, and two tour guides falling in the water and quickly jumping out, we got the boat over. I was so glad I hadn't fallen in and encountered the bone crunching snakes. Again I chuckled realizing that we would have to do the same on the way back. We continued on our adventure, ducking below low branches and gaffing about their lives in Orealla, and my role as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I asked the guides if they come down the river a lot... to which they eagerly replied...”No... this is our first time!” - OH MY GOD! What had I gotten myself into! On we went and we came to a fork where we could go left or right. At this point, my guides decided that we had gone far enough – perhaps because they didn't know what was either way. We turned around and headed back to the resort. When we reached the log the second time, we got it over much faster – but still with a few guides taking a dip. We made it back to the resort safely and headed 'home' back on the tractor. I will never forget this boat ride!
Later that day, we did some fishing by the dock, and Seeta's son caught a giant piranha (Piri in local speak pronounced “Peer-EYE”)! I finally got to see a piranha! Let me tell you... you do NOT want to encounter one of those ever in your swims. The teeth were giant and sharp, reminding me of a bear trap; its eyes were red as blood and angrily watching us as we took pictures. There is a “joke” that in the rivering area people never have the same number of toes or fingers they were born with – because of the piranha. Later that night, Vanie and I went for a walk and sat on the dock looking across the water towards the B&B, and there were about 5 kids or teenagers bathing in the river RIGHT where Seeta's son caught the piranha.

The next day, I caught some sort of flu from sleeping outside in the cold and moist air in my hammock for so many days, so I stayed in my hammock and read a book. A few of us actually got sick so we decided to take it easy. When we planned this trip, we were planning to come back on Saturday, but as with everything, the boat schedule is unpredictable and sporadic. The boat going on Saturday was canceled because someone on the crew got his arm chopped in a drunken brawl with a brother. Literally severed with a cutlass. But we later found out that a next boat was going but wouldn't be docking into Orealla until 9:30/10:00. Two of us sickies elected to take this boat to get home and to our own beds. The boat rolled up to the dock around 11:30 at night and we loaded our bag and tied up the one hammock we had (left the other one for Seeta and her family). We decided we would alternate through the night and I piled up my life jacket and rain coat into a little nest on the bottom of the boat.
About 15 minutes into the trip, the skies let loose its tears and I was soaked. The captain took pity on me as the only one NOT under the secure overhang and NOT with a hammock and got a tarp for me. I pitched my umbrella opened and made myself a little tent on the bottom of the boat and slept. I woke up hours later when we arrived back in Skeldon at 5:30 am. My phone chirped with life as it connected to civilization and messages came pouring through.

It is easy to look back at this trip and reflect on the poverty of the communities we visited in comparison to what I am used to in the United States, and even in Adelphi... There wasn't a flushing toilet in Siparuta; electricity was from a solar panel and water had to be lugged from the well up the stairs to wash dishes and cook. There were no fancy electronics or cars, no designer clothing and certainly no excess of imported food. But then I reflected further. A person shouldn't be labeled as poor just because they don't have the latest ipads, trendiest clothing or state of the art electronics – these are first world interpretations of what we consider a lack of wealth and therefore gain our pity. They had enough food, enough clothing, enough water and a beautifully stable house. They weren't tied to a desk, slaves to the clock. All around me on that trip were lush forest and nature, fresh fruit plucked ripe from the tree, natural black water swimming pools for the villagers to play, fish in the river (unless you were bad at fishing as we were), picturesque views, beautiful people, laughter and love – if that isn't “rich” I don't know what is.

This was a once in a lifetime trip and I hope you enjoyed my retelling of this adventure. I saw a quote the other day and I think it fits quite nicely into one of the main reasons I joined Peace Corps. “Live the life you Love. Love the life you Live.” I believe we only get one shot at this thing called life, so better enjoy it while I can. Life is an adventure.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

I am Everyone

In response to the attacks on Pulse in Orlando the other day, a lot has been running through my mind. Being so far from home I feel a bit outside of what is going on;  I am seeing news articles and stories through facebook or websites and it just feels so strange and disconnected. My heart is heavy over another senseless attack on innocent, defenseless, good people. I feel so overwhelmed and helpless when I keep hearing about something like this happening. Our generation has GROWN UP hearing, seeing or living through horrible people doing horrific things in the name of "insert ignorant, racist or hateful excuse here" (oklahoma city, unibomber, 9/11, kids killing kids at schools, shootings at military bases, movie theaters, concerts or other random shootings, Boston Marathon bombing, terrorism abroad, the list goes on & on, unfortunately) and it beats us down. It needs to stop and we need to stand up to violence and hate.  In order to do this, when life and sadness beats you down, it is important to build yourself back up SO YOU CAN BE STRONG and therefore STEADFAST in your BELIEFS. From there you can go about your day confidently, spreading love, acceptance, and kindness. We cannot sit idly by when words or acts of hate happen. We need to teach our children/nieces/nephews/neighborhood kids love and acceptance so the next generation doesn't have to see what we have seen... or worse, grow into the people we fear. Not only Believe that love is more powerful than hate, but emulate love in your lives and love will prevail.

Thinking about Orlando, a lot of people have talked about being united and standing together in love and solidarity. With this concept in mind, and expanding on the "single story" and stereotypes I talked about in May of last year (see earlier blog post), I wrote a little something something about how I was feeling.

Dear Haters,

I am Gay; I am Straight.
I am Black; I am White.
I am a Muslim; I am a Christian.
I am Poor and Starving; I am Rich and Well-off.
I struggle to Learn; I am Smart as can be.
I am a Slut who Loves Sex; I am a Prude Saving Myself for Marriage.
I am a Woman; I am a Man.
I am Tattooed and Pierced; I am Straight-Edge and Clean Cut.
I am Young and Foolish; I am Old and Wise.
I am Old and Helpless; I am Young and Thriving.
I am a Soldier and a Veteran; I am a Peace-Loving Hippie.
I am a Democrat; I am a Republican.
I am Shy and Reserved; I am Outgoing and Friendly.
I am Fat and Hungry; I am Thin and Full.
I have Scars and Marks that run deep; My body is Unblemished and Pure.
I am Ugly on the Outside; I am Beautiful and Desired.
I have a Disability Standing in my Way; I am Unstoppable and Successful.
I am Ostracized, Persecuted and Hated; I fit into a Neat, Safe little box, Accepted.

I am all of these things,
Some you don't see,
When you look at me.
You search through my face,
pick through my box;
You stick a label on me -
She must be something you say?
But these identities you can not see-
They exist in my heart;
In every friend who has touched my life;
In every loved one who has supported me;
In every encounter that has challenged me;
In every stranger who has struggled to be free;
In every person that has taught me to love;
I claim their Label; United, I Am all of Them.

No need to label my box with just one thing;
But as haters do, if you feel you must, remember this:
I bleed red;
They bleed red;
You bleed red.
Label my box Human;
Label their box Human;
Label your box Human.