Cookin’ with beets and makin’ the borsch.
During our pre-service training, I somehow got the idea that my teaching experience would involve eager female students who craved friendship and meaningful connections.
When I was placed at a small vocational school for construction and engineering, my little bubble popped. My students were almost exclusively male, and really they couldn’t give two flying farts about English. Hanging out with their strange, gawky foreign teacher wasn’t really high on their list of priorities.
The one exception to this was the English majors—a group of 25 bright and quirky students taught by my husband. They became my surrogate students last year. There would be days when I felt like a complete failure, unable to connect with my students. I would pour all my energy into my lessons, only to receive dull responses from boys who’d been up all night in internet bars playing League of Legends. It was Jeff’s English majors who came to my parties, who attended our English corner. It was these kids who made me feel like I wasn’t the problem.
In May, the class will graduate. Many are moving on to other cities—Shenzhen, Beijing, Shanghai, where they will translate or do HR work for construction companies. Many students have gotten positions in Africa, since Chinese companies are doing loads of construction work in places like Algeria and Tanzania.
Soon, their close group will scatter…but right now is a magical time when they are all filled with opportunity and dreams. Life is a gigantic possibility, and no limits have been set.
Last night we had a goodbye dinner for the class, since they will spend next semester interning at various locations away from campus. The students cooked up a storm, hammed it up for the camera and went crazy when I brought out my nail polish collection.
Youth is such a gorgeous, infectious thing. This beautiful group of girls have been an amazing part of my time in China, and I will always remember them.
I woke up this morning at the normal time to which I allow myself to sleep when I don’t have to teach in the morning, around 8 a.m.
By this time, all the students are already at school, which means, for a few moments, my neighborhood is relatively quiet.
This morning, though, as I was in my kitchen heating up water for tea, I heard people outside my neighbor’s house. She’s a nice lady and makes her living usually by being a tailor. In the past few months, she’s also started selling the local moonshine out of her house. For 100 CFA, men come by, take a shot of sodabe and then ride off on their motorcycles, rarely staying more than 5 minutes. One of my favorite nighttime activities is to sit on my front porch and watch how many of the men who stop by I recognize, either as colleagues or the father of one of my students.
When I came back from vacation three days ago, a small hut with benches and tables had been erected outside her house, I guessed in an effort to expand her business, at least expand it out of her living room. And business has expanded, the area outside my front door becoming less like a front porch and more like the street outside a bar, but besides moto horns and loud voices, there haven’t been any real complaints.
And so, this morning, as I sipped my Harney & Son’s Tower of London tea, I silently toasted the men taking shots of sodabe next door at 8:30 in the morning.
Today my ANAMED Club (Action for Natural Medicine) was interviewed by a radio journalist!
The organization NASFAM (which is something about helping Small Farmers of Malawi) has a branch in our village that has been supporting our club. With their donation of seeds and tubes we’ve planted about 4,000(!) tree seedlings for our school and community. The seedlings pictured are moringa which is an amazingly nutritional plant. So the reporter came and spoke to all the students about what we’re doing and why, and next Saturday we have a 30 min program on radio 1! It was all in Chichewa (hence my strained face trying to scramble up some words) but I could tell my students did an amazing job and I’m so proud of the work this club has done.
Regina Ernst is an UNLV MFA student in Fiction currently pursuing the Peace Corps track, fulfilling the international experience emphasis unique to the UNLV MFA program. She spent two years on campus in Las Vegas, and will spend two years abroad as a Peace Corps Volunteer while completing the writing of her MFA thesis. These are some of her musings from abroad.
I’ve been waiting to write something official about my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Colombia until I felt like I had a better idea about what was going on here. I’ve spent the last five months in cities on the North Atlantic coast, I’ve moved permanently to Cartagena, and I’ve realized I may never know what’s going on here. But I do know some things.
Last week, while visiting Barranquilla for official business, I dropped by my old host-mom’s house to say hi. She’s an energetic woman in her sixties who I’d lived with for just over a month during my training. When she saw me through her open door, Sarita jumped from her seat at the dining room table and shuffled to receive me. She stood before me with her arms open absurdly wide. We hugged and kissed and she led me to the table. She didn’t even ask if I wanted lunch before shoving a feast arroz con pollo with avocado in front of me, which I’d learned never to say no to (and also, why would I?). I stayed to chat for a few hours and when I left, she escorted me to the door, lecturing me about how I was welcome at her house any time any day, the same sermon she gives me every time I visit her.
Las Murallas, the walls that surround the “Old City” with Bocagrande’s modern cityscape in the distance.
You’re not a true Cartagenero/a unless you’re carrying around an authentic mochila.
The other day, when I boarded the bus after grocery shopping, my hands filled with tearing bags, I squeezed through a sea of men to stand among them, swaying with the harsh stop-and-go of the bus and gripping onto any bar or shoulder within reach for balance. Within minutes, a seat opened up. These bus rides are lengthy and hot, and these men were here long before I was. Yet, the man closest to the free seat (and therefore entitled to it) reached out to tap my shoulder, and I crowd-surfed to the back of the bus to claim his spot, my bags supported by the hands of strangers until I made it securely into the seat. An hour later, when we were approaching my location, I stood to yell for the driver to stop. He didn’t hear me, so the chorus of men chanted on my behalf and the bus halted abruptly. All of them squished together to make room for me to exit. One took my hand to guide me down the steps.
One of the many plazas that make the Centro the beautiful but confusing labyrinth that it is, la Plaza de San Pedro Claver.
Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje (SENA) in Casa de Marques in la Plaza de la Aduana. I work in this vocational college teaching ESL and ESP to Hospitality and Tourism students. Por eso, I’m a lucky duck.
Last night, when I was walking home from an English Conversation Club that I “co-founded,” I bumped into one of the members of my current host-family on the street. It was my host-uncle, Roberto, a man in his fifties who lives with his sister, his niece, his father, and three other miscellaneous people (myself included). We’ve lived in the same large house together for almost three months. We’ve conversed every day. We’ve worked around each other in the kitchen-space. Yet, when I caught up to him on the street that evening and greeted him, he turned to me surprised. His eyes opened large and he smiled so genuinely. Acting as if he hadn’t seen me in years, he put out his hand to take mine and we kissed cheeks in typical Colombian fashion. Then we shared the rest of the walk home, chatting about our days. My young Spanish only permits me to comment on the basics—where I was, what I was doing, who I was with, my plans for the evening—but every response from him was full of interest and sincere curiosity.
My host-sister, Lilia, and I standing on the shores of Playa Blanca on a nearby Caribbean island.
So, this is what it’s like here. I have new stories everyday about my interactions with people during my time here. Despite the big cultural cities, the heavenly beaches, and the numerous beautiful historical landmarks, the people are what make my time in Colombia feel so right.
Thanks, Regina! Las Vegas misses you. (All photos by the writer)
You heard me. Don’t do it. I’m telling you, it’s going to break your heart.
The Core Expectations for Volunteers states you are expected to “serve where the Peace Corps asks you to go, under conditions of hardship, if necessary…” What it doesn’t state however is just what hardship means.
Right now you’re thinking, “Oh. There’ll be no flush toilets or showers. I can handle that. I might have to squash a few spiders, but for the high calling of changing the world, I think I can put up with those things.”
But the truth is, hardship isn’t the quirky and fun hardship you’re expecting, where each new day brings adventure upon crazy adventure, more wonderful than the next. True hardship is much more sobering.
During your service you might have to bury a neighbor. Or watch helplessly as your host family is torn to pieces by corruption. You might show up to school to learn one of your students was killed by a classmate. Your host sister could be kidnapped and forced to marry a man she’s never met. You might witness abuse, violence and mistreatment. You may see your best student lose to a kid from another school because his bribe was the biggest. Your dog might be fed a needle, just to quiet it down, forever.
And if none of that happens, then something else will. There’s just no knowing how hard it will be or it what way. It could be dealing with other volunteers is your biggest challenge. Or that you can never live up to the expectations of your host organization. Or that the Internet is so accessible you spend your entire day trolling Facebook, jealous of all the lives continuing on back home.
And what about all the things you’ll give up? Your boyfriend might not wait two years for you. You’ll put your career on hold. Your familiar support networks probably won’t be around – there’ll be no gym, no fast food joint, no car to drive, no family to visit. The stress and diet could make you lose thirty pounds—or gain thirty—whichever you don’t want.
The Peace Corps uses phrases like, “Life is calling. How far will you go?” and in a breath you’re ready to sign your name on the line. But two years is a long, long time and in the middle you find the world you wanted to change is a confusing and complex puzzle of which you are just one, tiny piece.
So please, if you’re not ready for the heartbreak in the hardship, don’t join the Peace Corps.
Because you might just find that all your blood, sweat and tears are worth it – worth the pain, worth the time and worth the investment in the people for whom your heart breaks. Because you might learn some of the most important lessons of your life – that a broken heart can heal stronger than it was before, that a softened heart has more compassion for the world, and that in between its cracks and fissures is the only place where true beauty and grace can grow.
People ask me a lot about Ukrainian food. The answer, in a word, is: cabbage.
This is not normal cabbage, however. This is cabbage on another level. This is cabbage that can kill a man. It weighs an absolute ton and I could probably go bowling with it if I wanted, provided I found some carrots to serve as pins.
This guy is literally the size of my head and it was the smallest one I could find (there were others for sale that were almost twice its size). I mostly bought it to prove a point and now I’m going to spend like three weeks trying to be creative with cabbage dishes, sigh.
On the 50th anniversary of his passing, we honor the legacy of President John F. Kennedy. We trace our roots and mission to 1960, when then-Senator Kennedy challenged students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. His inspiration led to the establishment of this agency in 1961 with a mission to promote world peace and friendship.
Today, we are more vital than ever, working in collaboration with public and private partners in emerging and essential areas such as education, information technology, agriculture and environment, and business development in countries around the world. The Peace Corps is committed to giving all Americans who want to serve the opportunity to make a difference and bring their experience back home to enrich their communities here in the United States.
Since 1961, more than 215,000 Americans of all ages and backgrounds have responded to Kennedy’s enduring challenge, demonstrating how the power of an idea can capture the imagination of an entire nation.
[July 6 - 9, 2013]
DEMYSTIFICATION TRIP with G9 trainees!
Peer Support Network [PSN] members took the newly arrived G9 to various PCV sites to “demystify” them about Ethiopia and how PCVs work / live.
In Bahir Dar, we visited Sarah’s English classroom, where she teaches 20+ OVCs [Orphans and Vulnerable Children] everyday. Her class was amazing to say the least! Sarah showed us some of her class routines, and later we all danced together. They prepared a buna ceremony for us as well, and we took in the aroma of buna roasting all morning.
After observing the class, we had lunch and headed to Woreta, where we spent 2 full days- exploring the town, the market, making family lunch, eating out, having tea/coffee breaks, sharing our various PCV life and work stories, as well as visiting Courtney’s home and schools, and meeting faculty members.
On our last day, we went back to Bahir Dar and got to see their Camp G-GLOW in action! I was so grateful that my G9 girls got to see a wide range of activities PCVs do at site. And all the PCVs that were in Bahir Dar and Woreta were wonderful- answering questions, preparing things for our demyst group! We all got back safely to Addis on the 9th. One of my girls did get a bacteria infection at the last day, but I hope it was a helpful and fun experience for my group. It was definitely rewarding for me as their demyst group leader / PSN mentor.
Now all of G9 are at Butajira, going through their Pre-Service Training. Best of luck to you all, and I can’t wait to see you again in September before you swear-in.
It’s my One Year anniversary in Malawi!
I’m studying this photo of my group that was taken right when we got off the plane. These fresh young faces you see here have really transformed over the past year. And it’s not just that we’ve lost weight, gained a tan, and grown our hair out… the experience itself has aged us. We’ve grown stronger, wiser, more patient… and there’s a visible difference. These people who were strangers to me at the time this photo was taken have become my family, and there’s no way I could have made it this far without them.
It’s amazing how much has happened in a year, how much I’ve learned. I’m eager and optimistic for what the next year of service will bring.
I don’t know what it is about kids and the Peace Corps, in general, but I have the personal, but not always shared opinion that children are a volunteer’s best friend. As you’ve seen already, I have had the opportunity to befriend several kids so far. They help you adjust to volunteer life in so many ways. So far this guy, Erbol which means “be a man” in Kyrgyz, has been a source of laughs as of late. He has many different faces and is passionate about everything. His favorite word/noise is “da-dong!!” which is a sound effect for pretty much everything he does. The best is when he runs to go kiss his baby brother on the cheek, and then takes his tiny baby hand to punch everyone within punching distance.