The following content is comprised of personal opinions, and in no way reflects the opinions of the Peace Corps or the U.S. Government.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Visit

This one'll be a long one, so grab a beverage and something to eat; you might be here a while.

2 weeks ago, I posted a blog that I had been working on for some time called 'The Dark Side of Peace Corps.' Since then, I have received numerous comments and emails from friends, family members, Peace Corps Applicants, Nominees, Invitees, Volunteers, and Returned Volunteers (I even got a call from our Peace Corps Country Director…that was fun). In response to these, I wish to thank you for your concern, thoughts, prayers, and wishes in general. Also, it was never my intention to dissuade prospective Volunteers from Service. Peace Corps is a wonderful opportunity that I personally feel should be seized if presented, even though I still maintain it is not for everyone. If you're thinking about applying or in the process, understand that these words were meant to be enlightening and… other positive things.

A few weeks ago, I took a few personal days to visit Chelsea in Burera/Kirambo. Those of you with a map handy will see that Nyaruguru, my district, is almost in Burundi while Burera is almost in Uganda, meaning our two sites are clear across the country from each other (even if it is a rather small country).  Peace Corps has many travel policies, one of which is that I'm not allowed to travel at night. It can complicate things (especially when you have to teach half the day and then try to traverse the entire country), but it makes sense.

My journey to visit Chelsea started at 10am on Friday, just as my class wrapped up. Thursday night I had called one of my neighbors/friends, Hubert, who is a motorcycle-taxi driver, and arranged a ride to Butare, the first checkpoint of my voyage. I told Hubert that I wanted to leave just after my classes at 10. Now, Hubert only speaks Kinyarwanda and French and, despite my repeated attempts to convince him otherwise, thinks that I also speak French. After getting over that obstacle, I conveyed to Hubert that he should be ready to pick me up at my house by 10. What does Hubert do? He rides up to the school, asks where I am, and parks outside my classroom at 9:45. My students thought that was hilarious.

After detouring past my house to switch bags, it was off to Butare. The road between my village and Butare is a little… dichotomous.  For the first 14 kilometers, which takes about 35 minutes, the road is gravel, washed out, and in generally horrible shape. However, the 'road' soon meets up with the Main Road, which is paved, has painted lanes, and speed-limit signs. We follow the tarmac north for about 20 kilometers (20 Minutes) before pulling into Butare.

Once in Butare, my next task involves getting a seat on a 'coach' bus to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. The nice things about these buses is that everyone gets an actual seat, which should tell you a lot about the lesser bus companies (hint: the smaller bus' name literally translates to 'squeeze'). Having made it to Butare around 11:15, I was able to reserve a seat on the 12pm bus, allowing me time to catch lunch at a local restaurant. The trip from Butare to Kigali takes somewhere from an hour and 45 minutes to 2 and a half hours, depending on how many trucks we get stuck behind. On this particular day, I reached Kigali at about 2:15.

Kigali is sort of the central hub for travel in Rwanda. No matter where I go, I almost have to travel through Kigali. In order to get to Kirambo, which is northwest of Kigali, I have to get off the bus at Nyabugogo instead of downtown and get another ticket for a different bus going to Base/Gakenke. Having gotten a ticket for 3pm, I board the filling bus and wait for it to depart. To my surprise, it actually left about 15 minutes early (which never happens). The road between Kigali and Base has been under construction for nearly 4 months now, so the normal 45 minute drive turns into a little over an hour and results in the woman sitting next to me vomiting into her dress. At Base, I trade the coach bus for another motorcycle ride over dirt roads for about 45 minutes before arriving in Kirambo just before 5pm, having been travelling for 7 hours and spent nearly 13,000 francs (about $22).

Friday night Chelsea and I made fries and guacamole at her house. Yes, I did eat guacamole. Yes, I am aware that it is made out of avocadoes and other vegetables I never would have eaten in America. I've been trying this new thing with Chelsea's help where I don't refuse to eat food I've never tried before. Those of you who knew me and my eating habits in the States would hands down say that I was a very picky eater. But I realized after I came here that I was convinced I didn't like things (like avocadoes) that I had never actually tried before. Having become uncomfortable with this, I asked Chelsea to help me break this habit and expand my tastes a little. Our first attempt at this, to my initial dismay, was the guacamole. I'm still going with I only liked it because Chelsea made it, but I'm willing to accept that it's not bad.

A good portion of my time spent at Chelsea's site (at least during the day) was spent at her school where we would sit and talk with students and eat meals with the teachers. Our time with the students involved Chelsea and Rodrigue, an accounting student, have a rather vivid disagreement over the purpose of Tai Chi, teaching them English slang like 'booty' and 'bromance,' and playing a makeshift game of catch using my hat and our heads. Romalice and I actually got pretty good, to the point where we could consistently land the hat squarely on the others' head from about 25 feet away. Hey, it's harder than you'd think…

Kirambo has a rather large market (which is NOT a 45 minute walk spanning two valleys like Cyahinda's) on Saturdays, so Chelsea and I spent the day picking up food for an epic chili she was going to make and shopping for fabric to have dresses made out of (for her…I assumed that was obvious). Having no conventional stove, the chili had to cook over the charcoal stove (Imbabura) for a little over 3 hours, during which we continued our epic shenanigans with her students. After securing permission from her school's Dean of Studies, we were able to discreetly take a handful of her student back to help us eat the chili (we made waaaaay too much).

Chelsea's site varies from mine in a myriad of ways. For starters, her town, school, and house have power. This is kind of a game-changer as it allows things to be accomplished after 6pm and before 6am (although let's be honest: nothing happens prior to 6am even when we do have electricity). Since my region is devoid of power, I have to go to my school every night at 6:30 just so I can continue to plan my lessons (or do anything that involves more light than a candle or kerosene lantern can give off). In addition, her school is nearly dichotomous to mine. My school administration almost never interferes in my work (my headmaster's idea of ensuring I am productive is to ask me if I am 'ok' once a week), but they are also much more uptight in relation to the students. My students have at most 3 hours a day where they are not studying, and in that time they have to clean out the classrooms and dormitories. However, because Cyahinda is so remote and most of my students' families live in the area, the students are allowed to leave campus without permission (within reason) so long as they actually come back.

Chelsea's school, on the other hand, has a few more luxurious aspects than mine does. Because they have power, there is usually music played when class is not in session and movies on a few nights each week. They also routinely have dances (yeah, even in Africa teenagers have to go through that ordeal). However, perhaps because Kirambo is a bigger town, her students need permission to leave school grounds (which they are not usually granted). I'm going to try to say this next part as fairly as possible. The administration at Chelsea's school really likes to… interfere… with her ability to fulfill her primary responsibilities. Don't get me wrong, it's not the entire staff. Her Dean of Studies, Ferdinand is a relatively laid-back guy. We joined him and John, another teacher from the Teacher Training College in Kirambo, for dinner one night and they wound up helping us kill a liter of scotch (its ok, it was truly terrible tasting as far as scotch goes). But there are a few of her colleagues who do not really understand what a Peace Corps Volunteer is supposed to do, nor are they very receptive to learning.

All in all, the spending the weekend away from my site and relaxing with Chelsea was a lot of fun (not that there was any doubt it would be), and exactly what I needed. Sometimes, no matter how good or bad our work in our village is going, we just need to change things up a bit for a few days. Escaping my school and visiting Chelsea, even though it meant being drawn into another school, was a perfect getaway.

-Don't Forget To Be Awesome

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