Looking Forward to Peace Corps Response, Rwanda

My departure will be on Sunday, and I am relatively ready.  Here’s what it means to me to be ready.

I researched my district in Rwanda, where 73% of the people are subsistence farmers and they sell an average of 13% of their crops.  That means there isn’t a lot of cash economy.  Seven percent of the people in the district get their water from a pipe.  Two percent get it from a pipe in the home or the yard of their home and 5% get it from a pipe in the center of a village or town.  Forty percent of the people in the district can get water from a safe source on a walk of 15 minutes or less (one way) so 60% have to walk farther than that or use water from an unprotected source.  Most of the protected sources are springs that have been capped with a pipe arrangement so the water stays clean.

I read two books on the country and its recent history, meaning the 1994 genocide.  I recommend both of them, A Thousand Hills by Stephen Kinzer and We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch.  The genocide was clearly orchestrated but the UN and western countries tried to convince themselves it was “just” centuries-old tribal strife to justify staying out of it.  In the time of the killings, people were rounded up to do the killing and those who didn’t participate were given the choice of killing the next person or being killed as a sympathizer.  Besides the hundreds of thousands of deaths in a period of about 90 days inflicted largely with machetes by neighbors on neighbors, there was an enormous exodus to nearby countries.  The refugee situation was murky with the losers in the military conflict fleeing as well, so that genocidaires in the camps continued to arm themselves and make forays across the border into Rwanda.

My take away lesson from this is that I don’t understand what it must be like to live through the aftermath.  It isn’t possible to put all the killers in prison; it was a very large fraction of the population.  It isn’t possible to try everyone although efforts are being made and have been made to try the leaders of the genocide.  The government is intentionally a coalition of the two demographic groups (although they aren’t really distinct genetically) and pushes anti-genocide thinking and peace-making in schools and communities.  It pushes anti-corruption.  And its leaders have studied repressive systems like Singapore and Thailand as role models, taking the stance that until the situation is more stable it has to be controlled.  Nearby regions, across the borders (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda) continue to have some genocidal activity ongoing.  It’s not done to ask about this recent history.  If a person chooses to talk about it after getting to know you, that’s fine.  It is still too raw and personal for many survivors.

As to my role, for the next year I’ll be teaching at a teacher training college.  My candidates will be preparing to teach English and to teach other subjects in English. Rwanda has recently changed to English from French as the language of instruction in schools.  I’ve been given a list of eight modules (courses to us) which I’ll teach, four each semester.  It would be indelicate to state how many of these are courses that I’ve never taught before, but I have had a big push studying.  I’ve watched a Great Course on Linguistics, fished around the internet for syllabi of courses similar to mine and bought some of the texts I’ve identified.  I get them online from used book sources.  Some arrived and were just what I was hoping for, but some were unfortunate.  At this point I have a 50 pound suitcase of children’s books so that we can have some short and sweet, light and lively readings for relaxation and to celebrate our skills. Then there’s another 50 pound suitcase of professional books and teaching materials. That covers my allowance, but there’s also a 50 pound suitcase of clothes, bedding, and a couple of kitchen tools.  I will pay for one suitcase of excess baggage as it’s still cheaper than mailing myself the books.

I’m grateful to relatives who will live in my house while I’m gone (thanks Adam and Corrinne), a friend who is managing a few things like my post office box and alerting me of action items (thanks Mary Dell), a retired friend who gave me a fabulous collection of ESL teaching resources (thanks Sarah), and the usual band of encouragers and soul mates (you know who you are).

Here are some predictions:

Peace Corps Thailand gave me the gift of greater compassion for myself and its conjoined twin, greater compassion for others.  I suspect that Peace Corps Response Rwanda will have some gift of personal growth for me and I don’t know what it will be.  My hope is to be open to it, whatever it is.

This experience will be fabulous and challenging.  I’m looking forward to walking a lot, to studying my students in order to serve them well, and to building friendships with community members and other PCVs.   I expect to be blindsided now and then, and am fully prepared to toss out the preparations I’ve made for my courses if it turns out I’ve misunderstood what they are to be like.  The preparations were to give me some confidence at the outset.  That’s done.

Into the mystery!


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Quick post on walking El Camino de Santiago de Compostella

Last May and June I did walk El Camino, from St. Jean Pied de Port, France to Santiago, Spain.  Although I intended to post to the blog during those 6 weeks I couldn’t manage the interface between my cell phone and the blogging site. So here are a couple of notes.

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It’s true that anyone can do this.  I walked 35 days including lay over days in some fascinating places. There are plenty of spots to stop and sleep (albergues, casa rurales, hotels).  I carried my pack every day except for one when I had hip trouble from a fall: services to transport the pack are readily available.

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Before stained glass, use a slice of alabaster to let light in


Everyone walks his or her own Camino, and that’s good.  Some days I walked alone and took a lot of pictures, other days I walked with wonderful people and got to know them.  The setting is ideal for whatever meditations, problem solving, and healing are right for you.

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My highlights included spending time with memories of my mother, particularly in the mountains where I was suddenly singing songs she had taught me (in the mountains).  I had hoped to put my early memories of her back into the foreground of my mind and let the memories from the Alzheimer’s years fade to the background. That happened.  I remembered, which I had totally forgotten, that she had a fantasy of learning to weave and producing a carpet with all the flowers of the mountain meadows.  She’d have a family friend (ranger we saw every year when we camped in Yosemite) check for accuracy of each plant and another (also a ranger) play his flute and bring it to life. (Will Nealy and Carl Sharsmith, for the record).

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Another highlight was constructing, from the grass roots of experience and the forge of reflection, a personal understanding of simplicity.  On the Camino Frances if you go to sleep farther west than where you were when you woke up then you’ve had a successful day.  I wanted to come home with the ability to apply some ideas about simplicity to my life.  One central idea, for me, is that priorities are essential.  I benefit from identifying what’s really important so that I can let other things go.  On my return I was actually able to articulate my personal priorities in a simple way, something I’d tried to do many times without success in the past.  People around me noticed the difference. In one example someone asked me if I had an opinion on something and I said that I didn’t except that it would probably be helpful to keep talking and thinking about it.  He asked whether I was serious, as I generally have opinions to spare.  Yes, this topic is not in my first tier of concerns now, and I can let it go and let it be other folks’ decision.  For me, clear priorities allow me better stewardship of my time and energy.

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Feeling connected to people of the past was my easiest goal. Stone buildings, community hand laundry facilities, and the art in the churches are portals to spend some time reaching out to the past. Let the pictures suffice.

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Another idea that grew in importance for me is that sustained effort allows us to achieve things we may not have realized were possible.  We (at least I) accept limitations that are illusions.  We (at least I) know that sustained effort is powerful but I wasn’t applying that knowledge.  It was as if I had a gem that I wasn’t appreciating.  Or perhaps it was like the way we “know” a song or poem, memorized but without incorporating its wisdom into life.  I came home weighing where to put my energy into some sustained effort. Would it be a writing project, a service project, a learning project? It turns out it will be some of each.

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Next Sunday I’ll be at the airport for flights to Rwanda where I’ll serve in Peace Corps Response for 12 months.  The next posts will introduce that.  Thanks for reading, and for the encouragement you offer me.

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Roman Road

Additional reading on El Camino, if you’d like something

Camino Forum (crowd-sourced discussions on planning, choosing a route, shoes, and more) https://www.caminodesantiago.me/community/

A book: John Brierley’s A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago de Compostella.


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Next Chapter: Walk Camino de Santiago de Compostella May and June 2015

If I look over my life for themes, I see different themes at different decades.  Which is neither here nor there. Except that when  person sets out to walk 500 miles along a medieval route, a route that’s now popular enough that over 100,000 people a year follow it, some folks would ask, “why?”

Connections are impportant to me.  One instance has been in my professional work addressing the difference between knowing things and understanding things, and methods of teaching for knowing versus understanding. Connections turns out to be essential.   Connecting with nature, as in experiences camping and developing an appreciation for varied ecologies, has fueled me.  Another instance has been in my appetite for connections with people outside my family, then outside my community, then outside my country.  Walking the Camino is a means to connect myself with people across time.

More on that in upcoming blog posts.

A more recent theme in my life is simplicity.  Peace Corps immersed me in a simpler life, and on return I downsized a couple of times. I’m curious where the “sweet spot” is along a continuum from frenetic to comatose.  I’ve had over-extended, I’ve had bored out of my mind by lack of structure. The “sweet spot” is elusive, and it also moves.  What’s right at one age can be wrong at another.  The Camino exprience, I’m guessing, has a high level of simplicity (which is not the same thing as ease).  Taking this walk, I hope, will give me a sustained experience of simplicity, it will contrast with the complexity of typical daily life around me at home.  We shall see how well I roll into the simplicity, I am challenged to resist adding superfluous cares and behaviors.  In the long view, I will come home from the Camino more ready to be intentional in simplicity.

Thanks for reading, friends.

Buen Camino to all!

photo credit for blog header is Marathoni62 at Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Route_napoleon_orisson.jpg

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Reflections on Peace Corps Service (Part 2, preface to main reflections)

The answers to these questions will provide a preface and context for the blog post to follow:

What was wonderful?

What was hard?

What did you learn?

Would you do it again?

Would you recommend that others join Peace Corps?

It was wonderful.  It’s also one of those things like bearing a child that can’t be described adequately.  The wonderful is sometimes simple, straightforward, and requires no explanation like the time sloshing around in a creek with an elephant on her side, throwing buckets of water on her and scrubbing with a big brush.  The wonderful includes the sound of Linawat’s voice opening the class with the ritual “Please stand up!” in a voice so full of hope and commitment to learning that the tone itself said, “This is it!  Bring your whole self!  Highlight of the day!  It’s English class!”  The wonderful included mattering to some folks, and feeling their importance to me.

It was hard.  I aspired to more than I could accomplish.  I didn’t choose to be but I abruptly came to be face to face with my weaknesses.  Repeatedly.  Relentlessly.   Faults that I could deny and “ignore” in a familiar culture became too constant companions.  Look at yourself.  You like to think you’re strong.  You are.  And you’re weak.  Look.  The best part of Peace Corps was my failures because the only way to cope with those things is improved self-acceptance.  With better self-acceptance comes better acceptance of others.  It built my compassion. I also pushed through some things that were hard, like creating a smiling image in town and then having to go out and smile when I didn’t feel like smiling, and this sort of thing contributed to my development.  But the most important thing was facing weaknesses.

I learned to love myself and others more.  That was my purpose for joining Peace Corps and it happened.  I also learned some things about international development and about change in education which I’ll address in the next blog post. I learned to speak adequate, limited Thai; to dance at a monk ordination with traditional hand shapes; to smile though four hours or more of lecture beyond my comprehension; to teach English to non-English speakers; to travel alone with confidence (but also with good sense); to laugh at sad things as well as at happy things (a useful feature of Thai culture!); to eat it and not think about what’s in it; to enjoy my home’s monster lizards; and to take better pictures.

I would do it again in the sense that I would make the same decision to go that I made originally.  I would do it again in the sense of returning to a new Peace Corps post, if I didn’t have a “better offer” in the company of a gracious, highly intelligent, caring, and interesting gentleman here in California.  If I could be two places at once, I’d do it again.  However, I’d prepare differently, I’d have my eyes wider open, I’d understand the job to be done first, I’d … I’m not sure.   I have no regrets that I chose to join Peace Corps.

I would recommend that certain types of people join Peace Corps, with the caution that it’s very easy to get involved with an inadequate idea of what the experience will be.  Suitable personalities for Peace Corps, as best I can tell, include idealists who are not too concerned about reality, adventurers who will roll with whatever occurs around them, and folks who are committed to seeing, doing, and being as many things as possible.  I have never taken a job with as little real idea of what the job will entail.  I have made Barbie doll arms in a factory from midnight to 8 am and when I took the job I had a pretty fair idea what it would be like.  I was a bookmobile librarian, and I was ready for the tasks and satisfactions.  I was a professor, and knew going in to a great extent what it was about.  I worked in a medical research lab as a technician and I started that job knowing the basics of the experience.  Not so for Peace Corps.  Dear souls everywhere please take note: Peace Corps has three overarching goals involving providing professional support and fostering international understanding.  Most of my PC friends and I joined with a focus on helping people in developing nations with our knowledge and skills.  Would you join if all you really got to do was foster international understanding by being the poster child for the US and by returning home and helping your neighbors understand more about your host country?  I’m not saying the knowledge and skills to support people in a developing nation doesn’t happen at all, but I am saying that if you NEED that to be satisfied with your experience you should think again about going.  There is ample evidence that the organization does not assign us to the country where we would be most useful in terms of knowledge and skills, the operation within the country does not make a priority of “goal 1” in its site placements and its “steering” and support of our activities, and the size of the program across countries will give you an interesting perspective on what the real purposes of Peace Corps are.  (You can look that up at Peace Corps Wiki and draw your own conclusions.)

So.  I am extremely pleased that I joined Peace Corps.  And I have some concerns about change in education and international development that I will share in the next blog post.

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Reflections on Peace Corps Service (Part 1, my transition home and continuing ties to Thailand)

Dear friends, thank you for reading my blog, and a special thank you to Mildred for giving just the right nudge for me to get this update done.  I have wanted to write a closing post (which turned out to be three posts), and it took a bit of time to ripen my thoughts make it happen.  This post deals with what’s occurred in the last few months, my transition back into life in the US, the second blog post provides a quick overview of what Peace Corps meant to me, and the third is a deeper commentary on changes in education and on international development.  So hang on for some trivia here, or proceed directly to the next blog post.

The Gazette portion:

In April I had a bad mammogram, follow up sonogram, and follow up x-rays.  The folks who deal with these things have a system: rate the anomaly on a BIRADS scale to help folks figure out what to do next. The scale runs from 0 (not enough information to give a score), 1 (negative), yada yada to 5 which means highly suggestive of malignancy.  Mine was a 4B.  So, of course, I went through all the emotional business you might imagine at this point, and had an excisional biopsy so we won’t have to interpret this anomaly on later mammograms.  It was benign.  Thanks be.  By that time, however, I’d rechecked my priorities, and it was time for me to return to the US.

So as of mid-May, I have been a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.  I spent 17 months in Peace Corps, and it was wonderful, head-spinning, challenging, fabulous, and one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  (Reflections in the following blog post.)

My return involved a quick visit with my delightful grandchildren, Ian and Molly, and their delightful parents Liz and Zach, in Florida, visits with sparkling Margaret and Zander in San Diego, celebrating their master’s degrees, and helping them get moved to Berkeley.  Then I set about the business of putting in place a new set of routines and activities.  My apartment in Costa Mesa is small and suits me beautifully, I can now proceed directly to a simpler way of life than my pre-Thailand life.

The “big picture” plan is part time work, preferably something that will accommodate occasional service travel, and volunteer work at my local public school.  The volunteer work is two mornings a week, with the sixth graders, primarily doing Hands-On Algebra with small groups, and mixing in bits of other math things here and there.  The school has a big focus on college aspirations for all students, and my role in supporting that is seeing to some details, like helping the stragglers care about learning the math facts and helping the sprinters feel their cognitive powers.  Hmm.  This could be the core of a blog for the next couple of years.

My first drafts of a work life took some time in revision.  For one thing, in Bangkok I had met Nik Miche who coordinates a variety of educational programs including a contract with SUNY Buffalo to deliver a Master’s Degree program in Education in Bangkok.  The market is primarily teachers at the International schools in Bangkok who are interested in earning a master’s degree from an American university while they happen to be in Bangkok.  He invited me to teach a course in that program, which was, of course, irresistible.  So looking forward to spending three weeks of September in Thailand gave me time over the summer to move cautiously in the direction of employment.  No point in looking too hard when you’d have to say, “Oh, and I’ll be away for three weeks in September.”  That teaching experience was over-the-top wonderful, and I’d do that again in a heartbeat.  (A BIG thanks to Ron Oliver for getting me up to speed on the course—I’d never taught that one before.)  I’m tempted to do internet research on what universities are doing this sort of a program anywhere on the planet and send them resumes. Meanwhile, I did sign on with Kaplan Test Prep this summer and took the online training sessions to teach their SAT course. So far that has not resulted in my being scheduled to actually TEACH for them.  We’ll see what comes of that.

Keeping an oar in with schools and students is important to me, so beyond the volunteer work, I originally figured to do some substitute teaching.  Knowing that the population of Orange County is declining and elementary teachers have been laid off, and knowing that some districts are filling their need for elementary substitutes from their own laid off teachers, I set about to get the secondary biology credential.  That should allow a person to work some days, and still take time off for service travel.  Good plan, if I do say so.  I completed the 5 hour professional exam to demonstrate my proficiency with the subject matter before I left for Peace Corps, so the task remaining was to send my sheaf of papers to Sacramento for the credential.  They’ve had the materials since July 9, per their web page where educators can monitor progress of their applications.  So that’s what? 92 days.  And counting.  Yesterday something happened there.  They posed a comment that a Conversion was granted.  The application is still pending evaluation, but now I have a Conversion.  I don’t know what it is, but I guess it’s a good thing.  Needless to say I won’t be substitute teaching in secondary biology any time soon, as the school districts “batch process” new substitute teachers with edifying instruction on topics like wearing latex gloves when cleaning up a classroom after a student nose bleed or vomit, to avoid exposure to Hepatitis C (much more likely than HIV).  The substitute orientations are completed for the foreseeable future.  And I don’t have the requisite credential anyway.  Substitute teaching in biology may still be a good plan for some other year.

The other avenue I pursued is part time nanny work.  Yeah.  Take a deep breath and think with me on this.  If status is a big issue with a person, this option won’t make sense, but I’m largely through trying to impress folks. I moved out of a house and shed a lot of belongings, but I still seem to have an impressive collection of children’s books.  I have Montessori materials; on the off chance my grandchildren will visit at an appropriate age to enjoy them.  A piece of my heart is in Florida with my grandchildren and yet I’m not willing to live there, for various reasons.  Children keep us young.  How about: I go to work “loving on someone’s kids”, and get paid for it?  So that’s happening, and while it wouldn’t be appropriate to talk about that, we’re off to a strong start.

At this point I’m a Californian again.  For many years I labored on a set of priorities that were right for me then, but now there are fresh cut flowers in my house.  It seems to me I’m an enhanced version of my previous self, thanks to the Peace Corps experience (see next blog post), the teaching for SUNY in Bangkok experience, and the choices I’m making to have a life that’s enjoyable, balanced, and constructive.    I wish you all  well and happy, too!

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Walking to Bangkok’s Lumpini Park (mostly photos)

The streets of Bangkok are quite full of vehicles, thank you, so take the pedestrian and bicycle overpasses to cross the street. Here is my favorite example in Bangkok.

It’s big, so it must carry a lot of traffic if you’re here at the right times.

The signs can be a bit confusing.

My first interpretation was black bicycles are prohibited but white ones are welcome here.  Actually, it means do take your bicycle up and down on this left side, but don’t RIDE the bicycle down these stairs!

Oh, and no motorcycles on the stairs, in case you were wondering.

The walk this morning happened to be along a road that has quite a string of embassies, and I took these photos outside the embassy of the Netherlands:


Back to signs, there are intriguing signs and charming signs in Lumpini Park itself. For example, it’s so busy here with people in the early hours of the day and in the cool of the evening that we’ve had to place restrictions on the hours of use for skateboards and bicycles in the park.

Next post: sculpture in Lumpini Park…

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Reading, seeing the authors, seeing myself

I recently read Letters for My Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect edited by Megan Rohrer and Zander Keig. It’s a finalist for a 2012 Lambda Literary Award, in Transexual Nonfiction.

In saying something about the book I give myself two assignments. The first is to say something about the book and the authors whose voices I’ve heard as I read. Here’s my attempt. These letters are from the authors’ contemporary selves, written to their younger selves, before their transitions from living with a male identity in a female body to living in a male body. They’re also, of course, written for people today who may be facing similar challenges, questions, concerns, and decisions. Because the authors are all past or very far along the road of change, they are writing with vivid clarity, bluntness, compassion for themselves and for family and friends, charm, and realism. The several voices give a variety of issues and perspectives, and the rhythmic recurrence of some experiences point out some that are of particular importance. I appreciate the way that works out.

The second part of this assignment is to comment on my own connections to the themes in the letters. These thoughts should not be taken as a profile of the themes in the book, it’s just my idiosyncratic appreciation of the book as a catalyst for reflection. I’m commenting because I wandered off, based on things the authors described, for fresh consideration of some parts of my own life. The first theme that grabbed me was the matter of what to do with the former self, for me generalized to any former version of the self. For a transsexual person there are risks in having the past known, even physical safety risks in some cases. In any case the options of losing one’s past self even to self, making the past self only invisible to others, or dealing with the reactions of others to hearing about the past self are dramatic and awful. Trying to integrate a past self and a present self isn’t a straightforward matter. I relate to this, enough said about me at this point.

Another theme that made me set down the book and ponder is the border crossing between female subcultures and male subcultures. The authors are uniquely positioned to comment on the assumptions, for example about men, that they had lived with within circles of women. Some of these assumptions were invisible to them, and then turned out to be false. As a cautionary note, this is very complex, as there are attitudes (which I think are always based on assumptions) that are somewhat more typical in one frame of mind than another. As an exercise, try to think about the possible differences in world view between a person who identifies as gender queer and a person who identifies as FTM (female to male) and a person who identifies as male. And it’s all the same person as identity shifts. Then you can read Zander Keig’s letter for further insights. (At this point I will proudly note that I am his mother-in-law.)

My connection to the theme of border crossing comes from being a Peace Corps volunteer, and the letters served as a catalyst to consider assumptions, invisible assumptions, attitudes as manifestations of assumptions, differences in perspectives among people from different backgrounds, and shifts in assumptions. In this case the authors have writen about the particular, but I read about the universal.

Stop the gender wars. This comes up repeatedly and is the last theme I’ll comment on here. If you’ve lived under pressure to learn the norms and behaviors of one gender and then achieve the outward appearance and undergo what for some was a “thrown in the pool” learning experience for another set of norms and behaviors, the idiocy of the internecine gender wars is starkly obvious. But don’t take my word for it, read the book.

So a book on FTM transitions is a great read for Peace Corps volunteers, and for people who want to be better at social perspective taking in any setting. Of course.

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