Thursday, April 4, 2013

An Epilogue, of sorts

This will be my last post on this blog.  For those who don't know, I'm flying home on April 11 and returning to live with my family on Long Island for a few short weeks before grad school begins.  I'm enrolled in a Literacy Specialist master's program at Fordham University, and I'll be living in Brooklyn, so if you're in New York get in touch!

Admittedly, I haven't updated this blog that often, but I've realized that blogging is something I enjoy doing, and something that will be much easier to keep up in the, just to try it out, I'm going to continue blogging at   It'll still be a little bit of “look at these unique things I'm doing,” but a lot more of “this is what I think about stuff.”' If you've enjoyed reading my Peace Corps blog over the past two years, check it out!

Counting the Days

(Written March 9, 2013)

It's twenty minutes after ten at night, and the mission is silent save for the chirping of frogs and insects, the occasional barking dog.   The village generator has just cut off.  It's located scant yards from our house, and its loud, mechanical sound becomes white noise soon after it begins running at dusk.  Because of the noise, you watch TV a little louder than you would otherwise, but you're not really aware of it until it's gone.

Actually, that's wrong.  There are some drunk men walking by my house, so it's not silent anymore.  But they're not particularly rambunctious ones this time. I recognize the voice of a young man they call Dummy, who is deaf and almost mute.  He communicates primarily through an invented sign language that his friends seem to understand with little trouble.  I'm always impressed at how socially at ease he is despite his disability, and, despite his politically incorrect call name, how accepting the community is of him.

I climb into bed with my flashlight and tuck in my mosquito net, something I've done hundreds of times over the past few years.  It's something I'll only do a few dozen more before I leave Guyana. 

No more generator, no more mosquito nets, no more sitting in the dark after the current cuts out.  No more running with bare feet down a sandy road.  No more greeting everyone I pass with a “Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” or “Good night.”  No more phlourie, roti or cook-up rice.  No more outhouses, no more bucket baths. No more walks thorough the scheme with students shouting a chorus of “Miss Kelly!” “Miss Kelly!” out of the windows of brightly coloured houses.  (Oh, that reminds me, no more British spellings, either.)

I may be going home to warm running water and pizza, to a place where people respect my privacy, to schools with enough desks and books and teachers for all of their students, to the land of microwaves and electricity 24/7 and flushing toilets, and my family, and my friends...but more present in my mind at the moment are the people and things I'll leave behind.  I've built a life here.  Two years is an awfully long time to spend in one place, especially a place with people as warm and accepting as Guyana.  When people here ask me if I'll miss mission, I tell them of course I will—it's become my second home.  This has become a line for me, but it's true all the same.

My two years in Guyana have been the most emotionally tumultuous of my life, without a doubt.  I can't honestly say whether there's been more tears or laughter, but I can say there's been a lot of both.  And, fortunately, as the end draws near, I find it easier to appreciate the little joys of life in Guyana.  I find it easier to let things go, to forgive people for not living up to my expectations, to forgive myself for not living up to my expectations and to try just living, instead. 

So I will relish in Sharlene's infectious laughter, in the smile of baby Arielle, whose mother wasn't even pregnant yet when I came here but is now growing teeth, as she grips my finger with her tiny hand. I will be grateful that I can share my love of running with the myriad teenagers that join me now and again.   I will admire Benji's determination and Lorena's fierce dedication to her kids and her future. I will relax into the easy comfort of gaffing and laughing with Shabana. I will marvel at Wendy's gifts of empathy, and at my unbelievable luck for choosing her house to live in back when I barely even knew her.   I will visit those people in my community whose company makes my days brighter, and I will cherish the fact that I've been fortunate enough to live in a place where it's difficult to stay lonely—just go for a walk and see who says hello.

For this last week of school, I will not stress and I will not raise my voice.  I will read stories, sing songs, give and receive hugs, and do as much as I can to show these kids that I think they're awesome. I will give the teachers of St. Cuthbert's Primary School the credit they deserve for working pretty damn hard for those awesome kids, all things considered, because the system doesn't make that easy. 

I will swim in the blackwater as often as I can.  I will go for walks and breathe in the beauty of this still largely unspoiled place.   I will accept everything that is offered to me gracefully and gratefully.  And yes, I will count the days left until I fly back to New York, but not out of simple anticipation.   I will do this to remind myself to soak up the last sweet drops of this experience while I still can.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Christmas Holiday, Part II

After Christmas I travelled to Wakapao, a remote community made up of many small islands where a fellow Peace Corps volunteer works. Wakapao is arguably the most beautiful place I've visited in Guyana. After three bus rides and two boat rides, I reached Charity, a medium-sized town at the mouth of the Pomeroon river. A speedboat took me down the Pomeroon, which was uneventful until we turned abruptly at a small tributary. Zooming down a ten-foot-wide jungle creek overhung with branches was exhilarating, but nothing could have prepared me for the spacious beauty of Wakapao. Wide open grassland flooded with water lay ahead as far as I could see, but occasionally to our left and right we would see a small landing or the glimpse of a house, the only real clear that the area is inhabited.

Transportation in Wakapao is by water, whether in a motorboat or by paddling. My friend Leslie even has to paddle to and from her job at the health center! It seems as though everyone in Wakapao has a boat, and children begin learning to paddle dugout canoes as toddlers. Paddling is not as easy as you might think—these wooden canoes are not balanced, so most of your effort goes into keeping them straight, at least when you're learning! (I say this from experience—I was fortunate enough to get a paddling lesson from a friend of Leslie's. It's fun but hard to do!)

My stay in Wakapao was a fairly chill one. We had a pizza night with some other volunteers who were spending the holidays, walked through a swamp on precariously balanced planks of wood to get to a wedding, drank homemade ginger wine, played board games, and met a baby monkey.

Leslie has a really cool project starting up this month: her village has teamed up with Engineers beyond Borders to build two roads through the swamps that connect some of the major islands in Wakapao. Though the village's riveren location makes it beautiful and its transportation requirements are novel, it is in all honesty a huge pain in the ass to have to traipse through a swamp just to visit a neighbor, or to have to pay for gas for your motorboat so your kids can get to school. The roads will make travel in Wakapao much easier, and it's a project the village has been discussed for years. Kudos to Leslie for making it happen!

I was sad to leave Wakapao but had promised friends in my village that I'd come back for Old Year's Night, so I took the long and complicated trip back through Georgetown to St. Cuthbert's Mission on July 31st. Yes, you heard me right, Old Year's—it makes sense, doesn't it? You have to celebrate the last night of the old year before you can celebrate the first night of the New Year! I got all dolled up to go out in the mission, thanks to my coworkers—dress from the grade two teacher, shoes from the grade three teacher, makeup courtesy of the grade four teacher. Thanks ladies! At first I thought I got dressed up for nothing, because the village-council-sponsored party (held in the primary school) was pretty dead, even at 11:55...they were playing Christmas music. I was ashamed. But apparently the party doesn't start here until after midnight on Old Years, and once it got started it was a lot of fun! I stayed out dancing till 5am, which was a first for me, and thoroughly enjoyed spending the night with the people I'm closest with in the mission.

There was one more noteworthy event that occurred during my Christmas holiday. The “Biggest Loser” program that I started back in November concluded on January 31st.. I didn't run any sort of exercise class, just encouraged ladies to sign up and casually discussed healthy ways to lose weight. They paid a small fee to register and the three biggest losers won prize money. Of 11 registrants, 8 lost weight, with the top four losing over 5 lbs each in 6 weeks! Perhaps best of all, when I asked them if they wanted to run the program again, I heard enthusiastic yes's all around. They seemed to really like the cooperative/competitive atmosphere that this program brought to the daily struggle of trying to live a healthy lifestyle. Next weigh-in is in 2 weeks, and I'm wondering who will be the biggest loser this time around!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Christmas Holiday, Part I

In the Guyanese school system, the Christmas holiday is long...three weeks long, to be precise, and it was an eventful three weeks!

The holiday season was kicked off by the “school party,” which is a tradition in the schools here. Kids pay upwards of $7 U.S. each to come to school dressed up in fancy clothes, stuff themselves with food and get some sort of toy as a gift. (To put that in perspective, that's about a full day's pay for a teacher here. I was surprised that almost all of my class paid!) The teachers and students work together to decorate the classrooms and the chalkboard dividers are removed so the school functions as one big hall. The morning of the school party was a whirlwind spent gathering together the various dishes made by parents and making homemade pizza for my whole class. The party itself felt like it was over as soon as it began—none of the kids liked the pizza (thought the teachers did!) and my attempt at Pin the Nose on Rudolph was largely ignored as the kids clamored for their gifts, but I was pulled aside by several parents who wanted to photograph me with their children in front of the Christmas tree! Most importantly the kids seemed to have a good time, even though almost all of them ran away before the dance party started. (That was fun to watch, too, especially the grade 6 students who you could tell wanted to dance but stood around awkwardly for ages before they actually did. Brought back fond memories of middle school dances. Well, maybe less than fond.)

The very next day was a Christmas concert, and by concert I mean talent show. I rehearsed my third graders to sing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and 15 of them turned up to have their noses painted red and wear antlers that I spent far too many hours assembling. But it was worth it because they were adorable—wish I had a video but at least I was able to get a picture from a random guy in the audience. I don't think the audience appreciated them as much as I did, though—they preferred the second grade girl who danced “Bruk it Down” solo on stage. Maybe it's just me, but I think singing cute songs in costume is a more appropriate talent show activity for 7 year olds than humping the air on stage? Call it a cultural difference, I suppose.

After a few lazy days in St. Cuthbert's and a night of karaoke in a village near mine, I was off on my first trip, to Wakenam, a small island on the Essequibo River. It's less than two hours away from the capital, and one of my teacher friends is from there, so I decided to visit her for the holidays. Highlights from the trip: eating 3 Guyanese fruits I've never had before (coco, papoose and tamarind—Wakenam has tons of fruit trees!), eating custard made from fresh cows milk (the first time I've had fresh milk in Guyana—the norm here is powdered), meeting lots of Shabana's neighbors and her husband, and getting stung by a hairy worm while climbing a tree over the river (ok, maybe not a highlight but still noteworthy!) My stay in Wakenam was short, only a weekend, and I hope to go back before I leave Guyana!

I came back to St. Cuthbert's for Christmas, which was a pretty laid-back day. Guyanese clean their houses top to bottom for Christmas and some decorate with “fairy lights” or garlands, but overall Christmas is not nearly as huge in Guyana as it is in the U.S. Mainly it's about family and eating—fruitcake and pepperpot (a kind of stew) are the most common Christmas foods, and I got to sample lots of those two foods because I spent most of my day visiting neighbors who I'm close with. I tried to share my own traditional Christmas treat—cookies—but making them without an oven was...tricky. I also attended a wedding on Christmas day, believe it or not!

(to be continued...)