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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Volunteer Heroes

During our most happy time, our triumphal return home after two years serving in the Peace Corps, we received sad news. On our very first day back we got an e-mail informing us of the death of two of the teachers in the new Peace Corps group in Mozambique. We had just meet them briefly during the training session we gave and at their swearing-in ceremony at the ambassador’s residence the week before in Maputo, so we did not know them well personally, but as brothers and sisters in the Peace Corps family we naturally felt a strong bond; the news of their deaths just a couple days before Christmas affected us deeply.  We only got a few details about the circumstances of the tragedy, we know a group of five volunteers were involved in a bad car accident while hitch hiking near the beach in Gaza, Southern Mozambique, and that two died as a result of injuries and the other three were taken to the hospital, at least one with injuries severe enough to end his Peace Corps service. Usually heroes is a word we associate with soldiers, firefighters, or police, men and women willing to put their lives on the line to serve their communities and countries. Peace Corps volunteers may not be in armed combat or have to rush into burning buildings, but they are also asked to make sacrifices. We give up the comforts associated with our lives in the USA, running water, delicious foods, often times electricity, toilets, reliable telecommunications, access to entertainment, but also we give up many of the safety features built into our American lives: seat belts, airbags, well designed and  maintained roads and vehicles, general education campaigns against drunk driving, emergency responders, nearby hospitals, in essence putting our lives at risk to serve the poorer communities of this planet we all live on.  Its not often that a Peace Corps Volunteer dies in the course of their service, these were the first deaths in the history of Peace Corps Mozambique, but this was the case for the two young teachers from Wisconsin and Washington state, aged 22 and 23, recent graduates from college, having just started their service in Mozambique. We thought of them and their families, as well as our friends recovering in the hospital, all throughout Christmas, as we read articles and internet tributes.  We were so happy to have finished our service and with our joyful reunion with our family and friends, and the thought of these two who would never be coming home and the families who sent away their daughters with so many hopes and expectations, only to hear this news; it made us extra grateful for our own circumstances and reminded us of the ephemeral nature and inherent mortality in life. We only have a finite time here on Earth, we are glad we spent two of those years together serving the people of Mozambique.

The newest PC Mozambique group at their Swearing-In Ceremony in Maputo

Home, Jetlag, and Reverse Culture Shock

Mozambique is basically the farthest place from California on the planet. Actually we’ve consulted our world map several times on this issue and there are two countries further from our home in Pasadena, Mauritius Islands and Madagascar, but still Mozambique is really far! If our rocky, unpaved airstrip in Zóbuè could accommodate passenger jets, and there was a direct flight to LAX (Los Angeles International) it would take at least 24 hours of flying and require a mid-air refueling session.  If we somehow booked that hypothetical flight, we would earn over 12,000 frequent flier miles. Needless to say, that flight does not exist, and our sojourn back involved several different planes, layovers, and in flight movies.  After two years of travel in Africa, we had no major complaints, other than Luc’s irrational air-travel anxiety, possibly exaggerated by his malaria prophylaxis’ psycho-side-effects.  Our moms were waiting to greet us at the LAX International Terminal and we went immediately to El Arco, our favorite Mexican food restaurant where the rest of our welcoming committee greeted us as we chowed down on corn chips, enchiladas, burritos with tomatillo sauce, mole, and all those comfort foods we just couldn’t quite replicate in Africa. Our journey took us through progressively more developed cities: Maputo (a huge step over our rural village), Cape Town (way more advanced than Maputo), and Istanbul (a full blown European metropolis), so we had a gradual readjustment to the speed of modern life which helped mitigate our reverse culture shock. Jet lag was another story. Mozambique, Capetown, and Istanbul are all in the same time zone, so we left all of the time shifting for the last 14 hour leg of our journey on the non-stop from Turkey to Los Angeles. 11 time zones left us with an extra ten hours of being awake; we originally planned on sleeping in-flight, but were just way too excited. The trade off was several days of serious jet lag, crashing out at dinner time and waking up at 2am, possibly exacerbated by our non-stop trying to see everyone and do everything schedule. 

Lucas at 8pm on Christmas Day

So now that we’re back in the land of plenty, we’ll see if we can stay at our recommended BMI (Body Mass Index). With a virtually infinite array of tempting foods at our fingertips staying thin will be much more of a challenge than it was in perma-skinny Mozambique, but Janet rejoined her favorite gym and Luc has plenty of hiking and jogging trails nearby. We’ve traveled back and forth between the modern fancy rich part of the world and the poor less-developed traditional part of the world several times, so reverse culture shock wasn’t too bad, but we’ve still had a few moments of culture related anxiety attacks: trying to get the remote control to work, realizing we had nothing fashionable to wear to Janet’s ten year HS reunion, walking into the AT&T store and looking at all the different models of iPhone, opening up piles and piles of X-mas presents, all the while thinking of how simple our lives were back in Zóbuè. 

Janet's Dad's house post gift opening

We’ve tried not to convert prices from dollars back into meticais, or think about how many months we could live in Africa on the amount of money spent on an evening out here in Los Angeles. But we are glad to be home, especially with so many people around for Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. Even though we don’t have jobs, or cars, or phones, or a place of our own to live, or any of those items we once considered luxuries but people here seem to think are necessities, we are confident things will work out for us.  We’ve heard the question “So, what are you going to do now?” at least 200 times, basically everyone has asked us. Luc is going back to UCLA to finish his dissertation on Education for Sustainable Development based on the research he did while living in India just before Peace Corps. The project has basically been on hold for two years, so hopefully it reignites without too many hitches. Janet’s future is less constrained, and involves finding some sort of meaningful employment, hopefully in the International Health Education field. We don’t know where that job will be geographically, but we would like to stay near our families, which live mainly in California. In the meantime we have lots of friends and family to catch up with and are expecting a new niece this month. We have thousands of pictures to sort through; we have some wardrobe shopping to do and various of our favorite museums to visit, so many new books to peruse at the library, endless food sensations waiting for us at Los Angeles’ endless assortment of eateries, and recipes to try out with the grocery store’s limitless array of exciting ingredients. We would like to take a couple of road trips and reacquaint ourselves with USA and maybe visit some of our new Peace Corps friends now scattered across the country.  Africa feels distant now. We try to keep up, reading the news on the internet and following the blogs of the current volunteers living in Zobue (Lisa and Dan), but it’s all quickly fading into the past. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

Istanbul, Turkey

When flying Turkish Air, you have to stop in Istanbul, so we decided to take advantage of the layover and make it into a mini-vacation. The modern network of subway, buses, and metro rail facilitated circulating through the massive city, and being wintertime low-season, we had this staple of package tourism almost to ourselves, sharing mainly with local Turkish tourists. After two years in Africa, Istanbul had a very metropolitan feel and with ancient monuments in site everywhere, it felt much more historic than anything in our part of Africa. Situated on several hilltops and surrounded by various narrow bodies of water, every direction tempted the photographer’s eye with panoramic vistas, so even though we are only amateurs with a little point-and-shoot digital machine, we still took nearly 400 pictures during our short stay.

The city’s countless mosques with their myriad minarets, each trying to outdo its neighbor in projecting the call to prayer from its megaphones left no doubt when the faithful should face Mecca and comply with their religious duties. For us the five times daily cacophony of Arabic was a convenient way to mark our daily activities: waking up, breakfast, lunch, mid afternoon snack, and time to head home.

Food in Istanbul is omnipresent and amazing. Markets burst in cornucopias of fresh fruits and produce priced very reasonably. We treated ourselves to pomegranate, dried apricots, and apples. There is no peanut butter, but we discovered hazelnut chocolate spread just as good for making snack sandwiches. Street vendors make sure you are never more than a two minute walk from the nearest sesame seed bagels, called simits, pastries, or fire roasted chestnuts.

Tea vendors find you even in the most obscure places, like on top of the cities ancient walls. Luc’s favorite vegetable eggplant is everywhere, and in every form.

Potatoes are also taken to creative extremes, often times unrecognizably camouflaged by toppings,

and bright windows full of sweet desserts, baklava, and Turkish delights entice even the most regimented of dieters as they wander the avenues.

For the bargain hunter there is the Grand Bazaar, an entire covered section of the old city spanning several city blocks where you can find anything from antique carpets, to tourist curios, to plastic junk manufactured in China. We took advantage to do some last minute Christmas shopping.

Istanbul is most definitely a European city when it comes to walking. Even a drizzly afternoon created no visible reduction of volume in the river of Turkish pedestrians clad almost exclusively in dark colorless winter attire.

Istanbul, having served as capital of various empires, had more historic sites than even Luc could try to visit on a three day layover, so we tried to get a representative mix of the highlights: imperial mosques,

ancient Christian churches with golden mosaics,

the more than opulent Topkapi Palace where the Ottaman sultans reigned,

the roman aqueduct and city walls,

the Genoese fortifications,

and even an underground Byzantine cistern.

We took a ferry cruise across the Bosphorus to the Asian side of the city, which seemed no less European to our casual visit. We enjoyed the views from the boat, but locals seemed busy feeding the seagulls ensuring flocks of birds around each vessel.

Janet found time at one of the centuries old Turkish baths to get the full clean experience where a young masseuse scrubbed off two years of accumulated African grime. Still, despite the amazing opportunity for a mini Istanbul vacation courtesy of Turkish Air, we were longing to be home, and secretly enjoyed the fact that we only had three days there and soon enough found ourselves on a USA bound jet plane.

Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town is not only the oldest city in Southern Africa, founded by Dutch settlers in 1652, it’s also the most picturesque, built between a seafront and the dramatic Table Mountain, and enjoys a temperate California climate year round. Given its tourism credentials, and its extremely inconvenient distance from the USA, we thought it best to visit before we permanently departed the Motherland.

We found Cape Town much more inviting and walkable than sketchy Johannesburg, South Africa’s apocalyptic version of Los Angeles, and Southern Africa’s largest and most dangerous metropolis. But even postcard perfect Cape Town has its dark side. Given the recent history of apartheid, race relations in the city are still viscerally tense, and violent crime is a constant threat. Having navigated cross-cultural challenges continuously during the past two years, we had plenty of skills to cope with these obstacles, but in South Africa everything is exaggerated, probably explaining why the country’s Peace Corps completion rate is the lowest in the entire Peace Corps. We explored some of this history on a tour at the Robben Island maximum security prison; the site of Nelson Mandela’s captivity during some of South Africa’s darkest times.

Segregation far exceeds levels we are accustomed to in the United States with many posh all-white neighborhoods surrounded by more distant ghetto-style black townships. We also had an unsavory taste for the ever-present danger of violence when an aggressive street hustler threatened to cross the line in downtown Cape Town, but the police quickly intervened, weapons in hand. It’s something that happens in all big cities, but with one of the largest wealth disparities between rich and poor, and white and black, its all the more common in South Africa.

Despite the disagreeable underlying realities which make Cape Town a place neither of us would like to live in, it is an amazing place to visit. The city is full of historical sites, parks, and museums, everything having received a facelift for the 2010 World Cup. We stayed on a pedestrian avenue were we could walk to an array of funky restaurants, souvenir shops, or curio stands.

We rented a little car and saw all the big sites, including a driving tour of wine country, and a road-trip all the way to the Southwestern-most point of the continent, the Cape of Good Hope, where baboons tried to hitch a ride on our windshield and Luc led our group on a walking safari where we encountered a herd of large Bontebok antelope with babies and a group of ostriches running on the beach.

We also visited the largest colony of breeding African penguins in a protected cove.

Another highlight involved hiking the city’s dramatic topography to countless amazing views, including the very top of Table Mountain, recently declared one of the 7 new Natural Wonders of the World.

We enjoyed the steep hike up, but decided to take the scenic cable car down.

Culinary highlights included Mexican-like food, eating extremely big sandwiches at a sports bar, Ethiopian food, and several picnics full of chips, cheese, crackers, olives, and other assorted snacks not available in Mozambique, purchased at the outrageously American supermarkets. We even got a candle light Christmas concert in spectacularly beautiful, Kristenbosch, one of the premiere botanical gardens in the world specializing in the unique Cape Floral Kingdom.

South Africa is the most American of places in Africa, and indeed a few times it actually felt like we were back in the USA, in a fully stocked grocery store, or at the mall all decked out in Christmas decorations, or hiking on a well maintained and signposted trail, or dining in a sports bar, which was admittedly showing rugby instead of football, but the club sandwiches were just as obscenely stuffed with chicken and bacon as you would expect back in the USA.

Our COS Trip, 4 Continents in 10 Days

After Completion of Service there is the trip home; some volunteers take the first flight back to America, but more commonly volunteers have a tradition of rewarding themselves with at least a few stops along the way to visit some of those places they failed to squeeze in during their busy two years of service. Some volunteers take the COS trip to the extreme, extending the voyage to as many countries as their limited budget permits. We had several volunteers from other African countries stay at our house on extravagant Capetown to Cairo trips and our PC Malawi neighbor took over three months touring India and Southeast Asia before finding his way back to America after completing his stint. We originally envisioned a grand celebratory road trip of our own hitting up all the highlights in Southern Africa; fantasizing about a leisurely COS trip got us through several low points during our two years. However, as our close of service approached and we ticked off most of the regional destinations on our must-see-list, we felt more eager to get home for all our family Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. We drastically abbreviated our trip, focusing on Janet’s favorite city on the continent, Cape Town, South Africa. In addition, Turkish Air was the cheapest flight home from Cape Town to Los Angeles, so we extended our layover in Istanbul as a bonus. Since the Turkish metropolis occupies two continents, extending across the Bosphorus Strait that divides Europe and Asia, our nearly 12,000 miles took us to four of the Earth’s seven landmasses, Africa, Europe, Asia, and finally North America.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Completion of Service (COS) Week

All volunteers go through a very formal week-long Completion of Service ordeal at the Peace Corps Office in the capital city, Maputo. It involves a long checklist of administrative tasks, like a final Portuguese language evaluation (we both got advanced), getting all our Meticais out of the bank and closing our account, pages and pages of forms to sign or get signed by various Peace Corps staff, the comprehensive medical check-up (including the three stool samples that form the base of so many Peace Corps jokes), and the final interview with our Country Director. The big city is helping us along in the cultural readjustment process. Staying in our fancy little Peace Corps hotel, with air conditioning, hot water showers, and cable TV, in a city full of so much traffic, so many restaurants, so many friends to hang out with, it’s all a little overwhelming for a couple of volunteers fresh from two years out in the bush (especially for Luc, Janet actually seems to enjoy the change of pace). We had a little piece of reverse culture shock with an all you can eat pizza lunch with the new volunteers just finishing training; we left the Peace Corps Office looking like a college party gone wrong.

The Peace Corps Director also invited all the volunteers completing their two year stints to his shwanky pad overlooking the Indian Ocean, for a gourmet home cooked meal.

We got a very brief chance to say goodbye to our host mother in Namaacha, our training town, by volunteering to lead the session on Information and Communication Technology for the new group. The good-bye was interrupted by the Peace Corps car just as our mom pulled some samosas off the fire. The new volunteers swore in on December 8, reminding us of our own swearing in exactly 2 years before, and then on December 9 we officially finished our service and gave our last good-byes to Peace Corps.

We were thrilled to have a chance to sit down with Dan and Lisa, the lucky new married couple who will be moving into our little house in Zóbuè next week. They are wonderful and have lots of exciting project ideas. Zóbuè will be lucky to have them!

We are now RPCVs, the R standing for Returned although Peace Corps Volunteers like to joke that it stands for Recovering. We’re heading out on the night bus for a short COS trip in South Africa. We’ll be back in America December 20!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Good Bye Zóbuè

After two years in site, all of a sudden we find ourselves in our last week in Zóbuè. Good-byes are always emotional, but this one feels extra intense since, due to great distance and poor communications infrastructure, our Mozambique life will be completely divorced from our life back in America. Departures are ceremonious and very important in African culture. People in town still talk about how one volunteer left suddenly without saying a proper goodbye. We scheduled a whole week with no other obligations except preparing our little house for the next volunteers and organizing our farewell events. We really wanted to make sure to do everything right and include everyone, which given our special status here literally means everyone in our entire town. We made visits to all our special friends’ homes or market stalls, giving out small gifts and saying many very formal good-bye speeches. We had students come by our home and say good-byes while we boxed things up and tried to organizer two years’ worth of lesson plans and sort the gems from the junk in our piles. Junk ended up in a giant pile in the front yard, which Romao enjoyed burning for us.

We couldn’t get to everyone personally, so we made use of some community events to help broadcast our farewell message. We had a final faculty meeting in which the school director gave us the floor to summarize our achievements at school and say adieu. Even better, the teachers organized an end of the year party which doubled as a farewell party for us since it coincided with our last day. Everyone said nice things about us, and we formally presented some materials to our school, some English-Portuguese dictionaries, a soccer ball, and photos of all our secondary projects, before digging into the barbecued meats. We also presented African style shirts to our two vice-principals as a thank you to all the support they gave us over the past 24 months and gave each of our colleagues one of the pictures of us and family that had been decorating the walls in our little house as a remembrance. It all ended with a ceremonious cake cutting of the extra fancy cake Janet baked and decorated with colored icing (no Mozambican party would be complete without a wedding style cake ceremony).

Our very last morning was a Sunday and the Padres called us to the front of the congregation to say some words. Luc gave his entire farewell in Chichewa to great applause. Then we caught our last African mini-bus and headed down towards the city, catching our last glimpses of Mount Zóbuè through the rear windshield. Our student Zach, who now lives down in the city, accompanied us to the airport and waved farewell and we walked out across the tarmac to catch our jet plane to Maputo.

Friday, November 25, 2011

So Much to be Thankful for!

Living in Africa with our share of hardships and inconveniences, its often easy to think of all the things we had in America and have been doing without for the past two years, but the truth is we have lots to be thankful for here as well. We've been healthy, without any major problems besides that gross bout with intestinal parasites, we've been very safe with no attacks or break-ins, our community loves us, and we have a huge network of fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, who, after two years serving together, feel like our family here. These were our thoughts as we gathered with a group of 20+ volunteers in the Gorongosa National Park to celebrate Thanksgiving. Obviously food is a big part of this holiday, so we did our best to recreate all those dishes everyone was craving with plenty of improvising due to all the African x-factors. We did have the park's industrial kitchen at our disposal, but half the appliances wouldn't work, and the electricity kept cutting out. Luc headed up team pie, and assembled two apple and two pumpkin pies from ground zero, discovering just how much extra work it is to make that orange goo that just comes out of a can back home. We even had a turkey, and although she was a scrawny bird, she provided that all-important Thanksgiving touch to our plates. Janet made everyone get up and say something they were thankful for before digging in, we both mentioned how grateful we have been to have the opportunity to serve for the past two years in this country that has grown so special to us and how much we have appreciate all the support and love from back home for our efforts. We held our festivities in the eco-friendly environmental education center, which blends in with the natural setting of forest and open countryside. Even though we didn't see any wild animals or go on any game drives, we did stay in the fancy safari tents, right out in nature, and drive out to an overlook above the park to watch the sunset with all our friends. It was an especially emotional time for those of us finishing our two years of service since the holiday meant our last chance to say good-bye to many of those gathered.

Beach Getaway

In Peace Corps volunteers abandon all aspects of their lives to fate. We were placed in a little mud brick cottage up in the mountains near the border with Malawi, while we have friends serving in modern air-conditioned teacher's college professor housing next door to beach resorts with views of the ocean. Sometimes it's easy to get jealous, but every site has its pros and cons. Mozambique is famous for its coastline, and Peace Corps Mozambique has a strong beach ethos component to its culture that we feel totally removed from. Now that we're on vacation and done with all our school responsibilities we decided to spend a few days relaxing on the sand down in Inhambane province to decompress from our big end-of-the-year sprint. We met up with a bunch of our teacher friends also on holiday and crashed at our buddy's pad down on the beach. After two years in country, it was our first big beach trip and we thoroughly enjoyed eating fresh seafood, riding horses through the surf, doing crossword puzzles under the coconut trees, and just enjoying catching up with everybody's hilarious PC stories. The beach is also a little edgy. The coast gets a lot of tourists, and coming from our small town where everyone recognizes us as the local school teachers, it was hard being treated just like a cash opportunity for annoying drunks and street hustlers. We've gotten pretty good at dealing with these inconveniences and just focused on enjoying an awesome beach weekend, with plenty of sunshine and good times. It's awesome having a tropical paradise within two days of hitch hiking from site.