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10/22 Leaving Peace Corps ... The Rest of the Story

Sha-Hal aya (A long time ago), I wrote about the four ways by which Volunteers can leave Peace Corps service. In order of frequency: COS, MedSep, ET, AdSep. (All are used as both verbs and nouns.)

But when I wrote it, it was mostly theoretical information. I had one friend who had ET'd, two or three who had been MedSep'd, and none yet who had COS'd.

From where I'm sitting now, about 3/4 through my service, I feel like there's more information I need to share.

When you and Peace Corps finish with each other, it can be abrupt.

Almost painfully abrupt.

This is not so true for COSers, who get to attend their COS Conference when they have 3 months let, then COS Medicals when they're about a month and a half out, and then have a final three days together in Rabat for their "72-Hour Checkout". Three months is enough time to prepare yourself to leave, both logistically and emotionally.

But if your service ends early - due to an ET, MedSep, or AdSep - you don't get a nice, gradual, phased departure.

You get streeted.

It seems most violent in the case of a Medical Separation. Most MedSeps start as "MedEvacs". Peace Corps will fly you to Western Medicine (usually in DC, but sometimes in Europe) and call it a Medical Evacuation. As long as they can get you shipshape and ready for service in less than 45 days, they'll fly you back to your country and your service continues. If you need more than 45 days, they just make a notation in the paperwork, and suddenly your MedEvac is a de facto MedSep. Your service is over.

And once it's over, Peace Corps washes its hands of you. Safi, see ya, sayonara...buh-bye.

One friend of mine, who found himself MedSepped outside a DC hospital, said that if he hadn't had his American ATM card (because our in-country assets aren't available internationally) and/or friends in DC, he'd have been at a total loss. As it was, he pulled funds from his pre-Peace Corps account and got a taxi over to a friend's apartment. Everything he owned was in his parents' house a thousand miles away or in a small mud house on the other side of the Atlantic. A house which, by the way, Peace Corps would no longer pay rent on. They do have funds to ship some of your things back to you - some - but you need to be in communication with whatever neighbor/PCV has your house key and is able to pack your things for you. If your village doesn't have cell phone coverage, let alone land lines or internet, this is a daunting task.

Volunteers who choose to end their service early - Early Termination, or ET-ing - don't have quite as shocking an experience, since it was their decision to go, but still, the timeline between informing the Country Director of your choice and when you fly out of short. Usually 5 business days. In which you have to pack everything you're taking to America and everything you're returning to Peace Corps (including unweildy items like bikes and library books and fully stocked medical kits), give away or sell everything else you have in-country, get signatures on various forms from your counterpart and delegue (whose office could be in your site or in the regional capital, 3-5 hours away), and still make it to PC Headquarters for your 72-hour check-out. (The 72 hours is non-negotiable: PCMO has to check you for tuberculosis, and the skin test can't be checked till the third day after the needle-stick.)

For someone who has made the decision to leave their service, their village, their PCV community, and everything else - never an easy decision - such an abrupt departure is often wrenching. You have little time to say goodbye to your friends or neighbors, and virtually no time to emotionally prepare yourself to leave your service country and return to the US.

Volunteers find themselves back in America, cut off from everyone they knew or saw for the past X months, with so little connection between their new lives and their old lives that their service quickly begins to feel like a dream.

I've heard this from so many RPCVs, regardless of how their service ended: there are no points of commonality between their service and their post-service life, nothing to form a bridge from one world to the other. Cut off from their past experiences, Volunteers struggle to hold onto their months and years of service. Their language skills fade away; their memories attain the shimmering implausibility of remembered dreams.


8/10/09 Baby 'Twixt My Knees

Explanation on the dates: As I was doing some digital housecleaning, I found a bunch of old, half-written blogs. I'm finishing and posting them, but maintaining the original dates. Sorry for any confusion.


I'm sitting on a bus, as I have been for countless hours. Like most Moroccan buses, this one rides a good six or eight feet high (leaving huge storage spaces underneath) and has both a front and a back door. I'm sitting right behind the back door, behind the railing of the back staircase.

The door opens, and a family clambers on: a dad, a mom, another woman (probably her sister), and assorted children.

The bus is already crowded, with bodies in every seat and several in the aisle. (It's illegal for buses to carry more passengers than seats, but gendarmes can easily be convinced to look the other way. - cough $$ cough - )

The family members look around and decide that their best option is the stairwell itself. Two girls on the stairs; the three adults stand by the door. One of the women has a baby strapped to her back; the other holds a toddler.

When the toddler starts to fidget, the mom's friend? sister? helps her unstrap the child, slung papoose style along her spine. With little more than a glance at me or my American buddy sitting next to me, she plops the kid on the floor of the bus, which is shoulder-high to her, but at my feet. Still not looking at my face, she wedges the child between my knees so he's in no real danger of plunging over the edge of the unguarded stair well, then turns back to her husband.

Reflecting on the "It takes a village" attitude I've previously noted with Moroccan child care, I accept that the munchkin is now my responsibility. Watching his mom for approval - though she has yet to make eye contact with me - I wrap an arm around him to hold him steady.

A few minutes later, the dad, who speaks some English, strikes up a conversation with my buddy. I chime in, and soon the three of us are chattering away about Peace Corps and environmental protection and suchlike...all with his son perched between my knees.

When we get to their stop, which isn't far, the mom reaches over to get her child; her friend helps her secure the toddler to her back, and they're ready to go. The woman finally looks me in the eye, to say thank you and goodbye. I smile, tell her it was my pleasure, and grin at her surprise in hearing tarumit speak Tamazight.

What was most remarkable to me was how blase everyone else was. Oh, sure, hand your child to a stranger for the next half hour. It's all good.

...and it was. :)


12/19 Simple Life

A friend sent me this:

I found the comic especially apt for two reasons: One, it's a reminder that my Peace Corps life *does* meet my simple needs (not that I have a good woman - or man - by my side, but I do have bread and sun!)...and two, because owning a computer with internet access itself has become something that feels like a simple need - and it's good to remember that maybe it's not. It represents communication with loved ones, for which I'm forever grateful...but it also requires functioning electrical currents, satellite connections, and phone service, all three of which fail, independently, here in my mountain aerie.

So as grateful as I was last night when gchat worked for the first time in a month - and believe me, I am grateful, I talked to five of my favorite people in the world! four of them for the first time in weeks or months! - it's good to remember that, even when the internet goes down, as it does at least once a week, I still have the bread and the sun and the love of many wonderful people.

It's the simple things, friends.


12/12 Religious Harassment

A friend recently asked (offline) if anyone ever attempts to convert me.

Here's my response:

I get urged to convert to Islam fairly frequently. My friends don't pressure me, though some of my Peace Corps buddies get ongoing pressure from their friends, but strangers often do. It's most commonly taxi drivers, interestingly - possibly because they know I'm trapped in their car, giving them a finite window with which to convert me?

I usually explain that I am Christian, and that's generally enough to stop the efforts. Mohammed required his followers to respect the fellow "People of The Book," the Jews and Christians. (Though the current situation in Israel/Palestine and the centuries of Crusading show that it hasn't always worked out so well.) Some keep going at that point. I explain that I follow the religion of my parents; given the respect-for-elders built into the culture here, that is sometimes enough. (Although once, that got the response, "Well then your parents are going to hell, too." I cut off the dialog at that point.)

I've tried saying, "There are many paths to God," but that usually blows up in my face - I've had people shout, "NO! There is only ONE PATH to Allah!" - so I don't use that one anymore. I'm perfectly willing to discuss religion, but if it gets angry or mean-spirited, I simply end the conversation, whether by walking away, turning away, or pretending not to understand anymore. (After the grand taxi driver told me my parents going to hell, I turned to face the window. The men crowded next to me waited a minute to see what my response would be, then turned to each other and said, "Oh, she doesn't understand Tamazight." I turned back to the man closest to me and said icily, "I understood every word. I'm done with this conversation.")

Technically, it's illegal to prosletyze in Morocco - in any direction - but that's only enforced against Christian missionaries. Also, technically, the Qur'an forbids compelling or coercing any conversion...but that doesn't seem to stop people. I can recite the sura that says, "There is no compulsion in Islam," in Classical Arabic, but that only works on the most educated people, who aren't the ones having this conversation with me. While scholars know that a compelled conversion is meaningless, the common person knows only that converting a nonbeliever wins them a guaranteed ride to heaven.

Sidenote: Even more meaningless is the inadvertent conversion. In order to become a Muslim, you have to recite, three times, in Classical Arabic, "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammed is his Prophet." Some uneducated folks believe that if they can simply trick me into saying this sentence three times, they get their ticket to heaven. I've had several people, usually children or teenagers, say, "Hey, repeat this:" expecting me not to know what it means. The first time it happened, I asked them what it meant. "It doesn't matter, just say it," I was told. This strikes me as the moral equivalent of offering someone a Communion wafer as snack food, and then telling them that they're Catholic now.

In Peace Corps, we talk about "religious harassment", in the same conversation with sexual harassment and political harassment ("Was Bush a good president? Do you think it's good to kill Iraqis? Do you support Israel?") Male PCVs tend to get more religious harassment than female PCVs, but we all get it, to varying degrees.

I think it's important to clarify that not all religious conversation is religious harassment. I like talking about religion, as long as it's in a mutually respectful way. Anyone who has had a Jehovah's Witness show up on their doorstep or got ambushed by a Hari Krishna at an airport has had an abrupt and unexpected conversation about religion. Some people hate it; others accept it as part of the human condition. "Harassment" is generally defined as unwelcome attention that makes the recipient uncomfortable. Note that it depends on the attitude of the recipient, not that of the instigator. In my opinion, when the conversation crosses the line to criticizing or belittling me, my faith, or my family, that's when it changes from talk to assault.

12/18/09 On Sexual Assault and Safety

Today I had a long conversation with my host mom about safety and related issues. I'd gone over for Friday lunch, a near-weekly tradition.

I got there around noon, in time for the requisite playing with the baby, talking about the king's visit, and comparisons between this winter and last winter. (Summary: little Mbarak still looks like a mini-mafioso, but he smiles all the time and might be teething already; the king gave buckets of money and supplies to Berberville and its citizens, but everybody is of a different mind as to just how he should have distributed the wealth; this year is mild beyond belief - no snow yet! it even sprinkled *rain* today!)

After the food got cleared away, and all the men and children (except tiny Mbarak) cleared out, Ama and I sat down for some woman-to-woman talk.

She knows I've been traveling a lot lately, and knows that it's not my favorite thing. We talked about all the unwanted attention I get when I travel alone, and she said some harsh things about the men of her country. ("All men are bad." "You can't trust any of them.") When I protested - there are respectful, kind men in Morocco - she said, "OK, but for every one good man, there are a thousand bad ones. A THOUSAND."

There's also been a story in the news lately about the sexual assault of a Peace Corps Volunteer. Ama didn't have details of that one, but she told me a story about a PCV stationed here in Berberville a few years ago. This girl had been traveling to Rabat, along a route I often use, and had found herself stuck in one of the towns along the way (as happens not-infrequently, given the unreliability of transportation around here). She'd been chatting with a guy in the taxi, and he invited her back to his place. He assured her that he had a wife and kids at home, that they would make her welcome, etc. So she goes with him, and as soon as he opens the door, she can see it's a bachelor pad. (As Ama said: "She knew this was not the house of a woman. It was dirty.") He takes her arm, sits her down in the main room, tells her to make herself comfortable, spend the night...and offers to make tea. She eagerly accepts the offer of tea - knowing it takes a few minutes to brew - and asks where to find the bathroom, after her long trip. When he goes into the kitchen to start the tea, she grabs her bag and bolts, fleeing to a local hotel. She was sufficiently shaken up that she wept when she told Ama (her host aunt) about it, several days later.

She had other stories, not featuring PCVs. In one, a neighbor of ours was conducting a private tour for a European woman. Tourism and sex tourism overlap extensively in Morocco, so he might actually have believed that she expected sex, but when she began yelling NO and fighting him off... According to Ama, the mule-driver busted into the tent and beat the living snot out of the guide, interspersing his blows with reminders that good Muslims don't rape women.

At this point, she basically went through a run-down of all the men I've ever talked to in town (all in public, in broad daylight - she taught me well), denouncing some as just bad, and describing others as OK if their wives are around. In general, she said, just don't go with a man who invites you for tea. If you know he's married, and if his wife is home...OK. (For this short list of the OK men.) But for all the rest, just say no.

She reiterated the guidelines she's told me a dozen times before:

(1) Never open the door to a man after dark. Go up on the roof and look down. There's a street lamp across from the house, so you'll be able to see him. If it looks like trouble, call either my uncle (the moqaddim, who lives next door) or the gendarmes. If it looks harmless, tell him to come back tomorrow, during the day. If he won't go away, call the gendarmes.
(2) Don't go to men's homes to have tea. If it's a married man and I'm friends with his wife, it's OK if she's home. If I get to the door and she doesn't greet us, just go.
(3) Don't trust [this one guy]. Or [this other guy]. Or [that man]. Or [that other man].
(4) If I'm ever scared, I should just go to their house and spend the night. Or just move back in. Really, I should move back in. The months are going to fly by until May... My room is still sitting there, waiting for me... Any time I want, I can come to sleep for the night. Or for the week. Or the month. Or the next six months.

I've heard these before, except that (3) was new as of this conversation; she's never before gone through a one-by-one list of all the men I know. Most of the ones she warned me against I'd already gotten a bad vibe off of - there are reasons I only talk to men during the day, in public places - but a few surprised (and disheartened) me.

Lhumdullah, we both agreed that Baba is one of the good ones. "Even if I'm not here, if the kids aren't here, you're safe being here with him. He sees you as his own daughter. Even if he didn't, he always respects women. I've lived here in Berberville with him for 15 years, and have never heard a woman say anything against him. Never."

I'd put my sitemate's host dad in the same gold-star-of-trustworthiness category, and Ama agreed that he's a good man, but said, "It was different when he was the father of your friend. Your sister. Then, he was your family, too. But now... Go over if his wife is there. If she's not there, just wait and go back another time." Even good men, she said, just can't be trusted if you're alone with them.

The other side of this coin of distrust is that Moroccan men don't trust women. They fear women as siren temptresses, irresistibly dragging them from lives of virtue. (This is why women should veil, of course; serious scholars have said that it's "proven" that women's hair "emits a ray" that strikes men and forces them to want sex.)

Men fear the sexual power that women wield; women fear the sexual violence that men threaten.

Speaking of hair... I chopped mine off just before coming to Berberville, so Ama met me with hair as short as a male news anchor. Shorter than Secretary of State Clinton's. She begged me not to cut it again, but to let it grow out, and I have. After 18 months without so much as a trim, it's back down to my shoulder blades. And now: She wants me to tie it back in a ponytail. It was OK to leave it down when it was around chin-length, but now... Now it's too seductive. Puts me, her beloved daughter, in too much danger.

As much as I love my village and my host family, some days are ... hard. Some days, I want to agree with Ama that there aren't any good men - certainly not more than one in a thousand. Some days, I want to flail and scream and beat the living snot out of a few, myself. Some days, I want to curl up and cry. Today, I'm doing well. I'm disappointed to know that a few of the men in town who I'd trusted have a history of mistreating women...but I'm not devastated by it. Not today. I've had a bad week - ever since I heard about the assault on the PCV - but today is a good day, lhumdullah. Today, I'm grateful for Ama and Baby Mbarak and my honorable, upstanding Baba. And today, that's enough.


11/6 I will zayd...

Today's Quote Of The Day:

"I will zayd and return."

(Tip: zayd is the Arabic and Tamazight word for add, and like most Tam words, has broad idiomatic meanings beyond its obvious literal one.)

It was said by a buddy of mine as he stood up to leave. A group of us had been hanging out for quite a while, and my buddy had drunk everything he'd brought to drink, and now wanted to return to his nearby accomodations and pick up a refill.

It's common enough for us (PCVs) to drop words of Arabic and Tam into our English conversation. We mostly hang out with Volunteers from our own regions, who are therefore likely to understand the words we use. When I was a newbie, I found it helpful, actually, because it gave me a context for learning new vocab words.

So it's common for one Volunteer to say to another, "Yeah, I do that mrra mrra," (sometimes), or, "Hey, can you nuqs the volume a little?" (reduce, lower, subtract), or "It's so cold riding afla the transit!" (on top of), etc.

But this time, the speaker caught himself, and realized that not only had he swapped out an English word for an Arabic one, but that he'd actually used Arabic syntax.

"'I will zayd and return'??" he echoed to himself, as dismayed as Baby's echoing her own, "'I carried a watermelon'?!?"

"Whoa... I not only can't speak English anymore, I can't even use English structures in my sentences," he muttered to himself.

I thought about it. How would most Americans say what he'd meant? Something like I'm going to grab a refill and be back, maybe, or I'll go bring more, a little more formally. But his structure made perfect sense to my ear. Ad-dugh ad-zaydgh. Ad-3aydgh is how I'd express it in Tam: "I will go. I will add more. I will return." Three future-tense verbs, lined up and conjugated in neat parallelism. "I'll go get more and return" is a more idiomatic translation, but it loses the tidy construction of the Tamazight.

But "I will zayd and return," though it falls easily from Arabic-speaking lips, lands oddly on American ears.

Ever since this conversation - and I'm typing this up over a month after the fact - I've been more conscious of the way my speaking patterns have changed since coming here. I read enough English and talk enough to other PCVs that the changes are minor, but they're real. My habit of sprinkling my conversation with Tam and Arabic words is one of the most obvious. (I can't even tell you how many times I've stopped myself from peppering my blog with them.)

But in five months, I'll end my service here in Morocco, inshallah [oh, yeah, that's another one - I can't make declarative statements about the future without saying inshallah], and move to a community where Tamazight is not the dominant language.

Walayni, dghi, makain l-mushkil. Iwa, ur nni ad iqim digi. But it's not a problem now, so I won't worry about it. (Literally: But now, there's no problem. Therefore, I won't let it sit in me. <--See, Tam is fun!)

12/13 Rule of Law

A recent conversation discussing the rule of law in Morocco. A is an American living in America. B is an American living in Morocco.

A: ...this is why Morocco needs the rule of law.
B: Morocco has the rule of law.
A: [skeptical silence]
B: OK, let's say somebody - call him X - commits a crime. He can be arrested, tried, sentenced, just like in America.
A: And how long will he serve?
B: Depends on the crime, of course. The bigger the offense, the more his family will have to pay to get him out. For a really big crime, it'll take a while to amass enough for the bribe. Or, if the family is really influential, it might go more smoothly; the patriarch could just use his influence to protect his son/nephew/whatever.
A: That's not rule of law.
B: [pregnant pause] Oh, my God, you're right. I ... I've been here long enough that ... it just seems normal. But no, paying bribes isn't part of the legal system. It just ... feels like a system of fines. It's so regular and orderly and understood... But... that's... not... [trails off]
A: Yeah. Sentences that get waived for the wealthy and influential? It's not like it never happens in the first world - white collar criminals, anyone? - but criminals should actually serve their terms. Any system that operates under the assumption that sentences are meaningless fails to be a system for long.
B: [in a small voice] That's why violent crimes really never get reported; because the criminal will be back in the community pretty soon, anyway, plus he'll now be angry that you reported him. As will his family, friends...talking to the gendarmes puts you on the wrong side of your community.
A: Yeah.

It shows up in so many ways:

  • the pollution that fills Moroccan skies because it's cheaper to pay off the car inspector than pay for engine repairs.
  • the transits and dump trucks that transport people illegally (and dangerously) on top, because the checkpoint cops will waive you through for a small "fee".
  • the medicines and condoms that should be distributed freely to sex workers - provided by NGOs - that the distributors charge for, pocketing the cash and paying a percentage to whoever is supposed to regulate it.
  • for that matter, the sex workers themselves; prostitution is illegal in Morocco, but that just means that the cops get to demand bribes (in cash and trade) from the prostitutes, who have no recourse
  • the street signs and road lines that serve only as suggestions, because a bribe will get you out of any ticket
...and so many more.

The first time I saw a bribe change hands, I was shocked. Graft exists in every culture, to be sure, but I thought it was generally hidden. This happened in plain sight of at least 20 people. That alone should have indicated to me just how small a role the legal system plays - neither party had any fear that anyone would report them, or that if they did, that anything would be done.

It doesn't shock me anymore. It doesn't startle me anymore. I don't even register it anymore, really. Oh, we all have to climb out of the taxi so the driver can go up to the checkpoint and work out the amount of the bribe without revealing just how many passengers he has? (Since the more he's making off the trip, the more he'll have to pay.) Not only am I not surprised that I have to wait on the side of the road, I'm find myself thinking, during the ten minute wait, that I'm impressed by the bargaining savvy of the taxi driver.

Oh, I can't climb up on top of the transit until we're a kilometer past the checkpoint? OK, sure, I'll crowd inside for now. It's not like the checkpoint cops don't know what it means to see ten people clinging to the back of the truck...but for a nominal fee, they'll pretend that they believe we'll ride like this for the next four hours, not the next four minutes.

When my backpack was stolen off the top of a transit, where it should have been under the watchful eye of the driver's assistant, I complained to the gendarmes. I didn't want anyone to go to jail, but I thought that the threat of the law might get the assistant to pull some strings and get the bag back from whoever he'd given it to / watched take it.

He was indeed scared at the thought of punishment... so he appealed to one of the most respected people in the town, who assured him that no, of course I wouldn't go through with filing a complaint - and then came to talk to me and explain why I couldn't do it.

A good, honorable, kind soul - one of the people I respect most in Berberville, or indeed in Morocco - was using his wisdom and influence to convince me not to file a police report.

And he was right. Having a local son interrogated, beaten, and presumably jailed would have ruined my reputation in the town. I'd be The Tarumit Who Got Our Boy Thrown In Jail.

So I withdrew my complaint, the boy paid a hefty "fine" to get back the ID card that was seized during the initial questioning - and had the temerity to ask me to kick in for the fine! - and the disappearance of my bag just became a benign topic of conversation for the next month. Oh, Kauthar, did you ever find your bag? No? Ah, well, as God wills.

And I smile through fixed teeth and think, God doesn't will this.

But where do you find Principled governance in a system so thoroughly corrupt that the corruption itself is the system?

12/16 Skype

This is the PhD Comic for today:

I've noted parallels between grad school and Peace Corps before - the relative poverty, the self-determined work schedule, the total lack of hygiene - but this one struck a chord, probably because I talked to my family on Skype just last night. :)

Yes, having in-home internet access definitely makes this Posh Corps (as opposed to your garden-variety, mud-hut Peace Corps). But all PCVs have *some* form of access to the internet. I think everyone has a cybercafe in their souq town; teh intarwebs stretch even here, in rural Morocco. And with internet comes connection to America. Whether it's group emails, or blogs (like this one!), or individual missives, or Skype phone calls, the internet has connected PCVs to their families and friends back home to a degree that previous generations of Volunteers couldn't have imagined.

And now, as the vast majority of us look at a holiday season thousands of miles from our loved ones, we can be grateful for the degree of connectedness we *do* have.

Lhumdullah i l-internet!


12/15/09 Snow Status

Here we are, mid-December and there's been no significant accumulation yet.

We've had a couple of flurries, the odd overnight dusting-that-might-just-have-been-a-heavy-frost, and even a couple inches a few days back, but nothing worth writing home about. (Or worth blogging about. ;) )

The temperatures have dropped below freezing now, so if we get any precipitation, it'll probably be snow, but we've gone through a long dry spell. Other than the aforementioned dustings, we haven't had any precipitation for months. Far cry from last year's torrential rains and meter-deep snowfields.

Here in Berberville, we just have crisp air, blue skies, and an apparently endless succession of sun-drenched afternoons.


12/14 Rhapsody on Conditioner

I'm a girl.

I've mentioned it before, but I know that the anonymity I hide behind means that some of you didn't know, or had forgotten. (Kauthar? Is that a boy's name?)

I've never been much of a girly-girl.

I didn't play with Barbies, I don't read fashion magazines, and even in America, my morning ablutions took significantly less than half an hour, counting both showering and dressing.

But every once in a while, something hits my feminine streak, and I think pink-tinted thoughts. If this disturbs you, feel free to move onto another posting. Far be it from me to inflict girl cooties on anyone.

Today, what's sparking the pink-think? Conditioner. Hair conditioner.

I haven't used conditioner in Morocco in 21 months. (I don't remember if I used someone else's when I was in the US for a wedding...I don't think so, though.) I generally shower and/or bucket-bathe once a week. Depending on the weather - is it really hot? dusty? - I wash my hair either two or three times. Usually three times. The shampoo doesn't even lather up the first time, as the saponin just bonds to grease and rinses out. The second time, it's nice and frothy. The third round I use Pantene Shampoo&Conditioner - the only combo S&C product I've ever used, in any country, that actually seems to *condition* my hair at all - and my hair is good for another week.

This has been my routine for almost two years now. The only variant is that I might leave off the S&C if I know it'll be over a week till the next shower, and that only happens rarely.

But a few weeks ago, my sitemate finished her service and returned to America [[moment of silence...]] and one of the things she left behind was a giant bottle of conditioner. Giant. Enormous. Cost-Co ginormous.

Pantene Pro-V Contitioner.

So I've been using it.

And WOW.

I'd forgotten my hair could feel like this.

So smooth.

So soft.

It swishes when I walk.

It slides over my shoulders when I turn my head.

It slips out from behind my ears to swing freely as I move.

I'm sure my hair did some of these things before. But somehow I'm only noticing them now. I think that the less-conditioned strands were a little wavier, and therefore clung together more, whereas now, they're hanging straighter and more independently. I think.

One side effect of weekly showering - and of having only a small face mirror in an awkward corner of my apartment - is that I don't think about my appearance all that much. My hair does what it does; as long as it's brushed before I leave the house, I figure I've done what I can.

But in the past two weeks or so that I've been using the conditioner, I keep *thinking* about my hair.

I can't help it - I keep feeling it.

Swish, swish, swish...

I feel like I should have a slumber party where we all brush and braid each other's hair. Whee! Hair fun!

OK, girlie rhapsodizing over. My mental age is returning from 6 to 26. Please return to your regularly-scheduled blog-reading, and forgive this lapse from my Responsible Peace Corps Volunteer Sober Demeanor.

Squeeeee! :D


12/8/9 Volunteer Support Network

I haven't talked about VSN, have I?

Let me rectify that.

Many Peace Corps countries have a Volunteer Support Network. Of course, we're all each others' support network anyway, but organizing a VSN means that we can get some funding for formal training sessions. At these, second-year Volunteers teach selected PCVs active listening skills and other peer counseling tools. Once you've gone through this, you're known as a VSN-trained Volunteer. (Sorry, no snazzy acronym or anything.)

VSN-trained Volunteers distribute their phone numbers and other contact information to their fellow PCVs, but it's rare (though not unheard-of) for Volunteers to cold-call a VSN-trained PCV. We do most of our work more informally; when a friend says, "I need to talk," or "Wow, I'm going through a hard time,",we can respond more usefully than just saying, "Oh, me too, let me tell you..."

VSN training takes place during the first six months of service. After that, during the six-month-mark "In-Service Training (IST)", PCVs choose one of their VSN-trained Volunteer peers to join the VSN Committee.

The Committee organizes the trainings, creates the curricula, and organizes a variety of Volunteer-supportive activities, from Secret Snowflake exchanges to distributing cartoons and magazines to calling new PCVs and offering support.

We don't have a formal role within Peace Corps, really, but once in a while, PC staff looks to us to get a sense of the emotional status of the Volunteer community. Like now.

12/9/9 Perceptions of PCMO

Yesterday, I met with a group of people from Peace Corps Washington. Apparently, it's Peace Corps policy to send people to - not investigate, they said repeatedly, but inquire - as to the circumstances surrounding any tragedy.

I'm a member of the organizing committee for Morocco's Volunteer Support Network. In that capacity, PC staff asked me - asked us - to come to headquarters and meet with "The Washingtonians", to give them our sense of how the Volunteer community is reacting to soyoun's passing.

[Sorry, it's still hard to talk about. But I'm working on it.]

Most of the response I've heard centers around the role of the Peace Corps Medical Officers (PCMO). PCMO has a hard task - maintaining the health of 215 people scattered across a country the size of California, not all of whom have access to clean water, let alone phone service. That said, they've made their share of misdiagnoses and faulty prescriptions, which PCVs tend to complain to each other about. PCMO's reputation has steadily eroded, and in the wake of a friend's - a sister's - death from illness, people have been looking for someone to blame, and most of the anger has settled on PCMO.

Knowing that, I wanted to investigate why. What are these mistakes that have compounded into such a deep distrust that PCMO has become the scapegoat of choice? So I surveyed the PCVs in my stage, called the ones who seemed to want to tell their stories, and collected information.

Of course, the plural of anecdote is not data, but it was the best approach I could come up with.

So I collected stories. Sad stories. Stories of my friends - my Peace Corps family - feeling neglected, mistreated, and abandoned by the people they had trusted their health care to.

One PCV came back from a medical evacuation, still in recovery, and never got a phone call from PCMO for followup care. After getting in touch with PCMO and asking for some followup, and PCMO promised a forthcoming call...which never came.

A PCV was assaulted and battered, went to PCMO for care, and was told, "You're over-reacting. It happened, it's done, go home." Fears about returning to the scene of the crime were dismissed and even derided.

A PCV felt symptoms of a progressive disease that led to debilitation. PCMO said that the symptoms were "normal". PCV lobbying led to a lab test, whose results were positive - marginally positive - and PCMO continued to say that nothing serious was wrong.

A PCV took a hard fall and came to PCMO - it happened within 100 yards of a Peace Corps facility - asking for painkillers. The doctor failed to notice that the Volunteers' pupils were different sizes, a straightforward indication of a concussion. Another PCV did notice this, and arranged care.

A PCV had symptoms of a serious parasitic infection and repeatedly called PCMO. Each call was answered by a different medical officer - we have 2 doctors and 1 nurse, all of whom rotate phone duties - and not until the 8th call did anyone realize that this was an ongoing problem, not a new one.

Speaking of a failure to look at medical records...

A PCV requested a MRI to evaluate long-lasting pain in a joint. PCMO thought it was too expensive, and arranged an x-ray - but since nothing was broken, doctor and patient agreed that an x-ray wouldn't show anything. Just as the PCV was heading out for the exam, a cast-off comment indicated that this was a long-standing problem, of many years' duration. PCMO said, "Oh, that changes everything," and arranged for different tests - but still not an MRI. The Volunteer was startled to realize that the well-documented medical history had never once been checked by the doctor.

A Volunteer had trouble breathing. It was dismissed by PCMO...until the PCV insisted on lab tests that revealed life-threatening blood clots in the lungs.

..and there are so many others. So many stories - some serious, many minor - of PCVs enduring pain, sometimes for days, sometimes for months. And we endure. We carry on, knowing that Peace Corps isn't supposed to be easy...but with an ever-diminishing faith in the power of PCMO to keep us whole and healthy.

One of the emerging themes of these stories was the need felt by PCVs to "lobby for treatment." The idea that, without fighting for care, symptoms and struggles are diminished or dismissed by PCMO. Running a fever? Keep taking ibuprofen every two hours, then call back in 48 hours. Diarrhea? Limit your food to the BRATT diet - bananas, rice, apples, tea, & toast - for the next 48 hours. As was said in one of today's meetings, "If I had a nickel for every time I heard 'Wait 48 hours and then call back,' I could afford to call my parents."

The idea that we're not hypochondriac idiots - that we know how to manage minor problems, and that maybe we've already waited 48 or 72 hours before calling PCMO - doesn't seem to penetrate.

And when a medical tragedy arises - even one that isn't PCMO's fault, as the recent inquiry has determined - we're all too willing to turn our lost faith into targeted anger.

Anger is one of the stages of grief. It's human nature to look for someone to blame for something as horrific as the death of a wonderful young woman. And given this history - given that nearly every Volunteer has at least one story, and usually several, of PCMO missteps, large or small - we find an outlet for our anger.
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