Monday, March 30, 2009

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Weather report!

First, there's a windstorm today. It blew my dog 5 feet, and a deck chair about 15 feet. Normally, the sky at this time of day looks like this:

Today, it looks like this:

That's all pink sand blowing off the top of those cliffs...with only a background of light gray clouds. The sky is red-pink, and you can't tell where the sun is, although it's still up.

PS For all of you who I keep trying to convince to visit me, this is the view from my house.

Friday, March 20, 2009


Quick entry and update for everyone out there sitting on the edge of their seats, wondering which direction my incredibly exciting life will take next! Or for those of you so bored at work or school that you're procrastinating by reading my blog, again.

I've accepted my invitation to Mauritania, and am so far highly amused by the happenings since then. When I called to accept, I got the usual pop quiz: "What will your assignment involve? What skills will you use? What will you be doing? What do you plan to do? Do you have any concerns?" Because I was slightly more ready, I sounded like a lot less of a cretin than I did for my Madagascar acceptance invite quiz. I did voice the host family concern, and the person quizzing me seemed surprised that the ADO would've told me flat-out that everyone will live with a host family for two years. I said that if I didn't end up doing it, I'd be happy, and if I did, I was prepared, and shock of shocks, a Peace Corps employee thanked me for being so co-operative and flexible. I was sitting down, so everything was fine. I do feel a lot better about the entire situation now, though, because it really hurt my feelings (laugh if you want, but it did) when the ADO read me the riot act.

So I'm slightly more hopeful that I'll get my own space, but there are lots of benefits to living with a host family, which include (a) people who can take care of you when you get sick (b) an easy "in" to introducing new vegetables and recipes into local diet (c) an easy "in" to a community where, apparently, family ties are everything (d) you have people always looking out for you (e) you have people who can help you practice the language regularly and consistently. Looking on the bright side, as so many of the comments helped me to do last time, it will probably be fine. And if not, what's the worst case scenario? I come back early. Well, okay. I can handle that. As I told Peace Corps, if I get my own house, great. If I don't, I'm ready.

What I don't get, though, is what's everyone's obsession with pillows? Seriously, on the "packing advice" section of the Mauritania (abbreviated RIM--R├ępublique Islamique de Mauritanie) invitees group, everyone is all about bringing a nice pillow and a bug tent. Bug tent, that I can understand. I'll buy a bug tent, if I'm living in the desert. Definitely. But, a pillow? Maybe in five months I'll be aghast at my profanity here, but I don't get it.

I'm planning an adventure which will involve camping out for about a month, visiting some family, and seeing a bunch of friends. If you want more information, email me. When I get back, Ari is coming to visit for about a week, and that will be really great.

That's all for now. If you want my RIM mailing address, e-mail me to ask for it. If you're on the mailing list, it'll go out sometime soonish. If you're not on the mailing list (it's email) then comment or email me, and I'll add you. Oh, and for everyone on the list, I'm sorry that I forgot to BCC it last time. I was a bit outside myself when I sent it, and hope you'll all forgive my indiscretion.

Next time: The Chicken Hoop.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

New Invitation, and Serious Doubt

"You will definitely be living with a host family for two years," the Africa Desk Officer who oversees Mauritania told me, and I, as they say in books, felt my stomach drop.

I received my invitation to serve as an Agroforestry Agent in Mauritania, leaving in June, this morning, and was excited. I know that Mauritania is the armpit of all Africa placements, that it's proverbially "the hardest" place you can go. That it's (again, proverbially) the hardest service you can do. Not because of the people, because the people are known for their hospitality and kindness to strangers. No, it's because there's no water and no arable land (that's an exaggeration) and it's the Sahara. What's not the Sahara is the Sahel. And what's not either is the riverbank of the Senegal, which is a tiny little sliver of the actual area. But they speak Arabic and French, and they're kind people, and being on the front lines of reforestation efforts, that's something in which you can really, really believe. That's something towards which you could really work, and feel like maybe you were helping, in a tiny little way, to save just a small part of the world. To stop the Sahara from taking over that particular oasis, or even that family's garden, that would be worth two years of my life. Helping to establish a more stable and sustainable food supply, that would be worth two years of my life.

It would be worth two years of my life, or maybe more, and in all ways but two it was the absolute dream placement. There's possible work in a beekeeping extension as a secondary project, I would get to plant lots of Moringa trees (which are beautiful and supertrees in terms of providing food and medicine and shade), and promote the idea of fighting the Sahara. Of course, there's the fact that it gets up to 130 degrees F, and is nearly a perpetual sandstorm (that's an exaggeration, too). And that much of the country gets about two inches of rain every year (not an exaggeration. Sometimes it's less). I thought, "Okay, these things will give me a wonderous desert-camping ability, and I'll have an appreciation and respect for water beyond anything I'll ever gain by not living in-or-near the Sahara." I thought, "Wow. That's going to be hard. But I bet I can eat goat, and I like goat. And I bet I can do it. I'm excited to try. There's probably really interesting Venn-diagram interactions of French and Arabic/Muslim cultures and cuisines. There's probably wonderful, flowing desert clothes and beautiful, tiny, intricate artwork. Just because you hear about it being the hardest place doesn't mean it's not rewarding. It must be rewarding beyond all belief, because they've got more than six people in-country right now. Let's go." No catch yet. In fact, it gets better. There can't be mosquitoes in the Sahara, because they'd all die before hatching. No mosquitoes? SWEET! And better, because I know someone going to Mali (neighboring country), and Senegal (which is supposed to be amazing) is just south of us. And, did I mention, French-speaking in a way that Madagascar was not.

"So, where's the catch?" is what you're all asking yourselves right now. Let me go further. Let me remind you about how much I want to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. How I've wanted to from literally the minute I found out about the Peace Corps more than four years ago, in a storybook "sudden, enduring inspiration" kind of way. How I've been tirelessly working towards being placed for nearly two years now, and how even in the face of both Madagscar delays, it was disappointing but okay. The only doubt I've suffered, the actual doubt, was when I read about the "difficulties" section in the welcome book for Madagsacar--"You'll be sick and lonely and tired of everyone. You'll be exhausted, frustrated, and repeatedly called "vazaha". You won't be able to communicate with anyone, you'll be homesick, you'll have culture shock, and much of the food will be bland, unfamiliar, or both. You will have no down time, and you will regularly have emotional breakdowns. [and then the next section:] So, what are the hard parts?" I had a flicker of doubt right then, and that was all. What I have now (or had more intensely, two hours ago. Thanks to Jen, Andrew, Lauren, and Katie for helping me put myself back together again) is a massive amount of doubt about whether I can make it through my service years.

I would be living with a host family. For two years. Two years. Those of you who know me well know that I have a fairly impressive, but preposterous, talent for alienating people. I do it very well. One reason I am so good at it, is that I really do enjoy having time to myself. In fact, to deal with stress, I need time to myself, to talk myself through things, to cry without an audience, to rant out loud to an empty room (with no one in rooms with adjoining ventilation systems) about the frustration I feel with the world. As some of you have noted, I am sometimes an angry person. Angry at the world for not being perfect*; for some reason, that defect has always been something I take personally. But I'm getting a lot better at dealing with it, and one way is to just let the anger out verbally, without needing to try to explain it in a rational way to anyone. It's not about rational. It's about emotional maintenance, and it's not as common and overweeningly explosive as this paragraph makes it sound, so if you do not know that about me already, please don't run away screaming.

Another way I create mental and emotional space for myself is that I cook my own meals, most of the time. With a few exceptions (family and close friends), I find it stressful to eat food prepared by other people (unless it's fast food, which doesn't really count as food anyway, in a lot of senses). Maybe I'm a control freak, but I find it comforting to do as much with the food as I can before I eat it. That doesn't mean gourmet meals, it means I like to grow what I eat. Failing that, I like to cook it, to be in charge of exactly what happens to it, because it feels more nourishing that way. So sue me, I get spiritual about food.

Neither personal space nor personal food preparation would be possible, according to the guy I talked to about it. In addition, I got a full rundown of the Peace Corps' talking points for those-who-have-already-been-taken-in-by-the-slogans ("Life is Calling. How Far Will You Go?" "Peace Corps: The Hardest Job You'll Ever Love."):

(1) Flexibility is key, you seem inflexible, so you may be a bad candidate for Peace Corps.
(2) Didn't you hear me?
(3) You're not supposed to spend two years with your door closed anyway, you're supposed to actually help people
(4) Your community wouldn't like you if you closed your door all the time anyway
(5) Did we not mention that flexibility is key?
(6) If you're unwilling to be flexible, we can rescind your application and remove you from further consideration
(7) You seem to be forgetting that Peace Corps needs people who are committed, and willing to make sacrifices. Maybe we should remind you that we're not a travel agency, we're an International Aid Organization.
(8) Call us if you have any more questions or want to talk about any of your other concerns.

My responses were:
(1) But I'm excited to go to Mauritania! I want to go to Mauritania! I've wanted to be a PCV for over four years!
(2) I am flexible, I just know myself well psychologically, and I know that having downtime has been both difficult and imperative in my past experience with international host family situations.
(3) I wouldn't spend much time behind closed doors, just if I needed the privacy to cry or something.
(4) But but but...I...I just said that I wasn't going to close my door all the time!
(5) What?
(6) Wait, I thought--what?
(7) I--wait, I--Uh--I'm not--what do you mean? I know it's an IAO. I want to help, I just...
(8) Thank you? For your time and consideration?

So, this has introduced doubt into my mind as to whether or not I can actually make it through two years of service. I've never felt this way before, never doubted that I could do it, only wanted to leave the possibility of ETing in people's minds, so it wouldn't be as hard to explain to them if I did. But now, it's almost like an experiment. I'm interested. I'm concerned. I'm curious--How Far Will I Go?

So, I'm going to go. I want to go, quite badly. Also, there's no other option. I don't want to get a job yet, and I don't know what I want to study in grad school, or if I want to go. I still really want to go do Peace Corps in its own right, too. As much, if not more, than ever. Only thing is, you can no longer bounce bricks off my confidence. Can I make it for two years in Mauritania?

I have come up with some coping strategies, though. One is to 'pray' for an hour every day by myself. Mauritanians seem to be pretty respectful of religion, so that seems like it could work. Another is to journal for an hour every day. Mauritanians seem to be fairly respectful of education, so that could also work. Add a bike ride or run every day, and you've suddenly got three hours or so of down-ish time. I think I can probably do it, but I still wonder: can I make it for two years in Mauritania?

Then again, maybe they'll have an attempted coup, too, and I'll have to be flexible again and go somewhere like Fiji. Wouldn't that be the pits.

* People are mean to each other, they're mean to the environment. They're selfish and hypocritical, judgmental, and smallminded. They don't think critically, they have messed-up priorities, they very often seem stupid, and they abuse language by writing and reading things like the da Vinci code. They're manipulative liars, they don't value food, farmers, clean water, clean air, greenspace, climate stability, real thinking, or the necessity of sacrifice. Oh, and they whine about other people too much.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The promised update

I arrived in Philadelphia a day early, and met some of the people with whom I was going to Madagascar. In particular, my roommate, Annie, is absolutely wonderful. So are the other people that I've really gotten to know, so far.

This morning, we were excited. Annie and I went to the hotel's gym for an hour or so. Incidentally many thanks have been called down upon Bert today, for teaching me to use the gym equipment and structure a workout, because it was the best part of my day, and I wouldn't have been able to deal as well with the rest of it without that this morning. When we got back, we checked the Facebook group's wall, and a current PCV in Madagascar had posted a message to the effect of "You're not going to come here." We minorly wigged out, and then decided that lots of rumors happened often, so not to worry. We had lunch, came back, and went to the meeting.

The Associate PC Director, the woman in charge of placement, got up at the meeting and said "Hello. I'm Rosie (I forgot her last name), and I am the APCD in charge of placement. I came up here specially for this meeting today, and am bringing the best from my department to you all here. Unfortunately, I will not be able to take your best back with me to them, because I'm here to tell you that we are not going to put you on the plane to Madagascar tomorrow. You're not going."

It was a shock. It was uplifting to see how, in the question-and-answer session that followed, pretty much everyone was calm, everyone was courteous and to-the-point, and everyone was focused on dealing with the issue. It was the first indication of what we might all have in common that makes us possible PCVs. So, that was good. It was better than good--it was amazing and self-affirming. One of those instances where you don't feel like the only member of your species.

The dealbreaker, in terms of what the Peace Corps felt comfortable supporting us in doing, was that the Malagasy military no longer supports the president. They have stated that they will no longer intercede to quell riots, or to protect people or their property. There is tension between the Armed Presidential Forces and the Gendarmes (military), and the current PCVs are on standfast. Again. Rajoelina is under UN protection after a botched arrest attempt, which to me seems odd, because he's an insurgent trying to oust an ostensibly democratically elected leader. When was the last time the U.N. supported that? Maybe I'm missing something. Anyway, they're not evacuating the current PCVs because they're all safest at their sites at this point, but adding >30 untrained people to the mix just increases the danger and liability. Especially because we'd all be in the same place.

So, we're not going. The placement agency is working on nothing but our files, and I'm planning to call tomorrow or Wednesday to find out what they can do for/with me. I'm a little mixed up about my priorities now, because what I'd like to do most is go to Madagascar. The location has wormed itself into my heart, largely because of the amazing biodiversity, but also because of the wonderfully funny language and the culture and and and...but it may not be wise, plausible, or even possible to try to get into the next staging group for the country. At this point, that could take years. For a lot of personal reasons, and one large one in particular, I'd rather very much not go to Western Africa. Burkina Faso is a wonderful country, but I want to go nowhere near it, because (a) I'm tired of having to explain that I'm not Just Like anyone, and (b) I have too many painful memories of being there. That's not really fair to Mali, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Niger, Mauritania, Cote d'Ivoire, or Guinea, but when you have a known emotional hangup, in my opinion it's best to be up front about it. Peace Corps is going to be challenging enough without trying to deal with that particular can of worms at the same time. I hope nobody from PC reads this and thinks that I'm inflexible, because I think this falls into the category of a "conflicting interest" which is not unfair to have. On the third hand, I'd like to speak French. I'd love to speak French, actually, and I have several options of things I could do over the summer, and one is volunteering on an organic CSA. So, I haven't gotten my priorities straightened out, but the next step is to figure out where/when I want to go, and with which priorities, and call the placement office and talk to them.

Tomorrow, I fly back to Colorado. I hope this gives a more complete idea of what's going on.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

This took well over 24 hours

The finished box. From here, you can't see the glue leaks or the dovetailing, but the wood is gorgeous.

Bottom of the box. Had to file the screws differentially in order to get it to not "walk" a ton. It still walks, but not far.
Dovetails and glue leaks. And beautiful wood.

Finished box from the other side.

Start with a log
Maul it with a battery-powered chainsaw
Run it through a table saw to get thin boards
Make the dang things relatively square to themselves
Sand the boards up to 220
Cut the tails and pins
Sand up to 600
Assemble and glue, judiciously use bricks and 2"x4"s
Drill, glue, and screw the bottom to the box
File the screwheads
Sand off glue smudges
Apply flaxseed oil
Post pictures on your blog