Monday in a Picture – Mondulkiri Project

Shortly after arriving in Cambodia, I was in a hostel in Phnom Penh talking with PCV who is currently serving here. We talked about our experiences in Peace Corps and life. I asked the Cambodia PCV for recommendations on things to do while here. He spoke very highly of the Mondulkiri Project in northeast Cambodia. The project has an elephant sanctuary for rescued elephants, and offers jungle trekking in addition to visits to the sanctuary to feed and bathe the elephants.

My interest was piqued. I read more about the project, and knew that I wanted to go. The project is home to five elephants. At least one was formerly used for elephant rides in Angkor Wat. Another was used for hauling logs from the jungle. Another was abused by her caretaker. The project also employs Bunong people, who live in the local community where the jungles and forests are.

The 18 kilometer trek started at the tour guide’s homestead just before 9 am. The views from the trek were quite awesome. Apparently, it’s the end of rainy season so the mosquitoes were minimal, but jungle floor was very slippery. This was especially true on inclines and declines. I lost my footing a few times and was invited to promptly sit down on the jungle floor. The trek included swimming in a river at a waterfall right before lunch. During the after lunch trekking, the rain started. Although it started as a light drizzle, it progressed into heavier rain. The jungle floor became even more slippery. We finally reached our destination: the Jungle Lodge. They had hammocks with blankets set up for us. They also served dinner, which included bamboo soup (made in real bamboo), breakfast, and lunch the next day.

The second day was all about the elephants in the sanctuary. We went down to the sanctuary with many bananas. We were able to feed the elephants in the jungle sanctuary. Once the elephants saw that we had the bananas, the gentle giants approached and took the fruit from our respective hands. Some elephants allowed us to remain close while others walked away to munch on some young bamboo. In the afternoon, we were able to swim with and bathe the elephants in the river. After a full two days of activity, I was tired and sore. I’m super thankful for the hot shower and delicious food I had back in town. The above picture is of me admiring the view at the beginning of the trek, when I was still dirt-free.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

P.S. – Here go two more really cool pictures. The first is of a leaf that apparently ran out of chlorophyll. The second is of an elephant munching

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Monday in a Picture – Kirby. Full Stop

Guest Post Note: Most of this blog has given you my experience in Peace Corps eSwatini. This week, here’s something a little different. How did Peace Corps eSwatini, through the lens of a PCV, experience me? Meet Lakia. She is currently serving an extension year as a PCV in Peace Corps eSwatini. She enjoys reading, travel, blerd culture and being the greatest aunt ever. Find her on twitter – @pirate_jenn

Kirby P. Riley and I met 2 years and 2 months ago. Well, not really met. More like I tried to greet him on the airport shuttle, he wasn’t interested, I retreated to my own personal space and we carried on from there. But over the span of 2 years and 2 months, I’ve come to completely love and
learn so much from this genuine, kind, slightly anti-social gentleman.

I wish I could sum him up in a neatly bound collection of quirky adjectives and anecdotes, but I can’t. He’s just Kirby. Full stop. Anyone who knows him, knows that this phrase is enough. They understand that there is no box that works, no paragraph that can bind such a fluid individual. All
that I have, all that anyone who knows this weirdo has, is a bunch of interesting experiences so cherished that they simply can’t be shared with just anyone.

Like the times when we traded stories about our work as educators in our respective communities. Kirby is the most dynamic, long-winded storyteller I’ve ever met. But it works, somehow. Because he’s Kirby. Or the times at every Peace Corps training when a guest speaker is present and he has a question. Every question, everywhere, is always prefaced with “Uhhhhhh….hello….Kirby P. Riley,
what-is-kirby-doing-dot-com…..soooo, so my question is….” That’s Kirby. Full stop.

At a glance, he could seem like an aloof individual. But after a range of debates, puzzling Peace Corps moments, crying on his shoulder, and chats into the evening, I have learned he is immensely present. He is there. When you think he might not be paying attention. When you think you only have him as a random colleague in your life. He will show up and surprise you in profound ways. He will stretch your values and demand you know who you are and what you’re talking about. As a true friend does. Full stop.

Kirby P. Riley refuses to be my housemate. Something about “I’ll annoy him forever”, blah blah blah. But regardless, he’s stuck with me. Because like Kirby, while I don’t know everything, I know what matters. Which is when you find something good, something that moves you and helps you grow, you hang on to it. Like the Cowboys, and Reddit, and the Burn, and good soul food and sweet tea. Like our friendship. So sadly, he will find me in lots of places – on the phone, in his emails, his blog posts (but Reddit is where I draw the line, because that place scares me).

Anyone who knows anything about Peace Corps would assume that working in such an organization is trying work that tests your limits. You have to step into the capabilities you are made of. Those assumptions are correct and then some. What I found to be a saving grace in my service has been the connections with those around me who understand the layers of this work and can encourage me while I navigate the complexities of Peace Corps service. Those connections are ones I am deeply grateful for, ones that have changed my life forever. And one of those connections came in the form of a guy filled with heart, soul, compassion and an ear-splitting cackle.

Kirby. Full stop.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Bend and Pick

I love thrift stores. There’s some magical about spending copious amounts of time looking through any and everything. My mother said that I get this trait from my grandmother, who also loved thrifting. Shortly after arriving in eSwatini, I found Thelma who owned a small thrift store in Manzini, eSwatini’s biggest city. Thelma spruced up my wardrobe with a few items. Due to rising business costs, Thelma had to close her store.

Some PCVs in the prior groups told me about a wonderful swap meet known as Bend and Pick. Every Wednesday and Thursday (excluding some Swazi public holidays), vendors from eSwatini and the rest of southern Africa converge on the Manzini bus rank with their wares. Bend and Pick is the largest regular flea market, that I know of, in eSwatini. If it can be worn, you’ll probably find it there. I’ve found several gems there including my super useful fanny pack. The prices are reasonable, even on a PCV budget. I’ve found that prices tend to be better the deeper you go into the market. Unlike most places in eSwatini, you can negotiate at Bend and Pick. Like thrift stores, Bend and Pick is not for folks who are in a rush or impatient. I’ve also found that as a man of size, Bend and Pick tends to be better for finding clothes that fit me. The picture above is from Bend and Pick a few weeks ago.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

You Are Not Alone

Peace Corps service can be challenging by itself. Intersections of our identities can exacerbate those challenges. Luckily, these challenges are not new. Peace Corps Volunteers, currently serving and returned, have worked to create networks of support for the Peace Corps curious, applicants, invitees, trainees, and volunteers.

Below are various Facebook groups with descriptions. For those who don’t use Facebook, some of these communities a web presence elsewhere. Also, some of the communities require that you request access. I should note that none of these groups or pages are officially run by Peace Corps, and do not reflect the views of the organization.

Black Peace Corps Volunteers – “As Black people, we have a unique story to tell and this group will allow us to further the networking, fellowship, information-sharing, and service with all potential Peace Corps Volunteers, current PeaceCorps Volunteers, and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs).” There is also an associated Whatsapp group chat. You can get ask to be added in the Facebook group.

Divine 9 PCVs – “group serves as a forum to support Peace Corps Volunteers and RPCVs who are also a member of one of the 9 historically African American Greek Lettered Fraternities and Sororities.”

Southern Association of Black Peace Corps Volunteers – “…individual African American Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and supporters coming together to make a difference at home in our communities as well aboard in other communities.”

Minority Peace Corps Association – “Through partnerships, special events and outreach activities MPCA strives to strengthen Americans’ understanding about the world and its peoples, while promoting the mission of MPCA.”

Latino Peace Corps Volunteers – group for Latino R/PCVs. Has an affiliated Whatsapp chat group chat. You can get ask to be added in the Facebook group.

Asian American Pacific Islander Peace Corps Volunteers – “open group for PC applicants, current PCVs, RPCVs, and friends who are interested in AAPI issues related to Peace Corps.”

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Returned Peace Corps Association – “an organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and other people who are Peace Corps volunteer alumni, current volunteers, former and current staff members and friends.” There is also a website.

Deaf/HH Peace Corps Volunteers – “Open to any deaf/hard of hearing returned Peace Corps Volunteer who wants to keep up with fellow deaf/hard of hearing RPCVs! Also open to any Deaf/hard of hearing future PCVs who have been invited to serve in the PC!! Also open to any interested friends and supporters!”

Native American Peace Corps Volunteers – “As people of Native American descent, we have a unique story to tell and this group will allow us to further the networking, fellowship, information-sharing, and service with all potential Peace CorpsVolunteers, current Peace Corps Volunteers, and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs).”

Shalom Corps – “a group to support Jewish PCVs, RPCVs, future PCVs and anyone interested in the Jewish Peace Corps connection. We aim to foster cultural exchange and fellowship, and be a resource to the Peace Corps community on Jewish issues and connect Peace Corps with the Jewish community.”

Peace Corps Christians – “a place for encouragement, motivation, and to record and remember God’s everyday miracles.”

Veteran Peace Corps Volunteers – “for United States Military Veterans that have also served, are currently serving or are interested in serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.”

Muslim Peace Corps Volunteers – “a safe place for Muslim PCVs to connect and share experiences. Every type of Muslim is welcome here without restriction or judgement.”

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – What is AfrikaBurn?

Just over a month ago, I was fortunate to return to Karoo National Park the Stonehenge Private Reserve in the Northern Cape of South Africa. The occasion? AfrikaBurn. AfrikaBurn is a regional event of the Burning Man network. It’s the largest of the regional events and the first on the continent of Africa.

When I first received my invitation to serve in eSwatini, I was overjoyed because attending AfrikaBurn went from “possible” to “highly probable”. On occasion, AfrikaBurn or Burning Man would come up in conversations with fellow PCVs. One question kept surfacing. What is AfrikaBurn? Before April 2017, I could only give the textbook answer: “AfrikaBurn is a regional event of the Burning Man network” . Some people would delve further. What is Burning Man? My response was almost always the same. “What I’m about to say won’t make sense, but Burning Man is everything.” Most people agreed. My comments made no sense.

When the theme for the twelfth AfrikaBurn was released, I was indifferent. The theme was “Working Title”. While reading about how this theme was chosen, I got more excited. Working Title is a name given to something still being created. Because that thing is still being created, it can be anything. There can also be collaborations with co-creators. “Working Title” made perfect sense! AfrikaBurn, Burning Man, and other similar events are works in progress. We get to collaborate to make it what we want.

I had an idea. I designed stickers to look like movie slates. On the sticker, the open ended sentence started, “AfrikaBurn is”. Participants were asked to complete the sentence. Afterwards, I asked to snap a photo of the sticker.

So, what is AfrikaBurn?
AfrikaBurn is fuzzy.
AfrikaBurn is freedom.
AfrikaBurn is freeing.
AfrikaBurn is the best experience of your life.
AfrikaBurn is Radio Free Tankwa.
AfrikaBurn is 37 24 16 V M 27 Clap 37.
AfrikaBurn is stepping into your true self.
AfrikaBurn is unicorn exposure.

These were some of responses. AfrikaBurn, like life, is different for everyone. The idea that we get to co-create the experience is magical. Ask any of the 7 billion human inhabitants of Earth what life is. You’re bound to get different answers. The answers may even change with time. None of them are wrong. AfrikaBurn is similar. Everyone has their own unique experience. Everyone is the director, screenwriter, and leading actor. It’s a beautiful thing. So, what is AfrikaBurn? You decide.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Bushfire

eSwatini is home to the Bushfire Festival, a three day music-focused event that attracts people from all over. This past weekend, the 12th edition of the festival happened. There were thoughtful conversations around warm fires. There were high energy performances that made me remove my sweat-soaked shirt.

The Bushfire Festival invites participants to bring their fire as a call to action. Artists from all over the world perform on four different stages. The live music selection included rap, soul, country, instrumental and traditional. The photo above features Sands, a native son of the kingdom, serenading us with his soulful music. There was also an amazing array of DJs that kept the party going until the early morning hours. Personally, I was elated to see my favorite DJ in eSwatini, DJ Mkay.

Another cool thing about the festival was the plethora of PCVs who visited from other southern Africa posts. It’s nice to meet and chat with people who are having similar, yet vastly different, experiences. It was also great to promote Beards of Peace Corps and take new photos for the project.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – COS (the conference)

Last week, my cohort (group 14) came together for one last Peace Corps sponsored training. We assembled in the Lubumbo region of eSwatini for our Close of Service (COS) conference. This conference signals the beginning of the end. It’s held about three months before a group is set to leave.

We had our COS conference at a secluded nature reserve with beautiful views and spacious chalets. This was also the last time that we had to take a language proficiency test, which assessed how our language skills have grown throughout our service. We discussed the paperwork and conversations that need to be completed before we leave. We gave three stool samples to ensure that we aren’t leaving with parasitic friends in our respective bowels. We reflected on the work that we’ve done. We began to prepare for the adjustment and reverse culture shock that likely awaits us in America. We discussed how to best represent our service as we seek move on to careers, school or retirement. It was a full week.

While I’ll greatly miss eSwatini and emaswati (pronounced eh-mah-swah-tee), or Swazi people, I am excited for life after Peace Corps. The picture above was taken by PCV Nate during a session with a panel of RPCVs.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Cape Town

One of the greatest things about eSwatini is its prime location. Depending on where you are in the country, Maputo in Mozambique is a couple of hours away as is Durban in South Africa. The metropolis of Johannesburg is about four hours away, as is its massive airport known as OR Tambo. OR Tambo is one of the few airports in the world that has non-stop flights to every continent (excluding Antarctica). This connectivity is awesome for those wishing to explore the region. It’s also awesome because there are frequent flights to one of my favorite cities: Cape Town.

My host make (pronounced mah-gay), or mother, thinks I might have a wife and family in Cape Town because of my affinity for the city. Spoiler alert: I don’t. It just offers many things that I enjoy: beaches, outdoor activities (like hiking and biking), and food. I’ve enjoyed delicious ceviche and tacos. I’ve delighted over succulent Thai curries and sushi. I’ve participated in the city’s version of the World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR) and hiked Table Mountain. I’m currently in Cape Town decompressing post-AfrikaBurn. Although this post is being written well in advance of you reading it, it’s safe to assume that I’m relaxing somewhere in the city with good food and good vibes. The above picture was taken from a rooftop deck on Long Street in Cape Town.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Black Girls Global Exchange

Last week, the dreams and desires of a fellow PCV were actualized. In Swazi Spring 2017 (August-September), Dawnita saw a documentary about a girls step team from Baltimore, Maryland. She was moved by documentary, and shared that she wanted to do a documentary screening for the girls in her community.

She had conversations with folks from Baltimore, her hometown. They assembled a team and began working on bringing an idea to fruition. What if Black girls from this step team in Baltimore could connect with Black girls from South Africa and Swaziland? What if the image of their international contemporaries was formed by more than the media? Black Girls Global Exchange (BGGE) was born. More than fifteen high school girls and chaperones from Baltimore journeyed to South Africa and met up with high school girls from Manzini (Swaziland) and Soweto (South Africa). Together, they explored Soweto (and shared dance moves). The girls enjoyed a week of intercultural exchange as they tried new cuisine, shared stories, and completed service projects side by side. I was fortunate to be one of many photographers capturing the events.

On Thursday, girls from all over Swaziland joined the BGGE participants in central Swaziland for a screening of the documentary and a symposium. It was beautiful and emotional. It was surreal at times watching the girls truly and fully embrace the sentiment that we are much more alike than we are different. As the BGGE participants marched into the conference room for symposium, they were indistinguishable. Girls from Manzini and Baltimore wore matching outfits as they led chants of “B-G-G-E”. The energy was electrifying.

During the symposium, a light lunch was served. Two BGGE mentors from Baltimore, who are professional chefs, joined Swazi chefs in the kitchen to prepare a delightful experience highlighting American and Swazi foods. Shrimp and grits (an American favorite) was served alongside chicken feet, pap, and Swazi cornbread (all Swazi favorites).

While the symposium featured many powerful moments, I’d like to highlight two. During the panel discussion (pictured above), BGGE participants from Baltimore and Manzini discussed what they had learned from nearly a week of intentional cultural exchange. The girls shared how they connected on the challenges they face in their respective homes. Gender based violence and inequality is problem in Swaziland and America. HIV plagues both nations with so many infected and affected. At another point in the symposium, the participants from Manzini closed a presentation with a beautiful song. The lyrics hit me as tears fell. “Shine your light–Be the light–We, Black girls; we gotta stick together”. As the lyrics repeated, the stage began to fill with the BGGE participants from Baltimore and other girls. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen during my time in Swaziland. The Black Girls Global Exchange is the epitome of Black girl magic.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

P.S. – Below are more pictures highlighting the Black Girls Global Exchange.

Correction (8 April 2018): There were 4 middle school girls from Baltimore, Maryland, in addition to the high school participants.

The lyrics from the moving song (during the symposium) were: “Show the light…give them life…we black girls…let’s work together.” It was written and arranged by BGGE Swazi Ambassador Nosfiso Magagula, 17 years old.

Monday in a Picture – Super Bowl Slumber Party

This morning (my time), I experienced a first in Swaziland. Watching the Super Bowl. A fellow PCV (with amazing WiFi) hosted a Super Bowl pizza party. Swaziland is seven hours ahead of Washington, DC. This meant that we tuned in for a 1:30 am kickoff. The day and night were filled with food, friends, and football. 

I had the thought several moments during the game, “I’m watching the Super Bowl in Swaziland!” This thought made the sporadic buffering very bearable. And now, I’m well fed, extremely tired, and filled with adrenaline from watching an exciting game. I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to watch my first NFL game in more than two seasons. The above photo is of some friends who also joined in the festivities. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward.