hardest part of these two years: goodbyes

Last week welcomed October, my last month in Timor. The goodbye month started off with the most official goodbye I’ll have to do (hopefully) – farewell party at the cooperative.

In the days leading up to the party, I tried to district myself by “preparing” friendship bracelets for everyone and photos. When someone would bring it up, I’d try to comically add in that I was going to cry a lot, but that’s just how I was. Often when walking alone, to the house or to school, I’d try to really think about it, imagine how it was going to be, with the uninformed mentality that that would make it easier in the end.

The day before the party, I found the prepared speech from the cooperative printed on a desk. After taking a picture (maybe to read beforehand in preparation, but mostly to get the list of all the people I need to “give my respect to”), I started on my liafuan badak, or short words. It took me all afternoon and included switching back and forth between google searches of “how to stop yourself from crying.”

Pinch the bridge of your nose, where the tear ducts are, or pinch the webbed piece of skin between your thumb and second finger.

Because I knew how it was going to go. People were going to say nice things about me, and apologize for anything they may or may not have done (as is custom here) and thank me. And I was going to try my best to express the incredible amount of gratitude I have for each person who became family and friends, and to a community who continued to welcome me with smiles and understanding – something they definitely didn’t have to do.

Increase muscle tension by flexing or moving to oppose the passive and helpless reaction. (Quick note: I personally believe my crying is very active.)

The morning begun with my host mom giving me a long skirt made of tais (a traditional woven material), some confusion about whether I should change at the house or down at the cooperative, and a walk down to the festivities with Maria. First tear of the day dropped thinking about how she might be married when I come back to visit and about how she might be my best friend at site – definitely not sad things, which should give you an insight to just how easy this crying thing is for me.

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Antonio, Lurdes and I

The tears continued a bit, until Lurdes gave me a pretty good pep talk – no comforting or back rubbing, just straight up “you gotta stop crying.” While this was going to be impossible, she explained that members might think I’m mad or sad at something they have done in the past or they might cry if they see me crying.

Tilt your head up slightly so that the tears cannot flow down. 

After getting dressed, I sat around inside her house (which I was thankful for because many members had started to arrive outside), and took lots of pictures with kids, adults, and mostly teenagers. I brought out the friendship bracelets and key chains, which were immediately coveted by, mostly teenagers.

Yaram, Evan and I. Maria, Yani and I

We were then called outside to take a group picture in front of the new building. Soon after Simoe, the MC for the day, called certain people up to enter the space (it took place on the second story), and we walked two-by-two in. Chefe Suku and Chefe Aldeia. Katakista and cooperative Vice President. Cooperative President and I. The long skirt caused me to walk up the steps sort of like a penguin. Upon entering the space, it was hard to miss the large banner with photos of me and the words: Tempo mak disidi. Ho tempu ita hasoru malu to’o mos tempu ita fahe malu. Which translates to: Time decides. Time we meet each other until the time we separate from each other. If asked, I would have said the banner would be too much, but I wasn’t asked.

I sit next to Lurdes, cooperative President and Jose, cooperative Vice President on a bench decorated with various colored fabrics. I’m glad to have them, literally, on my sides, as dozens of people are watching me.

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Hold your eyes open wide and don’t blink very often.

Simoe starts the agenda, inviting Lurdes to speak on behalf of the cooperative. She powers through the prepared speech, naturally projecting into the microphone. Note: any volunteer here would tell you microphones make it almost impossible to understand everything that is being said. In this case, it might have been an advantage for avoiding a breakdown.

The set up and Lurdes speaking.

Next is a string of liafuan badak from the Chefe Suku, Katakista, President of another cooperative who is most likely receiving a volunteer this year, a cooperative member, representative from World Vision, and three university students doing research here in the community. All mentioned that I should leave the bad stuff here in Aileu and only bring the happy stuff with me to America. All mentioned how I can’t forget Timor and this community. All said sorry.

I was then asked to speak – preparing myself with tissue and my written notes – I stood up and did my best. I think everyone got the gist, even if they couldn’t understand well. I explained that my tears don’t mean that I am mad or sad, but means I am so lucky to have people and a life here that are so hard to say goodbye to.

Cross your eyes or roll them several times.

I then handed out certificates to the ten members who followed a recent financial literacy training. Awkwardly stumbled through the handshakes and cheek kisses. We prayed. More hand shaking, crying, and photos.

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Handing off Mateus his certificate. He is who I have to thank for most all of these photos. 

I got some food and ate, comfortably, pretty much by myself. Dahured (a circle dance that could go on for hours), took more pictures, sat around and people-watched each other.

Close your eyes.

My host dad, Telly in arms, comes to ask to take a picture with uma laran or family. My host mom is close behind and sits next to me waiting for others to join the photo opt. At this point, I’ve had relatively dry eyes for at least 45 minutes. But that immediately changes when I notice her sniffling and reaching for her eyes. She leaves the photo and goes to a room to compose herself. But we both know that’s impossible, and we both know it is better if everyone ignores it. So I handover some tissue and leave the room.

While not moving your head, look up with your eyes.

I am not good at saying goodbye. I was prepared to say goodbye to the U.S., my parents, friends, and culture (mind you, still cried). But it seems this goodbye has caught me by surprise, even though I’ve known the exact date for over two years now.

There is this thing Peace Corps promotes called the Cycle of Vulnerability and Adjustment, which details the predicted “ups and downs” of being a volunteer. I have been lucky and for the most part, have felt positive and comfortable for my whole service; not necessarily following the predicted lows. But the last three months have been the hardest of the 27. Until this farewell party, I felt almost constant anxiety, a weird mixture of sadness and relief, guilt, and regret.

The tears, and emotional words, and thanks, and sorrys have provided some closure.

I still have the big final goodbye left. Which won’t be easy, but at least it’ll give me some more practice with these tactics.

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Peace Corps, thanks for making me a unique malae

I have always had a pretty good idea of what was to come next in my life. One year of school to the next, summers at theater camp, college, Peace Corps.

While I do have a couple months of traveling planned after my service (ending on October 19th !), I have nothing outside of eating Mexican food and listening to the Harry Styles album while driving planned after that.

IMG_0864Good daydreaming setting. 

Currently, I’m really enjoying daydreaming about the endless possibilities. While I won’t bore you with a list, know that it is expansive and includes living in many exciting, new places. Now of course I was interested in traveling before Peace Corps, but I didn’t have quite the same confidence, desire, respect and didn’t necessarily see myself living outside the U.S. long-term. This only came with the experience Peace Corps and my host community helped me create.

But a week or two ago, I put two and two together and realized it will be very difficult, almost impossible, to learn and experience a place the same way I have here in Timor. I am often annoyed by foreigners that live in Dili. More specifically, I am often annoyed by the idea that malae who live in Dili believe they are, to use a Peace Corps word, integrated into Timor. But where do I expect them to live? Where would I live if I were here without Peace Corps? Where are all of the jobs?

Which makes me reconsider the idea of living in a non-Western country. Can I swallow my pride at live at the same level of experience I perceive Dili malae to live? Important HUGE DISCLAIMER: I still do not live the same lives as most Timorese people, members of my host family or community. Just some examples: I have a doctor I can call anytime, it sometimes feels like I am constantly eating, I have watched hours of videos on YouTube, and while I am pretty short, it isn’t because of stunting.

I’m not sure why I just realized the legitimacy of this being a “once in a lifetime” experience. While I will always have family here, I can’t very well just go to a community in another country, or even another area here in Timor, and say: “I’d like to live here with you, and work some, but mostly hang out.”

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Mural we painted at our training site. 

While there are definitely difficulties of living in the Peace Corps sphere as a volunteer, including feeling a little bit (maybe a lot) like a child, this realization got me thinking of things I am truly thankful for about Peace Corps (the institution, not my whole experience):

  1. Providing me the opportunity to live in a community no other foreigner has ever lived in before.
  2. Most likely the best health care I will ever receive. Definitely not looking forward to the lengthy process it takes to get something like birth control back in the U.S.
  3. Other volunteers. Everyone loves the “government issued friends” joke, but I can’t imagine how this would have been without the 16 other people in the whole world who can relate.
  4. The two-year commitment. Of course there were days were this felt like forever, but especially now, feels like the perfect bittersweet amount of time.
  5. Disillusionment and reconsideration of development work, specifically how that work is portrayed by those “doing it.” You might have a super nice camera and be a pro at writing captions or articles, but I now know the actual impact someone can have cannot be correctly articulated on social media.
  6. The realization that yoga pants (and almost anything) can pass as business-casual with the right amount of confidence.
  7. Pushing this usual rule-follower outside the rules, just a little bit.

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TL7 – so happy to completing these 27 months in Timor with these resilient and loving people. 

Now for some Peace Corps Timor-Leste specific things:

  1. Allowing us to define our own measures of success. I have heard stories of the seriousness of the VRF (Volunteer Reporting Form, honestly don’t know if that is what it actually stands for haha) in other Peace Corps posts. While the staff here wouldn’t admit that the quantity or quality of your VRF doesn’t matter, we are constantly reminded that any work (or attempt at work) is good work.
  2. Giving us biiiiig bragging rights (at least we think so). While I can’t say that Timor is the hardest PC country, I can definitely say it is far from “Posh Corps” and it is among the hardest. I recently saw a post on Instagram from a volunteer that explained they had a washer and dryer at their Peace Corps office (whhhhhhhat?!?!).
  3. Letting us keep our powerbanks – huge shout out.

Now I should write a post about things I have Timor to thank for – but my going-away party was yesterday and I need a break from the tears.

redefining weird: kids and school

I have hung out with kids more these last two years than I have ever in my life. Babies, little kids, big kids. Sometimes they are the easiest to interact with, like a safe haven where an expansive vocabulary and correct grammar actually work against you. Other times, they immediately cry at the site of you (it doesn’t help that their parents will most likely say things like “the malae is going to hit you” or “steal you”).

One of my first impressions of Timor was the children’s physical independence and toughness. 10-year-olds hand washing their school clothes. 7-year-olds climbing coconut trees. 5-year-olds running around with knives in their hands. 1-year-olds learning to walk barefoot on gravel (this one especially blows my mind because I can barely walk on a rocky beach without shoes). Back then, and even sometimes now, these things feel inherently wrong and/or unsafe, sometimes shocking.

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Here is my host sibling from training playing by putting nails into a water bottle. I couldn’t find any other pictures of seemingly unsafe playing – got somewhat used to it I guess.

When it comes to the perceived wellbeing or safety of a kid, it is difficult to see your cultural bias. I have been left wondering why this “weird” thing was happening, including topics outside of kids, countless times in Timor. Some research of different cultures’ views on materialism, sparked from a conversation with a friend about how my host family doesn’t always take the best care of things, brought me to this great new meaning for the word “weird”:

WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic).

So it is really weird or just not my kind of WEIRD?

The article that introduced me to this wonderful term explains:

“While Western parents may be more familiar with the cultural notion that child-rearing demands a hands-on approach from caregivers until the child is self-sufficient, other cultures might leave children to explore freely as a form of self-education. They may be left to “find their own way” from a much younger age than Westerns are accustomed to.”

Kids catching fish in the rice fields. Kiik no Alon playing with, well, trash. 

This might include learning the best path while walking (really hiking) to pre-school by yourself at the age of 5, or becoming a confident climber because there is no one there to catch you at the bottom of the tree. I definitely wouldn’t have all these scars on my legs if I had the dexterity of the kids here growing up. And to be honest, I’ve seen very few bones in casts or stiches.

My host sister Adae playing on a precarious swing she set up herself. Pre-school students heading back home, coloring pages in hand, via this steep path and across the river. 

(That is not to say children don’t face serious health concerns. According to World Food Programme, stunting (a reduced growth rate as a result of chronic malnutrition) affects 50 percent of boys and 47 percent of girls. This means that my height of 5’2 is average here.)

But it is interesting to watch and teach these self-educated children in a Western-style school setting. The past few months, I have been helping out twice a week at the pre-school in my community. Daily curriculum is supposed to include (we don’t always get it quite right): learning the sounds of a new letter and practicing writing words with that letter, drawing/coloring, playing outside, math, organized playing inside, listening to a story and finishing off with a song. Most of these activities require a good amount of focus, confidence and retention – and most of these kids haven’t learned these things yet.

Arella, one of the pre-school teachers and I during “organized” playtime. The kids singing a tetun-version of Itsy Bitsy Spider (at the top of their lungs). 

For example, last week, I was responsible for teaching the bigger kids (5-6 year olds, roughly) the math curriculum, which asked two students to stand at the front and show a number on their hand 1-5, then add the two numbers by counting the fingers. Seemed easy enough (and I knew all the correct terms in Tetun – geometry is a different story). But the kids had an incredibly hard time choosing a number on their own and then showing that number on their hand. Just holding up a 3 or a 4 required them to adjust with the other hand.

This blew my mind (and encouraged me to modify the activity a bit). These kids had the dexterity to run full speed while staying balanced on a thin path between rice fields, but couldn’t hold up a 3.

After a bit of practice, it was clear that the kids were only having trouble because it was a new skill. I was so proud when they began to get excited about seeing numbers on their hands.

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Showing off that number three with Professora Fernanda (the other pre-school teacher). 

The politically correct alarm in my brain wants to say that the self-education of kids in my community and the western-style schooling cannot and should not be compared. Both have pros, both have cons. But in reality, WEIRD systems have colonized the future dreams and aspirations of many Timorese parents and children, making this type of schooling required. For example, my host dad sends his daughter to a school that teaches in Portuguese, because he believes that “international” language is more important to perfect than the national language here. He often talks about how his children will visit me in American, where he hopes they will go to study and work.

Those are big dreams, and they seem even more difficult to achieve when you consider the reality of the education system here in Timor that is “still struggling with basic issues such as old and outworn infrastructure, teaching methods, and school facilities.”  Classes are conducted in a variety of languages, including Tetun, Portuguese and Indonesian, with varying comprehension from students and teachers. Teachers often just don’t show up. Curriculum is exam-heavy, based on rote memorization and includes little to no opportunities for hands on application.

The rough idea of a “normal” education system, without many of the things that help and encourage students. (I was thinking about how crazy cool and exciting fieldtrips were the other day). Timor Leste has the lowest primary net enrollment rates for both boys and girls, at 77% and 74% respectively.

There are various reasons a students might drop out here, including economic reasons, but when chatting with people, academic reasons (grade repetition, absenteeism, and behavior) seem to be the major factor.

The United States’ education system is not anywhere near perfect, but I am lucky to have been a student in it. After witnessing a system that only received 7% of the national yearly budget (recommendations include allotting between 15 and 20%), it is scary to imagine what a 5% cut in education from the Trump administration and various cuts on the state-level will result in.

all spaces are dangerous for women and girls

Profanity warning (censoring it seemed counter-intuitive) 

I just read this article ranking the United States as one of “the 10 nations deemed to be the most dangerous for women.”

That is terrifying.

“Be safe.” I heard it over, and over and over again before leaving for Timor-Leste almost two years ago. I’ve thought about this each and every time I’ve woken up to news of a mass shooting, police brutality, white supremacy, policy changes making it harder to live life as a women, person of color or queer person, etc. etc. etc.

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How could Timor-Leste be any less safe than the reality in current America? Sure, the commute might be a little risker with landslides and cliffs. But I would take that over even the threats of violence being deemed acceptable by the President of the United States.

I have had a unique opportunity to live outside of the United States, and therefore a little outside the oppression, for the first two years of Trump’s term. This administration’s (and its supporters’) stupidity doesn’t infiltrate all of my conversations, or all of the media I consume, or my day-to-day experience (although still definitely more than I like). While trying to exercise in my dusty small room, I often think about how nice it would be to go to a gym. But then I remember the 10-15 TV screens in front of cardio machines.

The article says that a survey found “the U.S. the 10th most dangerous nation in terms of the risk of sexual violence, harassment and being coerced into sex.” It explains how the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns have helped to increase awareness of the sexual violence and intimidation women face in the United States.

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I have also had the unique opportunity of being on the outside of these national movements, marches, and individual acts of resistance and pushback. Watching these unfold from the screen of my iPhone has been overwhelming, beautiful and has caused extreme FOMO (fear of missing out) in most cases. I’m so proud of it all (except the still-ever-present white feminism). In this era, I’m sure volunteers around the world wonder if Peace Corps is what they should be doing. At times, it feels selfish and cowardly. Is this really where my presence is needed? Is spreading “friendship and peace” in a tiny island country really the most important act of resistance? Am I even doing that? While this is a reoccurring thought, it isn’t the point of this post (read more about that here).

The point of this post is to talk about how all nations and spaces are dangerous for women and girls – and how tired I am of it and how ready I am to say, “fuck off.”

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Timor-Leste does not make this article’s top 10 most dangerous, but here are some scary things women here live with:

  • Lifetime physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence: 59%
  • Physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence in the last 12 months: 46%
  • Lifetime non-partner sexual violence: 14%
  • Child marriage: 19%

These statistics come from the Timor population (as they should), and I can only speak of them from an observer’s position. They help show how men and boys often view and treat women – as powerless and with little respect – and how this influences larger acceptable cultural norms. The Asia Foundation found that 80% of Timorese women and over 70% of men interviewed agreed with at least one justification for a man to use violence against his wife, and over 40% of men in the study believed that a woman is usually to blame for being raped for putting herself in that situation.

If Timorese men (and women!) are buying into this victim blaming mentality and face no real consequences, does it also influence how they view and treat malae (foreign) women? Absolutly. Duh. Yes.

Now, maybe it was unnecessary to include those country-specific statistics, because all spaces are dangerous for all types of women. All women living abroad or in their home country have stories of cat calling, groping, aggravated sexual assault, etc. etc. etc. But I think there is something unfortunately unique about sexual harassment and assault experienced by Peace Corps volunteers (or maybe I just want to complain):

  1. You are likely the only foreigner in the surrounding area, making you stick out like a sore thumb. The combination of being a malae and a female makes for an almost unbearable amount of unwanted attention.
  2. I say almost unbearable, because you have to bear with it. You aren’t a foreigner going on a “weekend warrior” trip to the districts; you live here.
  3. Because you live here and are expected to integrate into this place and culture, it matters how you respond. You can’t be making enemies or be known as the uppity malae. This means you’ll probably take (or rather internalize) comments and grabs (literal grabs) lighter than you would have in other situations.
  4. You know the language, but aren’t good enough (language proficiency is also a gender battle, so don’t blame yourself) to have quick, powerful comebacks. This means you know what people are saying about you, but your words aren’t strong enough to make them stop.
  5. You’ve broken the boundary between malae and local. While this is probably positive most of the time, it also means people feel more comfortable tantalizing you. You’ve also been influenced and somewhat adapted to the often passive, quiet demeanor of local women.
  6. You don’t have a private car or motorbike. This means you are at the mercy of public transportation and walking. In the capital and in your district, this means you are sitting in very close quarters with men and boys who think they are the shit because they are standing on the back of a truck (????).
  7. You don’t work at large NGOs that can put on nation-wide campaigns addressing the sexual harassment and violence women face. Instead you try to have culturally appropriate conversations about equality with individuals in your community, but then observe opposite behavior within the next hour. This means you probably feel helpless.

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Rates of sexual offenses against female Peace Corps volunteers from 2006-2015. 

I would include country-specific statistics detailing the seriousness of harassment and assault experienced by volunteers here – but I know it would be incorrect and underwhelming (the above graphs may also be). I know this because I haven’t reported any assault or harassment I’ve experienced.

Which brings me to the point that will tie all this together. I’m tired of feeling like I can’t do anything. I’m tired of censoring myself. I know I should report, but I can’t bring myself to admit to anyone, myself included, that these acts (which are no big deal to the perpetrators) meant anything to me or had any effect. The reporting system requires me to relive and retell these moments, resulting in no consequences or retaliation for the perpetrator. Language and culture limit my immediate reactions. Incomplete relationships mean I can’t always tell my host family or service providers what has happened.

The ever-growing examples of blatant and subtle resistance, pride, influence and change happening back in the United States (shouts out to the Families Belong Together marches happening throughout the PNW right now) give me faith for the country I am entering again. Individuals and movements can’t afford to censor themselves – in the voting polls, in purchasing decisions, out in marches, in conversation and when demanding respect. I’m excited to take off the exhausting veil of volunteer and malae, and join you.

thank you!

As of the beginning of this month, the building renovations project was fully funded on Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP) website! Our goal of $3,000 was met thanks to personal friends and family, supportive individuals and larger organizations. Crowdsourcing is a risky endeavor, especially when you have a large group of community members who don’t completely understand that if the full amount isn’t raised, we don’t receive any of it. But I’m so humbled and thankful for the support of individuals, who donated, shared or encouraged. It really means a lot.

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The majority of the building structure ($6,000+) was funded by the cooperative itself – from loan and service fee funds. This allowed us to start building the basic structure in February, so we could have it finished before the next rainy season started in the fall. The fundraised grant money we have recently received will be used to purchase material to improve security and functionality of the space. For example, a few days ago we purchased sturdy roofing (to fight against the heavy rain), doors, windows and locks/keys.

Watch a video showing the many community members who worked hard creating this space here. On this day, all cooperative members were invited to finish the top of the structure.

A trip to the river…to do anything

After brushing my teeth, washing my hair, washing my body, using the restroom, drinking water, and doing laundry I feel the urge to write this post – more specially, feel the urge to vent about not having water. But there really isn’t much to vent about – no water, that’s it.

Limited water access continues to be an issue in Timor-Leste. In 2011, WHO and UNICEF found water access was 69% and 39% for sanitation of the population. I would assume these figures have increased over the last 7 years – but I can’t find any real sources saying so.

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Laundry day

But these figures could also be decreasing. Since last October, the 302 people, plus me, who live in my community haven’t had access to clean water. I’m not sure if this is a common problem with water systems here in Timor, but it is a good example of the NGO dependency and project unsustainability here. According to the community, the pipes connecting the water source and spouts in the community were installed in 2007 by Plan International. A local Water Management Group was supposedly created and given the responsibility of maintenance. Since the pipes have run dry, there has been no sign of this group and therefore no real development or confirmed problem.

The rainy season here is heavy and consistent. So until about April we were scrapping by with rain collection – a creative hose and gutter contraption and many, many buckets. This system still required laundry to be done at the river and depended on the weather.

The local river during dry season

The dry season hit hard and fast. In anticipation for this, a few weeks ago I wrote letters explaining the situation and asking for help and delivered them to various NGOS. With a big election and not much information available, reaching out to the government for help seems intimidating and unreachable. The letters seem to have been unsuccessful – so I’ll soon try new tactics.

You may have heard of the drought in Cape Town, South Africa – requiring residents to limit their water use to maximum of 13.2 gallons per day. 13.2 gallons per day?! I would kill for that – but I know that isn’t fair. These limitations would be difficult in a western-styled house. And there is something seemingly okay with it if everyone has the same limitations. But a drought isn’t the issue in my community’s case, and neighboring communities on both sides do not have a problem. You can only imagine my internal frustration when walking by leaking waterspouts just down the road.

This is a full shower (minus washing my hair or any time for mind-blowing thoughts).

So you’re wondering how we live? The river – a godsend. And to think there are communities in Timor who don’t have water access or a nearby river! Luckily the river is a short walk from my house, but definitely isn’t missing a steep climb. So all the water required to complete the tasks listed at the beginning of this post all come from this river. This is my shower process: take a jerrycan, a gayun (I don’t know what to call this is English, but it is like a small bucket with a handle to pour water in the bathroom or while showering), and shampoo 2n1. Wash my hair at the river, fill the jerrycan, carry it back to the house, and use this water to wash my body.

This isn’t particularly comfortable or convenient for me. But doesn’t come close to the amount of discomfort and inconvenient my host family and other community members must experience (even if they wouldn’t identify it as that). Because in addition to the list mentioned above, they have to fetch water for cooking, cleaning, washing dishes, flushing the toilet, and maintaining their children.

But in other but related news, I got to take a bath during vacation.

a girls’ weekend – Camp GLOW

Feel like I am forever starting these blog posts off with an apology for being late. I do feel a bit guilty about it, but also I don’t. It is difficult to write about everyday life, but sometimes everyday life is difficult, so I should celebrate and commemorate the good days.

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volunteers and participants – Camp GLOW Aileu 2018

Back in March, 26 young women participated in the first Aileu Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World). These young women came from 8 different communities in the district of Aileu, accompanied by 8 volunteers who organized and implemented the camp.

Inspired by the worldwide GLOW curriculum and local needs assessments, the camp focused on gender equality, female health and menstruation hygiene, future planning and creative thinking. It asked participants to step out of their comfort level, create new supportive relationships, and reflect on their own experiences and beliefs. It also pushed volunteers to work effectively as facilitators, and in my case, ice-breaker game enthusiasts.

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It was a jam-packed 3 days. Activities included: zumba, journaling (and journal decorating), watching Timorese-produced videos about consent, domestic violence and taking nude photos, watching captioned American films (Mulan and Moana), friendship bracelet making and budgeting making, a in-depth session of female health, a water balloon fight and more.

Each volunteer brought 3-5 young women from their communities. It was very cool for all of us to see these young women, many host-sisters, in a new environment completely focused on them. For example, Maria, a 15 year old I live with, was an awesome mixture of shocked, shy, and excited when she was invited to be the first to fix her plate. It was also great to meet the young women who have positively impacted the lives of my fellow volunteers. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – teenage girls are the best population in Timor.

Of course there is much to improve and learn from, and we are lucky enough to have volunteers interested in continuing the camp in future years. Camp GLOW is a special thing that happens in many countries and it feels good to bring Timor-Leste into a worldwide Peace Corps conversation. And at the end of the day, participants had a good time, and that’s all we really wanted.

 

 

You’re my best shot

One principle that I find incredibly important in all service and volunteer work, whether that be in a local food bank or as a Peace Corps volunteer in Timor-Leste, is that it has to be done in true alignment with the priorities of target communities. In other words, I cannot try to implement a project just because I think it is a good idea, and vice versa, if my community believes in a project, it is my job to help built their capacity to fulfill this idea. Sometimes this causes temporary headache, but always causes long-term impact.

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Treasurer Leon and I working on computerizing the cooperative’s documents

So last year, when the cooperative (who I work with everyday) asked me to help create a plan for building a new office space, we worked together to create a proposal, building plan and budget. Quickly this project was proving to be a big endeavor. But with the success the cooperative and this community have found in the past and the over $6,000 the cooperative had already raised, it was only fair I gave it my best shot.

And my best shot includes reaching out to my incredible support system back home. So this is my call for donations. If you are inspired to and can, please read about and consider donating to the HIKHMOR cooperative’s building of a new space here: https://www.peacecorps.gov/donate/projects/security-and-productivity-renovation-of-savings-and-loans-cooperative-pp-18-481-001/ Please ignore the “$50” and “$100” button, and give as much as you’d like.

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Many members of the cooperative and I in front of the older office space.

I’ve had the privilege and luck of receiving this group and community’s hospitality and working with them. But that isn’t why I’m asking for your financial support. It is because they are incredibly hardworking, dedicated, and community built. When I explained to them the PCPP (Peace Corps Partnership Program, the crowd funding donation system), that it would be many individuals donating to make the total, they couldn’t be more excited. Rather than receiving a large donation from an NGO that would want to control the project, the cooperative was enthralled with the idea of a community helping another community.

If you aren’t convinced, I have two more incentives!

First, I’ll randomly select 15 people who donate to receive a card made by me and signed by the cooperative. So be sure to include your address (although I can’t guarantee it will make it). Everyone will of course receive some sort of thank you.

Second, and this one is important, it is tax deductible! Of course! In the current political climate, wouldn’t you feel more comfortable having some control over where you taxes are going?

Thanks for stopping by

Last month it finally happened – the day members of my community had been talking about for months, the week I had been going over and over, creating plan Bs and plans Cs in my head about – my mom, Tracy and stepdad, Bret visited Timor-Leste.

They didn’t just visit it, I’d say they got the full explore experience. In case you didn’t follow their updates, here’s a summary: visit a few airports and sit in a few airplane seats, arrive in Timor, venture up into the mountains via public transportation truck and walking to Haley’s site (through a river even), begin a week-long white rice and vegetable diet, shake a lot of hands while smiling and nodding, take about every type of transportation include boat and plane, snorkel and dive in Atauro Island, get stuck on Atauro Island, declare war with mosquitoes, catch up with Haley, and much more. A lot of experiences packed into a little over a week. And I’m pretty lucky to have family excited to experience it all.

After I dropped them off at the airport, I took a nap (I’ll argue it was well deserved, but also, as Mom and Bret discovered, this is simply part of life here), and woke up feeling (queue dramatic music) like it was a dream. I wondered if the brief amalgamation of my life there and life here actually happened.

I think because the experience didn’t truly fit into one box or the other (or the other) – but that’s life. I knew there were going to be a lot of things that would surprise them, which no longer surprise me (it seems they never did surprise me, but I’m sure they did at some part) – a caged monkey, many farm animals, unbearably full cars, etc. But I didn’t realize there were going to be so many things about me that would surprise them. It might be too far to say I feel exactly the same as I did 18 months ago, but I can’t say I’ve had a personal breakthrough or changed many of my opinions. It is an interesting and lucky opportunity to have changes identified.

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Bret, Mom, Sabin and I in Atauro

My fellow volunteer, Rebecca once pointed out that people always have a way to categorize their lives into boxes: based on relationships with people, based on the location they live, or the job they have. I haven’t really had enough life to figure out what my boxes are. Or rather I haven’t had enough life to have creative boxes; high school, college, Peace Corps – that’s it. So it is fair that my Mom and Bret were surprised by certain things – my non-picky eating or wearing only flip flops – because they’ve had a texting and phone calling involvement in my Peace Corps box and a summer/holidays involvement in my college box. That isn’t to belittle or to say that I haven’t called my Mom for advise in both boxes or don’t look forward to long, chatty lunches or don’t feel immense thankfulness for the support and love I constantly receive. But it is to say that I/we have/am changing. So if I don’t feel productive after this Peace Corps box, at least I’ll try anything on any menu (or food cart).

Anyway – it was a great vacation and I’m so glad I got to share this place and my life here with them. There are perks to having a small Peace Corps cohort, but there is something scary knowing only about 40 people back in America will have any clue into what this box was like – so I’ll take any opportunity to increase this number. Thank you again, Mom and Bret for making the journey, being up for the adventure, and confirming that photos don’t do Timor’s beauty justice. Let’s go to Italy next.

 

Sunday Suli 9: items that I can’t live without and items I wouldn’t mind living with

In preparation of my mom and stepdad visiting me here (!!!), I have been cleaning my room and packing a suitcase with items I won’t need for the next 10 months. A few things surprised me during this process.

First, and most obvious in hindsight, the few things I packed all the way across the world and to my community that I maybe used twice. PSA: you can buy journals anywhere; you don’t need to bring fancy empty ones. Second, the little emotional attachment I have to items nowadays. While I will always hold on tightly to gifts or nice cards, I found myself packing items for their functionality, rather than my memories with them.

So all that got me thinking about what I really need here, which got me thinking about all the things waiting for me back home. Disclaimer: this post is very materialistic and pretty predictable.

Things that make living here easier

Powerbank – By far the most useful thing Peace Corps issued us (okay, the water filter and medical kit are also pretty important). This powerbank trumps all other powerbanks. While it does take a few hours to fully charge, it holds 3-4 full phone charges and has a super bright flashlight useful for finding/scaring mice at night.

Water bottle – Peace Corps Volunteers and college students probably have a few things in common, but one is for certain: always having a water bottle at hand. Another thing for certain, (most) PCV’s tolerance and blind eye for mold in the thread and crevasses of water bottles is significantly higher than it should be.

Headphones – How else are you going to binge watch Scandal while your host family thinks your napping?

Flannel – I didn’t actually come to Timor with this, but rather was lucky to find it in the donation pile in the volunteer lounge. Many of us here sport it. It fits in any already-stuffed backpack, provides some protection from late night mosquitoes (maybe?), and can be worn over and over without needing a wash (most anything can, turns out).

Ziplock bags – Rather than an underwear drawer, I have an underwear ziplock bag. Rather than a toiletry bag, I store my 2n1 shampoo and dried up mascara for a night out on the town in a ziplock bag. Rather than a dry bag, my electronics hide from the rain in; you guessed it, a ziplock bag.

Things that would make living luxury

A down comforter – We sometime chat about what we are going to use our readjustment allowance on, an allowance designed to be used for a down payment on an apartment or other expenses related to establishing yourself back home. Most of us agree on using it to travel, but I’ll be sure to save some for a new, fluffy, white and cool-in-all-the-right-places down comforter.

That’s it.