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!