What Kyrgyzstan Gave Me Travels Far

– Bryce Wolfe, RPCV

In pre-service training, we received a handout welcoming us to our “two-year crisis” in the Kyrgyz Republic. It charted the roller coaster of emotions, thoughts and physical manifestations that Peace Corps volunteers usually experience over the course of service in the remote, mountainous former Soviet republic. We laughed at it, and then dutifully posted it on our bedroom walls (or, for those of us lucky enough to have them, refrigerators) and now and then referred to it to make sure that our present flavor of anxiety / boredom / frustration / madness met standards of normalcy. Now I wish I had kept a copy of the handout, so I can track my journey through the stages. I like having corroborated evidence that being overwhelmed by the yogurt aisle is entirely appropriate under the circumstances.

Recently the latest stage. When I got the call, that the house was on fire, I didn’t panic. I was on a train in a tunnel under the San Francisco Bay. There was no point in speculating, in conjuring up worst-case scenarios of charred ground and burnt bodies, when I had no real information. I started making a mental list of who to call, what to do, and where to go once I got off the train. The second call informed me that my partner was in the hospital. I remember taking the news with a sort of third-person detachment. There was nothing I could do for him. I started making phone calls.

The next 24 hours was a blur of headlights on roadways, hospital hallways, Red Cross volunteers, fire investigators, property managers, insurance agencies, utility companies, long-distance calls to family, and the open arms, beds, and advice of friends… That first 24 hours was like the start of training. There was no going home. Everything was open.

But the excitement of training wears off, and becomes the restlessness of waiting for site placement, to get on with it, to earn some responsibility and some permanence in having one site and a mission to fulfill. We wonder: where will we live? Who will we work with?

In the days after the fire, my partner and I salvaged our belongings, and our lives became logistics. Every day: where will we sleep? How much can I carry?

I’m viewing it as a new opportunity.

In the Peace Corps, everything is new. We can reinvent ourselves, or revert to our base instincts. Some volunteers drink. Others cope with serial re-runs and internet memes. Most, I think, reach out and forge relationships that make us stronger.

I faced an additional worry as a volunteer that my being transgender would affect my safety and hurt my relationships with other volunteers, staff and host country nationals. I felt like I had a secret to keep. Instead, my gender identity turned out to be an asset. I related to local LGBTQ folk because, in spite of language barriers and cultural differences, we shared the understanding of what it means to be born in a body that doesn’t fit and a culture that doesn’t approve. I was able to offer my ideas, skills and experience with gender towards training, resources and events. Serving in the Peace Corps brought out the best in me, and I saw the kind of person I could be.

Looking back, I would have appreciated more guidance from Peace Corps trainers. My group had no Safe Zone Training, and when I conducted it myself, I hadn’t yet made connections with the LGBTQ community to invite them, who could have given their perspective, and insight, and offered opportunities to work together. Instead, my introduction into the LGBTQ community was informal and sort of hush-hush. There was no continuity but a word-of-mouth history of so-and-so who dated so-and-so who’s this activist trans guy… Only once I got to know people, and got a better handle on the Kyrgyz and Russian languages, did I feel comfortable taking on projects. And I do think it’s absolutely vital to have community involvement.

Silence is shaming. LGBTQ rights are human rights, and volunteers can benefit from having information about the rights, efforts, and issues facing LGBTQ groups in their country of service, whether those volunteers work directly with LGBTQ groups or not. I would encourage more outreach to non-LGBTQ volunteers. In my group, it was the straight volunteers – or at least those who appeared the most “normative” – who seemed to have the most success in opening a dialogue by acknowledging and supporting LGBTQ rights, and ultimately reducing stigma.

I understand silence. It’s easier than answering all the questions. It’s easier to let someone else do it.

I want transgender, genderqueer and gender-nonconforming people to know that it is possible to travel, live and serve abroad – successfully, and vocally – and that we should as we are.

It’s a process.

According to that chart of the two-year crisis, when the excitement grinds down, you’re left with the uncertainty, boredom and depression of the long haul. You ask yourself: Can I really keep doing this? Am I doing anything at all? Just what am I doing here anyway? This usually comes at the 1-year mark in service. After a few weeks of moving from couch to couch, cleaning greasy and possibly asbestos-laden dust off my belongings, navigating a bureaucratic tangle of renters’ rights, housing, insurance and all, I asked those questions again. I wanted to lie down on the sidewalk and close my eyes and just not open them.

You always have the option to early terminate.

Before I left America, I had decided that this was not an option for me.

It still isn’t.

I can handle marshrutkas (minibuses) and parasites and impromptu tea breaks in the middle of class, airport chaos, muggers, icy turnpikes with no guardrails, cartfuls of dead puppies, eyeball toasts and long hours scrubbing laundry with my knuckles and a bar of soap, government paperwork and vast amounts of VAST budgets, with humor and diplomacy. If nothing else, the Peace Corps prepared me to thrive in situations where I have no control. That, and dance. I’m grateful for that.

Bryce Wolfe can be reached at chasingdreamsagain@yahoo.com

Weather … or Not

By – Wayne Hill, RPCV, Micronesia

I’ve been following the weather reports on the Boston Globe web site recently to see how things are going in my home town. Not well, unless you think that two feet of snow is just as good as it gets. I don’t which is why, starting with Peace Corps Micronesia, my adult life has been spent in and around the  Pacific Basin. Sure, Japan has winter, but it’s not “New England winter.”  Otherwise, San Francisco’s once-in twenty-years snowfall is as far as I go. But just because there’s no snowfall, the tropics are no more free of tragic weather events than is Boston, just of a different sort.

Tacloban_Typhoon_Haiyan_2013-11-14

Debris lines the streets of Tacloban, Leyte island. This region was the worst affected by the typhoon, causing widespread damage and loss of life. Caritas is responding by distributing food, shelter, hygiene kits and cooking utensils. (Photo: Eoghan Rice – Trócaire / Caritas)

This past fall, the Philippines, where I now live with my common law spouse, Julius, suffered what some have said was the worst typhoon on record. Haiyan, locally named Yolanda, slammed into the city of Tacloban with incredible force, levelling almost everything in its path. If the storm had swung further south, we would have shared in the devastation, but luckily we had nothing more than a few hours of very heavy rain and virtually no wind.

The post-storm pictures from Tacloban brought back vivid memories of another typhoon named Jean which plowed into the island of Saipan on April 11, 1968, when I was a volunteer there. Typhoon Jean had sustained winds up to 175 MPH, we were told, and 75% of the buildings were seriously damaged. My own house was picked up off its foundation and dropped a few feet to the south, but when the storm had passed, my home was still a house.  My neighbors found only piles of rubble from which they had no choice but to build some kind of structure to live in for the time being.

We were very lucky because the US Navy from Guam flew to our rescue within a day and set of soup kitchens and tents for those with nowhere else to stay. My fellow volunteer Karen was preparing to marry her Saipanse fiance only two weeks after the typhoon hit, and the wedding went on as scheduled, but her family had to cancel their plans to attend and the blessed event was catered by uniformed Navy men.

With the schools all destroyed or greatly damaged, we were put to work assisting with the relief efforts and ended up much busier than our TESL duties had kept us. I remember how hot is was all that summer because no leaves were left on most of the trees and therefore, no shade to be found. That summer of 1968 was really busy and fulfilling, more so, I would say than teaching ESL, knowing that our work had such an immediate effect.  By September things on Saipan had returned to something like “normal,” back to teaching, and yes, welcoming in a brand new typhoon season.Typhoons come and typhoons go, but I’ll never forget Typhoon Jean!

In comparing Haiyan and Jean, Haiyan was somewhat stronger, but not a heck of a lot. Each storm approached its targeted island from the open Pacific to the east gaining strength every mile of the way, but Tacloban suffered thousands of deaths and Saipan one.  Why?  Well, it’s all because of a whim of geology.  The entire east side of Saipan is cliffs and rocky slopes and in 1968, everyone lived in the towns strung along the west coast, away from the brunt of the storm. There are also a whole network of caves built by the Japanese during World War II which serve as typhoon shelters. Tacloban, on the other hand, is on the east side of the island of Leyte, facing directly into the wind with no protection and the wind and waves came plowing in and destroyed the city and the lives of the people living there. If Saipan’s geology had been reversed, you might not be reading this, at least not written by me!

Wayne Hill can be contacted at waynzwhirld@aol.com

Nine Years Later: A Love Letter to Ghana, Continued

– Joel Parthemore, RPVC

Author’s Note: All names have been changed: both those who would not wish to be named and those who wouldn’t care.

The last time I came to Ghana, I was still employed with Peace Corps Washington. I used the excuse of a few days’ work in the Lome and Accra offices to travel on my official passport, which saved me the headache of getting a visa.  I don’t remember who, precisely, met me at the airport any more, but I can think of who was probably there: my brother Josh, now completing a master’s degree in Trondheim, Norway; my friend Tony, one of the first people I met when I took up my station at Gbledi Gbogame in the Volta Region; and Kwesi, my friend and more than a friend: still the only man I’ve ever proposed to.

I had not heard from Kwesi for several weeks before traveling, so I was not necessarily expecting him at the airport. I was, however, expecting Tom (American expat who’s lived in Ghana since time before when) and Tony.

In the end, there was no welcome delegation.  I went to the hotel desk and had them book me a room at the Hilltop Hotel (130 cedis, USD $65) and arrange a taxi (25 cedis).

Kwesi came by the hotel in the morning and stayed until evening. It was an oddly bittersweet reunion: his words said one thing, his body language quite another.  It was he who brought up the matter of my marriage proposal, saying that he was heterosexual, that nothing I could say would make him a homosexual, and that I had lured him into our former relationship. I said only that I did not remember things that way.  I could have added, and didn’t, that we had both been adults; that much of what happened between us was very much on his initiative (I think of the time we were traveling and, without fanfare, in not the most private of locations, he gave me a most revealing view — with only a comment that “oh, I forgot and left those at home”); the rest was at least as much on his initiative as mine; that he had once answered a woman’s question whether he was, to use the quaint Ghanaian phrase, “walking with me”, in the affirmative; that he had, indeed, taken my proposal seriously, going as far as asking his minister what he thought of same-sex marriage (to my surprise).  His minister had nothing good to say about it (no surprise).

He says he wants to “just be friends”, the way I’m friends with Josh and Tony.  I wish him the best with his marriage plans (sincerely) and tell him that I will always think of him the way we were when we more than friends, that nothing can change the past.

In the months leading up to my visit, Kwesi had assured me, repeatedly, that he would have no trouble at all getting the time off to travel with me throughout my visit. Now he said he would be able to spend Sunday/Monday with me, but that Tuesday he would need to ask again about the leave.  We arranged to meet at Tony’s place in Tema on Saturday night.

In the end, he did not make it to Tema, nor did I see him Sunday or Monday.  He called on Monday to say I should precede him to Anamabo (where I wished to greet my brother Paul, whose family hosted me in pre-service training) and that he would join me en route to Wenchi (my second Peace Corps posting).

I traveled on my own to Wenchi and saw the computer lab I had helped set up, still running though facing some very critical issues. I was happy, at least, to see it finally on broadband, after the dialup connection I had established ended pretty much with my departure in 2001.  I strolled the campus taking photos with which to update the school website, and met one of the campiest students I have ever met, trying to be quite macho about disciplining one of his juniors and somehow failing miserably.  I greeted Kwesi’s father, a lonely old man on retirement, spending his days at home while his wife is away at work. By this point, the plan was for Kwesi to join me for my final excursion, to Gbledi. But on my way back through Accra, we met up for dinner; he introduced me to his latest fiancé, and now the plan was to join me in Hohoe and travel together back to Accra via Tema. Of course, that did not happen, either.

Now it is the next to final night, and I sit in a hotel room in Hohoe, looking back on the past two weeks.  More than my previous visits, this time I have felt out of place, awkward, unsure where I fit in. Where before I traveled with more companions than I knew what to do with, this time I have done all my traveling on my own – except that Tony will likely join me from Kpeve (where he is running a computer lab of his own now) to Tema.

I have taken fufu and banku with both palm nut and ground nut (peanut butter) soup, eating them with my hand (right, of course; no spoon) in the proper local way. I have had jolloff rice and fried yam with hot pepper and “meat pies” with not a trace of meat to be found in them, and beans and gari (with fried plantain where available) nearly every morning.  I have listened to “Touched by an Angel” more times than I care to count.  I have spoken by phone with my former headmaster (who went on to be the director general of Ghana Education Service for a while) and talked over beer with my former paramount chief.  I have promised to do what I can for Chris, my former student, for many years now helping oversee the computer lab, to help him further his education. I have re-established dormant contacts and, perhaps, made a few new ones.  I have met some incredibly beautiful men; but then, I seem to manage that wherever I travel in the world.

Still, I am left with the question that, I suppose, we all must face sometime before we die: what difference have I made; what have I left – what do I leave – behind here:  surely something, yes, but what?   …Hopefully more than a computer lab always on the brink of falling down; hopefully more than a mural I and the students painted on the wall outside the lab years ago, part of it since re-painted, the rest peeling away badly. (The world map we also did has long since been painted over.)

That Kwesi should consider my former proposal and his entertainment of it as a youthful whimsy is no surprise; his feelings on the matter have, over the intervening years and emails and phone calls, ranged all over the map.  He is, as Josh says, a conflicted individual; and I should well know, from my mother’s experience with my father, the impossibility of changing someone you love. His fiancé may strike me as an improbable match, but she is intelligent and educated and, as the saying goes, has her heart in the right place, if our dinner conversation is anything to go by.

Ah, Ghana:  you stole my heart, years ago, and yet I ran away, back to America.  I suppose I cannot complain at your present seeming ambivalence.

The author can be contacted at joel@parthemores.com

Serving in Moldova, a Mixed Blessing

– A Current PCV

Moldova FlagSunday, May 19th, Moldova had a gay pride parade. While it only lasted half a block it was still deemed a success and many international organizations helped support the local LGBT crowd. I joined our ambassador and country director for the event, feeling safer knowing that they were there, but my biggest worry was ‘what would happen at site?’ Well now that it’s the next day and I’m in my village I still am concerned. How many people saw the news? How many will confront me? Will I be able to stay here for my second year or will I have to move?

Being an LGBT volunteer in Moldova is what I imagine being an LGBT person in the 60s. Believe it or not there is a gay scene in Moldova but it is very underground. You have to know the right people to ‘gain entrance.’ We do have one club that is very LGBT friendly – they even have a rainbow painted around their doorway to let others know and within are various stickers protesting homophobia. Other than that many of the LGBT people tend to hang out with various EVS (European Volunteer Service) people and PCVs, since they know that we are LGBT friendly.

I’m very lucky that I have a great support network within the PC world and staff (HCNs – host country nationals and U.S.) who are open and supportive of me and my unique service. But when I come back to site I am a completely different person. Not only am I lying about who I am attracted to but also who I am at my very core. My village has accepted me for the most part – my coworkers at school come to me and seem genuinely seem interested in talking to me – but how can I develop a relationship with someone if they don’t even know who I am? Knowing that if they knew the truth, they would shun me or take me to the priest to be ‘healed.’ Knowing that when I return to the states to begin my gender transition, I will never be able to keep in contact with them, except by email, for once I start hormones my voice will change.

I live with a grandmother who happens to be very open. We enjoy each others company and we’ve had some great times. Once, over a few shots of home-made rakiu, I even changed her mind on gay-marriage by telling her that love is love and this world is hard enough alone. If you can find someone to share your struggles, and victories, with then you should be allowed to marry them. You see even during pre-service training I was somehow ‘popular’ with many of the HCNs even though I dressed oddly. I guess the one good thing about being a stranger in strange lands is that you are a stranger. How do they know that what you are doing is odd, different, or strange?

It’s a mix of a blessing being in a country full of such ignorance but also a curse. People tend to see what they want to see, you could walk around with a LGBT flag and they would comment about how pretty the colors are, but once the words LGBT are involved then it’s a completely different story.

You can contact this volunteer at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

My Experience in Morocco as a Lesbian PCV

– A Peace Corps Volunteer

For me, being gay in Morocco is difficult but not unmanageable. Though many people in my small town in the Little Sahara consider themselves more laid-back and open-minded than the Moroccan standard, I would never out myself to anyone here. I don’t find being in the closet here all that difficult, though, because it just doesn’t come up that much.

Yes, people ask me all the time whether I’m married and if I’d like to have a Moroccan husband. I come up with silly, inaccurate answers to these questions that often leave the impression that I have something against Moroccans. I hate that I give that impression, but straight volunteers probably have that problem as much as queer ones – a lot of the difficulty there can be chalked up to language barriers. I have just as hard a time with the idea of being asked whether I’d like to marry someone I’ve never met as I do with the idea of marrying a man, but it’s a lot easier to say, “No, I don’t want to marry a Moroccan,” than it is to say, “It creeps me out that you just asked me to marry your barber without any mention of our common interests or a suggestion that we go to dinner.”

To be a queer PCV in Morocco (or to be a queer person in most parts of the world), you almost have to come to terms with compartmentalizing, i.e., letting the people in your community get to know the parts of you that they will find acceptable. Having just come out in the U.S. a few years ago, I hate having to disintegrate the parts of myself when I was just beginning to enjoy this newfound whole. I don’t see a way around it, though—I’ve never heard a story of someone being out in their community and still managing to integrate. Homosexuality is illegal. Most (not all) Muslim Moroccans will tell you it’s against Islam, and even most (not all) non-Muslim Moroccans still hold that homosexuality is un-Moroccan.

I have a mix of mechanisms that help me handle having to compartmentalize in my community. First, I’m out among fellow PCVs. In fact, being a pretty private person, I’m way more out among PCVs than I am among groups in the States. I’ve outed myself here more than usual both to create a support network for myself and to let other people, who might feel isolated, know that they’re not alone.

Next, Peace Corps Morocco’s LGBT support group, Pride Morocco, offers more overt, official support and functions as my queer social group. We meet quarterly to discuss how we can serve as allies for one another. For example, after having identified that several uncomfortable or inappropriate interactions have taken place between LGBT volunteers and PC staff members, we’re working now on coordinating a Safe Zone training for Peace Corps staff. We also use our meetings to hang out, bond, and, when need be, commiserate.

Finally, it’s important to me to be involved in the LGBT rights and support groups that were important to me before I joined the Peace Corps. Although my involvement in these groups from Morocco is limited by distance and technology, I think it’s mentally healthy to offer myself opportunities to face the challenges of being gay positively and constructively. It also gives me perspective to remember that the challenges I face in Morocco aren’t Moroccan or Muslim problems. My involvement in a support group at my alma mater regularly reminds that being LGBT in the States can be just as hard as it can be in Morocco (at an inter-personal level, at least; it gets trickier at a legal level). Having this kind of perspective helps me direct my frustrations more appropriately.

So my advice to you if you’re queer and you’re thinking about whether you should come to Morocco for 27 months is to go ahead and reconcile yourself to the near-fact that you’ll have to be mostly closeted while you live here and to be proactive about how you’re going to manage your mental health. Focus on creating a strong support network for yourself of people at home and in Morocco, and find ways to face frustrations and challenges through constructive channels.

This Peace Corps Volunteer can be contacted through lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 152 other followers