Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Fishin' For Religion

The few days in between trekking and departing for Australia were spent in the chaotic and loud Kathmandu. I figured I’d take my first day after the trek easy as my knees were pleading for mercy. My plan was to go to Swayambhunath (or Monkey Temple) to visit the stupa, museums and monasteries. But it wasn’t easy. When I arrived I was greeted with a tower of stairs, 365 to be exact, to the top. It wasn’t a difficult climb, since I had been doing nothing but for a few days and a higher altitude, but it was still a tiring day.

 At the top of the steps there were a few monasteries and shrines filled with solid gold statues, lines of fires in pots, candle offerings and other relics. The paths were lined with prayer wheels (not wind or water, these ones you spun with your hands) and filled with people circumambulating the premises. 

There was a small ensemble of musicians with drums, horns and flutes, about half an hour that ensemble turned into a parade of monks, some dressed like Trojans? And the music turned into a cacophony of noise, the drummers beat with no rhythm and the horns sounded at random. I was told this was to make sure the gods were awake because they were about to read a prayer and make an offering. I’m still not entirely clear on where the gods and offerings and worshiping comes into play in Buddhism.

 I asked a few people but no one could give me an answer. However, although he couldn’t give me an answer, Ram offered a very nice explanation of religion. He prefaced the thought with the fact that he was raised Hindu, and throughout his life has met people of all religions, and quite a few people that tried to convert him or save him. From learning about all the different religions this is how he describes his faith. Religion is like Mt Everest. The Nepali call it Everest, but the Tibetans call it something else, and the Bhutanese have another name and the Pakistani another. There are also many routes and trails that you can take up to the top of Everest. All are difficult, but some are much more so than others. But when you get to the top, it’s the same place. Just like religion. You can call it different names, and you can practice in many different ways, but the end result for everyone is the same. Pretty profound.

in 6 months. I’ve rung in 2004, 2013 and 2070. That’s a lot of time travel. For the holiday I went to the Boudha Stupa, which is the largest in the world. This is where different sects of Buddhists go to celebrate the New Years, all in their different traditional clothing, speaking different languages and worshipping in slightly different ways. Some people were in the monastery giving money, others bowing to the statues of Buddha. The younger people were mostly using the holiday to parade around in their best, brightest and most bedazzled outfits. There were a few groups of people cheering and throwing rice in a circle as an offering for the new year. I enjoyed this a bit more than the previous site because it was more natural and fewer tourists. Watching the celebrations was a unique cultural experience and a great way to end my first Nepali adventure.

Today I am writing from Western Australia, but those stories will come a bit later.

Yeti Magic Song

As I mentioned in my first blog about Nepal, I really like the idea of the Yeti and Big Foot. If I can’t believe in Santa or the Tooth Fairy, then let me have the Yeti, and Sasquatch and Nessie. One night around the wood stove (myself, another American, a Laotian and the 2 guides) we started talking about the Yeti. Unlike Sasquatch, nearly every Nepali believes in the Yeti. When we brought it up the guides got very serious about it. Both swore that they had seen footprints up by Gimash Himal (Ram told me that he’d go with me if I ever came back to Nepal in search of the Yeti) and both are afraid of them. They even consider a yeti attack a probable cause of the disappearance of trekkers.

Ram told us the story about how the yeti from long ago. There used to be many of them, and they would attack villagers and cause numerous deaths a year. The villagers all got together to make a plan of how to deal with them. An old man proposed the plan. They would make local wine (mountain people are big on their local brew), one batch normal and one batch poisoned with a lethal grass. They would throw a party in the village when they knew the yeti were watching. They’d drink the wine and have staged drunken brawls with weapons and then go to bed. After the party the yeti went to the village and  drank the poisoned wine that was left out. They mimicked the humans by getting drunk and brawling. By morning almost all were dead from the poison or killed, but a few survived. Those few ran away into the mountains where they have stayed ever since. Once in a while someone will have a sighting or see a footprint, and there are reports of people going missing in those particular areas. And it’s the yeti.

To further press the case of the yeti, the other guide there that night had a PHOTO of a YETI HEAD. Not to reference Star Trek again, but it was reminiscent of a Klingon, with the darker skin, forehead ridges and wild hair. It was a little cone-head shaped though. The head was cut at the eye level, so it’s still debatable of what it was, but I’ve never seen anything like it. They’ve had some scientists come and do some tests on it, but they all come back inconclusive. Proof enough for me!

Upward Over the Mountain

About a week has passed since I left Nepal, and it’s about time I tell the rest of the story. Following the Vipassana course I did a 15 day trek through the Langtang area, north of Kathmandu. The trek started from a town called Dunche about an 8 hour bus ride from the city. Ever since the Vipassana course I’ve felt a bit like the guy in Office Space, normally a public bus ride would leave me feeling miserable and annoyed, but throughout the entire ride I was smiling and felt like I was seeing the world for the first time. The appearance of the snowcapped mountains and the ridiculously impressive terraced farming and the water freely flowing from every pipe and faucet was more than beautiful.
The first day of the trek was fantastic. The first hour or two was a little dull as we left Dunche and followed the pavement until the actual trail began. However, because of this route we passed through a small village with some happenings going on. 

There was a consistent loud drumming, which to me could have just been a regular Tuesday, but Ram (my guide) told me it was the equivalent to a Buddhist exorcism. Clearly not the Buddhism I just learned the week before! The people in this village were Bonboo, which was a religion that came before Buddhism, and today is a sort of mix of the two. A villager was ill, so a monk was performing a ceremony to rid him of the demon inside. We walked by a chicken head, which was part of a blood sacrifice, so that god may be happy with the chicken in place of the person, and the drumming would last all day (to keep the gods awake and paying attention) until the person was freed of the demon or passed away. In addition to this ceremony, the villagers would create a grass square with homemade kite-like offerings of colored wool.

My favorite Buddhist custom that is practiced is the prayer wheels, flags and walls. The wheels are either wind or water (usually water since it is in great abundance) placed inside a stone structure which contains a cylinder chiseled with prayers that is attached to the wheel. When the wind blows, or the water runs, the cylinder rotates and the prayers are sent off into the world spreading peace. The flags and walls are very similar the flags are of 5 colors, each representing a different element (like captain planet), and when the wind blows the peace prayers are sung across the land. And the walls are the same, stone walls that are inscribed with the peace prayers and when the wind blows through the stones the prayers are sent out. I really like this custom; I think it’s a beautiful idea of sending peace. It’s not a prayer for personal gain or for a miracle; it’s just wishing peace and good will throughout the world. These were common throughout the entire trek, not just the parts through villages. Most of the high peaks are adorned with prayer flags.

Once I got off the pavement and onto the trail I spent a few days going through a dense forest, full of bamboo, pines, monkeys, deer, and although I didn’t see any, red pandas and snow leopards. Unfortunately I didn’t take many photos of the forest, as all I was thinking about was the snowy mountains.

 Fortunately, it only took until day 3 to reach them. Now I’m no Hemingway or Theroux so my words could never fully describe what it was like walking among 8,000+ meter peaks, so please accept the photos as a substitute. I have never felt so small in my life (and that’s saying something because I frequently feel small) even after climbing to almost 5,000 I still felt dwarfed by the white giants. Being over knee deep in snow, watching avalanches across the way, crossing the ice on rivers even though you could still hear the water rushing below, racing the storm clouds to beat the frost bite producing wind felt so raw, so wild, so exposed. It was a feeling that I’ve never felt before, not even on Kilimanjaro. In the Himalayas I actually felt like nature was actively challenging me in a game with higher stakes than I’ve ever bet.

The mountains were powerful, and the clouds and wind were tough contenders, but the closest I got to defeat was actually a couple days after I descended from the high peaks. Following the Langtang Trail, I took the relatively new Tamang Heritage Trail back to Syafru Besi where I could get a bus to Kathmandu. The Tamang Heritage Trail is unique because instead of intense climbing it’s a comfortable up and down walk through villages. The first week I spent my nights at tea houses (bare bones lodges) and this second week I went to Homestays. The sleeping arrangements are like a lodge in that I had my own room, but there was no dining room, instead I spent my time in the family’s house. Which felt a lot like my first few days in Gonde. I even got invited to a wedding! But I declined the invitation, I’d much rather be hiking than listening to hours of chanting. 

So I continued on. And then the rain came. We ended up having to spend a whole day at a homestay, that was actually pretty terrible. It was a guy who took over when his wife died, but didn’t put any effort into it. We stayed there all day because we were headed to a high lookout point, which would have been silly to go to in the thick fog. The next morning the sky was clearing up and I was more than happy to move on. About an hour into the hike up we hear some rumbling, a warning sign that the rain was going to come back. Because I’m not always the best decision maker I say that we should keep going and see if we can beat the rain. Obviously we didn’t. It came so suddenly and so hard right when we had reached the ice, so we were slipping and sliding everywhere. To make it worse, it was more than just rain. I swear it was the loudest thunder I have ever experienced. Maybe it was the echo off the mountains, or maybe it really was just a massive storm. And then the lightning started, about when I reached the barley fields, and I was there, in the middle of an open field, holding two metal poles. The clouds were so dense I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me and the rain was coming down so hard I couldn’t hear or see my guide. I’m sure I must have looked hysterical running down the trail, at times skiing down the muddy slopes. I know that it’s just thunder and lightning, but I was pretty scared out there, bare to the elements. We actually were looking for caves to hide out in to wait out the storm at one point. After a few hours though we made it back to that town, but opted to find a different homestay.

The universe has a way of putting you exactly where you need to be. Even though it was my least favorite town up to that point, the unexpected 3rd night ended up being the best of the entire trip. Earlier that morning, before the rain, a little girl yelled “Namaste!” from a window of a run-down house. She had a huge smile and was so excited just to talk to people. That same girl came running into the house as I was sitting by the fire trying to get dry. Even though they didn’t speak English and all our conversation had to go through Ram or by gestures and strings of nouns, the family at that homestay was so engaging, pleasant and happy. I think they may have been the happiest family I’ve ever met. They didn’t have running water or plumbing, they didn’t have bedrooms, the kids didn’t have any toys but they were so happy with life. They asked where I was from, and unlike most people I met, they never asked if I could take them back or ask me about how rich America is compared to Nepal, they just nodded. The parents played with the kids, the mom kissed the baby and played with him in his basket full of blankets that she tied to her back when he got fussy. It was such a happy home. They had what they needed and wanted no more. It was beautiful. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Sound of Silence

Today I returned to Kathmandu after a 10 Day Vipassana meditation course in the hills of Shivapuri. During the course we had to follow 5 precepts (old students had to follow 8): not to kill (not even flies), not to steal, not to use intoxicants, not to engage in sexual misconduct and to observe noble silence. Noble silence was the most difficult of the 5, not only could we not speak for 10 days, but we couldn’t communicate, smile or make eye contact at all. The purpose is to feel like you are studying in isolation to decrease distractions. But after a while it doesn’t feel so good to ignore/be ignored, you forget the sound of your own voice and you begin to feel trapped inside your mind. The last day when we were able to break noble silence I don’t think anyone stopped talking for the rest of the day.
During the course I was prohibited from writing in my journal, so I don’t have a daily account of the course or my thoughts (though there were so many I couldn’t possibly remember them anyway). We weren’t allowed to write, read, listen to music, exercise, yoga, snack or pretty much anything to minimize distractions and thoughts. During the few break times the only options were to wash, do laundry, nap or walk around. It was quite strict, but I don’t think I would have had the results I did if I were allowed to play in between sittings.

Without getting into the technique or deep into the dicta of Dhama I’ll give you a little idea of what the 10 days were like. If you would like to talk philosophy I would be more than happy to pass on what I learned in a more personal way.

My 10 days at the Vipassana Center were like…

… being a nun.

When you are participating in a course you are more or less acting like a monk or nun. Upon arrival you are asked to give all your money, credit cards, passports, valuables etc… to the staff. If I hadn’t read up on the place first this would have been where I turned around. The first thing you learn about international travel is you NEVER give up your passport. But I did, and I got it back, so it’s fine. You give up all of your possessions and dress modestly. We were all in long pants, skirts, jackets and draped in several blankets.

 The men and women are separated throughout the entire course. There are two sections of the compound and there are no reasons for men to be on the women’s area or vice versa. Even in the meditation hall men file in first and get situated and close their eyes before the women enter.
During the entire course, students are on a nun’s schedule. Each time a session started or ended a gong was rung to signify it was time to move.  If anyone tried to skip a session or sleep an extra few minutes someone was in their space telling them to go to the sitting. The schedule was:

4:00: Wake up
4:30 Group meditation
6:30 Breakfast and Break
8:00 Group meditation
9:00 Meditation
11:00 Lunch and Break
1:00 Meditation
2:30 Group meditation
3:30 Meditation
5:00 Snack and Break
6:00 Group meditation
7:00 Dhamma Discourse
8:45 Meditation
9:00 Bed

 In order to sustain ourselves we have to rely on the donations of others. The entire center is funded on donations (it is against Dhamma to pay for a course or for food/lodging while you are there) so you are eating what previous students have paid for. Your food is made for you, and you eat whatever is put in your bowl and don’t complain. The sleeping area is minimal with a hard mattress (I have bruises on my hips from sleeping on my side) without heat or privacy. Like a nun, you give up your life and survive on the kindness of others.

… rehab.
As mentioned, one of the precepts is not using intoxicants during the course. But beyond that, a lot of the lectures talked about addictions and cravings and the danger they present to your happiness. The basis of Vipassana (and Buddhism) is that everything in this world is impermanent; life, thoughts, feelings, objects and cravings. If you train the mind to recognize when you are creating a craving/aversion you can teach it that this craving doesn't really exist and in all actuality doesn't mean anything to you. Intoxicants in particular are dangerous because they are cravings that cause mindlessness and while mindless you are more likely to participate in impure actions and create more cravings (sakara).

… Hogwarts under Dolores Umbridge.
The code of discipline was very strict during the 10 days. And since you can’t speak, and no one can speak to you, there are helpful reminders of all the countless rules around the compound. Each rule is written on its own sheet of paper and posted on the wall. It’s like the wall of decrees that Umbridge imposed on Hogwarts.

… a Vulcan school.
Vipassana and Dhamma focuses on purifying the mind and removing all sakaras from deep within. You should never feel agitation, anger, passion but you also should never feel pleasure as well. Both positive and negative sensations create reactions and feed the ego and personality. It reminded me of Vulcans. They do have emotions, but through discipline and training they are able to completely control their emotions and reactions through their mind. This is pretty much the crux of Vipassana meditation. Dhamma teaches that all things are impermanent, including emotions, so it is logical to not have emotions to stimuli that don’t exist.

… an advertisement for Valinor.
Through Vipassana you are meant to fully liberate your mind and reach enlightenment. Only an enlightened person can break the chains of samsara (birth, death, rebirth, death, rebirth, death…) and be free. It reminded me of Valinor. At the end of Lord of the Rings the elves leave Middle Earth to the west, to another world of peace. This is what enlightenment is like for me. But aren't we all a little sad when the elves leave? Couldn't they have more fun if they stayed?

… being in prison.
The first day of the course we were told about 5 times that this is a very serious undertaking and once we begin there is no way for us to leave. It is dangerous to the mind to leave in the middle without the final day. There were a few people that were overwhelmed by the course and had great difficulty either losing their freedom, being forced to be in isolation with their thoughts and mind or just didn’t find that it suited them. These people were not allowed to leave and were forced to attend all sittings. It was like a prison for them. And I don’t blame them. The first few days were absolutely miserable. It is incredibly difficult to sit in a cross legged position for 2 hours straight without moving. It’s scary to be left with your untamed mind with all the time in the world for it to run free. It’s isolating to be surrounded by people but being ignored by all of them. It’s frustrating when your mind won’t stop wandering and you feel like you’ll never make any progress. I felt the urge to run, too. But by the 10th day my legs stopped hurting, my mind stopped wandering and I found peace. It’s hard to lose your freedom, but by the end I understood why.

… finding my religion.
Vipassana is very firm that the goal is not to convert people from one organized religion to another. It is possible to practice Vipassana and not be Buddhist. But with this said, Vipassana is the meditation technique that Buddha used when he reached enlightenment and later taught to the world. The discourses explained the 4 Noble Truths and the 8 Fold Path and is based on Buddhism in its purest form. But I suppose, technically, Buddhism isn’t really a religion as there is no worship. It’s more of a philosophy. But it’s hard to think of as just a set of ideas and not as a religion.
About a year ago I started reading and studying Buddhism. The ideas made a lot of sense to me, and the philosophy seemed to be more applicable to the world than anything else I had ever learned. These 10 days were my trial run, in actually experiencing and practicing. It felt good, and it cleared my mind and brought me peace. Something religion has never done for me before. I am finding that spirituality works a lot better when it is something you discover and experience for yourself, not just something you’re told to believe in. I fully intend to continue my Vipassana practice, but maybe not taking it as seriously as a nun. The suggestion to develop Dhamma is to meditate an hour in the morning and the evening, which I think will be possible. Ask me again in 6 months if Vipassana is still a part of my life. We’ll see how it goes. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Baby It's Cold Outside

Like I did for Kilimanjaro, I am going to post my journal entries on my blog. Again, apologies for the poor grammar, thoughts that should be kept on paper, abrupt change in subjects and crude writing style.


I arrived in Kathmandu yesterday after saying goodbye to Ethiopia for the foreseeable future. The week leading up to my departure felt so normal. Sure there were last meals and the nice office coffee ceremony and gifts, but it was all the same people in all the same places. I tried to feel different. I tried to be sad and I tried to cry, but nothing. Even on the plane I felt nothing. As we left Bole Airport I had flashbacks of my entire service, the people, the places, the memories, but they were just images, not emotions. I actually didn't even feel excitement for my travels. The only thing I felt at all was a craving for McDonalds - which I ate twice at the Dubai Airport. The 12 hour layover wasn't too bad, I used the wifi to check-in with family and chatted a bit with friends. I napped for a few hours and then proceeded to the gate. I met a few US expats. One was a police trainer with the UN. He is based in Liberia, seems strange that he was sent to Nepal for work. His education is in education, but police work paid better. He was given a 1 year assignment in Liberia, then upon returning home  he found himself bored and has been working overseas since. He laughed when I said I thought I was over living abroad. Now that I'm out of Ethiopia and on a new adventure, I think he may be right. I'm loving the excitement of a new place!

When I landed in Kathmandu, immigration and the visa process was simple. Ram (my guide) was waiting outside with a cab. He put a white scarf around my neck as a welcome and good luck. Ram is an adorable, tiny old man with 35 years of trekking experience. I also think he is Vulcan. No joke he looks like Spock if he were from Nepal.

The cab took roundabout routes that 3 years ago would have made me incredibly nervous. We ended up at Hotel Yambu for $15 a night. Clean, private bath and wifi. Not sure about hot water because I've been too cold to shower.

For dinner last night I went to Thamel House to try some local flavor. I ordered mo mo (dumplings) and a mushroom curry over rice. The waiter came over with a jug I assumed was to wash my hands. Nope! It was to pour a wooden bowl of rice wine. Not in Ethiopia any more! The food was wonderful and made me jealous of the PCVs in this delicious country. It took me over a year to adapt to injera!

Walking through Thamel is like walking through a maze - a very busy, beautiful maze. There are endless shops selling trekking gear, cashmere, pashmina and silks of brilliant colors, paintings, gold, gems, hats, gloves, bongs and other handmade goods. There are carts selling mo mo, apples and oranges and men asking me if I need hashish.

Today Ram picked me up at a little western breakfast place to take me to his office to settle the bill, to the Vipassana office to confirm my participation and to get acquainted with the area. We walked through a bit of the old local Asan Market and I wanted to buy everything! Jewelry  hippie clothes, hats, boots in all colors. The roads are crowded with traffic and exacerbated by motorbikes. It's loud, noisy chaotic and a bit overwhelming. I think if I lived here, though, I would get used to it.

Once I got back to the hotel to drop off my apples (!) and valuables I went out to find the Garden of Dreams that we passed earlier. I was a little insulted how worried Ram was about me getting lost, but within 5 minutes of being alone I was hopelessly disoriented. I only went straight and still couldn't find my way back. The streets were so busy I couldn't pull over to sort myself out so I found a sidewalk and didn't leave it. Lo and behold I actually stumbled upon my destination! Imagine my surprise. I can almost count it as a victory but it was a mistake that I found it, and I approached from the opposite way I expected to.

The Garden of Dreams is an old garden from the monarchy days. It was restored in the 90s and is a place of respite in the middle of the city. Dad sent me a link about it a while back, pretty cool that I stumbled upon it on my first day! I don't think I could find anything here on purpose. I may need a guided tour after my trek. This garden is a cute little place full of tourists and young lovers. A good spot to write! I may even grab a cake and tea. I'm overall quite happy here in Nepal. It's a new place and a very different adventure. Like Tanzania, it's reminding me that I love new experiences and I'm a nomad at heart.

One other thing worth mentioning is the abundance of Buddhist temples. We came across a bigger one in Asan, but most are tiny like Asian telephone booths. Around these temples is relative silence. No horns, hushed voices and a bit of space. Quite bizarre considering the cacophonous setting. Also, quite amazing that people respect these places even though the area is overwhelmingly Hindu.

When I left the Garden I walked the way I thought I should have arrived from. After about a minute I actually started recognizing things and I made it back to the hotel quicker than I thought possible. When I arrived I remember Ram mentioning the view from the roof so I went to take a look. The roof was nicer than I expected with rows of potted flowers and a tented seating area. The whole place was surrounded my multi colored prayer flags and pointsetta flowers which reminded me of Mom. I spent some time up there reading about the people and religion of Nepal and watching the city from above. A lot of people were on their roofs tending to gardens or doing laundry, one man was just sitting on a chair doing nothing. The streets were bustling amid a backdrop of colorful multi-story buildings in front of the still, strong mountains (actually hills, but mountains by my definition).

Now I'm at Yeti Cafe (chosen because I like the idea of the Yeti) awaiting more mo mo and vegetable curry.

I need to say something about the cold. It's so surprising to me to be wearing a jacket in the day time and seeing people bundled up even at noon. Instead of oscillating fans, people are sitting in front of oscillating space heaters. There is a heater by my table and space heaters on the wall for people to stand in front of. I'm not sure why this is so fascinating to me, but it is. Also, at the Gardens I ordered tea and they kept the pot under an insulator to keep it hot. Crazy!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Reelin' In the Years

A lot has happened since my last update and untold stories have accumulated. When I see you in person feel free to ask to hear them. Or don’t. I’m scared that I’m going to drive people crazy when I go home. Just as it’s weird for me to hear the inside jokes and memories from when I wasn’t around, I know it’s boring for you to hear my adventures that you all weren’t a part of. I apologize in advance if I bore people, but please realize it’s the only thing I have to talk about, as it was my life for the past 3 years. I’ll try my best not to talk about it too much. But be forewarned if you ask me about my final months in Ethiopia, or my long journey home through Nepal, Australia and the USA, I’ll probably get over excited and talk your ear off. But it’ll make my day.

Instead of telling my final stories I’m going to reflect a bit. I haven’t had the time or emotional energy to really sum up my experience yet. So here are a few lists:

Things I’ve Learned About Humanity

1.   People want the same things, regardless of where they are. We want to be loved, to love others, to contribute and to be remembered.

2.  There are good people and bad people everywhere. You should seek out the good and don’t let the bad get you feeling down about the world.

3.  Just because people don’t always appreciate you, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t keep doing good things. It’s on all of us to improve the world’s karma and not expect anything in return. If everyone helps someone else, the world will be a better place and that’s how it’ll come back to you.

Things I’ve Learned About Ethiopia

1.  The culture can seem a little abrasive and pushy, but when you look past those differences it can be quite beautiful

2.   I could live here forever and never really fit in. White people will always be treated differently, whether it’s someone following me home to ask me for money (last night), or someone yelling “fuck you” because they don’t know what it means but they know it’ll get my attention, or someone kicking a woman off a bus so I can have a seat, or someone picking me (and only me) up on the side of the road when the bus breaks down, I’ll always be treated different, for good or bad.

3. People genuinely want the best for their country and there is a lot of work and progress being done. There’s a long way to go, but even in 3 years a lot of ground has been covered.

Things I’ve Learned About Peace Corps

1.  Staff really does try their hardest to support volunteers, but the program will never be perfect. And PCVs will never forgive staff for that fact. It’s too bad, PC/E has some amazing people.

2.  HQ and the field will always be at odds

3.  It really is “the toughest job you’ll ever love”

Things I’ve Learned About Myself

1.  I’m tougher than I ever thought, and with a little persistence I can do what I once thought impossible

2.  I’m a little more closed off and independent than I’d like to be.

3.  I’ve gotten to know myself these 3 years, but I still don’t know what I want to do or where I want to be. And that’s okay. I no longer feel pressured to be in the same place as my friends.

And since it’s the end of the year, and it’s the time you recall what you’ve done, regrets and goals for the next year:

My 2012 New Years’ Resolutions and Results
1.  Go on more intentional adventures
a.       I moved to my first city, Addis Ababa. I’ve lived here, so now I think I can live anywhere
b.      I explored Sof Umar caves, the largest in Africa
c.       I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro
d.      I went on a safari
e.      I hiked through the Bale Mountains and learned how to do GPS in Lepis
2.      2. Be better at speaking in front of people and making friends
a.       My new job got me facilitating in front of groups of nearly 150. It no longer makes me nervous
b.      I’ve made a bunch of new friends, mostly Peace Corps, but also a handful of non-PC close friends
c.       I’m still shier than I’d like to be and terrible at small talk.
3.       3. Get healthier
a.       A few up and downs, but I finished the year 12 pounds lighter
b.      I went to the gym consistently all year
c.       My trips always have some physical element

My 2013 New Years’ Resolutions

1. Grow up. Have a job with a salary, be completely financially independent, have my own place that I don’t plan to leave in a year.

2.  Go on a few dates. Since moving to Ethiopia I’ve become disinterested and skeptical in relationships. No one in America is looking for a visa so I can trust again.

3. Get healthier. Climb a few more mountains (I’m summiting Ethiopia’s highest on New Year’s Day with a few friends), lose a few more pounds, and spend more time outside.

And there you have it. Lists of 3 to sum up 3 years, 3 months and 3 days of Peace Corps service. Thank you for your support and interest in my time overseas. I’ll try to update a couple times during my long journey home and then I’ll retire from blogging. Until the next big adventure.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

September in the Rain

My apologies for the absence from my blog. Work has been hectic the last few weeks, as have my bowels (third time with the gut wrenching giardia). But I think things are finally going back to normal and I’ll be in the office for a couple weeks and able to catch up on my work and communications. In the last month I went through an entire Peace Corps service. I went to G7’s swearing-in ceremony and led a few pre-service training sessions. Then I facilitated sessions at G5’s mid-service conference and spoke about successes and plans for the second year. Finally, last week I was at G4’s close of service conference. That was bitter, sweet, motivating and depressing. G4 came in a year after I arrived in Ethiopia. Many of them were my neighbors in the Jimma loop, one of them my site mate for over a year. Group 4 is the reason why staying a 3rd year wasn’t scary and lonely, they became my new group here in Ethiopia. And now they are all leaving. It’s weird seeing them leave before me, since I had a solid year alone in Masha before Alex moved in, and now, like my original group, they are leaving me behind. Sitting at that conference hearing everyone’s plans for the future and their countdowns until they day they get on the plane leaving Abyssinia to return to the seemingly mythical America was painful. I have to say goodbye again. I really hate saying goodbye. I’m bad at it. It makes me cry. A lot. I want to go home, too. I want to apply to jobs and have an apartment and plan reunions on the other side. I want to see my PC friends in new clothes (I can probably write out every PCVs entire wardrobe without seeing them for a few months) and in a place with solid floors and our own plates. It’s time to move on, but I still have 5 months left.

But it’s not all sad news. I actually still really enjoy Ethiopia, my job and my life. It’s just a temporary funk brought on by other people moving on. Previous to all these trainings and crazy travel schedules I went down to the southwest for summer camp, site visits and a return to Masha. The Bonga Summer Camp was amazing. Like the two years before, we brought a bunch of kids from all over SNNPR to learn about health, environment, leadership, teamwork and how to have fun. Unlike the two years before I wasn’t one of the people in charge. As much as I love being a leader, I have to admit, being present without a particular role to play was actually really fun. I was able to hang out with the kids without wondering if sessions were happening on time and in the right place, I was able to enjoy the waterfall hike without counting heads every few meters. It was great.

After summer camp I braved the dreaded public buses that I have been pretty successful at avoiding this year. As uncomfortable as it is traveling in the southwest during the rainy season, it felt like going home. I remembered what it was like to be a real volunteer out in the field and how fun it is to be in the Jimma loop with all my old neighbors. I stopped in Masha, Gore and Metu to visit the volunteers and see their projects. I was SO impressed by all the work my colleagues were doing. Last time I was down there everyone was still figuring out their place and their work. This time people were planning trainings, spending grant money, building medical waste incinerators, installing solar lights, installing EMR systems and writing new grant proposals. I felt so proud of all the good work being done out there. Such an amazing group of people.

As great as it was to visit the volunteers out there, the highlight of my trip was my first trip to Masha since leaving in November. I was feeling nervous about the trip; afraid that people didn’t remember me, that they would all call me Alex or Dave, that I would have become just another random white person visiting the town. The feeling of anxious dread lifted as early as Tepi, the town between Bonga and Masha. In the Tepi bus station someone came up to me and exclaimed “Nikki! You’re back! Are you going to Masha?”. If people remembered me in Tepi, a town I only traveled through a handful of times, then surely I wasn’t forgotten. As the bus rolled into Masha and the door opened people were yelling “Nikki’s back!” It felt so wonderful to be remembered, and therefore appreciated and loved. I was only there for two nights, but in that time I finished up my work with the mill house, spent time with old friends, had too many tea/coffee outings, spent the night in my old compound and enjoyed time with my old site mates. It felt like no time had passed at all. The kids were still chanting my name in the streets (I forgot how much I missed that!) and the same characters were in their same places. I love Masha. I wish I could visit more often.

I am happy to be back in Addis for a while now. The recent travel all over the country has burnt me out, and I am looking forward to getting back into my routines. Kind of like my life in general – I wouldn’t trade the adventures for anything, but I’m ready to be home.