Sunday, August 5, 2012

Scout Came To America (YES, REALLY!) All Knocked Up (Wait, what?!)

First of all, yes, Scout really is in America, and she really did have puppies. Here’s the proof:

Poe, Lula, Gidget, Atticus, Waldo, JK Growling, and Susie Q

But we have a lot to cover up to this point. I know I’m ridiculously behind in making this post, but it’s an awesome story, and it deserves to be told. Sorry it took a few months, but cut me some slack. She had seven puppies, for cryin’ out loud.

Let’s start back at the end of March, when the stupid junior officers held a stupid coup and chased ATT out of his palace and set Mali back a bajillion years and a constitution. I wrote about our evacuation and leaving Scout behind here:

"The worst part about all of this is that I have to leave Scout behind (Peace Corps does not allow PCVs to evacuate pets.). Honestly, leaving her has been the largest source of my tears over the past week. I know that saying that marks me, perhaps, as someone who missed the point of Peace Corps. It’s circumstantial that I’ve already said my goodbyes to my few friends from my old village [I was about to change villages], so I don’t really have anyone else to say goodbye to. But Scout has been a huge part of my life and happiness for the past seven and a half months. I left her with my old site mate’s homologue, an amazing man named Abdoullaye whom I know will take care of her.  I really hope I get to see her again someday, if anything just to rub her belly one more time and let her know that I didn’t forget about her."

Shortly after I wrote about this horribly sad, sad day, a series of amazing, wonderful, and completely serendipitous things transpired, and the end result is that Scout ended up home with me in Tennessee.

When we were all consolidated to Tubaniso, Jolie Dennis, our amazing Deputy Programming Officer pulled me aside to talk about Scout. She knew how much she meant to me and wanted to check in about how I was handling the situation. Jolie had even called me a few times during consolidation in Sikasso to specifically ask about Scout, how amazing is she?! Jolie then shocked my socks off when she offered, tentatively, to try and get Scout home to me.


was my reaction, and then about a nano second later I said YES YES YES YES let’s please try to figure this out. And so our story begins.

Turns out Jolie had experience of her own dealing with a coup and a possible evacuation while serving in Togo, and was able to empathize in only the way an RPCV pet owner can. Jolie and her husband had moved internationally with their own Peace Corps dog, and just recently, Jolie’s husband had fled the coup with him, too. It was just a stroke of good luck for me that she had an extra crate at home, all the right contacts at the appropriate government offices, and a stellar vet who made house calls (during the counter-coup, I later found out).

Throughout the evacuation to Ghana and the weeks I spent travelling after, Jolie and I kept up through emails. We discussed the political situation, the possibility that she herself may be evacuated, and the logistics of flying a dog halfway around the world. It was here that I learned that Mama Traore, the Regional Coordinator for all Sikasso volunteers, had been calling and physically checking in on Scout, who was in a village about 30k outside of Sikasso. Mama is an amazing man and went out of his way to do something that no one asked him to do. He is such a wonderful example of the famous Malian hospitality. I am still indebted to his amazing service to my peace of mind. I’ll probably never see him again, but I think about him every time I think about what it took to get Scout home.

Evacutation Day, Mama drove all the way up from Sikasso to say one last goodbye. Here is Sikasso K'aw!
Through some networking and Malian kindness, Scout hitched a ride up to Bamako on April 26th, about a month after the coup and three weeks after I left her with my friend Abdoullaye. (This time frame becomes significant later). According to Jolie it took her about ten minutes to make herself at home, barking at herself in a mirror and napping on the couch.
homelessness is ruff.
For the next few weeks Jolie earned sainthood by caring for my dog like she was her own, feeding her ridiculous amounts of rice, chicken, and hard-boiled eggs. She even had Scout during the dangerous and long counter-coup. Jolie’s house was near a military barracks and she heard shelling and gunfire almost daily. I am still amazed and so grateful that Jolie thanked ME for having Scout during that difficult time. I thought she’d be a burden and I fretted over the enormous task Jolie unknowingly signed up for; she said Scout’s company was a comfort. Scout has no comment. I guess it was a win-win.

Meanwhile, I was still travelling. Between Ghana, Greece, Spain, and Italy we had sporadic contact with both frantic (on my end) and reassuring, calming, and encouraging (on Jolie’s end) conversations about what was going on and what might happen. At this point, we still didn’t know if the State Department would grant clearance to Jolie to re-enter Mali after her and Scout’s upcoming trip. The political situation was (and sadly, remains) just so unclear and potentially volatile, especially in the north. It was scary to think that after all this effort, Jolie would be stuck, unable to come to America and see her husband, and I’d have put Jolie between a rock and a hard place with my homeless dog.

Miraculously, and not a moment too soon, the badgering and begging paid off and Jolie was granted clearance to re-enter Mali in a few weeks' time. With literally only days to spare, Jolie’s clearance, Scout’s ticket, and her veterinary paperwork all came through. It was incredibly timed, too, because had things been delayed even another week, Air France’s summertime black-out dates for live cargo would have been in effect, and Scout would have been stuck in Mali until September, maybe forever.

I swear I must have cashed in an eternity’s worth of karma points, because then the unthinkable happened: MY DOG CAME HOME TO AMERICA!!!!!!!!!

Scout discovers her life is going include regular baths. Her ears say it all.
On May 26th, (I was in Italy on a pre-arranged family vacation), about two months after the coup, my cousin Ben and his wife Noel picked up my smelly, confused, and poop-covered puppy from Dulles International Airport. Apparently no one even checked her paperwork! According to Jolie they just said “Oh, what a pretty dog! Do you need any food for her?”

Jolie then said her goodbyes and flew to New York to be swept off her dusty feet by her husband, Istvan, who surprised her with a new house in Ithaca! How romantic! I’ll never be able to thank Jolie enough for what she did for me. I look at Scout every day and think how wonderful it is that she’s here. I am so lucky; I can look forward to years with her by my side. Thanks for your patience, positive attitude, and logistical finagling, Jolie.

While under the care of Ben and Noel, Scout was exposed to many wonderful American things, like air conditioning, sharing space with cats, hiking, hot dogs, sidewalks, carpet, and so much more. They went out of their way to make her feel more comfortable. For example, Noel took one for the team and risked outright shame with her neighbors by letting Scout pee on the pavement. Apparently Scout wasn't used to grass (don't know why I was surprised by this) and avoided it about 90% of the time. 

When they picked me up from the airport with Scout in tow, I thought I’d have one of those “Soldier from Iraq greets his dog after two years” moments. No dice. She looked at me, got excited for about one second, and then hopped back in the car. She was all, “Oh, YOU again. You left me.” What sass!! Her attitude wore off though, because that night she slept ON me. It was pretty adorable. 

Ben and Noel, thanks a million for hosting Scout. You are amazing people, and the dog you adopt some day will be very, very lucky. Thank you for opening up your home to Scout, a strange dog who may or may not have eaten your cats and one whose egg-smelling farts drove you from her, time and time again. 

Soon after, my best friend Jenna drove up from Tennessee and together the three of us roadtripped back home, completing the longest journey Scout and I never thought she’d have.

The story would have a warm, fuzzy, feel-good ending to it, IF ONLY IT ENDED THERE.

PART TWO, coming shortly:
[The part where it gets even warmer and fuzzier]
[Spoiler Alert: this is the part where I find out Scout is pregnant (!!!)]

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Post Evacuation Spin Cycle

Good golly I’m not in Mali, but I’m not home either.

(Sorry, I had to. Mkay, got that out of my system).

“Crazy” doesn’t even begin to describe the past month of my life. At last post, I was leaving Mali for (Spoiler Alert!) GHANA to attend our Transition Conference. It was a helluva week, with sessions, interviews, paperwork, bloodwork, and a lot of emotion. I have to say, PC Washington’s veritable SWAT Team of Transitional Conference staff did a stellar job, all things considered. We (all 180+ of us) had input in how the conference was run, free time, pretty fast internet access, interviewing and resume help, access to free counseling services, and, most excitingly, quite a few options for transferring to other countries of service. They even planned a really beautiful closing ceremony at the end. It gave each stage of volunteers a chance to speak on their experience and thank the people that made it all possible. It also provided good closure. We needed it.

So I suppose that I should tell you (or confirm your suspicions) that I didn’t transfer my service to another country. I have officially closed my Peace Corps service. Sigh. I really wanted to transfer. Or, at least, I thought I did. At the end of the first night of the conference, staff posted a list of all of the potential positions for transfers. According to my sector (Environment) and my specific skill set, I was eligible for programs in Burkina Faso and Senegal. The Burkina Faso position was the best fit- but it was just like my placement in Mali. It would have been in another rural village- which in and of itself would have been wonderful, because I love village life. However there was a strong chance that I would have had to learn another local language. I knew going into this conference that doing that was not an option for me. I was afraid that I’d have two first years, this second one being full of frustration and language gaffs, and not enough time to do good work. Plus, and this may sound counterintuitive, but Burkina is so close to Mali, literally and figuratively. I just knew that had I gone through the pain of a site change, an evacuation, a waiting period (program started in June), and then a transfer to a new post 40 kilometers across the Sikasso border, that it would have made me bitter. And then I’d be a poor volunteer, and that defeats the purpose of me being here. Senegal was a similar set up (no guarantee of working in French, a possible requirement to do the entire two years over again).

view from the old slaving fort over the village
In the end, when I looked at what was offered to me, I knew that I had more and better options if I closed my service and went home. I so desperately wanted the two year Peace Corps experience that I thought I’d have, and I was doing all sorts of mental gymnastics to try to get the job descriptions sound appealing to me. But at the end of the day, I knew I was just trying to make something work that just wasn’t going to. So, I decided to withdraw my name from the pool of transfer applicants, and (begrudgingly) start the journey home.

It wasn’t, and hasn’t, been easy. My mother can attest. I’m pretty sure that I just sobbed over the phone for forty-five minutes on that first night of uncertainty and disappointment at my options (and maybe a few more times in the days following). I didn’t want to admit that my journey would come to such a truncation. I wanted to make it work so badly. I had gone through a crazy, amazing year in Mali, and I was finally ready for a fresh take when the coup happened. And then, to realize that what I needed for my second year wasn’t possible… well, it was sad. And it made me angry. But the more I think about it, the more I know that I have made the right decision.

I am excited to find the opportunity in this sudden change of events. I’m proud of myself for doing what I’ve done, and I’m a better person for having done 14 months of Peace Corps than none at all. And I have options: the PC family/network is huge, there are short term Peace Corps Response positions opening all the time, and my family and friends are great supports. I know I’ll find something, but I’m not in a rush. I’m still grieving over Mali, and I expect to for a long time. The counselors at the conference told us we would feel like we had lost a loved one, or left our first loves. It will always kind of hurt, but the fond memories and learning moments won’t be totally lost, either.

tzatziki and feta 
parethenon with erin
For now, I’m travelling. I had vacations to Spain and Italy planned before the coup (Spain with my best friend from high school, Beth, and her Aunt Mary, Italy to see my family and boyfriend). In the meantime after the conference, I spent some time on the beach in Ghana with my PC friends, and just recently left a friend in Athens after a week chock full of feta cheese and saying UUUPPPAAAAA!! I can’t wait to see my family, though. The traveling sounds lovely and exotic, I know, but I am really looking forward to just hunkering down and being hugged. I don’t feel so strong these days, and I think that being with my family and Matt will help center me.

Ghana, after the conference

Sorry for being so sad, but that’s just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. As my brother would say, sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you. But I still seek the silver lining—I have my health, my safety, and a beautiful life to go home to. But not just yet. For now, I travel and float, travel and float. It’s true, what they say: life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. So here’s to life: may it always be better than you thought it could be. J

Saturday, April 7, 2012


4 April 2012
As I write this I’m sitting in a bus station waiting for Malians to fill up the bus that Peace Corps has arranged to take us out of Sikasso. It’s only 8 am, but already we’re flopping our fans and sighing with exasperation. It’s muggy and hot and we’re exhausted—we’re tired of being frustrated, we’re tired of crying, tired of saying goodbye. And this is only the beginning. We haven’t even met up with our fellow PCVs yet.

Last night we had the talk that we never thought we’d have. After forty years of uninterrupted service to the people of Mali, Peace Corps is evacuating. It’s surreal. We keep saying, “I can’t believe this is actually happening,” as if it were some freak accident or Armageddon or a zombie apocalypse or something. In a way, it is the beginning of the end. In a lot of ways we’re just starting our next adventure. But I can’t really think about that right now. My eyes are puffy, I’m exhausted, I’m stressed. There are so many unknowns yet.

Evacuation messes with a lot of things, to say the least. Our friendships, our projects, our lives, our emotions, to name a few. Dozens of Malians will shortly be without jobs. Good paying jobs—that there are too few of in this country. The next few weeks are going to be rough, to say the least. More goodbyes, confusing paperwork, international flights. I’m not looking forward to it.

I am trying my hardest to see the silver lining in all of this. At least I never made it to my new village. It’s sad for them because they were literally days from having their first PCV. Going then leaving in the space of a day would have been rough for both parties (we thought we could de-consolidate for three days, but the situation worsened too rapidly to allow us more than one). And in that sense, at least I was already in a sort of transitional mindset. I was able to pack for evacuation, something many PCVs were unable to do, due to the circumstances. At least I’ve been here a year. It’s a good chunk of time, and I feel like no matter what, I got a good chance to experience life in Mali, life as a PCV. I’ll see my family soon, too. Vacation is planned for three weeks from now. All things considered, I’m doing just fine. I just don’t feel fine.

The worst part about all of this is that I have to leave Scout behind (Peace Corps does not allow PCVs to evacuate pets.). Honestly, leaving her has been the largest source of my tears over the past week. I know that saying that marks me, perhaps, as someone who missed the point of Peace Corps. It’s circumstantial that I’ve already said my goodbyes to my few friends from my old village, so I don’t really have anyone else to say goodbye to. But Scout has been a huge part of my life and happiness for the past seven and a half months. I left her with my old site mate’s homologue, an amazing man named Abdoullaye whom I know will take care of her.  I really hope I get to see her again someday, if anything just to rub her belly one more time and let her know that I didn’t forget about her.

Okay, so, that was sappier than I might want to admit, but I don’t care. I’ve been crying for days and there are harder days ahead. A good friend just emailed me and reassured me that my reaction wasn't crazy; the people who don't cry over the loss of a pet are the weird ones. I tend to agree :) At least I’m safe, though, and at least I can leave feeling kind of good about my time here. I have no idea what my next step is. I know that as soon as possible we’ll be taken to another country for a close/continuation of service conference, and then we’ll go our separate ways. Ideally, I’d love to finish my remaining year in another country, but it’s too soon to tell if that’s even a possibility.

Thank you to everyone who has sent prayers and positive thoughts my way. I’ll be in touch. Xo, Miss Mali

April 7, 2012
Update: Today is my last full day in Mali. Tomorrow we all leave. It’s odd, really. Our country director, Mike, addressed us yesterday morning. “I’ve always wanted an all-volunteer conference, but this isn’t how I pictured it.” Us, either. It’s been really emotional for everyone, but especially awful for the staff. They’re exhausted from figuring all this out, from talking to us and Washington and their families and co-workers. Through all of this, though, they’ve been absolutely amazing. Patient, kind, empathetic, flexible, and above all, motivated to make sure they are doing everything they can to get us taken care of and home safely. Director Williams, if you or your staff ever read this blog, please know that PCVs in Mali want you to know that Mike Simsik, Jolie Dennis, Jeremy Rothgerber, and Bocar Bocum are invaluable members of our Peace Corps staff. Each of them has personally made my service and my time in Mali a wonderful experience, and I am better for having worked with them. You are lucky.

In terms of Chelsea Logistics: We know where we’re going now, and even though the New York Times reported on it (a Fulbright scholar in Bamako and someone’s mom in the US leaked the story—not something we’re pleased about), I’m not going to post it here. It doesn’t matter, really, so don’t bother speculating. I will definitely spend a few days there decompressing and probably (definitely) crying with my friends, until I move on to the next place. I still don’t know if I can transfer my remaining service to another country, but even if I can, I’ll have to come home to the US for awhile before I ship out again. I don’t know when I’ll be back in Ameriki, and honestly, even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you. I can’t really process these shenanigans, let alone the idea that I’ll be home way before I wanted to be. If I get my way, I’ll hole up in my parents house and be that 23 year old that still lives at home and wears sweatpants until she starts her day at 2pm. And I’m okay with that. Eventually, sooner rather than later, if I don’t get a new assignment, I’d like to get out to Southern California. Rumor has it that there a fella out there who’d be happy to see me.

Again, thanks for all of your concern and positive thinking and prayers. I will certainly draw on them in the coming weeks and months. I’ll update you more from my next location. Here’s to embracing, rather than fighting change. As my dad likes to remind me, life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. Bring on the adventure! Love, for the last time (for now), Miss Mali

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Knock Knock! Coup’s There? A MILITARY JUNTA

As you may have heard by now, there was a military coup d'etat in Mali that happened this past Wednesday. My dad asked me to post a quick update on the situation from a PCV standpoint because I’m here and kind of experiencing it. I say “kind of” because it’s been nearly entirely contained to Bamako, and literally nothing has changed for me down in Sikasso. That’s the good and short news for you. I am safe and secure. My friends are, too.

You can find some really excellent information on the coup and the background history here, and here. I am not officially allowed to comment on the coup or give my opinion on the political situation, as I am a representative of the Peace Corps, and therefore a (long) extension of the American government and its people. So, I’ll be brief, and attempt to refrain from offering any commentary. (Hah.) The BBC Africa page is always a good place to look if you are bored at work and need a page to refresh, Al-Jezeera is on top of it, and CNN, as usual, is operating in its usual space-cadet ways, probably still reporting on Whitney Houston’s death or that cat that miraculously lived after falling 19 stories.

Basically, a couple of junior officers (mostly bloodlessly) overthrew the government, forced the president into hiding, threw out the constitution, shut down the airport, closed the borders, and declared that they weren’t backing down until there was a democratically elected president AND the issue with the Tuaregs up north was taken care of. First of all, the coup (ironically named the National Council for the Recovery of Democracy and the Restoration of the State – yes, seriously, you can’t make this shit up) has logic that’s about as tight as a woven basket. Virtually the entire international community renounced the junta, revoked their international aid, and unofficially called them dumbasses for failing to remember that 1) Mali’s been a democracy with a democratically elected president for twenty years and 2) Elections were scheduled for a mere five weeks from the date of the coup. LACK OF VISION, as my father would say. There are tons of rumors about the coup, about Amadou Toumani Toure (or ATT-- the now-deposed president), purported collusion, conspiracy theories, and the Malian military’s involvement with/failure to stop the Tuareg rebels up north, but that’s the issue in a very small nutshell. I highly suggest you check out the above links to get a fuller picture.

Democracy is a tricky seductress, and doesn’t always operate under the same standards every where she claims to be. As you read more about the coup d’etat, you’ll likely hear how many are condemning Mali for letting slip their spotless record of democracy in a region full of unstable states. Things are not always as they seem, and my good friend and fellow PCV, Ashley, makes a compelling argument against the temptation to call it like it is—a shame, a disappointment, a failure. Ashley says that democracy did not, has not, and clearly will not come easy in a nation for which it is not native. I agree.The coup notwithstanding, Mali is one of the most underdeveloped nations in the world for many reasons, and each of those is a contributing factor to a quiet, yet pervasive instability underneath the guise of a functioning democracy.

Over the past week, Peace Corps has done a friggin’ spectacular job getting in touch with every single PCV, calling, emailing us with two, sometimes three updates a day, and making sure we have what we need until we can move forward as an organization. I am happy to report that here in Sikasso, the anticipated toilet paper hoarding was a non-issue, as was the decision to make Team Dinner Bigger Dinner Winner Dinner every night for all 24 of us. All things considered, life here is pretty good.

My colleagues and I remain hopeful that the coup leaders will continue to be non-violent (the worst of their actions included firing their guns in the air and sporadic looting). The airport and borders opened today, and according to all reports, life in Bamako is more or less back to normal. The junta has some pretty high demands, but I suspect that once they realize what’s at stake (after all, something like 40% of Mali’s budget comes from foreign aid) they’ll sort out some kind of compromise. At least, that’s what I hope. But these things tend to be capricious, so we’ll just have to see.

Therefore, we’re still not out of the woods yet, in terms of the possibility of evacuation. The next few days/this week will be telling. I really, truly hope we don’t leave. There is absolutely no threat to PCVs working in villages. We are safe, and untouched by the coup. We have work to be doing. People are depending on us. The damage inflicted by an evacuation would cause excessive and unnecessary stress for so many people—everyone from our loved ones back home, to our office staff in Bamako and Washington, to our host families in village, to the dozens of Malians that Peace Corps employs.

(WARNING: I get a little preachy here, feel free to skip this paragraph) Quite a few people have expressed to me and my friends here that this is potentially a good thing—that we could finally come home, guilt-free. While we may have joked about a “get out of jail free” card in the past, the ugly truth that’s facing us now is that in reality, an evacuation would really just fuck a lot of things up. No one wants that. My friends are in the middle of projects here, we have relationships that we can’t just up and leave. And, on a personal note, simply being here can, at times, be a very stressful experience; it’s a lot like being a waitress on roller skates. Every time we shift to pick up something else for our load, every time we need to readjust or change directions it’s like skating over a pebble and falling on our asses in a puddle of cherry limeade, only to have to get up and pretend that no one saw and your ass doesn’t hurt like hell. Except there are no cherry limeades here. My point is, we’re trying. We want to make this work, and we do, every day that we’re here. It’s not like we’re exiled; we chose this. And contrary to what it may sound like, many (most) PCVs really love what they do and don’t want to be sent home.

To further complicate things, I am in a rather unique situation. Last Wednesday, I moved out of my old village, Kandiadougou. I spent the morning paying visits to my host family, my homologue, and my friend, Mamu. I explained that between the language barrier and the community’s lack of response to the necessary work, I would be better used in another village. Surprisingly, they took it well. No one really fought it, except my friend Mamu, who just told me to move into her house instead. My homologue, once he realized what I was saying simply replied, “Wait. They can’t just come talk to us again?” I clearly made the right decision. I plan on going back and visiting my host family and Mamu in the future.

Somewhat fortuitously for me, the cement at my new house was not dry when I moved out, so I was instructed to stay for a few nights in Sikasso before being moved to my new village. During the course of the first night I was in Sikasso, the coup occurred. I’ve been here ever since. On the one hand, I’m glad I didn’t move to a brand new village, only to be pulled out the next day. The villagers would have been very confused. On the other hand, if PC Mali does have to evacuate, then I’m not sure how I feel about entering another round of emotional and physical limbo. There are two (huge) options to weigh: finish my service elsewhere or repatriate. I’m trying not to get too far ahead of myself. My poor dog, also in limbo, is staying at a friend’s host family’s concession about twenty minutes from the Sikasso house (where she is not allowed). Scout must be very confused, bless her heart. There’s nothing I can really do, except visit her during the day. But that just makes me sad, because she cries every time I leave her. Again, I’m trying not to think about evacuation. Scout would have to stay behind.

So, for now, I’m just enjoying the company of my friends, watching movies (so far all of the Harry Potter movies and the Star Wars Trilogy, natch), making family dinners, and planning the Sikasso Olympics, to be held tomorrow. Events include rice sack races, fastest mosquito net set-up, oral rehydration solution chugging, peanut shelling, and Peace Corps trivia. I will be sure to document the upcoming days, and update as necessary. Thanks to everyone who wrote or called asking about me. It always feels good to know you’re in someone’s thoughts. In the words of our regional coordinator, Mama, “Let’s remember to be vigilant, okay?” Which, of course, we have shortened to “CONSTANT VIGILANCE.” Accio democracy!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Well, folks, tomorrow is the big day. I’m going to leave my old village and move into a new village, and therefore begin Good Golly Miss Mali, Version 2.0. I can’t say that I’m looking forward to telling my old village goodbye—after all, they did host me, feed me, and teach me how to be Malian over the past year. But I also know that taking this second opportunity to do what I came here to do will be amazing. It will breathe new life back into my seriously pathetic level of motivation, and I will be happier.

My new village, “D.,” (for safety reasons I can’t publish the actual name of my village) is still in the Sikasso region, which means my address is the same. I’m thankful that I don’t have to totally uproot in order to do this, though to be honest, I’d have gone to any village, anywhere in Mali, that spoke Bambara and wanted to work with me. I don’t know too much about my new home, except to say that they do, blessedly, speak Bambara (actually Julakan, which is just like a redneck dialect spoken in southern Mali and most of Côte D’Ivoire). I can understand them, which is fantastic. I’ve been to visit twice, and so far, it looks great. Once they heard they might get a volunteer if they finished the house, they completed it (roof, floors, latrines, compound walls, windows, doors) in less than three weeks. I’m impressed.

The village is much smaller than my last one, about 500 people. Combined with the neighboring village about a kilometer farther “en brusse” I will have a community of about 800 people. I’m very excited about this. I think the smaller size will help me make a deeper impact and also shorten the assimilation process. They requested an Environment Volunteer to help them with their small-scale gardening and ginger production—to which I add an emphatic “HELL YEA!” I don’t know much about ginger, but I will learn. Prepare for an onslaught of ginger facts, ginger jokes, and ginger recipes in the near future.

Since I go on vacation in a month or so, I am committing myself to spending the next month in D. so that I can integrate as much as possible before leaving for a month. I just used the word “month” way too many times in that last sentence. Month, month, month. It’s a funny-looking word, no? It is also a strange combination of sounds. I guess if you say any word enough it starts to sound funny. In Bambara, the word for “month” and the word for “moon” are the same: “kalo.” I like “kalo.” It rhymes with “malo,” which means uncooked rice, of which I just bought two kilos in market for a gift for my new host family. Mkay I’m done with that tangent.

Anywho, a change of subject. For those of you who sent me letters, I know I’m woefully behind in my replies. I just sent some out with a friend of a friend whom I believe just made it back to the States. Stamps just doubled in price here in Mali, which means, unfortunately, that my letters will be fewer and farther between. They used to be about a dollar, and now they’re well over two. “Just two dollars?” you say! Yea, I know, letters that y’all send are about the same price, but keep in mind I make about $200 a month. My mother literally laughed when she saw my W2. I have some Forever stamps that I brought with me, and I’ll get some more when I see my family. Regardless, I still have to wait until I hear of someone going back to America before I can send some. Sigh. I do suppose I could just put them in the “outgoing” box in the Bamako office and cross my fingers, but then again, I’d have to be in Bamako in the first place, and that’d probably count as an abuse of the diplomatic pouch.

So long for now! Positive vibes gratefully expected. I hope that you’re all enjoying spring time in America, and I look forward to updating in a month! Month, month, month.  

Monday, March 12, 2012

Limbo, Spain, and Azawad: States I’m Experiencing (Remotely)

Greetings from the Bamako stage house! I have spent the last few weeks traveling (more on that later) and finally have 1) something worthy of an update and 2) internet, so here I am. For those of you familiar with Azawad, stop panicking, I didn’t go there. I just wanted to include it in my blog but lacked a witty hook for my title. That said:

THE STATE OF LIMBO: I’ve been in Limbo for the past month, since I officially requested a site change!!! For those of you who’ve followed my various challenges and experiences in village, this may not come as a surprise. For those of you new to Good Golly Miss Mali, the nutshell version is that my village was unwilling to raise money for the pump project they so adamantly desired, in addition to not speaking the language in which I was trained (Bambara).  So, a combination of poor planning on Peace Corps’ part (the language issue) and a lack of motivation from my community (no fundraising), I knew that I couldn’t face another year in Kandiadougou. It took me a long, long time to come to grips with the idea that it wasn’t my lack of effort or that it wasn’t something I was missing. It was just a bad fit with a village that didn’t really want to put in the kind of work that having a PCV requires.

It sucks. It really does, since I’ve been in village for nearly a year and I’m connected to the place and a few really great individuals. But I also came here for me—I need to feel fulfilled, I need to do the work that I came here to do.  And at the end of my time here in Peace Corps, I do not want to leave and feel like I didn’t get the same chance as everyone else to do the work a PCV is supposed to do. So, I asked for a site change. My APCD (Assistant Peace Corps Director), the guy in charge of all the Environment Volunteers, admitted that he had not come to see my village before I was placed there, AND then, having visited it, said he never should have put me there in the first place (!). It feels justified, but I have been wrestling with the various stages of grief, anger, sadness, and guilt that come with any kind of break up, especially when I only have a year of service left. But I do know that a new village will be just the ticket I need. My only regret is that I vacillated for so long. I do not want to leave the Peace Corps, so I am seeing this as an opportunity. [Please note that this is NOT a commentary on those who elect to Early Terminate—you have to do what’s best for you, regardless of how it looks to anybody else nosy enough to care.] And I know, that even when I’m deep in a day dream about a lazy Sunday morning with my parents, or in a cozy shared apartment with my boyfriend, that I’d regret not taking this second opportunity. I won’t lie, coming home was a very real option for me. But with the unfailing support of that fantastic boyfriend of mine and my family who knows me better than I know myself, I am back on track.

Developments on a new site are indeed happening, but nothing’s concrete yet. BECAUSE ALL THE HOUSES HERE ARE MADE OF MUD! Bahaahaha get it?

Of course, I will write when I relocate. My only requirement? Okay, well, I have two: they have to speak Bambara, and they must love dogs. Or at least just let me bring mine. We can work on the love part later. But Scout is a non-negotiable. Duh.

THE STATE OF SPAIN: Oh happy day--- I’m going there! And Italy, too! Yes, I know, it feels like I just got back from Rome with Matt, but I’m going again! I’ll be gone for an entire month of hot season from late April until late May. I’m meeting my best friend from high school and her aunt in Spain for about two weeks, then I’m hopping over to Florence to spend two weeks with my boyfriend, my whole family plus their respective significant others, my aunt and uncle, and a surprise special guest, Grandpa Oscar, who was just invited this week. I’m pretty damn excited. I’ve never gone this long without seeing my family. It’s going to be wonderful. I am one lucky girl.

THE STATE OF AZAWAD: Spoiler Alert: it doesn’t actually exist. It’s the proposed state of a separatist movement of the Tuaregs, a nomadic ethnic group that lives in the Sahara. They live in parts of Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, and Mali and have been advocating for a separate nation (to be based on Sharia law, FYI) for decades. Unfortunately for their opponents (the Malian government, for example), the Tuaregs just came back from Libya after being hired as pro-Qaddafi mercenaries. They’re still after their independence, AND, as it happens, flush with cash and arms, a sort of posthumous boon from their late leader. The point of this is just to say that if you hear about fighting in Mali, it is ALL in northern Mali, and very, very far away from anywhere that Peace Corps operates. In fact, we’re not allowed to go north of a certain line that itself is far away from the fighting. So, fret not. Miss Mali is safe and sound.

I’m sorry that this post is not that exciting, but not all updates can be gold. On that note, I would love to hear about what kinds of things you guys want to read! Anything goes! Besides, two thirds of my job is cultural exchange, so let me know!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Valentine's Day Reflections

Happy Belated Valentine’s Day, dear readers! I know I’m a bit late, but you can blame Africa. Really, though, inspiration for a post hasn’t struck me in a while, but it’s more convenient for me to place the responsibility on the inconsistency of our wifi provider or the frequent power failures as the hot season approaches. I’m not actually sure why the power goes out in the hot season. I theorize that sections of town go without power because more people are using electricity for fans and such. Last year, we in Sikasso blamed the political instability of our neighbor Côte D’Ivoire, but this year it just looks like it’s going to be a doozy of a hot season. Yipee. But I digress.

It took us well over eighteen hours, but we finally downloaded the newest episode of Glee and watched it this morning. Crazy, crazy amounts of peppy cheer, teenage love, snappy dance moves, glitter, and badass messages of gay rights put me in a super happy mood. So, in honor of last week’s holiday and this morning’s good mood, I’ve belatedly comprised a little list of things I love, things that I don’t love, and things that I think you should love. After all, this is the holiday for love, right? Or, at the very least, telling people publicly and embarrassingly how much you care about them. I’m putting my own spin on it, since for Valentine’s Day this year I couldn’t publicly and embarrassingly show my boyfriend way over in California how much I care about him—except now I’m blogging about those things, so nevermind. HI MATT

Things I Love:
1)      My Dog. You may or may not know, but I’m kind of obsessed with Scout. She’s awesome and entertaining and she makes me super happy. Something I love.

must. snuggle.

Evan with Mr. Chaucer
2)      My Brother. Sender of hilarious emails, mixer of delicious cocktails, finder of good reads, master player of the viola, fellow cat enthusiast, and little-sister-supporter extraordinaire, I give you, Evan Freaking Barker. <3.  

Majestic, no?
3)      Letters: writing, sending, and receiving them. Yes, I know you over there in the real world have, like, actual jobs to occupy your time, reliable internet on your phones (!), and about a million and one other fun things to do because your lives are AWESOME because you live in AMERICA (so much cheese and electricity!) but don’t forget to write, y’all. Thank you notes, “just because” cards, “hi, I miss you!”-- all of these things apply to everyone, all over the world, not just your favorite PCV. I was chatting to a friend this Vday, and we both decided that the best love is love that comes from old friends. The reliable, supportive, and knows-you-better-than-your-mom-does friend that sometimes just needs a little reminder of how special they are to you. Valentine’s Day isn’t just for lovers!

Since coming to Mali I estimate that I’ve written about fifty or so letters to lots of different people including friends, family, a fourth grade class, and even a complete stranger. Weird, maybe, and time consuming for sure, but you know what? It’s pretty awesome, if you think about it, to write something (anything), put it in an envelope, attach a brightly colored sticker that apparently contains the worth of your written words’ safe journey, and send it into the great, great unknown of international postal travel, only to hope that it arrives safely at some undetermined date and will be read with friendly eyes. I like to consider it a good habit of mine that I write letters. And, just for the record, if you write me one (even an email!), I promise I’ll write you back. J

Things I Do Not Love:

1)      Missing my family, friends, and boyfriend. Wah, wah, yea, I signed up for this but I can still miss them. I get to see them in April and May for my envy-inducing month-long vacation to Spain and Italy, and BOY and I looking forward to it. The level of my excitement practically counts as cardio.

Beth and Tim like to deny that this Thanksgiving ever happened,
but I'll be damned if we don't bring back Barker Family Beer Pong in 2012.
2)      Constantly being harassed for being white/a woman/a white woman. If I have to jokingly explain, one more time, that my father requires that my two hundred cow dowry be sent to him in America AND that I’ll bear no children nor wash my husband’s clothes….. nah, fuck that. The next man that asks me is going to get a full-on, Chelsea-level rant complete with wild hand gestures, a pitch of voice that even dogs don’t like, and a scathing description of everything that is wrong with asking a complete stranger that question. Also, can I just add that I really, really dislike people who say that feminism is extreme or unnecessary? Come to Mali and see what I see, then I dare you to maintain the same opinion. And don’t try to separate feminism in America from feminism elsewhere. Women are women. Gah.

Okay, okay. I missed the scorpion
the first time, but wouldn't you also
be a little nervous if the fate
of your pristine MC pennant was
hanging in the balance?
3)      Scorpions, snakes, and big fucking spiders. So over them. 

Things You Should Love:
SPOILER ALERT—See: soapbox

1)      Your education.  Yea, you may hate your parents for putting you through parochial school (but secretly know you’ll do it to your own kids someday), you may be thousands of dollars in debt from that private liberal arts school that made for the best four years of your life (I’m looking at you, Maryville College), you may be, after your fourth violin recital before the age of four, shaking your head and diagnosing your mom with Tiger Mom Syndrome, you may even be just wizening up to the fact that because of your lifelong homeschooling, you’re best friends with your parents, like that new character on Glee. But I’m willing to bet that besides all that, you understand, at least on some level, how damn lucky you are to be educated.

 I’m not just talking about being able to read, though let’s take a moment to discuss that, since it’s HUGE. Imagine, if you can, being illiterate. Not only would you be deprived of your sporadic yet life changing Good Golly Miss Mali updates, but you wouldn’t be able to go to school, run a business, own property, travel safely, avoid your peanut allergy, outsmart that jerk in the next cubicle over, learn about something that interests you, or FINALLY learn the lyrics to that catchy Rusted Root song. The basic act of reading is a luxury to most Malians. UNICEF estimates that the literacy rate in Mali is somewhere between 26% and 47%, with half as many women literate as men. And it's actually probably even lower than that.

But the real kicker, in my opinion, is the educational system. It seems to be based on some ridiculously antediluvian model of rote memorization developed by colonists and/or torture masters. You’d be surprised to realize how much critical thinking, creativity, analysis, imagination, and problem-solving you picked up, just from your elementary school teachers’ passion and dedication to your future. Know an educator? Hug them. Well, hell, even if you don’t, thank your parents for making you work harder on the assignment that you didn’t think mattered, for helping you get your first library card, for encouraging you to find out more about something that interested you. I could probably write an entire blog about the educational system here, but I’ll resist. Yea, education’s pretty important. Anyway, I hope you love yours.

2)      Public Transportation wherever you live. I’ll just save my breath and show you Mali's:

The Fulani were not happy about this.

Rainy season on a thoroughfare
to Cote D'Ivoire
Believe it or not,
this is actually a fairly common sighting

You know, I’m not actually sure about the origins of Valentine’s Day, or why it’s so important that we get all romantic and poetic about something that is, in my opinion, a rather private, intimate emotion. This year, Valentine’s Day in Mali was just like any other day in Mali, for the exception of a little extra love from a few near and dear people in my life. And you know what? I kind of liked it like that. I saw it as a sort of second Thanksgiving with more pink and less stuffing (I’m not saying the latter is okay, I’m just sayin.) Hence my lists—I have noticed lately that I feel more thankful for good people and a good life, rather than for things, a sentiment I think we too often push to the wayside after the end-of-year holidays. Being here has made me think about all sorts of ways to love, not just romantically (by the way, if you’re curious, the distance between Mali and California is eight hours and a bazillion sad, sad miles). While dinner or flowers or chocolate are always welcome, I’m sure most of you would also agree that just knowing that you’re loved and free to love makes all the difference, especially when the date is not February 14th. I hope you guys had a good day, and I hope that this gives you pause to consider just how awesome it is to feel love. Giant Malian spiders excluded.

Go away, Mouse Spider. No one likes you.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Scout and The Second Goal

Meet Scout. (Pronounced “Suh-COW” by my villagers)

Scout is my puppy. She’s my first big girl responsibility. She’s my friend, my protector, and a surprising source of cultural exchange and conversation starters. She’s five months old this January, but I got her when she was only four weeks old from a fellow PCV whose dog had pups. It’s been pretty awesome raising a dog, really frustrating, really scary, and exhausting. But of course, I love her and I’m glad I have her. Having a dog around has made such a difference in my life here. It’s nice having a companion and feeling safe at night when I go to bed. She has kept me busy and taught me a lot. I often mentioned to my family back home that I feel like just having Scout has done more in the way of cultural exchange than any of my conversations, meetings, or behavior have. My brother encouraged me to write about it. I was happy to—because what dog owner doesn’t love talking about their dog? But also, I’ve been boring y’all with overly detailed and Debbie Downer accounts of my actual work here. It’s time to switch it up.

rice stuck to the roof of the mouth is always entertaining

Raising a puppy is a huge responsibility, duh. But saying that and living it are two different things. When she was a baby she’d wake up and cry every time every time a donkey brayed. Now she chases donkeys for fun. When I got her when she was so young that I had to find milk for her every day until she could eat solids. Now I feed her rice, mixed with either some peanut butter, scrambled egg, or powdered milk. She loves boiled sweet potatoes too, which is convenient since people in my village give them to me in abundance. I also spoil her with a little meat I buy in market each Thursday. She’s really energetic (especially when she wakes up to play at 5 AM) and her coat is shiny and she’s healthy, as far as I can tell. 

When she was seven or eight weeks, I took her into Sikasso and got her shots taken care of. She’s vaccinated against rabies and several other things, the names of which I can’t remember at the moment. The shot cost me 12,000 CFA, which is roughly $24. Cheapest vet visit ever, I’ll wager. In village she’s constantly playing with other dogs and puppies, chasing goats and sheep and chickens and guinea fowl and donkeys and cows, so there’s no telling what sorts of crazy diseases she’s exposed to. I do my best to keep her safe, but she’s a village dog and enjoys a degree of freedom that precludes me from protecting her at all times.

Training my little Scoutosaurus Rex has been an adventure, to say the least. I have some experience from training my family’s dog back in Tennessee. Daisy learned pretty quickly and is smart- she and Scout have that in common- but there are all sorts of obstacles here in village that were non issues in suburban Nashville. Take the herds of livestock, for example. Or the lack of Little Cesars doggie treats. Or the fact that people in my village don’t actually like dogs. That was an even bigger hurdle than I imagined it’d be. Since so many dogs here don’t have a particular owner who cares for them the way we’re used to, dogs here are often scared or aggressive when it comes to their space and their food. Parents teach their children to hit dogs who try to eat their food or even come near them.  I don’t blame them—dogs here are scary sometimes, and often sick. But I also realized as I trained Scout and introduced her to my village that I wasn’t going to let her be treated like every other dog. It became important to me to teach children and adults alike that dogs need not be whacked for merely approaching someone, or sniffing at the food on the ground, for example. (Suggesting that we remove the temptation by eating on a raised surface just earned me stares and another notch on The Toubab Is Crazy belt). 

Scout comes with me everywhere I go, and everywhere I go gives me opportunities for training. I try my best to explain my rationale for making her do, or refrain from, a certain behavior. I’ve talked about why I make Scout sit and watch me eat before she can eat, or why I flip her on her back until she is submissive if she’s getting too aggressive. I explained that you have to be judicious about popping a dog on the nose- catching them in the act and punishing them is much more effective than just hitting the dog when you’re mad at something they don’t understand they’ve done. I housetrained Scout in about six weeks, which totally flabbergasted my family. “You let her IN YOUR HOUSE!?” asked my host dad. “Doesn’t she poop there?” and when I confidently say “not anymore,” it’s pretty cool. They think it’s cool, too, and little by little I think my close acquaintances in village are judging me less and are taking interest in my “weird” dog behavior.

i can has friends?
Of course, I’ve made some mistakes and Scout is in no way the model puppy (just this morning she nearly got her face kicked in by a momma donkey as she tried to “play with” [AKA chase] her baby donkey), but we’re improving. Training a dog, as I’ve come to find out, is more like training the human. You have to be consistent, praising all the time and disciplining prudently, anticipating their next move and their mood for the most effective learning. My friend Ethan has helped me immeasurably, explaining, for example, that if you whack your dog for chewing on your flip flop, they’ll be confused. The dog thinks you gave it to her, because everything that’s hers always starts out as yours (if you’ve ever wanted a God complex or an ego boost, get a dog). If you want to teach your pup not to chew on your shoe or pull garbage out of the basket or chase your cows, you have to catch them in the act of going for whatever it is they want. Accompanying it with a command, such as “Leave it!” has worked really well for us (and for all parties involved when Scout begrudgingly left alone a chicken carcass she discovered on our walk yesterday). Score.

Training my villagers has not been as easy. They are still afraid of dogs, especially the little kids. And, since most of my friends here are under the age of six, I have had a lot of time to condition the younger generation. I have a few rules at my house that the kids know well. If they help me fetch water, they get a piece of candy. If they hit another kid, they get kicked out of my compound, and if they hit Scout and she didn’t deserve it, then I get to hit them. Don’t worry, I don’t haul off and wail on these kids-- they learned pretty fast (and so did Scout) that gentle play makes everyone happy.

just taking my millet stalk for a walk, nbd
Dealing with adults in my village has been somewhat more of a gray area. Even though I’ve been in village for about ten months and am well known, I still hesitate to unilaterally decree that they can’t hit my dog. Culture here dictates that all possessions are communal- your chairs, your food, your kids, and especially your dogs- so everyone gets a say in their behavior and discipline. For example, do I get upset at the man who hits Scout so hard that she rolls across the ground? All she did was approach the man because she was being a friendly puppy. Malian dogs generally don’t approach people, probably because they’re hit more than they receive affection. Knowing that, I can understand how this man may have interpreted her approach as an aggressive move. What I saw and what he saw were two different things. I know and have taught my dog to be playful and friendly. Moreover I have learned through my own culture of being surrounded by well-trained and human-friendly dogs to read dog body language. My dad taught my brother, sister and me at a very young age to approach a strange dog slowly, get on its level, extend your hand for it to sniff and let it decide whether it wants to be your friend. We unconsciously know that a wagging tail means a happy dog and certain barks and yips are more playful than menacing, that looking at a dogs ears can tell you whether they’re afraid, excited, or aggressive. Therefore, my villagers don’t necessarily see the same things I see when I watch dogs and humans interact. In this case, I did yell at the man. It was more my anger in the heat of the moment, a momma protecting her baby, than a lesson, I’ll be the first to admit. The man was even a guest of my host father, definitely not someone I should be talking back to, especially as a woman. But I kind of blew past that faux pas when I half yelled half screamed that she didn’t do anything and you can’t hit her unless she did something wrong, like eat your food or bite you, and she won’t learn and you could have really hurt her! Not one of my finer moments, to be sure. But that sure took the man by surprise. Whether he learned that not all dogs mean you harm when they approach you or just that the white girl really is crazy, I’ll never know. For some reason he was disinclined to talk too much to me after that episode. Imagine that.

Scout returned with a horn. She didn't say where she found it.
There’s also another layer of cultural complexity to having Scout in village. The whole point of me being here is to learn the language and culture and play by their rules (wearing pants is one of my few avant garde showings of non conformity, whoop de doo) so that I can maximize my effectiveness as an agent of change. I get that. That’s what I signed up for. But my culture dictates very different mores that often clash with those of my host community. This doesn’t just apply to owning a dog in Peace Corps—it’s a bigger issue that nearly all development workers face: where does culture end and human (or in this case, animal) rights begin? Like I said, it’s a gray area. So do I sit back and watch when Scout gets whacked for drinking water from the pump because some woman deems it inappropriate? Do I let Scout learn that not every person wants to be approached and let those people hit her away? Do I let Oumar, my homologue, take her to the woods to hunt hares but chastise her for chasing chickens in village? It’s hard to say. This is where I fail as a puppy owner and trainer, because I’m not consistent. When I leave village, for example, Oumar takes care of her and she becomes just another village dog without me there to guide her and protect her. When I’m gone, she has to play by their rules, and I have to be okay with that. But for the times when I’m around, I’m still figuring out what’s the best course of action for me, for Scout, for the second goal of Peace Corps: representing American culture to host country nationals on behalf of Americans.

For now, Scout learns a little bit, day by day. So do I. I always have a list of dog-related questions to Google when I get back to the internet, and I’m always looking for advice and training tips to make both of our lives a little easier and a little more orderly. One day, I hope to take Scout back to America with me. I think she’ll like it there. She might miss chasing chickens and taking it upon herself to herd my neighbor’s sheep, but she’ll find other things to keep her occupied, I’m sure. Besides, now she’s a part of my life as much as I’m a part of hers, for better or for worse, for chickens or for sheep.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Rome and Back

Leaving, Part I: This Shit Is Sad
December 30th, 2011 11:44 AM
Fiumicino Airport

Well, it’s over. I’m many hours early for my flight, as I shared a cab with Matt and Matt’s parents, Jan and Mike. The three of them are gone by now, and I’m kind of wandering around Leornardo Da Vinci International Airport trying really hard not to think about saying bye to Matt. The past ten days have been perfect, absolutely wonderful and happy and full of new experiences and fun and delicious food and sight-seeing. I cannot believe that it’s over, just about as soon as it started, too.

On our first day together, Matt and I leisurely explored Trastevere and the Ghetto, finding ourselves at Capitoline Hill and the Roman Forum. We saw the famous sculpture of the shewolf suckling Romulus and Remus, a work nearly 2,500 years old. We also saw the statue of Marcus Aurelius and some truly incredible marble busts. Over the next few days we saw the Colosseum, a very cute farmer’s market (I stopped in there twice), more of Trastevere and the Vatican. For Christmas Eve and Christmas we saw the Vatican Museum (Sistine Chapel, School of Athens, the Hall of Maps) and St. Peter Square. Over and over again I was blown away by the sheer history and opulence and beauty of the city and its treasures. Rome in December was nice, too. It was pleasantly cold and decorated for Christmas and mercifully free of the hordes of tourists that flock here in the summer. We went to Midnight Mass at Santa Maria di Trastevere, a 12th century Byzantine church about ten minutes from our apartment. It may be the oldest church in the city, which was pretty amazing. Its mosaics and artwork did not disappoint.

On Christmas we spent the day wandering the Piazza Navona’s Christmas festival, climbing the Spanish Steps, and marveling at the Trevi Fountain, which is still powered by aqueducts. After Christmas we went back to St. Peter’s to see the Basilica and saw Michealangelo’s Pieta and St. Peter’s tomb. When we arrived at the Square, His Holiness Himself was giving a little Christmas speech/blessing from a shockingly Tiny Yet Holy Apartment Window overlooking the crowds. It was pretty neat. He wears a funny hat.

roasted chestnuts!!

The most unique thing we did was visit Santa Maria de Concepzione (sp?) near the Piazza Barberini to see the crypts of the Cappuchin monks. In the basement of this old church are six crypts that are decorated, wall to wall, floor to ceiling with the bones of over 4,000 monks that died between 1500 and 1800, give or take. And by “decorated” I mean The Hall of Scapulas had intricate designs of hourglasses and a weirdly elegant sloping mound as a centerpiece. It was totally gruesome and macabre, but it was meant to be a celebration of life on Earth and the appreciation of how quickly time passes. There were even some full skeletons propped up with strings in full monk regalia. Creepy. But also mega cool.

Of course, I think it goes without saying that the best part besides spending ten days with Matt (obvs that’s the best part, but you don’t want me to spend the next eight paragraphs outlining the ways in which we’re gaga in love) was the food. Holy cow, the pasta, the pizza and the gelato were beyond words. My favorite was Dar Poeta, a cheap local pizza joint in Trastevere, and Giolitti, the most delicious gelateria in Rome. (Fun Fact: Michelle Obama went there with Sasha and Malia a few years ago). MY favorite pizza was the Bufala, with (water) buffalo mozzarella, and my favorite gelato was the grapefruit. None of us had a bad meal, and I drank lots of wine but never felt hungover. Rome is kind of like the Promised Land. Mmmmm I don’t think I’ll ever eat as good again!

Clockwise from top: Candied Almond and Fig, Dark Chocolate with Rum, Zabiaone (custard with Marsala wine)
We packed a lot into ten days, but we still made time for some un-touristy things, like sleeping in, watching movies, cooking, and playing with stray cats at this sanctuary that was in the middle of town. Matt, Mike, Jan and I spent a good hour or more in there the first day, playing with all kinds of loving, happy cats and buying some cute gifts to support them. It made me miss Pearl, and Scout too. I hope she’s doing well. I can’t wait to see her again. Matt and I very nearly adopted one in particular, Lorenzo, who greeted me by climbing up my legs to put one paw on either side of my face and hug me. I kid you not. I’m tempted to say it was one of the highlights of the trip.

Rome was amazing. Seeing Matt was like a slice of heaven. I’m not going to lie, I’m pretty sad out right now, and if I think about it too much, I start to look like I’ve had too much wine with lunch (and I haven’t had any, because any would be too much right now). I’m getting really tired of saying goodbye to Matt. I know I’m going to see him again in Florence in May for the Barker Family vacation, but I am ready to not have to say goodbye to him. I didn’t think it was possible to feel even more sure about our relationship, but this vacation reaffirmed what we’ve known and told each other from the start. In this moment, it’s hard for me to love Peace Corps for the wonderful and amazing experience that it is, because I can’t stop thinking about how nice it will be to be together with Matt full time. But, alas, the way things work out is always funny, and Matt and I also know that for as much as we want to be together right now, we’re also exactly where we need to be.

So, what now? I need to keep my mind moving forward, so I’ve made a list:
1.       Return to Mali, spend New Year’s in Bamako
2.       Chat with my APCD (Assistant Peace Corps Directory) about my site
3.       Go back to site, snuggle Scout, check on the pump project, maternity, and literacy classes
4.       Go back to Bamako for Shea Business Boot Camp, Part II with Mamu
5.       Start running again
6.       Start learning Spanish (I’m going to Spain with my friend before I see my family in May!)
7.       Learn how to use my new Kindle (A Christmas gift from Matt and Jan and Mike!!!!!!!!!)
8.       Keep studying Bambara
9.       Attempt pizza in my dutch oven (a pathetic homage to Dar Poeta)
Thanks for humoring me on my vacation updates. It’s been surreal, and I’m one lucky girl, through and through.

Leaving, Part II: JUST KIDDING
It seems as though I’m already encountering difficulties completing the first part of my first step in my plan. After spending a long, uncomfortable, lonely day in the Roman airport, my 7pm flight to Lisbon was delayed an hour, and I missed my connection to Bamako by about 9 minutes. Seriously. Luckily, TAP Portugal is a legitimate airline that attempts to take good care of its customers, so I’m currently being put up in the Hotel Roma Lisboa. I got a sandwich, I took a bath, and washed my clothes in the sink—such an upgrade from washing them in buckets without running water in Mali. Merry Christmas to me.

Tomorrow morning I fly Air France to Paris then back down to Bamako. Apparently it’s the fastest way to get me home, even though Paris is way the hell out of my way. At least I get to fly Air France. Plus, I’ve always wanted to see Portugal, although a cold and sad seven hour hotel stay was not what I imagined. Maybe I’ll get to do it for real someday. Also, when I arrive in Bamako tomorrow night, at least my luggage will be there. I’d have gone days without it in Bamako if I had actually made my flight, so I guess it all works out for the best. At least, I hope so. Here’s to one more night of hot running water and electricity with the promise of free in-flight booze tomorrow!

Part III: Bamako and The Roman Hangover
I’m back! It feels good to be back, but I’m also experiencing a weird slump. Not that I didn’t expect this, but it feels weirder than I thought it would. It goes like this: I wake up in the Bamako transit house, surrounded by my friends talking about Peace Corps things, talking about how dumb the Republican presidential candidates are, talking about vacations, talking about all of the normal good things I talked about thirteen days ago, before I left for vacation. But I don’t really want to be a part of any of it. I am glad to be back, but I feel like I had this great taste of my future life, that real world that was increasingly more nebulous the longer I was in Peace Corps. Then all of the sudden I was living it. And now that I’m back for the second year of my PC service, I feel… confused. Yes, I want this, but I also want that. Why can’t I have the one that makes me insanely happy? Why do I need that life to be happy? Why is it so hard for me to love my village and my commitment to be here? The guilt is overwhelming, and besides that, I don’t really have much direction, so it feels like I’m treading water. Meh. I know this isn’t the first time I’ve talked about this stuff, but I’m just hoping that with a little more time, with a fresh perspective, things will turn for the better. My friend told me this morning that one of the few luxuries we have in Peace Corps is time to think. It’s totally true, and I plan on taking full advantage of it in the next few weeks as I transition back to work and back to being Tintio Traore.

Therefore, My List, Revised:
1.       Chat with my APCD (Assistant Peace Corps Directory) about my site
2.       Stay in Bamako for Shea Business Boot Camp, Part II with Mamu and Gender and Development Committee elections
3.       Return to site!
4.       Start running again
5.       Start learning Spanish (I’m going to Spain with my friend before I see my family in May!)
6.       Learn how to use my new Kindle (A Christmas gift from Matt and Jan and Mike!!!!!!!!!)
7.       Keep studying Bambara
8.       Attempt pizza in my dutch oven (a pathetic homage to Dar Poeta, the best pizza… ever.)
9.       Keep on keepin on!

Happy New Year! May 2012 be the year you’ve always wanted for yourself. Go get it!