Silence

September 7 – 11, 2015

“We’re all a bit blind, and now how do we share what we’ve seen?”

I don’t know if I have ever been bombarded with so many swirling emotions and feelings in such a short span of time. After the night bus ride from Kisoro, I met up with some other Peace Corps Volunteers in Kampala before we boarded private hire vehicles to the Speke Munyonyo Resort near the shores of Lake Victoria. We all collectively gasped as our vehicle Speke Munyonyo Groundspulled into the driveway of one of the nicest hotels that I have ever stayed. The manicured lawns bounded tarmac pathways surrounded by landscaped foliage of bamboos, banana trees, and water lilies. Behind the hotel, one could bound across an open expanse of grass with the gentle waves of Lake Victoria lapping by a small, manmade boardwalk and pier marina. Every room had its own air condition unit and hot shower that I literally have not felt since I left Philadelphia almost two years ago. The beds had spring mattresses, every meal had cheese platters, meat dishes, salad bars, and cheese cake for dessert.

Even weirder was having legitimate sessions presented to us as a cohort concerning marketing ourselves as viable job Meeting Roomcandidates, updating our resumes/CV’s, practicing for interviews, preparing for the shittiness of reverse culture shock, how to get our readjustment allowance, non-competitive eligibility, and dealing with our collective emotions as a family that has undergone indescribable experiences that only we truly will understand. It felt as just as I had finally mastered “Peace Corps Life”, COS (Close of Service) Conference happened and derailed my entire outlook. My Peace Corps experience has an expiration date now: December 9, 2015. After that day, I will no longer be a Peace Corps Volunteer. Whereas other trainings focused on skills to live in Uganda and accomplish our goals here, this conference focused on transitioning back to the United States.

I felt blindsided with conflicting emotions of excitement, sadness, joy, and frustration during one of the RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) Panel who gave us advice on transitioning:

“We can see the world that we describe.”

“The cure is to keep coming back.”

“A lot of people wanted us to confirm their preconceived perceptions.”

“Envision your dream job a lot.”

“You don’t have to decide on a career ever.”

“The unfairness of life and seeing that will soften, but as you are able to move up, ypu will be able to actively affect policy.”

“We are able to discern social nuances.”

“At the end of it all, we’re just friends spending two years together.”

“Never life about your qualifications unless you can get away with it.”

“We all have a chance to step back and develop ourselves.”

“Do you wanna change from within or change your community?”

Adult Late Night Art

Adult Late Night Art

What was reassuring was that all of these RPCV’s were higher ups in the foreign service working on ethical mining practices, CDC (Center for Disease Control) regulations, the 2nd in command to the US Ambassador, and other impressive job titles. However, they all spoke in a language that only Peace Corps Volunteers could understand. There was a kinship and understanding of what we were going through and tangible ways to cope with finishing Peace Corps. One of the RPCV’s had received an award from the president of her host country due to her contributions in the medical sector during her service, and then had to work a temp job in a post office in her small town in the US because she couldn’t find a job. Another Peace Corps Volunteer told us that if he could have redone his last three months in-country then he would have just spent that time drinking coffee on his porch, walking around his village, and looking at the stars while he still had the chance to live life in this way.

I started getting emotional due to the realization that this would be one of the last times that this dream of mine would be coming to an end so soon. After sessions ended we played ultimate Frisbee on the grassy field by the lake, drank during Late Night Art and danced to “Trumpets” by Jason Derulo, played LAN Party games, and walked around the gorgeous grounds. At the beginning of the conference, we all wrote our names and put them into a bag, then we had to pick out a name so that we could share with the group a small story about that person.

Education Cohort 2 Group Photo

Education Cohort 2 Group Photo

I also premiered the slideshow for our group which was over 40 minutes long and showcased video clips and pictures starting all the way back in Philadelphia for our staging at the Hampton Inn in November 2013 and chronicling our service up until the present day. The slideshow made so many people cry, and even I couldn’t deal with all of the emotions that had been welling up inside of me. By the end of the conference, I was exhausted and didn’t know what to do with myself. One part of me felt as if I could just go back to normal life in the village for the next three months, but another part of me understands that my Peace Corps life will never be the same again. I have been in this weird stasis and limbo for the past two days since the conference ended where swing from intense joy to apathy and then depression. I have one of three desires right now:

  1. Jump on a plane and fly to my new home in Baltimore and get a head start on dealing with reverse culture shock.
  2. Go back to the Speke Resort with all of my PCV friends.
  3. Teleport to my village bedroom and watch tv shows and sleep for a week.

What kills me is that I don’t know when will be the last time that I say goodbye to someone in my group. There are so many last things that I will experience and people whom I may never see again. Also Peace Corps farewells suck because they happen in moments and then you’re off on public transportation or back to your site and you may never see that friend again. I am emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausted to the point where I just want to cry and sleep for the entire day. I don’t know why I am affected by this close of service conference so much. I think that right now I am in this in-between world where my heart and mind are torn between this life that I love so much, and a future life stateside that excites me so much too. I also get worried by the societal pressures that I will face stateside and how I will forever want to wander and explore this vast world. However, I know one thing, and that is I will never have to start sentences with “I should’ve.”

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Conservation Camp, Kisoro

31/8/15 – 4/9/15

“Let us not stop here, let us bring our ideas home to take root.”

~Booker, Ugandan Camp Counselor

I’m on a late bus headed back to Kisoro on the darkened tarmac road winding through the hills of the “African Alps”. It’s been one of those very memorable weeks of Peace Corps life where you feel like you’re in another world or life. I spent this camp working as the photographer and chef for the Peace Corps Conservation Camp. The camp was held in Kisoro, Uganda which is heralded as the “African Alps” due to the large amount of hills and volcanoes of the rift valley. During this week, 41 Ugandan youth from 6 local secondary schools spent a week at Seseme Girls Secondary School learning how about African conservationists, waste management, tree planting, basket weaving, permagarden construction, beehive construction, eco-tourism, and a city-street cleanup.

Planting Trees

Planting Trees

Kisoro Town Trash Pickup

Kisoro Town Trash Pickup

Basket Weaving

Basket Weaving

During this camp, I had the opportunity to take photos using one of the newer Canon DSLR cameras and editing the photos on Adobe Lightroom  as the campers went to sessions. This week felt very surreal, because of the beautifully cold Kisoro setting. The Peace Corps counselors stayed at a Peace Corps Volunteer’s house and the nearby guesthouse. Throughout the week the campers would attend sessions, do practicals, and create action plans as I took photos, then by 4pm I would leave camp early in order to prepare dinner. I think that we had the best camp food of my Peace Corps service: meat, g-nut sauces, and vegetables for lunch and sushi, stir-fries, pastas, burgers, soups, and pizzas for dinner at the Peace Corps Volunteer’s house.

Conservation Camp Group Photos

Conservation Camp Group Photos

As with all camps, it got more stressful and tiring as the week continued. But it also got more inspiring. Two times during the week we took field trips to Mgahinga Lodge near the base of Mgahinga National Park, the smallest national park in Uganda at the base of Mts. Muhabura, Gahinga, and Sabyinyo. It felt really epic photographing the youth planting tree saplings along the village roads behind Mgahinga Lodge leading up to the overlooking Mt. Muhabura. I felt epic armed with such a nice camera in such a photogenic setting.

Most of the time, I’m profusely sweating in Uganda. However, in Kisoro it would  get so cold at night that I would actually shiver on the couches in the living room of the PCV’s house. Then during the day if I closed my eyes and felt the golden sun setting on my face coupled with the cool wind from the mountains, I could imagine that I was back in Maryland or Boston during the start of a new school year as the leaves were changing color. As camp ended, I started to think about the upcoming COS Conference for my cohort. It’s so crazy to me to think that this adventure is coming to its final stages. Before long, it will have been my two year anniversary in country, and I will be preparing to fly to Europe.

Conservation Camp Reflection

Conservation Camp Reflection

I find it very comforting to know that I have practically no regrets in my Peace Corps service. It just feels like every weekend, there is some sort of adventure or project happening that makes me feel like what I am living is the life that I am supposed to be living right now. This past week, this service, and this life has been a blur up to this point, and I am beyond incredulous to have made it this far. Two years ago I was planting trees as a landscaper in Maryland, now I am planting trees and ideas here and watching them grow before me.

“I know where you stand, silent in the trees, and that’s where I am silent in the trees. Why won’t you speak where I happen to be? Silent, in the trees, standing cowardly.”

~Trees, Twenty-One Pilots

Pre-Conservation Camp, Kisoro

24/8/15 – 29/8/15

I am inundated with emotions right now. I just finished editing together my group’s COS (Close of Service) slideshow which showcases photos and videos from almost two years ago when we first met each other in Philadelphia for staging on November 11th, 2013. I am clean, comfortable, and resting here in Bruce’s apartment in Kisoro as we gear up for Conservation Camp. The past few days, I have felt like I have been playing house; Rachel and I have been cooking ridiculous meals in a kitchen with a faux-marble countertop, doing daily errands, and lounging on couches in a living room.

Bunagana - Uganda DRC Border

Bunagana – Uganda DRC Border

We endured a harrowing night bus ride which included blasting dancehall music from 8pm – 5:30am inside the darkened bus, babies crying, and chilly wind blasting through the windows. We got into Kisoro while it was still dark and Jax, Bruce’s counterpart, picked us up and brought us to Bruce’s house. Over the course of several days we prepared for the coming weeks. Rachel prepped the shirts, water bottles, certificates, and plans for Conservation Camp events while I worked on the COS slideshow video for our COS Conference next week.

Hill WalkingDuring the day, I would ride Bruce’s bicycle around Kisoro town. As the warm sun hit my skin and the wind rustled through my sweater I felt as if I was back home in the United States. I would just bicycle a few minutes to pick up cauliflower, onions, green beans, butter, milk, cheese, and other cooking ingredients. At one point, Jax brought us to this hill purportedly where Churchill dubbed Kisoro the African Alps. We called it Churchill’s Hill, but the locals called it Munari Hill off the dirt road from Kamugoyi Village in Kanaba District. We also hiked up the gorgeous hill behind Golden Monkey Guesthouse where one can see Mt. Muhabura and Lake Mutanda. This time however, we continued walking up a nearby, steeper hill and made our way down a ridge bounded with trees and steep slopes on either side. It honestly felt like a new adventure.

This past week has been so much of a blur, and I can’t believe that we are about to start Conservation Camp. During this camp, local Ugandan youth will learn about sustainable methods to start conservation projects in their community as well as learn life-skills and leadership methods. There will be 10 counselors: 5 Ugandan and 5 Peace Corps Volunteers. My role during this camp is to capture moments through both photographs and video, as well as cook dinner for the PCV’s during camp. The menu consists of sushi, stir-fry, pastas, pizza, sautéed veggies, and cabbage slaws.

Winding Kisoro Roads

Winding Kisoro Roads

A Conference of Volunteers

12/8/15 – 21/8/15

It’s been a doozy to be honest. A lot has happened in such a short span of time. Two weeks ago I finished my site development visits for the Central and Western Regions of Uganda. As a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader, PCVL, I was expected to visit volunteer sites in my cohort in order to determine whether or not they would be appropriate sites for future PCV’s when we leave. It’s honestly a cool concept, because it continues the partnership of our host sites and schools with future PCV’s. I’ve been excited lately because I’ve been slowly accomplishing all of my tasks on my to-do lists before I finish my service.

The day afterwards, I attended the most recent Health & Agribusiness Cohort’s swearing-in ceremony. To date, this is the fourth swearing-in ceremony that I have attended and most things have remained the same: the country director’s speech about having the courage of a sword-swallower, the ambassador saying that we’ll change the world “one village, one person, one household at a time”, and most importantly the free finger foods after the conclusion of the ceremony. It’s interesting how emotionally distant I am with this group compared with past groups. I think that I’ve come to realize that there just isn’t enough time left in my service to spend feasibly any quality time with the new volunteers when I would rather spend time with my close friends whom I already know.

That night ended up being a bit of a shit-show, because several of us PCV’s took private hire vehicles to crash the dancing celebration at Bubbles Express, the club where newly sworn-in PCV’s dance while staying at the Lweza Conference Center. After a bottle of whiskey, a lot of dancing in a club where half of the second floor collapsed a few months ago, and a few regrettable choices we made it back to our hostel in time for a hungover breakfast of oral rehydration salts (ORS) and eggs.

I decided to stay in Kampala for the next two days since the All Volunteer Conference for all Uganda Peace Corps Breakdancing at MakerereVolunteers would commence at the beginning of the week. My PCV friend Cindy, who hosted during the Easter Mt. Elgon hike, had a couch-surfing friend in Ntinda. We stayed at her house with her vegan, German roommate. During that time we stopped by Makerere University to witness a breakdancing competition among different Ugandan breakdancing teams. I didn’t feel like I was in Uganda, because we were on a huge grass commons at Makerere with a modern-day stage setup where performers from all over Uganda showcased their moves. One of the bboys from the internationally acclaimed documentary “Shake the Dust”, hosted the dance-off which involved input from the crowd.

Finally, on Sunday I started making moves to the Pope Paul VI Memorial Hotel near the Kabaka’s Lake where we had our All Volunteer Conference. At first I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of PCV’s in one place. Normally even just a few other PCV’s in one place would be enough to put me into extroverted overload. I felt as if I had so many stories or so many interests to pursue with everyone. All Volunteer Conference differed from other conferences in that the majority of the sessions were led by other PCV’s. The bulk of the schedule embraced an “open space” methodology where PCV’s could lead simultaneously sessions concerning: yoga, hair wraps, new workout plans, sustainable library techniques, conservation, and youth clubs. During the days, I was busy working on media projects, meeting with the Peer Support Network, stuffing my face with free food, or walking around such as quaint lake that didn’t smell overtly like sewage.

US Ambassador and Peace Corps Volunteers

US Ambassador and Peace Corps Volunteers

At night, the atmosphere would change from somehow focused to casual. We would hang out on each other’s balconies, chill on the 4-story rooftop by the water tank, play a multiplayer LAN game of Age of Empires II, or eat a ton of cake and drink expensive gin with real, yellow lemons instead of the green ones sold at the markets. I can’t express how awesome it felt to just sit and hang with some PCV’s whom I haven’t seen for the good part of the year with our feet dangling dozens of feet above the ground on the ledge of the rooftop.  I got a bit sad at one point during the conference, because I realized that this would be the last time I would see many of these PCV’s before I left the country. Of course I wouldn’t miss all of them, but I would definitely miss a large majority of them.

Peace Corps Prom Part 2The last night of the conference was Peace Corps Prom. This event was a time for PCV’s to dress up in prom outfits pieced together from village clothing piles and then let loose together. I would be lying if I said that this event wasn’t a bit sloppy.  The night had a college-like atmosphere with PCV’s pre-gaming in their hotel dorm rooms. At one point the music stopped playing because the wires from the dj booth to the speakers in the center of the room snapped, and I re-connected them with my fingers. As a reward for my bravery, I received some tequila. As I walked back to my room very early the next morning I laughed. I noticed that behind each dorm room door there lay a story:

-An inebriated occupant since the key was still dangling on the outside part of the door

-Loud music with people hooking up

-People on a balcony smoking cigarettes and eating watermelon slices

-Several people in a room debating the merits of a threesome

-Friends comparing notes on a powerpoint presentation for their organization

-A random, dress with bite marks left on a doorknob

All of this occurred as another PCV played and sang songs on his guitar on the rooftop of the hotel. Hopefully we get invited back next year.

Pope Paul VI Memorial Hotel

Pope Paul VI Memorial Hotel

This is it, the end days of my service. Even now I still think back to where and who I was an entire year ago at last year’s All Volunteer Conference. I think that right now I have grown more confident in my own abilities and accomplishments and become more realistic in my expectations as to what I can accomplish before I leave. Most of my doubts and worries have gone, and I am more than ready to pass on projects to fresher PCV’s who have yet to feel the weariness of a fully-lived Peace Corps Service. As PCV’s we are a stubborn lot who are hard to please, but in some ways that makes us more likely to work hard to accomplish our goals.