What I’m learning in training

I’m not a Peace Corps volunteer (PCV). Surprise!

Well, not technically, anyway. Right now, I am a Peace Corps trainee (PCT) in Pre-Service Training (PST – the Peace Corps loves acronyms, and once you learn how many different things we have names for, you will too). Here’s a glimpse of what RAP 2013 (Rural Aquaculture Promotion) PCTs are learning during PST in PCZ (Peace Corps Zambia), before we become PCVs starting CE (Community Entry) in just a little over a month:

We’re learning a lot about fish farming, including but not limited to playing in muddy ponds and frying up fish.

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Kate and Grant pull weeds from the pond that our group is managing. We stocked fingerlings via 50-pound barrels strapped to our bikes a few weeks ago so that we could experience what it would be like to transport fish to ponds out in the bush. It’s unwieldy. Like balancing a wheelbarrow on your head while doing the Wobble, unwieldy. (The hops in the dance sync nicely with the potholes in the road.) My group and I were in the middle of congratulating ourselves when a Zambian blew past us balancing three 75-pound sacks of charcoal on his rickety bike. Perspective. It bites. While I’m on the topic of bicycles in this country, Zambians also carry other people, massive jugs of water, and live goats on bikes which like most things in Zambia are held together with twine and a good bit of hope.

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The group watches a harvest at Kalimba Farms near Lusaka. They had several nice fish ponds which were completely upstaged by the fact that they also had crocodiles. Kalimba Farms is an integrated farm that specializes in growing and harvesting crocodiles for their skin and meat. I ate crocodile burgers for lunch. Have I mentioned crocodiles yet? We also saw a couple of zebras and an ostrich on neighboring farms during our drive back. This means that with the exception of a few monkeys we saw on the side of the road in Eastern Province a month ago, all of the stereotypically African wildlife I’ve seen so far here has been on farms.

We’re learning a lot about language and culture. (Tulesambilila sana ukulanda icibemba elyo intambi shabena Zambia.) My Bemba classes have been going well. The lesson plan emphasizes practical and experiential-based learning, which means we get to do things like bike to Chongwe market and barter with the vendors. (The exchange rate is currently about 5 kwacha/$1, so I’m still having trouble shaking the feeling that I’m playing with Monopoly money.) It’s always an adventure. This seasoned American consumer is feeling more and more at home each time he interacts with the people in this colorful and eclectic bazaar. And just when I think I’ve seen it all, I wind up deep in conversation about the differences between Japan and China (and the baffling fact that I am from neither country), or being tailed by a persistent drunk with Shake Shake on his breath.

(Rule Number 1 for drinking Shake Shake: Don’t drink Shake Shake. It’s an alcoholic substance that comes in milk cartons and has the viscosity, texture, and color of that leftover milk and soggy cereal at the bottom of your morning cereal bowl. And if this wasn’t reason enough to stay away, it tastes like that milk would if you left it outside in the sun for three days. In fact, I have a suspicion that this is how they make it.)

One of the biggest cultural differences between Zambia and America that I’ve seen so far revolves around thighs. A woman in Zambia wearing a skirt or dress that ends even two inches above the knee is akin to a woman in America wearing only a bra or bikini top outside the pool/beach. Very few people do it, and the ones who do are basically considered to be hookers. Thighs are viewed here to be nearly as private a part of the body as genitals. Breasts, on the other hand, are much less censored here than they are in the U.S. I’ve seen more nipples (usually mothers breastfeeding in public) than uncovered thighs since I’ve arrived in Zambia.

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Buying 2 meters of one of the four chitenge patterns we’ve found in Chongwe with fish on them: K25

Having a tailor turn the chitenge into a pair of bright orange, slim-fit, tapered-leg trousers: K20

Getting an orange Mirinda from the restaurant next door which cannot be called a hole in the wall without affronting both the hole and the wall: K2.5

Sitting on the tailor’s front porch, drinking an ice-cold soda, watching him stitch seams on my trousers with expert precision on an ancient sewing machine, chatting with the affable woman who is breast-feeding her 4-month-old daughter named Blessing, all the while trying valiantly not to gawk at the nipple out in plain sight directly in front of me: priceless

In addition to the trousers, I’ve had two shirts made by two different tailors from chitenges with different fish patterns on them. I’ve also bought three knock-off Zambia football jerseys, four other chitenges, and a 2016 Olympics Rio de Janeiro shirt. I’m not doing a great job of bucking the stereotype that Americans are all loaded with gobs of kwacha.

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I pose at a fruit stand a few kilometers down the road from Chongwe. After I negotiated a bulk discount for watermelons using my rudimentary Bemba, we loaded them up into our backpacks and Holly promptly fell over in front of all the bamayos. She was, unfortunately for her, nowhere near her bike. We were, unfortunately for her, laughing hysterically.

We’re learning a lot about what it’s like to be C-list celebrities. Crowds literally appear within seconds wherever we congregate, but are almost always comprised of only one type of person: the small kind. Everyone else just stares as they pass by, throwing the clustering children disdainful looks even as they themselves can’t help craning their necks for a better look at the white people.

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We wanted to take a few group photos after finishing a pickup football game with the neighborhood kids. To say they were uncooperative would be a gross understatement. To say they took advantage of the opportunity to touch the muzungu all over with their grubby little hands would be the gross truth.

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Mike teaches a couple of local kids how to shake hands like a Wisconsinite. If there’s one thing a little Zambian iwe likes more than football, it’s touching a muzungu. Any kind of contact absolutely thrills them. I high-five some of the braver kids I pass by as I bike to class. It’s fun until they start trying to pull you off your bike as you wallow through sand. The little piranhas can smell blood from
kilometers away.

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Today all 18 of us spent five hours working on our sunburns and sweating in our Sunday best for Easter Mass at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Chongwe. President of Zambia Michael Sata was in attendance along with his entourage, so it was a big deal. During his speech, President Sata pointed our group out to emphasize a comparison he was making between Zambians and Americans. The crowd of nearly a thousand people turned in unison to look at us and giggle. I’m getting good at ignoring people laughing at me.

Site announcements!

Almost unbelievably, the end of Pre-Service Training is already in sight. In just a little over a month, I’ll be sworn in as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer. I’ll be wearing an outlandish fish-themed shirt paired with even more outlandish fish-themed trousers (pants mean underwear here). Just a few days after that, I’ll go shopping for everything I need to start a new life in a mud hut in my site. And just a few days after that, a Land Cruiser will deposit me at my empty hut and take off with a wave. And right there, when I take one more step into my hut, I will figuratively and quite literally be the furthest from home I’ve ever been (read it in your best Frodo Baggins voice).

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Today was the long-awaited announcement of our sites. The day we found out the exact place where we’ll be living for the next 24 months. It felt kind of like Christmas. Throughout training, I’ve been completely in the dark about my future site because I’m in the Bemba language group, the most widely spoken language in Zambia. My friends learning Nyanja (Eastern), Lunda (Northwest), Timbuka (Eastern), or Kaonde (Northwest) have known which provinces they’ll be going to since before we started training. In contrast, my site could have been in Northern, Luapula, or Central provinces and I’ve spent the past month and a half vacillating between option a.) weighing the pros and cons of each province and option b.) trying not to have an opinion at all because my preference has little to no influence on site selection. But now the wait is over, because today, after much pomp and circumstance (a timed obstacle course which we had to navigate while wearing chitenges like women), I found out that I’m going to Luapula Province!

Not to brag or anything, but I kind of won the Peace Corps Zambia site lottery. My site is in the village of Nshinda, in Nchelenge District in the northern part of Luapula. It’s a stone’s throw away from the border of the Congo, which we’re not allowed to visit, but it’s a cool enough fact to mention in a blog post anyway. I’m near the tarmac which enables easier transportation, and my nearest PCV neighbor is 10km away which is only about a half-hour bike ride. I’m first-generation at my site, which means I’ll be the first volunteer to live in my village. The PC staff member who inspected all of our sites reported that I have cell reception at my site, that “there are friendly playful kids around,” and that I “have a mansion-sized hut with nice rooms.”

I’m really excited. The first thing I heard about Luapula Province when I arrived in Zambia was that it is beautiful. Throughout training, the general consensus has been that Luapula is the most scenic and tropical of the provinces. It boasts several gorgeous waterfalls, national parks, and several large, pretty lakes with pristine beaches. (Translation: come visit me.) I’ve also heard that Luapula is very rural and underdeveloped. The population density is low, and this part of the country just doesn’t see the same amount of traffic as many of the other provinces. And because Peace Corps is relatively new to Nchelenge District and I’ll be a first-gen volunteer, I will likely also be the first American that many people will meet.

In just a week and a half, I leave for 2nd site visit where I’ll travel to Luapula Province for the first time. I’ll spend a few days at my actual site, meeting people in the community and trying to find a carpenter who will make me furniture to fill my currently empty mansion-sized hut.

I heart care packages

I’m sitting in my hut right now eating Reese’s peanut butter cups. The rest of my day could have been horrible (it wasn’t) and it wouldn’t have mattered because I GOT A CARE PACKAGE. Care packages, plural, in fact. And now I’m sitting in my hut eating Reese’s peanut butter cups. Life is wonderful.

Today I received two hefty FedEx boxes crammed full of snacks from my lovely family at UC Berkeley Conference Services. They thoughtfully sent everything from Tang (drink mixes that you can add to water are worth their weight in gold here) to beef jerky to chocolate to Spam. This gives me a strong lead among my training cohort in the categories of Quickest Mail To Arrive (I think they sent it last week?!) and Largest Packages Received From Someone Not Related To You And Who Is Not Your Girlfriend/Boyfriend. It’s kind of a big deal. Thank you guys so much! I feel extremely cared for and grateful for such awesome (former) colleagues, and I can taste home in every calorie.

Family, friends, and random people who I don’t know but already like because you’re reading my blog: do you want to make someone carry a stupid grin around on his face all day? Go play with your dog. Just kidding. Send me some junk food!

If you want to do a lot of good with a little spare cash, fifty bucks is enough to either ship a box of candy to a Peace Corps trainee in Zambia or buy a heifer for a rural farmer in Mongolia. I’ll let you decide which is the more worthy* cause.

*In the interest of full disclosure, delicious food is shoved in front of me daily like I’m being fattened for Christmas dinner and I receive a walking around allowance of 18 kwacha per day which, although equal to only about $3.75 USD, can easily buy me enough sodas/candy to blow my blood glucose levels through the roof. The Mongolian farmer, meanwhile, can increase the productivity of his farm by about 400% with that new cow.

Reasons why Pre-Service Training is like kindergarten

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-On my first day at my homestay, my father writes out a card detailing all of the family’s names, their ages, and my village. If I get lost, I am to show people the card so I can get help finding my way home.

-I dutifully recite to my parents every day where I’m going, what I’ll be doing, and when I’m going to come back.

-My classmates and I compare notes on what our moms cook for us at home. Everyone is jealous that I get a soda occasionally for lunch.

-This is nothing compared with the envy that shows when I proudly announce that I have had hot dogs one day.

-I bike to school wearing a bright red helmet visible from space (Peace Corps policy — the helmet, not the color. The color was just unfortunate).

-My dad tells me it is important to have friends, because it is a sad life without friends.

-I am not allowed to be out after dark.

-I go to sleep at around 9pm some nights. On weekends.

-Few things make me happier than drinking an ice-cold orange soda.

-The only things I talk about now are poop, food, and bugs. In that order.

Pictures, Month 1

We visited Lusaka today for the first time since we started training. After gorging myself on greasy American-style food and promptly making myself feel sick again (so worth it), I availed myself of a pay-to-play internet station at the post office in Manda Hill Mall (9 kwacha for an hour/30mb of data, not bad) and uploaded my first set of pictures from my camera. All of the ones I’ve posted thus far were taken with the camera on my phone, which isn’t horrible. These, however, are the handful of shots that I feel best capture my first month in Zambia.

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Zambia, a set on Flickr.

Thoughts on being sick

There aren’t many things worse than having a problem and not knowing what caused it. But one of them is having a problem in Africa and not knowing what caused it. There are just a whole heap more potential reasons why something can go wacky with your body over here. Really, really scary reasons. So this is why I found myself scouring my bed yesterday morning at 4:30am, hoping desperately to find bedbugs.

I awoke with a start in the quiet pre-dawn, scratching my hands feverishly. The itch was tremendous, like a thousand mosquito bites covering every square millimeter of skin. My first reaction: cripes, my bed has been invaded. I sleep under a mosquito net hung from the ceiling and tucked underneath my bed each night, so a swarm of mosquitoes wasn’t an actual possibility. Now we were getting into viscerally grosser territory. I put on my glasses and turned on my light, scratching all the while, nervous but determined to face what I was sure was a massive infestation of creepy-crawlies. Little spiders if I was lucky, littler (and more disgusting) bedbugs if I wasn’t.

A fifteen-minute thorough inspection of my sheets though yielded nothing. I even checked along the mattress seams, searching for bugs burrowed there like we were shown in our session on parasites and skin afflictions. (Another of the less-than-glamorous aspects of being in the Peace Corps — trainees receive an extremely comprehensive set of workshops and lectures detailing all of the different ways that your life can be made miserable, ways that you are assured you will, not can, experience first-hand as a volunteer. I kid you not, earlier this week we had back-to-back sessions on the high percentage of HIV-positive persons in Zambia, then what to do if you are bitten by a snake/scorpion/rabid dog. And this was tame compared to the session on parasitic diseases — with pictures!)

So there weren’t any bugs in my bed. In fact, there weren’t any bug bites on my hands, either. What was at first relieving was now worrying. Because if there wasn’t an external, physical cause for the itching, that meant there might be an internal, psychological reason. But Matt, you have the epitome of a rational and emotionally balanced psyche, everyone who knows me cries out. Believe me, I know, I retort back, feeling that rationality that comes with knowing yourself very well (or at least thinking you know yourself very well) start to become shaky. Enter Mefloquine.

Since we first landed deep in the heart of sub-Saharan Africa, the area with the highest prevalence of malaria in the world, we have all been taking malaria prophylaxis. Now, malaria is serious business, so you might imagine that a medicine designed to combat malaria must be pretty potent itself. One of the other common prophylaxis options causes your skin to burn through clothing. Mefloquine, the one that I’m taking, is not given to anyone who has ever seen a counselor for any reason because it, my words, not theirs, screws with your mind. And even though this is a very rudimentary and not exactly accurate way to assess mental stability and strength, I guess they just figure it’s better to cast the net widely. An actual partial list of side effects:
-intensely vivid dreams (like Inception, dream-within-dream level stuff)
-insomnia
-paranoia
-diarrhea
-death

I had taken my Mefloquine the night before, and so because I had been the picture of healthy and hale up until this point, my next assumption was that I was experiencing an odd side effect of the drug. I dug up the pamphlet and found, buried deep within the list of possible side effects, skin rash and irritation. This theory was borne out later in the morning as I realized that thinking about feeling itchy made me itchier, while not thinking about it made the itchiness subside. Being able to control a physical symptom psychologically is a new phenomenon for me, and I was momentarily thrilled. But then I started feeling feverish and getting chills.

To fully understand the significance of chills, it helps to know that I have not felt cold for one second since arriving in country. In fact, I may have appeared thus far to have a bit of an obsession with my sweat. So shivering in my rain shell and gardening gloves while everyone else was wearing short sleeves was my first clue that I could actually be really sick, not just experiencing a side effect of the malaria prophylaxis.

I called the Peace Corps Zambia medical office, figuring I’d just be sent home to rest. I forgot one small detail — this is Africa. We have malaria here. I could have malaria. I’m not normally a hypochondriac, but I’d be lying if I said the thought didn’t cross my mind. About fifty times over the next hour. Especially when I was assured that my symptoms were not indicative of typical Mefloquine side effects. Next thing I knew, I was on a Land Cruiser headed for the clinic in Lusaka. Once I arrived, I was interviewed, poked and prodded, given a malaria test (negative!), and then waited a few hours for the blood tests to confirm this prognosis.

I whiled the time chatting with three LIFE volunteers in Lusaka for their Close-of-Service medical examinations. I’m one of those annoying people who’s always asking volunteers for the 2-minute summary of their service, its impact on their personal development, and hindsight big-picture things that they wish they had known or focused more on earlier in their service. The juxtaposition between these volunteers, having lived in Zambia for 26 months, and me, one month into training, was fascinating to me. I received some words of wisdom and a healthy dose of perspective.

My blood test came back. The second malaria test was also negative, and the doctor had done more research and was now retracting her earlier assurance that this was not a side effect of the prophylaxis. Apparently it’s very rare, affecting only 1% of all Mefloquine users, but the psychological itchiness, the fever, the chills, the weakness were indeed possible side effects. Already riding the instant I’m-not-going-to-die wave of happiness from the negative test results, I accepted a pineapple Mirinda from the driver (in a country where virtually nothing is cold, frosty sodas are pretty much pure bliss) and headed back to Chongwe in much more chipper spirits.

The story doesn’t end there. The only thing I’ve eaten since yesterday morning has been a handful of French fries (skipped lunch and dinner yesterday and breakfast today — I think my host mom, heretofore blessed with an American with a singularly voracious appetite, just about died from surprise when I refused food), I slept 13 hours last night and four more hours this afternoon, and I’m still, incredibly, cold. And this is probably the most miserable I’ve physically felt in years.

But I don’t have malaria. So look at that! The Peace Corps is making Americans more appreciative of what they have, er, don’t have, one sick trainee at a time.

Loneliness

I’ve been thinking about aloneness and loneliness lately. In the physical, big-picture sense, nobody is truly alone in a world of 7 billion people, though solo off-trail backpacking high above the tree line in the Sierra Nevada puts one pretty darn close. So more often than not, it’s the lack of emotional connectivity that produces feelings of loneliness much more so than the aloneness of being physically isolated from other people.

I bring this up because as I write this I am:

-Sitting in a mud hut in Africa about 542,891 miles (I rounded up) from everyone I ever knew prior to last month.
Alone.

-In a country with over 10 million people, in a community with neighbors living so close they know when I’m awake before I do.
Not alone.

-Embroiled in a heightened emotional state which causes me to, a bit self-loathingly, feel a sharp pang of homesickness while reading a cheesy chick-lit novel.
Alone.

-With 18 other trainees who are sharing this bumpy emotional ride with me and with whom I’ve bonded instantly.
Not alone.

-On the eve of my 25th birthday, reading aforementioned chick lit in bed and wishing I had a big tub of double chocolate ice cream to mop up the sweat dripping down my back.
Forever alone. (Heh)

I’ve realized that the times when I feel the most emotionally disconnected from both people and place are when I’m biking, commuting between my homestay and class. Although there’s no shortage of people along the paths and roads, it is during this time that I feel most acutely and painfully how far I am from home. The unblinking stares and open laughing as I ride or walk past are a constant reflection that I am Different with a capital D. The occasional jeer or slur reminds me that sometimes different isn’t welcome.

And it is when confronted with the enormity of my differentness that I begin to feel my aloneness. To contrast the raw uneasiness of my present with the comfortable, conformist safety of my past. To miss milkshakes, fitted sheets, and refrigeration (forget the wheel – the ability to store perishable foods for longer than a day and to make any beverage magically cold is the pinnacle of human innovation).

But when I arrive back at my homestay, I’m surprised to feel that my spirits are already beginning to lift. 2-year-old Maisy waddles up to me and wraps her tiny arms around my legs, looking up with a tentative smile and dirt all over her face. My bamayo glances over from where she is chopping tomatoes and greets me in Bemba. I respond in kind, feeling some small but not insignificant amount of validation in the routine exchange. The point is precisely that it is routine — little by little, I am shaving away at those differences that set me apart in this new country.

And even when I feel lonely at times, I know that I’m never alone in either the physical or emotional sense. I’m grateful for the wonderful friends and family back home who send emails and write comments here (hint, hint), the wacky RAP’ers in my cohort here, and these little rascals.

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