aftermath

“So I heard your country has a new president now,” Sibiri mentioned casually as I handed him a nail. He was standing on a stool in my kitchen, helping me install lights in my house.

I instinctively cringed. It had been two full days since the election results and the hurt was still raw. It was always jarring to hear the news delivered to me again by a Burkinabé, a painful reminder of how visible and far-reaching our government is. Even this little village of 1000 in the middle of nowhere knows about our election.

“Yes, Trump won,” I said, already feeling the anger and desperation rising. “He was running against Hillary Clinton, who I support, but in the end, he won.”

“Ah, yes, there was a woman running for office this time! But she didn’t end up winning and—”

“Which is total bullshit!” I cut in, slamming the counter in frustration. “The man, Trump, is racist, misogynist, xenophobic, a known rapist, doesn’t believe in climate change. The most basic human rights of so many vulnerable minority groups are at risk—and my country elected him to be our president! The woman, Hillary, is a million times more qualified for the position—”

“Victoria—”

“Like not even looking at their policies, Trump had absolutely zero experience working in government, while Hillary was our First Lady, a senator, our secretary of state, and—”

“Victoria!” Sibiri cut in again, almost laughing.

What, Sibiri?” I snapped angrily.

“Oh, Victoria, Victoria, you’re speaking like a child!”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

“You’re being naïve. Yes, your woman worked hard on the campaign, but ultimately, it would have never worked out. A woman cannot possibly run a country! It just can’t be done. Can you imagine? Madame président?” he tested out the sound of the phrase, still chuckling softly as he continued nailing brackets into my wall.

“Are you even listening to me! A woman can damn well run a country if she wants and Donald Trump is dangerous and incompetent—and he hates Muslims!” I said desperately, hoping that this fact alone would change the mind of the devoted Muslim man standing in front of me.

But I knew it wasn’t any use. The fact that Clinton was a woman was damning and completely insurmountable for Sibiri. Nothing else I was saying was being absorbed.

I wanted to scream. To raise my head towards the waxing moon and let out a deep guttural primal cry. To release a bit of the desperation that has been threatening to swallow me whole since Wednesday morning.

Sibiri is my community counterpart, my main liaison with the village over the course of the next two years as I try to accomplish development projects. Not only that, but he’s known all the past Peace Corps volunteers in Tioyo (all female), is a father to a beautiful daughter, and is one of my closest friends here. Yet, despite all of this, thinks that a woman is incapable of leading a country. Most people here, including the women, would share his sentiments. Gender divisions are strict and intensely internalized. I recently saw a woman be elected to a position in our local parents’ association and watched with shock as she firmly turned down the position because it “was not women’s work”.

I often get discouraged when I wonder how I’m supposed to do anything here if the community thinks that I am inherently less competent than a man. How am I supposed to get anyone to take me seriously? How do I get people to listen to my ideas and respect me independent of the fact that I am a woman? How can I tell if they are actually listening or if they think I’m overstepping my boundaries as a woman?

This is the reality in Burkina Faso. I’ve reluctantly accepted the place of women in Burkinabé society as something that will have to change over the course of a generation, not over the course of my service here. But on my worst days here, I take solace in thinking that at least in my own country women have more rights.

Ha. What a fucking joke after the election results.

I spent a lot of that first day crying because:

1. More than anything, I had wanted to go into my 7th grade class that morning and be able to tell them that America just had its election and that we elected a woman as a president for the first time in our history. Just to see the looks on the faces of little girls who have been told their entire lives that they are worth less than the boys they grow up alongside.

2. Most importantly, because it fucking hurts like a bitch to know that your country elected a man whose campaign was built on racism, xenophobia, and misogyny—just such hate. For Christ’s sake, the man is a rapist. My entire existence as a woman of color and the daughter of immigrants feels like it’s under attack by my own country, which is, quite frankly, not a new experience, but to have it so definitively proven to me on such a scale that I am unwanted, that my body is not under my own jurisdiction, that I am less American, less human—it is nothing short of devastating. I spent much of my young life internalizing these messages from mass media and have spent my adult life trying convincing myself otherwise. And yet, here was this election showing me again that I was right all along.

I’m worth nothing as woman, both in Burkina and at home. (Can I even call such a place home?)

I was hardly able to string together a coherent thought in those first 24 hours. I still can’t. The second day, so filled with news of racist acts and panicked women looking into getting IUDs to reclaim control over their own bodies, was not any easier. I’m terrified for those I love.

Small things that give me hope. That there are millions of people as angry and sad as I am. That I’m friends with people that will not take this sitting down. That so many of my friends are getting out into the streets to protest and fight for a better world than the one that was elected. That my little slice of America believes in my worth—not despite my heritage or my gender, but for it. That I work for an organization that believes in spreading peace and promoting equality. That my co-workers believe in the same values of equality and justice as I do. That we are an apolitical organization, independent of American foreign policy.

Even if we have elected a hateful, bigoted man as our president, my little village will never meet him. Instead, they have me for the next two years. After the election results, I’m more motivated than ever to stay here and represent America in the way I’ve always dreamed it could be: kind and open to difference and change. Because even if I’ve rarely been shown that that side of America, the people of Tioyo deserve to know it. Donald Trump will not be representing my country, not in my little corner of the world.

The American that the people of Tioyo will know is not quite as blue-eyed and flaxen-haired as they expected. But she’s American to the core, passionate about individual freedoms and accepting of all the diversity our world has to offer. She’s female, and determined as hell to show both her own country and this one that being a woman means control over her mind and body and that she is just as powerful and capable as any fucking man.

Stay nasty, my friends. It’s not over yet. This fight is just beginning.


august


For the entire first month, I was running on an adrenaline high. Everything was novel and exciting and I greedily devoured the tiniest details of this new place. I fell quickly in love with the heavy rains, the bike rides, my host family, the new foods. Other trainees would vent to me about homesickness, host family problems, and language stresses and I would listen patiently, but never quite know how to connect. 

My tipping point came my last night of site visit. I found myself completely alone in my empty cement box of a house and the feeling of utter isolation suddenly washed over me. Night thick and black, suffocating me as I tried to fall asleep on the concrete floor. I realized that this was to be my life for the next two years, not whatever I was slowly getting accustomed to during PST. I felt myself losing control of my emotional state that night, but I pushed it back. You don’t have time for this, I scolded myself. Keep it together.

And there really felt like there was no time. We were going to the regional capital the next day, followed by a trip to Ouaga, and then back to Leo to start model school. Every summer, the Peace Corps training team collaborates with the local middle school to organize a month-long summer school as a way for the education trainees to have some hands-on practice and work with real Burkinabe students before the school year starts. Local teachers teach math, French, and science classes, while we manage English. The TEFL team split up into four teaching groups to work with the middle school classes: 6eme, 5eme, 4eme, and 3eme, the equivalent of American 6th-9th grades. I taught 4eme (8th grade) with Brady, Brian, and Issifou. They were blessedly uncomplicated to work with and I’m grateful for the painless model school experience because I was falling apart otherwise, despite my most dogged attempts to keep it together.

The novelty of being in a new place was starting to wear off and my repressed feelings from the first month slammed into me. There were the frustrations surrounding training itself and being an education volunteer. We had mindnumbing, useless theoretical tech sessions that drove me to borderline homicidal states. I hated teaching and deeply resented not being in CED. I was feeling conflicted about the entire premise of teaching English, finding it all painfully imperialistic. My patience for certain other trainees was wearing dangerously thin. On the personal side, I hadn’t spoken to my family in weeks, convinced that my mother was angry at me. I struggled with confusing feelings for another trainee. I missed Quentin fiercely. The people I loved most in the world were going through major life changes all at once. I felt forgotten, neglected, rejected, and so very far away.

It all culminated in a rather messy emotional breakdown following a particularly frustrating tech session. Hysterical tears, warm arms wrapping around me, sympathetic ears listening over a round of beers. It passed as quickly as it came, partly because of my continued determination to enjoy the little time I had left with the trainees, but mostly because of the support of friends here and elsewhere.

The rest of the month continued on. I fell into comfortable patterns. Model school during the week bought a welcome change in our training routine. Brian and I would pass long hours at a café down the street pretending to work on lesson plans over bitter coffee. There were soccer games against our staff members, cooking adventures with my beloved Lobiri tutor, covert post training dolo runs. On the weekends, we would take long bike rides to neighboring villages, even once to Ghana, to drink terrible boxed wine and share care package food under the shade of giant trees.

Then, at the end of August, PST drew to a close with two closing ceremonies. We packed up everything once again and boarded onto a bus with all of our belongings to go back to Ouaga for swear-in.


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becoming nassara

Nassara, nassara 

“It means white person in Moore,” Sabrina explained to me in Ouaga, when we first got in country.

“Foreigner,” our country director specified.

Nassara, nassara 

Either way, it’s my name.

It’s what all the children in my neighborhood chant as I bike by, a chorus of excited shrieks following me to the center. It’s the only recognizable word that fills a room whenever I walk in. It’s what the man hissed directly in my face as I walked by him at the market. It felt like acid in that moment.

Nassara, nassara 


It’s strange to be in a place where it is socially acceptable for children to run down the street chasing after you yelling “Foreigner!”. We all deal with it in different ways. Brady and a couple others have started yelling back “Petit enfant!” at the little ones, much to their confusion. Most of us ignore it and pretend that it’s not happening, but it’s still exhausting to be constantly called a foreigner in the place we are to call home for the next two years.

I’m used to being an outsider. As a Taiwanese-American woman that has lived abroad, I’m used to being the perpetual foreigner, even when I’m home. Like many minority children, my childhood was spent trying to erase my origins, wanting more than anything to fit in with my white classmates. It has taken me a long time to get to this point, but my difference since has become an identity marker that I wear like a weapon, a reappropriated tool of oppression. I’ve grown to be fiercely proud of my heritage. From birth, I have had a claim on two different cultures and three languages. What do you have? One language? A muddy European mutt genealogy? Ha!

In France, I found myself secretly relishing when some fool would call me Japanese and Chinese, evaluating my appearances without even bothering to listen to my heavy American accent. I looked forward to challenging their casual racism and throwing their stereotypes back at them.

Nassara, nassara 

But in Burkina Faso, I feel like I’ve been stripped of half of my identity. I’m identified immediately as “nassara”, grouped with the mostly white Peace Corps trainees. I feel flattened, indignant, confused. Wasn’t this all I wanted growing up? To fit in with the white people? To not have to put in any effort to prove my American-ness? Be careful what you wish for.

Once, in the market, someone asked me if I was Japanese, and my knee-jerk instinct was to aggressively assert my American identity, as I used to do. In that moment, I wasn’t sure if I was more relieved or disappointed that my Asian identity was not entirely erased here, that being American wasn’t enough.

To be the daughter of two cultures is to fully belong in neither—or any, for that matter.

Nassara, nassara 

It’s Jerome, the bartender at our favorite bar. “Nassara! Ne y zaabre?” he greets me in Moore as he clasps his large hands to mine, a huge grin spreading across his face. I laugh at his greeting.

I like that, from him, the hated term of unbelonging transforms into something almost like a term of endearment. For once, I can take it without completely overthinking the socioracial implications. It doesn’t matter right now.

Jerome hands me a cold Brakina and I brush aside any lingering thoughts about being a nassara as I sit down with my friends for a drink.

site visit


At the end of our first week in country, we piled into buses with our belongings to make the trip to Léo for PST. During this trip, our LCFs handed us slim manila folders labeled with our names and a village name. Our site assignments. We anxiously leafed through the sparse packets and unfolded oversized maps, trying desperately to glean information about our home for the next two years. Is it a new site? Am I replacing a volunteer? Who’s near me? What’s the local language? Where the fuck is it on these damned maps? 

Our answers were answered a month into PST when the Education volunteers left Léo to go on our site visits. We returned to Ouaga for a three-day counterpart workshop where we met the professional counterpart our community chose for us to work with.

Mine is a tall, regal Lobi man named Sami that works in the middle school I’ll be teaching at. Bearded. Animated. Open. A laugh that crackles like the dry leaves of autumn. He reminds me of my father, in his uncontainable (sometimes annoying, but mostly endearing) outbursts and commentaries in large social situations. I am caught between rolling my eyes and laughing along with him when I sit next to him during presentations.

Finally, the morning of the site visit, we left at six in the morning to catch a cab to the bus station on the other side of Ouaga. Burkinabé bus stations bear little resemblance to any that I’ve been to in my life. They’re much smaller than American or European ones, but with all the chaos of a station five times its size. It’s a concentrated cacophony of constant activity where men pack their motorcycles safely in cardboard; women sell tall piles of travel snacks balanced impossibly on their heads; children with boxes of basic toiletries scramble underfoot, hawking their wares. Buses are always late, ticket vendors never have enough change, bikes and motos end up on the wrong buses sometimes, buses break down constantly.

Buses are child’s play compared to bush taxis though. Bush taxis are small vans that service practically every inch of Burkina Faso. They pick up anyone and anything off the side of the road for less than a dollar. They squeeze more human bodies in the van than humanly possible and our possessions are either stuffed into the vehicle with us or piled precariously on top. I am not exaggerating when I say they literally take anything. Suitcases, bikes, motorcycles, chickens, goats, furniture—everything is thrown on top of the bush taxi and tied down. During my first bush taxi ride, I was crammed rather unceremoniously against a window with my knees tucked against my chest to fit on top of giant bags of sugar a shopkeeper was transporting to his store. I’m half convinced that if a murderer rolled up to a bush taxi with a cadaver, the bush taxi lackeys would not bat an eyelash before grabbing the body and fitting it carefully on top between a goat and a couple of cardboard boxes.

But it’s all ultimately a very controlled chaos, as such things are in most developing countries, where despite all the inevitable snags, the transport system works. You may get there four hours later than expected, but you (almost always) get to your destination eventually. The Germans would absolutely hate traveling in Burkina Faso.

After a long bus ride and a bush taxi, Sami and I finally arrived at my site in the late afternoon. I’m lucky because I’m located right off a main paved road (goudron in local French) and transport is easily accessible. A wonder, considering that my village is one of the smaller ones, with a population of 600. It’s deep in the lush southwest, closer to Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire than any major Burkinabé city.

In that patch of the southwest live the Lobi people, a fiercely independent animist ethnic group. A matrilineal warrior society without a central political structure, they were among the first settlers in Burkina Faso well known for their animist totems, fortress-like houses, archery traditions, and intense initiation ceremonies. But who knows if any of this information is still relevant; I read it all in a Burkina Faso guidebook I borrowed from another trainee, so we’ll see what living among the Lobi will show to be the truth.

Sami and I arrived on a bustling market day, and we set off in the market to track down the man that had the keys of my house. It was close to closing time, but the market was still buzzing with energy. My eyes greedily devour every detail. Setting sun, long shadows, a larger area to the right made up of rickety stall after stall of vendors packed tightly together. Battered cabbages, neat little mountains of beans and grains on straw mats, piles of mysterious dried goods. Globs of unctuous dough spit stutter sizzle in shallow pans of oil, gently frying up to form beignets. Smoky sunlight illuminates the ribcage of a large animal being butchered on a large table. Women near the center of the market stir massive bubbling vats of dolo—a local drink that is similar to cider—before serving it up in a hollowed-out gourd called a calabash.

After a couple rounds in the market and of beers, we finally found my keymaster and head to my home, a little fortress of a house, made up of two empty concrete rooms and small windows. It has a little courtyard with low walls and a private latrine in the back. No electricity or running water. It’s not much, but it’s mine. After close to a year of living as a guest in another’s household, that feels significant. Not to mention it’s the biggest space I’ve ever had to myself. There’s space to fill, walls to paint, a garden to make, perhaps.

I feel the same excitement and sense of possibility when I think of my job. I’ll be the only English teacher for the middle school in Tioyo. Burkina Faso follows the French system where middle school runs from 6th grade to 9th grade. However, the middle school in my village has only been existence for the past two years, so there were only two grades this past academic year. In fact, there’s not even a real building for the middle school yet. One of the classes is in an unused classroom of the elementary school and another is held in an empty warehouse building. But that’s all in the process of changing. If all goes according to plan, a middle school will be constructed and all four grades will be running by the time I leave. It’s extremely exciting to have such a tangible, physical project that I’ll be working on.

The next few days at site, Sami took me around to meet the chief, the president of the PTA, religious leaders, the mayor, the chief of police, the prefect—basically any significant person in a 15km circumference. There were countless confusing conversations in Lobiri where I barely managed to stumble through basic greetings before maxing out on my language skills. Ali, my kind Muslim butcher neighbor, gave me ample meals and bands of children led me around the village after Sami left. Every night, I fell asleep in my courtyard, watching the Milky Way— brighter than I’ve ever seen it—rise slowly through the mesh of my bughut.

One more month of PST and I’ll be back there to stay for good. There’s a lot to love in the southwest and I cannot wait to discover more.




Léo



Coming to Léo was our first exposure to the reality of our lives for the next two years and to Burkinabé culture. The first week at Ouagadougou passed by at a glacial rate within a carefully constructed Peace Corps bubble where we had showers, flushing toilets, an air conditioned amphitheater, and the only Burkinabe we were interacting with were our Language and Culture Facilitators (LCFs), trained staff members that spoke French very slowly and never broke into Moore unless they were teaching it. Our Ouaga bubble feels like a distant past as we’re bombarded by new changes here in Léo.

Léo is a city in the south of Burkina Faso, right on the border of Ghana. We’re based here for Pre-Service Training (PST), a period of time well known in Peace Corps circles as one of the most difficult parts of service. The three months leading up to swear-in consist of French/Moore language classes with small groups, sector specific technical sessions, and general medical and logistics sessions. At the end of exhausting day-long trainings, we go home to our host families.

I live around the corner from the training center with a family of five. There’s Madame, the large boisterous matriarch of the family. Then Monsieur, the kind bearded teacher and farmer. Falila, the eldest sister, is a bright high schooler who’s studying in Koudougou and responsible for most household duties. Then there’s Charif, the sleepy-eyed preteen boy that is endlessly patient and understanding with me. And, of course, there’s Leila, a spunky 6-year-old that clings to my body like the omnipresent wet heat. We live in a house that opens to a courtyard filled with chickens, turkeys, and the occasional goat or pig that wanders in.

We eat with slimy okra sauce, benga with atieke, piping hot beignets, and—my favorite—rice with peanut sauce. The television is on most hours of the day blasting some foreign telenovela or African music videos. I dance with Leila in the living room and stumble through basic Moore with her. There have been long bike rides to the fields, a lively wedding reception, henna with my sisters, and evening cooking lessons. Some nights, the power cuts out and we sit on the porch and talk in the darkness as heat lightning from Ghana flashes on the horizon.

Some parts are harder than others. We’ve had three people go home already. Instead of flushing toilets, we have latrines, which are basically just deep pits in the ground. I take bucket baths now instead of showers, pouring bowl after bowl of water from a bucket over my body. The cries of roosters, goats, and donkeys occasionally wake me in up in the dead of night. I’ve had to grapple with mice, roaches, and other critters in my room. The family mostly speaks in Moore, which I’m still struggling with, and they switch over to French only when addressing me. I spend a lot of time observing, rather than participating.

The physical changes scarcely faze me now that we’re a month in—I’ve always been astounded by how adaptable human bodies are. In most cases, we readily adjust to changes over time, no matter how extreme. I have come to love my bucket baths so much. Often, I take them as the sun sets, streaks of soft pink, gold, orange stretched above my head and cool water caressing my naked body. Sometimes, if I wait until it gets dark, I bathe by moonlight and the sky above me feels like it is about to burst underneath the weight of starlight.

Biking has ceased to terrify me. My confidence on the bike grows daily and I feel incredibly free flying down the dirt roads, singing with wild abandon along to the music playing from the iPhone stuffed in my bra. I share the road with a motley collection of bikes, donkey carts, motorcycles, the occasional truck piled high with screaming goats on their way to the slaughter. I feel myself growing stronger each day as I bike distances that would’ve been unimaginable to me just a few weeks ago.

I’m going to miss this, I caught myself thinking last weekend as Abbey and I raced down the dirt road to Zoro. She jumped over pits with a steadiness I’ve yet to achieve on my bike and I yelped in surprise every time she did so. I laughed and sang loudly as clouds of red dust billowed out behind us.

But I don’t have to miss any of it, I realized, not yet. The idea of permanence hasn’t quite set in yet. It still feels like this is all some strange dream most days. Sometimes, I wonder if it always will.

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mirror, mirror



I was walking through the market last week and I caught a muddy glimpse of myself in the reflection of a dirty storefront.

Hello, stranger.

A messy high ponytail, errant wisps framing my head in a stringy, sticky halo. Surprised eyes. Darker skin than I remembered. But still me, in some alien way.

/

I haven’t seen a full length mirror or put on makeup since Philadelphia.

In Ouaga, our only mirrors were hanging above the sinks in the shared bathroom. A light film of dust and grime on the surface. One half broken because Rachel tried to kill a mosquito on it.

In Leo, there are no mirrors. I pull my hair into a ponytail, put semi-clean clothes onto my body, and bike to class.

I feel lighter living like this. I scarcely remember what I look like. My weight is the last thing on my mind. I think often of my Parisian self, who rarely left the péniche without a flick of winged eyeliner and a smear of red lipstick. She seems like a different woman sometimes. Was that really just a few months ago?

Any vanity I once had has been worn away here, not wholly by choice, but by the shifting norms of femininity of my new home.

/

My notions of femininity growing up were shaped by my mother, a woman that was slightly more glamorous in her youth, but in motherhood, disliked makeup, never shaved, and dressed in mostly jeans and t-shirts. A blessedly uncomplicated upbringing until middle school when other girls started to buy makeup and designer bags, shave their legs and date boys. As a girl, I struggled to come to terms with that particular version of femininity.

Paris was a transformative experience in many ways. I was on the brink of adulthood, an ocean away from who I used to be. Everywhere, I saw effortlessly elegant women that I yearned to be. I started dating, bought makeup for the first time, started dressing differently to adapt my appearances and behaviors to my new surroundings.

Here, Burkinabé women are feminine and physically strong. Yet restricted in many ways. Coming here as American women, we have become a third gender. We’re not expected to fall into the restrictive gender norms of females here, and we gain some of the social power that men possess. It’s a strange liminal space that we’re just starting to discover. In a certain respect, we have an advantage over the male volunteers, as we are able to traverse both the world of men and women, whereas often the men are restricted to the male side. Despite the relative freedoms we are allowed as foreigners, the fear of sexual assault is perpetually present in my social interactions with men—vestigial instincts from growing up in rape culture. It’s a strange experience to be so acutely aware of my place in society as a woman, yet not have the constant awareness of my physical appearance.

It feels like a return to the femininity that I was accustomed to as a young girl, a version that is stripped of the material trappings of womanhood that are impractical in this new setting.

ouaga

This is bliss.

We’re four to room. Keriah, Katie, Helen, and I. I’m in a bed, all hard foam and springs under my spine, shrouded in a gentle cloud of mosquito netting.

And the rain, the pouring, torrential rain outside that started so suddenly. Cool air circling through our room, lifting up our pagne curtains.

We all ran outside when it started and stuck our arms out past the porch to catch the cold rain on our arms, welcoming the cool respite after warm day. Feet slipping on the wet concrete and slick silt between my toes. Throwing our heads back, laughing in pure joy as rainwater soaked into our skin. I’ve been told it’s good luck when it rains on your arrival.

I’m very happy to be here right now. That’s all I can ask for.

/

When we exited the airport in Ouaga, a wave of heat enveloped me like an old friend. Not the oppressive wet heat of Taipei, but something gentler, more welcoming.

There are mango trees everywhere on our compound, heavy branches laden with fragrant yellow, orange, green jewels. Lizards that are shades of orange and sand and steel skitter around everywhere. There have been plastic bags with water, mosquito bites swelling up to big pale pink welts on my arms, a ladder of scars framing Laurentine’s face, curls of silver piling up beneath the sound of hair scissors.

And then there are the rains. It always starts with deep rumbling warnings in the distance and the skies darkening. Then, whipping dust-filled winds that make the trees sing, right before thick cords of rain fall from the bruise colored skies and the air cools. The world illuminated for milliseconds at a time with blinding bluewhite light.

I’m finally returning to French after five weeks away. I’ve missed this side of me so much. The French speakers have lessons in Mooré, a local language. I love feeling my lips curl uncomfortably around this new language that sounds nothing like any that I’ve studied before.

The other trainees are revealing themselves as the days unfold, unexpected blossoms gently unfurling forth from our chests. Two years in China, a three week walking trip through Iceland, a former career as an opera singer, a radio enthusiast, ten years in Italy and Greece, currently still in classes in Germany, a videographer, a childhood spent on a chicken farmette. Endless stories that are starting to slowly emerge.

What we do all share is that everyone is just as lost, if not more, than I am and I feel so much like how the NSLI-Y group was in Tajikistan. There are so many aspects of this experience that are identical.

Rachel and Danielle were talking about how they felt uneasy. Just the language and new culture rendering them foreigners. Perhaps it’s my constant displacement, but I feel so unbelievably comfortable in being uncomfortable, in this constant state of lostness.

We’re moving onto Léo in the next few days and meeting our host families. That’s where Pre-Service Training (PST) will really start and we truly dive into Burkinabé culture. But until then, another day in Ouaga, hidden away in this compound. Another cold shower, another night spent with my beloved roommates, another summer storm.






philadelphia : staging



So it begins.

I'm in Philadelphia right now. Seems much too fitting that the city of brotherly love is where my 27 month Peace Corps journey will begin. Like someone way up at headquarters with a penchant for dad jokes just heard Philadelphia's nickname, and was like "GUYS. I have the best idea." Anyway.

Packing before leaving home went pretty typically. In that I started packing around midnight and continued floating around the house like a ghost looking for things to throw into my suitcases until almost five in the morning. The sky was just starting to turn a dusky pink when I finally drifted off a dreamless sleep in my childhood bedroom.

The next day, my parents drove me to Philadelphia where staging would take place, a city that I don't think I've ever been to. It's drenched in history, but in a sterile way. Not like cities like Rome or Paris where the history is so imminently present and tangible, but in a way where it feels more built over, more behind glass. Then again, perhaps not. We haven't seen too much of it. We're only here for two days; most of it is spent inside big meeting room in a hotel near Chinatown.

Standard Peace Corps staging is usually no more than a day, a rapid-fire runthrough of Peace Corps basics and expectations, along with some basic safety and security guidelines, but Burkina Faso is a part of the Let Girls Learn initiative, so our staging lasts an extra day. Let Girls Learn was founded by the Obamas and it focuses on helping young girls have access to education and strengthening communities through this female education. Our extra day includes diversity and gender trainings that are not included in the standard staging. And a free t-shirt. That's important.

The other 63 volunteers that are starting with me are wild mix. The youngest is 19, the oldest is a much older woman that has quickly become one of my top five favorites. There are people that have lived in Togo, Spain, Thailand, Ghana, Senegal, Australia, everywhere. I'm already learning so much from the others and their incredible experiences that we're only starting to scratch the surface of. We're split between three sectors: Community Economic Development (CED), Health, and Education, where I'm working. All three will be implementing and interacting with Let Girls Learn programs.

I'm here with Helen. Beautiful, intelligent Helen that I met five months ago in a Paris hospital by chance. Improbable circumstances. It feels right to be reunited with her after everything. Two tall Parisian women, one with hair the color of night and one with hair the color of the summer sky.

I clutch onto her like a life raft at times. Everyone was very surface level the first day, but that's expected. We all know that in the next two years, everyone here is going to become our adopted family, our best friends, our lovers, our enemies. It's strange going into a first conversation knowing that. We all desperately want to meet everyone and make those meaningful connections, but no one really knows how to jump right in. It'll come with time, I know.

But I'm glad to have had Helen here for this reason, if only to have someone to be truly honest with, and not have to explain last year to. To be able to talk about Quentin and Clement and Paris and leaving and have someone get it, no questions asked. She reminds me of what it felt like to be in French, something I dearly miss. I'll develop other relationships like this--many of them--in the next year, I know, but for the time being, Helen is a relief to have at my side. She's been a relief in my life since day one.

We're leaving tomorrow morning. A morning bus to JFK, a transatlantic flight to Brussels, a layover, then the final flight from Brussels to Ouagadougou, where we'll be for the next week, before starting the three month long Pre-Service Training (PST) in another town. This flight has been anticipated since October and it still doesn't quite feel like it's happening when I'm sitting in an air conditioned hotel room with crisp white sheets in Philadelphia. Still feeling numb to the reality of everything.

Time for one last American meal and one last night out in Philadelphia before officially putting on hold life as I knew it. See you on the other side.

resurrection

Home, August 2015, 35mm film
It's been a while, hasn't it? What? Almost three years?

I created this as a record of my life and I've let this little blog fall to wayside. Let's catch up a little. Stay tuned. I'll be posting things from the archives: old photos, new scans, excerpts from iPhone notes, love letters, postcards, emails, and diaries.


isle of skye


We leave for the Isle of Skye hours before the sun is awake. Hell, I’m barely awake. I almost immediately curl up in the backseat, nestled among the boys’ coats, a loaf of warm sourdough clutched to my body. Thomas and Quentin rouse me from my slumber often, forcing me into the cold to see the majesty of the Highlands. Thomas has detailed itinerary for our long drive up north and the Highlands have many more surprises in store for us. No time for sleep. 

We stop at loch after spectacular loch as the sun rises, the first illuminated with soft predawn pink, the next gilded with the first golden rays, then the bright blue of midmorning. The boys skip rocks on the frozen surfaces and I'm laughing and shivering. 

There’s a bridge where a scene from Harry Potter was filmed and we stand underneath the great arches yelling at our echoes. Quentin clambers up the bare limbs of a tree. Snowy mountains mirrored in a perfectly still lake. Eilean Donan castle floating, as if by magic, on murky water.

Finally, we arrive in the Isle of Skye, Glen Brittle rising up majestically in the distance.

We stop for lunch in an empty restaurant. It's February and not quite tourist season yet, so restaurants are mostly empty or just closed until the season starts.

"Ca va, toi? T'as l'air rêveuse," Quentin asks me. You okay? You look distracted. We had just finished lunch and were sipping on coffee. Thomas was in the bathroom, leaving Quentin and I in the comfortable silence fills much of our time together.

"Yeah, I'm fine. It's just—sometimes I realize how surreal everything seems," I start to explain in French. "Do you ever stop to think about what your current life would look like to your childhood self? Like if you were to tell five-year-old Victoria, or even high school Victoria, growing up in suburban New Jersey, that at 22, she would be in Scotland, taking a road trip to the Isle of Skye with these two random Frenchmen from Strasbourg, I would've never believed you." A dread-locked, pigeon-obsessed bread baker and Berlin-obsessed graphic designer that goes by Sonic sometimes, I think to myself wryly. 

Both men are so familiar to me now. I remember when I first met them two years ago in Gentilly and the uncertainty that I felt during that entire experience. I can't imagine my life without either of them now.

"Yeah, even if you had told me six months ago that this is where I would be, I don’t think I would’ve believed you," he agrees. Six months ago, before the wedding, the letters, my visit to Strasbourg, everything. 

Before I could ponder any more about the impossibility of it all, Thomas returns from the bathroom and we set off again further into Skye. 

At my request, we drive to the Fairy Pools, magical pockets of crystal clear glacial run-off flowing into each other, tucked into the Cuilen mountain range. We pick our way carefully across rivers and climb on top of huge rocks. Quentin effortlessly jumps across a small waterfall and convinces me to follow. So I leap across to join him. Or, at least, I try to. 

All of a sudden, gravity pulls me forward and I'm falling and enveloped in a fast moving chute of glacial wet and everything is water and cold. I’m only aware of my body being forced under by the force of the falling water and water water water. I push towards the surface, uncontrollable giggles bubbling forth between gasps for air. I’m screaming in laughter as Quentin yells in panic, trying to pull me back up as I slip and fall back into the water again. Thomas is completely unfazed by it all and takes pictures of the chaos unfolding. He knows me too well by this point to not expect this to happen. 

I strip in the cold air and slip on Quentin's warm jacket as we make our way back to the car for me to change into dry clothes. And to continue onwards to our next stop. There was no way we were going to let some tumble into the water cut our day short.

We go further into the Quiraing, in the northern fringes of Skye, where the landscape becomes increasingly dramatic with every kilometer. We pull up at beach covered in dark pebbles and we hike up up and away to see the bay glistening from up high. Further on, jagged spires rise sharply up out of rolling green hills, piercing through the bottoms of clouds. In the fading light, we climb down the most astonishing cliffs that drop down to a black beach.

We have an incredible dinner in Portree before settling into our Airbnb in Staffin, tucked away at the end of a road in the Quiraing, grassy hills rising up on either side. Thomas lights the fireplace and we share beers and shortbread in front of the crackling fire until late. Shaun of the Dead is on but we’re all exhausted and no one is really watching. Quentin and I dissolve into each other’s sleep filled limbs. 

We wake up late the following morning and hurry to the Old Man of Storr before the rain hit. It’s lightly misting when we get there and the iconic craggy peaks are completely hidden in the fog, but we climb anyway. It’s unending mist and green moss and rugged rockscapes and snow and freezing winds. The adjectives that I have to describe the rocky landscapes feel lazy and insubstantial: beautiful, surreal, ethereal, unbelievable. 

I struggle to keep up with the boys as we climb higher and higher into the clouds, a damp cold chilling me to the bone. I can’t tell if it ever ends. There are more rocks and ice everywhere. Finally, we reach the top where there’s just the faintest shadow of the peaks looming above us, barely perceptible through the thick cloud cover. 

We climb back down through the dreamlike mist, reluctantly getting back into the car for the long journey back to Woodlea. I silently promise the Old Man of Storr that I would return one day to Skye see him properly, perhaps with these men, perhaps with another set of unexpected traveling companions. But for now, dinner at a pub and a full night of sleep. Next stop, Edinburgh. 

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