While Life is Good, but not TOO Good… by JM
Life is good. We are getting to the end of our training and more excited about moving to our permanent homes and starting real jobs. Most of us will be within a day or two of each other, and four of us PCVs (PC Volunteers) will live in our same assigned village. We won’t be seeing most of our friends on any regular basis after training, as most will be going pretty far away, and it will be a tremendous effort to visit them. We are prohibited from travel during our first three months on the job anyway, so we won’t be exploring or visiting any time soon.
So far most all of our blog posts have been positive and judging from the feedback they have been enjoyable for most people to read. We appreciate all the support and feedback and great encouragement we have received. We really do! It somehow helps to makes us feel closer to home and justified in leaving when we hear all your comments. A word or two from home brightens our days a great deal.
For those of you who are at all jealous of all the fun we are having, good we are doing, and wish you could be squeezing so much out of life, I present this post.
So far we have reported mostly positive things about us being here. All positive comments are truly felt, however, I thought I would make this special post to complain a bit and let everyone in on some of the not so fun stuff that we are going through.
Our training period has been a tough 7 weeks. We wake at 6 or 7 for a 7:30 departure and walk 15 or 20 minutes to language class held in one of our local “clusters” (which is the front room of one of our overheated homes) or to a taxi to our Education Center (a centralized learning complex with arbitrary air conditioning), depending on the plans the PC has for us for the rest of the day. We typically sit through either 2 or 4 hours of language training and then the rest of the day in seminars of various subjects like Culture, Security, AIDS/HIV, Monitoring and Evaluating, Community Mobilization, Sexual Harassment and many other topics. Most of the topics are sensible, but can be quite dry and a bit tedious.
There is no escape from the heat. Our class room has many windows that are open, but it is stifling and we all sit there all day using our notebooks as fans and just sweating away. We typically end our school work around 5:00 or 5:30 and take a taxi back home, where we spend 2 to 3 hours cooking and doing the dishes by hand with water heated in a fire and under a single dim light bulb in a makeshift kitchen in the yard.
By 9:00 or 10:00 pm we are ready to start our 2 to 3 hours of very frustrating homework as we attempt to learn this next to impossible language. By midnight we can barely keep our eyes open, and are ready to go to sleep in our small bed with the bowl shaped mattress, except the thought of laying there sweating is very uninviting. It’s not entirely unacceptable, but you can imagine it’s not that fun to sleep in a small bowled bed with another sweaty person tossing and turning all night. Lack of screens and security concerns (everyone believes American’s have money or other valuables in their room) mean we can not open the window.
The PC provided us with flannel sheets and 2 very heavy thick velvet blankets which will work just fine when the weather gets cold. However, the weather is not going cold for a long time. Quite the contrary. These days the daytime temperature is well above 100. It is a very dry heat and there is a slight but constant breeze, but it is still quite hot. At night the temperature gets down to 75 and sometimes 80. But some nights it stays above 100 until 8 or 9 PM. Our little room, which is cinderblock with a tin roof becomes an oven and stays quite hot until 3 or 4 AM. We have had many sleepless nights lying in our bed sweating in the flannel sheets, wondering how we will ever survive when it gets 20 degrees hotter over the next few months.
Recently we popped for a fan and that helped tremendously. We will buy better summer sheets once we find out about our new bed. We bought some bug netting and tried to put it up on the single window in our room so we could sleep with the window open (we moved all our stuff out of reach of anyone who might come looking in the window), but we found out the hard way that there are hundreds of very small bugs that the netting doesn’t catch. So we are back to keeping the window closed, and trying to air out the room each night to bring the temperature down before we hopelessly attempt go to sleep.
Let me say that in the mornings, each day is crystal clear blue skies with a nice breeze and it is beyond words to describe the energy we feel as a result of the fresh tree and flower smells and the day’s beauty. However, this country has a fanatic fascination with impressions. Meaning that one’s dress is a limitless expression of one’s self. While too much extent, this is a valid concept, the need for dress far exceeds what most Americans feel is reasonable. Regardless of the 100+ heat, or the long walk in the heat to work, the expected dress is business clothes. Not just business casual, but slightly better. Not necessarily suit and tie, but certainly no shorts, jeans, casual pants, sandals, short dresses, sleeveless tops or anything short of a collared shirt and freshly ironed pants and shined shoes. It is expected that we will wash and iron as necessary to wear freshly pressed clothes at all times. As a result, I am perpetually uncomfortable. I understand my new office will be air-conditioned and I can’t tell you how forward I look to that office.
Back to the language. This language is exceptionally non intuitive with very few rules and many exception. It conjugates nouns and verbs. There are strong and weak adjectives, and weak ones need to the have parts of the noun from the sentence added to its base. There are 18 different classes of nouns with things like Tribe Names and Nationalities being in Class 1, and certain items of nature along with very specific body parts being in Class 5 and other random things in nature in Class 8 and etc… The language is tonal, which means the same word said with a high pitch or a low pitch means different things. Many words mean 3 different things. And it goes on and on with non sensible, no rule based, rote memorization of words and sentence structures.
The language has no official basis so each of the several available dictionaries (the most recent version being 1993) has different spellings and meanings for many words than we is acceptable today. Our language teachers all have some sort of certification, but they are not trained teachers and I think that also makes it hopelessly harder. All of this, coupled with the fact that almost all the young people (at least in schools and stores) speak enough English, and the thought that we will probably never use this language after our PC tour, makes for a very tough time keeping motivated. (I will admit there are a few people in this class that are totally getting the language and it bothers me that I am not one of them).
Carol and I both did very poorly on our last language test. Our next and final test is next week and we are both freaking out. The PC makes it clear that if anyone does not pass the final test they have the option of sending that person home (as in back to America!). As a practical matter, that is not likely, but the stress we are under, worrying about it, is very high.
Food is very expensive here. And poor people eat very basic food. The PC provides our family with a very good food basket ever two weeks, but when it runs out it is back to staple food or we must buy food with very limited funds. Regular staple foods are basically sorghum, maize and rice. Sorghum and cabbage become breakfast, lunch and dinner when the food baskets are finished. We are learning to ration very well, and smaller portions and simpler meals have gotten us both to lose a few pounds.
We will get a much better stipend once our real work starts, and if we get electricity, a fridge, and a stove we will look very forward to being able to afford to eat better then.
Which bring me to our next concern. Many volunteers are going to very remote places where the closest paved road might be 50 miles away, and many will have no electricity and many will have no running water and some will have neither. As a computer guy, we are quite lucky to be able to be placed in a large village where there is electricity and water and even internet available. There will also be several other PCVs being placed there too. However, this being said, there is still a possibility that our actual house may not have all these desired amenities. The question of how we could possibly survive the hot nights with no fan is unthinkable.
Back home, Carol had pretty bad asthma and I had allergies to pollen and cats and dogs. Both cases were pretty much under control and just a little more than an uncomfortable nuisance. Here, my allergies are completely gone, and Carol’s asthma has all but disappeared, however, Carol seems to have developed an allergy to something we are around. She is constantly stuffed and can not breathe out of her nose at all at night. This causes her to wake herself up frequently with loud gags that wake me up with a scare. We have no way of knowing if the blankets, or the animal dander (goats, chickens, cows all over the place), or the DEET in the mosquito netting is causing this. Sudafed, antihistamines and other drugs in our PC issued, very comprehensive, medical kits are highly ineffective, and we are left with no choice but to wait until we move to another home and try to eliminate one thing at a time to try and find out what is causing this.
Finally, and most significantly, my back went out a couple of weeks ago and is still hurting worse than it has in 8 years. This tends to exacerbate all the other “little” issues by about a million gazillion. It is hard to enjoy anything with constant back pain (I think it may have been caused by carrying many 5 gallon buckets of water back and forth to do the dishes). The PC doctor has provided some very strong pain killers (Oxy Codeine), but he seems to disagree with me that what I really need is just some good muscle relaxants. There are no back doctors here either, (unless you count the local experts, who might suggest I try slaughtering a chicken and hanging the chicken feet all around the yard while chanting loudly). I try to rest my back as much as possible, but this life is very labor driven – and I can barely stand to let Carol carry the all the buckets of water for the dishes now. I hope to have another discussion with the doctor about the muscle relaxants and I definitely need to quit these pain drugs if I have any hope of passing the language tests.
As for all the rest of it, well the good news is that we have think we will get more creature comforts than most of our fellow volunteers. We knew when we signed up there would be sacrifices and an extreme life change from what we had before (that is the understatement of the year!), and we accepted it then and currently accept it as a part of our experience here.
We don’t have any regrets and knowing we will do good work here makes it worth it, but if we had a choice of air conditioning, better food, a sealed bug proof housing, a nice bed with cotton sheets more sensible training, an easier language to learn and more time to learn it, and no back pain or allergies, I think we would have to say that we might prefer that. We are hoping some of that will be more available in our new home.
Anyway, now you know, you don’t have to be jealous anymore. We are doing fine and we will continue to persevere through whatever is in store for us. Please continue to join us on our blog, following us, as our lives get deeper and deeper into our new adventure.