12 July 2009

I'm moving

to contributeaverse.wordpress.com. And making an attempt to jumpstart my blog upkeap. No promises.

24 December 2008

It's a White Christmas in Portland, Oregon

It’s snowing in Portland, Oregon. Has been for days. Besides watching my crazy neighbor out the window behind my computer screen do things like build an ice sculpture, set up a feeding station for squirrels, and come outside to survey her accomplishments every five minutes, and between desperately checking email, facebook, and online news for some sort of occupation, I am snowed in and stir crazy – and so realized how great an opportunity to get a long overdue post up to bring things up to date, since I am very far away from where I left off.

I left Mauritania back on August 8th. I remember not being sure whether or not the Nouakchott airport was going to be functioning after the military coup two days before (the junta just freed President Sidi on Dec. 21st, although they confiscated his passport, some freedom…). The few of us in the capital at the time were at a restaurant frequented by other ex-pats and kept exchanging the latest information back and forth, receiving news reports and updates from embassies and program directors. In the evening before I was scheduled to leave (at 2am the following morning) we heard that at least one airline was operating – it happened to be ours - and for the first time I felt confident that I would get out of Mauritania on my scheduled date, and not be left counting days and hours like I had spent so much of the past week, and the past two years. I rushed back to the hotel to finish packing, which really just meant choosing what I was going to throw out of my bag because it was already far too full for the 10 day trip through Europe ahead of me, on my way back home to the US. I sent an email to my friend I was scheduled to meet, saying I would in fact be leaving that night – but with a sketchy airport, a transfer across Paris, and a London tube and train adventure ahead of me, I could only hope for the best. Best to just leave it to be decided at a pay phone in London. Good enough. In writing this, I am remembering for the first time that in my long wait at the Nouakchott airport, it began to rain. This was the first time it had rained that year in the capital city that rarely sees the seasonal storms of the south of the country reach its barren region. I thought it fitting, for some reason. The delayed plane finally did arrive – its lights blazing through the waiting room windows. And, even more fittingly, we were delayed further in order to let the rain stop. It wasn’t the kind of rain that might bog down an airport hub in the Midwest United States in the heart of winter. It was just enough rain that people did not want to walk out in it order to get to the plane. And so we waited. I got up and went to the window to have a better look at the puddles accumulating outside. I looked back at the now filled waiting room. People seemed unconcerned, the guards at the open doorway leaned against the doorframe, occasionally looking over their shoulder to gauge the rainfall. I was too, but only because I knew I had six hours to get from Charles de Gaulle to Orly and a million flights to transfer to in Casablanca should I miss mine. I wondered if they all had as much confidence in their waiting connections. Anyway, it seemed ok to me to have to wait. Maybe that’s what made the situation seem fitting, it was familiar: waiting due to bizarre, unexplainable, and irrevocable circumstances. I left Mauritania in the dark. The same way I always had entered or exited by plane. I never once got an aerial view of the Sahara and its mutable borders. This thought made me sad. And again, I remember thinking, looking out the window at the vastness of the black, knowing that it wasn’t ocean underneath, that one never does get that perspective in Mauritania. Life consists of the limits of your immediate surroundings, perhaps the length of time you can travel under the sun in a day before running out of water. Those are the limits. Cars broaden horizons, but even they don’t cover too much ground in a day, slowed by the myriad of police stops, flat tires, animal crossings, prayer times, sand storms, and road detours.

A few hours later I was in Europe. This is a funny story that doesn’t include much sleep, but does include: loads of ferries, tubes, and trains, some chosen carelessly, an English manor, surprisingly, regretfully running through stations and airports, an unknowingly (by me) stolen, but delicious, pizza pie, an unexpected traverse of Italy by train, medieval Sicily by night, most serendipitously, a painful jellyfish attack, and a lunar eclipse over homegrown spaghetti.

Then Jadyn, my four year old niece who did so good not giving away the secret, met me at the airport, didn’t take a breath the entire ride home in order to catch me up on current events, opened the front door, ran inside, and yelled, “Nana Nana, guess who’s here!?!” And I surprised my Mama.

It has taken a long long time to disconnect from Mauritania, never fully, but enough to reflect. “Reintegration,” as the Peace Corps likes to call it, is a constant process. It changes every day I guess, but not in a linear fashion. I don’t think I could have predicted I would feel the way I do now two months ago. That is to say, it hasn’t gone as planned. I spent a lot of time in Mauritania thinking about this current time, this epoch of my life. I listed in my head all the things I wanted to do when I got home, the people I missed so much, the foods I wanted to eat and cook, the activities I wanted to participate in, and all the beautiful places where I wanted to get reacquainted. My Oregon. I mystified it in my mind. The Peace Corps nobly tries to prepare us for the let down. The inability to connect with people and place upon our return. The loneliness of disinterest in our experience. The feeling of foreignness in a place that is supposed to be so comfortable. But, the great thing about living in Oregon, is that is doesn’t ever let you down. Oregon didn’t change. For the first few months however, I was surprised and afraid of my own inability to relate to it. I had this same impediment while I was in Europe, but those were 10 surreal days. I had confidence that Oregon would be different. I figured it would be weird with people at first, and that my stomach would probably need a while to adjust to the food, but I assumed that my first breath of beautiful clear Oregon air would bring me right back home. It didn’t. And it scared me. It became apparent that Mauritania did something to me. And I feared it was permanent. Place holds great value to me, and I mean in its loosest definition. One can be transient, and value their extant place and nowhere more, and place respect in the ground they walk in an almost pious manner. One can hold on to their hometown like it defines their very existence, and place nothing above its comfort of familiarity. I am somewhere in between. Because I am from Oregon, I tout it as one of the most beautiful places in the world (which I think is substantive). I consider Oregon my place because it fulfills all aspects of the term. It reciprocates. I gain peace from its green forests mountains river lakes ocean canyons plateaus. But I move around as well, and place respect in the ground under my feet with almost equal appreciation. It is someone’s place, even if I don’t think it comes close to my feelings about Oregon. And sharing in that humanity places equal value in different somewheres. One can feel home away from home, or at peace in unknown surroundings. Place is an idea as much as a physical location. So, I came back to a place I considered to be my home, and my place. But this time, instead of a beautiful reciprocal feeling of homeness, Oregon was in front of me, and I felt nothing. It was like I was seeing things but not absorbing them. And then I blamed Mauritania. I blamed it because I thought it took away my ability to feel connected to the place I am, in more ways than locale, to share its nature. I felt like it crushed a bit of my soul, and I feared I would never get that back, that I would never experience Oregon, or anywhere, the same. Obviously, this scenario demonstrates that my idea of Mauritania is much more than just a place on a map, thus defeating my panicked theory. Mauritania is a force, a struggle, an oppressive climate. But I stuck it out for two years, so clearly, it was engaging, and colorful, and valuable - a place I was able to assign value. It was much more than just a place. It was a place. And it slowly became my place. The truth is that the world is full of places, countless places. Some of them are visually beautiful, aesthetically pleasing, reciprocating everything that they embody. And lots of other places are like Mauritania. They are just as much a place as those others, but they are defined differently. Natural beauty was mostly taken out of the equation in Mauritania. I didn’t find my physical surroundings pleasing. I found them to be oppressive. Because my place was a place where the physical aspects were inspiring, and beautiful, and life sustaining. This is why my Mauritanian host-mother could look at the river and say to me, “isn’t it so beautiful?!” and I would think, “uh, no.” But to her it was. This was her place. We are adaptable.

After a few months of traveling around visiting people, I got a bit more settled at home, and I found myself at the coast on a very stormy day. Loving storms, I went down to the bay by our house to see and feel its extent. There was no shore left underneath the combination of high tide and storm surge, so I stood there on newly shored driftwood logs as the wind whipped waves up over the end of the road beside me, where a red and white barricade prevents indignant people from driving out onto this pristine and low trafficked corner of Tillamook Bay. I was soaked in minutes. But I couldn’t drag myself away. Pelicans and Gulls flew overhead, disorderly battling gusts of wind that fought their efforts to search out more sheltered coves. [This is going to sounds cheesy, but I’m ok with that.] At this moment, I felt like the wind threatening to push me off the log, the rain pelting my face, and the waves spraying my feet, were infusing me with feeling, which I hadn’t felt in years. Now, I felt home.

Now, I spend a lot of time (unemployment is great for time) thinking about what Im gonna do now. You might wonder why I hadn’t thought about this while sitting awake at night locked in my room, sweating out a sand storm in Mauritania. Well, I did. But more prominent on my mind were thoughts like, “ohmygoditissof’inghot.holycrapwasthatascorpion.ohnomyroofisgoingtoblowaway.” And others like that. It’s hard, nay impossible, to think clearly when so much of your brain is just trying to maintain. But, now that my world is expanded again – it seems I have too many options to come up with any decisions, and have strangely lost my ability to focus on more than a few thoughts at once. Mostly, I find somebody whom I admire, or want to be like, or want their job, and then I find out how they got to be there, and I end up with even more options. And in between I watch TED videos online to see what the smartest people in the world are thinking and doing and try to come up with ideas that have learned from all of them. And then I’m back at the beginning of figuring out how to do it.

So, Christmas is here. And, being that the current economic, political, and now meteorological situation around these parts seems to be less than soothing, it provides a good opportunity to reflect on why exactly we do the things we do in more tranquil times – like buy TONS of stuff that people were doing just fine without, and take for granted an easy 45 minute drive to gather with extended friends and family in one place at one time, or forget the things we really do want to be essential and intrinsic in our lives, that are now more prominent in view, as it’s become apparent that the struggle for those things is in fact constant, and not to be forgotten by those we desire to lead us.

I am glad to say that I think I learned some things through my Peace Corps experience, and since. They are a rambling assemblage of thoughts, as follows: places like Mauritania don’t matter to the world as a whole; we can’t fall into the trap of thinking of “the world” as “a whole” (in the sense that we are all individuals, and can all effect change, irregardless of language, geographical, and cultural barriers – not in the sense that we should be separatists, or isolationists, or shouldn’t think globally. We should absolutely think globally); it’s not fair to call 52 countries, “Africa”; aid, as it works now, is fatally flawed. We are just treading water; Peace Corps needs a lot of help not to fail, despite the things that it does right; we should help each other, by investing in each other; there is no place for racism, ignorance, unequal distribution of rights and respect, but we violate our shared humanity every day; lastly, we are here to enjoy it. Not to suffer. Not to feel guilty for not suffering. To live it, consciously and responsibly. That’s my Christmas wish, my letter to Santa, my new year’s resolution: that I may continue this blessed life making conscious decisions and responsibly filling my role, and that others do the same.

I hope you and yours have a wonderful holiday, and that the snow keeps melting so that we can all get together safely! I’ve always dreamed of a white Christmas, but now its clear that it is in fact a disaster when it happens!

If you have a little left over this year and/or are still thinking of donating to a charity or fund, but haven’t decided which, please consider making a donation to the Peace Corps Mauritania Country Fund. This is the only avenue through which the majority of volunteers are able to acquire funding for projects, 100% of which are then turned around and applied directly to helping a Mauritanian community, connecting you directly to a project on the ground and making a difference. This was also the funding source that made my Community Center & Market project go from a remote wish of the village community to an actual successful project. Here is more information about the fund and how you can donate:

A few quick facts about donations to the Mauritania Country Fund:

* 100% of funds donated go directly to supporting a project benefiting a community in Mauritania (zero $$ go to overhead or any other administrative fees);
* Projects are funded based on strict criteria which include a 25% contribution from the local beneficiary community;
* Each project is overseen by a Peace Corps Volunteer on the ground and monitored and evaluated by Peace Corps staff;
* Donations are tax deductible (for U.S. taxpayers) and you will receive a written confirmation of your donation from Peace Corps Washington;
* With so few NGOs operating in Mauritania, the PC Partnership Program is the primary source of funding for Peace Corps Volunteer projects in country.

Here is the direct link:


Or, go to the main Peace Corps website (www.peacecorps.gov) and follow these steps:

Step 1, click the "Donate Now" link on the left side of the screen.
Step 2, click the “Donate to Country Funds” link located both on the left hand side of the screen or in the middle section.

Step 3, in the middle of the screen under “Search by Country of Service” click the dropdown box and select “Mauritania.”

Step 4, click "Donate to Country Funds" located in the middle of the page.
Step 5, In the search results click the “Mauritania Country Fund” link. A donation box will be located on the right hand side of the screen.

07 August 2008

Long hellos and short goodbyes

My time in Mauritania is counting down in hours - less than ten left.

Things have been so rushed and chaotic that I haven't had much of an opportunity to reflect. Goodbyes were brief, and blessings were abundant. Walking away from something so significant is a strange thing to do, unintuitive and painful. But, in the end, feet must keep moving. And so I left my village, over a week ago , and am just now achieving a sense of disconnect that allows a generalized perspective of the everyday dirt and struggle, the constant challenge and growth, of the past two years.

Then there was a coup.

It is calm here in Nouakchott. Yesterday was panicky, today it's simply sad. The repurcutions of this latest upheavel (the third in five years) will be great. No one expects it to stay as it is right now. The outcome, however, will determine the immediate fate of the coutnry. This could not have come at a worse time, in the midst of a food crisis, when Mauritania is nearly entirely dependent upon foreign aid. The international community has condemned the coup and is not acknowledging the new military junta. For now, we wait and see what will become of the situation. Major development organizations were just begining to establish programs here after the positive results of last year's democratic elections, however, without a stable government that is all bound to be suspended, if not canceled. It is horrible timing, but perhaps not without reason. The lack of transparency in the government prevents the public from ever knowing what is actually going on, and outside of the capital, there is virtually no interest. But, judging from the events of last week, when the majority of the legislature calling for the president's resignation, and his firing of the top military leaders, people were not happy with him.

I guess it's a good time to go.

I'll be in Portland on August 21st, inshallah, and I cannot wait for the green!