Wednesday, September 30, 2009

First Month First Impressions (Round II)

Ahhh yes. It's been one month since I've been at my site. By myself. One month. 30 days. Insane how time flies when you look at the big picture!

Much like my first impressions blog entry of my host village and first arriving in Burkina Faso, I'm doing it again and doing my first month, first impressions at site! So get ready for another long and detailed blog entry. Let's go!!

  • Food: The first on my first impressions list...and rightfully so. I love food! But I'm happy to say that since moving to site, my food cravings have gone down significantly. Why? Because I'm able to choose (for the most part) what I can eat and when, and not follow a regimented schedule. As I mentioned before, I got the chance to shop at a legit supermarket in Ouaga so I stocked up on some necessities but really, I'm just happy I get to eat what I want. I'm fortunate enough to have a market nearby where I can get bread, tomatoes, onions, garlic, eggs, etc. etc. on a daily basis. To cook, I have a two-burner camping-like stove and a gas tank. Fortunately, I got a lot of the spices that the old volunteer left for me and have been cooking really basic things since I can't cook for shit. Lots of soups (despite the heat), sandwiches, pasta with different sauces, etc. But I think I'll slowly perfect a knack for cooking! The next time I get Internet access, I'll be posting this HUGE list of foods I miss from home (I made it during training). It's gonna be epic!
  • People/Neighbors: During site visit, I said the people in my site seemed a little more distant and reserved but I can honestly say that's the opposite. Living at site for a month has made me realize I'm meeting some really amazing people that have some of the kindest hearts -- you just gotta dig deep a little bit and be open to laugh at/enjoy the experience at-hand. I live in a fonctionnaire (civil servant/teacher) house so many of my neighbors are like middle-class here in BF. Very hospitable and I tend to causer (chat) with them every once in a while over African tea -- 3 small cups is the tradition, getting sweeter by every cup. In any case, it's interesting because most of the people I've met have been men or boys. The only time I've really met women and girls is at the water pump, which is why I don't want to get someone to pump my water for me regardless of how physically tiring it might be! One kid that's helped me so much is this 15 year old teen boy named Ali but secretly (not so secretly anymore), I call him Nelson Mandela. Really! Not only does he look like a younger Nelson Mandela but he also just helps me out with everything. I guess everyone has that one person that helps you out and that person for me is him. He'll come and help me cook and when you're living by yourself, it's nice to share a meal with someone. Ali also has this aura of someone that's wise beyond his years -- so mature and I'm just so impressed with how this boy was raised!

World, meet Ali. Or as I refer to him: a younger Nelson Mandela. This was one night when he came over for dinner and I cooked pasta with a homemade cream sauce. Which was good for a few bites until I realized how horribly fattening and bad it was for you. But all is well -- I'm still alive!

  • My house: What was once a house filled with some cobwebs and things that weren't my own is now a home that's truly MY own! I took the first week or so to decorate my house, clean EVERYTHING and re-arrange the furniture like crazy. I live in a concrete house which is much different from what I'd been living in for training (a hut). I have an outdoor latrine and bucket bath area, an outdoor kitchen if I were to ever cook with wood, 2 small walls to enclose my courtyard, an elevated porch, a main living room with a kitchen area and 2 adjoining bedrooms. In short, this house is freakin' huge for someone like me, living by himself, in BF! I've decorated my walls with pagnes (African fabric) since I'm too lazy to paint. Although I do want to paint quotes on my wall, etc. So we'll see -- keep your eyes peeled for a blog entry in the coming months that gives you all a little tour of my house!
  • The town life: In BF, you live in a village, a town or a city. A city is more like Ouaga or Bobo -- electricity generally in all houses and pretty much has the luxuries of any developed city in the world. A town can vary greatly but usually means easy access to the paved road, boutiques/magasins (stores), a regular if not daily market, and some electricity throughout. A village is much like what you'd imagine -- very traditional, small, and usually far from the paved road. During training, I lived in a village and whenever I get on the Internet, I'm usually in a city like Ouahigouya or Ouaga (the capital). But my site is more of a town -- I don't have running water or electricity but I'm so close to the paved road, near many stores and a market, etc. On that note, I feel like I feel like I live far enough from the paved road that I can't hear the motos or cars and buses pass by. You all should come visit sometime!
  • Daily routine & pace of life (U.S. vs. Training vs. Site): In the U.S., I would walk up early in the morning, do the usual routine, sit in traffic, take BART (Bay Area's version of the metro/subway), head to work in SF, do the usual thing, head home, perhaps go out with friends/co-workers, go on the Internet, watch some TV and then go to sleep. Same routine all the time. During training, it was a lot of biking, a lot of sitting in sessions, sweating like no other and such. At site...well, for the first 3 months until our Inter-Service Training (IST) in December, we're supposed to meet people and integrate with our communities. Which basically means a lot of sitting around and reading after you've met how many people! Let's just say there's no set schedule and I hope I don't go crazy. Good thing is that school starts very soon so I can start meeting teachers & students, and observe classes! Generally speaking, the pace of life is completely different. Everyone in the U.S. has a "go-go-go" mentality to always get something accomplished. Here in BF, not so much. In fact, not at all. Taking your time, showing up casually late to events, not being in any rush to get anything accomplished -- that's all part of the life here, and something that many Peace Corps volunteers have to accept and struggle with everyday. I sure do.
  • Weather: WOW. So to give you an idea of the geography of BF, it's a landlocked country. The north borders the Sahara Desert so it can get pretty damn hot. Our 3 months of training took place in Ouahigouya (the North) where there was this really dry heat. The landscape reflected that with few trees and lots of sand and red dirt. Compare it to where my site is now -- the Southwest, where there is greenery and hills EVERYWHERE. There are even a couple small barrages (small dams) where people go fishing! However, the heat gets humid which personally, I think is worst than dry heat. But generally, the temperature is cooler and a little more bearable compared to the North. The month of September, it poured almost everyday which was amazing. I used to be scared of sleeping when it would rain because when it hit my tin roof, it sounded like the end of the world was coming! Now, I've gotten used to it and sleep like a baby. Sadly, I heard a mini-hot season is upon is which sounds like no fun. SO we'll see!
  • Language: Let me first say that my French classes from high school and college have helped me survive and then some. No lie. So to Mme. Ratajczak, Mme. Mahoney, Veronique, M. Lony et Dominique (my passionate French teachers/professors) -- I salute and thank you. Really! As for local language, that's a different story. Because BF is composed of many, many ethnic groups that have languages with no similarities at all, it's interesting making conversations with those who don't speak French. More so, in the Southwest where I live, I have neighbors that not only speak Lobiri, but also Dioula/Jula, Moore, Fulfulde and perhaps a few others! So I've decided to narrow it down to two and find myself a tutor soon to train me in these two local languages (Lobiri and Dioula/Jula) to facilitate better integration into my community.
  • Transportation: Great but LONG. While I'm happy my site is right on the goudron (paved road) and that I'm the last stop south of Ouaga, the bus ride is long. 7 hours, man! In a hot bus where people, for some reason, don't like to open windows when there's no air-conditioning whatsoever and it's blazing inside. But I can't complain because I've made good friends with the people that work at my bus station so all is well! Now that I'm at site, I rarely use my bike and actually prefer to walk around instead (unless I want to get something quickly without saluer (greeting people) dozens of people). So walking and taking the bus are my main modes of transport.
  • Communication: I have a PO Box that I share with other volunteers near my provincial capital. Check out the link to my address and package wish list! I also have a cell phone so if we're friends on Facebook, you can find it there! I don't get charged for receiving phone calls or texts but you better believe it's expensive as hell for me to call and even send texts! As you know, I don't have Internet access unless I'm here in Ouaga (the capital). I heard there are Internet cafes in my provincial capital but are so slow it's probably not even worth going (unless you enjoy sitting at an Internet cafe for 2-3 hours, waiting for your e-mail inbox to load. No joke.).
  • The Loneliness Factor: Or as I've read in our Health Manual, "the lonely but never alone" syndrome. Going from training where you're with Americans 24/7 to being dropped off at your site, BY YOURSELF, in a culture you're not too familiar with kinda sucks and by default, you get a little lonely. Okay, I lie. You don't get a little lonely. You get VERY, VERY lonely. "The lonely but never alone" syndrome, however, astutely describes this. While I get visitors frequently, there's a cultural and language barrier to get over. Even if I took French in high school and college, I still have to focus and pay attention (you get what I mean?). It's something I'll always be battling, regardless of how integrated I am with the community. HOWEVER, one solution is getting a dog. YES, a dog. Which I should be getting very soon. Yes!
  • Cultural Mannerisms I've acquired: First off, I almost always say, "mmmm-hmm," "voila," or "ou bien" after everything I say. I salue (greet) random people all the time, as is the custom here in Burkina Faso. And it's not just saying's asking about their family, how work is going, their day/night, etc. I'm sure there are many more but
  • My perceptions of me as an "American" or otherwise...: "CHINOIS." "JAPONAIS." The two words I hear the most whenever I walk by or people are talking about me in their local language while I'm at a store or whatnot. I always make it a point to correct them -- not to be spiteful or mean but to genuinely let them know that I'm an American volunteer of the Peace Corps. That I'll be living in Burkina Faso for 2 years, working with the GEE program + starting other secondary projects, and that the reason I look Chinese/Japanese is that my parents came from the Philippines and immigrated to the U.S. So I'm really Filipino-American. If anything (and I say this all the time), if I left Burkina Faso now, at the very least, I've been able to change several dozen people's perceptions of Americans (third goal of the Peace Corps!). I've realized that my presence in Burkina Faso is interesting because I'm probably the first or one of the few Americans they've met in person. But really, I don't mind this at all and actually welcome exchanges like that because I get to meet new people.
  • Personal Space/"Living in a Fishbowl" mentality: Seriously, I feel this now more than ever. It's funny because during training, everyone had personal space issues and I didn't. Now, I feel like I have many personal space issues but most especially, having the mentality of "living in a fishbowl" - of being watched all the time. I've set boundaries of when I'd like time to myself (I close my main door) and whatnot, so it's been getting better. But I feel like whenever I leave to travel somewhere (to my provincial capital, to visit other volunteers nearby or go to Ouaga), I feel like I have to explain myself when I return because people ask me where I've been, etc. And the term cadeau (gift) is starting to become a term I despise because kids say it all the time whenever I return from travel.
  • Things I take for granted: Electricity. I can honestly live without electricity (at least for these 2 years) but sometimes it'd be nice to have a light (that isn't by candles) in my house when it's pitch black outside (and inside). Or to charge my iPod whenever I'd like instead of waiting until I head to Ouaga. You know, the basics. Water. Fortunately, I'm not too far from the pump but it's a trek to get the empty plastic water jugs, pump the water, have people laugh at you/talk with you, then head back and store it. It makes me conserve so much water and I sometimes reuse water for certain things to save me from pumping so much damn water every 2 days. Trash. There is no trash system here. Everyone just litters and throws their trash everywhere. Sadly, I succumb to this sometimes but at home, I have a trash can and have to burn my trash or else the kids will go through it/it'll fly everywhere. Laundry. Wow, at first I didn't mind but now I question whether I was my clothes thoroughly because of a little stench. As much as I want to do everything myself, I think this might be the one thing I'll pay someone to do for me because it's so damn tiring, especially if you have as many clothes as me!
  • Initial perception vs. reality: I bring this up because my initial perception of how my life would be in Africa is completely different from the reality. I thought I would have no access to Internet, phones, and general communication and would be completely isolated from the rest of the world/my family and friends back in the U.S. But really, while I don't have consistent Internet access, I do have a cell phone that has pretty good reception and have the conveniences of little stores nearby to buy basic food items and such. Also, transport...not as crazy as I thought it would be. I thought I'd be in those huge trucks, sitting in the back with hundreds of animals and people everywhere. One of my friends also mentioned the heat. I can say that I'm somewhat used to it but she (as well as I) really thought it would be so unbearable that it would affect our effectiveness as Volunteers. Which is still very possible since we haven't hit hot season yet from late February to May. I'm sure there are more, but it's just interesting to note these things, you know?
Well, there you go! Hope it was enjoyable for you to read as it was for me to write this!

AND write me letters/packages and comment on this blog when you get the chance!!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

My package wish list (and a new mailing address)!

So I've only been at site for about 3 weeks but damn do I have cravings for things...which is why I stock up on many things in Ouaga that I can't get at my site. But that isn't enough for someone like me with a high metabolism who snacks/eats every hour!

First things first, I got a new mailing address! So send mail here instead of my Ouaga address. A few of us volunteers in my region got a PO box in our provincial capital, meaning I can check mail as often as once a week, making it a quick day trip!

Michael Berino
BP 54
Burkina Faso
(West Africa)

Very simple! Please number letters/packages so I'll know if something's missing. And if you're sending packages, claim simple things on the Customs form, like "educational materials" or "personal hygiene supplies."
Aaaaand now, for my wish list!!
  • LONG LETTERS with pictures (don't forget to number these!) - I wanna hear what's going on in your life and everyone else
  • MAGAZINES! -- The Economist, Time, Newsweek, People, GQ (I need to know what's going on in the world!)
  • SALTY SNACKS/etc.: Cheez-Its, Goldfishes, beef jerky/Slim Jim's, tuna (in aluminum, vacuumed sealed packets), small condiment packets (ketchup, parmesan cheese), Spam singles
  • SWEET SNACKS/CANDY: Twix, Sour Patch Kids, plain M&M's, Snickers, Crunch, Heath Bar, caramel and nut chewy candies, gummy bears/worms, strawberry belts, Crystal Lite/Propel On-The-Go thin packets for bottled water, Almond Roca
  • HEALTHY SNACKS: pretty much anything from Trader Joe's, especially dried fruit (raisins, cranberries, apples, etc.), fruit leather, trail mix, granola bars (especially the Nature's Valley with the green packaging).
  • FOR THE KIDS TO USE/ENCOURAGE THEM: thin coloring markers (Crayola, Pentel), stickers, hard candies (like Jolly Ranchers)

Bottom line: FOOD!! Magazines. Letters. Things for the kids to use for drawing/coloring and candies to give away.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

The first two weeks at site = (one of the) hardest/most challenging

It was (and still is somewhat) difficult. Plainly put. As much as I’d like to paint a rosy, cheery picture of my first week, it’s best to be real. Not surprisingly, it was also expected, too. Thinking about my first week at site while I was still in the US or even during training, I knew it was going to be a challenge but really thought nothing of it. This definitely has to be one of the top 5 most difficult things I’ve had to do in my 22 years of living!

The day after Swear-In, I took a bus to Gaoua (my regional capital) and spent the night at a hotel while a PC vehicle brought down all my stuff, as well as the belongings of other new PCVs in my region. The next day, I did some quick shopping for the basics, ten headed to my site with Kyle (another PCV who’s in my area). Driving down was even more beautiful than I remember. When I got to my house, Ali and Armel (2 teenage neighbors of mine) helped me unload all of belongings into my house. I was so ready to make my house my own/get to cleaning that I didn’t even really notice the PC vehicle leave (unlike what I expected/heard). Ali, Armel and I cleaned everything – sweeping the floor, wiping clear the tables, removing the cobwebs on the ceiling, re-arranging the things that Clay left behind, etc. It was great to finally make this house comfortable for me to live in for the next 2 years!

It wasn’t until the third day that the novelty of living in a new place wore off…fast. It’s different for everyone (so I’ve heard) but for me, that feeling consumed me so quickly. I started getting antsy and for one of the first times while here in BF, questioned what I’d do in this new place, my reasons for doing the Peace Corps, and felt the loneliness/depression start to hit. Which is why I slipped into an immediate coping mechanism: eat a whole damn lot. I ate most of the candy in the care package I got from my parents a while ago, and binged on the majority of snacks I got at Marina Market. No doubt, a really hard day for me and I have even more respect (if that’s even possible) for those who move to a place completely different from their own and have to adapt to the new culture and language immediately – people like my Mom and Dad, Tito Vic and Tita Imelda, who all immigrated individually to the US in the early 80’s. I got a call from Mom and a surprise call from Mahmoudou (my host dad) which helped a little.

I woke up the next morning not feeling so well (emotionally) but forced myself to get out of the house and go to the church I heard was relatively close to my house…which, spiritually, really helped me center myself immensely. Plus, I was getting my face out there despite all the stares and giggles. After, I needed to get more water and for the first time in 3 days of arriving at site, I finally met some young girls and women at the pump (not too far from my house, right next to the school). Little side note: a lot of the people that hang around me have been Ali’s friends – all teenage boys – so I definitely got excited to meet new people! I ended up walking en ville (kind of like downtown)/to the goudron (paved road) with Ali to buy bread, onions, bananas and other food but also to again get my face out there instead of hiding within the confines of my house. Of course, there were the stares and yelling of ‘Chinois’ or ‘Japonais’ but I explained to a lot of them who I was, where I actually came from, that I’m an American volunteer for the Peace Corps, etc. Walking back home, I even saw a guy I met when I was on my site visit a couple months ago who helped me with my bike. Finally, a familiar face! In all honesty, a complete 180 from the day before.

Lesson learned: when I’m in a situation like this again, GET OUT OF THE HOUSE! Get over the initial fear of being seen as a stranger and force yourself to meet people. Give yourself a reason to get out – buy some food at the market. Go to church. Introduce yourself when people stare. Speak/greet in the local language despite the laughter. Yeah, it’s awkward but hell, this is your home for the next 2 years so you might as well get over all of the awkwardness now!

To go from a completely structured schedule with fellow Americans for 3 months to being dropped off at your site with no set structure (by yourself) is a sudden and dramatic change. So my strategy was to balance being at home and going out into the community. At home, I tried new things to cook and decorated my walls with pagnes (African-patterned fabric) to add some color to my house. I’ve been having lots of dreams of my family and close friends recently, so I made a little picture thing on the wall above my desk. I texted fellow new PC volunteers to see how everyone was doing (and plan the next time some of us would reunite!). I finally finished reading “Three Cups of Tea,” a gift from my friend Leslie and started reading Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” a farewell gift from my Uncle Stan. In the community, I went to the Grand Marché (big market day) every Tuesday, pumped more water and met more people just by introduced myself, in French or local language. Even just reading outside on my porch invites people over to causer (chat/talk). One example was when I was helping Ali take the weeds out of my courtyard and the lady cultivating in the filed next to my house came over, was entertained of the sight of a foreigner doing manual labor, and began speaking to me in Mooré. I used the little that I knew and it seemed to completely change her view of me. Another instance was when I was washing my dishes on the porch and my neighbors invited me to a Burkinabè tradition: drinking tea and causer.

Last Saturday, I biked to visit my closest PC neighbor, Jon, who lives less than 20 km north of me. Riding on bike, despite the little hills, made me appreciate more where I live. It was a good day trip/break from my site. While we talked about our 2 friends back home meeting for the first time (thanks to us!) and just about PC life thus far, there were 2 highlights. One was seeing the cutest line of puppies imaginable pass through Jon’s porch. I asked the kids if they were for sale and he said yes…so I think I’m pretty set on getting a dog instead of a cat. Yeah, they’re more dependent on you and take longer to train but if I’m going to be living here for 2 years, I want to be really happy! SO hopefully in the next few weeks, you’ll see pictures of me with my new friend/housemate! Second, Jon was telling me a story about something and mentioned the song “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and it instantly reminded me of the last road I took with my friends since high school – Patrici, Mari and Gina – to Las Vegas and I just straight up laughed out loud. Amazing how a song can elicit such funny memories!

My second week at site so far has been really good and I’m slowly (but surely) meeting people and finding my niche. At the last Grand Marché on Tuesday, I heard several people call out my name which is a sign that I’m progressing little by little with community integration! Even while biking along the paved road, I’ll hear a couple of “Michael’s” instead of the equivalent of foreigner/stranger/white person/Chinese/Japanese. Coincidentally, I met the chef du village (village chief) who invited me over for tea and causer (talk/chat) in his courtyard. He’s Muslim so was fasting for Ramadan – and also invited me to join him and his family to break the fast that evening! I felt like such an honored guest, and the fact that I’m the first American he’s actually exchanged ideas with and genuinely talked to makes me even happier! On Tuesday, a few of us PCVs in our region met up in Gaoua (our regional capital) for a little day trip -- eating good food and shopping for things we can't necessarily get at our sites. It was just nice to speak English for a little bit and share our experiences. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, I got to check out the famed Lobi Museum, and even established our own PO Box (so you all can send me things to this address instead and I can check it on a weekly basis since it's only a short bus ride away!).

If there’s anything I could take from these first 2 weeks at site, it’s to really just force myself to break free from my timidity and just get out and meet people! To really cherish the small accomplishments of meeting a new person, learning a new word in French or the local language or whatnot. While I haven’t started any projects with the school (and won’t until January), it’s reassuring to know that the moment I arrived, I already started my ‘work’ – of changing people’s perceptions of Americans by simply living among the Burkinabè for 2 years of my life.

Currently, I’m in Ouagadougou for the next couple of days for a VAC committee meeting…running water for showeing, a toilet, electricity, Internet access. It’s living the privileged life for a couple of days before I return back to site. So I’m happy I’m able to post all these blogs I’ve been backed up with/been storing on my USB drive.

I’ll end with what the Burkinabè always say, regardless of a good or bad situation: “ça va aller!” (It’ll be all right!/That’s the way it goes!)…perhaps another mantra for my life?