Saturday, October 6, 2007

I have arrived!

Contents:
1. Staging
2. Good Times
3. Anxiety
4. Homestay
5. First full week

Chapter 1: staging in U.S.
I arrived for staging in Philadelphia on Sunday, Sept 23. I was expecting a group of maybe 10 Mozambique (MZ) volunteers (PCV’s) instead I found 69 of them. In a group that big, everyone´s personality is on steroids, so I projected mine as best as I could to keep up and be known. I was as extraverted as possible, and as such did not quite feel like myself, since I don´t prefer to be forcing my way into any conversation just to tell a joke or participate in the group discussion.
I brought donuts from Delicious Orchars, a local gourmet grocer from home, but had a rather hard time convincing people to accept them from me—again I attribute this to the group size. Then again there was the time when we were in an impossibly long and slow moving line at customs in South Africa. Someone suggested playing telephone and I tried to get that started, but whenever it hit a group of people already in a conversation the call was dropped like Cingular. I could complain more about other unpleasant instances like this but enough of all that.

Chapter 2: good times
I did not expect that there would be as many pretty girls in the group, and as expected there are more girls than guys and better yet I apparently misread the part of the manual regarding dating among volunteers—the prohibition is on dating between PC staff and volunteers. Phew.
I maintained my self-confidence throughout in Philadelphia, spoke well for myself during large group discussion, and made the 17 hour plane ride painlessly minus a sore tailbone.
Our arrival in Johannesburg was not what I expected: I sensed 5 star as soon as we pulled up to the hotel and sure enough, there was a table with elegant looking people pouring out full glasses of complementary South African wine in the lobby. Since we didn´t have enough RAND to eat dinner at the restaurant hotel and were forbidden to leave the premises, several of us made dinner on wine and the free cheese and crackers. I had a great time socializing that night.
At our last night of orientation in Maputo, we had a barbeque and the rain forced us under cover. After a while someone busted out a guitar and another played harmonica and it was on, we got to sing some songs together and that was a great thing for me, since karaoke had become an important outlet for me in Florida.

Chapter 3: Anxiety (how my mind works) over malaria, feeling of them out to get me, getting over that feeling...
Arriving in Johannesburg, we were told to claim $0.00 and nothing to declare. I had already written $500 and also claimed the maple syrup in my bag, since it is a plant product, and there were no extra slips at the line for customs, so I was stuck with my answer. I was a little shook at the prospect of being the one who féd up in customs. Luckily, when I asked the guy at the “nothing to declare” line whether my maple syrup was a problem, he just took my slip and didn´t say anything.
Nothing could have prepared me for the images I saw through the bus window when we arrived in Maputo (Ma-poo-too). It’s one thing to see another world roll by on your tv, another to see it roll by because you’re driving through it. “Holy shit. What am I doing here…physically here. I don’t belong here.”
Then we rolled into our hotel, which rooms consisted of round huts divided in 4ths, and across the internal hotel road was the pool and restaurant and party tent. 4 days of orientation there, and we didn’t leave the hotel but once on day 3 when we went to the American School for a field day with scavenger hunt. That was a huge help for me, sport it my #1 stress release and there were some people there who play ultimate.
Blaze about Malaria
But stress? How and why? Well, on day one I was calm, though I had spins all day thanks to binge drinking at the 5 star hotel. Then I found out that the Peace Corps would not be providing us with bed nets until we got to the training site. I also found out that the malaria prophylaxis drug I had been prescribed (Doxycycline) was only 80% effective whereas the once a week pill (Larium) which most people were taking was 97% effective. They hadn’t asked which pill I would like to take. I was not only distressed but also angry, here’s why: when I worked at AED, I occasionally assisted a USAID funded project which provides subsidies on ITNs (insecticide treated nets) in Africa. Now, as a taxpayer and government employee, I was expected to take this UNNECESSARY risk, thus allowing a greater probability that I might get sick during my first days in the country. If not me, perhaps one of the other 69 volunteers would get malaria due to this 4 nights of exposure. I was pissed, and with wild eyes pretty much demanded that the medical officers find me a bed net, do with the other volunteers as they wish. They could not find me a net, and I lost the illusion that my demands and opinion really mattered. OK, so I used the box shaped net that I had in my bag. In order to rig it up, I had to sleep on the floor in front of the door and be creative with bungee cords. In retrospect, two things can explain and mitigate for me slightly the Peace Corps 4 nights without bednets: I now know that there is a manner of therapy for malaria (ACTs) which I didn’t know before—I though ACT was a prophalaxis. Also, since the rooms in the hotel had sloped ceilings, the rooms couldn’t easily support our box shaped nets. Still, I stand by my decision to use my net and luckily my roommate was supportive and nice about it, there are a few in the group who would have amplified the way that I already felt about my decision at the time, I felt like a stupid maniac.
You know me, you know that I occasionally FLIP-OUT and not always for a valid reason. Once I lost my shit, I became painfully socially awkward, weak in my iris, and lost my vision of the whole endeavor of service. The medical staff and current volunteers who were running orientation were no longer my friends, they were wolves to me. They had seen me flip out, seen my weakness (a risk intolerance which would make me unfit for Peace Corps service), and were keeping an eye on me. One of the weak ones in the herd, perhaps to be encouraged to leave before the swearing in ceremony. At this time in orientation, the Country Director makes it very clear that PC service is not for everyone, and that training is the time to decide whether to stay or go home.
Interesting point of fact, its this kind of anxiety inducing pattern of thought that got me in the 80% malaria drug group in the first place. At first I had asked the medical officers to put me on Larium, but then I read one of the pages in our books and saw the pillbox insert for Larium. People with a history of severe anxiety or depression should not take this drug, period. The list of side effects sounded like my worse nightmare, just enough to push me into schizophrenia. Given how I was feeling at the time, that was more than enough to convince me that I should just use more DEET, find the wash-in mosquito repellant, and take the extra 17% risk.
In general, I am not happy with the way that the other Trainees and current PCVs dismiss malaria and its importance both for us and for MZ as a whole. Maybe they will get a chance to tell a family with a cerebral malaria case child that malaria isn’t really a big deal.

Chapter 4: Begin homestay, bucket bath!
I’m back to normal, largely thanks to the field day, and living with my host family now. If you’ve seen the film March of the Penguins then you have an idea what it’s like when we get dropped off at homestay. Roughly 30 trainees and as many host family members walking around calling out the name that will hopefully be recognized by their counterpart. The lady who picked me up was kind of anti-social, she mostly talked with her neighbors in full speed Portuguese during the walk back. Then she took me to my house, which is not her house, but rather her daughter’s house across the street. This makes me think that the instructions from Peace Corps regarding my hygiene were given to the old lady and never reached my de facto host Mom, which means I’ve had a lot of explaining to do. Given my Portuguese skill level, the explaining is not the best. I told her to bath my fruit and veggies with some bleach-water for 15 minutes and the next day there was bleach water in my shower bucket…it stings a little when you bath with it, not to mention my skin is white enough without bleach, thanks.
My host Mom and other family members are more sociable usually. The first night was particularly challenging, though, because Peace Corps requires a lock on my bedroom door and, just in time, the guy was there installing the lock when I arrived at the house. I was sitting at the head of the table, and my bedroom door was four feet from my head. Every other syllable I heard at the table was “BANG” so that made it hard to understand much.
The food is good but they use a lot of oil. At breakfast the other day I thought to myself “if I have to eat one more oily fried egg for breakfast…” and then realized that despite my tough talk, I will more than likely be eating many a fried egg for the next 2 months. I miss oatmeal…no oil in oatmeal.

Chapter 5: First week in Africa
Life’s easier now. Our language groups are small, 5 students, and I already liked everyone in my group even before we were assigned to each other. That’s not true of everyone in the larger group at this time, but I try to be friendly with everyone. Also, our professor is very good, and I usually benefit from the questions asked by other students in our class.
Yesterday we had “Mnaga” Time, that is to say, fun time. I taught our Mozambican families Rock, paper, scissors, and they taught us their version of duck duck goose which is much cooler because you can peg the person with the ball and all the people sitting down chant a beautiful African song.
I’ve had the flu and runny nose, followed by an upset stomach and a little fever. This is quite normal, having read the welcome materials, and I’m not concerned at this time. I have a pretty good idea how it started. Since I first met them, the kids in the house have had snot moustaches that sit on their lip for lack of a cloth to wipe it off.
Along with my host mom is her cousin, who has a baby but the Dad is off with another woman. Also in the house is a Cinderella girl who does chores all day and doesn’t go to school and is spoken to harshly. I think she is another daughter of the player who left my host-Aunt, and my guess is she has nowhere else to go.
No electricity because they weren’t able to pay the bill. No running water. The neighbors are really nice. Also, I don’t feel threatened when I walk down the main street or even side streets in the daylight. It’s hard to believe that I’m living in the specter that I saw rolling past the bus window upon arrival. I still don’t feel like I fit in here, that might take a while.

Life is so different for me now that it's hard to believe only 2 weeks separates me from my former life. I'll write again when I get a chance. Much love, everyone, I think about home and it makes me feel good.