Friday, August 13, 2010

Week Zero

Thank you to the many wonderful friends and family members who joined me for my Bon Voyage Party and to Michael A., Krista, and Brett for planning and hosting it. I felt very loved and appreciated ;-) Also a big call out to Michael H. and Brynne who helped with the party prep and next day packing. You guys rocked!

[This is where a picture of the party would be, but I managed to lose my camera there, so alas, no pictures.  After much searching for it, to no avail, my sweet Dad went out and bought me a new one for the trip.]

Brett, Mom, Dad, and I finished our marathon house packing ordeal at 7pm on Sunday Aug 8th. Mom and Dad, although spent and exhausted, immediately got in the car to head back home and Brett and I took the last load to my storage unit and locked the door for the final time. Whew! Can't say I'm looking forward to opening that door upon my return.

My empty house
Wow, that's a lot of stuff!

I drove to DC first thing Monday morning for our afternoon Staging event where I met the 63 other Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) who would be joining me in Senegal. There, we got an introduction to what the weeks ahead would bring. Mom and Dad were able to join me for a final dinner that night and the Tuesday morning the group loaded up on two charter buses and headed over to the Dept. of Health and Human Services for Yellow Fever vaccinations and one last look at our nation's capital. From there we went straight to Dulles Airport and made it through check-in and security without issue.
Goodbye Mr. President
Unloading at Dulles
Welcome to Senegal

Our flight to Senegal was direct and took just under 8 hours. We arrived in Dakar before dawn and were met by our Country Director, a few PC staff members, and some very excited current Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) who had been so looking forward to our arrival that they woke up in the dark to meet us. We loaded up in land rovers and vans and made a two hour convoy to our training facility in Thiès, which is a gated compound filled with classrooms, dormitories, and various multipurpose huts.

We were welcomed there by drummers and dancers who also double as our training facility staff. It was such a festive moment and quite an emotional experience after such a long journey. After a couple of hours of much-welcomed rest, we were served a tasty lunch in the traditional Senegalese manner, i.e., big round platters of food served atop mats on the floor around which 5 or 6 of us sit and eat with spoons. This first lunch consisted of fried rice with stewed beef, vegetables, and an amazingly flavorful sauce. Other foods we've enjoyed thus far include, seasoned pasta with grated cheese and a salad, herb-stuffed fish served atop fried rice and accompanied by root vegetables, bitter tomatoes, and cabbage smothered in a tamarind-based sauce, and garlic-grilled chicken and potatoes with shredded carrots, cucumbers, and mustard vinaigrette on the side. Not bad for African hut food, eh? All of the current PCVs attest to the fact that the food we'll experience outside of our training facility is equally amazing.

The Lunch Hut

According to our Training Director, this first week is referred to as Week Zero, as we don't get into the meat of our training until next week. Our first 5 days are filled with basic cross-culture orientation, language and skills evaluations, safety and health training, and vaccinations. On Monday we leave the compound and are assigned to home-stay families fairly close to Thiès, where we will receive the bulk of our language and cross-cultural training in small groups, returning periodically to the training center for group sessions. I'll be focusing on French training during this time and trying to get to an intermediate level by Week 10. Sounds like last summer's Spanish immersion all over again. If successful, I'll be inducted into the Peace Corps at the home of the US Ambassador on October 15th.

Last night began the month of Ramandan, so 94% of the population will be fasting (no food nor water) between sunrise and sunset.  This will make our home-stay situation a little interesting, as our families will be making and serving us food while they're fasting.  Five times a day, we hear the call to pray from the nearby mosque--it's a haunting sound.  I look forward to learning more about this culture.

Random things I learned today:
  • I will be adding bleach to my filtered water to keep from getting water-borne illnesses
  • Regardless of the bleach, I should expect to have diarrhea a lot during my 27 month stay here and should just get zen with that.
  • Walking around with a stick in your mouth (used for cleaning your teeth) is considered an object of beauty.
  • It costs just 23¢/min for anyone in the US to call my cell phone using Skype (in case you feel so inclined, my number is (221) 77 673 0064).
  • The median age of Senegalese people is 18.7 yrs old and the median age of my fellow PCTs is 24, needless to say, I'm feeling a bit, shall we say, “wise”.
  • Most cows have TB so raw milk is out of the question.
  • The current exchange rate is 1$US:512CFA (Senegalese African Franc).  To put the cost of things in perspective, it costs about 350CFA for a soda and about 100CFA for me to text you.
  • Although the mosquito net is effective in keeping mosquitoes out, it keeps all the steamy heat in, so sleeping has been a bit of a challenge.
  • First Letter From Home
  • Receiving letters will bring great joy, as evidenced by my new friend Garrison

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