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 Good luck packing, don’t stress, and enjoy America while you can! We’re all excited to meet you!