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!