Saturday, January 8
Mornings are still my favorite here. They’re bright and cool, and no one smells like sweat yet. The country smells like trees and smoke from burning trash.
We departed late because our guide, Lawrence, was 40 minutes behind. I feel like I’m at summer camp- T-shirts, long shorts and sunscreen. I’m wearing three kinds of sunblock right now. The most amusing is the face stick that looks like a glue stick and makes my ears smell like mint.
Fruit was missing from breakfast again, but we’ve been promised it tomorrow. Today was one sausage and dried-out tomato slices- I stole two more and some vegetarian Heinz beans from Ellen. Still more bread, butter and jam. I’m rationing my salt packets from the US. Butter tastes so much better with them! The tea is boring and Ashley refuses to stomach the instant coffee anymore.
We saw a ton of idle kids in town yesterday. Kirsty said they don’t go to school- attendance is mandatory but it’s not enforced. They might sell things or beg in cities. The girls’ ears are pierced at birth to differentiate the genders, since girls aren’t allowed to grow their hair long until they’ve grown to 18.
The back of the bus sucks. The windows open further, so Morgan likes to take pictures back there, but the shocks don’t work too well, so every pothole or speed bump rattles like an armload of dropped pots and pans, and makes me clutch my boobs for dear life.
We spent the morning at Joy House, a school Alternative Breaks helped to construct and paint last year. It’s in use now for 150 kids. Our job was to make bricks to build an additional room to the school building. 15 or 20 children helped us, along with Lawrence and Dennis, the director of the school.
Here’s the plan:
1. Take plastic buckets and basins to the river or watering hole, a five minute walk through the forest behind Joy House. Fill with water. Give buckets to 8 year old children to balance on their heads. Bring back to the school. Invent songs and dances on the way. (The children sang the word “wedding” in Fante over and over again. Ava started the impromptu conga line; Courtney was in the middle and I brought up the rear. Repeat. Have both your hands held by different children each time. Let them model your sunglasses and hat. Take their photo 7 billion times.
2. Take other buckets and basins to the road, where men are breaking up piles of red earth with pickaxes and transferring the soil to said buckets. Take your full basin back to the school. Repeat. If you get the really big silver metal basin, take a friend to help you. Have Joseph thrust a shovel into your hands and show you how to grip it and fill buckets. Do so with vigor. Fling dirt everywhere but the bucket. Bend your knees. Flatten your back. When one dirt pile is down to the dregs, improvise using a pickax based on what you’ve seen the men do. Learn the flat end is more effective than the spiky end to disperse rocks and soil. Develop a genuine fear that you’ll miscalculate and pick your own eye out. Repeat.
3. Take your shoveling skills to the dirt pile by the school, where men and Liv are turning over the soil and adding grey concrete powder to it. Stab the dirt pile with choppy motions. Learn how to sprinkle water and make the dirt dark brown and wet. Repeat.
4. Watch Lawrence or Joseph shovel finished cement into metal forms and pack it in. Heft the model with a partner. Feel like your arms will fall off. Shuffle around the corner to the school and deposit the metal box with Dennis, who will up-end it and produce a fully formed brick. Carve your name into its side, if you wish. (I didn’t get to.) Have 15 or so bricks by the end.
5. In your down time, play London Bridge and Simon Says with the kids. (I taught the YMCA.) Ask their names, tie their dress ribbons, and try to get Jeff the silent 4-year-old to speak. When you get stuck with the quiet, serious girl, just stand there holding her. That’s cool too.
6. If any part of your body or any article of your clothing is not sweaty, sticky, greasy, achey or covered in orange dirt by the end, you’re doing it wrong.
And that was only till 10:30 am.
Liv is the star pupil of the trip. The girl gave herself blisters from shoveling so intensely, and she’s learning Fante like a pro. Just today she picked up numbers 1-10 and basic phrases by repeating the guys at the site phonetically. Joseph adores her and now teaches her constantly through repetition.
I have my first real souvenir of the trip. Dennis gave me his money pouch to hold for safe-keeping which he was shoveling cement. He later found out I speak French (I may be the only one in the group who does) and he spoke with me! Several times. I felt so cool! I returned the purse to him as we were leaving, and he asked if I wanted to have it. I said I’d love to, so he took his money out and handed it to me. It’s beautiful leather, with Africa embossed on the front- something I’d never buy for myself, which is even better. WIN.
We all had ice cream to recover from manual labor, over my protestations of “But it’s only 11 am!” I tried FanChoco. FanIce is my favorite, hands down, since it’s creamy. Amira likened the flavor to frosting. FanChoco was good once it began to melt into chocolate milk- otherwise, it was too icy.
Everyone loves Alvaro. I tried the pear flavor today- it’s spot on, and better than the sickly sweet pineapple flavor. Joseph was watering down his Coca Cola and I asked why. He said it’s too sweet, and everyone in the group agreed.
Mallory, the junior voice major from SUNY Potsdam, and Daisy, the Chinese-born, Australian-educated Cambridge engineering student, individual ProWorld volunteers who’ll accompany us for the next two days, fit into our group well. We drove to to a resort on Abandze Beach, where all the ladies piled into a bedroom and changed into swim gear. We hit the water immediately. It was warm! A nice respite from the frigid coastal waters of the US. We were told to stay away from the foreboding black boulders rising from the water. Morgan, Mallory, Drew, Ava and I ventured out far into the waves, which were big enough to surf in. A few hours later, when Mallory and I went out again, the tide was high and the breakers were dangerous, preventing us from reaching where we were earlier and pushing us constantly toward those rocks. We attempted boogie boarding a bit before heading in and collapsing.
I took no less than two naps on the beach and escaped without a sunburn. Lunch was my least favorite meal so far, but the extra-fried egg rolls and spaghetti with lobster and veggies were both quite tasty. The rest of it was white bread with butter and a hint of garlic (boring, but others liked it) and a flavorless beef and bean stew mixture that disappointed (again, only me).
Ellen and Nansi befriended some children on the beach and played Duck Duck Goose with them. These kids were rougher than the ones at the school, so I guess the experience was less positive. My only interaction with them was trying to get a group of 5 kids carrying things along the beach to join in, since they seemed interested. English wasn’t their strong suit, I think, and the one girl I managed to bring up to the game smiled sheepishly and told another girl that she was selling things and couldn’t stay.
The beach was great for bonding. My favorite image of the day, more than the school kids, was 12 beautiful women, all shapes and sizes and colors, wading into the ocean with a white beach and palm trees in the background. I felt a surge of pride in my gender that I don’t often feel. After lunch, I sat with six ladies- Yvonne, Liv, Ashley, Amira, Ava- and we shot the shit for hours. Body image, roommates, boyfriends and husbands, sperm banks, RAs, 4Loko. I often fell quiet and didn’t know what to add to the conversation, but just being with these powerful, self-confident women was a gift.
A bartender at the hotel was on the hunt for a wife. He spoke to Ellen about liking Ashley, and later told me I was “a nice, pretty lady.” He was sexy, I won’t lie. At that, everyone in this country is beautiful- the men, the women, the children and babies are all attractive. Obrunis look funny next to them. It’s intimidating.
Our second GCI “module” (class) was hours late and more pointless than yesterday. This one, on sustainable development, lasted 20 minutes and got the definition of the phrase wrong from the get-go. Our entire group hates the sessions, and Ellen plans to speak to Kirsty about getting us out of future GCIs.
We picked up fruit for the group on the way home and ate it as a post-dinner snack during reflections. Dinner was lots of veggies, chicken and (too bony for me) fish, rice (which I loaded up on to avoid chastising from the cooks and then didn’t eat) and yam balls with red sauce. Who knew yams were white and like a starchier potato? Ellen, the token vegetarian and my eating buddy, shared her plantains with me too. I think plantains are my new chapatis, though nothing can ever replace my beloved fried Kenyan pancakes.
It’s only day three, but it struck me today that I want to do this type of trip over and over again. If I could join a group and go to a ProWorld site, or another NGO that does both service and cultural outings, I’d save the money and come for two weeks of vacation time every few years. I could start small- do a NOLA trip or farming in California, or WWOOFing in Europe. Getting away from the office completely for two weeks might be hard, especially if I get a political job, but I think I’m going to make it my goal. After a while, I could have quite a collection of travels and projects under my belt. It’d be a great way for me to continue service abroad, yet work in the US and in NYC, where my heart is. Plus, ProWorld has sites in India, Peru, Mexico, Belize, Thailand, Nepal soon- I’d go to any and all of those!
Courtney and I switched rooms! We don’t know why. We’re now in 201, a palatial suite, with common room, full bathroom with full-length tub, and huge bedroom with fan, couch, two wardrobes and two beds. The pillows feel more like they’re filled with cotton balls than Silly Putty, and the AC and the faucet both work. Our full-length mirror is too skinny and we can’t unlock the door to the adjoining balcony, but I’m not complaining.
We had a late-night Fante lesson with Lawrence- good but long. Reflections are getting better and more beneficial, too. We discussed highs and lows today, and shared some touchy subjects: pickpocketing, sexual harassment from locals.