Tuesday, December 20, 2011


19 December 2011, 7:54 am, Lisbon, Portugal

So, I probably should have started this blog when I was still in Bamako, but I didn’t really give the whole traveling experience too much thought. Of course, that was dumb because I’m on the trip I’ve been planning since June, and I can’t believe it’s actually happening. I’ve been so excited I couldn’t sleep well for the past few weeks and I’ve had sweaty palms since I woke up yesterday. At around 8 last night my friends Kristin and Emily and I left the Bamako stage house to many hugs and cries of “Eat lots of cheese for me!” to hail a cab. Kristin is going home to America for the holidays, and Emily is meeting her parents and sister in London. Although their flight left about three hours before mine, we split a cab to the airport. The ride is only about 20 minutes, but it’s way on the other side of town, which makes the fare higher, around 5,000 CFA, or ten dollars. I’m poor, so it made more sense to just go with them. I’m glad, though. I was so nervous and excited, and even a little sad about leaving Mali. The last time I drove that way was when I arrived in Mali, nearly eleven months ago. It stirred some nostalgia, which surprised me, but also reaffirmed that I really do love Mali on some level that isn’t always accessible to my living-en-brusse consciousness. For Emily and Kristin it was slightly more poignant, as this would be the last time they leave the country before they leave for good. As long as twenty-seven months sounds, it’s really not. It’s even scarier to realize how fast life comes at you once you have to actually pay attention to making plans for the future. But I digress. This is a happy post about me going to Rome to see Matt, and my feelings and experience getting there.

Once I finally checked in, I had to wait four hours or so until my flight left. Even in the Bamako airport I was beginning to feel the change in culture. I was no longer stared at by every Malian, and I wasn’t scoffed at for using French. I was I was so tired, so I decided to lay down… Only to be woken up by a very kind Malian guard who reminded me that I actually had to board my flight in order to get to my destination. Huh. Funny how that works. So, I was one of the last to board (how tragic would that have been, missing my flight?), and had no problems from there. It was weird. And cool. And I blew some of the guards’ minds by giving them a nighttime blessing in Bambara. And I felt another pang of love for Mali.

When it finally circled to the runway and straightened up, that’s kind of when it hit me. In that moment after you stop driving at what seems like a snail’s pace across the tarmac and right before the pilot guns the engine and you’re mushed back into your seat was when I smiled for the first time in the past seven bleary-eyed hours. I had been looking forward to this moment for six months, and it was finally here. I had a moment’s flashback to the same realization when I left village almost a week prior. It pays to have that emotional memory of “Hey, your trip’s starting, and you’d better remember how this elation feels when the sadness of its end finally hits.” Drawing every moment out of this trip is going to get me through some future hard times, I’m sure of it. And so I left Mali.

When my flight began its descent, I peered out the cold window to a stunning sunrise with layers of the most extreme colors: murky ocean, blood red, neon orange, peach, salmon  and cream, all stacked with milky purple clouds in between. Flying can be beautiful, but just how lovely, I had forgotten. We circled down over the early morning lights of Lisbon and my brain kept repeating one word: electricity. I couldn’t help but swallow a giggle: so many lights! Street lights, headlights zooming through the morning’s commute, lights in homes, Christmas lights! And my goodness, how beautiful the sight of a green lawn! It was next to the ugly landing strip, but it was the greenest grass I’d seen in over a year. I wanted to run barefoot in it, despite the fact that I couldn’t feel my toes. Spoiler Alert: it’s actually winter here.

Can I just take a moment here to talk about Portuguese? To be honest, I never really gave the language much thought. But who is the US has? We aren’t near Portugal or Brazil or Cape Verde, and it was never an option in any of the high school language labs I ever heard of. So, besides the character “Aurelia” Love Actually I’d never really even heard the language. It’s beautiful. I hear and see the Spanish in it quite clearly, but there’s a kind of curvy S sound that sneaks onto the ends of some of the sounds, making it almost sound eastern European to my untrained non-linguist ears. I like it. And Lisbon seems cool. I wish I could explore more.

So that leaves me here, in the Lisbon airport. I’m in the EU. I’m in the Western world. Now I’m going to tell you a secret: I’m overwhelmed. Present tense—still being overwhelmed, à la 10 Things I Hate About You. Could this be culture shock? Surely not, but my brain is flagging something about this experience as “foreign,” regardless of the fact I’m in a European airport, a place I’ve been before. There is just SO much to look at and take in. The funny shoes, children jabbering in a number of exotic tongues, the fifty-somethings with bizarre hair colorings, the track suits and funny-looking men who all kind of look like Sarcozy.. yep, I’ve arrived squarely in Europe. I can’t imagine how a Malian who’s never left the country might handle this. So many lights, and pretty buildings and roads and it’s so clean smelling! Well, maybe not clean smelling, but there’s a distinct lack of shit and piss and burning trash in the air. And the food, OH the food! Restaurants and bars and bistros and cafes! I know that airport food is generally terrible and overpriced as a rule but it’s still amazing to me how much I want to buy the ancient-looking Neopolitain sandwich behind the counter of “Tasty Snacks.” I resist, despite my body’s confused travel hunger. I swear to you, I stopped and stood in front of the Pizza Hut for a socially unacceptable amount of time. Forget that it’s 7:30am… I can have cheesy bread, if I want it. CHEESY BREAD. FOLLOWED IMMEDIATELY BY A PASTRY AND SOME BEAUJEALAIS. I may never leave the terminal Yea, I’m definitely more than just whelmed.

So, now I’m about to board my flight to Rome. I will be able to see the Mediterranean in the morning light, and perhaps even get a clear aerial view of The Eternal City as we approach. Saying “I’m going to Rome for Christmas” sounds so terribly uppercrust of a lowly Peace Corps Volunteer from Tennessee. But I’m finally figuring out what this means for me: a vacation, a time to reconnect, time for falling in love again, an entirely new culture to explore, and an experience of a lifetime.

Welp, I finally made it, y’all. I’m in the apartment in Trastevere, clean (first hot shower since February, NBD), and somewhat drunk, as I found the grocery store, and therefore cheap bottles of GOOD RED WINE. (I know my mom and dad are real proud of me right now.) But seriously, I cannot believe it. I made it, my flight was on time, my taxi driver was nice but ripped me off (but I don’t care because his name was Giovanni, how could I hate someone named Giovanni?) and besides a blustery hour I spent in the shade of the apartment complex I could see but couldn’t get into, I’ve had a pretty freaking awesome day. I mean, I’m in ROME, ITALY for goodness sake. I’m newly obsessed with: winter boots, the Italian language (a language in which you can farcically pretend you’re a native speaker and you fit in because if you exaggerate the last syllable and throw your hands and look disgruntled, you fit in, it’s that kind of awesome), and small, white dogs. Such good winter accessories. Oh, also, everyone here has SmartCars and I pretty much swoon every time I see one. Did I mention I am having my first legit red wine in like, eleven months? This is kind of a big deal. Also, I’m listening to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas Album, so it’s pretty magical. MAGICAL.
Ten days in Rome, six days until Christmas, twelve hours until Matt lands, and ¾ of a bottle of Chianti remains. Here’s a word problem for you: If a Barker spends eleven months in an Islamic country then buys herself a bottle of wine in Italy, factoring in time changes, the curvature of the Earth and the weight of the one ball of Buffalo Mozzerella she’s consumed, how long will it take for her to make a fool of herself on Facebook?

Must show work. Answers must be converted to the metric system BECAUSE I’M IN ITALYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Thanks for the Camelbak

So, this week has been a blur. It’s mostly revolved around eating, drinking, dancing, and catching up with friends. Everyone has left by now, even the sick folks (which was the majority, for sure). Someone came with a crazy bacterial infection and got about thirty or more of us sick two days after Thanksgiving. Luckily, that’s over. But, before any of that happened and before Thanksgiving/birthday festivities went down, I had two work meetings. Since I’ve been talking about my pump/maternity projects, I thought I’d write a little update.

The game plan (in a nutshell) was to talk to the regional government reps to see if they could lend their support in making a public maternity in M’Pedougou, the village near mine on the main road. For about a dozen reasons, this would be far superior than Chelsea from Peace Corps building it, and the Chef de Post (head of the only health center already in my commune capital) agreed, as did the mayor and the President of the ASACO (Association de Santé Communitaire). All three of them work together, but not as smoothly as I thought. Last Thursday I went to the capital of my commune, to talk to the ASACO pres and let him know that we are seeking a maternity in M’Pedougou. His job is really like the Board of Directors for health stuff in the commune, so it’s not like he was going to say no. Even the mayor said that asking him was only a formality.

So, Oumar and I went to him and had the worst conversation ever. To make a very long story short, he admonished Oumar and I for not coming to him sooner to talk about this. To be fair, this was five days before the scheduled meeting in Sikasso. However, the Chef de Poste informed him of the idea three weeks prior, when the CDP said he’d take care of it. So he knew. But waited until we came to him to tell us he was demanding a meeting with us, the mayor, and the CDP before he would consent to going to Sikasso for a meeting with the head of the regional government. Oh, great. Then he kept saying things like, “Let’s not put the cart before the ox” and “It’s okay, Tintio. Everyone makes mistakes. You’re new here, you’ll learn.” It was all I could do not to reach over and knock his little chair over and tell him he was a pompous patronizing boob who was trying to take the upper hand in the project. In fact, I would have been fine with him taking charge over the request for the maternity as it’s his JOB but he didn’t volunteer his help. In fact, he became a thorn in my side. So, we went back to the mayor and he said something along the lines of “Yea, he’s not very good.” Which is strong language for Bambara. 

Anyways, the mayor hatched a plan to go with Mama, the Peace Corps regional director for Sikasso, to the president of the Sikasso ASACO the next day (Friday) to let her know what we wanted to to and ask for advice on how to go about doing it. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen until Tuesday, an hour before our scheduled meeting with the Cercle de Sikasso. Great timing. Once that finally happened we were informed that since our CSCOM (Centre de Santé Communitaire) was not an official CSCOM (it’s built and run by a Catholic Mission—NEWS TO ME) we couldn’t request funding or help or permission to build a maternity until we had an official CSCOM. In fact, I learned that the so-called “official/public” health buildings really have nothing to do with being publicly funded. The Malian government plays this game where they “find partners” to build such buildings. The money comes from aid money, not from Mali. I knew that this wouldn’t be a slam dunk, but it’s still so frustrating to know that there is money for these projects, it just gets used on other things. (So tells me Peace Corps). So, I’m back at square one with the maternity thing. I’m definitely not building a CSCOM, so I’ll have to see what M’Pedougou wants to do.

Sadly, more of the same. So, like I blogged before, my village has decided to take up a 500 CFA tax per family, per month. I know that there is money for pump projects in the national budget (40% of the Malian budget is aid money, as per the last ambassador). Surely, I thought, some of that must be earmarked for water project. Peace Corps confirmed this. So, I thought that since my village was already willing to collect some of the money necessary, perhaps the prefect will meet them part way. But of course, this was too much to ask for. In the middle of the meeting, Mama (regional coordinator) told me they would never agree. So, I wasted an entire day and my homologue came all the way from village just to get shot down and told they were on their own. I was so frustrated. A huge reason that I wanted Oumar to come was to show him how to go about talking to his elected officials about asking for help and putting my village’s needs in front of the people with power. It was truly disheartening to have meetings that not only didn’t go well, but went in the opposite direction of well.

Thanks for the Camelbak-- hydration was key on my  Golden Birthday Barcrawl
That happened on Tuesday of last week, then it was my birthday, then I cooked stuffing for 84 of my closest Peace Corps friends (we had so much we ran out of dishes so we used the drawer of the refrigerator to hold it), and then a few dozen of us threw up and pooped rainbows for a few days. So, I haven’t really had a chance to process the information or deal with the next steps I need to take. Nothing is insurmountable, but I feel defeated. I know that there is definitely still a possibility that something will shake out, but for now… I just want to go on vacation to Rome.

You may have heard about the kidnappings of Westerners (French, Dutch, German and South African) in Hombrie and Timbuktu. I want to assure you that Peace Corps has been in close contact with PCVs and that we’re all safe. Hombrie is about 150 miles north of our northernmost volunteer, and both areas have long been off-limits to Americans and Peace Corps Volunteers. Personally, I feel very safe in Sikasso and trust the Embassy and PC to do what’s best for all of us. So, if you were worried, you can relax a little. If you had no idea, you can research AQIM (Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb) and learn something new today. I've also added links to the articles about the Hombori and Timbuktu kidnappings for your perusal.

In the next two weeks I am going to make sure my village has started collecting the money for the water tax and possibly host a Peace Corps Water/Sanitation staff member and a pump company representative for an appraisal. I will also be listening to Justin Bieber’s Christmas album. On repeat. Don’t judge me- getting into the Christmas spirit is hard here. Besides, it’s time I introduce my village to the Biebs- the second goal of Peace Corps is helping people outside the States understand American culture, after all. After those two weeks I leave to go to Bamako for a few days to pick up some things before ROME! I can’t believe it’s coming up so quickly. I made it! It feels so good to look forward to being with Matt.

Birthday Cake!
I hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving. I am going back to site loaded down with all sorts of envy-inducing goodies from birthday and Thanksgiving care packages. Thank you all for thinking of me. I’ve been here for ten months tomorrow! and I couldn't have done it without y’all’s love, support, letters, and confidence in me. You’re the best! Oh, and today is World AIDS Day—do you know your status? Wrap it up, get tested, and tell your friends! Knowledge is power!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Turning a Corner

9 November 2011
My house

First off, I want to say that I feel as though I’ve turned a corner. I was hesitant to write another post until I was sure I could be positive, but today is definitely the day for it. Thanks for those of you who sent me some words of encouragement during the last six weeks or so. I’m feeling much better about my site, about being here, and I’m healthier in general. All good things.

So, what changed? Well, first of all, I finally took Fasigyne, which is an ass-kicking anti-parasitic that made me feel MUCH better. It’s amazing how little things seem colossal when you’ve had diarrhea, nausea and loss of appetite for a month. The only good thing that came of my prolonged illness was my loss of about eight to ten pounds of weight I’d put on since I came to Mali. So that’s good. I also spent a lot of time talking to my fellow PCVs. I know I’ve said this before, but my friends here are absolutely wonderful people. I feel so very lucky to be around such a diverse and supportive network of friends. So many of my friends spent time listening, hashing out details and empathizing, and I’m grateful. It’s easy to forget that PCVs, no matter where they are in Mali (or in the world, for that matter) go through nearly all of the same issues, emotions, and problems as other PCVs. Our sites, regardless of location, size or ethnic group can be terribly isolating. While each of our services is different, we share a common bond and understanding that’s impossible to replicate. Judge me all you want for the drama I’ve described, my whining, pouting, or gross bodily-function talk, but you just don’t know unless you’ve done it. “It” being Peace Corps. Talking it over with my friends and getting fresh perspective has made all the different in my attitude and outlook these past few weeks.

I realize saying that those outside of PC don’t get it makes me sound exclusive, possibly haughty, but it’s not like that. It’s just hard for any PCV to fully explain what’s bothering them, what’s going on with their site, how things affect them, etc. And unless you’ve lived in a developing nation at the level of locals speaking their native language and trying to figure out how to best help them help themselves, I imagine that some of the stuff I talk about even in this blog makes me sound like I’m on another planet. Peace Corps wasn’t kidding when they said this was the toughest job you’ll ever love. It’s tough, and most days, I don’t love it. But recently, I’ve had more days of loving it and fewer days feeling runover by a sotrema. So that’s also a good thing.

Sock Head
Sock Nap

My puppy, Scout, is an endless source of wonder, frustration and happiness. Puppies rock. Seriously. She’s just so cute that I can’t help but coo at her when I should probably be popping her on the snout for one thing or another. I’m focusing a lot of energy right now on making her come when she’s called both so I can show off how awesome of a dog trainer I am and also so she stays safe and out of trouble. She can sit pretty well, and almost knows lay down when I tell her to. She has really taken an interest in my laying hens, Dolly, Tammy, and Loretta Lynn. Two have recently starting laying eggs, and Scout usually finds them before I do. She hasn’t broken any yet, so fingers crossed she doesn’t discover how. Scout just likes to trot around the yard with them in her mouth, as if they were just another stick or bone. It’s kind of comical and she looks genuinely sad when I gently pull one from her mouth.

Fatoumata and her friend
I’ve started outsourcing my water-fetching to the shopkeeper’s two daughters, Sumba and Fatoumata. Fatoumata is the five (maybe six?) year old who precociously threw a buck of her own poop over my concession wall after I yelled at her for being in my yard without my permission or presence. This was several months ago, and she’s warmed up to me quite a bit since then, especially since I’ve stopped giving her the evil eye. I have a feeling she got a good thrashing when her dad found out about her poop tactics, and she was very afraid of me for awhile. She’s one of the few children in this village who understands Bambara (her parents are affluent by village standards, and therefore are educated and speak Bambara). They also own a radio and a TV they hook up to a solar panel, so Fatoumata and Sumba are exposed to lots of Bambara and even some French. Lucky girls. Anyways, I bribe them with candy or Kool-Aid (from drink packets) sent from America in exchange for a bucket or two of water a day. As an added bonus, I can practice my Bambara without being made fun of as well as virtually ensure that no more shit appears where it shouldn’t. It’s a win-win.

I’ve made some progress with work, too. Today I had a meeting with my men and women about reinstating the adult literacy classes, as well as how they want to raise money to repair their two broken pumps and possibly get another pump with Peace Corps help. One of my friends, Mamu (a total rockstar, also accompanying me as my village representative to the second half of the Shea Business Boot Camp shortly after Thanksgiving) made a list of the women who want to attend the classes. We’re working on setting up a meeting time with them and the teacher so we can make sure we find good times to hold classes for maximum attendance. I’m very hopeful.

Me and Mamu dressed up for Seliba
The men, after listening to me talk about the money they’d have to raise to get a new pump, have decided to take up a monthly tax. This money will be used in the immediate to fix the two broken pumps and then to save up for their mandatory (for PC funding) 35% community contribution for a new pump. They proposed collecting 500 CFA (~1 USD) per family, per month. If they do this, it will take them about seven to eight months to raise the required amount (about $4,000 of the project’s estimated $12,000 total). Five hundred CFA a month is a lot of money, so I’m a little wary of the plan, but I appreciate the enthusiasm. Just to put it in perspective, in Sikasso, I can buy a meal (a plate of beans, plantains, and two hard-boiled eggs) for 250-350 CFA. In Bamako, I can take a ten to fifteen minute taxi ride across town for 500 CFA. In my market, I can purchase a kilogram of the best rice available, a pile of tomatoes, and three heads of cabbage for 500 CFA. In my village, I can buy two Cokes and a cup of sugar for the same amount.

 I am in the process of talking to the Water/Sanitation Program Assistant, Adama, to get estimates and get the ball rolling. He is planning on coming to my village in early December to talk to my villagers about details. We are not the first Peace Corps village to seek a pump, so I want him to talk about what it will take and realistically if this tax will work. No sense in reinventing the wheel if something else has worked better in the past. In the long run, I’m hoping that I can turn the pump project into a sanitation project and continue the tax for future pump repair as well as soak pit and hand-washing station construction. My women asked me to talk about cleanliness at next week’s meeting, so I’m going to talk about hand washing and getting kids in the habit of going to the latrine (instead of out in the open). Again, I’m hopeful, but I’m not promising myself (or my village) anything until I can gauge their commitment to the project.

On a more personal note, I’m getting really excited for Thanksgiving. Every year, certain cities in Mali host the Peace Corps get-togethers. Christmas is always in Dogon Country, St. Patrick’s Day is in San (San Patrick’s Day, get it?), Fourth of July is in Manantali, Halloween was in Bougouni this past week (BOOOgouni! Ah we’re so clever) and Thanksgiving is always in Sikasso. It makes the most sense, since Sikasso is the agricultural center of Mali. If it’s grown in Mali, you can find it in Sikasso, and often for much longer than in other cities’ markets. Our close borders to Burkina Faso and Côte D’Ivoire give a steady influx of awesome things, like pineapples and avocados. In short, if you like to eat fruits and veggies, Sikasso is the place for you. We’re anticipating about 70 volunteers this year, so we’ve been planning and asking for essential supplies for months now. My friend Lauren and I are in charge of making the stuffing and fruit salad. I’m really excited to see everyone and relax and have a good ole American holiday. The day after Thanksgiving we have a Mexican food day by the pool. Sadly, I won’t be able to enjoy a margarita, but we will have queso. If Kraft Foods, Inc. knew how much Velveeta we asked to be sent over, we maybe could have gotten a deal straight from corporate. I’ll keep it in mind for next year. But yea. Queso. Mmm. If someone nine months ago told me I would be looking forward to eating Velveeta for weeks, I would have called them crazy. But it’s true. It’s the little things like imitation cheese that make us really happy.

And even MORE exciting than celebrating a national day of gluttony is my impending trip to ROME! I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned this before, but I’m going to meet my boyfriend, Matt, in Rome for ten days, including Christmas. I’m beyond excited. I am fairly certain my friends in PC know the countdown as well as I do (41 days as of this writing) because I talk about it so damn much. They probably actually want to revoke my speaking privileges I talk about it so much. I can’t help it, and I’m not even sorry. It’ll be my first vacation since joining PC and my first time seeing Matt since he walked me to my terminal in Nashville on January 31st of this year (but who’s counting?). Speaking of gluttony, Thanksgiving is just going to be a warm-up for the damage I intend to do in Rome. I’m looking forward to eating my weight in gelato/pasta/tiramisu and pickling myself in good wine and espresso. I am also very excited to use hot, running water, wear cold weather clothes, celebrate the end of Matt’s first semester of law school, and most of all, make new memories with the man I love. His parents are also going to be there to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. I can’t wait to cook and go sight-seeing together. And it’s coming up so soon!

The Mall in DC, last August

So, in light of my recent frustrations and melancholy, I’m very happy to say that I’ve got a lot to look forward to. Oh! I almost forgot: since I used an entire aerosol can of RAMBO bug spray in my house, the cockroaches have been held at bay. But now I have bats and mice. The squeaking is kind of cute… but also eerie at 3 AM. I plan on resealing the gaps between my roof and walls ASAP after I get my hand on some cement. Until next time!
Oumar, remudding my walls

Miss Mali

Monday, October 10, 2011

October in Mali

As October moves its way through Mali, I’m enjoying the changes it brings. Most noticeably, the rain has stopped its daily badgering of the region. Now it hardly rains at all- perhaps once a week, if that. In fact, we’re entering a mini-hot season that buffers the rains and the onset of the cold season. I’m not sure how cold is cold in Malian terms, but I can assure you even if I’m shivering I’ll prefer it to the misery of hot season.

Blessedly, this time of year is guava season. I didn’t even know there were guavas in Mali, so that was a delightful surprise to spot them in market. They little, cheap, and so perfect for snacking. The pink ones are my favorite. Buying eight of them for 200 CFA (about 40 cents) seems like highway robbery. But I don’t set the prices, I just binge on them.

Another change I’ve noticed is my Bambara. I am still struggling with it, as is to be expected, but I can tell that it has improved. Others have noticed, too. The schoolteachers who left for the summer but are now back for the start of the school year have told me that it’s gotten much better since they left. I try to practice as much as possible, but it’s nearly impossible in my village.

That’s actually something that’s been on my mind lately. My attitude about Peace Corps and site has been less than peachy in the past two weeks. I think a big part of it is that I am having a very hard time communicating with my villagers. As I’ve written before, Senufo is their first language, Bambara their second, French their third. For most, Senufo is their only language, their Bambara is on a scant comprehension level, and their French is limited to “ça va?” Peace Corps trained me in Bambara, the language that is spoken most widely throughout Mali. That means they placed me in a village in which very few people can actually speak with me. Though my homologue, host family, and friend Mamu can speak Bambara, they are the only ones in my village I know of who do so fluently. Actually, that’s an exaggeration. There are a few older men who speak it, and I believe one other older woman named Koro who does as well. Word has is that she’s literate, too. But by and large, my greetings, questions, and explanations are met with blank stares and laughs. This makes me feel incredibly lonely, stupid, and useless.

I have picked up the greetings, blessings, and important phrases in Senufo. I know that it means a lot to my villagers that I can say those things, because they automatically warm to me when I do. But beyond that, I’m lost. Apparently, the Peace Corps used to teach Senufo to trainees, but they stopped because it was not useful. Senufo is not only a very difficult language to learn (it's all tonal, and not even in the same family of languages as Bambara), but it also varies by village. That means that when I visit my friend Elizabeth (~20 km away) or my friend Helen (~11 km away), my greetings and blessings don’t necessarily make sense to them. So, teaching a standardized Senufo is impractical if not impossible. Therefore, Peace Corps trains us Senufo volunteers in Bambara, knowing that at least our homologues will speak it. My homologue speaks really great Bambara, but no French, so I only use that when I’m in bigger towns.  The problem is that we don’t work or talk exclusively with one person in village. In fact, we’d suck as volunteers if we did. Our job is to get to know the village, make friends, create lasting connections, thereby better understanding their feelings, and problems to better help them. From what I've heard with most people in a similar situation, there are more people in their villages who speak Bambara than there are in my village who speak Bambara. Things like education (the kids are taught in Bambara and French up until fourth or sixth grade, French after that) and the proximity to the gudiron (the paved road) and cities are major influences.

Anytime there are two or more of my villagers gathered, they speak Senufo. This includes my weekly men’s and women’s groups. I start in Bambara, and then my homologue, Oumar, translates. This begins a lively discussion in Senufo, of which I can understand nothing. I end up tugging on Oumar’s sleeve to translate. Sometimes he does, sometimes he waits for a break in the conversation. This can go on for literally hours. This is incredibly frustrating, because I end up staring off into space and feeling silly. I mean, I came to help these people, to live and work and be one of them. Hell, I am one of them- I eat with them, care for their children, tend their fields, dance and mourn with them. And yet, I can’t sit down with my friends and discuss the soccer game, talk about Sanata’s mystery illness, inquire about traditional practices and their opinions on development. All of that is lost to me. I can sit and drink tea all I want with my family, but I can never jump into a conversation. I miss the nuances of relationships. I’m a fly on the wall, but unfortunately, I’m deaf.

It seems rather unfair, and it is. I’m not the only volunteer who has this issue. Many volunteers in the Sikasso region have this issue. In fact, my friend Jordan Brown had this same issue where he got placed in Guatemala. Trained in one language, fluent in another, unable to use either. Peace Corps does offer reimbursement for additional language courses past what is provided in Pre-Service training, and I’ve spoken with some of the former Senufo teachers who are willing to start teaching me. But honestly, what am I to gain from it? I can already say the important stuff. And I know I won’t be working in Senufo, since as soon as you leave village you can speak Bambara. Plus, I speak French, so I can always work in that once I am dealing with Peace Corps staff or city-based organizations. I may as well just spend my time with Bambara, since it’d be foolish to think I could learn to be conversational in both Senufo and Bambara in the 18 months I have left. What I’m after is the conversation, the intimacy of truly being someone’s friend. And I know I can’t reasonably achieve that. In Bambara, possibly. But not in Senufo. That saddens me.

So, what to do? Well, bitching about it here kind of makes me feel better. And now you know a little bit more about my service and my experience. I believe I will speak to Peace Corps about this issue at some point or another. The bottom line is, I love my village, and I’m not going to leave it. But I know that I could be more effective, happier, better integrated in a village where the majority of people spoke and understood Bambara. It’s a fact that I get more practice in Bambara OUT of my village than when I’m at site. Which leads to another issue: site guilt. I hate being away, but it’s so much nicer, so much easier TO be away, that I don’t want to go back and be the deaf fly. Or go back and read another eight books in seven days. To quote Jordan, “I didn’t join the Read  A Book Corps.” It’s incredibly frustrating.

But all of this begs another question: who deserves a Peace Corps volunteer? The village who can’t speak a lick of Bambara but has women practically begging to help them earn income, or the village who speaks fluent Bambara and Bambara alone, yet doesn’t pay attention to the PCV who wants to help them develop? Because the reality is, both of those scenarios exist in Peace Corps. It’s hard to say which is a better scenario. I see why PC puts us in villages like mine, but I can’t help but wonder how much happier I’d be, how much more I could achieve and discuss if I could only converse.

I didn’t come here to work at a job where I had to check something off my list or add another line to my resume. (Cue the violins) I came here to make a difference in the lives of others, no matter how small or intangible it may seem to me. Even if I never complete a “project,” build a maternity or install a pump, teach women to empower themselves or show them how to make a healthier porridge for their children, talk about women’s rights or best practices for chicken-raising, I will have had an impact. And when I am sitting in a meeting when I can’t understand a thing, I’ll just have to remind myself that I’m deaf but not invisible.

Sorry for the whining. I’m done now.

SOME REALLY HAPPY NEWS: I got a puppy! Meet Scout!

She’s freaking cute, right? I’m such a proud momma. She’s the pup of one of my site mate’s dogs. Six weeks old, loves hard-boiled eggs, exploring, peeing, and sleeping. She’s a lot of responsibility, duh, but I enjoy the challenge. And it’s a nice way to pass the time. Already I feel less lonely. I am looking forward to training her and having her as a running buddy and just another body to have around (feel free to send puppy stuff!). Malians are actually quite afraid of dogs, and don’t understand why Americans talk to them like they’re babies, feed them food that’s better than what they feed their children or pet them. Well, I do all of the above. Case in point: when I got her, she was really cold being away from her littermates and mom, so I wrapped her on my body. Yup. Just like an infant.

She’s absolutely charming and a lot of fun. I haven’t slept through the night in weeks, but she’s totally worth it. People ask me all the time if I’m going to take her back to America. I mean, I’m thinking about it, but it’s way too early to say for sure. Although, working in Scout’s favor is the fact that people in my village eat dogs. Regularly.

Food for thought.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Written at site, August 14th 2011, 7:24pm

So, I’ve decided that my least favorite time of day is between 6:30pm and 8:30pm. The reasons are thus: At 6 or so, the sun begins to set. Ordinarily, this time of day is beautiful, but it also means the onset of prime-time mosquito buffet hours. Although I take a very powerful malaria prophylaxis, it’s still only 95% accurate at best. These two things tend to drive me inside. I am forced to acknowledge the waning hours of being able to read without squinting and with a sigh, I retire indoors. This leads to the second regret of the 6:30-8:30 hours: my false entomological bravado. Yea, I may have trapped and released way-faring bugs in a previous life, but I’m still a wuss. A big one. A line from an Alanis Morisette song comes to mind: “I’m sad but I’m laughing, I’m brave but I’m chicken-shit, I’m sick but I’m pretty, baby!” That’s the Peace Corps for you. Chicken shit.

Once I go inside I usually find myself sitting in my blue and white wooden slat chair in my kitchen/living room/mud room/workout room. The chair is reminiscent of one from pictures of upper-middle class families who wear white and khaki for a “candid” family photo with the perfectly posed and well-behaving chocolate lab on the beach in Destin, Florida. You know the ones. To be fair, those chairs are pretty comfortable. But we’re missing the point here: no one dresses like that in real life, chocolate labs never sit that still, and Chelsea is not in Destin. Thinking about sitting in a chair like that on a beach, perhaps with a cold beer in hand is quite relaxing. But between the hours of 6:30-8:30pm, I am not relaxed, no matter how many Coronas deep I imagine myself to be. My Destin chair is makes me feel safe, but I can’t leave once I’m there. It’s like watching the cooking channel: it’s so comforting and they make it look so damn easy but you know it’s going to get you in the end because no one can watch Paula Deen without gaining weight through osmosis. My chair is like that. A temporary safe place that has a downside you don’t want to admit. As I read by headlamp (squinting) the sounds associated with living in a mud-brick, tin roof home in the middle of nowhere West Africa are, to say the minimum, amplified. Since it’s dark, I’m alone, and yes, I’m a girl, they’re downright panic-inducing. Quite the opposite of Destin this time of year.

Yes, they’re mostly the same sounds that I hear during the day: pigeons landing, geckos slugging their soft bellies against the corrugation, lizards racing through the eves, their nails on a metal roof worse than the accidental scrape of Mrs. Yozzo’s nails on a chalkboard. (Mrs. Yozzo was my fifth grade teacher-a wonderful woman and a model educator with an unfortunate manicure). The sounds of my African roof make me wonder, though not too curiously, what I’m missing out on under my other, less alarming American shingled roof. Definitely not roosting chickens. I can rule those out because my parents’ neighborhood homeowner association has an ordinance against fowl-raising (and visible laundry lines, incidentally, though the latter rarely frighten me at night).

At 6:30pm, regardless of my best pep-talks, I nearly always find myself in my Destin chair, not thinking calming beach-y thoughts, with my feet tucked as close to the point directly below my tailbone as is physiologically possible. That is, unless I’m where I am now, which is cooking dinner at the table (toes curled under tarsals) which abuts the wall shared with The Cockroach Room.  I’m no fantastic story teller, but I bet you can tell what part of my house scares me even more than my roof. I’m not sure why I tuck my toes under my feet. It’s not like I think they’re going to get nibbled off as soon as the sun goes down (well, maybe I do- Africa and that dang malaria prophylaxis make you think funny things). Tucking them just makes me feel better in the way that explaining in a loud voice to another driver why his most recent lane change made you uncomfortable makes you feel better. You get the idea. All that to say, the sounds of my night-roof are far from comforting, and I’m beginning to feel like the visualization of me at the beach in Destin in a crisp bleached oxford isn’t doing much to lower my blood pressure either.

The Cockroach Room, in brief, is a puzzling little addendum to my cozy African home. It rests on the east side of my house and has its own door, no windows, and not other defining feature other than getting my hopes up when I read my site information packet for the first time: “Three Rooms house with metal door and windows. Separate latrine is constructed and floor is cemented.” If I were a real estate agent, I would draw attention to the smooth concrete floors, say something about them being warehouse-chic, and declare that such smooth concrete is a real treat for this neighborhood, and don’t they really set off the mud-brick construction and the hole you shit in?

Anyways, if you can’t tell from the generous description, the Cockroach Room is nothing exciting. It’s an empty room, about 5’x15’ that houses geckos, my bike, and enough cockroaches to make even the most intrepid PCV shudder. It is a major factor as to why I sit paralyzed with the heebie-jeebies in my Destin chair, night after night. You see, the cockroaches like to explore when the sun goes down. They enter my kitchen/living room/mud room/workout room along the beams connecting the Cockroach Room to my house. Occasionally, they fall to the floor. Hearing this tell-tale theck! and the consequent scuttling makes my adrenal glands pump, my sphincter contract, and my feet curl even farther under my body. In fact, as of this writing, I’ve moved locations three times--once because of dinner, once because a cockroach ran over my foot (good thing my toes were spared) and once because I heard a significantly attention-grabbing theck! and a distinct lack of scuttling. This means three things: most importantly that I’m a giant wuss. Second, the thing might have died courtesy of my hard, warehouse-chic flooring, or third, and most probably, IT COULD BE LURKING. Since I’m now tucked under the canopy of my mosquito net, I’ll kindly direct you my first conclusion and leave it at that.

As has been elucidated, the hours of 6:30-8:30pm are nothing short of harrowing for me. However, I realized while I was stalking a particularly sneaky cockroach with my trusty can of RAMBO BRAND bug spray, that if a mere infestation of bugs is my biggest worry, I’m one lucky gal indeed. All things considered, my life could suck A LOT more than the very little it does. I also giggled to myself because one, I’m stalking a freaking insect, and two, my life in America is going to KICK SO MUCH ASS when I get home, as it is highly unlikely that I will ever live in another place with a Cockroach Room. Victory.

Someday, in my future Cockroach Room-free home I’ll look back and laugh at the time in my life when I feared all scuttling and jumped and the sight of any small, dark object on the floor. (So what if it’s only a stray jigsaw puzzle piece from a bucolic farm scene my Aunt Re sent? It looked like it was going to charge). And so what if I’ll never be able to have a normal blood pressure between the hours of 6:30 and 8:30pm? (Also, does that count as cardio?) Until then, I’ll try my best to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. When 8:31pm rolls around I’ll just tuck in under my mosquito net for some bug-free sleep, and live to Peace Corps another day!

seven months

Written at site, 2 September 2011, 10:24am

Today marks seven whole months in Mali. I can’t decide if it’s hard to believe or not. Here I am writing about it, so it must mean something to me.

“Twenty-seven months” sounds more like a sentence than a service. Maybe it’s because that phrase has been hammered into my head for years, ever since I started thinking that the Peace Corps might be for me. And then I had to really give it my full attention when I officially started the application process in early 2009. I had to think about it as in “You must prepare your personal and professional lives for a service of twenty-seven months” or “you will live abroad as an integral part of a community for twenty-seven months” or my own, “Twenty-seven months abroad on Uncle Sam’s dime? Uhh, yes, please!” Save for my immature rendering of this rather serious position, a commitment of “twenty-seven months” sounds impressive. Intimidating, even.

As I reflect on being here for seven months, I can’t help but feel a small sense of accomplishment. Twenty-seven is such an odd number (ha ha) but I’ve just succeeded in lobbing the ugly part off. Twenty is so much more palatable, I feel. Less than two years, just two tantalizing months from “eighteen months,” which is a much more accepted, professional, and recognizable length of time. Some days it feels unreal to me, so I have to look down and check: seven red beaded bracelets on my left wrist. Seven down, twenty to go.
When I look at it like that, it’s much less scary than when I first had to internalize that number. Back then, I had to swallow it like a bad pill; now I see it as a milestone. Sure, I’m only a quarter of the way in, but now my feet are appreciably wet and somehow I’ve found a little Chelsea-sized niche and I feel only slightly less helpless. “I’ve done this for seven months already, and I’m just getting started!” I gleefully think, bolstering myself. Seven months is a pat on the back, a shot of encouragement before the shit really hits the fan. Perhaps I feel more acclimated now, and it’s true that I’ve felt the jolts of culture shock less often. I can see my ideas percolating down into the beginnings of projects, the makings of an actual job. These are good things.

Yet, sometimes, I experience something akin to a sucker punch. Amidst all the self-congratulatory flexing, ugly, harsh words eek their way into my inner-monologue: “You have such a long time left and it won’t all be happy or easy.” Or, “They still don’t respect you or listen to you, what do you think you’re going to actually accomplish here?” And just like that I’m forced to admit that seven months is nothing to brag about. Not even close. It’s a scratch on the surface more reminiscent of the unsightly chunk missing from The Sphinx’s nose rather than the smooth skimming of cream from the top of an otherwise perfect bucket of milk.
Yea, I’ve been thought a lot, and yes, (I like to think) I’ve wizened up, gained perspective, confidence, and even a decent understanding of a cool African language. But when you really distill it down, I haven’t done shit. I get the feeling that PCVs go through their services like anyone goes through life: mostly focused and meaning well but blind to the big picture of their contribution to the world until much, much later when it finally dawns on them what they’ve done, how they’ve changed.

Regardless of the struggles I’ve surmounted and those I have yet to face, I’m glad I’m here. Seven months in my opinion is a pretty decent bit of time, so I’ll take the credit, thank you very much. Maybe in another seven months, when I find myself at the half-way point, I’ll see this first seven in a completely different light. In fact, I’m sure I will, because my experience as a PCV in Mali shifts every day. Sometimes the change is huge, like tectonic plates slamming into one another, rocking my world, bringing fresh ground to new light. Sometimes, I feel like I’m on the other end of it, the quiet fishing village that gets wasted in the furious aftermath of the resulting tsunami. Most of the time, though, I hardly notice it. Change over time is often imperceptible. Which is why one day, I’ll wake up in my own apartment on the other side of the world and wonder if these random, lasting memories I have of Mali are all just part of a dream I had once. And then it will come back to me that yes, I did do that. I did live abroad as an integral part of a community for twenty-seven months. And I’ll wonder how I got from there to here, how I managed to convince myself for even a moment that those amazing, life-altering, earth-shattering twenty-seven months of my life was nothing more than a passing fantasy. Where did the time go?

So here I am, sitting at my blue and white table on a bright but otherwise unremarkable day in Mali, talking about time and my place in it. Looking forward, looking back, trying to wring out every drop of memory this experience can yield. Seven months. Twenty months. Twenty-seven months.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Packing List

Dear Prospective PC Mali Trainees,

When I was getting ready to come to Mali, a few PCVs posted their packing lists to help us out. I really appreciated it, so I’m going to do the same. Please keep in mind that I’ve only been here for seven months (same for anyone else in The Kennedys stage). I’m learning about new stuff in Mali every day. Therefore, please revert to an older volunteer’s list whenever possible. I do not claim to have a great list, I can just pass on what I know from my own experience.

 If it looks like a lot, it’s because it is a lot! I probably (definitely, 100%) could have come with less. It’s all up to you and your level of comfort. You can pack a lot into the weight limit, but no one says you have to max it out! In fact, less is better. You’ll thank yourself when you’re not struggling to make it through the airports and first few months of living out of a suitcase.

I spent way too much money buying stuff that I thought was necessary to come here. Only some of it was. This might sound funny, but don’t forget that people live here. Pretty much anything you need can be found in country. That being said, feel free to judge my diva packing list:

Packing it All
·         Medium-sized rolling suitcase
·         Large duffel bag
·         Backpack (Gregory Jade 60 Pack- Women's)- I’m really glad I got this because it’s the perfect size for week-ish long trips. It’s decent-sized, but you can keep it on your lap (always preferable) when traveling on public transport, which is a plus.
I had a smaller backpack sent once I got here. It’s perfect for overnighters, day trips, or the market. My Gregory pack was too big for that stuff. It’s REI brand and it folds into itself to make a pouch. I use it all the time.

·         1 Long dress (casual, cotton)
·         3 “going out” tops
·         2 long skirts casual
·         2 tank tops
·         2 pairs black stretchy yoga capris
·         1 black fleece zip-up
·         1 long sleeve tee
·         3 solid colored tshirts
·         1 bikini
·         1 baseball hat
·         4 bandanas
·         6 good bras
·         4 sports bras
·         2 pairs of socks
·         1 nice outfit good for meetings
·         Sleep shorts
·         Modest  pajamas
·         Cotton unders (22 pairs)
·         Rain coat
·         Skinny jeans, regular jeans
·         Earrings (4 pairs)
·         Leggings (2)
·         Belt
·         Purse
It seems like a lot of panties, I know, but let me explain. Washing your clothes by hand really shortens their life span. Also, I only have like, 6 or so on my shelf at a time. I do laundry often, so there’s no need to have them all out at once. Plus, it’s really nice to pull a “new” pair out of your suitcase every few months.

·         Black TOMS
·         Running shoes
·         Chacos
·         Teva flip flops

·         4 toothbrushes
·         2 toothbrush covers
·         2 tubes of toothpaste
·         2 tubes apricot scrub face wash
·         Body lotion
·         Shampoo, conditioner
·         Brush, comb
·         Dr. Bronners
·         Razors (1 handle, 6 blades)
·         Makeup (eyeliner, mascara, small eye shadow)
·         Nail polish and remover (I always have more sent because the ladies love it!)
·         Good tweezers
·         1 good pair of nail clippers
·         Nail files
·         2 bottles hand sanitizers (I use this regularly and keep some in my purse, great for care packages)
·         Bobby pins (two packs)
·         Pony tail holders (two packs)
·         2 deodorants
·         1 pack baby wipes (great for care packages)
·         Safety pins, push pins
·         Hair cutting scissors
·         1 Diva Cup (AMAZING, I love it, seriously consider it if you don’t have one already)
·         2 loofahs

If you aren’t picky about brands, you can get most of the stuff you need from the PCMOs (Peace Corps Medical Officers). Ex: tweezers, nail clippers, floss, medicine (Ibuprofen, Benadryl, Tums, etc), tampons/pads/panty liners, condoms, bandaids, chapstick, sunblock, (SPF 30 is what they give you, but I asked and got SPF 70, so it’s possible), bugspray, baby powder, multi-vitamins. You need to bring your own shampoo/soap, etc, but that stuff is easy to find in country, so don’t bring more than three months’ worth.
When I first got to Mali, I felt like I didn’t bring enough business casual clothes (and maybe clothes in general). I ended up having my mom send more plain tshirts, another long skirt, and some more tank tops. I didn’t bring any nice pants (dumb), and I attempted to find a pair of linen pants in DC in January the day we flew out. I don’t recommend it. Bring a pair of black pants that can double as pants you can wear to go out to a bar/club. Problem solved. Also, keep in mind that Peace Corps has a thing called “Dead Toubab” which is basically a pile of clothes free to a good home. There’s a pile in every transit house. I get a lot of stuff from there. Also, at every market there are piles of Salvation Army/Goodwill rejects out there for megacheap! All that to say, I got a long just fine with the few clothes I came with, but I did repeat outfits quite a few times. If you’re fine with that, then bring fewer clothes and more chocolate. Just set some clothes aside for your parents to send you once you arrive. If that’s not your thing, bring more upfront!

·         Good can opener
·         Vegetable peeler
·         20-30 Ziploc bags (various sizes)
·         Tupperware
·         Kitchen knife
·         Light-weight plastic cutting boards
·         Flipper (Spatula? I don’t know its scientific name)
·         2 Nalgene bottles (one wide neck, one skinny neck)
I’m really glad I brought Tupperware and Ziplocks. They just come in handy. Also you can tell people to send you things in Ziplock bags so you can save them for later. I use my big kitchen knife all the time, but that’s because I love to cook. You’ll know if this applies to you or not. Nearly all of this can be found in Bamako, so don’t fret over cooking stuff.

·         Mixed dried fruit (as much as can fit)
·         Bars (cereal, nutrition, energy) (as many as can fit)
·         Chocolate, hard candies, gum (but beware, most gum melts here)
·         Powdered drink mixes (Kool-Aid, Gatorade)
·         Tea for comfort, tea for sweet tea (plus some for gifts)
·         Sauce packets (Knorr)
·         Oatmeal
·         Seeds for planting garden
·         BOOZE (airplane bottles)

So, I knew going into this that food was something I’d miss a lot. I brought a lot of snacks on the front end, like protein bars, trail mix, etc., because I anticipated sickness (and so should you). Also, the food is hard to get used to, so these helped on nights when I just couldn’t take any more rice and sauce. A note on booze: bring some airplane bottles if you want, they’re fun for mini celebrations (and also because the liquor here is god-awful. Seriously I think it takes years off your life). While you’re in Paris, may I remind you that it is ALL duty-free? Just sayin.

·         4 bungy cords
·         Camping towel
·         Regular towel (large and fluffy)
·         Leatherman
·         Benchmade knife
·         Camelbak (bladder and bag and cleaning brushes)
I hardly use it. If you use yours a lot in the US, then you might have a different situation.
·         Pens and pencils
·         Frisbee, cards, Uno
·         Photos
·         1 journal
·         3 Sharpies- 2 black/ 1 metallic
·         Calendar/planner
·         iHome
·         2 good books
·         Super glue
·         2 combination locks
·         Money belt
·         Tape—duct and scotch
·         sleeping sac
·         Bug Hut
·         3 pairs sunglasses (you can also find them here very easily)
·         Maryville College pennant
·         Pillow (plus cover and 2 cases)
·         5-8 gifts for family (pictures, small games)
·         Sewing kit
·         Earplugs (not spongy)
·         Credit/Debit cards/Driver’s License
·         Stamps (3 bks)
·         Small padded envelopes
·         Envelopes that seal with a sticker
·         USA map
·         2 pairs cleaning gloves
·         Sleeping pad
·         Extra passport photos
·         Cushioned bike seat
I'm really glad I brought this because I ride a lot and my ass gets sore. My mom sent me a bell and like that because it gets the attention of people/animals in my way and also alerts me to when my bike is being played with if I’m away from it, like at the market. Not necessary, but it makes people laugh, so that’s nice too.
·         Gardening/work gloves
I’m an ENV volunteer and I garden a lot, so the gloves that my Aunt Re sent are fantastic. You don’t need anything special. And you’ll get made fun of, but you won’t have blisters. Well, not too many.
·         LED headlamp (2)
·         Sports watch
·         Solar charger (Solio Rocksta)
·         Voltage adapter (range input : 240V 50 hz, Europe power)
·         iPod (and 2 cords)
·         Batteries (rechargeable)
·         Battery charger
·         Camera
·         1 big memory card
My headlamps are indispensible, same goes for my camera and netbook. Originally I came without a computer, but I would advise against that. Yes, there are Peace Corps computers at all the houses and at our bureau and training center, but it’s much more convenient to have your own. Plus, I can do work at my site (like I’m doing now!) and just upload it when I come to town. Also, it’s great for watching movies and shows at site. I had my dad send an extra battery, which is great for extended time at site.

       I’m really glad I brought:
·         photos of home. Not just for me, but because I use them all the time when I’m trying to explain a certain aspect of American culture (ie: weddings). If you can find a calendar of American people/landscapes, I’d bring that too.
·         My solar charger: it’s how I charge my phone and iPod at site.
·         I’m also very happy that I brought my American pillow. The pillows here suck.
·         Earplugs. You’ve never heard donkeys bray or rain pour like this before.
·         A map of the USA and a map of the world (makes explanations easier more interesting)
·         My bug hut. So awesome for sleeping outside in hot season. Absolutely worth it.

I didn’t need to bring:
·         extra passport photos (apologies to my family for keeping them up until all hours of the night photocopying and trimming the 17 that I made last minute).
·         a sleeping bag. To be fair, I haven’t been though my first cold season, but I anticipate my Sleeping Sac, various pagnes (big pieces of fabric), and Peace Corps-issued blanket to be more than adequate.
·         a travel alarm clock. The cell phones you’ll buy when you get here have alarm functions.

Tell your friends and family NOT not to send:
·         Peanuts/peanut butter
·         Nutella
·         Vache Qui Rit cheese
·         bouillon

Since I’ve been here, I’ve had a French press and coffee sent. The French press was maybe overkill. I’m sure if I looked I probably would have found one in Bamako. But I love it and use it every day, and it makes me feel very pampered indeed, so that’s how I rationalize it. If you drink coffee in America, I would bring a single cup strainer or a French press or similar and make sure your friends and family know to send you ground coffee and filters if you need them. 

I happened to inherit a yoga mat since coming here which has been a godsend. I do my daily workouts on it. If you are a work-er out-er in the US, plan on making it a part of your routine here. I’m really glad I brought my running shoes and a few books on yoga. I wish I had brought an exercise band or two, or even some 5lb weights. I KNOW that sounds nuts but hindsight is 20/20 and I for sure could have reduced my baggage to get those ten pounds in there! We all have our priorities. If you feel like you’re going to use it, no matter how crazy you may feel, bring it. You know what you need to feel comfortable, which is why no two packing lists are the same.

If you have any questions at all, please feel free to send them my way! I’m a member of the October stage’s Facebook group and my email is chelseacbarker@gmail.com. Good luck packing, don’t stress, and enjoy America while you can! We’re all excited to meet you!