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PLOP Times Two

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“O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!  Then I, and you, and all of us fell down…” ~William Shakespeare (Julius Ceasar, III, ii)

What about yourself would you change, if you could?  There’s quite a few things that I would improve or change if possible (were they not genetically predisposed), but one near the top of my list for sure would be my innate clumsiness.  You see, I’m a full-fledged, top-of-the-class, self-admitted klutz.

There should be a special secret society for clumsy people.  One where we could commiserate about our latest awkward exploits and compete for prizes in multiple categories revolving around bruises (ie: most bruises on one shin, or the best combination of black, blue and yellow in one bruise).  Everything at the meetings would be non-breakable, with sharp corners wrapped in padding, and there would be ramps instead of steps.

I’m not sure where my clumsiness came from, but it’s been around for quite a while.  Neither of my parents seem exceeding awkward, at least as long as I’ve known them.  Is clumsiness inherited or learned?  Most of the time when it happens it just feels like it’s cast upon me by mischievous leprechauns.  I can remember from a young age being called “Grace” in friendly jest on a fairly frequent basis, usually right after I’d tripped and fallen or failed to correctly navigate a perfectly-normal doorway.

My mom’s father used to call me “Miss Long Legs” when I was younger, before he passed away.  Those long legs tripped me up plenty of times over the years, like Bambi on ice only not at all in a cute funny way.  A meandering of some of my more spectacular moments of clumsy:

  • When I was about 12 I stepped up on the toilet lid to look out the bathroom window at a noise outside.  Normal people would be able to then just step down normally to the floor.  But I lost my balance and slipped off, landing on an open suitcase latch (no I don’t know why it was that close to the toilet) and cutting the bottom of my foot open quite nicely, necessitating 10 stitches and a few weeks of crutches.
  • In high school I was heading out after school with the rest of the track team out on a neighborhood practice run.  As we ran out of the parking lot, there was a low-slung wire between two poles; literally, it was about six inches off the ground.  I was at the back of the pack, and I watched as all the other girls ahead of be skipped over it without a problem.  But sure enough, when it was my turn, I did this weird hurdle kind of maneuver over it and caught my back foot under it.  I fell crashing to the ground, landing on my knees and immediately feeling dozens of jagged small rocks embedding themselves in my skin.  My mom had to pick me up from the nurse’s office and I still have the scars on my knees.
  • In one of my worst-ever when-will-you-learn moments, I accidentally dropped not one but two pairs of expensive prescription eyeglasses into the medical officer’s latrine during the first week of my service in the Peace Corps.  Both times I clipped the glasses onto my shirtfront after I took them off; both times they unclipped and went tumbling into the latrine hole as I bent over to squat down.  And both times I watched in horror as they disappeared into the diarrheal darkness – especially the second time, which felt like my own personal Groundhog Day movie.  PLOP times two.  No, I never told anyone, and no, I didn’t try to get them out.  I was so embarrassed that I was more than willing to just squint through the next two years.
  • For one of the first holiday dinners back in America after returning from Africa, I decided to cook a New Mexican feast.  As I was taking the huge casserole dish of homemade enchiladas out of the oven, the oven mitts slipped and I dropped the entire thing on the floor.  The dish broke and the enchiladas oozed all over the floor, including under the oven and the refrigerator.  I’m pretty sure my curses could be heard all over the neighborhood.
  • On my first full day in London during my last trip to England, my first stop was to be the Tower of London.  As I exited the Tower Hill tube stop, I could see the Tower across the street from a lookout point, and as I hurried to take a picture, I bit the dust. There was this dented gutter dip thing on the ground that I didn’t see and I clumsily stepped into it in just the wrong way; right in front of that was a curb leading to the lookout point.  Oh and there were about a hundred people standing around.  First I fell forward and both shins crashed down hard into the curb; then I fell backwards, completely all the way onto my back with my feet up in the air like a turtle on it’s backpack shell. And thank goodness I had that backpack on, because it really pretty much completely cushioned the physical blow if not the embarrassment one.  The curb ate the skin off most of the front of my shins, and I bruised the right heel of my foot, so I limped and bled in appropriate stoic British fashion through the Bloody Tower gate on the Beefeater tour for the next hour.  (I still have those shin scars too.)

IMG_3469 - Copy

My clumsy quota is seemingly never-ending.  Just in the past few weeks I have:

  • Accidentally dropped a large glass measuring cup while transporting it the two feet from the sink to the microwave, whereupon it shattered into a million tiny little shards that I’m still finding weeks later in about a 10-foot radius;
  • Broken both a plate and a saucer in the normal course of carrying them and/or putting them in the dishwasher;
  • Watched helplessly as my peanut buttered toast flew superhero-style off my paper plate onto the carpet as I performed the strenuous task of just sitting down. It landed peanut-butter side down, of course;
  • Burned a few layers of skin off the roof of my mouth by clumsily inhaling a freakishly-hot bite of bean burrito and then not being able to pry it off in time.

I used to get very upset when my clumsiness would strike.  It was a constant reminder of how imperfect I was, and it was even more frustrating that it happened so often.  When that holiday dish of enchiladas broke all over the floor, I flipped out; I cried and just stared at the mess, thinking of what a failure I was.  But it’s not like you can really practice not being clumsy…and I’ve now come to accept that it’s just part of who I am.  It’s still frustrating when I walk into a door frame or wall in my own house (that I know like the back of my hand), and I’m surprised that I even have any bruise-able areas left on my body after years of repeated capillary destruction, but it no longer makes me feel like less of a person.

I am a little worried about the prospect of working with fragile glass flower vases on a frequent basis going forward, but so far I’ve managed to break only one out of the hundreds I’ve washed and shelved for my new inventory.  I’m also a little concerned about signing up to play with my office softball team; I was always really bad with grounders when I played as a young girl, and I have horrible visions of one of them leaping up from my clumsily placed glove and popping me right in the teeth.  Which is why I kept jumping to the side of all the grounders last week and letting them whiz by, much to the annoyed chagrin of my teammates.  I don’t mind bruises but I’m still pretty fond of my front teeth.

Lastly: I don’t play soccer, but if I did, this would be me:

elephant soccer

Click picture to see what I mean…

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Memories Light the Corners of My Mud Brick Hut

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“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…” ~William Shakespeare (Henry V, IV, iii)

Bowel habits, big bugs, and blistering heat…tales of long bus trips and cracked, dirty feet.  These are just a few of the favorite things that Returned Peace Corps Volunteers love to talk about.  Spend any real time around one and eventually the conversation will take a turn down a foreign road beginning with “This one time when I was in Peace Corps…”  Get a bunch of returned volunteers together in one room and the most commonly-heard story starter is “In my country…” (talking of the country where we served).

In order to save our friends and family members from that perpetual glassy-eyed haze that comes from listening to yet one more excerpt of Peace Corps nostalgia, we have our own memory outlet in the form of a weekly Twitter online chat group, called #RPCVchat.  It’s a one-hour discussion that’s been hosted by the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) in Washington DC since June 2011, and it’s open to all Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) and currently-serving PCVs around the world.  For a short time most Fridays, we tune in from states and countries near and far to remember, honor, laugh, commiserate, brainstorm, theorize and advocate.  A big thank you to NPCA for tirelessly hosting this weekly chat session for almost 3 years now already!

I’ve been participating in the chats on a pretty regular basis for over two years now, and I really look forward to these sessions each time they’re held.  Even though the actual “chat” is not verbal at all, but rather silent on my part as I read and respond from my computer or phone, I still feel part of a welcoming community of like-minded people, and that’s comforting.  Recently some of the topics of our more popular chats have been:

  • Peace Corps & Technology (so much to discuss it had to be a two-parter!)
  • Valentine’s Day Edition: Love & Romance in the Peace Corps
  • The Peace Corps Commemorative Act (three words: bronzed flip-flops)
  • Gift-Giving & Holiday Traditions during Peace Corps
  • Leadership & the Peace Corps
  • Day of the Girl & Gender Roles in the Peace Corps
  • Favorite Foods while in the Peace Corps
  • Toilets & Bathrooms in Peace Corps (brought about by “poopular” demand in honor of World Toilet Day back in November)

The most recent #RPCVchat focused on the issue of happiness during our service (as it did fall on International Day of Happiness).  (There truly is a “day” for every little thing now on the calendar, but why only one lonely day for happiness I wonder?  Shouldn’t it warrant a month, or a quarter at least?)  This being a blog dedicated to the idea and pursuit of being UNunhappy, I felt it warranted not only a mention but a brief expounding as well.

Our moderator started things off by asking “what was your happiest day in the Peace Corps, and what made it so happy?”  This is actually a pretty difficult question and made me really think.  I get this inquiry quite a lot actually although sometimes it comes in the form of “what was the best part of your whole Peace Corps service?”  (I get the opposite question just as much, asking me what the worst part was…which is even more difficult to answer diplomatically!)

Just like life here in America, life during Peace Corps in a foreign country has its ups and downs and my experience was no different.  I did have plenty of not-so-great days, whether it was because of personal or personnel issues where I lived and worked, or consistent gastrointestinal woes brought about by my puny resistance to street food pathogens.  I can’t ever forget the serious injuries I sustained during a security incident and the resulting long recovery road (both physical and mental).  But things were far from all bad; once I started thinking about all the good days during my service, the days that I remember as being truly happy and satisfying, it was easy to come up with many examples:

  • International Women’s Day during my second year, when we held the first-ever all-girls soccer match in front of the entire village, chief elders included.  It wasn’t even related to my primary job assignment, but this secondary project of pulling together girls’ soccer teams and helping to organize the match is one of my proudest accomplishments of my service.
  • The day I figured out I could use my rudimentary Dutch oven to bake an actual chocolate cake – which I then shared with neighbors who had never tasted such a thing, which made it all the sweeter.  This was only possible when I could find eggs, which for some reason was next to impossible where I lived.  Also related: when I could obtain fresh baguette bread, which wasn’t very often in my village, I would toast it in my Dutch oven and slather it with local fresh peanut butter for the perfect breakfast.  This would set my happiness quotient at a very high bar for the rest of the day.
  • Any day during mango season – I fondly remember many, many days when I would eat nothing but mangoes and freshly-roasted peanuts for breakfast, lunch, and sometimes even dinner.  The mangoes and peanuts were that good, that I never got tired of them.
  • About halfway through my service, our tiny two-room health clinic obtained a generator-powered refrigerator to be able to keep vaccines in cold storage.  But my clinic colleagues and I also would take the liberty from time to time of using any extra room and shelf space to store liquid libations that were MUCH better cold: for me, that usually meant either Kool-Aid or Gatorade…for my colleagues, it meant bottles of beer, Coke and Fanta.  Days with ice-cold Kool-Aid = extreme happiness for a Peace Corps Volunteer used to drinking only warm and hot water for months on end in a village with no electricity and equator-sizzling temps.
  • Days I received mail, and especially care packages, were always very happy ones for me.  The care packages usually contained chocolatey Clif Bars and other treats, which I hoarded and rationed out over weeks to make the happiness last as long as possible.  The words on the paper bringing news from home of family, friends, and my dog were just as treasured.
  • I remember being very happy to be included in the tea-making ritual that would take place amongst friends and coworkers in my village almost every afternoon.  It’s an elaborate, social activity culminating in teeny tiny portions of brewed tea in small shot glasses that pack a powerful caffeine punch despite their size.  The tea was good (especially with those roasted peanuts), but it was the social aspect of the discussion and friendship that was the happiest part of it for me.  A fellow Burkina PCV wrote an excellent blog post in 2013 about making tea in Burkina, which you can read here.
  • Straying from the food & drink theme (which if you haven’t figured out by now are forefront interests for all PCVs!), I also remember being extremely happy on the day I rode my bike to a neighboring village to pick out and adopt the (almost) cutest tiny little African puppy you’ve ever seen (second only to a little Foxy red poodle I once knew).  I strapped him into a cardboard box onto the back of my bike and all the way back along the red dirt road to my mud-brick hut, he kept poking his little head out to see what was going on.  Little Mulder quickly became Very Big Mulder as he was the best-fed dog in the village, and a very important part of my Peace Corps life.
  • Lying in my hammock in my courtyard during the cool rainy season while listening to BBC on my shortwave radio – those simplistic little experiences make for long-lasting happy memories.
hammock time

Hammock Time

puppymulder

Puppy Mulder

I’ve been looking through some of my letters I wrote to family & friends during Peace Corps, and thought I’d note here a few other examples of times I mentioned being or feeling happy:

  • “Health is good today except for alligator-dry skin; but the tradeoff is no acne so I’m pretty darn happy about that.”
  • “I feel part of something bigger & better than I have in a long time; I’m sure a lot of it is the elation of the day and the facts that I went swimming after the ceremony and found actual sour cream & onion potato chips to eat (!) – but nevertheless I feel sound at heart tonight and proud of myself.”  (Written on the day we were sworn in as PCVs at the Embassy after 3 months of training.)
  • “Today someone complimented me on my French…so that made me feel pretty good. I love the reactions I’m getting from the local women when I say hello to them in Djoula [their local native language] – they go from frowns to all grins and giggles. They say to each other ‘She understands Djoula!’ Which I don’t very well, but what they don’t know…”

I don’t want to sugar-coat my time in Burkina Faso: life there, in one of the world’s poorest countries, is hard.  Very hard.  (I loved and laughed at a fellow RPCV’s tweet the other day that said “Every time someone asks me what the Peace Corps was really like I think, ‘You can’t handle the truth!‘”)  Quite honestly, one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of as a Peace Corps Volunteer having served there is simply that I survived and actually finished my two-year term.  Some members of my family didn’t think I would stay or finish because of the rough conditions…and there were times I almost didn’t.  But I’m glad and proud that I stuck it out, finished my projects, and hopefully made a positive impact in some way.  And I like remembering the positive and happy times like the ones mentioned above.  It doesn’t negate or erase the challenging times, but it feels good to think of what was good about my time there.

Returned Peace Corps Volunteers share an unspoken bond, knowing that we’ve challenged ourselves to extreme limits by going to the far corners of the world in hopes of helping others, promoting world peace and friendship, and discovering more about our own selves in the process.  Through forums like #RPCVchat and involvement in our local returned volunteers associations where we live, we are free to tell as many latrine, bus and village stories as we want without fear of judgement or drowsiness.  It’s a nice group to be a part of.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Friends, Lend Me Your Eardrums

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“True is it that we have seen better days…” ~William Shakespeare (As You Like It, II, vii)

Things I hate:  Spiders.  Moths.  All bugs.  Slow drivers.  When women wear too much perfume.  Cedar trees.  Cigarettes.  And being sick.  I hate being sick.

It’s been 5 weeks since my last post.  I came down with a minor flu on Valentine’s Day, which couldn’t just be the flu for flu’s sake, but had to lead me down a germy path to strep-induced tonsillitis as well as secondary infections of both the sinus and ear.  My right ear was clogged for two weeks and I got so fed up with it that I voluntarily elected to have my eardrum cut open and all the gunk inside vacuumed out by the ENT who now knows me on a first-name basis (due to 3 visits in as many weeks).  At one point my tonsils resembled some weird avant-garde modern art painting of random squiggly bacterial white lines and patches.  An intense coughing cacophony each night for three weeks left me with aching ribs and muscles and a permanent neck crick from trying to sleep at a 90-degree upright.  And then after almost a month, when I was just starting to get better, the strep/tonsillitis decided to play a very unwelcome encore performance last week, so back on the antibiotics I went for a second round.

None of it was really that serious, just more annoying and tiring than anything.  And certainly many people are dealing with much, much worse than me.  I do seem to have pretty bad health luck around this time of the year though; if you missed my post from what happened last March when I called for an ambulance in the middle of the night, you can read it here.  I get my flu shot religiously each year as soon as it’s available, so I was pretty angry it got me this year; luckily I didn’t have one of the serious strains that the flu shot protects against, but the flu is never nice no matter what form it comes in.

And that ear procedure was pretty squidgy.  It’s called a myringotomy and it’s actually very common; my ENT said he’s done 3 or 4 a week, every week, for years now.  Mostly on kids who need tubes in their ears, but also sometimes on adults like me who have mutant sinuses that won’t let us live normal lives (I didn’t get tubes).  I’d never gotten to the point where I needed it before now, and I hope I won’t need it again.  Let’s just say that if you’re afraid of needles or shots, you’re going to have a hard time if you need this procedure.  Because they have to numb up your eardrum before they cut it open, and that means multiple SHOTS, with tiny but still-real needles, right INTO and THROUGH your eardrum.  That’s what hurt like a heckamabob.  I didn’t feel the cutting at all, but it was very weird to be able to hear (in extreme Dolby stereo) the slicing sound of the scalpel on the eardrum, and then the loudest vacuum sucking sound you’ve ever heard.  Some pain about an hour later when the anesthetic wore off, but not much after that. 

ear infection

I pretty much don’t feel like doing anything when I’m sick, even if it’s just with “regular” illnesses like I just described.  It’s why I haven’t written any posts for 5 weeks or really done much at all past just getting through the days and nights and trying to get well again.  “Give people high-fives just for getting out of bed. Being a person is hard sometimes.” Words of wisdom from Kid President (if you haven’t watched his videos on SoulPancake, you’re missing out!).  It is hard being a person sometimes, especially a contaminated and contagious one.

Our bodies do an amazing job of trying to take care of themselves, but when those tiny insidious virus and bacteria warriors attack, it’s incredible how much physical and mental energy they can zap out of us.  Going to the grocery store and back feels like you’ve run a marathon and necessitates a long nap immediately afterwards.  Laundry becomes the equivalent of a hard gym workout.  I lost 8 pounds in the first week of being sick this time; I had absolutely no appetite and the only things I ate that week (the same thing every day) were minimal amounts of scrambled eggs, toast, and soup.  (When the tonsillitis hit, I felt justified in buying frozen double fudge pops and ice cream to sooth my throat, thereby negating my flu-fueled weight loss…but very much worth it.)  A pharmacist friend of mine said “bacteria will outlast humans” and I do believe she’s right.

I really wish I knew the secret behind those people who seem to have constitutions of steel and rarely if ever get sick.  What are they doing?  Or is it all just in the genes?  My family genes seem to be riddled with susceptibility to allergies, acid reflux and thinning hair – we’re a very phlegm-y family.  I’ve given serious thought to buying stock in Kleenex.  We are allergic to everything.  And on the GERD front, I’m pretty sure that just a handful of my family members could provide enough stomach acid (in a very short amount of time) to fill the vat that created the Joker. 

It doesn’t help at all that we live in the worst city in America for allergy-sufferers.  A day or week of bad allergies can be just as draining as the flu sometimes, and the resulting inflammation can make existing infections much worse.  Cedar fever season is over finally, but now we have the joy of days filled with oak pollen – and there are just as many, if not more, oak trees in this city than cedar trees.  As I write this, I had planned to be outside spraying weed and grass killer in my yard and pulling up the weeds that got a jumpstart on spring, but it’s so windy outside that I know I’d be suffering from oak pollen symptoms for days afterwards…and so once more I’m relegated to indoor confinement.

But again it’s all about perspective.  I know there are so many people out there dealing with so much worse, so I feel pretty grateful that I’m able to go through this crud but then recover.  There are some benefits to being stuck home sick.  The fudge pops, of course.  I’ve caught up on dozens of taped episodes of The Office that needed watching (and laughter is the best medicine sometimes).  And I’ve discovered a surprising fondness for classical music – while app-wandering one fever-filled day I found a wonderful British classical station (Classic FM) and the music they play is so beautiful and invoking (and goes perfectly with a cup of English Breakfast tea).  

But I’m looking forward to being well again.  In the next few weeks (well or not) I’ll be lobbying our City Council for a code and ordinance amendment that would allow me to get started on the primary outlet of my flower business venture.  It’s been a little slow going lately on the flower front, but I’m not losing hope.  It’s not a race, and I have been gradually implementing aspects that will help me move forward.  “Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast” has been my  mantra of sorts lately (Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, II, iii).

I hope if you’re currently battling a bug that you feel better soon.  Lots of fluids and frozen fudge pops is my recommendation.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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