Tuesday, July 5, 2011

To Washington D.C. - Beginning the Trek

I’ve been doing a lot of things to keep busy these last few weeks.

There’s been plenty of packing and, with that, plenty of trips to the store to buy something I’d forgotten or hadn’t yet thought of.

There’s been more paperwork (of course) and at least one trip back to the doctor for a shot.

There’s been a lot of downloading, ripping, burning, charging and organizing on the trusty laptop. I’ve managed to build a sizeable collection of movies, music and programs to trade with my fellow PCV’s in Africa – No RedBox there (I’m assuming). Tradable data is apparently a hot commodity down there since many of the volunteers spend their downtime without a TV. It’s a good emotional connection too, I think. It reminds you of home and what you left behind. I think it can also put things into perspective. I’m half-tempted to find a copy of The Real House Wives of New Jersey because I feel that their problems would be comedic –gold in South Africa.

At times, I want to bury myself in things to worry about. When I keep my mind on where I’m going, I’m able to avoid thinking about the hardest part stateside: saying goodbye.

My journey begins the day after Independence Day (my last US holiday for a while). I’m going to spend it with friends and family and try to forget about the day ahead of it – not because I’m scared to leave or afraid of the journey, but because I know there is an entire two years of beautiful experiences that will go missed in my absence.

That’s a heavy thought.

It’s the kind of thought that doesn’t really start churning its way through the mind until you shut the lights off to go to sleep. It’s the kind of thought that comes back to haunt you when you realize that this is the last time you’ll drive a car for two years. Or pet the cats for the maybe-last time. Or meet up with friends that you know will probably drift out of touch during the time between.

There is no doubt that Peace Corps is what I want to do. I hear people saying that the world is becoming a darker place every day and that mankind is so depraved, so wicked and so deceitful that there is no hope for us at all. I used to think that too.

If you believe that, then the natural question that should follow is, “What are you doing to change it?”

I believe that wherever there are people, there is also Goodness – not the kind of “light vs. dark” kind of goodness, or Jesus’ salvation kind of goodness. Rather, this is a kind of general, basic warmth of human connection between individuals. It’s older than the United States, older than books of empires and the emperors themselves. It spreads out from the cover of clandestine night and is etched and painted on the walls of the caves from which we came.

It is the compliment that turns your day. The “wholeness” that exists when a family is together. It is music sung in the car, it is forgiveness, it is politeness, it is supporting beliefs that you don’t agree with because someone you love does.

There is a world of Goodness out there, but it exists in a privileged fashion here in the States. Our circumstance is such that we take all these things for granted but thrust into an uncompromising situation, these would be the things we would cherish most. This common kind of Goodness is the heartbeat of our species. It keeps us alive daily; a lack of it would most certainly go noticed but its abundance and steady thump-thump-thump goes so unappreciated.

And so unreturned.

I have a rich life and I have been lucky to be a part of the lives of others who have so fed my own. It is because of this that leaving them will tear like Velcro, but it is also for this reason that I feel so compelled to share and discover this same Goodness elsewhere. We’re all of us part of an amazing family on an extraordinary planet presumptuous enough to boast a loud variety of living things. What a tragedy it is when we fail to bear witness to its full beauty. Greater shame still, when we do not extend our reach just enough to be a part of it and wonder at how such a thing can be a some thing at all.

Added Note:

It’s 5:10a.m. July 5th as I write these words. I would love to sleep but I didn’t really have much hope of that happening. I went ahead and spent the rest of the night tugging and pushing and straining and zipping my luggage into the right proportions. While I’m a little worried about being able to carry all of it at one time, no one item is especially weighty and I feel that the whole of it will fall short of the required weight limit of 80pds.
For those of you wondering, this is what two years of luggage looks like for me:

1 x Rolling Suitcase ~ 30 pds
1 x PACKED Duffel ~ 15-20pds
1 x Acoustic Guitar ~ 10pds (I will take this as carry-on)
1 x Side Bag Carry-on ~ 5pds

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Vacation Vaccination!

I move around a lot.

I was born in Chicago, spent my elementary years in Kansas City, roughed it in Fort Knox, got country in Rineyville, froze myself in Sioux Falls and went to college in Williamsburg. Because I move around so much, I've never had a "Family Doctor." This fact has been a hassle my entire life. I have no consolidated source of medical information and my medical history is a spotted quilt of stitched-together necessities that just barely proves helpful.

For this reason, the medical portion of my Peace Corps application was a headache-filled nightmare where it should have been a headache only. During the staging process (now a few short weeks away), I will be receiving  country-specific shots for my trip as well as any other shots that I may have missed before. It is advised that I bring a record of all the shots I have had so as not to risk taking the same ones twice.

Easier said that done...

I have been calling the Peace Corps, leaving messages and e-mailing different offices and people to try and find out what I need to do to get a copy of these records because Peace Corps is the most immediate collection of this information. I have not heard even the slightest bit of information and I'm beginning to worry (though truthfully, I don't think it's going to be too big of an issue). I spent the entire day yesterday waiting to hear from somebody about this information. And I thought that was the worst of my worries...

Yesterday, I received this e-mail after 5pm

    Dear Invitee,

We were just informed that the government of South Africa requires Yellow Fever vaccination for entry into the country or is near a country that does. They require proof that vaccination has taken place at least 10 days prior to entry. Therefore, the Peace Corps will not issue an air ticket for you to fly to your assigned post until you obtain the Yellow Fever vaccination. Because of the time required to process air tickets, you should obtain the vaccine and provide the Peace Corps with proof of vaccination no later than June 24th, 2011.

We apologize for this very late notice, but Peace Corps just received this information.

Immediate steps to take:

1. Respond to this email to SouthAfrica@peacecorps.gov with ‘Received.’
2. Read all documents and determine if you need the Vaccination. The Yellow Fever vaccine is good for 10 years. If you have received the vaccination no more than 7 years prior to your departure you do not need to be revaccinated.

3. Check out the CDC site to identify the closest facility to get your vaccination. Yellow Fever vaccination must be given at a certified Yellow Fever vaccination clinic. A list of these clinics in the United States can be found at the Centers for Disease Control site:
4. http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/yellow-fever-vaccination-clinics-search.aspx .

5. Get the vaccination. Pay for the vaccination. You will need to pay for the vaccination when you receive it upfront, and then the Peace Corps will reimburse you for up to $150 of your actual out of pocket costs incurred in obtaining the Yellow Fever vaccination.

6. Fax a copy of the portion of the form documenting the Yellow Fever vaccination to 202-692-1561. Be certain that your name appears in that section. On your cover sheet for the fax, be certain to include your name, date of birth, and country assignment. If you have any questions, please email pre-servicenurse@peacecorps.gov or call 1-800-424-8580, option 2, extension 4049.
7. Apply for reimbursement. Submit the Cost Share Authorization and a copy of your bill to the address on the form.

8. If you have any questions, please email pre-servicenurse@peacecorps.gov or call 1-800-424-8580, option 2, extension 4049 OR contact your desk officer at pmcelroy@peacecorps.gov or SouthAfrica@peacecorps.gov.

Again, we apologize for this very late notice to you.

Thank you so much for your flexibility and patience on this matter! And please don’t hesitate to let us know if you have further questions.
Now, I'm not going to lie, this got me really steamed. Peace Corps has had my medical records since December and at no point did they think that I might need a Yellow Fever vaccine to go to South Africa. At first, I got a little more angry that I should have because I'm on vacation, I don't have my insurance with me and I have less than a week to get this all straightened out. I panicked!

But then, cooler heads prevailed and I got to work. This is all part of the process and it can be handled as long as one stays rational. As opposed to Kentucky, North Carolina (where I am currently vacationing) is a wonderful medical mecca. I was able to get into a local clinic with only minor difficulties and received the required vaccination and promptly sent it in to HQ.

It's a huge relief to have this off my shoulders now and I can get back to enjoying the time I have left here. It also feels good that Peace Corps threw my a curve ball and I was able to bat it back. So I'm back to being excited and confident again and totally thrilled to get to this job.

Just...give me a break for the last few weeks please!?

Monday, June 13, 2011


Just a few short minutes ago, I received my staging email from SATO travel! Honestly, I kind of expected the whole process to be a pain since we have to go through this third-party organization but, thankfully, it wasn't an issue and I was able to make my travel arrangements within about 8 minutes. The lady on the line was easygoing, fast and polite which is refreshing given the kinds of scum-of-the-Earth one finds associated with the airline industry.

Because Peace Corps gets government discounts, the flight only cost $255! That's a good deal! I feel a little better about easing the burden on taxpayers (even just the slightest) since I was thinking it would be closer to $500.

I will be departing from Sioux Falls airport on July 5th at 11 a.m. and I will fly through to Chicago O'Hare. I can't count how many times I've been to that airport. I remember flying through there when I was only 7 years old and alone. It's a wonder really...the things that become a sort of "measuring stick" for your life. O'Hare doesn't change. Going through there only reminds me of the changes taking place and how far I've come since being a chubby kid gawking at the florescent lights on the ceiling of one of the walkways.

But I digress.

From Chicago, I'll be leaving at 3 p.m. to Washington D.C. and landing sometime around 5:45 p.m. Staging starts early the next day and is sure to be a whirlwind of activity and preparation. There, I will share a room with 1-2 other volunteers also going to South Africa who (judging by Facebook) will be very similar in their tastes and personalities so it's guaranteed to be a good time.

Just three more weeks in the States - I absolutely can't believe that even when I think about it. I'm grateful that I will be able to spend the 4th of July with my family and in America. It means a lot and it'll be a fitting end to my time here. Between now and then, I'll be buying clothes, packing, making lists (undoubtedly checking them twice/thrice), saying goodbye to the many good friends who make this all simultaneously worthwhile and yet somewhat painful. I can't wait to go over and make you proud and make myself proud in the process. I can't wait to be a part of something that puts even the slightest bit of goodness back into a world that has given me so much of it. At the same time, I know that I will miss every one of you terribly and that this is a job that will grind away at my ambition and patience. There are many tough times ahead, but nobody ever gained anything without taking a risk and I can't stand to preach the virtues of Humanism and stand idly by when I have been blessed with so much.

Three weeks!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Aspiration Statement

The Invitation packet I received contained several folders and a couple useful books like the Volunteer Handbook, a guide to making the cultural adjustments and some advice to friends and family on the home front. The folders are labeled "Passport/Visa", "Resume and Personal Papers", "Domestic Connections", "Staging Materials" and "Finance and Insurance".

These folders are relatively self-explanatory. "Passport/Visa" was the most important of these folders. Peace Corps sent me this packet with just enough time to squeeze my information through the six-week process it takes to get the passport and visa. I got to work right away and filled out the necessary paperwork. This was pretty confusing for me because I've never done this before. I'm assuming that whoever put my folder together forgot the South Africa Visa form but luckily I was able to find the same one from the included example online. I just printed it out and included the necessary photos.

Instead of having the Post Office send the forms to...wherever it is they send them, Peace Corps requires us to send them to a third-party travel agency called SATO for processing. The air-mail packet PC was kind enough to include for this was too small for the folder that the Post Office returned to me. It's okay, I made it work.

With that out of the way, I moved onto my updated resume and aspiration statement for my host country. Peace Corps doesn't send your information overseas and these two bits of information will be the only way for your overseas connections to get a sense of who you are. I read that they are forwarded to your host family too.

I know why I joined the Peace Corps and I have already spoken or written much of this aspiration statement throughout the application process, but I wanted to gain a sense of what other people had written. The blogs of volunteers who have gone ahead have been very helpful for me. They give you a sense of direction and remind you that there are people with the same shortfalls still hoping to make an impact in the world. It's heartening, and I hope that by including my own aspiration statement that I can offer a little more of the same to those looking for an idea of what to say - Remember: "Communication is about being effective, not always about being proper." Bo Bennett

The directions for this said to "describe your expectations about your Peace Corps service and assigned project, your strategies for adapting to a new culture, and how you expect your service to further your personal and professional goals." It gave five sections to focus on and I have seen different people write it different ways. Some people include the questions and answer each of them individually. I wanted to write it as more of a letter so I was sure to focus on the points provided but tried to keep a theme between the paragraphs. I think you can pretty much write it any way you want it. Relax! You've already got the job!

A: The professional attributes that you plan to use, and what aspirations you hope to fulfill, during your Peace Corps service.

I am thoroughly grateful for this opportunity to serve the country of South Africa through such a notable organization as the United States Peace Corps. It is this organization that has strived to connect the many unique, vibrant cultures of the world that captured my attention at a young age and inspired in me a passion to add to its efforts. To this end, it is my hope that the skills in language and communication that I have learned at University of the Cumberlands may enrich the many communities I will be working with and within. The skills provided by my education are further honed by the many leadership roles I have filled prior to my service and have been vital to the teaching, mentoring and tutoring programs that have prepared me for this service.

B: Your strategies for working effectively with host country partners to meet expressed needs.

Those programs, like the Peace Corps, rely upon the collaborative efforts of individuals with varying backgrounds to work effectively on a broad scale. My experience with building relationships across these boundaries will prove most beneficial when working with my host partners. Primary to any collaborative effort is the necessity of trust between those involved. Trust, I believe, is built through an open channel of communication. This is achieved through a clear willingness to abandon preconceived notions attached to a project or people while extending a firm respect for all those involved. Respect, in this case, is what I believe to be a targeted application of my skills: the wisdom to know where I am needed and in what capacity. In this regard, I am fully committed to learning from those I work with and from those that have preceded me to best build trust, companionship and a greater good to the collective.

C: Your strategies for adaptive to a new culture with respect to your own cultural background.

There is no doubt that this kind of adaptation to a new culture and country will be difficult; however, adaptation is a skill in which I comfortably engage. My family is a blend of Mexican-American lineages that has formed the basis for my commitment to positive cultural relations. This kind of cultural synthesis is inherent in the American vision of progress where no one culture supersedes another. This is a vision that my father swore to protect in the United States Marine Corps and a vision confirmed to me as his obligations took us to every region in America. In the many states where we settled, I witnessed the same degree of pride the native people expressed for their history and their land. Though we rarely stayed in any one location longer than four years, I found that “adaptation” meant sharing that pride by involving oneself in it. South Africa has a rich and beautiful history that I am proud to soon share by contributing to it and by allowing it to reshape my own experience.

D: The skills and knowledge you hope to gain during pre-service training to best serve your future community and project.

I am most excited to add to my experience by living within and working with a culture different from my own. As a linguist and writer, I have a appetite for language and storytelling. It is for this reason that I find the language training invaluable to sharing cultural tales that will add to my own creative outlook and, hopefully, inspire those of others. In addition, I am confident that my pre-service training will prepare me with the tools and skills I need to be an effective Resource Specialist to my place of assignment. To this cause, I am ready to apply the utmost effort to best execute my duty.

E. How you think Peace Corps service will influence your personal and professional aspirations after your service ends.

I have no doubt that my Peace Corps service will instill many unforeseen personal and philosophical changes. It is through these changes that I hope to gain a fresh perspective on where my strengths are best applied while learning to improve and correct my weaknesses. I believe that volunteering will allow me to overcome conflict so as to grant me the skills needed to continue my education into graduate school. South Africa is home to a culture and heritage that will add to my understanding of human relationships which, as a writer, will prove instrumental to my craft. These skills and experiences will stay with me long after my service ends and will provide me with a wealth of knowledge that can only be found by actively participating in this program.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Great Trek

I’m proud to finally feel confident enough to put this blog up. Since last June when I first started an 11-month process to apply to the Peace Corps, I have fought with the idea of posting something permanent with the knowledge that I could still not receive an invite. If I started a blog, committed to it and kept it regular, I felt that it would make it all the more depressing if I did not receive the invitation to serve—to have put all that time and effort hoping for something that still was not sure…

But I was already hoping and had been for a long time.
So when that invitation packet arrived on my doorstep a week after the Peace Corps Toolkit notified me of my invite-status, I felt a kind of relief and excitement and nervousness and joy all in one Wonka-style, nugget-crunch of emotion. I felt this, because after a year of telling people that I was going overseas to do “not-sure-what” in “not-sure-where,” I finally did know what and did know where. I have a destination and a mission to accomplish when I get there.

On July 5, 2011, I’ll be leaving to South Africa to volunteer as a Resource Specialist for the Peace Corps!

Now, I would like to take the opportunity to thank those that have supported me throughout this journey:

To Chris: Thank you for giving me an “office” to have my Skype call to Chicago, for being late to work because I didn’t know we needed money for fingerprints and for listening to countless worst-case-scenario terrors I envisioned throughout this process.

To Tanna, Andy, Mrs. Fish: Your references and your guidance through enthusiastic support of this goal of mine.

To Lucas: For giving me some peace of mind when I thought the waiting would drive me crazy.

To Brianna: Because you’ve been the best of friends and the richest of support, my confidence at times and my means of getting through the many sleepless nights where I was not so sure of myself.

To Mom, Dad, Eric and Ezra: Because leaving the family you love is the hardest part about all of this. You gave me the tools, instructions and examples to live by. Because without you, I wouldn’t have asked the questions, read the books and wondered what my place in the Universe is: all things that directly led me to this point.

To The Others: I cannot hope to remember all the many supportive faces that have put their hope where I did, listened when I could not help but worry and share a similar joy to mine at this news.

Thank you all. This is not a journey I could complete alone nor would I have wanted to.

I wanted to call this blog something that would draw from South African culture and history. For those that don’t know, “The Great Trek” was a mass exodus by European Africans (Dutch Boers who called themselves “Voortrekkers”) who left their home in the Cape Colony to evade British rule. The British, having recently acquired South Africa through the Napoleonic wars, substituted the official use of the Dutch language for English. Laws like these helped exacerbate an already-ailing sense of sovereignty for the colonists who gradually lost their ability to influence government through magistrates and councils.

In history, these Voortrekkers moved north and east where they encountered conflict with the many tribes already inhabiting the region. In Natal, these whites clashed with the Zulu people and killed many of their warriors. In the east, colonists faced continued aggression with the proud Xhosa, a relationship that would help influence a man from that tribe named Nelson Mandela.

The Great Trek marks a fundamental shift in the history of South Africa. It is a time where the identity of the white Afrikaans became cemented and it is a time where cultural and racial lines began to scar the beautiful landscape of South Africa. These same scars can still be seen today, just 17 years after the ending of racial segregation under the policy of apartheid. The ghost of apartheid still haunts this culture through the many adaptations blacks and whites have made during its perverse rule.

And here I am, 200 years later about to make a similar journey. I know I’m about to leave the land and family that I love. I have an admitted ignorance of the culture and people I will meet. I have little concrete knowledge of what I will do when I get there. In many ways, I feel very much like these early Voortrekkers…with a difference.

When I leave to go to South Africa, I will be going with an open mind to learn from a people I know little about. Instead of fighting, we will be working together to build something new for the community. We will be working across cultural barriers rather than along them. This will take a lot of effort, a lot of patience and a special kind of wisdom to know where I fit in my new home. This is a different journey from the Voortrekkers; one that I hope will be positive to the people I intend to serve and for me as I learn from them.
I don’t believe this task will be easy, but I didn’t sign up for it because I thought it would be.