seek and find

Saturday, December 27, 2008


23 december 2008
One of my most prized reasons for joining the US Peace Corps was to find an appreciation for America, the appreciation my parents feel and the appreciation my Grandfather and Great Uncles fought for – pride in our country, in our Constitution, in us as the American People.
Because my generation has nothing to be proud of, we have no movement in which we conceived, ignited or participated, we have no drive to better the whole, only the individual. We’ll live on the street as long as we’re carrying an iPhone and an UsWeekly. Many don’t vote because we know “it just won’t matter anyway.” Many reiterate just what the newscasters spout and we wear tie-dye and drive VWs and listen to the StringCheeseIncident on our way to the bank where we have an account that has nothing to do with us, but our parents, whom we never thank.
Coming from a liberal school amongst a very conservative, very loud state, my thoughts were these: if I leave this lucky life of mine, filled with parental pampering and luck that seemingly won’t run out, with Whole Foods just around the corner and a flare for fashion, a government that has nothing to do with the people and a general sense of American stupidity reigning true and I go and move to a developing, 3rd world country, where, even if you are able to read and write, you cannot speak or put to paper sentiment such as this, if I go and have to eat with my hands and poop into a hole and live without electricity or communication or ease of any kind, I’ll probably come back and think America is the best.
Although many of those statements are factual, they are not the reason, as of yet, that I am prouder than ever to be an American.
Megan and Dan invited me to Segu, a slightly northern city with lots of culture, for Christmas, Pilli’s 27th and New Years. The three of us had been inseparable during training and the two of them were able to see each other, spend holidays and weekends together, while I was thrust out into the abyss of Western Mali. Although many of our friends have it much worse than us, for example, Dan and Cahill were both evacuated from their regions due Touraeg rebel attacks, the three of us suffered severe separation anxiety – mine consisting of the fear that I’d be totally left out of our little group after 3 months of solitude and theirs being a fear that I’d loose my mind out there in the bush. Lucky for me, we were all a little right and all a bit wrong.
I decided to take the early bus, set to leave Kita at 2 am, and make it from Bamako to Segu by 4pm the same day. 4 hours after our scheduled departure we finally left Kita on our way to Bamako. On the way we hit a donkey and a dog and had to rouse an elderly dugutigi (village chief) and formally apologize for both. Finally, upon arrival in Bamako, and literally just as we were deboarding, a woman vomited and it splashed all over my feet and legs. With the exception of the slaying of the donkey, a true tragedy in this country, everything else went just about right.
I bought my ticket, and with an accidental 4 hour layover in Bamako, found myself sitting amongst other travelers. Everyone at the bus station was black, and although there was a bit of shock and awe when I came, sat down and went through the traditional greetings, I was sort of hushed and their eyes went from my face to just above my hair. All eyes were fixed on the 8in TV set mounted just above my head. The current tv show was a special on Giant Lizards and the Women Who Love Them. Its hilarious to see their reactions to the gilamonsters feasting upon a horse-sized deer, blood and meat and grunts everywhere. Big eyed, drop jawed and breathing heavy, they watch as the French woman kisses the still bloody scales of her favorite’s head – a 7ft, 280lb lizard named Saul.
This is yet another reason for why, when called Toubabu (translation: Frenchman) I clarify that I’m from the USA and with that single, seemingly simple remark, we cover any number of traits, including the fact that I am a proud representative of the United States of America, that I am culturally sensitive to these people and that WE DO NOT KISS GIANT LIZARDS.
I immediately made friends and just as a rat the size of a large cat ran over a pile of rice sacks and near a very large trash pile smoldering with its soon to be firey destruction, the bloody, scale-ridden kiss fresh on our minds, we sat around and dished about just how disgusting the French can be and reiterating just how awesome America is.

pity party for one... please

Four hours of waiting went pretty fast. I found a lady who served rice with peanut butter sauce and pumpkin and after filling my belly for less than $0.45, I went in search of some potable water in the shithole that is Bamako.
There is a small group of folks who sit beneath umbrellas near the bus station, selling hibiscus juice, bananas, prepackaged and expired cookies, zippers, flip-flops, Sali-dagas and sacks of water. I quickly made the right friends with the woman vending and the man observing and bought a chilled sachet of water. They giggled and grinned as I sleepily stumbled through thank yous and farewells.
Just a few hours later, the bus now 3 hours late, I returned for two more, sensing the smog and smut that fills the Bamako air penetrating my lungs and drying my mouth. Maybe it was pity, maybe it was appreciation for my continued business, maybe it was out of friendship, she threw in two bananas.
Although I’m almost positive the former to be the true reason behind her charity, I am forcing myself to believe it was a compilation of the three: pity, appreciation and friendship. Even though it is nice to believe that I’ve still got that infamous “I can make a friend anywhere” charm, it irks me to think that I am pitied by a woman, sweat-less in this 110F heat, sitting on an overturned egg-crate, barefooted and toothless, selling sacks – not even bottles – of water from a filthy ice chest.
It put some perspective on my day, to say the least. And in the end, it irked me more to know, deep down, that irked me at all.

I smell a conundrum… or it could just be the open sewer.

noel nostalgia

Santa Looks Good in a BouBou
Its funny, being this far from home and our family gatherings and traditionally overplayed holiday tunes and hot cocoa. But because it is so foreign here, in the political, social and natural climate, I could easily have glided through this holiday season with no remorse or regret or American nostalgia, but instead with an aire of forgetfulness. I’d had to have stayed in my village for an entire month and not spoken a word to Ryan or my family and have taken down my ever important calendars and maybe a picture or two, and truly disillusioned myself, allthewhile knowing that those acts, the acts of separation, would drive me crazy any time of year. And so, I did not fake it. I did not try to ignore these times of family and love and togetherness and instead embraced my sadness and sought out my friends here, my hand selected family, and we celebrated togetherness under the guise of Noel Nostalgia.
One thing that helps pass these times with little trouble is the lack of gusto, of tinsel and of singing snowmen at shop corners. For that matter, the lack of shops and corners and legitimate streets helps to dissolve any holiday memories provoked by visual stimuli. Also, it was 115F on Christmas Eve and there were multiple dirt-devils that forced cars off streets and random pedestrians into said cars. That same day, while in Colorado, Ryan and Fish sought out sledding spots and my parents cooked a roast at Sky’s house where he was busy prepping his puppies for -7F.
Its all relative.
The pads of Zoe’s toes would be gathering painful ice balls if it weren’t for Mama’s skilled memory, knowing that Vaseline between and on those old lady pads helps to keep them moist, unchapped and icefree. Daddy is surely trying to budget and figure out how to get a fireplace in the Salida house while Skylar is budgeting and attempting to go boarding as often as possible. Snowtires have been switched out and chains are sitting in the trunks, awaiting their annual call to duty.
Ryan is wearing his red stocking cap and his beard is warming his face while his scarf snuggles his neck. Bubba is cursing the snows effect on the roads but praisining its presence on the slopes. Biglow is probably taken to cleaning up the office and Wyatt is surely enjoying the frequent trips to the bakery and Zoe’s old spot by the fire.
The morning news is being watched, not for the politics or stories warning of the inherent dangers of apple sauce, but for weather updates, highs and lows, fronts and closures.
Although economics are playing the coal in the stocking role, they aren’t disjointing families, friends or ruddy cheeked smiles.
Even from the sun soaked Sahel, I can feel the internal, innate, invariable warmth and joy of the holiday season. So although you’re layering the longjohns and flannel and sweaters and I’m soaking in the spf50, we’re all in this universally tough but beautiful time of year together and apart.
Thank You to Megan Pilli, Daniel Dayton and Jon Burgess. Thank You to Ryan O’brien, LeeAnn O’brien, Mohanta, Bob and Skylar. Thank You to Janna Thornberry. Thank You to family and friends. Happy Holidays

Sunday, December 21, 2008

blues amongst the reds

as you can tell, the holiday season is inciting a lot of nostalgia.
i promise there will be more stories of life here in mali soon to come.
bear with me. bare with me? i need a thesaurus. and a dictionary.

happy holidays.

perfection in parental form

19 December 2008
Today is Mama and Daddy’s wedding anniversary. They have been together for 35+ years. They have created a beautiful family, one filled with trials, tribulations, troubles, trips and as each one came upon us and passed, that beautiful family became better, stronger, fuller and closer.
I hope they know that Skylar and I are fully aware of this, of their creating, their coupling, their perfection found in mistakes and honest attempts and our follies and continued trials.
They are the most perfect parents. They balance each other, they balance us.
The four of us are unstoppable. The Fantastic Four. I cannot wait for us to be together again.
Happy Anniversary. I love you guys.

day 2 of Tabaski, day 4 of the Flu and day 152 of missing you

9 december 2008
Today is day 2 of SeliBa (tabaski), day 4 of my Flu and day 152 of desperately missing home, family and ease.
This time last year my life was not easy, far from it. I was fighting to find my self, a struggle one man witnessed and saved me from later on. We’d beet meeting up for casual four hour strolls, flooded with life discussions, trying to truthfully and attractively present ourselves, both holding back inner beauty we were unaware of and both knowing something strange and familiar was there – how, where, when? I was curious but guarded, respectfully questioning him situationally and he was lovely in explaining the rumored “man-in-a-homemade-van-down-by-the-river” story that I had pieced together.
I remember a specific night, one of our first of coffee sips, warm ups and walks. He had just found out that his father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. I interrupted that phone call and felt guilty for weeks. That same night he walked me home, distant but trying and attentive; he didn’t come inside and I found myself bawling, sleeping on the floor with Zoe moments later, exhausted by love that I knew nothing about.
Questioning myself, both physically and in personality, my parents and friends, Joe and Janna especially, wondering what was up. The mood swings, the crazies, the late night calls. They were adding up to a Sydney that no one recognized, even myself. I found solace and comfort and mental strength in my walks with Zoe. Once, trekking across the Chaffee County Courthouse yard, bleached by 4 inches of fresh snow, colored slightly by the early rising sun, we carelessly came upon a beautiful buck who upon raising his majestic head spotted us and casually stared. All frozen in warm stares, Zoe calm, the buck quiet and me, breathing, alive, able. Upon his swift, graceful departure, leaving only slight snow tracks and memories behind, we returned to the town, walking along the river to the park. There, smiling, glowing, loving, I found Ryan and his then one year old son, ruddy cheeked, playing in the snow – flying in the snow. Precious. Perfect.
With the early morning sight and connection, I had found a bit of my old self. Bold, fearless, I told him I was making some stew and asked if he’d care to join me for dinner. December 12, 2007, we ate, we laughed, we drove, we walked, we gazed, we touched and we kissed. We fell in love. One night. After green chili stew, a meteor shower and an 11 hour date.
Life isn’t easy, anywhere. It sure as hell isn’t here. It wasn’t there, nor was it in Austin. But it is made easier, happier, clearer, as I continue to remind myself: breathe, live, be able. It is made easier, happier, clearer with him – with Ryan. I miss him. But because of his presence in my life, I found me.

so, i live where!?!

1. A formation was held by a traveling Malian dance troupe in my tiny little village. They were attempting to encourage people to heavily treat well water or get their butts together, throw in 100 cfa here and there (+/- $0.30) and purchase a second pump. It began long after nightfall, under a dark blue, white pin tipped sky, heat lightening in the northern distance and a dry, cool breeze coming from the south. The area that they set up was circular, large and well lighted by spotlights - a phenomenon that caught more attention than their elaborate props.
Suddenly, without provocation, a strong backed, jet black, big hair’d woman flung herself out from behind a hanging tarp, hand held drums came about next, her feet burning holes in the dirt, their hands slapping the taught animal hide drums, beat after beat and beat beat. Dust came up from her feet like a smoke signal, her back straight and horizontal to the ground, the hairs on my neck rising with every flail – purposeful and seemingly painful – of her long, strong arms, and then, the drums smacked and she froze.
2. While riding my bike to my market town to see my friend and teammate Liza Clark, I came upon quite a few locals on the road. It was about 9am on a weekday, so the red dirt road was heavily trafficked by kids, three to a fixed gear steal bike, headed to junior high school, by men with axes, shot guns and tobacco headed to the fields and shoddy motorcycles piled high with 80lb sacks of rice, peanuts or millet.

One of those I passed by, greeted and grinned at was my host father, in a fabulous bright pink, oversized boubou with matching pants and 3 cattle at the end of his handmade rope. Later down the road, passed innumerous peanut and millet fields, I came upon a bull-drawn cart, with three women sitting in the back, fully garbed in traditional Muslim conservative dress, a man with a cowboy hat and 1930’s blazer, worn from sun and age and Sahel, with his son sitting next to him, wearing a shirt that read “Arizona RazorBacks 2012 Presidental Nomination”.
Minus the misprinted shirt, you would assume they were on the set of some western film playing on the theme of settlers…
The US Embassy representative that spoke with us before swear in said that, for those of us who would be living in small villages especially, we would be trying to maintain our 21st century, American lifestyle amongst people who haven’t fully escaped the 7th. I now know what he meant.

3. After handful after glorious handful of rice/corn mush with gritty, gooey, goodie leaf sauce and topped off with meat-juice (my host family, you see, cannot afford to eat the meat, but they can afford to swipe the juice in which the meat was cooked… “witamini be” – it has vitamins), I find that, night after night, I recline and watch black faces, white teeth and darkness for eyes are magically lit up, for my personal enjoyment. Dabi, my 2 year old best friend and loved one and youngest host brother, climbs up, lays his back on my belly and together we gaze at the stars. I’ve recently been able to ascertain what it is that he sees – white and black, lifeless, nothing. He sits, coos, snuggles in and we talk about Ryan and Fisher, names he’s finally able to mouth, and he, before dozing off in my arms, our breath in sync and his giant belly gurgling, he says, in Bambara, “good night Sydney, good night Ryan and good night Fisher” and a tear falls and he is out.

We lay there, under what I see to be white, black, blue, red, life, everything and I think to myself, in English “good afternoon Ryan and Fisher and Mama and Daddy and Sky.”

Its times like these, truly traditional, truly foreign, where I realize that I live in a small, traditional West African village. Its times like these where the hairs on my neck stand up and my stomach turns and my smile grows and tears form and fall and are fantastic.
It is times like these, a view into the past, a vision for the future, a swell of complete comfort, home and love and I realize I live in a small, traditional West African village. How wonderful.

white christmas, yea right. i'll take a cloud... just one, please

With the holidays upon us, Ryan and my First Anniversary, Fisher’s 2nd birthday and my parents thirty-something-nth anniversary, this was a really tough stint. The language is sitting in, but some mornings, after waking up at 2am to donkeys and 4am to the urge to pee and 6am to the sheep and roosters and dog fights and children crying and women working and me coughing (the winds have brought about some pretty serious colds, flus and red-sand-colored ick), its nearly impossible to be focused on the lingual stylings of Brigo country here in Mali.
That is, of course, until, I find myself grinning into the perfect face of a week old baby goat. Prancing amongst dirt and chickens or pouncing upon nothing; being precious and perfect and, strangely, a reminder that we’re all innocent and vulnerable and capable.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

blog schmog, haketo (sorry in bambara)

i just spent three solid weeks in village. a bit of a test of my abilities, my patience and my budget. although i
succeeded, i found that at around day 17, i was rendered useless by my plateauing language skills, my plateaued
patience level and the god forsaken heat of so called Cold Season.

Cold Season has daily highs in the 120s and evening lows in the 60s. needless to say, we're all sick and grumpy.
this is compounded by bush fires, filling the air with suit, and the big breezes coming from the Sahel, combating,
mid-air, the suit with sand. i've never been sweatier, dirtier or drier in my life.

these days i'm drinking, easily, 7 liters of water a day; trying desperately to sleep through the night - thanks to
Vickers' books, i'm having to trouble falling asleep (currently i'm knee deep in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom); and
doing home repairs like nobody's business.

now my mud huts and i have a 1.5 inch cement barrier between us, one that not only makes me visually calmer, but also
cools them off during the day, thus making my home the sanctuary it should be; my gwa or hangar was raised 3 feet
by my friend Madu and i am no longer suffering from neck strains trying to get from one hut to the other; goats
sleep in my nygen at night because it heats up during the day to produce an overnight oven and they tend to keep
the bugs out... not sure how that works, but it does; i've got lizards living in my kitchen hut and subsequently
less bugs; all and all, things are nice at home.

as you can tell, three weeks renders my imagination and memory somewhat useless as well.

i promise i'll keep better tabs of the goings on in village for my next update. pictures should be up soon too.

happy holidays.

Friday, November 7, 2008

two front teeth, gold plated, with american dollar signs emblazed in platinum. thats all i want for christmas.

if there were to be a Christmas wish list this year it would be this:

a copy of Ryan's plane ticket confirmation
a few small Moleskin journals
a hug from Daddy and Mama
a few nice pens to script into said journals
a hug from LeeAnn and Ed O'brien
a few mixed tapes, maybe including Rilo Kiley, My Morning Jacket, Flaming Lips and some Wes Anderson film soundtracks
foot cream
a call from Brandon Taylor
happy books
old and new photographs in ziplock baggies
a letter from Janna Thornberry (hint)
a polaroid of Patrick McLaughin in all of his glory
a trip to Segu to be flagged constantly by my two best friends in country, Daniel Dayton and Megan Pilli, for 10 days
a realization that i'm 6 months into 26! woo hoo!
some bacon, bit form will do nicely
a nice picture of SeanBerg and Lauren McAuliffe (also a mailing address!)
a kiss from Ryan O'brien, just above a closedm smiling eyelid, always a favorite
nice flipflops
full knowledge of Bambara
a new head lamp
a picture of Zoe, Tuk, Wyatt and Fisher, an ensemble of lovely and proportional sorts
letters from the kids in Austin... oh how i miss you all
a hug from Daddy and Mama
a long long talk with Skylar about politics and life and love and goodness and trouble and puppies and everything. he's a good one to do this with.
a notice of Ginny Sednek's continued health improvement
an email from Katie Fay concerning the newest addition in San Francisco and and Oma and Laila update
a used baseball cap to cover my slowly growing hair which is sitting in a rather awkward stage right now
an update from Dale and Sadie
an eta from Brandon Taylor

love you all

*essentially, goodness via mail*

i ni ce kosobe

thanksgiving is on the horizon, just three weeks away and i'm feeling its looming presence. thanksgiving in the Schalit household has always been a really lovely time of year. i can only recall a few where Daddy wasn't present and fewer still where we didn't trek to Ft. Worth to see Uncle Joe and the Hart side of our family. its tough being here, missing the family and the friends and the FOOD and the love and the goodness and the conversations and the hugs and the football and the naps and the true loyalty reverberated throughout all aforementioned aspects. this time last year i met ryan and fell in love. this time 2 years ago i was unconscious through most of it due to my Vespa wreck and subsequent injuries. this time 10 years ago Aunt Diane was brightening everyones lives and eyes with buffont hairdo's, purple eye shadow and wicked nails.

this thanksgiving will be spent in village, most likely with my immediate and fantastic teammate Liza Clark (known locally as Awa). we've planned to purchase a guinea fowl and have a friend slay and clean it for us. Aunt Tootsie has generously sent more than enough spices, dried veggies and potatoes to last Awa and myself for days with leftovers. my recent purchase of a solar oven will hopefully produce some cookies or maybe a pie if we can find the right fruits.

needless to say, it will be a tough year for this holiday, but will always be filled with reminiscent thoughts of good family, friends and food. lucky for me, i've recently come across the concept that "Heaven is Gratitude Itself" and i do believe that this W. Blake quote will serve me well this year.

i have a hut. i have water. i have the support from america and from a few amazing friends in country to make this whole endeavor which started as a dream a true reality. i have love. i give love. i am happy. i am lucky. i am american and female and proud.

its going to be a good thanksgiving. full of tears of joy and of naustalgia and love.

please know that i appreciate you all, reading this, supporting me, supporting the Peace Corps, supporting my family and loved ones in my absence.
thank you for you. thank you for being exactly what and who you are and for your continued support.

Happy Thanksgiving. I ni ce kosobe. Merci Beaucoup.

an attempt at justifying my underlying thought processes

i've reached a point, here in my early twenties in west africa with long dry days pushing my thoughts in directions otherwise left for those dealing with boredom, with which
i'd like to share with the dedicated fans and scrutinous critics of this web logged life of mine. there is something to be said for what some may call boredom and that thing is this: its awesome. boredom is something that stateside, or more, in any developed country, that can come from too much stuff. (typical peace corps preachiness, i know but bear with me) for example, when i want a cool glass of water i cannot merely go to fridge, pull out the Brita, reach into the cupboard, grab a sturdy glass and pour away; instead i have to go to the pump, find that the key is missing, go find Tati, the 80 year old key-holder, greet him for 5 minutes, coax him off of his bamboo cot, help him find his sole-less shoes and walk for 25 minutes to the pump which lays 40 feet from his door, pump water into a 5 gallon bucket, carry it home, put it through the filter, wait patiently, and pump it into my water bottle. not cool, not in a glass, but damn is it good water. another example, in the US, i would arrive at Whitis or Walling or one of the satellite homes of said groups, walk in, greet on the way to the fridge, ask for a beer after my first sip and sit with one or two or five friends on a couch or bench or floor and converse during commercial breaks and over taco shack or maudies take out. here i show up, sometimes accidentally in someone's concession, sit on a freshly swept dirt floor and quietly watch as they pour shotglasses of very dense tea in and out of a tiny perfect teapot adding more sugar than water and continuing the pour until there is more foam in the glass than room for tea. people come and go and we greet and send them on their way, commands are thrown across concessions and donkeys cry in the distance (worse yet, near by).

hours move like snails across grass and days include countdowns to my usual 2 hour break from it all (where i curl up on a mat on the floor with a book and a pillow and a 2 liter bottle of water and make myself get through both before napping a bit to avoid some of the hottest parts of the day) and to bedtime, which was 8pm but has recently been revised and moved back to 10pm. its tough to fill your days here because everyone only speaking slang bambara south of Kita, no one does anything when they say they will - if they're within 20 minutes of said time, they're on time. if they're within an hour, they're a little late; only if you end up spending the night due to someone's tardiness are the reprimanded - and its just fucking difficult. you have to reaffirm your purpose day in and day out. countdowns, check marks, to do lists and letters abound here and sometimes its really tough to persuade yourself that you're right in choosing to leave behind everything. your whole life. and for me, that is a lot. friends who adore me, parents who respect and love me, a brother full of encouragement and pride, and the man of my dreams, waiting wide awake in Salida, Colorado, loving me from afar. its easy to get caught up in it all - the things we miss. but its fun to review those things and find out that they're not things at all, they are people. oftentimes, though, those things are legitimately food items and that is absolute.

i should be bored. many people are bored. volunteers here in mali have a tendency to get extremely bored. there are many reasons that they will spout out just as easy as the pledge of allegiance but i feel that it has been misdiagnosed. some of their reasons tend to include the trouble of everything (more, the lack of ease. everything you do, including fetching water, takes lots and lots of effort), the lack of friends (though i'm told that this will change soon with the influx of our language skills) or things to do with them that doesn't include superior amounts of sweat and sand, and the continuous, repetitive, exhaustive way in which many things, including the greetings and farewells and making of tea, are done... although not always completed.
although these reasons are quite valid, i find myself never bored although i suffer from the same symptoms.

want to know my secret?

Ryan O'Brien.

yep, the man himself. he is far far away, in a cool and soon to be cold place, living with his wonderful, bright, beautiful soon-to-be two year old in a home made house at the foot of the collegiate peaks. (many cringe at just these words both with jealousy of his surroundings and rage that i would even utter them) we are able to speak on the phone every two or so weeks and as wonderful as it is when we do, its made all the more wonderful by the times in between. the times when i should be pulling my hair out and reading 6 novels a week like the others. but i'm not. Ryan, just by name, brings a smile to my face. the thought of him, of our past, of our future, fills my mind at every waking, and sleeping, moment. he underlies everything, from my morning coffee, to my trips to the fields with the women's group. somehow, i always find him on my mind and making me smile.

once, when i thought i was bored and i was laying underneath a hangar made of bamboo and grass, my hand dangling in the sand, my eyes unfocused and my head even loopier, i reached for my water bottle only to find a giant, fist sized, shiny like a pearl but black like charcoal, spotted with vibrant, king's cape blue dots, 5 legged beetle sitting inches from my bottle. horned, bright eyed and walking in long, lazy, loopy circles (due to the lack of its 6th leg), i sat in awe of this creature. i was terrified. i was memorized. and my first thought was : Ryan. he would love this, but i couldn't bring myself to loose eye contact with it and take a picture (sorry Patrick). i smiled a big, comfortable, easy smile (the first thing i'd done with ease all day that day) knowing that he would want not to see it in picture form but hear about it via script and scripture, because he would know that if i were to get up, scramble to find the camera and return, this beautiful cripple would have spiraled out of my life and i would be without a memory of such cyclonic enormity. Ryan brings ease to my life. Ryan brings smiles to my face. Ryan brings peace to my sleep and sweetness to my coffee every morning.

of course i'm bored, i'm not mental. but in my boredom i think not of how bored i am but how grateful i am for this man who fills every thought with triumph and joy and goodness and introspective sight and i could go on forever but the keyboard won't let me. everyone is bored, but here boredom is something with which you can gain triumph over and although its not easy, nothing is. however, i will be a devil's advocate here and claim that it is easier here than in the US. for here, the activity of fetching water is just that - an activity, its a conscious effort to do something for yourself and upon its completion, you get to drink cool (meaning not 116F like the air) water and be refreshed so that you can go to another's concession and sit with Malian friends and eat corn off the cob and peanuts you may have pulled from the ground and drink overly sweetened tea on a floor thats dirt and yet clean and be content because you are there. you put yourself on that floor with that water bottle and around those people and ryan ryan ryan would love this. everything that is done is a triumph over nature and self. also, there is no tv. there are no computers. i can't even get radio reception where i live. we don't have phones. we don't have electricity. there is nothing to pull us out of ourselves, so many go nuts inside their heads (and i must admit, i'm victim to this as well) but because we have to light a match to get a flame inside a lamp instead of flipping on the switch, and if you've got the right mentality, everything done here is a triumph. all of it. making it through each day. triumph.

so, like so many other things, i got wordy and windy and apologize. the point to this log, however, is this: if there is one thing in your life that you can focus on that makes you extremely happy under any and all odds, and you link that thing to every waking moment, every possible, plausible and strange thing, you will find that boredom becomes a vacation, a trip down memory lane, and a good use of time.

and in the immortal words of Wayne Campbell, "i once thought i had mono for a whole year... turns out, i was just really bored."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


i'm so proud to be an american after the events of yesterday.

watching the election at an expat bar in the capital city of the world's 3rd poorest country with 40 other peace corps volunteers under the guies of sleepiness (we had to stay up until 530am to see the final call and historic speeches), hope, fear and pride, we all came to tears, we all clapped and hugged and when we emerged this morning, hungover and happy, we were congratulated by absolute strangers on the streets.

we are american's and we are very proud of that fact.
especially knowing that we, americans, are able to make history, one by one, as a group and for the greater good.

pride doesn't describe it correctly, but it gets you close. to have had the opportunity to witness that, to participate in that, from abroad and while serving in JFK's dream, was beyond moving. was beyond good. was absolutely amazing.

Patrick Dentler - congratulations! all of your work paid off. i'm so proud of you.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

to: Patrick McLaughlin with Love

So, as some of you already know, Ryan has a 2 year old son, Fisher. due to his amazing and wonderful parenting techniquies, we are with Fish often and thus he poked his pretty head into many a photograph. As I settled into my community in Mali, a polygamist, animist and Muslim community at that, I busted out the old photo album if for anything the ability to show off the fact that I could in fact describe one or two things, be they pretty, tall, black or white, in the local language Bambara. Anywho, most of my favorite pictures of Ryan are of him and Fisher and so, by both default and lack of vocabulary, the people of my community see Ryan, locally known as Wyna Obyna (Ryan O'Brien) and Pisen (Fisher) as my immediate family; meaning, Fish is my son.

Following the multitudes of blessings that follow the assumption of parenthood, women were curiously staring at me below the collar bone. Some happen to get rather close, so close that their noses nearly touch my "clevage" (if we can still call it that - I'm still under 130 trying to recover from an illness in August) and sit up, profoundly, much like judges finding lawyers in contempt of court, and announce that "no, you cannot bear children with little tiny teeny weeny breasts like that" - I truly wish that this was not a direct translation... alas, here we are.

Anyhow, about a week after first showing off my family and beautiful friends from home, I was on my way to the pump as Kontie, a 35 year old female, mother of 15 (not kidding), wife of the community chief, president of the local women's association, three toothed, terror of a woman flagged me down from the near by well. Mid pull (meaning, amidst her 150 foot 1.5 gallon pull of water from the well) she dropped the bag, laughed out loud, shouted my local name "Umu! Umu!", and proceeded to pull her left breast out from underneath her oversized traditional Malian shirt, shover her left nipple into her nearly toothless mouth, and chewed, all the while mocking me, yelling "you couldn't do this if your life depended on it."

Alas, Kontie, this beast is dead on. I will never be able to pull an empty mamory gland 2 feet out of its way to mock an innocent, able and trying American volunteer, and no, I haven't breast fed anyone yet, and no, I can't shut up 9 year olds with my overused nipples as pascifiers. However, I can take this with a grain of salt and will forever think of the reaction that Patrick McLaughlin might have had to this (continuous) abuse and with that, I smile and walk with Kontie to her peanut fields everyday, take the abuse, smile and almost pee my pants every time she whips it out like American moms pull out mp3 players and ADD pills.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Snail Mail Mali

for those of you who wish to send me something to brighten my day, lighten my heart and plaster a smile upon this filthy face, here are some options that you might have not thought of before:

a simple note... easy as pie
dried fruits or vegetables
loofas or pumice stone type things
pictures in ziplock baggies (my new framing technique)
cut outs of information or really great new styles from magazines (to continue my already stellar since of style)
nice teas (ie: not lipton)

love to all. i hope you know that knowing that i have friends, family and loved ones at home is enough to get me through some seriously shit times.

thank you.

Victory is Mine...

there are some tiny victories that i would like to share with my loyal readers. things that, as they are, simply
turned my life out here in the sub saharan bush around.

victory no. 1
every evening at 5 pm i gather water in a bucket for my daily bath (i only put in this determining detail for those
who may have wondered about the status of regularity of my baths. you know who you are.). if its been execptionally
hot, 120F for example, i find that i'm not only covered in sweat, but a bit of a forcefield lies betweeen me and
the air that so dirties my skin. from head to toe, a thick, scratchable almost pealable layer coats my body. the
dander on my scalp has exponentially thickened and due in part to me always bending over, bugs (spiders and their
webs to be exact) tend to get mangeled in my thick hair. when i reach for the face scrub, which has the texture of
eggs and salt and sand - thick, gooey and gritty - i find that i need to two rounds of what the FDA won't even
allow in the USA for fear that sandpapering one's face may become all the rage. the lines of grit found on my neck
act as the necklaces that i no longer adorne myself with. the feet and lower calves, thats the real nastyness - some-
times, i'm not sure whether i'm that tan or that dirty. the line between funny filthy and just filthy has been not
only crossed, but is so far behind me that when i turn back to see it, its like a tiny speck in the far off distance.
in the US, the joy of the loofa is found in the amount of suds and bubbles that come from its tiny little head. one
squeeze of the right type of soap and boom, slosh, bam, you're covered in froth from head to toe. i need to loofa,
and all of its glorious suds-making crevaces, if only to reassure the 20 layers of sweat-sand-dirt-ick that i am
determined to go to sleep with only 7.

the pace of the bucket bath is the beauty of it. its truly a process, begining with the fetching of the water.
there is a pump in my town, one pump to provide potable water for 450 dehydrated and dirty Malian southerners.
needless to say, it breaks often, and when that happens - to the well we go! the wells, according to our in-country
medical staffers, are some of the dirtiest places on earth. especially the ones which are uncovered (er - all of them)
and although there is only one pump in my town there are 17 wells. the water that rises in the cowstomach sacks from the
depths of often times 150ft, comes one pull at a time, sloshing greyish, soupy water that, oftentimes, is littered with
waterspiders and everyonceinawhile, frogs. eewe. (those 20 layers of ick are starting to sound pretty nice, no? almost
like a protective suit... yea, thats it! my body's suit of armour. ook, back to the topic at hand.) the process continues
in simplicity with the heating and treating of the water. during the time that the water is being boiled, i take my
supplies, towel, and tape player with speaker, to the nygen and push play.

for the first 3 weeks, a bucket of water was delivered to me by a team of 4 or 5 girls, all preteen, all smiles. i didn't
know who they were, where they came from, or whose bucket i was using, but for the time being, it was a nice little
surprise and made life easy cheesy. then, one day, i decided to take a bath at 630 instead of 6 - amazingly, in those
30 minutes, the sky changes, the air ceases to bite your skin, and the temperature drops about 4 or 5 degrees - and on that
fateful day, i came to find out that the girls were not delivering bath water over these past 3 weeks, i was stealing

seeing as how the world does indeed revolve around one miss sydney schalit (soon to be sydney o'brien, ps) i assumed that
their timely, daily trips by my house every evening were, obviously, to give me a bucket of water so that i could be comforted
by the cleanliness that only exPats can appreciate and bathe when, in fact, they were meerely coming by to do their evening
greetings and made the grave mistake of showing their true colors and setting down what is a truly heavy bucket of water.

feeling the instant and insane pangs of white guilt and sudden urgency of my need for water i came to the conclusion that,
contrary to popular belief (which is that white people cannot carry heavy things, cannot find water, and in essesnce, should
have gone extinct long ago due to their innate laziness and were only saved by their inability to let any man, woman or child
go unorganized and unmanaged - sadly, true right), i could go to the well, take off my shoes, climb to the cement landing,
drop the black cowsack down, realize the actuall distance of 150 feet, dip it a few times, and pull up 6 gallons of greyish
(lucky for me no frogs, yet) murky water and tote it back to my huts where i would treat the hell out of it. followed up by
taking out a pot-full and bringing it to a raging boil then placing it in with the rest of the bucket, now treated with
1 ounce of bleach; this adds just the right amount of warmth to the whole bucket that you sense, upon suds'ing up, that you are
actually taking a bath.

in case the victory of this soapy story got lost amongst the multiple tangents taken, it was the fact that although i'm
white and filthy, i am capable of taking a nice, warm bath under a big blue, pink and cloudless sky, without problem and
now, with a lot less guilt.

victory no. 2
although time here moves slowly, it flies when one is reading a good book. the library in the Kita Stage House is pretty funny,
an obscure treasure chest of lsat books from the early 90's, jane austen novels taped together and harry potter giants
smothering the smaller steinback novels of yesteryear. its stuffy and packed to the top of the ceiling and amazingingly (some
what) organized. although the dewey decimal system has elluded west african book banks thus far, there is a bit of humor found
in the ease with which peace corps volunteers can find their way around this mess of a room. with books acting as bookshelves
themselves, there is little actual knowledge of where things are, but somehow, we manage.

i happened upon a book called The Island by Aldus Huxley. not sure if it has anything to do with the movie and enjoying the
fact that the cover acted as a bookmark, i picked it up and read the back. what i found was something special indeed: a book
that, state side, i would have laughed at and mocked the reader who surely would wear black skinny jeans, black slim boots,
and a black turtleneck at the spiderhouse in austin, smoking handmade cigarettes and demanding soy milk partially steamed in
his quadruple espresso and would sneak in a sugar cube only when sure no one was looking. this books back cover states that
"Mr. Huxley has said his final word about the human condition [...] the readers reaction will depend on his own postulates
[...] in short, can man save himself?" upon reading this heady back cover, i laughed to the tune of this "i'm going to get
my masters in english literature and only so that i can laugh at english literature while smoking my handmade cigarette and
licking up the spare particles of tabacco with a damp pointer finger" and picked up this novel of self exploration.although
there are pages made solely of adjectives, painful pronunciations and overuse of semicolons, this book, single handedly,
changed my perception, my self and truly my thoughts on the "human condition."

let me elaborate, for those of you still reading this blog, god bless you : if i had read this, say, at UT, i would have
barfed. the way its written is so that you have the option of "realizing" that you're reading it or just plain reading it.
you can be "here and now" and take in the surroundings and the smells and sometimes find that you've spent twenty minutes
of your sacred alive time with your nose in a book that telling you to go and live and live a life worth living. sometimes
you find yourself dowsed in tears, sweat and smiles. the realization that you come to, while truly reading this book, is
that your surroundings can make or break any novel. for me, if i'd read this is college, i probably would have taken up
smoking just so i could use these pages as papers and sat in my sundress drinking white wine at the spiderhouse secretly making
fun of the fellow in black. however, when sitting on a dirt floor, in a mud hut, escaping 123F heat, and sahara-red-stained
winds, in a very small village in west africa, one reads to a different tune.

there is a part of this book where the main character trips on a local drug that enlightens your senses and he finds all the
things that have plagued his life, all of his lifes baggage, all of the terrible things mankind does, whether it be to a loved
one or a stranger, he finds peace and terror simultaneously. he quotes william blake in saying "Gratitude is Heaven Itself."

for whatever reason, lying on my dirt floor, swarmed by flies, troubled by sickness, dealing with emotions that i didn't know
i had, i wept happy tears. terribly happy happy tears. wrote and rewrote this quote. gratitude is heaven itself. what truth,
what sadness, what joy, what simplicity! coming to this quote, on this floor, at this time in my life, while dealing with the
suchness of poverty, the truth of democracy, the beauty of love, the pain of sickness, all of this and i am happy. happy to have
a hut, happy to have water, happy to sleep well, happy to sweat healthy salty sweat, happy to find people in every community
who are worth time, worth dignity, worth joy.

gratitude overwhelmed. graciousness, although often times hard to come by, flooded me. many of you will get letters that spawned
from this epiphany, this moment of truth, these feelings of immense gratitude. for i would not be the person i am, i would
not be here, i would not be happy, if it weren't for the friendships i've discovered over the past 23 years, the loves i've had,
the family i come from, the goodness that is life-in-sydney-land even when deposited in the bush in west africa.

gratitude is heaven itself - and i am thankful for that.

victory no.3
in short - i can walk home from my djatigi's house by myself, without a flashlight and i don't pee my pants in fear of darkness, bugs, toads, kids, blackstranger's calling my name... i can do this.
its sounds minute and simple, but it took a month (and a full moon) before i was able to talk myself into doing it. and when i got into my hut that night
and only then flicked on my flashlight, i wondered "how did i find the strength and personal power it took to do that terrifying and terribly simple thing? damn, i'm good."
i cried, as i find myself doing often and easily, but this time, the tears were of pride. pride because this simple stroll in the dark represents a very big, terrifying stroll in the darkness of uncertainty, fear, doubt and me.

dibi te ne fe. darkness is not in me. hooray!

due to the terribly annoying nature of french keyboards, i've given up entirely on editing... apologies all around.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

mali time

27 september 2008

once every 10 - 14 days i leave my village, ride a bike 3 miles to my friend Liza's house, and we make for the hills the following mornings on whats
called locally a bachee - a bush taxi. these are 15 passanger vans that become 34 passanger boxes of death. as we ride the bumpy, divited, rain-ruined
roads (more dirt paths than actual roadway), squished together with babies on our laps, vomitous teenagers surrounding and
sleeping men to the left and right, we ride. slowly. bumpily. we travel through multiple villages, often stopping to load, unload, reload and sweat.
this last trip i was vomited on, projectile vomit, by not one but two people. one was a small teenage girl who couldn't help it, the other was a man who
none of us even knew was sitting, probably strapped down, atop the bus, along with two goats, two bicycles and 34 people's luggage. it came pouring, sloshing
down but luckilyl i was wearing my travel scarf with my head propped against the window and was only slightly soaked by the time it was all said and done.

i'm thinking that the 6 hour bike ride might be worth it. next time, i'm coming on my own feet and wheels and time.
kita, the town in which Peace Corps rents us a Stage House for use to group, regroup and maintain sanity, is quite disgusting. not unlike a college house, Whitis
and Walling come to mind everytime i enter the gate, which of course brings happy, homey feelings but also sticky, filthy memories... no offense fellas.
anywho, thats where i am now. sitting, typing, thinking too much.

i'm ready to go back to site. weird, right?

as a reminder, there are photos up on (big thanks to Cass Engle and Ryan O'brien), my book wishlist is on and i am always looking
forward to friend, family and foe updates!
funny stories are innumerous and in the works.

more updates will come, in (pathetic) timely west african fashion.

did the little engine make it

23 septmeber 2008

although its been rocky, the days 100 years too long and the weeks flying by, its been ok. do-able. possible.
tough. hungry. HOT. humid. hilarious.

i think i can i think i can i think i can...


21 september 2008

i speak to myself now. maybe just so that i can hear english. maybe so that i don't loose my mind. and maybe to keep people at bay, just a little.
todays conversations included a slew of list making, thoughts on how to rid my concession of guinea fowl and their creaky, crackly offspring - who
strangely resemble the skepsis characters from Jim Henson's the Dark Crystal, discussion of the immense resource of love, strength and mental
stability (although questionable at this moment) that meere thoughts of Ryan O'brien bring me. the conversations can get a bit out of hand, as most
can, but i tend to keep it quiet, at least until i get home.
20 september 2008

foreign doesn't begin to explain it. i'm white, they are jet, horse, coal black. i speak a language that doesn't even have a title, they speak a
language that doesn't have the vocabulary for love and where the word for field is the same as penis and unless you clarify, can be easily
misunderstood. i am not muslim. neither are they, but they say they are. animists are pretty people with funny sayings and strange skins insullating
their walls. curiosity killed the cat. cat be not me.

crazy... not yet. but i feel it coming.


17 september 2008

happy 60th mama. i hope you know that thoughts of you, your birthday, the earrings, the dinner daddy surely took you too and the greatness of your
long life made things better and better. i love you so. happy birthday.

citizen sane

17 september 2008

today is my first as a citizen of mali. i'm sworn in both to the United States and Malian governments as a committed
citizen of the world and to be frank - its not all its cracked up to be. i was moved into my huts yesterday with the
help of some very kind Peace Corps drivers and as nice as they could be they still had to rip off the proverbial
bandaid and drive off. as the white toyota land cruiser pulled off, so did that top layer of tough skin. tears and
sweat poured off my face and as it was, the community did not know what to do. so what they did was awkwardly work.

my concession or courtyard is set up as such: i live smack dab in the middle of town. the town is layed out so that
the "main road", which is made of red red dirt, is the main focus of this tiny little town. so when you drive in from
the north, Kita lies just around 40 miles, your first encounter is with the Dugutigi, village chief, his horizontal
counterparts and his nearly 60 children and childwives running out to greet you. just past his 10 huts lies my Djatigi's
huts, wives and children, who are all titled from here on out as my family. another 50 yards and you're at the BigMotherTree
which does infact, with its ginormity and life pulses, lead one to the conclusion that life may just have been born of this
very tree. anyhow, the road bends and just past that bend and huts and huts and huts housing neighbors and their
slew of children, you find the shiny metal t piece that brings me fresh water from very far below this surface. at the pump,
you look to the left and there is my trio of huts.

my huts make up a triangle, each about 18feet in diameter and the biggest being my living quarters. the three teeny doors face
each other and the area between is shaded by a gua, which is essentially a natural tarp made of local grasses and bamboo poles.
this triangle of shade is enclosed by a bamboo fence thats about 5 feet tall and is carrying a magnificient assortment of
vined plants and thus green loving animals - birds, lizards and the bugs they eat. we'll return to those facts later... in grave
and great detail.

two of my huts are inhabitable, the third has residents that even a pinkslip can't get rid of. nor, however, can bug spray, baby
goats or human use. there, up in the "rafters" made of all natural fibers and branches, lies the nests of the teeniest tinyist
angriest little red birds. vibrant in color and aggression, they dive bomb me and anyone above 3feet and leave no prisoners. its
terrifying and i'm easily 3 hours from emergency medical care, so i leave that hut to them. on their thatch roof grows another
magnificient vine, this one producing melons that could be hollowed to make a baby's carriage. huge, tasteless, beautiful mellons.

the two that are human-inhabitable, my huts as you will, are lovely, little, dirty messes. mud bricks cemented with mud and grass
topped with thatch grass and, you guessed it, mud. needless to say, the inside is innately dirty. alas, i am not, so there are some
changes under way that i'm very excited for. for one, after having a day where i swept dirt from my dirt floor 13 times, i made the
executive decision to cement the walls. and although its going to cost me a month's living allowance, it'll make for 24 sweet months
and thats enough for me.

each hut has a screen door, metal door and one window. darkness equals coolness, so i'm going to remain indecently indebted to Brett
Buchanan for the tap lights and just let the cool come in and the light get lost in the black hole that it is. my posture, which has
never been famous for its erectness, has suffered great heights due to traveling into and out of these hobit holes. the doors are, maybe,
5feet 6inches and the gua reaches a meere 5feet 10inches. when standing at normal attention, i span a nice 5feet 8inches, in chacos that
goes to about 5feet 10inches, thus causing obvious neck and lowerback muscles to be used... consistantly. the height is further
compounded by the insects and their webs that live amongst the gua's innerworkings. its creepy how many cobwebs i've pulled from my hair
each morning while making coffee and oatmeal. gross. really, truly - gross.

(any great memorable pictures (in ziplock baggies to protect against humidity and termites) can be sent to my Kita address and wil be promptly
hung from the walls, both brightening my walls and spirits daily.)

so, as luck would have it, my first day here in village is spent whacking down the 4foot grasses that hide the snakes and goats living peacefully
in my concession. the awkward work that the villagers did upon sight of my first tears included weeding, yelling at kids, sweeping the weeded,
sweeping the dirt floors, yelling at the kids, talking about me, yelling at the kids, and then sitting. for hours. they just sat. stared. and
looked completely content with not only their work but their innerworkings. whatever was going on in their minds, which seemed to me to have
turned off, were whirring, eyes drooping, and before i knew it - everyone was asleep. easily 10 adult bodies were strewn about my concession,
leaning on doors, on grass piles, on each other.

awkward to say the least.


16 september 2008

2/13ths. thats the way Ryan tried to butter up my time here, by slicing each set of two months into a deliciously
odd 13th. and here we are. in the ooey, gooey, surely its still too hot to eat it, where's my scoop of ice cream
2nd slice of african life.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


tshirt slogans in this country, and probably most poor countries, are amazing.

at one point i saw a man, young, probably in his early 20's, walking down a major highway with a plain white tshirt imprinted with red letters and arrows pointed at his biceps, it read: always use protection.

some others of notability include: souled out for jesus, University of Texas Aggies in blues and yellow and, my personal favorite was plastered, pleasant pictures of Saddam Hussein and at the button down collar and weaving its way around the waist was: Peace, Love, Justice, Harmony - Hussein, he's our man.

a new day, a new do

11 Sept 2008

like i said - cyclical. up this morning, same gasps for breath sans humidity, same reassurance of humanity, same cup of instant coffee with powdered milk and rock infused sugar. one thing that is sure - i'm the changing factor in this equation. not africa. not the air or the heat or the food or the instant coffee. me.

on that note, with huge, terrifying, scary, motivating and triumphant (once attempted and not failed) life changes coming my way - i'm going to stay as positive as possible. i'm going to laugh at the things that would other wise scare the shit out of me. i'm going to cry when i deem it necessary.

its ok. its going to be ok.

ps, if you didn't notice, i would love for some good soul to send me actual real amazing coffee... instant is instantaneously terrible.

Monday, September 8, 2008

pending doom... nay, butterfly boom

There is a cyclical persuasion in my African *or African’t persona. Some days, waking early to calls of foreign languages, transmitted either in bird chirps or children’s cries, brings some solidity to my mess of a mind. I’ll wake, sweat soaked sheets sprawled about my mat, crawling for water, begging the air to enter and exit without stress, mind running, body in slow motion… but then also, I wake. I wake up and realize that I’m up. At’em. Alive. In Africa.

The bouts of depression, which have become a normality in my Malian life, though scarce in number are grave in severity, have become a bit more spiked. They come and go, busting down my gates of sensible security and self, with ease and creativity. Today’s came after a short night of sleep, lessened by small amounts of bad food, thus energy, in my body, calculated with a looming test and the upcoming, seemingly infinite loneliness of site.

Come and go. Come. Stay a while. Have a seat. Take my stomach, tie it into knots, and then throw out the remains in a fury. Then go, with what little self I have left, and remind me of the keyless entry it has upon me.
Taking control of these moments of helplessness, though moment might be the wrong wordage, is a very tough thing to do. Facing, boldly, the one thing that may bring my own destruction, is terrifying. Scarier than the rains. Scarier than the bugs. Scarier than the darkness.

Scary and terribly necessary.

Hold my hand, won’t you? Tell me it’s going to be ok.
Deep down I know its ok. That I'll survive this just as I have always survived these. But then, since when am I just surviving? Since when am I not striving to thrive? Soon, I’ll padlock my door, install a doorbell and chime and only answer when I know I can overpower it with wit and charm and cookies.

Until then, however, I could use some of that good old, American comraderie, state of the art, friendly, fondly delivered reassurance. (Thanks.)

Saturday, August 9, 2008

31 july 2008
aside from the immensity of the overhead view, there are the new
friends, the friends that will, indisputably, be there for me when i
get a spout of malaria, to enjoy the joys of ice cream again and to
help with the inevitable set backs of life to come. there is, first
and foremost, Daniel Dayton. a lanky, handsome and charming red head
from the east coast, he immediately fell into best bud status, not
unlike Brett Buchanan did 6 years ago, or Andrew Vickers 3 years ago. we're both in environment and have a lot in
common but more importantly, have more differences than imaginable. he
is, essentially, a male version of Janna - just what i needed. then
there is Hannah, much like Saide but insanely athletic; her boy
friend is living in Burma, so she's a breed of her own. and Megan,
tiny, petite, fluent in french, wonderful. her family is from
baltimore but her fiance lives in France. she is 27, hanna and dan are
23. then there is Cassandra the great. 26, from southern california,
insanely intelligent, unsure of herself but sure about me. we live in
the same town, at least we will until sep 10, and have become very
very close. she is wonderful. smart, sassy, she and i have similar
ideas of aspirations and what we (reasonably) expect out of this...
survival and sanity being the top two concerns.

anyway, there are 75 of us now, 2 quit last week, and i'm sure 30 or
so will by march... those are the annual statistics, anyways.

i, however, will not be one of them. for some reason, whatever reason,
its not there. the quit. the give-up. the packing for home. i'm not
sure. i think if i'd have done this right out of college, it wouldn't
be so easy (and i don't mean, in any way that it is easy, but... well,
i don't really know), maybe it wouldn't have been so sure. there is an
end in sight. each little goal, realized or failed, is still a
triumph. you know?

17 strikes and a flat tire

its amazing. honestly, i'm in awe everyday. of myself: my
weaknesses, my strengths; of the culture, the shock, the food, the
weather, the immense amount of information that we must, must get a
hold of, the fear, the joy, the aspirations, the dirt... all of it. its
the little things that terrify me, bring me to tears and the big ones
i know i can take. the little ones seem to be snowballing, but its
going to be ok. i know it is.

for example, the little things: cockroaches crawling out of the
nyugens (the so called toilet - which is a hole in the ground, too
small for 100% success) saying hello and freaking me out, crawling
quickly, mischievously, and adamantly towards the source (me); the
immense amount of black flies and mapping out where they've been,
where they're going and what they carry (from a pile of wet trash or
heaping mound of poo to the market to the meat to the "kitchen" to my
bowl to my spoon to my bed... its not pretty); the fear of disease and
the crazy amount of opportunity for transmission, regardless of my
attempts to avoid, disinfect and destroy.

the big things, the ones that have been crushing, have been cultural,
and so extreme i know no other way of self treatment than to share. i have shared this story with the proper peace corps authorities and with my training group. i have found that it offers everyone comfort, in one way or another.

after meeting with 3 other town's worth of PC trainees for a beer in a nearby village, story telling and solidifying our friendships, we headed to our homes. one last hug from daniel, one last smartass remark to jon burgess and we're off on our own to revel in our recent past and captaive freedoms. i arrived home before sunset, took a cool bucket bath under a large pink sky and enjoyed reminiscing of that recent past and imagining those events in the future.
after emerging questionably clean from my bucket bath and already sweaty, i sat with the family, the whole family, all standing, sitting, squatting around a pot of tea (an arduous and long winded task). the process is laced with patience.
the family's discussion was centered, as usual, around the mother and her wishes and fears of an upcoming trip home to Senegal. the mother is a huge woman, physically, presently and in spirit. her words bellow and bark and her eyes are always accusitory. she was worried about laeving not because she'd miss her kids or her husband, nor was it fear or ever rising prices. no, it was because she, like so many american women, was in fear of losing her husband to another woman. of course, in this polygamist society, this is a very rational, legal and normal occruance and fear.
even though i could barely understand, even in french, it was such a familiar topic that i found myself laughing and semi taking sides in the argument that ensued.
then, not unlike a US family discussion, matters darkened rapidly.
the mother of the HomeStay family with whom i must live with until august 10th, in the audience of the 11 person family and myself, beat a 3 year old girl, openhanded on the back, until she vomited, then forced her to clean it up with her hands, and
feed it to the dogs. the 3 year old, Kia, who has proven her title of "baby of the family" time and time again, suffers from chronic bronchitis and plunges into coughing fits unexpectedly 4 or 5 times a day. crying sobs and heaves of inhale are the only interruptions that she allows. they don't buy her medication but instead a menthol-like cream is rubbed on her back and chest twice daily.
the beating was completely unprovoked. with obvious, direct and severe hits, the girls body's shook, my eyes welled and with those violent actions came equal and opposite reactions.

then, once she realized that the 4 brothers were
laughing at me because i was weeping into myself, literally, so
scared, so angry, so out-of-control that i couldn't move, i could
barely breath, i vomited and swallowed easily and with violent
convulsions that were unseen and inaudible due to fear of the
situation, that she took a spare tire tube off of a nearby motorcycle
and lashed everyone in the compound except for me and the father. i
tried to leave, at this point, realizing not that i was going to be
spared but that i very well may have been next in line, only to find
the father, completely calm and collected, drinking tea to be exact,
holding me down, wanting me and encouraging me to watch, to silently
participate, to do nothing.

this was around 7pm on a sunday, my first sunday in HomeStay, and with
the nearing darkness i found myself with no other options than to vomit,
sleep, vomit, sleep, cry cry cry. for the following two days, after
filing a report with the peace corps, i had to discuss the situation,
multiple times, with multiple people and with dizzying detail, until
it was "resolved".

it will forever be a part of my life in Mali, my life as a citizen of the world and my life everywhere. it will never leave me nor will i allow it to be surpressed.
it still stirrs in my mind. i don't look at or speak with the mother. i barely spend time there at all. i feel as if i should have been moved, for my own sanity, but i wasn't and feel that this experience, though forcing me to question myself, my morals, me, will make me stronger. much much stronger. we'll see.

no pearls or porcelain for thousands of miles

nothing can break a gal's spirits quite like (simultaneously) 27 cockroaches, a tummy ache, 13 days of constipation and severe humidity; except all of that while attempting to calm myself with mama's advice (find the moon and know we're looking at the same one) and finding no big, blue-white ball in the sky. loneliness. sickness. confusion. small bouts of misery. hunger. exhaustion. thirst.

hold on, syddo. hold on.

tokens of the past

after speaking with ryan* on the shotty cell phone, bringing light to my true fears and having a good, filling dinner of mushy rice and fried sweet potatoes, i am feeling better now than i have over the past 2 weeks, err, 3 weeks. its amazing the strength one can pull from airwaves, from broken english, from simply self invented narratives sprouting from familiar verses, hums, odors or tastes. although, to be honest, the familiar tastes have been limited to orange gatorade and toothpaste, at least they are both healthy and not beer or wine or other vices.
i think that it is these small reminders, tokens of the past and pictures of my future that will, in the 26 months to come, bring strength to my weaknesses and contentment to my stirs. we learn, soon, of our sites and for that i am excited. i hope to be in a small village, smaller than my homestay, for cleanliness (less people = less garbage littering the streets and waterways) and quick familiarity. i hope i get to ride a bike everyday to market, to the fields, to the gardens, to the well. to cook for myself will be triumphant. to schedule my life again will be a success everyday. to plan for my community, my family, my gardens, my projects and my future will be priceless.

* for those of you who don't know, last thanksgiving i fell in love. his name is ryan o'brien, he lives in salida with his son Fisher and his dog Tuk. he is an artist and i highly recommend visiting his webiste. he's going to be around for a long long time so you might as well put one foot in the door now.

Reality Check Rains

as tough, disgusting, intense and terrifying as things pose themselves to be (like defecating into a 5" diameter hole with nothing to hold on to, watching, helplessly, as the cockroaches swarm your feet and knowing the elevation of the forever uphill battle that i have just embarked upon) the rains never cease to cleanse the pallet. they seem to wash away worries and woes... all the while, forming new ones.
alas, as this storm hits and audibly attacks my doors, Windows and roof, i pause to realize, i'm in the world's 3rd poorest country and i have doors, windows and a roof.
thats not half bad.
in fact, i'm grateful.
the rains bring (with force) introspection. they remind me of texas. they allow me to sit in my bed and peer through my mosquito net at the lizard poo on which is stuck to my walls. fresh but not too fresh.
the crickets, almost like an alarm clock, cry out in uproar.
just before coming to bed, i ate only 4 (right handed) handfuls of dinner, consisting of rice and fishheads floating in red sauce. sick to my stomach - yes, but why? due to the disgusting, oil drenched foods? maybe. the total lack of vegetables in the diet? sure. but also, the mentality of so many aspects of this culture. child abuse is widely accepted and can be administered by anyone older than the child. animal misuse and abuse, also common practice. my own perception and projection of these personality-faults has proven an issue as well. strange, the way they revere marriage, big families and Islam yet beat and nearly starve children due to the hierarchical set up of the multi-wife system. and not terribly unlike university like hazing practices, there is a sense of entertainment, of desire and of right.
the rains take these sentiments. wash them. revive my intentions. to work. to cultivate. to assist. to be. not to change the world. not to change a system.

ah. tonight, i'll let the rain do its job while i ponder mine.

too many things, too little time

sitting on the red sand floor watching a woman sweep red sand over red sand for 20 minutes has become a typical past time here in small town Mali.

someone sounding like Dylan just came on the radio bringing me a timely reality check.

homestay, the three month training period of peace corps, has proven it self to be insanely difficult. bodily waste management in this country is terrible to realize: the nyugen (ni - ye - gan) is the malian bathroom. a low walled, 4x6ft, roofless building with a 5in diameter hole, easily missed and rarely cleaned, sits over a giant soakpit, deep, hole... needless to say, roaches reside happily here, as do snakes, rodents and black flies.
the smell, especially after a heavy rain followed by 100+F temperatures is nauseating and dizzying. the flies add a hole new level of outside when they fan your body with flaps from their thousands of tiny little filthy wings.
being the only trainee with constipation has been a godsend. granted i had to be admitted to the clinic for tests and assistance, i'm known throughout the lands as the "lucky one" for you see constipation does not desire multiple (in some cases 25 trips) to the hole everyday. nay, instead i've spent probably the least amount of time getting to know my knees as anyone else.

apologies for the vulgarity - but this is life south of the Sahel and east of the Niger.

alas, its been over a month now. at first, the noises of the language all ran together, overwhelmed my ears and troubled my capacity. exhausting, terrible, overwhelming, the language and its obvious barriers filled me with fear. at first, th sound of the rains was drowning, deafening and filled me with fear. at first, the millions of cricket chirps through the darkness was overwhelming, exhausting, and filled me with defeat.

i say at first knowing that these sounds will, too, soon pass. they will become memories. hopefully distant and understood. they will make me stronger, a deeper sleeper, a better listener, a better citizen... at first

wake up call

12 july 2008
the rains last night were engulfing. i fell to sleep with ease, surprising because of the crickets who have staked their claim on the wall nearest my headboard and have proven themselves indestructible. also, this easy to sleep phenomenon came as a self control booster shot - i can control my life in this foreign environment - though it was only my second night and i've got 27 months to go. anywho, while sleeping soundly, my E.T. pillow cushioning my chest against the fluff less mattress and the slight tick tick tick of the overhead fan (something i will soon greatly miss) there was a sudden and alarming CRACK! then the metal deadbolt'd door flew violently open and my Training Roommates and i were sure this was the end! SLAM! the door whacks the outside, breaking off a chunk of the wall, leaving a dent and a hole and fear all around. the hut shaking with either fear or shock, hannah, megan and myself fly out of bed, only to be caught in our mosquito nets, which was equally terrifying.
wide awake yet still without full consciousness, mostly due to the fear blurring our vision and the deafening static noise coming from above, below, all around; our ears cried out as did we. feeling as if i'd been stuck between two giant speakers spouting out static and white noise at concert levels, we look around for light, for consolation, for each other and flash! through our wide open door we see a flash of lightening and see the cause of this drowning noise - rain. white, giant sheets of rain are lit up and shimmer as they plummet to the ground.
the rains had come and with great fury. tree branches fell, upon our tin roof and all around outside; we three lit our headlamps, finally able to decipher what was happening inside and out, allowing for the white beams of light to reassure and comfort us in our times of terror. "at least the roof is still intact" was murmured in between crashes of light and noise.
even though we sit and sleep less than 3 feet apart, no words could be heard unless perfectly timed. curiously after hiding myself under a sheet and burying my face into the ET pillow, safety overwhelmed me, calmed me, released the fear. just like when i was 5. a deep sleep ensued.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Second Flight in Twenty Hours

10 july 2008
Our second flight in twenty days is taking us from Paris to Bamako - don't get too excited, we stayed in the airport, napped and changed pants to look presentable for our arrival into Mali, even though it turned out to be the most unnecessary change of clothes, quite possibly, ever.
The meal consists of rice and fish, something I am told will soon be my staple diet. I pass it up and go for two glasses of red wine.
Over countless Europen cities we fly, crusing at great heights through the salty air lofting above the algea green of the Mediterranean Sea - losing, every minute, my sense of balance. Onward south over the hostile, AlQueda inhabited Saharan Desert and red, seemingly lifeless, Mars-esque lands... endless red. Endless. Red. Turning my head away from the window, away from the science fiction that seems to be occuring below, I turn my attention to the seat back infront of me. A tactless, tasteless movie appears, American pop culture at its best (er, worst), nausea takes over. Again, I peer out, through one squinting eye, over my seatmate's broad, black shoulders, to the clouded and sandy view below. Almost as if testing myself to see the absolute reaction of fear, excitement, dread and passion - my face flushed, my stomach in knots, my mind races.
We begin our descent.