The Dirty South Trip

15 11 2012

After our COS conference, I still had about 3 weeks before classes started up again for the last push to October when I’d be leaving my site.  To fill this time, me and 3 other volunteers decided to do a trip down the southeastern coast of Tanzania, known affectingly here as “the dirty south”.  Apparently this name is derived from the fact that food is scarce (other than cashew nuts and mangos) and because it is dusty as all hell.  You may be wondering, based on this description, why we decided to visit this area in the first place.  Valid point.  However, like I mentioned, we would basically be traveling down the coast, visiting other volunteers and seeing if their claims of “the best Italian food ever”, “a beach bar”, and “a beach house” were actually true or if they were urban legends.

We started our journey by getting ripped off on bus tickets down there.  You would think that after almost two years in the country we’d be immune to such gimmicks as the guy telling us one price (which we paid) and writing the actual price (which was obviously lower) on the ticket.  It’s basically like scalpers buying all the tickets, marking them up, and then selling them.  The difference here is that there are still tickets at face value available and the guy here is actually trying to scam you.  Anyway, after overpaying by a few shillings (1-2 dollars; doesn’t seem like a lot but when your monthly salary is somewhere near 170 dollars, it’s a large percentage).  We boarded the bus which like most buses here in Tanzania looked like it was about to fall apart, and started the journey down south.  The first third of the trip was enjoyable by African travel standards, that is, until we hit the road construction.  This consisted of us weaving across the road and literally riding on dirt trails through the bush on the side of the road that was under construction.  These side roads through the bush were not well maintained, and I literally had to hold onto the seat to stop from being thrown out of my seat as the bus listed dangerously back and forth.  Normally when you encounter construction, it lasts for a small part of the duration of your trip.  However in this case it lasted for the next two thirds of the trip.  I thought to myself “this is the second worst bus ride I’ve ever been on in Tanzania” (the worst being the dirt road through the narrow gorge on my way from my village directly north to visit my friend in Dodoma; here the worry was falling off the cliff whereas the worry traveling down south was simply the bus tipping over and doing a few barrel rolls).  After a tumultuous ride down to our first stop, we had lunch at the rest stop just outside Kilwa, where we were meeting another volunteer who was going to show us around.  The other thing about the “dirty south” is that there are way less ex-pats, wazungu, and virtually no tourists.  Which isn’t surprising considering most sane people would take a range rover to reach the destination.  So when I rolled into the rest stop and proceeded to order my lunch in Swahili, the workers were blown away, and were trying to talk my ear off.  Anyway, we were able to finally get to the “town” that we were meeting our friend at, get setup in a small guesti, which actually more closely resembled a set of large cardboard boxes, and get some rest in.  That evening, our friend took us to one of the only resort-ish places for some drinks.  As I mentioned, there are virtually no tourists in this area, but if you are looking for paradise off the beaten track, this was it.  The place we went to was full of lush vegetation, had an in-ground swimming pool, cabana area, and private beach front with an unobstructed view of the aqua-blue water that gently lapped the shore.  To top it off they had cold beer.  It’s amazing the places that I’ve been able to find and experience since being in this country; places that no normal person would ever find, mostly because they aren’t “Hilton” or “Marriott” properties but also because they don’t have things such as “websites” to advertise.  They are just amazingly well kept secrets, secrets that are kept by the few people who frequent them, maybe for fear that if the true beauty of them was discovered; there would be a rush to develop them into something more, which would utterly destroy the amazing low-key vibe.  After enjoying a few cold ones at this place, we headed back to our guesti and got some sleep for our planned excursion to Kilwa Kiswani the next morning, which is a small island off the coast of Kilwa where there are ruins of an old Arab trading outpost only reachable by boat.  At the hotel the previous night, we had negotiated with a guy to take us over at a discount price.  When we met him in the morning at the hotel, it turns out there were other guest staying at the hotel which were coming along with us.  As Peace Corps volunteers we immediately, thought “oh damn, are we sure we are actually paying the low price or is this guy going to try and charge us the actual price, which we literally couldn’t afford on our salary”.  As it turns out, we saw why there was the difference in price.  As we got to the dock, a large, nice looking pontoon boat pulled up.  Us Peace Corps volunteers started to walk toward it, but our fearless guide stopped us and pointed to the little wooden carved out dingy that we would actually be boarding.  We couldn’t help but laugh as we watched the luxurious pontoon boat pull away, and us, in our tiny canoe-like boat with an outboard motor follow behind.  It got us there same and sound, so that’s all we really cared about.  The tour turned out to be amazing and well worth the price we paid.  After the tour, we hurried up to the bus stop to continue our trek down the coast to the next town of Lindi.

The ride to Lindi was probably worse than the ride from Dar to Kilwa because the road was in the same condition but the mini-van we got into was jammed to capacity.  After another short 8 hour ride, we reached Lindi, the land of discount cashew nuts.  A quick note about the cashews in Tanzania; the cruddy cashews you buy from planters don’t even taste like actual cashews.  Tanzanian cashews are the most tasty treat you could ever imagine.  After an overindulgence of cashew nuts, we proceeded to the rooms that our friend booked at a church mission in town.  God bless our friend who booked our rooms, because they were dirt cheap (2.5 USD) but we got exactly what we paid for.  There was no running water, the lights didn’t work in m any rooms, no soap was provided, no towels were provided, etc.  It was no Holiday Inn.  However the guy who ran the place was just so darn nice, we couldn’t bring ourselves to mention anything.  He also did come up big when he called us a taxi and gave us directions to the famous “best Italian food”.  As you can imagine, we were more than a little skeptical.  However, upon arriving at the place, it turned out to be the guys house with a small outdoor seating area.  He was indeed Italian and it turned out the food was pretty damn good.  My friends and I couldn’t believe that you could find such good Italian food in the middle of nowhere.  To celebrate, we ordered a bottle of French wine, which I have also never seen in my 2 years in country.  After stuffing ourselves to the limit and thanking our gracious host, we retreated back to our luxurious rooms for the night.

The next day we spent exploring the town of Lindi.  True enough, there isn’t much to it.  It is more of a sleepy town, but with beautiful views of the water and mangrove forests.  After a while, we finally found the famous “beach bar” that all our friends were talking about.  True to the myth, they put us literally on the beach and began serving us ice cold beer.  Eventually, after buying fresh coconuts and drinking up the coconut milk, we started pouring our beers into the coconuts and drank out of them.  As we sat there drinking beer out of coconuts on the beach, watching the tide roll in, we couldn’t help but wonder if the name “dirty south” was some kind of sick joke to try and keep the place a secret.  Thus far, we had experienced hidden beach resorts, gourmet Italian food, fresh cashews, and now beers on the beach in coconuts.  All these luxuries made us wonder if the volunteers who lived down here were straight up lying to us about how “difficult” it was.

The next day, we continued our journey down the coast to the last large city, Mtwara.  This would be the final test, where we would see if the infamous “beach house” lived up to the hype.  After arriving at the bus stand, and with a slight difficulty in finding the actual beach house, we walked through the doors.  What we found was nothing short of miraculous.  It was maybe even better than our friends had described.  The place had about 5 bedrooms, a dining room, a full kitchen, a sitting room, a porch off the back of the house facing the ocean, its own back yard, and a palm frond cabana in the yard.  The house was immaculately kept up by a mama who had been working there for over 15 years.  It had the vibe of a beach house cira 1970, a retro beach house if you will.  It was fantastic.  After walking through our personal yard (which had actual grass growing; yea this was a big deal) we opened the gate to the beach and were just in time to see the beginning of the sunset.  The beach was pristine, the water clear as glass.  We couldn’t believe our eyes.   Over the next two days, we just lounged around the beach, enjoying this hidden gem.  We were also able to meet up with two of our friends from the Njombe area (hear where I live) to work for 6 extra months in Mtwara.  Despite the travel woes, the trip up until this point had been amazing.  After the two days were up, our group of 4 decided to split up.  Me and my friend Sarah decided to continue even further south to visit a friends’ house which was right on the border with Mozambique.

Sarah and I boarded an afternoon bus to the town of Newala, where our friend lived.  At the time however, she was way out in west Tanzania traveling with some other friends.  Despite this, we still explored the small banking town and walked around her school.  Literally 500 feet behind her school was the “Shimo la Mungu” or “Hole of God” which is a huge valley which is cut by the Ruvuma river.  As we stared out into the valley, across the river we could see Mozambique.  After finishing our visit in Newala, we continued our journey to the west to complete the full loop of the dirty south and stopped in the town of Masasi where we were able to meet up with another 3rd year extension volunteer who volunteered to house us.  He was able to show us around the town which is affectionately known to the volunteers who visit it as “a truckstop” for the lack of things to do/places to eat.  We found the statement to be fairly accurate, but the scenery was beautiful, with hills rising above the town on all sides.  After our one day stay, the next morning, Sarah and I boarded a bus from the deep south, Masasi all the way back up to Dar es Salaam.  Sarah and I stayed one night in Dar, then boarded the 6am bus down back south.  Sarah got off to return to her site while I continued down to Mbeya to meet up with some of the new volunteers which I had met during their training but hadn’t seen them in a while.

After finally experiencing “the dirty south”, my fellow travelers and I decided that everyone who lived in the dirty south was a liar, and that it was actually one of the more enjoyable regions in Tanzania (minus the travel) and thus we renamed it “the gold coast”.

COS Conference/My Service in Pictures

17 08 2012

So this past week, my entire training class met for our COS (Close of Conference) meeting where we discuss things like resume writing, possible jobs to extend our service here in Tanzania, and just basically trying to look back and reflect on our service, what it meant, and how we’ll adjust back to life in the USA.  Peace Corps gives us treat and puts us up in a real nice resort for the week, I think because they feel bad for sticking us out in the bush for 2 years.  Needless to say, it was a blast to see everyone together for what is probably the last time for many people.  Even as I write this it is crazy to think that the majority of people I won’t ever see again here in Tanzania.  However, rather than rambling on like I usually do, I’ll just post our training groups slide show here, which is a collection of photos from all volunteers over the past two years.  I know it brought back a lot of memories for all us volunteers but I hope you enjoy it as well.

Family Vacation

28 07 2012

Since my last entry, detailing my experience meeting the new class, I’ve had the great joy of my family visiting.  I didn’t have much down time after I finished up my sessions with the new volunteers as the only thing I had time to do upon returning to site was clean up my house and begin packing for my two weeks with the family.  I arrived in Dar a day or so early since both the flights which my family and friends were coming in arrived at ridiculous hours of the night.  However, everyone arrived safe and sound without any delays, which is quite a rarity for Tanzania.  As our trip progressed, my family broke our trip down into 3 basic phases.  Phase 1 was more of the roughing it part of the trip, staying in low-budget guest houses and visiting my village, Phase 2 was safari, and Phase 3 was relaxation on Zanzibar.  Phase 1 got off to a little bit of a rough start thanks to my poor planning.  When I booked rooms in Dar es Saalam for the first night that my family was in town, I only booked extra rooms for the night of their arrival.  When booking these rooms, I neglected to look at what time the flight got in on the first day.  To my surprise, the flight got in at 2:50am.  This meant that when we got to the hotel at about 3:30am, all 7 of us had to cram into a room without A/C until about 8:30am when our rooms would actually be ready.  At first I was a little embarrassed that I screwed it up so bad, but then eventually tried to play it off as “this is what a real Peace Corps Volunteer experiences, this is how I planned it”.  For the first few hours, until about, oh 5:30am, everyone was fine.  But more than 36 hours of travel start to catch up with everyone.  My mom, sister, sister’s friend, and aunt all decided to push the two beds in the room together and try to sleep.  It was fairly comical to watch as people were half on, half off the bed, accidentally kicking each other in the face, and trying to act like they were comfortable.  My dad sat there for about 5 minutes before he decided that he’d rather go out on the porch and stand until the rooms were ready.  I tried to post up in a plastic chair to sleep, but plastic lawn chairs aren’t meant to be slept in and after about an hour I gave up and joined my dad on the porch of the Econo Lodge, Dar es Salaam to observe the morning events.  At this point the sun was just about coming over the horizon, and that beautiful early dawn light was spreading over the city.  My dad was just soaking it all in.  Apparently he saw some people in a building across the way performing some ritual where one person would throw oil into a fire, the flames would leap up, and another person who was standing behind would swing feather-looking items in circles.  He also claimed that he saw rats running around down below the building that were as big as cats.  It was quite the welcome to Tanzania.  Eventually the continental breakfast opened up and we were able to grab a bite to eat along with my sister’s friend Marge who apparently felt it difficult to sleep 5 people in two twin beds pushed together, go figure.  While the other ladies slept, Marge, my dad, and I took a walk around downtown Dar.  I think both my dad and Marge were shocked at how busy things were.  This was my dad’s first trip outside of the States (and no I don’t count Canada) but Marge had been to Africa before studying abroad, however I think both of them were surprised at how busy it was (even for a Sunday morning).  After returning from our stroll around town, our rooms were finally ready.  Needless to say, once everyone got settled into their rooms, we crashed for a good long time.  That day in Dar we were able to meet up with another volunteer who came to Tanzania the same time as me and have lunch out in a nicer area of Dar as well as make the trip up to the rooftop of the Holiday Inn.  The day before Marge and I were also blessed to be able to visit the subway in Dar es Saalam.  I think Marge may have been questioning her decision to come on the trip after the first day because the only pictures on her camera were of me, her, and another overly anxious volunteer friend in front of the Holiday Inn and me giving the thumbs up in front of the sign at Subway for the “Chicken Teriyaki” foot long sub.  Not wanting to disappoint Marge, I agreed to give her a taste of what real life in Tanzania is like and took her on the public transportation or “daladala to the main bus stand in Dar to buy my ticket for the return trip home.  We were lucky enough to get seats on the thing, but that didn’t make sitting in traffic in 100% humidity after almost getting into 6 separate accidents any more enjoyable for Marge.  About halfway through the trip, Marge put her head into her hands and uttered the words “I wish we were back at Subway.” I couldn’t help laughing and texting my Peace Corps friend who had told Marge, after she was complaining of coming to Africa to visit the Holiday Inn and Subway, that she would be begging for the air-conditioned goodness of the seating area of the Subway.  We Peace Corps volunteers know how precious things are like a hot foot long from Subway and the lobby of the Holiday Inn when you’ve been in the village for almost two years.  Anyway, after a lovely evening of sipping Safari Lager on the rooftop of the Holiday Inn, we turned in early so that we could get packed up for our journey via mini-van the next morning. 

I decided to hire a mini-van taxi for our trip to Iringa from Dar for the simple fact that public transportation is downright scary here.  I’ve been involved in 3 separate bus accidents here, thankfully never being hurt in them, but decided that I’d go the safer route with my family along with me.  The beginning of the trip started out smoothly enough except for a bathroom mishap for a family member who had never used a “choo” (aka hole in the ground) to go to the bathroom before.  Other than the small “choo mixup” things went smoothly until we started driving through the mountains.  Before the first main rest stop the car started making strange noises.  I politely asked the driver if everything was fine and he assured me that there were no issues.  I’m no mechanic, so what would I know?  I took his word for it.  After continuing through the undulating terrain for another 45 minutes or so, the sound became substantially worse.  I knew that shortly we would be climbing a mountain with a huge grade, so I asked again if things were fine (knowing full well at this point that something was broken, even without any auto mechanic knowledge).  He again re-iterated that there was no issue.  “Okay” I said to myself, as we started to slowly climb the huge mountain.  As we started up the hill, gigantic semi-trucks were whizzing down at speed clearly too fast.  That part wasn’t surprising.  The part that finally made me demand we turn back is that the same huge trucks who were lumbering up the mountain were passing us.  My mom and sister were holding onto the seats with white knuckles asking if we could return to the bottom of the mountain and diagnose the problem before running head on with a semi-truck.  Reluctantly, our driver relented and took us back down the hill and pulled into the rest stop to see what the issue was.  Apparently, the whirring noise that sounded like a transmission about to blow was to be solved by adding more oil and gasoline.  I was skeptical, but he told me that he was sending a guy to the nearest town to grab the stuff, and that he’d be back in an hour.  At this point I knew, having lived in Africa for almost two years, that when he said “one hour” that could mean, two hours, three hours, or never.  I asked him what his backup plan was and he re-iterated that his plan of adding oil and gas would work.  Fast forward 4.5 hours and several arguments with sleazy hotel owners and bus drivers at the rest stop trying to convince us to stay the night, I called two taxi drivers to come get us from Iringa town, which was only about 45 km away.  Even though they also came an hour late, we were able to finally arrive in Iringa only about 5 hours late.  It was ironic that we would have probably made better time had we taken the bus, but at this point I was too tired to care.  Upon getting to Iringa and dropping our bags off, we climbed back into the taxis to get some dinner, since none of us had eaten much since the toast and fruit at breakfast.  I had originally planned to do a traditional Tanzanian dinner, but at this point I wanted to give the family a nice meal somewhere.  The place I wanted to take them turned out to be closed, and the only other place I thought was open was the Tanzanian place.  My aunt’s friend, Peanut, asked “Do they serve beer at this place?” Unfortunately, they didn’t, so I was forced to think of another location.  The last place I knew of was a restaurant/bar that would probably be open at 9:30pm on a weeknight.  Thankfully when we arrived, they were open.  We sat down and immediately ordered a round of ice cold Safari Lager.  The food was delicious, and the cold beer was even better after the fiasco of a trip we had coming to Iringa from Dar.  Thankfully, my family is extremely laid back, and we were all able to laugh about the situation after the fact.  As we were finishing up our last round, a random guy stumbled into the room we were eating in and came up to my dad.  He started leaning in, as if to whisper a secret, but was clearly drunk, and was using half English and half Kiswahili.  At first I thought it was just a random drunk guy trying to strike up conversation, but after a few seconds, I realized the guy was describing women, and trying to sell them to my dad.  I was horrified and had to call two of the waitresses over to the table to have the guy (aka the pimp) escorted out of the place.  My family was still confused as to what happened, but after the guy was escorted out, I told them, and they all burst out laughing, my dad most of all.  I think I remember my dad saying something to the effect that “man, I still got it!”  All of us laughed until we cried, wondering what could possibly happen next to make the day any more interesting.

Turns out the next day was slightly less eventful (in a good way).  We woke up early enough to get some breakfast at Mama Chapatti’s place.  After getting some grub in our bellies, we loaded up into two taxis out to my village to visit for the day.  Unfortunately we’d only be staying until the afternoon, simply because I really didn’t have enough space for everyone to sleep comfortably.  I know this disappointed my villagers, but after putting my family through the first day of travel woes, the prospect of making them sleep on paper thing mattresses on the floor with crusty old mosquito nets, wasn’t something I thought they would enjoy.  Nonetheless, my reliable taxi driver and his friend who rescued us the day before agreed to take us out to the village, wait there while we walked around, and drive us back.  The first stop on the village tour was the school.  It just so happened that my Form 4 students were still in class during the break studying.  When they saw us approaching, they all started to run back to the classroom, giggling and whispering to each other.  This is mostly because I’ve talked up my families visit for no less than 6 months, and for them to finally get to meet them was quite an exciting experience.  Unfortunately, they were much more shy than normal, and would only speak Kiswahili to me.  But I was able to introduce everything and take a few pictures with all of my over eager students, before we stopped by the office to say hello to the teachers who were there over break marking papers (I got to escape those duties; thanks family!), on our way to the second stop on the village tour,my house.  I think that my family was fairly impressed how nice it is, considering the condition of the houses (mud huts) that mostly surrounded my house.  After taking pictures of just about everything in my house (my shoe collection, my Michigan Football Schedule that was hung on the wall, the student who was watching my house), we decided to take a trip down to the Italian mission that operates behind my house.  The mission, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts is really pretty beautiful and has by far the most ornate buildings of any in the area.  The doors to the actual sanctuary were closed, but I figured we could just walk around and they could get a feel for how large the place was.  As luck would have it, we ran into Farther Angelo, who is the father who helped to found the orphanage and has lived there for 32! Years.  The guy is not just a local legend, but people as far as Dar es Salaam know about him.  The guy is completely fluent in Kiswahili as well as the tribal language of Kihehe.  He was happy to see us, and was most gracious is offering to take us on a tour of the orphanage.   As we walked around the complex, Farther Angelo would point things out and explain them in Kiswahili, and I would translate everything into English for my family.  At first I didn’t think anything of it, but halfway through I felt this immense sense of achievement as I realized that I was talking to an Italian father in Kiswahili (not the native language of either of us) and I was translating it into English for my family, who actually made the trip out to Africa.  It was one of those existential moment that I have every so often here, and really realize what I’m doing is absolutely amazing, not in an egotistical way, but more like this is something I always dreamed of doing and I actually went out and did it.  But as we walked around the orphanage houses (which, by the way have electricity, running water, and washer and driers) the little kids were just leaving for lunch time.  When the kids saw us, and Father Angelo in particular, they ran up and hugged us and wanted to walk with us holding hands.  I’ve gotten fairly used to things like this, but for my family and for my mom and dad who have never been outside the United States, it was a surreal experience.  I could tell that having the kids just run up to you like that without asking any questions or looking at your skin color, and hugging you, is something you can really only experience in Africa.  I learned that every single one of the 40 or so kids who live there had parents who were killed my AIDS.  In addition, half the kids were also HIV +, which when I heard it really shocked me.  I had lived so close to the orphanage for so long, and never knew this.  It really got me, as well as my family, pretty emotional, to think that these kids, through no fault of their own had been born into this world diagnosed with this killer disease.  Despite that fact, you would have never guessed that there was anything wrong with any of them.  The smiles on the kid’s faces as we walked into the dining hall is just not something that you forget, the images of those little kids faces etched into your brain.  After escorting the group of kids off to the dining hall, we went with Father Angelo, who was gracious enough to open up the sanctuary for us to get a look around.  Even for a church in America, it would have been stunning, but for something like this is exist in the middle of the African bush, just amazes me everything I see it. 

The final stop on my village tour was Mama K’s, the mama who feeds me and keeps me alive.  All of the dada’s were smiling and laughing hysterically as I introduced my family.  We ordered the standard meal of rice, beans with coconut, and kisamvu (local green veggie).  At first, my family was a little hesitant, and they all wanted to split a plate.  However, after about a half of a bite of each thing, they all wanted their own portions and I had to order 3 more plates.  As you can imagine, this made the mama’s who cook for me more than delighted.  My sister especially had taken to a liking of the Tanzanian cuisine.  After eating our fill, we started our walk back to the taxi’s but not before getting flagged down by my chapatti mama in my village.  She had prepared us roasted sunflower seeds, bags of fresh peanuts, and a fresh papaya.  As we road back to Iringa, my mom especially, left feeling happy that I was being so well taken care of in my village.  She also had me thank all my mama’s for keeping me alive and feeding me.  After getting back from the village, we needed to, well more like the ladies in the group, needed to go on a shopping blitz.  We hit up all the best shops in town and loaded up on gift for people back home, as well as cases of beer and wine for the safari the next morning.  However, I should note that my father wasn’t exempt from the shopping fever, as he did buy two full size “khanga’s” for himself as well as souvenirs for the neighbors back home.  After getting back to the guesti and relaxing a bit, we went back out to my favorite 24 hours Tanzanian food place, Baba Nusa.  It was here that I introduced my family to every type of Tanzanian fare that was available; pilau, kuku, chipsi mayai, jegere (peas), maharage (beans), pili pili, and ugali.  After this 8 course meal, we went out to a local Tanzanian watering hole called “The Luxury Pub” for a couple cold (or warm) ones to let them get a feel for the Tanzanian bar experience, which quite honestly, is quite special.

The following day, we said goodbye to Iringa town and headed out on safari.  Since we had so many people, we were able to get the 8 person open air safari truck, which was awesome.  We were able to make it out to the game park in time for lunch, which at the lodge was fantastic.  I won’t go into details about the lodge because I think I expanded on how great the food and rooms were in a blog post last year from when my friends came.  However, I will say that the highlight was probably unknowingly coming upon the pride of 20 or so lions.  As we approached the area, we all started noticing that the number of flies was getting to be unbearable.  Just as we were complaining about an awful stench, my sisters friend jumped back from the side of the vehicle and yelled “Oh my god!! It’s a dead giraffe!”  After looking at the dead giraffe for a second, we realized there were about 6 lions ripping the last meat off the bones.  Another 4 or so were sitting nearby panting heavily, unable to move due to a food coma.  We were literally no less than 5 feet away from these 10 lions.  I’ll admit, I’ve been on several previous safaris, and this was the most scared I had been.  To be sitting in an open air vehicle, with 10 of these huge creatures just staring at you, really makes you realize how small you are.  The driver assured us that they couldn’t do us any harm because they were so full, sort of like me after a large domino’s pizza.  As we slowly drove past, we saw another 3 lions walking towards us, which sort of made me question our drivers assertion that “they couldn’t do anything” when they clearly had enough energy to get up and walk this way, what would stop them from jumping into our car, having a bite to eat, then lapsing back into food coma?  Anyway, we nervously continued through the open area, we realized there was yet another huge lion, this time, the big daddy and a few of the cubs.  All the other lions were females, the ones without the manes, while this was the real live king of the savannah.  It is no understatement to say that he was HUGE.  The cubs were jumping around him, and when one of the cubs sufficiently annoyed daddy, the king let out a roar that prompted us to tell our driver that, thank you very much, we’ve seen enough and that we’d like to head back to camp to make it for OUR dinner.  We were lucky enough to see lions on all three days of our safari as well as ostriches, elephants, jackals, hyenas, giraffes, hippos, and water buffalo.  All in all, it was a huge success.  The last day, we drove to the airstrip to head out to Zanzibar, where we learned that our family was the only people on the flight.  So instead of sharing the plane, our family had an entire bush plane to ourselves, which was absolutely amazing.

The final leg of our trip took us to Zanzibar.  First a night in Stone Town, then 2 days in the Matemwe beach area then 2 days in the Nungwi beach area.  The first night in Stone Town, my good Danish friend from Iringa happened to be there with her sister.  We were able to meet up for a few beers on the balcony overlooking the Zanzibari sunset over the Indian Ocean, then head out to dinner.  Our first two choices happened to be not available, so we ended up at an Indian place that my friend Cecilie had recommended.  My family, most of them having not really tried Indian food agreed, I think for the simple reason they didn’t want to offend Cecilie.  I know for a fact that it was my dads first experience with Indian food.  I couldn’t help but chuckle as I watched him read the menu, finally giving up and asking for recommendations.  In the end though, everything we got was absolutely delicious, and I think most came away being fans of Indian foods.  Again, I can’t tell you how much credit I give to my family not for just jumping in feet first and coming to Africa, but once being here, just completely going with the flow and soaking it all in, both the good, the bad, and the different.  Although it probably did help that the place had a good supply of ice cold Safari Lager, which kept us hydrated throughout the meal.  Our final stop for some after dinner drinks was called “Mercury’s” after the lead singer of the classic rock band Queen, who was actually born in Zanzibar.  The place turned out to have a live band, and after a little bit of talking with them, my dad was able to convince them to sing “Happy Birthday” to my aunts friend Peanut. 

The following day in the morning we had a delicious breakfast on the quaint rooftop area of our hotel before heading out for a Stone Town walking tour and Spice Tour.  After the morning at long last, we boarded a taxi and headed out to the beach.  Not much to say about the last phase of our trip, but as you can imagine, relaxing on the white sand beaches of Zanzibar was the perfect end to an amazing trip.  As I mentioned before, we had two days at one resort and two days at the Doubletree Hotel in another part.  Both were immaculate, but I’d say my highlight was the “all-you-can-eat-all-you-can-drink” all inclusive deal we had at the Doubletree.  After about 4 days of stuffing myself at the afternoon pizza kitchen, I was actually relieved to get back to site.  Obviously the sad part was having to say goodbye to my family yet again.  However, we parted knowing that it would be only about 4 months before I was back in the states to see them again.

On my way back to my village, I again had another going away party.  It seems as if these days, people are on the move.  All the Peace Corps volunteers who came in 3 months before us were on their way out and another couple were leaving for Denmark.  As I wind down here, I guess I should expect this though.  Even myself, just last weekend, I received my official COS date.  I will officially be finished my Peace Corps service on the 25th of October.  I’m still letting that sink in, but in the meantime, I’ll be making arrangements for my friends to escort me(Michigan jersey in hand) directly from the airport to the Michigan bar for the game on against Nebraska on October 27th…..

Full Circle

23 06 2012

These past two weeks, I had the opportunity to be the “Welcome Host” for the new group of volunteers.  I also successfully completed the Ruaha Half-Marathon in my banking town of Iringa.  A huge group of volunteers came in to either run it or to cheer us on, and celebrate at the BBQ we planned afterwards.  My goal was to come in under 1:45, and to my surprise I came in at 1:31.  I’m not sure how accurate the distance was, but I was still super pumped that I did so well.  Another volunteer came in at a blazing fast 1:20 and we had two Peace Corps girls take home overall 2nd and 3rd place female awards.  To all of our surprise, this included some decent sized cash prizes/medals/certificates.  In the evening after the race we all got together at another ex-volunteers house that lives in Iringa to celebrate two birthdays and grill out.  I’ve got pictures posted online but in short it was a fantastic day.  Not only did everyone do a great job at the race but we got to eat cheeseburgers, guacamole, chips, chicken jambalaya, and drink some cold beers together.  The weekend after the race I headed up to Dar to help welcome in the new volunteers.  Me and another one of my fellow volunteers, Fo, were the lucky ones chosen.  It is one of the more coveted assignments as a Peace Corps volunteer since you get to be the first volunteer to meet the incoming training class.  It’s also kind of cool because I remember the two volunteers who were the welcome hosts for our training class.  Even though we have many volunteers that come in to give sessions during the 3 months of training, the “Welcome Hosts” were some of the few volunteers that I remembered distinctly, for a variety of reasons.  For one, they are the first Peace Corps volunteer faces you see in country.  For another, I remember them speaking Kiswahili with the Peace Corps staff and being absolutely floored.  I thought to myself, “shit, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to do that”.  They are also completely bombarded with questions.  As you can imagine, incoming volunteers have no shortage of questions.  I remember feeling slightly sorry for our welcome hosts because we asked them questions non-stop for the entire week they were there.  After last week though, I got to experience this from the other end. 

Fo and I arrived in Dar 2 days before the new volunteers actually got there to prepare a few sessions for the volunteers as well as get more information on what we’d be helping with.  During the day we hung at the Peace Corps office planning our sessions, but in the evening, we were able to enjoy the delicious variety of food selections in Dar.  It just so happened that at the same time Fo and I were in town, a handful of other volunteers were in town also on their way to pick up family members as well as take care of other business.  Three volunteers were actually on their way to Senegal to get training for a third year extension project doing malaria research.  Since there were so many volunteers in town, it wasn’t difficult finding people to go out and eat delicious food with.  We had such things as chicken shwarma, ice cream sundaes, burritos, as well as legit chicken sandwiches with fountain drinks and ICE CUBES.  Yea, this was the fast food chicken place across from the movie theatre where I got to go and see MIB3 in 3D along with another volunteer and her family who happened to be in town.  After relaxing for the two days prior to the volunteer’s arrival, we moved over to the Peace Corps training center in Dar to await the new volunteers arrival.  I remember that two years ago, my groups’ flight didn’t get in until around mid-night and when we got in we were completely exhausted.  This group however got lucky and was at the training center by around 7:30pm.  They got from the airport to the training center so quick that Fo, I, and another one of the Peace Corps staff members had to cut our dinner of chipsi mayai and soda short to rush back to the center to meet the volunteers.  As we got back to the center, the buses with the volunteers were just pulling in.  It was the first of many flashbacks during this past week.  I tried to remember what the heck I was thinking as I walked off the bus into the same training center.  After the volunteers got settled, there was only a short session to get them started on their malaria meds then Fo and I did a short session on how things worked at the training center.  As I was doing the session, I tried to remember how I was feeling and what I was thinking as I spent my first night in Africa.

The remainder of the week of training was awesome.  The new group of volunteers is amazing, really excited, and really full of energy.  Even though I’m nearing the end of my service, it even got me re-energized to go back to my site.  The week consisted of Fo and I doing a few sessions on our experience with our home stay families as well as a session on “Introduction to Tanzanian Culture” which was a fairly brief overview of the major differences new volunteers will encounter.  It was an absolute blast.  I also can’t believe, as I’ve mentioned before how comfortable I was getting in front of this group of more than 47 people and giving an hour long presentation.  I remember being petrified to even do small things in front of my own training group of only 37 people.  In addition to doing a few sessions in Dar, I was asked to help with another session on Safety and Security in Morogoro.  Since my students were taking exams and the only thing I was really missing was invigilating (proctoring) exams, I said why not.  It also gave me a chance to go back, probably for the last time to CCT in Morogoro where we did all of our training.  In addition to helping do the session, I got to see my LCF (small group teacher) for the first time in over a year.  When I got off the bus, I yelled her name and she screamed she was so excited.  We ran to hug each other and catch up on life.  I also had a huge smile on my face because we still keep in touch via Facebook but haven’t actually seen each other since last year.  We had a great time catching up and reminiscing about our CBT group.  During the couple of days in Morogoro I also had the chance to see my host Mama.  This was also fantastic, as this time around, I was actually able to have a full, in-depth conversation with her.  I also got to see Arisha, the little guy (her son) who couldn’t even walk the last time I saw him, who now is running around and talking up a storm.  When I showed up to my mamas house, Arisha looked at me in a quizzical way.  My mama kept asking him if he remembered me from the picture of me with the family inside the house.  I think the little guy knew who I was from the picture but was kind of shocked to see me standing there in person.  My mama here really knows me too well because as soon as we exchanged greetings, she got me an ice cold beer from her small shop out front and we sat and chatted about how my school was going, her new project of keeping pigs, and about how my other little sister went off to private school in Uganda.  In addition to hanging out with my mama, I got to meet up with my mamas neighbor across the street, whom I knew really well from my time in Morogoro as well.  I can’t describe how amazing it was to come back, be conversational in Kiswahili, and see how far I’ve really come in the last two years.  It was quite a surreal experience, and gave me a feeling of accomplishment to realize I was able to create and maintain these relationships in a second language.

Not only was re-living the beginning of my training, catching up with my LCF and host mama amazing, but I also loved the chance to really get to know the other training staff at Peace Corps.  Many of the staff who trains us as volunteers do just that; train us then send us off into the real world.  It was awesome being able to get to know them better and to work alongside them.  When I was actually doing my training two years ago, I don’t really think I realized how hard they worked and how much they really believe in what they are doing.  For two of the nights in Morogoro I had the chance to eat with and get to know better the two guys who comprise the medical unit at Peace Corps as well as the safety and security officer.  They didn’t have to, but they invited me out to eat with them both nights at a pretty nice place in town called “The Oasis”.  I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this place in previous posts way back but in short, the food is great, the beer is cold, and the TV is flat.  The 4 or 5 of us ate food fit for kings and got to watch a couple of the EuroCup matches on the big screen.  Again, I got to know these guys as more than just someone I call when I have diarrhea, I got to know them as people and as friends.

So yea, as I scan through this post I realize that it’s all over the place.  What I am trying to communicate is basically the title of the post, that things have really come full circle for me and that the reality that I’ll soon be an RPCV is setting in.  I’m starting to reflect on my experience more and realize how it has affected me and what effect I’ve maybe had on other people.  When I got back from my village, some of the people were honestly scared I had left without saying goodbye.  I had to reassure them that I was actually there and that I had just went to welcome the new group of volunteers.  When I got into this explanation, they naturally start to tell me that I don’t have much time here.  I try to tell them that I still have about 4 months, then they counter and say that it’s not really that much time.  It’s also crazy to see some of my other good friends here getting ready to leave next month.  There was a volunteer here in Iringa, a good friend, who didn’t ever really have a plan to extend and was pretty well ready to leave, but when I saw her this weekend, she was on the verge of tears.  She admitted to me that saying goodbye to her village was actually a lot more difficult of a task than she expected.  The shock that she was leaving was finally hitting her.  While I don’t think I’m quite at that point, I’m starting to be much more aware of my surroundings here and enjoy every minute of it.  As I mentioned before, the fact that my replacement in the new training class has arrived, really made it real that these new trainees were just starting out on their adventure as mine was coming to a close.  Another volunteer who texted me during the training after inquiring about the new training group said “Ah, Mzimbazi Center, the gate to a crazy, cool, hard-as-it-gets amazing adventure!”  I smiled to myself as I received that message, thinking to myself how true it really was.  I can’t count the number of times that I’ve counted down the number of days until my departure but I found myself telling the new volunteers that I still had plenty of time here and that I’ve still got a long way to go, but I think that was just me realizing that I will miss this experience more than I anticipated.  At some points I actually found myself wishing that I could start it all over again and experience it all again, the ups, the downs, the good times, the bad times, and everything else in between.  The entire week I was with the new class I kept having flashbacks and memories of my time there.  I really can’t wait to go back and read my first few blog entries about how I was feeling when I got here, and how much far I’ve come since then in so many ways.

The Path Less Traveled

19 05 2012

So I realize it’s been a while since I’ve posted last.  I actually had a blog post all written up on my computer and was just waiting until I went into town to post it.  However, I just received a message from an old friend who is doing similar work as me and making some of the similar sacrifices that are fairly rare with people our age and I realized that what I was about to post seemed extremely negative.  Okay maybe not negative, but maybe lamenting the fact that I was here in Tanzania.  I’m not sure how it comes off most of the time, but as I’ve said before, I don’t (not even a little bit) regret my decision to join the Peace Corps.  Of course I don’t always realize how I sound when I writing because I usually just let my thoughts flow onto the page (or into the computer) and write what I’m feeling or what is going through my head at the time.  I do admit that more recently I’ve had more dreams about being at home, and that I can’t lie about.  The funny thing , and I’m pretty sure I mentioned this before, is that when I was there in America, I would sit in my cubicle and daydream about living the simple life in some mud hut in Africa, teaching the next generation of Nobel Prize winners, and basically changing the world.  What I’ve discovered however is that changing the world isn’t as easy or as glorious as it’s made out to be, or at least was made out to be in my head before I got here.  I don’t know what I really expected, but I thought that kids would flock to the classroom, starry eyed, taking in all the wealth of knowledge of I was willing to give them and that things would be just grand.  In reality, probably about a quarter of all my students never come to class or flat out skip my class.  The thing about being the only teacher who actually follows the schedule here is that the kids know exactly when I’ll show up to teach so for a large group of them they know exactly when to leave the classroom so they don’t have to sit through a period of mathematics.  There are literally students, who after I overhear their conversations, learn are actually kids that should be in my class but that I have literally never seen them, not even once.   Add to this the fact that as of recently, my house has in fact been broken into, or rather snuck into, at least 5 times that I know of and you could say it’s been a slightly trying past month.  I’m 99% sure it’s kids, most likely kids from my school because things like candy and magazines from America, money, and various kitchen utensils were stolen.  And before you ask “Why don’t you lock your door??”, the answer is that I lock the several doors that it takes to get into my house but that doesn’t stop them from climbing through the bars in the windows that aren’t close enough together to do any good.  And to top it off, just recently a teacher at my school tried to seriously injure a student and had to be removed from school premises by the police.  Oh, and he also happened to be a friend of mine.  This series of events again makes me ask myself the question that I’ve asked myself countless times before, “What the hell am I doing with my life over here?” I then get to the point of daydreaming about life in America.  But then I realize “Hey, just before I got here, wasn’t I dreaming about life over here in Africa?”  So back to why I decided to scrap the majority of my previous post, and quit my moaning and complaining.  My friend sent me a message that contained the following sage wisdom (I hope he/she won’t mind me using it since it’s anonymous; it’s just too good not to be shared):

“Whether you choose the status quo or the path less traveled, I think the key is to just fully commit to whatever you (choose to be) are doing.  Enjoy it, don’t spend it wishing you were doing something else.  I think it’s this discord that prevents us from bringing Joy, Peace, and Love into the world, which I think is our entire job here on earth, as you once told me, living how Jesus lived.  And the only way we can do that is to be alive in whatever it is we are doing, from the simplest thing like washing the dishes to the grandest thing like speaking in the courtroom.”

I have some pretty amazing friends huh?  But I truly believe the above is absolutely true.  The timing is funny because I just read some of the similar advice recently from a book called “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” by Bill Bryson.  The gist is that life is too special to wish you were doing something else all the time, because in the end, you may find that you’ve wished your whole life away.  I really do believe in what I’m doing here.  Whether what I’m doing is making as big of a difference as I’d hoped for is another question, but judging from the students reactions, telling me they will miss me and that the school will miss my laughter and that they want another volunteer just like me to come in August (when the newbies get here), I think I can safely say I’ve at least made a year or two of school more enjoyable for a handful of students.  Heck, I’ve even learned another language, another way of life, and made a whole new group of friends so in the grand scheme of things I can’t get too down on myself.  It’s amazing that every time things aren’t going well here, I get a boost of encouragement from someone back home, like they have me hooked up to some type of device that monitors my mood and sees that “oh geez, here he goes again having second thoughts, I’d better pull him up by his shorts and remind him what he’s actually doing there.” So from here on out, I’m really going to concentrate on my job here and try to keep myself totally immersed in it and enjoy every second of it because as I know, and as other volunteers have told me, you’ll miss it.  I know this is true, but every time I dump that cold bucket of water over me at bath time or every time I bite into yet another mouthful of tasteless white bread and/or rice I think to myself “Are they really sure I’ll miss this?”

All this being said, there is a practical reason for at least thinking about what I’ll do when I get home.  When I do get home, I’ll need a place to live and a way to feed myself.  I don’t yet know the exact date of my return, but if all goes well it will be October 26th (1 day before Michigan Football places an 8:00pm prime time game against Nebraska at Nebraska).  I find myself increasingly (more than I normally did last year) daydreaming about hot showers, Asian cuisine, delivery pizza, cold weather, FOOTBALL, and being home for Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family.  I’ll even have moments where I bite into a spoonful of rice, beans, and hot sauce and close my eyes and imagine it tastes like a Chipotle burrito, or I’ll take a sip of an ice cold coke, close my eyes and imagine I’m sitting by the pool on a hot summer day, or the other day when, even though I live nowhere near a source of water, swore I caught the scent of seawater on the air and closed my eyes to imagine myself relaxing on the beach in Ocean City, MD.  Home is so close at this point that I can literally taste it and smell it.  I think part of it is that currently many of my good friends who arrived in country 3 months before me have received their “COS” dates, that is their “Close of Service” dates, meaning they know the exact day they’ll be leaving the country.  As I mentioned, as practical matter, I actually do need to start thinking about what I’ll do once I get home.  I’ll have no house, no car, and only a bag or two full of clothes.  I’ll basically be wiping the slate clean and starting over.  Luckily I’ve had no shortage of friends and my sister who have offered to house me until I can get back on my feet.  Once June hits, I’ll start getting my resume together and at least start browsing the job market.  I’ve mentioned it to a handful of my friends and family, but I’d actually like to get a job with the Home Depot in a mid-career rotational program.  Before I left this was one of the places that I was seriously going to apply to if the Peace Corps thing didn’t work out.  I’ve got several friends who work there and absolutely love it.  I know, going from the wild and wonderful life of a Peace Corps volunteer to working at Home Depot corporate sounds like an odd decision, but like I said, my friends who work there say it’s challenging, filled with smart people, and that it’s a lot of fun.  As part of the rotational position I’m thinking about, you get to work hours in the actual store, which is a super cool idea to me.  My buddy told me that last year he got to work every Friday in the actual store and helped with the Christmas tree display which again sounds like something awesome.  To wear a pair of work boots, jeans, and gloves, helping to unload a truck full of Christmas trees, helping some family pick out the perfect Christmas Tree (a tree even Clark Griswold would be proud of), wearing a tool belt and pencil in your ear (because I feel like I’d need to measure or mark something), sounds great to me.  Call me crazy, but we’ll see how it all turns out.  This is just one scenario but who really knows what the heck will happen once I get back.  I just feel like I have this clean slate, this fresh new perspective, this refreshing feeling, and that I can start from scratch and really do whatever I want.  I can’t really describe the feeling but before Peace Corps I always had this anxious feeling, maybe I was scared I wouldn’t have the guts to actually go and do something like Peace Corps, but I knew that it was one of my life goals. I put a lot of things on hold and hesitated to make any long term commitments because I always had that urge in the back of my mind to one day eventually live overseas, and now that I’m almost through, I feel like I can just be a lot more content knowing that a huge life goal of mine is nearly accomplished.

Aside from my musing about the end of my service, I’m hard at work trying to make the most of my last few months teaching.  My students have only about 1 month (edit: 2 weeks) remaining before they take their “Mock” exams.  These are similar the “pre-ACT” tests in America.  They are basically identical to the tests that will decide the rest of their life in October to get them comfortable with the format as well as to be able to diagnose any weak points that they can still get help with before the actual exam.  I think I mentioned before about two weekends a month I’ll have extra study periods on Saturdays where students can come to get help.  On the teaching front, it’s business as usual.  However, I still find it amazing how comfortable I’ve becoming teaching classes of up to 60 students and speaking in front of people.  Before joining Peace Corps, this was a weakness that I fully recognized and hoped that I could improve, and I’m confident that I’ve improved many times over in this area.  Along those lines, I’ve also applied to be a “Welcome Host” for the newest Education training class that will arrive in Tanzania in early June.  My job would be to basically help the 40 or so new volunteers get from the airport to the facility in Dar es Salaam where they’ll spend their first week getting briefed on what exactly to expect in Tanzania.  Most of my duties will be to answer as many questions they have as humanly possible.  It may seem like a small job but I can assure you that when my group of trainees came in there was an endless supply of questions about life here in Tanzania.  In addition, I’d have the opportunity to co-facilitate a session with the Country Director of Tanzania on “Professionalism within Peace Corps Tanzania”.  I’ve submitted my application and suggested lesson plan, so I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll be chosen (edit: I was selected!  I’ll be working with one other volunteer to help transition the new training group of volunteers into Peace Corps life). 

Outside of work, I’ve been training for the Ruaha Half-Marathon.  I know I talked a big game about doing the Kilimanjaro Marathon but the timing just didn’t work out and the distance to travel was just too much.  However, I’m 100% committed to doing this race later in the month.  A big group of mostly the people I hang out with in town have signed up for it.  It’s the inaugural race, so I can officially say I’ll be a part of the first one ever run.  In addition, two of the other volunteers birthdays fall around the same time so we are trying to do a post-race BBQ somewhere in town.  It may well be the last time that a lot I see my friends before they start to make their way home and complete their service.  Along with eagerly anticipating the race weekend, I’m counting down the days until my parents/sister/aunt/aunt’s friend/sister’s friend come to visit, which is only a month and a half away (edit: one month).  I haven’t seen my family in person in over a year and I can’t describe in words how much I’m anticipating them coming and seeing them as well as showing them where the heck I’ve been living for the last two years.  My Aunt however has instructed me that I’d better try to get rid of any type of creepy-crawly animals around my house in the village before she visits, so I’ll be busy working on that 🙂

Q1: 2012

4 04 2012

So I think where I left off in my last post of returning home from my holiday break.  In actuality I didn’t have much time to rest in my village before I had to jump back on a bus and head to Dar es Salaam for our Mid-Service Training.  This particular conference was a lot more laid back than the IST that we had been to earlier the past year.  It is basically a time for volunteers to come in, get medical appointments, talk about any major updates, and go through the process of extending your service (if you so choose to).  Out mid-service training also successfully bankrupted many a Peace Corps volunteers.  Again, we come back to that most favorite topic of all Peace Corps; food.  Most volunteers indulged (me included) in eating burritos, tacos, thai food, pizza, burgers, as well as hitting up the casino (I actually won 40,000 Tsh!), as well as a few nights at the Holiday Inn rooftop bar.  All in all though, it was worth the price multiple times over to have the opportunity to hang with other volunteers from my training class, some of which I haven’t seen for about a year. 

As I’ve mentioned, a decent part of the mid-service training included session on how to extend your service.  There are a multitude of options from extending at your site in the village to extending with various projects for USAID.  I think I’ve mentioned it before, but I am one of those who will not be extending my contract.  First, I think my parents would kill me.  Second, I’ll be 27 when I get back, and I want to begin to start building up a life again back in the States.  It’s not to say that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed my service, but at this point in my life 2.5 years is a lot of time.  In the past few months, 5 of my good friends have gotten engaged, and I’ll be missing 3 of the weddings.  I don’t know what I thought would happen when I was gone.  People are getting married/engaged, building careers, buying houses, you know, adult-like things.  Sometimes it feels like I’m just sitting here in this African limbo as life kind of runs by me.  I realize that in certain respects it appears that I’m taking a step back career-wise or relationship-wise, but I think that it’s more of a side-step than a step backwards.  That the reason I came here is so that down the road I will be in a position to achieve a greater level of personal contentment.  For me, even though I complain about the loneliness and homesickness and all that, this is something I needed to do. Without the struggle or personal challenge, I don’t think I’d be nearly as happy in the long run.  I’m trying to keep a healthy excitement for when I come home later this year, but at the same time I’m trying to take each day, one at a time, and enjoy the little things that I’ll probably end up missing when I do get back home.  I’ve recently started to really try to take it all in and enjoy it all while I can.  Living in the village has its drawbacks; no electricity, no water, boredom, etc.  However, most evenings these days I try to get my dinner of peanut butter and honey sandwiches, fruit, and a cup of tea and just sit outside in my yard and watch the day come to a close.  I listen to the cornstalks make that oddly distinct eerie rustling noise as the wind blows through the rows of maize, I listen to the neighbors chickens squawking as they are herded into their pen, I watch the overgrown blades of grass twist and turn in the breeze, I watch the sun sink below the horizon as it casts the last few rays of dazzling red, orange, and purple across the sky, I watch the daylight be peeled back to reveal the moon beginning to rise and the stars slowly fading into focus, and occasionally if I’m lucky I’ll catch an approaching thunderstorm, the dazzling array of lightning bolts crashing down and illuminating the nighttime sky.

The first quarter of the year in the classroom has also been exponentially easier than last year.  After returning from mid-service training I was able to step right in and hit the ground running in the classroom.  I think I mentioned before but I followed my students here from Form 3 to Form 4 mathematics this year.  It’s all of the same students so they know what I expect from them and they know what to expect from me.  In addition to teaching Form 4, I also helped a few weeks in teaching the new Form 1 students.  When the students arrive in secondary school the language of instruction changes from Kiswahili to English and so there is an 8 week English crash course that they go through before actually starting classes.  For a period or two per week I worked with these students to review things like telling time, following instructions, and using mathematical terminology; all in English.  It’s amazing how different teaching the younger students is than teaching the older students.  The Form 1 students don’t run from class and are not yet quite jaded by the broken system and thus a large number still have great optimism about working hard in secondary school.  Since this is the last year for my Form 4 students before they take their national exams in October to determine if they will continue their education, I’ve started to have something similar to open office hours on Saturday mornings.  These sessions have a laid back, relaxed atmosphere so that students can come and ask me questions, use various textbooks that I have, as well as work with other students.  Since a large number of students are actually scared to enter the teachers office where I sit during the week, for fear of being beat with a stick or made to serve other teachers chai who are too lazy to get up themselves, they don’t come to ask for help.  These Saturdays give them a much more relaxed environment in which to study, and thus far based on their feedback, have been very helpful. 

In addition to things going well within the classroom, I was also able to be a part of an education conference in town, put on by the JICA (Japanese) and KOIKA (Korean) volunteers in town.  I knew a few of the JICA volunteers from hanging out in town and I was invited to participate in a demo teaching session so that both students and other teachers alike could critique my teaching methods so that I could improve myself as well as so that other teachers could get ideas on more effective ways of teaching.  Me, along with 3 other volunteers where invited to do sessions in the classroom as well as session in the laboratory.  It was a great experience and a truly cool experience, to have an event with so many different cultures and perspectives being shared to achieve a common goal.  The evening after the last session, the JICA volunteers invited me out to a celebratory dinner with them which consisted of me and about 18 other Japanese and Korean volunteers.  A handful of them spoke English, but for the vast majority of the night it was me communicating with Japanese and Korean volunteers using Kiswahili.  I’m sure to the other Tanzanians in the place, it must have looked very interesting indeed; a huge group of foreigners communicating in their native language.  By this point however, it’s a normal thing for me to be at a table as there are at least 4 languages being spoken.  In this case, Japanese, Korean, English, and Kiswahili could be heard drifting away from conversations at our table.

Other than these few updates, the past three months have been business as usual.  I’m trying to keep my head buried in my teaching and continue to improve my Kiswahili before my time here runs out.  I’ve also been reading a decent number of books.  Most recently I’ve read, in addition to finishing the bible, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, “The Help”, and “The Grapes of Wrath”.  Other than the handful of weekends in town to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day (actually got invited to celebrate with an actual Irishman, the same one which I had Christmas dinner with at the Tanzanian bar), I’ve been in the village making the most of my time.  I also can’t help but to be excited for my family to come at the end of June to show them what the heck my life has been like the past year and a half.  No amount of writing can convey what life is like here.  As of now, we have everything booked for me and 6 other people to come and visit.  The trip will include stops in my village, possibly a stop at the Iringa Girls Conference, Ruaha National Park, and then Zanzibar again.  Visiting tropical paradise with its white sand beaches, aqua-teal water, and cold brews, it never gets old, trust me.

The Real Peace Corps

4 03 2012

So as I was browsing Facebook the other day, I found a blog post by another Peace Corps volunteer that has been floating around and being posted by various Peace Corps volunteers.  The post does a magnificent job of capturing the essence of being a Peace Corps volunteers and the things that we feel and deal with on a daily basis.  It is definitely the most accurate description of life as a Peace Corps volunteer.  Enjoy.