Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Six Months and Looking Forward

Right now, I'm at the Bamako stage house. It's a busy house, since this is not only the house where PCVs from the Koulikoro region come to take a break from site or do some work, but this is also where volunteers stay if they are seeking medical attention or traveling to and from the country. There are currently members of the Risky Business stage here who are COSing (Close of Service). They have served their twenty-seven months and they are leaving Mali in a few days, some within the hour. As I listened to them talk about their service and their feelings about leaving the Peace Corps to transition into the next phase of their lives, I got to thinking (dangerous, I know). Next week marks six months in Mali for The Kennedys, my stage. Now, I think, is a good time to take the opportunity to record my my impressions of my adventure so far.

Maybe the best way to organize my thoughts is to talk a little bit about how I've changed. I have to give credit to Jessica Luo, a friend and fellow Kennedy, for the idea for this. I love her, and I love lists, so it makes sense:

How Chelsea Has Changed So Far
  1. I no longer feel (as much) embarassment when discussing bodily issues. It took a surprisingly short amount of time to lose my inhibitions and propriety when talking about the various illnesses and symptoms that I've encountered since moving here. I remember sitting in a medical session at training when our doctor was going over what comes in our medical kits. When she started talking about a MIF kit, I promised myself then and there that I would never use one of those. A MIF kit is a way of procuring and preserving a stool sample for when one gets sick at site and might not be able to get tested for a few weeks. Well, that lasted all of five months. If you thought pooping in a hole was rough, imagine pooping/diarrhea-ing/slowly dying into a plastic container the size of a film cannister and then giving it to someone to analyze for parasites. See? You're grossed out and I'm just talking about Tuesday.
  2.  I don't chew as often. I'm not sure how I came to this conclusion. Perhaps it was today, when I was eating some cole slaw I had made. It was really good. I was enjoying the crunch and the texture of the raw cabbage (incidentally, isn't cabbage GREAT? So good for you, too) when I realized that I don't really need to chew with most of the meals I eat in Mali. For breakfast, it's porridge. For lunch and dinner, it's either a couscous thing, toh, or rice and sauce. I kind of chew, but I haven't masticated in such a long time. It's really nice to masticate and use your molars to their full capability. I read somewhere once that when people say that they're craving something, they are craving the texture. For example, when I crave M&Ms, I really just want the crunch. The theory then argued that I could satisfy this craving with something like carrots or celery or cabbage, getting the texture that I crave and also being healthier. Now, I hardly believe that my body could be tricked into thinking it is just as happy eating veggies as it would be if I were eating M&Ms (especially dark chocolate or almond M&Ms, mmmmmmm). But it's just a thought. I do love vegetables, though.
  3. I'm desensitized to skinny children. I don't want to get all Save the Children on you, but malnutrition is a serious problem here. I have been here long enough that I can distinguish Kwashiorkor from Marasmus and identify children at risk for severe dehydration. Bloated bellies are the norm, knobby knees and tiny kids are what I see every day. It's sad. A varied diet is near impossible for most people in my village and for most people in Mali, and it really makes a difference. Nearly everyone here is malnourished (excepting me, since the Peace Corps gives us daily vitamins), but it's especially noticeable in kids. Take home message: get your protein.
  4. I love peanuts. See a previous post for more details. 
  5. I see my American life in a completely different light. I don't really want to go into too much detail on this point, because I suspect of all the things listed here, this is the one that will change the most with my time and experiences here. Suffice it to say that my priorities have changed, my opinions on lots of social issues have changed, and my attitude has changed. Some of this is positive, some of this makes me feel jaded. BUT this is all part of the process. I knew that Peace Corps would irrevocably change me, and some of those changes have taken place already. Some have yet to develop. I am excited to see how my view of America, Americans, and my (past and future) American life evolves.
The aforementioned Risky Business PCVs, soon to be RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers), seemed glowing when they talked about COSing and their plans and their successes. A few of them are walking out the door as I write this. It's really crazy to experience. Through the hugs they assure me that it goes by really fast, that it's going to get better and worse (and worse and better), and that they had an amazing time here. I can't decide if I want to admit that I feel a twinge of jealousy or not. They are going back! Cheese! Air conditioning! Normal poops!!! However, after further examination, I can't say that I'd rather be in their shoes (for the exception of the normal poops). I am so, so happy for them and also so excited by the idea that someday, that could be me. That will be me. As someone who just got here, it's really hard to imagine the day when I leave Mali, having lived with the people, made friends, learned and worked and grown. I hope that I can look back at my time (and this blog post) and agree that it was the toughest job I'll ever love.  :)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Poop In A Hole

Poop In A Hold is a video that I found funny. To my fellow PCVs, I empathize. To those of you who don't  poop in a hole, I envy you. Enjoy!

The Tale Of Fanta: The Post Office Is Not For The Meek at Heart

It's been a good while since I updated Good Golly Miss Mali, so I think it's fair to say I owe you some news. I've been in Sikasso for almost a week (for more on that Google Entamoeba histolytica), but I didn't really have any inspiration for a post, until today because today, I had a show-down at the post office.

La Poste. One of my favorite and least favorite places in all of Sikasso. I love going there when my friends send me a text: "Hey, you have a package waiting for you!!" I pretty much hate it the rest of the time. Here's a brief explanation of post office protocol. We Sikasso PCVs share a post office box, and our names appear on a slip of paper when we have packages to pick up. When one of us checks the box, we get a stack of letters to take with us to the house, and we get an assortment of half-pieces of paper with the names of those lucky enough to get care packages to look through. If we have a package, we must hand over our Peace Corps IDs and corresponding slip(s) of paper, wait approximately 7-10 minutes for the attendant to write this transaction down in two different notebooks, take the slips to the front of the store, pay about $3 per package (depending on size) to pick it up, go back to the window and get your box, then sign for it. It can take anywhere from five to twenty minutes, depending on the time of day, attendants' mood, how vigorously you greeted everyone in the office, and the curvature of the earth. Most of the time, it's infuriating. It's an experience that makes me think about how thankful I am for computerized services and taxes (yes, really).

Today was a little different. I needed to send some stuff to America. Normally, this is no problem, since I  just attach a 485 cfa (about $1) stamp to an envelope and give it to the attendants. However today, I didn't have any stamps left in my notebook, so I was just going to buy them at the window. My first item to send was a zip drive full of pictures and short movies to go to Maryville College's communication department. Sending the zip drive has been a project I've been working on for awhile, so I was excited to finally get it sent off. The woman who is in charge there (I'm calling her "Fanta" for the purposes of this blog post) did not like this. She started getting really intense about sending it in an envelope and showed me a box the size of a computer mouse she would put it in if I would only let her. I assured her that I'd rather it go in an envelope. She told me that if it were in an envelope, Malians would open it, that the American government would, or that objects are not allowed in envelopes. Then she said that because it's a "computer object" it had to be "verified." WTF does that mean? Oh, Fanta. Now, I'm not sure if any of those scenarios are actually possible, and perhaps it is illegal to put small objects in envelopes. Regardless, I convinced her that mail is not opened by American post workers AND that it had actually been sent through the Malian mail once (I had the address wrong the first time and it came ALL THE WAY back to my sorry post box in Mali--untouched). She relented and said that I could send it in an envelope.

Okay. So now I have Fanta's begrudging permission. She weighs it and tells me it's going to be like 3,000 cfa (~$6). My first reaction is to flip out because that's way more than I'm used to paying and homegirl's on a budget. Luckily, my friend Genni reminds me that I'm clearly not going to win the fight, so just to let it go. Fine, whatever. It's been like, 20 minutes at this point, so I just want to go. She weighs my other two envelopes and tacks on an additional 2,000 cfa. I feel like she's ripping me off, but I can't say for sure, and I don't want you to think that Fanta is corrupt. It is far more likely that my lack of desire to cooperate with the fees is due to my scant knowledge of the Malian postal system rather than Fanta's doing. That being said, she was definitely not in a good mood and was getting snippy with me which made me feel negative feelings about the situation.

No big deal, I'm just going to wrap this up and get out of her hair, I think. Not that easy. I go to pay her with a 5,000 cfa bill. The change is 410 cfa. She looks at me and says, "You don't have any change?" No, I don't have change, Fanta. That's why I gave you the closest bill I could. If I had 4,590 cfa I'D HAVE GIVEN IT TO YOU! (Note: The issue of change in Mali deserves its own post because it's so absurb, but for the purpose of The Tale of Fanta, you just need to know that everyone wants small coins and no one ever has them). So, Fanta tries to give me change in stamps. Stamps are not legal tender, regardless of their pretty pictures and over-idealized scenery. I tell Fanta this is unacceptable and that I want money. Fanta stares at me and says, "no." I stare back and repeat: I want money. Fanta (maintaining eye contact) hands me a 1,000 cfa bill and tells me to go make change. That's right. I need to leave the post office and go make change so that she can give me 410 cfa. I should have probably just left and told her not to worry about the change, but I was angry, so I took the opportunity to walk outside and cool off. The bakery across the street denied me (I promise I greeted them all first!) until one guy there had pity on me. I returned to Fanta with two 500 cfa coins.

I have a hunch that this might be a problem, but it's the best I can do. As I mentioned before, no one has small change, so I wasn't going to get any from any street vendors because big coins are useless when you're selling things for 25, 50, or 100 cfa. As predicted, Fanta says, "This is unacceptable. You are giving me insufficient change." Something snapped in me, and I'm sure I got a unfriendly look on my face as The Stare Down commenced. You'll probably laugh to know that Fanta's assistant is sitting on her stool, smirking, watching this whole exchange. She's also still putting individual stamps on my three envelopes of varying sizes and weights. She is logging them in some book, stamping them with ink, initialing over the stamps, and attaching bar codes. It kind of looks like it could be sent to a satellite of Jupiter, there's so much damn postage on it. At this point, I'm pretty much exhaling steam. After a few more moments of awkward and infuriating eye contact, Fanta asks her co-workers to dig in their pockets for the proper change. Transaction complete. However, I remain at the counter watching Assistant work to open a bottle of paste and then go to the back to re-wet the sponge she's using for the nine stamps it takes to send a three page letter to Kentucky. Fanta tells me "it's over" and "you can go now." Message received, Fanta. K'an bƐn, jerkface.

I know that first and foremost, Fanta is in no way in charge of the bureaucratic snafus that often plague public bureaus like the post office or the DMV. I know that she can't help that sending things internationally is often very confusing and costly and anxiety-ridden. Fanta could have been a little nicer, though. I tend to pride myself on the way that I treat strangers. I try to think what it would be like for the perfume saleswoman around Christmas, or the waiter working for tips, or the post office worker who has to deal with people's deadlines and giant, complex orders all the time. I've never hung up the phone on a telemarketer, and I'm even nice to Republicans. I am always nice to Fanta when I pick up my packages, so it was rather disheartening for me to have an exchange that left such a bad taste in both our mouths. Luckily, Malians tend to not hold grudges or seek retaliation. I hope Fanta is not an exception. If she is, I've got a long 21 months of package-picking-up in front of me.

There's really no point to this story, other than to give you an up-to-date anecdote about a one-time thing here in Mali. I hope you are all thankful for the USPS, Forever Stamps, and Flat Rate boxes. Today is the last time I'm left with no stamps in Sikasso. Until we meet again, Fanta...