Sunday, September 26, 2010

Moving to Tucson!

I've started considering this move to be a dry-run of what it's like to pack up, relocate, and learn to get around in a brand new place.  Granted, I won't be taking an entire household-full of stuff to Burkina, but I will get to move into a new house, quickly make it my own, and figure out how to get to places nearby to find things that I need.  Here this is facilitated by knowing the same language as most of the people (although my French is of little use here), owning a car, and by having access to Google Maps...

Ok, so maybe it's nothing like moving to Burkina.  At least I'll be getting used to it being boiling hot all of the time! It's not bad right now - it's 10pm and still above 85 degrees, but since the sun isn't shining it's quite pleasant.  Even during the day it was a dry heat - I think I'll be able to survive here in the desert.  The mountains are pretty and the landscape is beautiful in a very dramatic way.  I can see why people retire here. We get to move in on Wednesday, unpack for a week, drive back to Denver for a wedding, and then I leave! Busy busy busy.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The cost of volunteering

Even though our departure date is growing steadily closer (I just got my ticket to staging in Philly - I leave on the 11th!) I still don't think the reality of being gone for 2 years has hit me.  Going back to MHC didn't help, especially since I was there at the beginning of the year so it didn't really feel as though I'd missed anything - it was just returning "home" after another summer in the place that still feels like home in my heart but not quite like it used to.  Still feeling a good mixture of excitement and nervousness - I like planning and packing and feeling like things are moving closer to departure but also sometimes feel like things are moving too quickly and I'd really like another few months to process and read up on the country and say goodbye to my life here.  Ok, now that I think more about it, I'm firmly in denial.  I've never been away from home for this long with no real way of getting back (a $2500 plane ticket is a little much for a spontaneous trip home) and so I'm not stressing over visiting all of my friends, etc. as much as I might be because it feels like I'll see them again in a few months like always.  This might be a bit of a problem. :p

A conversation with Robyn (and all of this shopping!) really made me think about the cost of being a volunteer.  While all of my travel and living costs for the next two years will be covered, in preparation for going I've spent an exorbitant amount of money, and I certainly wouldn't have had time to earn it all with my usual summer job (thank you parents, generous relatives, and outlet malls for making up for my utter lack of employment).  Just about all of my clothing excluding pajamas, jackets and underwear is new, and even on clearance an REI skirt costs $40 (I bought 2, having owned exactly 1 fancy skirt that was the appropriate length).  I also bought 2 pairs of travel pants (the lightweight kind that zip off into shorts), a ridiculous amount of plain cotton t-shirts (my mother kept buying more whenever she found some, so I must be up to 7 or 8 at this point - I doubt I'll take all of them), a pair of exercise capris for under my skirts, Chaco sandals (I didn't find out about the 50% volunteer discount until after I got them, but they were on sale and the discount would have only saved me about $15), and a new pair of jeans (a necessary expenditure - all of mine either didn't fit anymore or had started ripping in awkward places).  Clothing aside I also bought a sleeping pad and hiking backpack (the former on sale, the latter on deep clearance - yay!), and a handful of miscellaneous other things like a travel towel.  My biggest single expenditure was for a netbook and extra battery (thanks to my father for those - they should arrive tomorrow!), and I also got an extra battery for the camera I already own.  Oh, and a bike helmet. Whew!

All told, when I bought the recommended personal property insurance I insured about $2000 worth of stuff (including luggage, clothing, electronics, jewelry, bedding, etc), and I'd guess what I'm bringing is worth more than that since a lot of it was on sale and some things I already owned like a nice rain jacket.  If you spread the $2000 over 27 months you aren't actually buying that much (about $74/month). I usually spend about $60 a week when I'm on my own on gas and food, and could easily tack on another $18/week of incidental costs (going to coffee, going dancing, grabbing a drink after work, buying a piece of clothing) to get to an additional $74 per month.  It's practically a bargain in that light since I'd be spending the money anyway plus paying for food, gas, and rent, but it's still a heck of a lot to shell out at once right after graduating from college with no job.  Without help I know I wouldn't have been able to get even half of what I'm taking.

What does the Peace Corps do with people who just can't afford to purchase all the things that they need (and I think a good deal of what I bought was a "need" since my current wardrobe didn't at all overlap with the expected ?  Sure, the sleeping pad is a luxury, I could have used the 40 year old hiking backpack in our basement (with an external rectangular tube frame!) and I easily would have saved money if I'd had a few months to scour discount shops and the Salvation Army for clothes.  If I didn't bring a computer and didn't buy anything extra for my existing camera, I'd guess that I could have cut my spending in half but it would have been a lot more work to get everything and $1000 is still a lot of money.  Do they have financial aid for volunteers?  Or a secret stash in-country for people who arrive unprepared? Or do you just ask for a later nomination date in order to find a job?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Packing, computer shopping, french class

Reading the blogs of other volunteers who have served or are serving is proving to be more helpful than I could have believed.  Not only is there a ton of advice to be had on what to bring, etc, but there's also a wonderful validation that all of my mixed emotions are in fact normal.  Waiting to leave is like a roller-coaster - one minute I'm so excited and inspired that I can hardly stand it, the next minute I'm crying because I still haven't finished getting everything on my packing list and the house needs to be packed to move to Arizona by the weekend and I'm not prepared for French class tomorrow and I haven't done Rosetta Stone yet today and I really just want to go back to Massachusetts.

Admittedly I do wish I had a little more time to prepare, although that would likely lead to the temptation to put it off anyway. 6 weeks just seems like so little time to learn about a country and culture where you're going to be living for the next 2 years, on top of trying to get all of your affairs in order and maybe brush up on some French (still need to give Mom power of attorney so that she can file my taxes while I'm gone, should find out how to do that).  I'd like to go back to my temp job that I started before leaving for the wedding, but I'm starting to doubt that I can.  He had me working 1-7pm, and frankly I know I won't feel like packing once I finally get home around 8, but I don't really get much packing done in the morning before I go to class either (I leave by 9:30am, and wouldn't have time to go home between class and work).  Plus the great move south starts next week, leaving little time to work anyway.  But it might be worth a try - I'll send an email tomorrow and ask.

On a more positive note, French class today was pretty nice. I'm finally realizing that I had a pretty great education at SMA, and I'm a bit disappointed that I didn't see it sooner (hindsight, as they say, is 20/20). The girls in class sigh and roll their eyes when Madame pulls out a bag of toiletries for the lesson today on bathroom items, but I see that she's tried to find something more interesting and engaging than simply reading out the labels on the textbook drawing.  Her insistence on only speaking French is sometimes exaggerated and comical, and her directions to re-write over vocab words in another color pen seem silly and odd, but her reasoning is sound - the only way we will learn to think in French is to be forced to speak it, and re-writing over words forces you to focus on every letter in order to remember the proper ending of the conjugation.

On the other hand, my motivation is clearly different from all the students around me.  They are finishing the last semester of their high school language requirement - they may enjoy French and want to go on the summer trip this year for a month to France, but many people in France speak English almost fluently - if you want to say something complex, you'll be able to get the point across.  In fact, I had a hard time practicing my French because everyone wanted to practice their English with me!  But now I'm sitting in class laughing at the image of myself trying to convey in sign language to people that speak absolutely no English that I'm in need of toothpaste or deodorant or shampoo, grateful for the reminder of basic vocabulary that I haven't seen in over 5 years.  I even re-learned a little history about the Edict of Nantes and the Catholic/Protestant (Huguenot) conflicts in 1500s Europe - less useful but still interesing.

After visiting some other former teachers in the lower and middle schools (and being invited to sit in on a 7th grade social studies lesson - I'd forgotten that teachers could be so enthusiastic and engaging, and that the Republican party started as the Northern liberal anti-slavery platform - when did that change?), I went on a computer searching adventure.  I stopped in BestBuy, but was still unclear as to which computer would best suit my...unique...needs, so after a trip to the library for some quick online research (very confusing and unhelpful) I settled on calling the support lines for Toshiba and Asus to see if they could help.  The Asus website was beyond difficult to navigate and I was on hold for close to 20 or 30 minutes, but their computers seem to not only have longer battery lives but also cheaper replacement batteries (to be taken with a grain of salt, of course.  It may take the battery 14 hours to run down if you open the computer and leave it alone on the counter, but since I plan to *use* the processor at least a little bit I'm guessing 14 hours is a bit optimistic).  Still, the Toshiba is a little less expensive, more highly rated by Consumer Reports and, and I was only on hold with them for 10 or 15 minutes and the phone number was actually easy to find on the website. ;)  Customer service still matters! (sorta)  The take-away lesson has been that most netbooks are  essentially the same in power/memory/performance and since the service warranty won't matter if I can't get my laptop back to them, battery life seems to be the most critical factor.

After our electronics adventure, my poor friend Caitlin got to sit and knit her sweater-vest while watching me attempt to pack up my drawers.  If I only have to pack my own room I suspect it won't take me all that long (3 drawers down, 4 drawers, a closet and some bookshelves to go), but it might be polite and all to help with the rest of the house.  And I still need to find time to finish checking off my Peace Corps packing list - still need the computer, some kind of charger (solar? hand crank? for just a cell phone or one big enough for a laptop?), another camera battery, a voltage transformer rated for computers, a sleeping pad, consider exchanging my mosquito tent-shaped net for a mosquito tent with poles (more expensive but clearly more useful), more skirts (I only have 1 besides a "nice" skirt!) and a more formal shirt for nice occasions, some kind of shorts/capris to wear under skirts especially while biking, a cheap hiking backpack for traveling to and from Burkina (looking at Guerrilla Packs on amazon - anyone have good/bad experiences?), and a handful of other things that I think I could normally find in our house but have probably been packed away and may need to be purchased anyway (a kitchen knife and sharpener, a non-stick skillet).  Whew!

Somewhat related - a friend posted this on my facebook wall and it really made me think about my own motivations for the Peace Corps.  I think it makes a lot of good points.  The title makes it sound like it's trying to dissuade people from going, but it just points out 5 reasons that people often cite for wanting to join and talks about how a 2 year commitment requires a little more than just those basic reasons.  Something to think on.

Oh! And today I found out that I'm going to be staging in Philadelphia! Starting to wonder if that's where everyone goes to, or just West Africa volunteers.  Maybe I'll have an hour or so for family in the area to come say hello?

Friday, September 3, 2010

And where is that?

I sent in my Aspiration Statement and Resume today! I think it was almost (or perhaps just barely) under the 10 days from acceptance deadline. I was a little worried - I had written them over the last few days and planned to edit and send them during my 3 hour layover this morning, but somehow when I got into Philly my layover was only 90 minutes and I couldn't connect to the airport wi-fi.

On a side note, airports in general need more electical sockets or power strips.  If you're going to offer free wi-fi, people like me with 20 minute battery life-spans are going to need an outlet. The two sockets every 50 feet for the vacuum cleaner are just not sufficient unless you are the first person to the gate. Just sayin'.

Back on topic - I finished/edited both, but still needed a few last details before sending them (What semester did I T/A for Cell Bio? What was that great class I took my freshman year that totally relates to what I'm going to be doing?).  So I save them, hop on the next plane, get into NY where my dad picks me up, and we drive up north towards the hotel where all the wedding guests are staying (my cousin is getting married this weekend! yay!).  There's a nap, and a shower, and a frantic attempt to get my computer to open my Word documents while connecting to the hotel internet in time to make the boat to the rehearsal dinner (I then found out that we were driving anyway).  But in the end it all worked out and the necessary email was sent with the properly edited attachments and everything. :)

So off we went to the rehearsal dinner.  And then I spent the entire evening telling people where I was going. :p  I'm actually really thrilled that my family members are so proud and excited for me, but I definitely felt kind of like a shmuck for stealing a bit of my cousin's thunder (at least in my eyes) because everyone I met then asked if I was in school, what my plans now were, and Oh! You're going to Africa? What country? And where is that, exactly?

Granted, I had some lovely conversations with a few people and actually became quite passionate as I warmed to my topic of culturally appropriate aid and interventions (I think PEPFAR and the ABC's even came into it), and I'm really glad that there are now a fairly large group of people who have at least heard of the existence of Burkina Faso, but I still feel bad about having so much attention on myself at an event that is clearly in celebration of someone else, of two someone elses, in fact.  Is it weird to be so excited about something in my life but feel like I shouldn't talk about it because of the event that I'm attending?

And on an unrelated note, there are people singing/yelling outside of my hotel window :)  It was Taylor Swift a minute ago, but now they've moved on to something I don't recognize. Yay for headphones!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Oh boy French class!

I knew that I didn't really remember how to use the past tense in French, but class today definitely made me fully aware of the extent of my issues.  Still, it was really nice to be listening to French and I almost found it easier than Rosetta Stone.  Language software is nice, but being able to ask for clarification or an explanation of a grammatical concept in English was so refreshing after struggling with vocabulary that is presented with lots of different pictures but still doesn't seem to have a clear translation.

I'm still a bit concerned that I'm not going to have my French up to the level they expect it to be at.  Part of it is finding time to sit and focus on French, and part is being motivated enough to spend any free time I might get on doing something that feels like work.  My parents are packing up my childhood home and moving out of state in a few weeks, so a lot of my time at home is spent packing, sorting boxes of books, getting estimates from moving companies, etc.  I might even pick up my last temp job again once I get back from the wedding in NY, leaving me with even less time to focus on French among the hustle of packing the house.  Still, I know the effort will pay off, so I'm still plugging away and hoping that it'll all work out for the best.

I'm still trying to figure out my schedule for the next 6 weeks before I leave.  I'm going to NY to see my dad, his family, and my college friends from the 3rd-13th, then flying home to help move from the 23rd-26th, and then after that I'll be down to about 2 weeks left.  My dad isn't in great health and I'd like to see him again before I leave, but I also don't want to spend my last time in the US only with him (and my mom's birthday is the day before I leave).  So do I fly back and forth across the country twice in a month?  Do I go see my dad and ask my mom and step-dad to come visit me there? I guess part of it depends on where the Peace Corps is willing to fly me from, since my current address on record (in Denver) will no longer be my address by the time I leave (if I fly from Denver I'll be staying with my neighbors).  Or should I fly out from Tuscan?  NY? And then, of course, do I make my dad's address in NY my home of record? Do I wait until my parents move and change it to theirs?  I know that moving is the right decision for them, but I do wish the house hadn't sold until after I left. :p

Anyway, enough complaining. Bring on the Rosetta Stone!

First posts on new blogs are inevitibly weird

It's like jumping into a novel halfway through, and it tends to take a little while to get caught up and familiar with all of the characters, no?

Anyway, for those who know me, this is hopefully where I will be chronicling my time in Burkina.  Tune in for stories, photos (I hope!), and maybe the odd request for American junk food.

For those who don't know me, my name is Jess and this is the start of my Peace Corps adventure!  I've just graduated from Mount Holyoke College in May, moved home to Denver, and in 6 weeks I'll be on my way to Burkina Faso to work as a Community Health Development volunteer.  I don't know where I'm going, or exactly what my day-to-day will look like, but I can't wait to find out.  In the mean time I've been re-learning French, trying to figure out what to pack, and reading all about Burkina and the Peace Corps.

Speaking of French...I have class tomorrow morning at my old high school! Thus, time for bed (why do I always have the urge to blog after I should be asleep?)