To never have to start a sentence with "I wish I would have..."


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Friday, August 24, 2012

End of a Chapter/Longest Post EVER!

Wow it has been ridiculously long since my last post. Not for lack of excitement, that's for sure. Where to begin...

SE Asia was amazing (and so was my travel buddy, Charlene!). It completely reaffirmed my addiction to travel and just made me thirsty for more. I got back home in May and had a few days in Chicago with Renee before finally landing in San Antonio after almost 2 and a half years.

Fast forward to now. I've been home 3 months and can say that I am pretty much re-acclimated to living in America. It's definitely been a process but I didn't have as hard of a time as I originally anticipated. To be completely honest, I'm struggling more now where I currently find myself career-wise than I was with the initial reverse culture shock and transition to living in America. But more on that later.

The following are some of the most significant reflections taken from my journal in terms of moving back home:

The most obvious difference and adjustment, and easiest to dramatize, is without a doubt technology. IPhones were everywhere! And I didn't even know what a "Droid" was or what swipe meant for a long time. It's never been easier to stay in touch with people. I was able to essentially skype with my nephew in the palm of my hand. Insane. Some aspects are a bit extravagant and unnecessary, true, but still very cool. And if I can self-teach how to use an iPhone anyone can.

Funny confession: the first shower I took at home I turned off the water while I lathered my hair and body then turned it back on to rinse. I didn't even think twice about it until I was finished.

I love love LOVE the transitions between relationships in Uganda and America. I can talk about this forever. I had a solid core group of truly phenomenal friends that became family in Uganda. Continuing and strengthening these relationships in America has been wonderful. We now have different things going on as we establish our lives here and we have so much more to talk about! I've also been fortunate to get to know a few volunteers' families and I can't even begin to explain how great it is to have the opportunity to see where people come from. There wasn't a doubt in my mind these connections and relationships would continue in America but I am so happy they have gotten even deeper. To all my PC fam, I love each and every one of you guys! And I continue to enjoy the group texts and picture texts and emails. You are a very unique and amazing group of people and I will forever be grateful to have been a part of the Feb. 2010 training group.

I have finally started to reach the point where I am able to let go of the negativity while holding on to everything that is good about Uganda and my experience there. I will admit I find myself still jaded at times, but definitely not anywhere near the amount I was when I first got back. I'm able to blend my life in Uganda and who I was there with who I am here and thread the two experiences into one. I've been able to redefine who I am with all the unique experiences I had in a way that still fits who I was before I left. And I've also been tremendously blessed to have supportive friends and family who are accepting of who I am. That has been the best and easiest part of my transition home.

Without two of the most wonderful people I know (Mar and Ang) reminding me of the things that are and aren't normal or socially appropriate I'm not sure that my readjustment would have gone as smoothly. Having teenage sisters in this case has been clutch. It was easy to get out of the house when I had sisters who didn't mind spending 20 minutes with me in the shampoo aisle while I smelled just about every bottle and gawked at the absurd price of conditioner. Love you girls!

I'm now up in Austin, living by myself, and I have my own PreK classroom at the school I was student teaching at 3 years ago. I can't help feeling a little anxious at the fact that I am "locked" in for the next year or two and it makes my urge to run away and go somewhere new and exciting that much stronger. I still miss certain parts of Uganda, mainly the simplicity and sense of community, and I think part of me always will. I miss being immersed in a new culture and more so being accepted as part of that culture. I don't like the materialism that is evident everywhere you look in America. I'm struggling with how close-minded some people are.

It continues to be a process and I still sometimes feel like I'm on vacation waiting to go back to Uganda. I know without a doubt that I will have another international experience. I don't know when and I have some ideas as to where, but it is going to happen. I love the vagabond lifestyle way too much to give it up now. The world is a big and exciting place full of potential and opportunity. After Africa, I can truly do anything. My favorite quote right now is from Into the Wild, "Nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future."

I haven't decided if I want to keep up with a blog now that I'm back home so it may be a while before another post, if one at all. Thoughts? I've said it a million times but stand by it: this experience wouldn't have been nearly as successful without the support and encouragement of each and every one of you. You guys are amazing and you have no idea how many times I pulled from your reassuring emails and letters to find my own strength. Thanks you for being a part of the most unique two years of my life so far; thank you for being a part of the best decision I've ever made.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Soaking it all in

I've spent my last couple weeks in country winding up and saying good bye. I made the trip down to Rakai to visit everyone one last time and was welcomed with a potluck style lunch and some very happy faces. We shared a meal, exchanged farwells, and with one last group picture we parted ways. I can't even begin to express how satisfying it was to get that closure. Rakai changed my life and when I look back on my time spent in Uganda, it will always be home to me and the people there will always be my family.

I've also been traveling around the country a bit as an opportunity to spend time with my fellow PCVs, who have also become family to me over the past 2 years. We climbed a volcano and experienced being in 3 places at one time: the borders of Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda all met at the peak. We had one last killer holiday party for St. Patrick's day and stumbled upon a Bobi Wine (famous Ugandan singer) concert, front row of course.

Mount Sabinyo

St. Patrick's Day 2012, Peace Corps style

I took part in an ajon (local brew common in Eastern Uganda) circle with another PCV and his neighbor, Miriam. She cooked a simple local meal for us and we sat in her kitchen and enjoyed it with our hands. I'm really going to miss the simple way of life here. Sitting outside, no power, with thousands of stars above our heads and just enjoying each others' company. No obligations, just living in the here and now. I've loved the sense of community and being welcomed into homes and invited to share meals. When we left Miriam's house she embraced me with a genuine hug and wished me a safe trip back to America and told me she'd be sending me positive thoughts. I felt so much pure and honest emotion from this woman, whom I've met maybe 3 times. I am thankful for these experiences and so many more.

I have a little over a week left in Uganda. There will be a silent disco, aka, headphone party where everyone is given a headset and literally dances to their own beat. I'll have a send off meal out East, with both American and Ugandan food, with an amazing parish that has considered me a part of them for the past year and a half. I'll finish up with a week in Kampala full of admin meetings, medical, and paperwork. Then it's off to Nairobi next Friday. From Nairobi there are 4 of us traveling together in SE Asia.

Here's what we have so far for our next adventure...

April 3 arrive in Bangkok, Thailand
We'll have a night or 2 to explore the city and get our visas in order before heading South.

April 5-7 full moon party in Kho Pha Ngan
On a Southern island, the full moon party is famous worldwide. I've been told people start pre-partying up to 3 days before the and on the night of the full moon the party goes until 11am. There are notorious buckets of vodka and redbull, glowsticks, battling djs, thousands of people. We'll have a day or 2 to recover before we get PADI certified.

April 13-17 Chang Mai for Songkran, Thai New Years
The biggest water fight in the world. The entire country shuts down for the festival and it is celebrated nation wide. We're making the trek North to experience the main location where the celebration takes place. Squirt guns, water balloons, buckets of water...bring it on!

From Thailand we're heading to Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. We'll do a little more time in S. Thailand before flying out of Vietnam and into Chicago, to meet up with another volunteer. After a few days in Chicago I'll be back in Texas on May 20th.

Can't wait to see everyone in person and to catch up on all the hugs I've been missing over the past 2 years. That's it on my end right now. What's been going on with you? Email me


Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Good Stuff

As a PCV, at the end of your service you have a final conference. Similar to the ones we had 3 months in and half way through, my close of service (COS) conference was at the end of January. It was at a swanky hotel in Entebbe and consisted of sessions on readjustment, saying goodbye, and winding things down, to name a few.

COS was emotional in the sense it was the last time our entire training group was together in one place. A few volunteers worked really hard putting together a slideshow that encapsulated our last 2 years here. Looking through all the pictures made it really hit me that I have in fact been here for 2 years. Such a significant amount of time though it feels like it could have been days.

On the last night of the conference we had a nicer dinner outside under the gazebo and we all dressed up. I was walking back from dinner when one of the workers stopped me. I thought there may be a problem with the room or something and, I'm ashamed to admit, I was prepared to get fairly annoyed at whatever problem could have possibly come up. I couldn't have been more wrong. She was a student of mine from the vocational school in Rakai and she came up to me to thank me for teaching her cooking classes! She graduated and was able to get a job with the hotel. I was shocked. It was definitely one of my highest moments in country. A previous student not only recognized me among 27 other white people staying at the hotel but called me by my local name and embraced me in a genuine hug to thank me for what I taught her.

A volunteer recently asked me to recall some of my best experiences over the past 2 years and this was one of them. The other was when I was signing in campers at camp GLOW and so many of them remembered me from giving AFRIpads presentations at their schools.

That's why I'm in Uganda. And I've loved every minute of it.

Getting ready to leave my site and packing up and selling things has been kind of an emotional whirlwind. I never got the chance to say bye to my community and friends in Rakai (something I hope to rectify next week)and honestly I don't feel that Nakaseke has been as much of a home to me as Rakai was.

Even so, getting ready to leave I had an unexpected amazing time the other night just hanging out with teachers behind the staff housing. They were all cooking dinner together and standing around talking. I contributed a few pineapples and we all enjoyed them together. They were talking candidly with me about my time in Uganda and thanking me for giving up so much to help their country. What almost brought tears to my eyes was when my counterpart took my hand and held it while thanking me for teaching him how to be a better teacher. He said I inspired him and reminded him to teach the students with passion. I've only known this man for a few months but I will never forget him or his kind words.

2 years. It's been one of the most life changing experiences I've ever had and definitely the best decision I've ever made.

Next up: Thailand and SE Asia. Itinerary to come soon. Mark your calendars, I'm back in Texas on May 20th!

Much Love,

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Power of "Glee"

Since being back at site I haven't really had much work to do. The term doesn't begin for another few weeks and most of the tutors are away at a workshop. I've been spending a lot of time with Fina, the college secretary. I nominated her for a counselor position at camp GLOW and since then her and I have gotten really close. She's educated, progressive, and has a sense of humor. I really enjoy spending time with her.

The past week we started watching Glee together. Some of you know homosexuality is illegal in Uganda and has even been punished by death. It's a very sensitive topic and one I try to avoid discussing with Ugandans. I'm pretty close to Fina and gave her a disclaimer before we started watching it. She assured me it was fine and that she'd have no problem.

I have to be honest, I wish I would have watched it with her a long time ago. I never would have thought watching an American TV program, much less Glee, with a Ugandan would be such a cross-cultural educational tool. I wouldn't recommend doing it with someone you don't trust or don't know very well but it's really opened doors to a plethora of topics we've never discussed.

Since watching Glee we've talked about homosexuality, body image and crash diets, parents talking to kids about dating, adoption, dating someone without having sex, marriage and fidelity, cheerleaders, divorce, learning disorders, down syndrome, wheelchairs, bullying, crying in public, and explaining artists like Lady Gaga and Kiss.

Fina's old perception of what it means to be gay was taken from the style channel. You should know that not many Ugandans, hardly any, have access to the style channel and this fact alone says a lot about Fina and her level of education. Even though I consider her to be a very educated Ugandan, she is also very ignorant. She thought that all gay men wear makeup and style hair. Can you blame her? If I lived in a country that refused to acknowledge the existence of homosexuality and the only exposure I got was the style channel, I might have similar beliefs. We had a really open and honest discussion about relationships and physical/emotional attraction. She asked if a man can be gay even though he doesn't have a boyfriend and she couldn't really grasp the concept. I asked her if she broke up with her boyfriend would she still be straight. She started to understand a bit more then.

I was surprised at the amount of genuine curiosity she had. She's 25 years old and is pursuing an advanced secretarial degree which requires her to spend a lot of time in the capital. I guess I've really taken for granted the importance of asking questions in America. We're taught from elementary school and before that if you don't understand something you ask questions.

Homosexuality wasn't the only topic we discussed. Another one I really enjoyed was explaining how Americans tend to be a bit more free with their emotions. I've had some pretty rough days over my past 2 years spent here and I've learned that Ugandans hate seeing me cry. It makes them so uncomfortable! I found out that they hide their emotions because they don't want their enemies to see them cry because then they will get joy out of it...or something to that degree. I explained that in America it's common for me to talk about how you feel, with friends and family especially.

Be it explaining why the men of Kiss wear makeup on their faces and have long hair, even though they're men, or how if you get pregnant in America you can still continue your studies, Glee has been an invaluable tool in opening the lines of communication on tricky and culturally sensitive topics. Who would have thought?

Holidays 2011

This Christmas/New Year's was one of the most unique and memorable holidays I've ever had. I traveled overland from Kampala to Dar es Salaam with 4 other PCVs, the "Fab 5" (Matt, Dave, Charlene, and Lisa). We eventually met up with a bigger group of PCVs on Zanzibar Island to celebrate New Year's together. As stunning as Zanzibar was, and it was absolutely breathtaking, I really enjoyed and appreciated my time in Dar.

After living in Uganda for close to 2 years, it doesn't take a lot to impress me. Don't get me wrong, I love it here...but it's not always easy. The capital is filthy, harassment is an every day occurrence, you have to bargain like mad just to buy a head of cabbage in the market, you always assume people are ripping you off. It can be wearing. I was so ready for a vacation (especially after being evacuated from my last 2...) but I also didn't have terribly high expectations. We were traveling by bus most of the way to get there, and it's still Africa, right? Wrong.

Yes the traveling wasn't ideal. It was even less than ideal when we found out the train wasn't working due to flooding in Dar and that we'd have to take an even longer bus to get there. Honestly, we were so excited to be on vacation that the traveling didn't really get to us...until the last day...when it took us 4 hours to travel less than 100km. By then we were more than ready to get off that damn bus! We endured hours of speed bumps that didn't even make a blip on our driver's radar. It was kind of fun at first, especially since we were at the back of the bus. But by about the 2nd or 3rd hour, when we were trying to nap a bit, it wasn't fun anymore, especially since we were at the back of the bus. The driver didn't even pretend to slow down over the bumps. In fact, I'm pretty sure he accelerated before going over them! It was so bad that other passengers were complaining to the patrol officer when he pulled us over...for going to fast. That was a first for me. Combine this with sitting behind a speaker (the only speaker on the bus) blaring Bollywood music for hours on end and you can maybe begin to get a glimpse of just how uncomfortable this bus ride was.

Fast forward to Dar, Christmas Eve. It was our first time being in a place for more than a night and we were more than ready to relax and really let our vacation begin. The streets were clean, the roads were marked and posted with street signs, boda bodas weren't allowed in the city center, the people were friendly, all the buildings and shops had signs. It was organized! And did I mention clean? I was in love. We checked into our hotel and explored the town a bit before finding ourselves on the rooftop bar/restaurant of the Holiday Inn. I don't think I'll ever be able to capture in words just how special this night was to me. It was my first time spending Christmas without family and here I was, in Africa, sitting on the rooftop smoking shisha, just enjoying the company of those around me and thankful to have finally showered. I was so happy! It got even better when Matt's dad called him and read "The Night Before Christmas" over the phone to us. Being able to glimpse into someone else's tradition was an amazing feeling. I almost started crying not because I was sad to be missing Christmas with my family but because I was so happy to be spending Christmas with my family, my Peace Corps family. It was such a surreal experience and one that I will always cherish.

Christmas day we took a ferry to Kigamboni and spent the day on Kipepeo beach. First Christmas ever where I drank out of a coconut and barely wore anything other than my swim suit the entire day. We took advantage of the absurdity of our celebrating and had a photo shoot. The Christmas tree is courtesy of Dave's grandma and it survived the transit from KLA to Dar. We took the ferry back to mainland and decided to check out the fish market for dinner. It was closed but some of the street vendors were cooking FRESH octopus, squid, and fish and there was a man making chapati which meant only one thing...FISH TACOS! We stuffed our faces. You may be sketched out at the idea of buying and eating fish cooked at the side of the road by a group of men that barely understand English, but we were ecstatic! You can't get decent seafood in Uganda! One of the best parts was when Lisa, Charlene and I sat with a group of men and greeted them with out limited Kiswahili. They men were so excited to share a meal with us they gave us half of their fish. I have no idea what kind of fish it was but it was fantastic. My Christmas dinner consisted of octopus tacos and fish that I ate with my bare hands. After dinner we cleaned up and found a club to go dancing. The cover was a bit steep (we were still used to being in Peace Corps mode at this point, which means being painfully cheap) but we decided to pay it anyway and enjoy ourselves. We danced until close to 3 in the morning. Another first for me: dancing to a Christmas carol at the club.

We spent Boxing day in Dar and then left for Stone Town on the 27th. On Boxing day we were able to go to the fish market. BEST LUNCH OF MY LIFE. We picked out fresh from the sea, just caught snapper, squid, crab, scallops, etc. At one point we didn't even want fish but the the men dropped the prices so low we couldn't turn them down. I've never had such fresh seafood before. I already miss it. Below are the before and after pictures.

We met a few different groups of Peace Corps volunteers from Zambia and Namibia. It was really refreshing to see how we automatically have this unspoken bond and friendship with each other. I've never experienced something like that in America and it makes me excited to meet returned PCVs when I come home. We did a spice tour in Stone Town and I learned all about cinnamon, vanilla, pepper, nutmeg, etc. It was actually really educational.

We left for the beach on the 29th and stayed in Bwejuu until the 4th, when we flew back to Uganda. Honestly most of the days blurred together. It was a whole lot of being lazy, lounging on the beach, taking naps, swimming, and hanging out. Matt introduced us to "Zanziball," the beach form of Bocce ball and everyone spent a lot of time playing that. The tide had really extreme highs and lows and we could only swim during the high tide. We went snorkeling and kayaking on the ocean. I got my first ever massage. It was truly what I needed...a relaxing vacation.

Here I am back in Uganda and starting to think about what comes next. For the longest time I didn't have to think about COS (close of service) until after GLOW, until after Zanzibar. Now it's after GLOW and Zanzibar.

I'm here finishing up projects until the end of March when I leave for 6 weeks in Thailand for one last adventure before coming home. Then I'll be back in May. Get ready for it!

Camp GLOW 2011

I've been terrible about giving consistent updates. So sorry. Yes I did have malaria. Yes it was awful and I got pretty sick and lost a bit of weight from it. Yes I do think it's kind of cool to be able to tell people that I had malaria while living in Africa but YES I AM TAKING MY MEDICINE and have no intention of getting it again before I leave.

Onto more exciting things...

Camp GLOW was a HUGE success! I feel even more proud of it's success this year than I did last year. I think it may have something to do with the fact that I was one of the co-directors. Bottom line: Alyssa and I killed it. We overcame every obstacle thrown our way (and there were a lot!) and managed to put together a week long camp that not only changed the girls' lives, but impacted the women and PCVs involved as well as my own life too. This camp has such a positive message and I can't help but get giddy when I talk about it. It's definitely one of the best things I have been involved in during my time here and it's been one of the most gratifying.

The set up was pretty much the same as last year, with a few minor scheduling changes to make it feel more like a summer camp and take some of the emphasis away from classroom learning. If you want a more detailed break down check out the website Fellow PCV Tony worked really hard getting everything together and a special thanks to our media crew (Dave, Tony, Stevie) for all the awesome pictures!

I want to give a few of my personal highlights from the week:

-checking in girls during the registration on the first day and having them remember me from an AFRIpads presentation I gave at their school

-not being called madame and just being and equal with all the girls and women involved

-the camp GLOW song. I rewrote the words to Shakira's "Waka Waka" and I can't even explain how amazing it felt hearing all the girls and counselors (and male staff!) sing in unison when we welcomed the boys from camp BUILD during our field day

-being told we set the bar high for next year's camp

-giving the AFRIpads presentation, passing out a donated kit to each girl, and watching them get excited for Judith, a tailor from AFRIpads, to give her motivational presentation

-hearing the group cheers

-a group of girls returning a 50 shilling piece (less than 10 cents) they found in their bags and realized didn't belong to them (we had a small issue with money missing during the week...)

-watching the counselors bond with their girls

-the sense of teamwork that developed as the week went on

-doing the Cupid Shuffle with all the staff and counselors during our talent show

-having girls come up to me to personally thank me for all the work we put into planning the camp

-getting a beer at 11am after all the girls left on the last day of camp. Tony bought our first round and then gave a toast saying how working at GLOW was something he'd been really looking forward to. Our staff was really phenomenal.