Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Process

The keyword in my life right now is “process.” As in: applying to the Peace Corps and getting accepted was a process. Or: after almost a month in Cape Verde, I am just now starting to process the new world around me, and the experiences that each day brings. The nine-week Pre-Service Training program that I am currently enduring is certainly a process. This is the third entry I’ve posted on Live From Tomorrow since I arrived, but the first two were admittedly—and deliberately—short on details about my life here. So I guess I owe you, so here goes...

My flight out out Oakland International Airport on July 14th landed me in Boston for 24 hours of staging. This orientation included everything from signing more forms to role-playing what to do if someone tries to feed you monkey brains (hasn’t happened yet, and I’m not holding my breath). One of the best parts of staging was the few free hours I had to walk around downtown Boston. Somehow, I had managed to forget that I hadn’t visited BeanTown since 2001, when my mom was living in Massachusetts. The food and buzz at Faneuil Hall was about as good as I remember, and the music was, well... diverse.

During my lunch break the next day I came across a rack of books sitting in Post Office Square, which turned out to be the Library on the Lawn at Norman B. Leventhal Park. The “library” works completely on the honor system, so I grabbed a copy of the first Harry Potter book. I hesitated to "check out" a book for 27 months, but I fancy myself an honorable man—plus, everyone else on the planet has already read the damn thing. Just to be safe, I powered through the end of the book I was already reading—Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba—so I could leave it as collateral for my honor. In my final hours in America I enjoyed my last long, hot shower, then proceeded to take the Langham Hotel for every ounce of complimentary toiletries in sight—including the shower cap, sewing kit, and shoe sponge. As the doorman loaded my bags onto the luggage cart I stopped to have a personal moment with the beautiful grand piano in the lobby.

After a seven-hour flight our group of 25 Peace Corps Trainees landed together in Praia, Cape Verde on Saturday morning. We were met at the Immigration Desk by the Peace Corps Cape Verde Country Director and the Safety & Security Coordinator, along with a small mob of currently-serving Volunteers and miscellaneous nice folks holding welcome signs and giving out bolaxa (cookies). We spent the better part of the next two days at a dorm in the Santo Antão area of the capital, where we started to get used to the long-but-valuable days of information sessions, team-building, and language instruction. To cap off the weekend, the Peace Corps staff indulged us with a delicious feast at the U.S. Embassy Recreation Center, where we met more Volunteers and got our first Cape Verdean dancing lessons—you’ll be hearing plenty more about “non-formal/adult education” in future posts. And just to clarify, I am still not a “Volunteer,” just a lowly Trainee—kinda like the difference between a maggot and a Marine.

On Monday we piled into two Hiaces (vans) and headed for the various towns and villages that would be our homes for the following nine weeks. I know you might be tired of me going on and on about being the Luckiest Man Alive™, but the truth hurts, so disaraska (deal with it)! My host family is perfect, and my three-person Kriolu class is often held across the street from our house. Most Trainees walk or take a Hilux— a converted, covered pickup truck—to class.

Twice a week we all meet together in town for Center Day, which is held at the local Escola Tecnica (Technical Secondary School). These days (Tuesdays and Fridays) normally consist of five block sessions that cover cultural integration, safety and security, health and nutrition, general tools of development work, and training specific to our area or sector of service. All Volunteers in Cape Verde work in either the Education or Small Enterprise Development sector, and each sector is divided into more specific Assignment Areas. The ED Volunteers focus on either TEFL, Teacher Training, or Vocational Education, while the SED volunteers focus on either Community Development, Information Technology, or Business Advising. I’m in the last group, affectionately known as Peace Corps Assignment Area #140.

Our structured training sessions normally run from 8:00am to 5:00pm with a break for lunch. After the sessions, I head back to my neighborhood (or back across the street). Unfortunately, for security reasons I’m not allowed to disclose exactly where my ‘hood is in this blog, but it is definitely The Spot.

Each Saturday, we take a group “field trip” to a different destination. The first weekend we visited Cidade Velha, the first city founded in Africa by the Portuguese. The centerpiece of this UNESCO Heritage Site is the massive fort that was constructed to fend off French and British Pirates (often unsuccessfully), including Francis Drake. We checked out the ruins of the Catholic Church, which took over one hundred years to complete, and about one day to destroy (see previous sentence). For me, the highlight of this adventure was visiting the grogue factory, tucked under the canopy of trees in the valley. If you are not sure what grogue is, then click of the link above, or play some Monkey Island. And lest you make any assumptions about my high life in the islands, I should point out that I haven’t had a drink since my last night/morning at Lucky Lounge before heading for Oakland Airport.

Our second Saturday outing was actually a safety and security tour of the capital, including a visit to the Police Station and a Jurassic Park-style ride through all the areas of Praia where we should not hang out. Fortunately, the back end of our tour was more positive—a delicious Senegalese lunch, including actual green vegetables (not exactly a staple of my diet here in thirsty Cape Verde), and a visit to the beach at Prainha. I’m not really big on swimming at “urban” beaches (e.g. Alameda), so I passed the hour reading Bumbalo’s copy of Motherless Brooklyn, with a side of chocolate ice cream from a local shop called Artica.

Last weekend we headed to the north of Santiago Island to visit Tarrafal—oh, the highs and the lows. Let’s just say it can be a little bit awkward to visit a Portuguese Campo de Concentracão for a couple of hours, and then head for the beach—but I’m glad we did both. The prison at Tarrafal was originally constructed in the 1930’s to house relocated Portuguese dissidents, but was later used to jail revolutionary members of the PAIGC. The complex, and my time spen there, reminded me in many ways of Robben Island. Like my visit to the more-infamous prison off the coast of Cape Town, I again had the privilege of meeting, and being toured by a former inmate, Fernando Dos Reis Tavares—or “Toco.” I felt lucky to hear his story, but the part of the visit that hit me the hardest was when I ducked into a little room that once served as an excuse for a medical building. One plaque in the mini-exhibit told the anecdotal story of the Portuguese doctor who was appointed to serve as the medical officer for the prison. Upon his arrival at Tarrafal—a year after his appointment—the doctor announced that he had not come to cure anyone, but instead to issue death certificates.

Like the previous Saturdays, this outing ended on a more positive note—again at the beach. Only this time the water was a little more inviting so I was one of the first ones in. After a quick dip, I dried off and found a spot to crack open Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari. The reading was going a little slow, so I was glad when my Training Director asked me if I was up for a short walk. The walk was good, the chat was better, and after paying a lady 20 escudos (about 27¢) for a quick fresh-water shower, I loaded back in the van with the the other Trainees and headed back home.

On that note, I’ll wrap up this entry in Live From Tomorrow. But before I go, I’d like to leave you with a moment of Zen, a la Keith Olberman. Here’s my nephew / lil’ homie, Mauro, getting down on a manga (mango)...

Pura Vida,



  1. Great post and I'm sure your fam/friends back home are lovin' all the details. A process... probably the most nebulous and accurate account anyone could give about serving in the Peace Corps. :) Way to capture the experience! Fika fixi mos, Djoni

  2. Good stuff!

    Here is the question of the day which I think you already live so well:

    What might we learn if we approach each day as though it held infinite opportunities of growth and expansion?

    Keep up the life of the luckiest man alive!

    Peace and blessings