Jamaica Day

I could hear the horns halfway through Jacardi (means, shortcut). Children clad in black, green and gold laughed and shouted at each other as they barreled past me down the mountainside. Inwardly, I awarded myself for remembering to buy a Jamaica shirt for the occasion.

The day was rich with excitement. All over the island, children were celebrating their country’s heritage and accomplishments. The school served chicken foot soup and barbequed chicken back and neck. A bulletin board displayed newspaper articles of Jamaican athletes at the Olympics. The compound was a rolling wave of Jamaican colors, playing to a soundtrack of young voices, shouting playfully in a language I still don’t fully understand.

The Marathon

Marathon MapWe stood under a tree on the side of the road, holding light blue tickets made from poster board and a stamp of the school’s seal. “This is the last checkpoint,” Miss explained to me.

The marathon was the highlight of Jamaica Day. Fifty students signed up for it. Shortly after Devotions, they were loaded into two buses and brought to their starting point in Richmond Vale, while several teachers dispersed themselves along the way. The objective: run from Richmond Vale back to Cedar Valley Primary School – a total distance of 3.3 miles.

For a long distance runner, three miles may seem like child’s play, but consider that a U.S. student might be asked to run a mile in his/her P.E. class, then factor in pavement instead of grass, a couple of steep inclines, and children without shoes. That’s the CVPJHS Marathon.

We waited for close to an hour before students made their way toward us. They came charging down the road – barefoot* and shirtless – collecting their colored tickets along the way, encouraged by cheering community members.

They were given ice cream and orange juice upon returning to the school.

* When parents buy shoes for their children, sometimes they have to buy one pair to last two or even three years, so many students prefer to ditch their shoes (especially when running) as soon as they get to school.

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Carrie Russell

“Wait, who is this?”
“Carrie Russell. She brought home two gold medals for Track and Field.”
“And she’s from here?”
“She was a student of mine!”

IMG_1693I thought of the students who just ran the marathon; one of them could be Jamaica’s next biggest athlete. What pride these students must feel, to know that one of their own made it to the top. I wonder if that crossed any of their minds as they ran barefoot on mashed up roads through their poor community.

For me, this was exciting. Here I was, a stranger in a strange land, meeting a local star. More importantly, as an Educational Peace Corps Volunteer, whose primary goal is to “make a difference,” there stood before me living proof that you can do anything you set your mind to. Was this as inspiring to the students as it was to me?

This was not the first time I was meeting an Olympic athlete, but this was the first time I witnessed one return to her roots. She arrived on campus so casually that at first no one paid her any mind. Wearing blue jeans, sneakers, and a blouse, she blended into the crowd and disappeared from my view.

A little later she spoke to us, encouraging students to follow their dreams and never give up. She did not speak of her fame, but of how good it felt to return to where it all began. She thanked her teachers – many of whom are still at the school – and assured us that CVPJHS will always have a special place in her heart.

Soccer! Er… Football!!

Penlyne Castle Primary School joined us in the afternoon for the long-awaited, highly coveted football match. With their school in red, and our school in blue, the students began warming up, and more community members arrived. It would appear that the football match was more exciting than an Olympic athlete!

I didn’t stick around for the soccer football game; it was after 3pm by that time, but I hear CVPJHS kicked some major Penlyne booty.

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So, between running and football, I’m sure there are a couple of stars hidden within our midst. And as far as Jamaica Day goes, I’d like to think a few of students were inspired to try their best and never give up.

For me, they day was stimulating. Even though I sometimes still struggle to understand the language and culture, and I’m often not made aware of big events until the last minute, I felt fully included for the first time since joining the CVPJHS family. Maybe it was the Jamaica shirt. Or maybe I’ve finally been here long enough to have not slipped everyone’s minds. But while I munched on chicken neck, hung out with the students, and witnessed a real-life story of beating the odds, my preconceived notions of a Peace Corps Volunteer came to mind.

Prior to my own experience, I believed the friendly people I saw in pictures with foreign children were important people. I believed they sat on mountains of personal achievements and were now influential ambassadors performing miracles. Surely these volunteers had to have hearts of pure gold – a heart of which I was not worthy.

So I applied on a whim, never believing I’d get in. Then I did, and slowly made the transition from the outside to the inside. Eleven months into this crazy exploit, and I’ve finally come to understand that I am now one of those people from the photos. Only, I am not performing miracles; I’m taking baby steps. I’m not sitting on a mountain of personal achievement, because I am still learning and growing. Anything I’ve done feels small in comparison to what I’d like to do. And I don’t have a heart of pure gold; I just have my heart – a heart that’s made mistakes but still tries to make the right choices. I’m no great, influential ambassador; I’m just me.

Just me, sitting on a bench, surrounded by students, on a little island in the Caribbean, eating chicken. I am completely present. Around me, I see a culture that is different and also the same in so many ways.  All at once, I understand that this is what it feels like to be one of those people in the photos.

Oh look! I’ve got one now too.

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How To Take A Bucket Bath

Every Peace Corps post is different, and each volunteer experience varies in degree from one to the next. But there is one thing that just about all of us have in common: the bucket bath.

In countries where most volunteers serve, water scarcity is an obstacle. And if scarcity isn’t the issue, it’s still safe to assume that a lack of running water is. That’s why when you meet an RPCV, you can easily conclude that he or she is an expert at taking bucket baths.

So what exactly is a bucket bath, and how do you take one?

A bucket bath is a method of maintaining cleanliness that is achieved by using a bucket of standing water, and the objective is to waste as little of it as possible.

 

To learn how to take one, feel free to follow along with my step-by-step instructions

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Materials:
First, you’ll need a bucket of water. (Or in my case, a basin.) If you’re able, you can boil the water first for warmth and added comfort.

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Pour a small amount of it into a separate container, so you have a place to dip your hands after shampooing or washing your body. You don’t want to let your clean water get soapy or dirty!

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You’ll also need a small container for pouring a controlled amount of water onto yourself. I like to use a recycled tomato sauce jar

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Make sure you have a washcloth, looffa, or shower glove available. These items are great for lathering soap, and help a little go a long way.

Personally, I like the shower glove, because the course texture helps remove stubborn, unwanted dirt.

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Finally, you need the obvious; soap, shampoo and conditioner (or 2in1 if you’re really economic)

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Now you’re ready to bathe!

Using your jar or small container, pour some water onto yourself. For long hair, gather as much of it to your head as possible, for maximum wetness with minimal water. If you need to, use more than one helping of water to make sure you’ve got your whole body. It also helps to use your hands or a washcloth to spread the water around. Remember, you want to waste as little as possible.

Next, shampoo your hair as normal, and when you’re finished, dip your hands into the second water basin to rinse them off. Using your washcloth, looffa, or shower glove, clean your body as normal. You can rinse that off in the basin as well.

Now it’s time to rinse. Again, using your jar or small container, use however much water you need to properly remove all soap and shampoo.

If you’re using a 2in1 for your hair, your bucket bath is complete! Otherwise, repeat steps one through three for conditioner.

Feeling so fresh and so clean, remember to spill your rinsing basin out, and use a little bit of clean water to wash away any remaining soap. If you’re able, cover any unused water for future use.

Murphy’s Law

Murphy's Law

“The school’s projector doesn’t work very well, but you can use mine. I have good speakers too.”
“Great, thanks! Can I lock them in my classroom so I’ll have them when I get to school tomorrow?”
“I have to teach an early class tomorrow, so I’ll be here.”

Of course, he wasn’t.

I got to school at a quarter after eight, figuring how-to-train-your-dragon-poster-1that forty-five minutes was more than enough time to set up for the movie. My students had spent the last two weeks reading a story about dragons, so I wanted to treat them by showing the Dreamworks film, How To Train Your Dragon. I was excited; this was the first time I was showing them a movie, and I knew they’d really enjoy this one. I wanted to make sure I got to school early enough to set up, and iron out all the kinks before 9am. At an hour and a half in length, that would give us enough time to watch and be finished by Break.

Without Sir’s projector, I was forced to see if I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the other one. I pulled it out, plugged it in, and turned it on. It seemed to work just fine, so I brought it to the library and began my set up. Projector in place and functional, next I needed a computer. Thanks to Apple’s brilliant product scheme, the projector would not properly connect with my laptop, so I needed to track down one of the school’s PC’s.

Okay, PC laptop: check.
Projector: check.
Extension cord? Yeah, I definitely need that. Let’s go get it.

Time: 8:30

As luck would have it, the extension cord was not where it was supposed to be, so I needed to track that down as well. I asked several teachers, and ten minutes later, finally had it in my possession.

“What about speakers?” I asked. “I am showing this to twenty-four students.”
“They should be in the office. You didn’t see them?”
“No.”
“Hm. Who had them last? Go ask Miss and see if she knows where they are.”

This Miss didn’t know, but maybe that one would. Nope, she didn’t know either; go ask her. “I haven’t seen them, but I think they are in So And So’s classroom.”

Time: 8:58

meme-face-thinkingBy five after nine, I had the speakers in my hands and returned to the library. Thrilled that I was only five minutes behind schedule, I pulled them from their box… and discovered a power plug.

Of course they need to be plugged in, I thought grimly, looking at the wall with only two outlets, and both of them occupied. Can I unplug the computer and let it run on battery? The computer quickly powered down. Guess not.

I need a power strip.

So once more I return to the Principal in search of a power strip, hoping this won’t take me another ten minutes, or that the school even has one. Fortune was with me, but not with the school’s bursar, who had to give up all use of her computer by handing over her electrical unit. Thanking her, and apologizing profusely, I hurried back to the library.

Time: 9:15

As quickly as I could, I unplugged and replugged everything, then rebooted the computer and the projector. As I ran through one more mental checklist and performed a final test for functionality, I heard the distinct grumble of Sir’s car as it entered school property.

PC laptop: check
Projector: check
Speakers: check

Time: 9:23

All systems are go.

In a hustle now, I swiftly collected my students and ushered them into the library. Once they were settled in their seats, I stood before them and smiled. “I am so excited to show you this movie,” I prefaced. “I know how much you liked our dragon story, and I think you’ll really like this movie too. In class, I asked everyone a question; I asked what you would do if you saw a dragon. Some people said they would run from it, and some people said they would fight the dragon. But one brave person,” I winked at that student, “said he would pet the dragon. That said, this movie is called How To Train Your Dragon. I hope you enjoy it!”

I moved aside and pressed play.

Thirty seconds in, when the film’s narration begins, there were sound effects, but no voices. Panic raced through me, but I was tech savvy, so I was confident I could fix this. I quickly paused the movie, apologized, and began pouring over the VLC Media Player settings. After five minutes, and watching my students grow rowdy, I conceded that this might be beyond me. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong! I sent a student running to get Sir. He took his time sauntering across campus, clicked two buttons, and smiled at me before heading out. Back in business, I breathed a sigh of relief, and restarted the film.

A very short time later, someone knocked softly on the library door. Stepping outside, I greeted the Principal.

“Is everything working now?”
“Yes, finally.”
“Good. I am glad you are getting through. I wanted to remind you about the special presentation today. I’m sure you got the notice that went around yesterday?”
“No… I never got a notice.”
“Oh, my apologies. Anyway, there is a special presentation today at Eleven. And you remember that today is an early dismissal day?
“Yes, that I remembered.”

“Miss! Miss!” I heard from inside. We both stepped into the library, to find the screen dark. The projector had finally given up.

Time: 9:50

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The master of delegation, I sent the same student back to Sir’s room to get his projector.

At 10:30, the students heard the bell for break, and lost interest in the film.

By 10:50, I began my slow descent into madness. My students finally returned from break and were settled in their seats to resume the film, when the library door opened again. Without acknowledging me, six older boys poured into the room, demanding that my students stand up so they could take the chairs. Livid, I put my foot down. “Excuse me! You knock when you see a closed door, and if you need something, you ask me, the teacher. You don’t just barge in and do whatever you please!”

brunette_rage getting pissedTaking things one step further, I sent the boys away and instructed my students to take the chair they are sitting on and bring it to the pavilion, and to make sure that they each bring one chair back afterward, so that we could finish the movie.

But the presentation went longer than expected, and I knew finishing the movie that day would be impossible. My students, however, eager and excited, did not want to take no for an answer. They did as they were asked, brought back the chairs quickly, and promised they wouldn’t make a mess eating lunch.

Meanwhile, the extension cord had disappeared – turns out they needed that for the presentation too – and the Bursar needed her power strip back so she could get her work done. Other students were trying to sneak in so they could watch the movie too, my students wanted to go to the bathroom, all of them wanted their lunch, and two boys were suddenly wrestling violently on the floor. If that wasn’t chaotic enough, a parent showed up to talk to me about her son, and Sir’s car rolled into view with a honk. “Are you ready to go?” he shouted.

When the hell did it get to be 1:30!?

I don’t know how I did it (PTSD clouds my memory) but I managed to survive the tornado and make it off school grounds in a timely manner. I can’t say much for my sanity, though, and as soon as I reached home, I collapsed on my bed. Tears spilled from my eyes – either from stress, or relief that the day was done – and my final thought before I drifted off for a well-deserved nap was that I needed to change Bowser’s litter.

I woke up to find a fresh, rancid turd in the middle of my bedroom floor.

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Dorothy

When I arrived home for the first time in nine months, I stood in the center of my childhood bedroom and looked around. Aside from my closet – vacant of my clothes, but overflowing with my sister’s – my room was exactly as I remembered it. Everything was in its place; from the tiny trinkets that sit on my dresser, to the piles of paper shoved in a corner, to the post-it notes around my room that were relevant at the time. It was eerie feeling. Old memories flooded back, reminding me of what I thought and felt the last time I was here. Time came to a stand still, and I silently asked myself if the last nine months really happened.

During the next few days, as I moved about my house and the city I know so well, I asked myself the same question. Everything was consistent no matter where I went. Familiar foods filled the pantry, the landscape of my neighborhood was static, and even the billboards appeared unchanged. Behind the wheel of my sister’s car, as if I’d been driving my whole life, Jamaica seemed so far away. Surely, it must have been a dream.

Ruby-slippers-wizard-of-ozThen, slowly, realizations began to flood my mind. Everything looked the same, and for a short time, felt the same, but there was one glaring difference that couldn’t be denied: I was not the same. A timid girl lived here before – a girl who dreamed of great adventures, yet panicked at the idea of failure. A girl who possessed incredible potential, but lacked the confidence to tap it. A girl who took so much for granted.

Everywhere I looked, my perspective changed, but some things stood out more than others. There was a developed appreciation for supermarkets and the wide variety of choices available (21 different kinds of Oreos, 16 flavors of coffee creamer, and an entire isle devoted to breakfast cereal), a recognizable advancement in the use of everyday technology (I barely remembered how to use a Smartphone), and the overwhelming joy of not having to be home before dark. I also learned that going to the movies is a beautiful thing, and one should never, ever skimp on popcorn.

But the most notable difference was my feelings on the subject of moving out. After college, I came home. For reasons I’ll keep to myself, I felt as though I had unfinished business, and that I wasn’t quite ready to live on my own. Prior to departure, that initial reluctance transformed itself into the overwhelming fear the Peace Corps wouldn’t work out, and I’d end up back in Miami. Once in Jamaica, I transgressed, and for a few painful months, all I wanted was to return, never to leave home again. Never in my dreams would I have imagined that nine short months would prepare me for my inevitable independence. Surely it’s more complicated than that…

And yet for every day that I was home, feeling a little more like a guest and less like a member of the house, I couldn’t wait to get back to my own life. They say home is where the heart is, but what happens when your heart keeps questioning the things that make it beat? Is it possible, or even normal, to love your home and want to leave it at the same time? Will I be able to find the balance between chasing my adventurous dreams and accepting what is safe and familiar?

WizardOfOz-700x1010As I enter this next segment of my service – indicated by the block of time before I’ll visit home again – I have to remind myself of a few things. The first is that nothing at home really changed, and it’s not likely that things will before my two years are up. If I were to quit and go home now (those feelings still occasionally plague me), I can safely assume I’ll fall right back into my old routine and experience the same feelings of suffocation that drove me to join Peace Corps in the first place. The second thing I need to remember is that I have too many good ideas for projects to stop now, and the only way I’ll learn from them, is to actually do them.

Finally, there is this: When I began this journey (which sometimes feels like a lifetime ago, and other times feels like yesterday), I didn’t know who I would be when I finished. I still don’t who I will be, but I do know who I am, and I know that I’m not done yet. I’m not satisfied with my short list of accomplishments; I want more. I don’t think I’ve learned all the lessons I’m supposed to learn, and at this point in my service, I’m still not the person I want to be.

Unfortunately, you can’t speed up time. You can’t rush the growing process either. I have eighteen months left of service (oh yes, I’m counting), which means that I get another eighteen months of overcoming challenges and obstacles, and learning from them. This is quite possibly the truest test of my character; will I make it to the end, or won’t I? How I handle this determines how I handle the rest of my adult life.

And if there is one thing that I do know about myself – something I’ve proven over and over, and over again – it’s that I am one determined son of a b****. If I want it, I don’t stop until I have it. I hate quitting, and if ever I’ve stuck it out and made it to the end, I’ve always been proud of myself.

But I Didn’t Get Married

Every year around Christmas time, I get a little reminiscent. I begin looking back and remembering where I was a year before. I think to myself, what is today’s date, and what was I doing on this day last year? It provides stunning clarity, and helps me see just how far I’ve come. You’d be surprised how much you can accomplish in a year.

In honor of the New Year – a period of “personal growth” – I’ve decided to include a short list of my top thirteen moments of 2013

Visited 3 cities and 5 friends in 7 days, then visited Chicago for the first time a week later
Got dumped
Moved to a Jamaica
Learned to speak Patios (Patwa)
Adapted to a new culture
Integrated into a community
Made serious headway in the cooking department
Finally taught myself to French Braid my hair
Killed a spider
And several cockroaches
Hiked 30 miles in 30 hours
Adopted a kitten
Read 14 books

My next two weeks will be spent in America. After nine months abroad, I look forward to going home and celebrating my birthday with my friends and family. I’ll write again after the New Year.

Happy Holidays!

Turn Your Hand

One of the most remarked about traits of a Peace Corps Volunteer is our ability to adapt. There are the obvious things; language, culture, and food. Then there are the less discernible things, among them being our attitude toward a lack of resources. Back in America, if a person needs an end table for their couch, or a tiki torch for their patio, they’re simply going to go to a store and pick one up. But in the Peace Corps, it’s not that easy. For one thing, we have our budget to consider. For another, lack of personal transportation makes carrying these items a challenge. And finally, in our deep rural communities, sometimes what we need can’t even be found.

And so we make do.

The Peace Corps has, by no intention of its own, produced a group of creative individuals, capable of taking every day objects and turning them into something new. In Jamaica, there is a phrase for that – tun ya han, mek fashion – and the locals here could teach us a thing or two. Regardless, we’ve got plenty of ingenuity to go around.

In a recent post on her own blog, another PCJ Volunteer asked us to submit pictures and descriptions of our crafts, and I was widely impressed by what I saw. It’s nice to know I’m in the company of such creative people! Below, I’ve included a list of some of my own tun ya han, mek fashion items, but I highly recommend you check out these other crafty items too!

Cat Stuff

Cat scratching box
DSCN1436Created by cutting strips of cardboard, and gluing them in a shoebox lid.
My shoebox lid is the top to a case of Cliff Bars that were included in a care package,
reinforced with bit of duct tape

DSCN1495 Litter scoops – These are water bottles, cut to suit my need. I’ve got one for scooping the nasties and another for scooping the sand I have to put in.

Cat toys
Crocheted mousie – stuffed with a scandal bag
Crochet jellyfish – stuffed with a scandal bag
Crocheted desk ornament – he won’t play with this
Sock buddy – worn out sock, scrap yarn, and stuffed with… can you guess?

School Materials

Vowel wheels
DSCN1438The individual letter wheels are made from Pringles Cans, a very small amount of poster board, and some clear tape. The inside is obviously a water bottle.

Letter Tiles and Dominoes
I saved my cereal boxes and cut them up. I used a bit more of my poster board to create a white space, but you could just as easily use the brown side alone.

Chalk jar  – Cheez Whiz jar

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Scandal Bag Dispenser
Made with fifteen to twenty scandal bags (and there’s still plenty to spare!), two elastic hair ties, and crocheted together to make a scandal bag dispenser.

Q-tip jar – Cheez Whiz jar
School materials

Personal

Bandana Throw Pillows – two bandanas sewn together, stuffed with pillow stuffing (because, unfortunately, a scandal bag won’t suit every need)
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Friendship Bracelets
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Baby Blanket
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(Please note the kitten in the corner)

Curtain Tie – Crocheted with a little bit of scrap yarn
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The Modern Day Pilgrim

Naturally, one of my favorite floats
Naturally, one of my favorite floats

My mouth is watering. Or at least it would be, if I were in America. Bombarded all month long with reminders that Thanksgiving has finally arrived, I would eagerly be awaiting that traditional Thursday morning when Mom and I would cook the turkey in our pajamas while watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I would’ve already purchased a bag of marshmallows to coat the top of Nana’s sweet potato pie. The green bean casserole would have been made the night before, and a box of Mallomars would be stashed away, hidden, so we’d have them all for dessert. Some time around noon, after most of the work has been done, my sister would finally roll out of bed and monitor our progress with disheveled hair.

My Thanksgiving was ripe with tradition. Accompanied by a delicious, once-a-year meal and surrounded by friends and family, there’s no wonder why I count it among my favorite holidays.

But over the years, in small doses at a time, Thanksgiving began to change. A divorce cut our guest list in half. Black Friday began earlier and earlier, until it eventually spilled over to Thursday, causing our family (who would not, under any circumstances, wait outside a store at 4am) significant distress. And the Radio City Rockettes were losing their luster.

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Luster or not, my eyes still tear up when these girls start kicking!

And then one fateful year, I joined the Peace Corps, and all tradition flew out the window. While it’s difficult for me to think about missing Thanksgiving, it’s even more distressing to imagine my family, who must feel as though my departure was like the having the rug swept out from under their feet.

I suppose it makes a Thanksgiving-less November easier to deal with when I consider that my oven will not host a turkey this year. Or that I am not missing out on sweet potato pie.

Still, I feel an overwhelming sadness for them, and a crushing sense of pressure. While on the one hand, I feel honored that my presence carries that much weight at the dinner table, I am afflicted by the knowledge that my choices and decisions have made such an impact. For my family, Thanksgiving has drastically deviated from the norm.

Although tradition has slipped and family unity does not count for much this year, no one is going to be sitting home alone and feeling sorry for themselves, least of all me. This year, we’ll all be venturing our separate ways, but we’ll be in the company of close friends. That definitely counts for something.

My plans include celebrating Thanksgiving with my government-issued friends – who are beginning to feel a little more like family – in the style of a potluck dinner at a cottage on the beach. I doubt we’re going to have a turkey, but there will be a pumpkin pie. I know at least one volunteer is making stuffing, I am responsible for cinnamon poached apples, and of course, the essentials will be present; namely wine.

North+American+Wild+TurkeyIt will be different to celebrate a traditional American holiday in a country that is not my own, without my family, and with friends I only met a few months ago. But I don’t think any of that matters. These friends have been become my crutch, my anchor. Though some of us are at different stages of our service, and all of us come from different backgrounds, we all have one thing in common; we’re Peace Corps Volunteers. We’ve made sacrifices to follow a dream and achieve some good. We knowingly traded our comforts for something unknown and wild. We’ll all be thinking of our families this Thursday, and we’ll all feel a little homesick, but I think it’s safe to say that the choices we’ve made are worth the things we’re giving up. I wouldn’t trade my Peace Corps experience for anything in the world. I am exactly where I want to be at this point in my life. And in the spirit of giving thanks, I can be grateful for just that.

Happy Thanksgiving!