31 August 2018: “Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”

“Many speak of opportunities- ‘When one door closes, another one opens.’ But rarely about the hallway. The transition. The in between where you are and where you are headed. The hallway doesn’t have to be a scary, dark, endless confusion- it can be a space of massive transformation, great memories, and peace.” -Unknown

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In May, over three months ago now, I closed my Peace Corps service, ringing the bell (as is tradition for Peace Corps Tanzania) for a solid half-minute – it felt too damn good to stop. That seems like years ago now. I then undertook a solo trip through Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, ending the journey with an 8 day stop in Paris. In my opinion, travel, especially solo travel, is the best thing to do after completing the Peace Corps. One needs time for reflection, for it to sink in, to realize the inherent accomplishment of Peace Corps service, to feel pride, to be thankful for the experiences both good and bad.

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Travel is also a way of distancing oneself from one life to help prepare for the next. Life in the Peace Corps is, quite literally, life on the other side of the world. And the world is a huge place. Traveling – transition in and of itself – allowed me to get my head in the game as I knew I’d be returning to a place once familiar, now somewhat foreign: the ultimate and most confusing of transitions.

What I’ve found I miss most in this transition is my Peace Corps family.

When we serve in the Peace Corps, our fellow Volunteers become kin. As Americans in a foreign world, we rely on one another to make it through service: to understand the ups and downs we feel; comprehend the cultural nuances; remember what it’s like to be ourselves. We are each other’s lives. Unfortunately, I’ve found, as have many friends from service, that this familial camaraderie does not always travel with us back to America. When we need it most – during readjustment – it can become elusive as we are each swept up in the feeling of our culture found as foreign, in expectations that simply seem too grand for us.

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I’ve come to understand that community is not the same in America, and while we sometimes make the time to visit our people from service here Stateside, time is forever running from us, and we realize relationships must change. When we arrive in new places here in America, it is not the same experience as when we moved to our country of service, to our regions, to our towns or villages. There aren’t collections of smiling faces to welcome us, show us around, tell us what to expect or to look forward to, to take us in as new comrades on the island of misfit toys.

No, Americans are independent, proudly so. We don’t need each other, we don’t need our extended family, we make our own name, our own lives. And yes, even Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) get caught up in the American system that only really encourages selfishness and hate. It’s a tragedy of circumstance, and a tragedy of the societal and social expectations and habits of our generation in America.

Sorry to sound so bleak. But that is my perception of the United States after my 3.5 years in East Africa. As we all know, however, it is human nature to surround ourselves with like-minded people. While that may keep us in bubbles of our own creation, it also allows us to find comfort in one another – if we so choose to find it. I certainly do, and have been hopping around visiting my people since arriving home in mid-July.

“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” -Winnie the Pooh (A.A. Milne)

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Over the past month plus I’ve been able to reconnect with well over 30 friends from various places and parts of my life, sometimes in groups, sometimes one-on-one. While visiting with my people I’ve also been able to meet their people, a great many new friends. Seeing the diverse perspectives and approaches to life back in the States has been both overwhelming and beautiful. The differences in expectations – those people have for themselves and for the world around them – is astounding. Daily life can be so different: the pace, the priorities, the needs, the desires…

Breakfast foods
AC vs. open windows
Alcohol consumption
Cooking
TV vs. reading
Need to be going and doing vs. staying in
Hobbies
Perceptions of what’s possible
Ambition
Tea vs. coffee
Bed times
Bicycle vs. walking vs. trains vs. car
Spending money
Routines
Pets
Cleanliness
People who see rain vs. people who see the potential for rainbows…

People have different ways of doing and coping with things, they’ve led their lives down different paths centered around different priorities for many different and all valid reasons. But there is one powerful commonality: everyone has to take life one day at a time.

“One day at a time – this is enough. Do not look back and grieve over the past, for it is gone; and do not be troubled about the future, for it has not yet come. Live in the present, and make it so beautiful it will be worth remembering.” -Unknown

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Now perhaps a bit about my travels since May: a run through of my East African explorations, and then my experiences since returning to the States.

East Africa…

Kenya:

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I took a bus from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania (my home since March 2017) across the border into Kenya. First stop: Diani Beach. After exploring the sandy stretches along the ocean, visiting a sacred forest, touring the Colobus Conservation Center, and riding a camel named Obama, I went further North to Mombasa, a classically noisy, busy, chaotic, dirty East African city. There were tuk-tuks (motorized mini taxis) everywhere, masses of people, trash all over, honking, yelling – quite the scene! I was outside of downtown to the North, but did enjoy a walking tour throughout the downtown area and to Fort Jesus in the Old Town section. While some compare Old Town Mombasa to Old Town Zanzibar for the similarities between their labyrinthine narrow streets, in my opinion Zanzibar is much more impressive (although also more attune to the tourists). But I liked Mombasa too.

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Taking the new fast rail from the Star Trek-esque train station in Mombasa, I then proceeded to Nairobi. I stayed in the Westlands area, which is quite hipster, with two RPCVs from Tanzania who were Volunteer Leaders when I first began my service. We went to an amazing glass workshop/arts village, visited the elephant orphanage where my friends have an adopted elephant, hiked in Karura Forest Reserve, and simply enjoyed some television and lots of good food.

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After Nairobi, I continued on by Peugeot (shared 9/10-person taxis) to Lake Naivasha. Here I spent 5 full days. I explored the nearby crater lake, bicycled and hiked through Hell’s Gate National Park, rode a horse through a game sanctuary, and visited Elsamere Lodge where Joy Adams (author of Born Free) lived, now a museum. Then I took a shared taxi, a bus, and a motorcycle to cross the border and arrive at my next destination: Jinja.

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Uganda:

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Following an easy border crossing at Busia, my first stop in Uganda was Jinja, the location that some claim as the source of the Nile. I toured around on a motorcycle my first day, seeing the source, exploring downtown, and enjoying a good meal. Then I went back to my backpackers and spent the evening paddling on the river with new friends as the sun set.

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On day two I planned to go horseback riding and on day three to go white water rafting – the main reason most people visit Jinja. I did go horseback riding, but did not get to go rafting (which is okay because it looked terrifying). Instead I got to visit the Jinja International Hospital after being bucked off and flipped over my horse. No one could tell why I got pitched off, but I had a powerful landing on my head/shoulder/upper back, ouch, which resulted in some scrapes, a few bruises, and a concussion – no broken bones though!

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After a day of trying to relax, with some great views (above), I continued on by shared taxi to Kampala. Luckily, I had no strenuous activities planned here and enjoyed my time sleeping and relaxing at the backpackers, touring around the city to see the sights via motorcycle, visiting the national museum, and even seeing a movie in the mall movie theater around the corner (so many malls!). Kampala was also a bit hipster but did not feel as massive as Nairobi.

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Next up was a trip to Murchison Falls through another backpackers out of Kampala. This three day trip brought me together with some fun and interesting traveling companions, all from various parts of Europe. We visited the falls by foot and by boat, and had a few excellent game drives. The days concluded with food and drink and stories and debate around the campfire, then a night of sleep interrupted by grazing hippos just outside.

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I then returned to Kampala for the night and took a bus the following morning to reach Kabale and Lake Bunyonyi down South. I tested my hiking abilities (back and head still not fully recovered), and tried to canoe a bit with a friend from the island there, but otherwise relaxed in my beautiful lodging, a “geodome” that opened up to the lake.

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I started a private organized tour at this point in my journey, to visit Bwindi Impenetrable for gorilla tracking, MgaHinga National Park for golden monkey tracking, and then to continue on to Rwanda to visit Volcanoes National Park for two days of hiking.

First, the gorillas of Bwindi. Unlike other experiences I’ve heard, my group did not have to trek for 5 hours to find our gorilla family (probably a good thing for me as I wasn’t fully healed). We found them fast after only a short hike through the dense forest. And they were magnificent. My favorite moments were watching the youngsters playing, rolling about as balls of fur, showing their teeth in playful smiles, one even beat his little chest. And I cannot explain the majesty of the silverback. His eyes saw everything, he was so calm and powerful, his stature and presence inspired respect and absolute awe. The most majestic and noble creature I think I’ve ever encountered.

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MgaHinga National Park was also a beautiful place to visit. On the drive down from Kabale, I stopped to visit a local organic coffee cooperative and learn about growing and roasting coffee beans. It was a fun activity and fantastic to see this local initiative for sustainable agribusiness.

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While visiting MgaHinga, I had the pleasure of spending the majority of my time there with the head researcher of golden monkeys, Sandra Gray. She has been there studying the ecosystem as a whole, tracking the golden monkey groups for her research, and working with communities to spread the necessary education to help protect the unique primates since 2009. And she was abuzz with excitement to learn the evening that I arrived that BBC will be coming to film with her in MgaHinga this September. An enthusiastic and wonderfully eccentric women, it was a pleasure to track the golden monkeys with her, and to have many engaging conversations.

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The following day, I continued on with my driver to cross into Rwanda and reach Volcanoes National Park, a part of the Virunga range.


Rwanda:

Rwanda Travels

While my back and head were still on the mend, I was able to go on a few excellent hikes in Volcanoes National Park – one to climb Mt. Bisoke and see the crater lake at its peak, and the other to reach the old research site of Dian Fossey, called Karisoke for its location between Mt. Bisoke and Mt. Karisimbi, both volcanoes. Dian Fossey lived at the Karisoke Research Center from 1967 through her death/murder in 1985, and she is buried there next to her favorite gorilla, Digit, along with many other gorillas. Her story is a fascinating one, and I highly recommend learning more about her, or even reading Gorillas in the Mist, her book published in 1983. If she had not started the research and conservation efforts in the Virungas, the mountain gorillas would quite simply no longer exist.

The hike up Mt. Bisoke was challenging and beautiful, a perfect climb through changing vegetation with that dynamic crater lake at the top. Unfortunately, the summit was covered by clouds, so I couldn’t see into the Congo, but had some nice views of Rwanda’s side of the Virungas on the way down.

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The following day I set off with the hiking crew to reach Karisoke. I split to go ahead with a few rangers and armed guards (everyone hikes with both rangers and armed military because there are not only gorillas, but also larger animals that can be even more dangerous, like forest elephants). This allowed me to have a nice quiet time at Dian Fossey’s gravesite. It was moving to be there, to see the remains of the research center and to know the impact that that fierce, stubborn, and passionate women had in those forests and beyond.

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On the hike down, our group had the most amazing luck, and I think it was meant to be. By far the most memorable and heart-racing moment of my trip, our path crossed with that of a group of gorillas. We only saw males, a group of blackbacks (not yet silverbacks). There were eating and tussling, and crossed the trail just above us. We only had a minute with them (we had only paid for a hike, not the $1,500 USD for a gorilla trek), but that minute felt like an hour.

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Then when we turned to head down the trail, to leave the blackbacks behind and continue on our way, there was the silverback. On the trail just below us, he watched us, patiently, calmly – not fully trusting us, but also not feeling the need to show aggression. Our hearts racing, we moved to one side of the trail. After a moment of study, the silverback seemed to understand and walked up the trail, passing right beside us to rejoin his younger family members. In disbelief, we continued on our way, they continued on theirs, and I was left with a memory that will never fade.

The following day my driver dropped me off in Gisenyi, a town on the North tip of Lake Kivu, just across the border from Goma (DRC). I spent a few lovely days enjoying the water, then began my mountain bike trip down the Congo Nile Trail to Kibuye. This three-day ride was challenging for me, but my head seemed to relish the hard physical exertion, while my back didn’t hurt too much. We rode through villages, along the lake, up and down the hills. I travelled with two other women from the UK and our guide, and we had a great time chatting, playing games, and telling stories by the bonfires in the evenings.

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I felt tired but accomplished by the end, and enjoyed my short respite in Kibuye following the trip. I visited the nearby islands, seeing both monkeys and an insane number of flying foxes (large fruit bats), paddled around a bit myself on the windy water, and enjoyed some nice walks through the villages. Soon enough, I was on a small bus to reach my next and final stop in East Africa: Kigali.

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Kigali was such a refreshing city. It was green, quiet, so very clean, there were parks, a fantastic arts scene, great food and coffee shops, and a collective spirit – that I somehow simply felt in the air – of a nation united. Rwanda of course has a very intense recent history. While in Kigali, I visited the memorials and museums and was able to learn a great deal about the genocide, and to understand that the lives of the vast majority of Rwanda’s citizens were touched – if not destroyed – by those months in 1994.

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But even if lives were destroyed, life still existed, grew, blossomed, overpowered the pain and suffering in the years following. That is what is so beautiful about Rwanda and its people – they chose life following 1994. They chose forgiveness, they chose love, they chose community, they chose art and music and celebration. That is what I felt in the air in Kigali, that is why I loved the city, and the country, so much.

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“Don’t let your fear of the past affect the presence of your future. Live for what tomorrow has to bring, not what yesterday has taken away.”
-Unknown


Paris:

During my trip planning, I’d decided I’d need a little stopover in Europe following my East African explorations – to people-watch, to ride around on trains, to walk city streets, to stay in a place with comfy beds and pillows, reliable electricity, hot water, and no need for mosquito nets. Paris was a random choice, but turned out to be a great one!

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I’d been to Paris once before on a school trip, but it had only been for a couple of days. This time I truly got to explore. I spent all day every day out on the streets, in museums, joining walking tours, exploring old cemeteries, and then taking breaks for meals or coffee while enjoying a pair of my favorite pastimes: people-watching, and writing. I also did two day-trips out into the countryside – one to Mont St Michel, the other to visit the castles of the Loire Valley.

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I found Parisians to be quite welcoming and friendly. There is certainly a stereotype that you shouldn’t expect hospitality or friendliness from the stuck-up French, but I found it not to be true. If you try to learn some basic greetings, and how to ask, “do you speak English?” how to say thank you and please, that is a great start. Then, if you are polite and respectful and willing to take the time to greet shopkeepers, etc., and if you have the ability to laugh at yourself, who could be rude in response? Unless someone is having a horrible day, Parisians will be polite and respectful back to you. And they’ll be more than willing to laugh with you too 😉


Toronto:

Rather than flying into Rochester (which is much more expensive), I flew into Toronto and met my parents there. We spent a few nights, went to the aquarium, went to see a play, had some yummy food, and then drove back home. We of course had to stop at IKEA on the way, and to prevent myself from getting too overwhelmed, I simply thought of it as a museum – lots of interesting things to look at.

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When we arrived at the house, it was hard to believe I was home – back in America, back in Rochester, back in our house, back with family, and the cat.

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Since returning to the States…

Chicago:

A few weeks after I got back from my travels, I got on a plane to Chicago 1) to visit one of my best friends from childhood, and 2) to attend a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer career conference. The morning of my arrival my friend and his girlfriend took me out for breakfast. I ordered what I thought was an egg scramble, but after ordering the waitress asked how I would like my eggs… I was confused. Umm… cooked… how else? I stared at the waitress, stared at my friends, and asked what the options were – oh yes, over-easy, sunny-side up, etc. Umm… just scrambled please. Whew. Good. Decision made. “Do you want cheese on it?” Cheese?! Good god… sure, yes! “What kind of cheese?” Are you effin kidding me?! We’re in America. American cheese please. I had started to sweat, too many decisions! I realized then that reverse-culture shock can reveal itself at surprising times.

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I took things slow and easy, figured out the train system in Chicago, enjoyed some quality time with my friends, then attended the two-day conference. After some great sessions led by the Peace Corps team, there was a career fair. It was great practice chatting with the different organizations and schools present, and I did get a few job offers – unfortunately I don’t really want to work as an FBI agent at this moment in my life. Maybe down the road, but not now.


Boston:

After my visit to Chicago, I continued on to Boston with another easy flight. I stayed with one of my best friends from the Peace Corps, and visited some other Peace Corps friends and college friends who also live in the area. I was there for about four days and had a jam-packed schedule: cycling to the arboretum, coffee shop hopping, tossing a frisbee during an evening of fine folk music, hanging out at a bar, attending a dinner party, losing at darts, brunch and lunch, going to see Beyoncé and Jay-Z, reading books, making music, and having excellent conversations.

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Adirondacks:

A few days after returning from Boston, I hopped in the car and drove to the Adirondacks to meet up with college friends for the weekend. I stayed in my friend’s cabin on Upper Saranac Lake, enjoyed some paddling, beautiful sunsets, swimming, bon fire burgers and s’mores, and an attempted hike to the mosquito-infested Moose Pond. Just the adventures I was needing in one of my favorite places in the world.

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Canandaigua Lake:

I was on the move again a few days after returning from the Adirondacks, lake-hopping in the Finger Lakes. First stop: Canandaigua Lake to visit my good friend from the farm. We worked together at the Rochester Folk Art Guild years ago and have been friends ever since. It was quite a gathering as well, and I was able to see many other farm friends and meet their friends and significant others. We had a fantastic night cooking dinner together, playing charades, and of course doing a late-night skinny dip. The following day, I helped them with flower preparations for a wedding – the reason so many were in town. Such a fun reunion.

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Taughannock Falls:

Next up was Cayuga Lake and camping at Taughannock Falls State Park with childhood friends. We hiked, we bon fired, we cooked, we ate, we drank, we played music, we hiked some more, we river-walked, and then it was time to go home again.

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Niagara-on-the-Lake:

A few days after that, I took a little trip with my Mom up to Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada. This has become our tradition, and this time we extended our usual stay so that we could do some things we’ve always talked about doing but haven’t had the time for. In addition to seeing two plays at the Shaw Festival, we took a jet boat ride down some class 5 rapids on the Niagara River – fun and wet; we went to the Butterfly Conservatory to surround ourselves with fluttering beauty; we did some wine tasting and visited the local chocolate factory; and finally, we spent a morning exploring the Niagara Parkway Recreation Trail on bicycles, riding along the gorge and river.

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Shawnee, Pennsylvania:

The morning following our return from Niagara-on-the-Lake, I was off again traveling with some Returned Peace Corps Volunteers down to Shawnee, Pennsylvania for the Peace Corps Connect conference. Peace Corps Connect appeals to those Returned Volunteers who know, miss, and want to feel again the comfort of their Peace Corps family. It doesn’t matter in which country people served or in what decade, those who attend the conference care about Peace Corps and the amazing impacts it makes. Some RPCVs finish service and are finished with the Peace Corps. Others finish service and want to keep the missions of the Peace Corps in their lives forever. “Life is calling, how far will you go?” They keep going, around the world and back again, again and again.

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On the day of arrival at Peace Corps Connect, I went canoeing with a group of RPCVs. We were driven up river and dropped at a boat launch. The moment we stepped foot in our canoes and pushed onto the river, the sky opened up in a deluge upon us. But we just shrugged our shoulders, laughed and paddled, told stories, enjoyed the view. After a few minutes, the rain stopped, the sun came out, and we all had to pause to appreciate the beauty, to reflect on the reflections of trees, clouds, blue sky, and ourselves in our canoes leaving subtle trails on the surface of the water behind us.

Over the course of the weekend, time seemed to slow down; I felt as though I walked on a ground level with those who surrounded me; a certain understanding pervaded the rooms; the warmth of coming home was blowing on the breeze.

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Once the conference ended, I was also able to visit the nearby Bushkill Falls to go hiking with some fellow RPCVs. It was great to get out, hike around, and visit 8 different waterfalls… And now I’ve just returned from Shawnee a few days ago! September is pretty much here, autumn, then winter. I haven’t had a winter or fall for three years now, so I am very excited.

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Other happenings…

Baby shower:
The week after returning from my travels in East Africa and France, my brother and sister-in-law came to town for the baby shower. The baby is due September 6th – so any time really – and they are waiting to see for themselves if it is a boy or girl, which I love.

Another tragedy:
That same week of celebrating new life, the same day of the baby shower, I received news that a friend from the Peace Corps had committed suicide. He returned the year before I finished, and so was here in the States, not in Tanzania. I was once again reminded that you never know what tomorrow may bring, so it’s wisest to love every moment of today. And that people are fragile, that that’s okay, and that we need to more frequently say and mean the words I love you.

“I don’t think people have demons, I think they have themselves and things they aren’t ready to be honest about yet. It is not easy to come to grips with the fact that we’re capable of hurting people with the same instrument we love them with. The heart is a hungry wolf and it is made of glass.” -King Longton

Kittens:
Also the week after returning from my travels, and the day after getting that sad news, I was adopted by two kittens, sisters, who I’ve named Harriet (Harri for short because she has hairy ears and toes and tail) and Adele. I was chatting on the phone outside, sitting beneath a tree when they walked right over to me from the bushes. They started climbing all over me, purring like fiends, and fell asleep in my lap.

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I thought it was meant to be. Throughout service I resisted taking in a cat, even though one would have been a great comfort, great solace, at many different points during my three years. I was tired of resisting. I needed some furry friends in that moment – both following the news about my friend, and as I continued to absorb the overwhelming cultural shifts. Luckily I convinced my parents to take them in, and they’ve been with us since, growing into the sweetest little ladies.

Part-time work:
I’ve arranged a part time job for myself at the YMCA’s after school program, so I’ll be working with elementary and middle school kids for a few hours each day starting next week! I’m looking forward to a both fun and creatively challenging job that will give my life a bit of structure as I think about my next steps.

Upcoming trip to DC:
Besides work, I’ll also be taking a trip down to DC and beyond for another Returned Peace Corps Volunteer career conference, informational interviews with various organizations, and to visit some friends in the area while I’m at it.


Overall, I think I’m transitioning well. I was ready to complete my service and my time in Tanzania, was ready to leave East Africa by the end of my travels, and have been keeping myself very busy visiting good friends, meeting good people, seeing beautiful places, and spending quality time with my parents – and all the cats. I also feel productive in that I am working towards discovering whatever my next step may be, and will soon have some structure (and money flow) with my part time job.

Plus, I have support. I have my people, my community, my family, because I know how important it can be… Friends still in Tanzania, friends spread across the States, friends here at home: they are all my family, and I don’t know what or where I’d be without them.

“Family isn’t always blood, it’s the people in your life who want you in theirs: the ones who accept you for who you are, the ones who would do anything to see you smile, and who love you no matter what.”
-Unknown

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Glorious Gombe, A Few Goodbyes – 8 April 2018

Hiking, swimming, luxury tent, wildlife watching, rain and sun, storms and blue skies, camping food, a place of significant scientific history, and of course chimpanzees / sokwemtu – 48 hours felt like a full week!

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Leaving Kigoma, I had beautiful weather – sunny but still cool. The ride was gorgeous, breezy, and calm. When I arrived at the dock with the National Park sign, I met my guide, Isaya, who has worked in Gombe for 9 years. I then decided on my lodging, splurging to stay in one of the luxury tents – the farthest one in the line along the beach away from the main guesthouse, kitchen, and offices (away from the other humans).

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After some food and baboon watching by the lake, Isaya and I set off down the beach. The goals for the afternoon: 1) try our luck finding a group of chimps that may or may not be findable, 2) climb Jane’s Peak, 3) go to the nearby Kasekela Waterfall – “Jane’s sacred place” or so Anton told me, and 4) visit the feeding station where a great many observations of the chimps were made throughout the years.

Who is Anton? The head baboon researcher at Gombe who started working with Jane Goodall in 1971 – an older British man who was quite a joy to speak with. After leaving the beach and before heading off into the forest, we stopped by Jane’s house, where Anton is staying and doing his research right now. We chatted for about 10 minutes, and then were on our way, to catch up with Anton later.

The hiking is difficult in Gombe, especially the area Northeast of the camp where we spent that first afternoon. Up up up, down down down, steep trails in every direction. I was soon sweating in the humid sun, but thoroughly enjoying the physical exertion.

Soon enough, and with unbelievable good luck, we found a group of chimps at the top of a hill we’d climbed! We watched for about 5 minutes, surgical masks over our faces (to protect the chimps from human illness), the sun shining, the chimps shaded beneath the trees. The two youngest were playing, hitting each other and others in the group, and then bounding away, hanging and twirling in the trees, wearing the biggest grins I’ve ever seen. The faces of the younger chimps – such a light tan, the color of the rocks in the Gombe streambeds – seemed almost unreal.

Soon the group was off down the hillside and we did our best to follow. The slopes off trail and down to the rivers are STEEP – like 80 degree angle steep. Plus, climbing down through branches, between vines, past thorns is slow going for humans! We caught up eventually and started to watch the group again.

Suddenly the sun slipped behind some rather dense clouds and it became quite dark. Then a storm rolled in. It started raining and thunder rumbled, echoing through the hills. An interesting thing that male chimps do when it rains and/or storms is their “rain dance” – actually what it is called, a display of strength, they race and jump around, grab and tear at branches and vines, hit trees and the ground, throw big rocks, and break things in general. Some think this is to make the rest of the group feel protected when the thunder rolls, but who knows for sure…

As the rains really started, the older female, Gremlin, made her way over towards us to sit beneath the thick branches of some low trees/bushes. Then the male in the group, Gimli, about 17 or so, started his rain dance. When “dancing” the males usually circle around their group, traveling the perimeter. Well, we were right next to Gremlin, so Gimli started his way up the hill in our direction eventually.

While we tried to scramble up and out of the way, the now very muddy and slippery slope was exhausting to navigate, and we had no choice but to stand our ground. Isaya told me to grab a sturdy root and hold on in case Gimli wanted to grab my leg and shake me like a vine/tree branch. Then he positioned himself between me and Gimli, sheltering me from the crazed chimp. Luckily that time nothing happened, Gimli passed by a few feet away and went to go beat on some actual vegetation.

As he continued further away, we continued trying to scramble up the slope. We didn’t get far however before he had made his rounds and was back again. This time I held onto a sturdy tree, and Isaya, just below me was on guard. Gimli came right up this time and smacked Isaya on the leg. He then went to grab Isaya’s leg to shake like a vine, but Isaya was too quick and delivered a solid kick to Gimli’s ribs. After falling back, Gimli bounded off down the hill as if Isaya’s kick had given him even more energy. Crash, bang, boom – rocks were thrown, trees shook, and we scrambled further up the hill. The rains soon ceased, and Gimli calmed down, much to my relief.

Apparently then it was time to hunt some monkey! In the trees above us there were some Red Colobus monkeys. Gremlin and Gimli climbed up slowly into the branches to observe the group. There was a baby among them, the target, and Gimli made a half-hearted attempt to grab it at one point, but soon gave up and just sat on a branch. Gremlin moved off, and we went downhill to reach a narrow trail near the streambed below.

We thought the show was over for the day and started away on the trail once we reached it, but immediately a younger female, Gaya, and her 2-year-old along with 7-year-old Google, hopped onto the trail with us. The started walking up the path towards us, and we did our best to get out of the way. Due to the fact that the trail was about two feet wide, and the slope below and above it basically like a wall, we only got about a foot off the trail, and the group of three passed by within inches. As they passed, the two-year-old, riding on Gaya’s back, calmly looked up and into my eyes…

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They settled onto the root of a tree just beside the path, then the young one started playing. He would hang from the tree by one arm, twirling back and forth, bouncing off the trunk, flopping upside down, hanging and twirling some more… He also went to cuddle with Gaya and she sorted through his hair, grooming. Google was also around, a bit more adventurous, up and down in the trees.

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Eventually, they saw Gimli making moves, and started back down the trail towards us. We got off the trail as best we could, and they passed by again nearly touching us. The 2-year-old ran and climbed up on Gaya’s back again, then another mother with baby joined from the forest, then one other female, Google trailing behind, Gimli in the lead… The last image of them: all 7 walking gracefully and slowly in a line away from us down the trail, the late afternoon sun shining perfectly down on their backs as they disappeared into the forest. Wow.

After that adventure, Isaya and I spent a good while climbing out of the valley to a trail above. We made it out of the brush along a stream coming from a little waterfall, then worked our way around and up to eventually reach Jane’s Peak. In that spot, she was first able to observe the chimps and their movements, and she first saw a chimp, Graybeard, eat meat (a monkey he had caught and brought into a tree to share with a female way back in the early 60s). It really was a great vantage point, and beautiful looking down into Kasekela Valley, and up at the rolling hills above, storm clouds building… time to go.

We made it down into the forest before it started pouring again. The thunder was louder than the storm earlier in the day, and I imagined Gimli at work. Hiking through those trees in the rain was beautiful, though rather slippery on the steep slopes. We made our way down to the waterfall eventually, which is about 25 meters tall, a narrow falls coming from a small opening in the cliffs above – quite a green and peaceful alcove for those pounding waters.

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After enjoying this spot, we started off on flatter ground through the forest and along the beautiful rocky stream to arrive at the old feeding station where the chimps were given bananas back in the day. Researchers made it more and more difficult for the chimps to get the bananas, and learned a great deal observing the different strategies different chimps used to get their sweet treat – figuring out latch systems, or faking out/distracting other chimps to get a banana for them selves.

That ended our action-packed afternoon! I took an ice cold shower in my fancy tent, cooked some dinner of rice pasta and baked beans (with hot sauce that was way too spicy – cleared out my sinuses!), and then fell asleep at about 8:30pm, listening to the waves wash up on the shore of Lake Tanganyika.

Day 2 began with rumbling thunder and rain. I made and ate my breakfast of oatmeal, then digested as the rain stopped, watching baboons again on the beach – so many of them! At one point as I looked off down the beach at the distant mountains along the water (Burundi way to the North), Anton came pealing around a curve in the beach about 150 yards away.

He was following three noisy baboons specifically, one male fighting another to reclaim a female, documenting with his camera. “Nasty business,” he said with his British accent as he reached where I was standing – click click click of his camera. The one male succeeded in reclaiming the female, mounting her frequently to emphasize the point. Anton and I chatted for a bit, but then it was time to head back into the forest to look for more chimps!

Isaya and I spent the morning searching in the same general area as the previous afternoon, but with no luck. It rained some more as we walked, and I was able to enjoy the glistening green leaves of the trees and bushes tipping as raindrops fell. I also totally zoned out to the deafening sound of cicadas, my senses succumbing to their shrillness…

After returning to camp for some food and more water, we set off to the South along a trail that followed the shoreline to search an area about 90 minutes away where another group of chimps live. It wasn’t raining when we left and we enjoyed the dark forest of wild mango trees, and palm nut trees, and trees with great buttress roots, etc. We nearly stepped on many “rivers” of ants – yuck – and a few vine snakes, deadly poisonous – yikes. Also found some blossoming aloe vera plants though!

We walked and walked, climbing back into the hills, and then heard a few chimp hoots. Soon Isaya spotted one chimp through a window of leaves, sitting in a tree. Then we saw others as well, all huddled on their branches. We watched, it started to sprinkle a bit, and they soon made their way down the tree trunks into the valley.

It then promptly started pouring. We thought we may be able to find them again, but the slopes were far too steep and dangerously slippery with the mud, so we simply started back to camp. I was not disappointed – any view of the sokwemtu, even from afar, was magical in my book.

When we returned to camp, I requested some hot water for a bath, and then went swimming in the rain. The thunder was far off, so I enjoyed myself, watching the dark gray clouds wrapping the hills, and the way the raindrops hit the surface of the lake… When my hot water came, I took a nice long bath, dressed warmly, and then cooked some more rice noodles with baked beans.

After that I returned to my tent to sit on my bed and look out at the water as the light of the day faded. The rain slowed. I drank some red wine from the plane, had some chocolate, and read my kindle until my eyes could no longer stay open. Then I once again fell asleep to the peaceful water washing up on shore.

In the morning, I awoke to the hoots of baboons on the beach. It was a relaxing morning of oatmeal, reading, and watching the lake. Anton passed as I was leaving my tent with my bags, and we said farewell. Then I was in the boat and on my way back to Kigoma. It rained as I departed, shrouding the hills in beautiful shades and tints of gray. All-encompassing nature – the sights and sounds, the smells: so peaceful. It was an exhilarating, but such a relaxing adventure for me – 48 hours I will never forget.

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I enjoyed my evening in Kigoma when I returned with an old friend from my village who there. We grabbed some dinner and reminisced. The following morning, I left my hotel at 4:30am to get to the bus stand and head to Mwanza, the city of boulders on Lake Victoria. The ride was long. 9 out of 12 hours were on dirt/mud roads. And my seatmate was a mother with 4 children – don’t ask how that works… I don’t have an answer. But we made it eventually, the ride ending on a ferry across part of the lake.

I spent the next two days wandering the city, eating good food (especially the fresh tilapia), hanging out in coffee shops writing and reading. I also wandered down to the boulders by the well-known Bismarck Rock – the city’s icon – where I met a family of three who were taking pictures and of course wanted a few with me because I’m famous didn’t you know. There were quite a few lake birds around: Marabou Storks (they are massive!), Black Kites, and the lovely little Pied Kingfishers.

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I flew back to Dar last Monday. My week of adventure felt like a full month, the worries of work forgotten, my mind revitalized. This past week, while back at the office, was lovely. Some of my best friends closed their service, and we spent some quality time together, though not enough, never enough, in my opinion.

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At least this time after saying goodbye to my friends, I will soon be following them! I have about one month left of my own service, and then I will head out
for two months of travel. These next four weeks will fly by…

Words, Quotes, Sentences, and Mystery – 5 March 2018

“You can’t stop time. You can’t capture light. You can only turn your face up and let it rain down.” – Kim Edwards (The Memory Keeper’s Daughter)

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Things have been busy, and my mind as of late has been in a million places at once. That’s the joy of being at pre-service training, of being at the end of my service, of being in the few months leading up to great adventures and great unknowns… What to do? Embrace it, turn my face to the sky, see it all as it passes, feel it from skin to soul.

“Everything changed the day she figured out there was exactly enough time for the important things in her life.” – Brian Andreas

Deep breaths, day by day, embrace the ups and downs, embrace the others who also feel them, and recognize that all important things will come to pass with a little more patience and a little less worry.

I’ve also felt of late like a feather blown between worlds, and between lives, to observe the different corners of human experience. People can see their corners in so many ways, with varying levels of optimism. Some face their corners, see the intricacies, the cracks in the surface, the play of shadows. Others look out from their corners, see the world from their specific perspective, whatever that may be.

At times you are led away from yourself, and while that can be a valuable thing, and others appreciate your willingness to see from their perspective, it can take some work to find the ground again. I’ve been working to find my ground, to feel like myself again. Luckily, I know the things that can bring me there.

“It’s worth making time to find the things that really stir your soul. That’s what makes you really feel alive.” – Roy T. Bennett

So what have I been up to this past week? (Besides regular work at the office…) Puzzles and music, and also reading and writing. Whenever I am able to look at some of my favorite quotes and passages written through the ages, and to look back at the words I have written as well, I feel a better sense of myself in the world.

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I just finished reading The Master by Colm Toibin – a fictional account of the life and relationships of the writer Henry James. At the end of the book, Henry James is talking about the next stories he wishes to write. He explains the basic plots, and is then asked what the moral of the stories will be. I loved the response:

“The moral is… that life is a mystery and that only sentences are beautiful.”

Of all the art forms I think I appreciate words the most. Words can weave worlds, and every world weaved is different in the imagination of every individual. That is magic. That is mystery. That is what stirs my soul. That is what I find most important in life. That is what I feel when I turn my face up and let it rain down…

Contemplating the Yin and the Yang – 18 February 2018

This world is a big place, and it is full of both beauty and darkness; love and hatred; peace and violence. I believe if there is a benevolent balance of light and dark we’re doing okay. I also believe the Ubuntu principle that people are only people through other people. We would not be who we are without those others around us who shape our day-to-day, our lives, and therefore our selves.

But sometimes it feels as if the balance is heavily skewed, that life itself is swathed in a black sheet, and the lightness barely shimmers as minute faraway stars boldly resisting total domination.

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Humanity can be so beautiful. The simple love in the eyes of a Mother as she watches her son playing on his own, lost in imagination. The sense of gratitude that ripples through the air when a stranger says hello with a smile to a homeless woman sitting in the street – because we’re never really alone. The look of recognition, of deep down knowing, that passes between friends as they watch the sunset from the balcony of a high rise, in solitude together in the middle of the masses, where the world feels small.

We wouldn’t be able to make it through life without others there by our side – family, friends, strangers: we are all connected and we all need each other.

But humanity can also bring such devastation – devastation to the environment, devastation to other human beings, devastation to our individual hearts… Sometimes we forget the beauty that is there every day because humanity can be truly horrific. And I hate that the horrors have the tendency to more heavily shape our societies and our cultures. That’s only natural, though.

People are only people through other people – that will always be true. It’s just sad when humanity has the power to bury itself.

This is why generation after generation of people escape to the wilderness. There is no good or evil there. There is only life and death – a much simpler matter. Humans were once a part of the wilderness – but then we weren’t. We made life more and more complex as our brains became things that can both believe in beauty and harbor hate.

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And now so many of us walk the earth without feeling it beneath our feet. We are wrapped up in the dramas of humanity, and we forget our own scale. We think we matter so much, and that lack of humility causes the benevolent balance between beauty and darkness, love and hatred, peace and violence to sometimes only exist just beyond our reach.

Love can be extraordinarily complicated. But it can also be the simplest and most beautiful thing when we forget the necessity of angst, of anger, of hate, and of the self-doubt that inevitably sits at the core of all of those feelings…

Humanity doesn’t have to bury itself in its own imbalances. We need to recognize our own magnitude, or lack thereof, and understand humility – our own insignificance. All men and women are created equal, and we are all just small specks in this world. We must unleash and focus on the simple acts and feelings of love that exist between people in those moments when we realize that we are only ourselves because of those surrounding us.

We have a choice: we can be who we are because of the destruction that others may bring to our lives, or we can be who we are because we forever feel that thread of connection that runs through each and every one of us, tugging on our hearts, bringing us together…

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Just a few thoughts as violence and hate still run rampant in our world. Some days I can’t handle the disgust I feel towards other human beings. But then I remember that life can be unbearably short, and you never know what tomorrow may bring. Why waste the minutes of our lives in anger towards those who think of themselves as gods and lack the ability to realize that their hatred is unnecessary?

I’m certainly not a Saint, though, and still at times wish I could stick a pin in the inflated egos of all those who aggressively forget their scale.

In other news, I’ve been swept away into the whirlwind that is Pre-Service Training (PST). I don’t know which is easier/preferable: being one of the many swept away into the uncertainties and anxieties of training, or being one of the few trying to direct that whirlwind for the others – the trainees… Certainly interesting either way!

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The trainees arrived on the 7th, and we spent a solid week and a half together, which felt like a month 🙂 At both training centers – in Dar and in Morogoro – they were of course full of excellent questions that allowed me to reflect on aspects of my own service that I haven’t thought about for quite some time.

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They are now living with their homestay families. It was so fun to see them meet their new family members – awkward handholding (cultural), uncertain/failed attempts at communication, and smiles all around… Then they were off to their homes for the next few months – the true beginning of PST. I think they’re all ready for the challenge… And I am ready for challenge of being a PCVL at PST: leader, mentor, all-knowing, ever-optimistic but still realistic, and still a volunteer after all…

Wonderful Whirlwinds – 21 January 2018

The holidays have come and gone, and somehow it’s nearing the end of January already – 2018. Kumbe. The office prior to the holidays was wonderfully calm and peaceful, and I was able to get a good amount of work done. People slowly filtered out for their own vacations, and then I too had my final day before a three-week break.

Christmas in Dar was a blast. A good crew arrived to stay at my house. We watched the sun beat down outside while making food, listening to music, and watching Christmas movies in the blessedly functioning AC. I even made a Christmas tree out of paper, because why not.

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Mimosas with brunch, a chat with the fam, Secret Santa, a Harry Potter movie marathon, homemade gnocchi, and the excitement of a trip to Madagascar made Christmas Day extra special. And then we were off! Up up and away to an island I only thought I’d be able to visit in my dreams.

We started the trip really well: getting stopped by police on our way to the airport for putting five in the uber when there were only four passenger seats, but then paying a little bribe to get off the hook. Can’t blame the cops for their corruption… doing paperwork for a driver’s fine made payable to the government versus getting a little pocket change without any additional work – sometimes people just want a Christmas bonus.

Before we knew it, we were through security and awaiting our departure over exorbitantly priced airport cappuccinos. Cheers. And then a hop to Nairobi, and a hop to Antananarivo. We did not get the plague. We did get giardia, or something quite similar. We did not get stuck in the cyclone. We did have to reroute our trip and even then made it back to Tana as roads were flooding behind us.

Some of the highlights:
Fancy French food for sooooo cheap, rainforest bungalow, women in shorts, rice paddies on rice paddies on rice paddies, cries of the Indri, gay lemur sex, lemurs on our heads, crocs way too close, chameleons, pousse pousse cruisin’, excellent local live music, bountiful breakfasts with real coffee, a full day of transforming landscape, the ugliest ocean coastline, heat and humidity worse than Dar, frisbee on white sand, pool play, bulbous baobabs, more lemurs just a few feet away, sleepy lemurs, extremely curious lemurs, baobabs at sunset as a full moon rises, New Year’s with mock pina coladas a bit of drumming and cheek kissing, 4am brousse, sick friendis, yummy food and hat shopping, volcanic lakes, swimming to flying fox cave, attempted rock climbing from the water, change of plans, private cars, visit to cute French abode in a village by a lake, stormy hike through teletubian landscapes to powerful waterfalls, hocho mofos, stormy night with stormy dreams, passing through flooded roads and rivers that were once rice paddies, lemur island with ringtails, dance party in a mansion of a room, Tana walkaround, more fancy French food, spending every last Ariary, traffic, traffic, traffic, mad dashes in the airport(s), back to Dar and cockroach carcasses, but umeme upo…

I took the rest of the week off after our return – a good idea to plan a vaca from the vaca. It was an excellent adventure with some excellent friends, and such a good break from Tanzania (and Peace Corps even). Then it was COS conference time!

It was a pleasure to help out at the 2016 Health/Ag close of service conference – I was able to spend some quality time with my adopted class at a very nice beach resort. I helped to organize and lead a few things, but also took advantage of a second time through the info I’ll need when May comes around – May and beyond.

The beach was beautiful, the pool refreshing, the company unbeatable. Then the week concluded with a hard night of dancing – 3.5 hours nonstop – and a movie the following day – The Shape of Water.

Next week will be spent at the office organizing things for the TOT (training of trainers) and PST (pre-service training) – the final training events I’ll work before the end of my time here. Things are indeed wrapping up, and just a little less than four months down the road, I will be outta here.

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Life talks, mountain hikes, and alligator pears: ‘tis the season – 21 Nov 2017

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I wrote a letter to a few friends today and realized that it’s getting to be the holiday season, though it doesn’t feel like it here in hot and sweaty Dar es Salaam. But while the weather won’t bring the sentiments of the season, time with my close friends/Peace Corps family certainly will.

I’ll spend Thanksgiving on Zanzibar with the few friends from my training class who remain in country. Then I’ll spend Christmas with friends from my adopted training class here in Dar – a cozy couple of days filled with delicious meals, baking, movie marathons, peppermint patty shots, dance parties, and lots of laughs. Together with three of those friends, I’ll then go to welcome the New Year in Madagascar!

In my letter, I wrote a few things I’m thankful for. I think I’ll continue that list here, just for a bit…
-Large and solid glass windows
-Hot chocolate
-The sound and sight of beach grasses waving in the wind
-Incense
-Black on white
-White on black
-Thimbles of strong street coffee with a bite of kashata
-Inspiration
-Hula hoops
– The ingenuity of airplanes
-“Howl”
-The stars when it’s time for the moon to take a step back
-The moon when it’s time for it to shine greater than the stars
-Quiet and solitary Sundays
-Creative liberties
-Rain and sun
-The inside and the outside
-The deepening of friendships
-Music
-Feeling
-Ubuntu
-The flight of birds
and
-Alligator pears – aka avocados!

…The alligator pears are what started this all… I wrote the letter mentioned above on a postcard with the painting Alligator Pears in a Basket by Georgia O’Keeffe on it. The painting looks more like a couple of blueberries encircled by a black ribbon to me. But I know how Ms. O’Keeffe loved to paint flowers and they actually look like vaginas, so I can’t say I’m surprised, and will simply change the focus of my imagination to humor her. (And then will let it run wild again to see the blueberries…)

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Anyway, how about some pictures of my own! I recently traveled for about one week to do four site visits up North – beautiful, expansive country that I had the privilege of seeing from way up high in the Pare Mountains. I was able to follow up on project progress after the bees and chickens training conducted back in August, attend an HIV/AIDS education event at a secondary school (118 students attended!), meet some awesome teachers and Counterparts of Volunteers, hike hike hike, and have some excellent discussions about life as a PCV – the decisions we make, the priorities we set, the strategies we use, the challenges and successes we have…

Here are a few pictures from my adventure:

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The Comoros Comparison – 21 Oct 2017

Calm and peaceful, black rock white sand, bananas/cassava/bread fruit/soursop, big ol’ bats, bonjour/ca va, Swahili!, warm ocean waters, tiny nation, HOT, houses of painted cement/warn cement/wood/iron sheets, kebabs with spicy chili sauce, electricity, running water, narrow but paved roads, community libraries, spiced fish, mosques, calls to prayer, trash trash trash, slow goin…

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Grande Camore, the largest of the Comoros Islands (a set of volcanic islands between TZ and Madagascar). I went for a Peace Corps workshop on Information Resource Centers and Library Development, which was extremely well organized, informative, and had us doing some good projects and action planning – hats off to the organizers and facilitators from HQ.

Not only did I have the opportunity to walk around and explore during the week of the workshop, I also stayed for the weekend following. Saturday held an ocean adventure – a boat ride to a calm and beautiful beach, and then a real ride back as the winds grew strong and threw massive waves at us to climb and fly over (so much fun!).

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Sunday was filled with non-stop walking – to the market, to the downtown Medina streets, to the other side of town, to old mosques, to the wood carvers and boat makers, and along the coast to a delicious sunset dinner and mojito with the freshest mint I’ve had in a while.

There are quite a few similarities between life in Tanzania (especially coastal TZ) and life in Moroni and the Comoros in general. There are also some pretty extreme differences… The Comoros are at least a few years behind TZ in terms of development, although they now have electricity, and there is running water in a lot of places, and some of the roads are paved (though often quite narrow).

There is no corn, and very few people grow beans – a big difference from TZ. They import rice, and grow bananas, cassava, breadfruit, and sweet potatoes (not the orange kind Americans are used to). Goats are common, and a few people have chickens, but a lot of meat and eggs are also imported.

Another similarity is they also have mishkaki/kebabs, and homemade chili sauce, although theirs is much spicier than in TZ. Speaking of spices, they use them! more than just salt or sugar, and their fish curries and spiced fish are delicious meals… They also make extremely flavorful juice out of soursop – mmmmmmmm.

Comorans speak a mixture of French, Arabic, and their local languages – for Grande Camore that’s Shingazidja. Surprisingly, there are a lot of Swahili words mixed in there!

The schools are pretty nice, and community libraries are actually present – that is not so much the case in TZ.

The houses are this interesting collage of painted concrete, fading concrete with the shade of black volcanic rock showing through, wood, and shacks made entirely of sheet metal.

Pollution is an issue in many developing countries, and I’ll never get over how people just throw trash out the bus windows and into the fields and down on the streets here in TZ. The issue is even worse in the Comoros – there is trash everywhere, and there is trash burning everywhere, and it is a somewhat startling contrast to the lush tropical vegetation and flowers.

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The trash doesn’t stop the fruit bats from flying, though. The flying fox/fruit bat species are huge in the Comoros, even bigger than here in Dar. And apparently on one of the islands, there is one species that can have a wingspan of about one and a half meters! Terrifying… but also pretty cool.

All in all it was a very relaxing visit – the low-key, slow goin way of life there certainly helped with that. It is important to embrace the fact that no one is going anywhere fast; it’s best to simply stop to smell the ylang ylang, feel the slight ocean breeze, and look out along the coastlines of white sands mixed with black and rugged volcanic rock (and trash).

Unfortunately, the journey back was taxing…
-I stood in the slowest moving airport lines I have ever experienced
-My flight was changed to involve a trip down to Antananarivo before retracing our path to Nairobi to then retrace the path again back down to Dar (see the map below)
-After boarding our flight was delayed because they accidently loaded “dangerous cargo” aboard (?!)
-We took longer than expected in Tana so I then had to run to make the change in Nairobi
-When I arrived in Dar at long last (2am) the taxi my office arranged for me was a no-show
-The taxi driver I was able to get from the airport of course tried flirting with me so I made up a story about my imaginary husband who was waiting for me at home and proceeded to invent quite the back story for him despite the creative struggle it was for my tired mind…

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The little dot of land along the green line above Dzaoudzi is Grande Camore. We went along that green line South to Tana, then followed the green line up to Nairobi passing directly over Dar, such a tease, and then yes returned along that green line to Dar… I took this pic just as we were landing in Nairobi and thought the route was just too ridiculous not to take a picture…

At least there were good views as we took off from Moroni… of the volcano and the coast line…

And I made it home eventually, safe and sound, then showered off the hours of sweat and slept hard.