Peace Corps

I Love You / Yes Kez Sirum'em

These poems are a sonnet cycle; commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide (April 24th, 1915-2015), when the Young Turks systematically murdered 1.5 million Ottoman-Armenians; marching mainly women and children into the deserts of southern Turkey, Der-ez-Zor. The poems are based on the music of the torch song singer Datevik Hovanesian and use phrases in Armenian within the poems (though since the translations are part of the titles I hope it doesn’t cause too much confusion). I myself am not Armenian, though I had the honor of living in the country for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, working in an orphanage for infants in the city of Gyumri.


][][


[The Light, The Moonlight / Es Gisher, Lusniak Gisher]


Something is burning through these dry desert

streams. A wind – glowing, grating, fluoresce.

A storm is burning through these dreams. The dirt

from these cattle cars. It is a cloudless

night, I can see – no. I cannot speak this

language. These dreams. A scream. I cannot speak.

Things are burning. This sight is both a bliss

and a curse. Sight is a curse. I am weak,

moonlight, lusniak gisher; blind these screams

from me. Blind me. I loved you – now farewell.

I loved you, once, now you twist and deform,

moonlight, lusniak gisher – all my dreams;

this sound of flesh, light and firestorm; this smell

of fat melting and consuming firestorm.


][][



[The Breeze / Hov Arek]


I am ill from waiting for you — too long –

waited for you all — waited for you all.

I am ill with change. Daylong and nightlong;

changing unchanging, all restless. I crawl.

I stand. I faint. I – ill with signs. Sweating

in your breeze, hov arek. All so cold, shawl

cast down, eyes cast down. So ill. Shivering

desert. In all the cattle cars. Each wall

blocks you, little breeze, hov arek. Who pleads

for me? Who pleads? Listen to this dreadful

song I would sing. I would. My throat, bloody,

gags. I am ill. That is all. My throat bleeds.

My throat bleeds. That is all. Now my little

ill breeze, hov arek, you must sing for me.


][][



[I am Burning / Ervum Em’]


Skim by these holes, sink holes, a crust covered

in skin. A crust, the foulest of – dust. Skim

the long ladle pool. Dust from skin – the word

for skin I’ve forgotten. Teach me the hymn

of your grandmother. Teach me how to burn.

Blackened pools long dried. Cattle cars now grim

rust burnt from your hymns – bodies all iron,

all bone, now rust. The right tongue can teach you

to fight, moonlight. The right door can open

everything. Sing that hymn, “I am burning,”

ervum em’. Not this crust skin; hymn about

your tongues ripped out and no one would listen.

Door shuts; voices on a record, skipping,

skimming, hissing – No way out. No way out.


][][


[LAVASH]


All these fingers are dirty – lick them clean.

There is dough in my hair – kiss me clean. With

a kiss like this. Obscene. All day you’ve seen

me make bread. Lavash. Song of flat bread; myth

of dough rolled flat slapped against tonir walls.

Simple song of flat bread; the dead’s flat food.

Simple smell. The smell of burning. Night falls

and the dead still burn. The dead’s bread; imbued

with grief. What else? I am leaving; come kiss

me clean. Clean all my fingers, clean my soul,

clean my lips, my body – like this – like this.

When you make bread, you make me; when you roll

the bread flat you touch me. I’ll be ghostly

so soon. Touch me. Touch me. Touch me.


[note: Lavash is a popular flat bread in Armenia; Tonir is an oven used to cook the bread.]


][][



[I Love You / Yes Kez Sirum'em]


Dawn comes. “A Love Supreme” scratching, swinging,

bluing, singing. One lone moonbeam – my scream

cools. Love redeemed when you taught me to sing.

To speak. Your words. Your words. My dream. My dream.

My scream still burns – desert cattle cars rang

through the moonlight and the breeze and partridge

sang and all the world’s crusted burned skin sang

with this — Language of memory. Language

against forgetting. Against the mayhem

of this past. Cut out my scream, redeem my

vast love, lover. You who loves me. You who

taught me to love again. Yes kez sirum

‘em. I love you. Yes kez sirum 'em. I

love you. Yes kez sirum 'em. I love you.

2

The first weekend I arrived in a rural village in Madagascar to begin my Peace Corps service – I picked out a stubborn but irresistible piglet to be my pal. 

Now over a year later, the only thing that has changed is size…both my piglet and my love for her, continue to grow. Buffy will never get too big for my lap!

Or at least…we’ll make it work.

Hello, I Must Be Squatting

I’m trying to sleep on a straw mat in the village in Northern Ghana where I’m a Peace Corps volunteer. It’s the best way to keep cool when there’s no air-conditioning and nighttime temps are in the 80s.

Lots of people are outside sleeping in the center of the compound where I’m living. They’re talking. Their babies are crying. I try to tune them out and am almost at the dream state. Then I hear “aninwula.”

That’s the evening greeting.

No matter the time of day or night, most Ghanaians would be seriously insulted if you ignored their greeting.

And this just isn’t any Ghanaian. It’s an elderly woman. To properly greet an elder requires not just a verbal response but a respectful squatting stance. So I rub the sleep out of my eyes and stand up in order to squat. After a polite exchange — I squat, she squats — she moves on, and I’m able to lie down and try to get back to sleep.

Nothing interferes with greetings for the people of the village, who are predominantly of the Dagomba ethnic group. Even the semblance of a greeting by someone passing by means everyone has to respond. Also, the younger person in the encounter should be the one who initiates the greeting (although on this hot night, the elderly woman started things off because I was sleeping).

Continue reading.

Photo: You’ve got to get down — literally — when greeting someone in Northern Ghana. (Kiley Shields for NPR)

3

Last semester, my 11th grade students were studying how to write personal letters. One of my very dear friends is currently teaching English through Peace Corps China so, to make this topic real for my students, my counterpart and I assigned each student a penpal from her class. Some of my students were excited about sending a letter to another country, while others looked at this as another boring English assignment.

Last week, my friend visited and brought the letters her students had written in response to the letters from my students. My students’ reaction were everything I could have hoped for! Motivation to learn English at my school is very low as most of the students are planning on staying/working in the village after graduation. It was incredible to watch the excitement spread across all of their faces and help them realize the doors of communication English can potentially open.

Because mail can be expensive, my friend and I helped the students open e-mail accounts in the rarely used school computer lab and taught them how to send their first e-mail. The amount of positivity from my students was overwhelming as they were excitedly comparing letters. They even began searching through dictionaries to decipher their letters without any prompting from me! That’s a big deal for my students! I’m including a few pictures so you can see their adorable smiles :)

3

Just felt like posting these pics.

There was a storm out past the one mountain on the horizon. It never blew through our area, but the view, as you can see, was pretty amazing. We’ve have a few storms like this already, and being able to finally capture it in a photo was honestly pretty gnarly.

Call me the best meteorologist any news station could have, but I think the ocean nearby brings in the random erratic weather like this.

Also, National Geographic, I am open for freelance photography gigs. Or full time employment…

10

a few weeks ago my friend Jen visited me here in Costa Rica.

It was a great reunion; a great adventure.

It was great to explore a new place in my country of service with someone from home; to see Costa Rica through the eyes of a visitor rather than a fellow PCV…to see what stood out to her as interesting, quirky, delicious, new, uncomfortable, or exciting. To see how much I had adjusted; what had become normal and what still stood out from my perspective as a non-tourist; as a gringa living in Costa Rica; as a Peace Corps volunteer.


A few photos from our whirlwind trip up to Monteverde–the cloud forest.

“I identify a lot with Rapunzel and her overcoming with emotional and verbal abuse to find happiness. I always doubted a little bit though if I should really go out and explore the world like her– but after a teacher confronted me earlier this year with the possibility of the Peace Corps so it got me to get onto the fence. After going to the Esmeralda machine in DL however and even FURTHER encouraged me- I’m going to do it. The universe is telling me to do it for a reason.”

10

I now live in Madagascar.

A Day in the Life of a Peace Corps Trainee

About 4 weeks ago, 42 American strangers met in Philadelphia then spent the next 72 hours sleepily-awake, while traveling across the world to this giant African Island in the Indian Ocean. It has been a crazy and exhilarating whirlwind ever since then.

Right now we are in Pre-Service Training. We will be in Mantasoa, at the Peace Corps Training Center, for three months before we begin our 2 years of service at our relative sites. PST is a fast-paced mumbo-jumble of immersion and trainings, but all of the trainees are still close together, so we can escape to America-land and share jokes and stories with each other. I’d say we are “half-integrating” at the moment. We are slowly easing ourselves into life in a whole other world.

Each Peace Corps Trainee is currently living with a host family in one of two villages near the training center. Our days are filled with Malagasy lessons, general Peace Corps lessons, sessions about our specialties: health or agriculture (mine is health), classes about how to not get diarrhea, and well… lots of rice.

My host family has a spacious white house on a hill overlooking a small lake. They have a few animals: chickens, a cow, and a pregnant pig!

I can’t wait to meet the cute little piglets soon! I am going to try to adopt one, or all of them and save them from becoming dinner one day. It will be my own personal “Charlotte’s Web” Pig Protection Project. (This idea might need some revision).

There is a small store attached to the house and many neighbors stop by throughout the day to stock up on little things they might need like phone credit, beans, bread, or candy.

My host mom is a great cook and a really hard worker. She and my host dad spend everyday caring for their animals and crops, managing the store, and keeping the house in order. I also live with a 14 year old host brother, Jimmy, who is very good at speaking English and tutoring me in Malagasy. I have two more wonderful host siblings, José and Charlene, but they currently live in the capital, Antananarivo, where they are studying at a University.

They are all so kind and extremely helpful at exposing me to the Malagasy way of life.

Here is what almost everyday looks like for me:
At around 4 am, through closed wooden shutters, I can hear roosters cock-a-doodle-dooing about, neighbors singing, and the scraping sounds outside of my host family beginning work for the day.

I groggily look up at the ceiling and my mosquito net, say to myself “hmmm, I’m glad no one expects me to go feed a cow” and I fall asleep for two more hours.

I am later awoken by a soft knock on the door and my host brother’s voice “sakofo” (mealtime). After a sweet breakfast of rice, peanut butter, pancakes, coffee, and bananas, skillfully cooked by my host mom over charcoal, I begin my morning routine.

I head back to my room to collect my plastic purple bucket and towel. I leave the towel in the Ladosy which is an outdoor hut where I will take my shower. I cross past the family’s cow, through high grass that is still dewy from the nightly rain, and open a wooden door to another small hut covering a water well.

After pulling up two buckets worth of cold water from at least 20 feet below, I drag my bucket back into the house and into the kitchen to add some rano mafana (hot water) boiled over charcoal by my Neny (host mom).

After adding some chlorine to the water, I put the bucket in the Ladosy while I visit the outhouse: “Kabone.” The Kabone is the poop hole I bet you have been oh-so-curious about. The wooden floor has two slats on either side of the hole that indicate where to put your feet while you squat and release your morning coffee.

I have been using a Kabone for a while now, but I still dread it. I am totally afraid of slipping and falling in. I don’t know why I’m so paranoid, it’s only a stew of everyone’s bubbling poop 12 feet below…

one wrong move…

After surviving the Kabone yet again, and celebrating my regulatory digestion (I was off for the first week), I head to the Ladosy hut to wash myself with lukewarm water from my purple bucket.

Once I am clean, I also must fetch my drinking water from the well. I put it in my filter and then add in some diluted bleach to kill any nasty organisms that the filter didn’t get. I haven’t had diarrhea yet, so I think I’ve gotten the hang of it!

There is so much work that goes into every piece of the morning from brushing my teeth to just taking a “shower.” I find my morning activities quite meditative. It is nice to take so much care for every part of a routine that used to be so simple. Back in the states, everything was handed to me on a marble or porcelain platter with two knobs- hot or cold.

It is definitely nice to have my Neny doing half of my chores for me at the moment. Once I move to my permanent village after training, I will have to heat my own water and breakfast every morning. Whomp wommmmppp.

After my shower, I get dressed, sweep my room, and prepare for 4 hours of Malagasy language lessons. Luckily our small language group meets at my house so I can dawdle until everyone arrives.

By noon class is over, my brain is fried, and Neny is almost done cooking lunch.

The family and I eat a meal of rice with the sides of usually beans and a vegetable salad. I really enjoy the meals at my house.

Malagasy people eat a lot of rice. It is their main dish for every meal -always- but my Neny likes to cook more than just rice. At least while I’m around. So I eat plenty of vegetables. I loooooove vegetables. The meals are always delicious. (But I’m not allowed to talk about this to the other trainees who are only fed rice by their families. They are jealous…and probably irritable because they are only eating rice).

After lunch I rest for a bit, then walk around the neighbourhood on my way to our afternoon training courses at a community center.

Sometimes our classes are just health volunteers, and sometimes the agriculture volunteers are there as well. I really enjoy afternoon classes because all of the other trainees are really cool and we always have a lot of fun together. It’s incredulously comforting to have a support system of people all about the same age, going through similar experiences.

During our break halfway through class, we walk around the village and buy snacks from the many shops that line the main road. The snacks are usually just stale and processed cookies and crackers, but sometimes I buy bananas which are absolutely delicious here.

Once class is over at 5pm, I like to walk around town for a bit with other trainees, chatting and exploring before I head home in a race against the dark.

Generally, Malagasy people do not spend time outside past dark for many reasons, so once night falls the day is typically over. They are the opposite of many Americans. In the states we get chores done at night, but here chores are done with the sun. The Malagasy rise with the dawn and finish their days at sunset.

Dinner is usually over at our house around 8pm and I study for a bit, then take my malaria pills, roll down my mosquito net to encase my bed like the gossamer of a Princess’s elegant chambers, and fall asleep to loud rain pounding on the tin roof.

Right now it is summer and it always rains at night, and sometimes during the days as well. It is so green and gorgeous here! But the roads can get quite muddy and it is hard to get around during a storm.

So there you have it, a day in the life of a Peace Corps Trainee in Madagascar.

I am absolutely loving it so far. I am learning so much and I am constantly surrounded by wonderful company whether it be fellow trainees or my host family. I know I will have to learn to be on my own again soon, but for now, having a nice support system around while adjusting to a life with spotty electricity, rare Internet, no running water, and a new language is beyond helpful.

10

Climbing trees and working on the farm with students…

Matt and I are new to our site, and we move in right about when break starts, so we honestly don’t have much to do with all free time. Sometimes we read books, watch movies, do our laundry, make small little projects around the house, or we go climb this big tree we found and help the students with their farming work.

Most days that we chose to climb this tree, we go when the sun is well past it’s peak and the midday heat. Sometimes we see a gathering of locals from a distance, stopping in the middle of their trip to or from the well to get water, just watching us be strange americans climbing a tree. On this particular day, we didn’t have that normal gathering, but on our way down and leaving, some students were planting mandioca, or as we know it, cassava, in the field next to the tree. They called us over as we passed them, asked if we wanted to help, and so we learned how to plant mandioca with them.