Tag Archives: Bumps & Scrapes

The timeline of my Peace Corps application

October 2013: I realized that Marseille was wonderful and magical and I needed something beyond it.  I had thought about applying to the Peace Corps before, but having just gone through an intercontinental move entirely on my own, I realized that I had underestimated my own power.

October-December 2013: Gather materials, write, rewrite essays, and fill out forms for my application.

January 2014: Turn everything in.

February 2014: I got an interview!  Schedule and prep, voraciously scouring the Peace Corps wiki for sample interview questions.  Check them out, here.

March 11, 2014: Interview over videochat with recruiter, assigned to me at random.  Turned out she had seen me speak about teaching in France at a teleconference at Pitt two months before– small world! The connection kept popping in and out, but at the end she offered me a list of countries for which I was eligible.  I picked Lesotho first, which departed in the summer.  She nominated me on the spot, but the program filled up the next day, before my nomination could be considered.  Indonesia it was!

late March, 2014: get fingerprints taken at the city Commisariat (police station) for the FBI background check.  They take pity on me and do them on the spot, for free.  Thanking my lucky stars.

June 2014: Curious to hear about the progress of my application, I send a note to the recruiter with the shortlist of why I am a great candidate for Indonesia specifically.

August 2, 2014: I receive my acceptance e-mail!

August 20, 2014: Appointment at the US consulate in Marseille, where I turn in my passport and visa documents.

September 15, 2014 – December 2014: Fill out my medical portfolio.  Again, thanking my lucky stars for living in France, where I have medical insurance that covers nearly all of this.  The only drawback is that I had to translate every document into French, then guide the doctors, gynecologist, dentist, and lab technicians through the documents to be filled out in English.  Lab results translated back into English for the Peace Corps, too.  Get that checked and approved by an official translator.

There were a few issues with my medical portfolio, so I was very glad I started early.

December 18, 2014: My passport documents were stamped incorrectly in France, which I find out in late November.  I have returned to the US and try (3 times) to get them filed correctly.  Turns out you just need to go to a Post Office, BUT BRING ANY INSTRUCTIONS THE PEACE CORPS GIVES YOU.  The first post office I visited, the clerk refused to believe that she could give me the signed and stamped envelope to be sent through FedEx.  The second one, I was prepared with printouts of my acceptance letter, Peace Corps’ instructions for mailing the passport and visa documents, including a phone number of someone at the Peace Corps Headquarters who could confirm this information.

January – February 2015: Assemble my bags, again voraciously scouring the packing lists of previous Indonesia volunteers, general packing lists on the Peace Corps wiki, and taking advantage of the Peace Corps discounts!

mid-February 2015: Conference call about departure with Peace Corps Indonesia officials and other prospective ID9 volunteers.

March 16, 2015: Staging conference in LA.  I had no problem having SWTSato Travel fly me from Boston, rather than my home of record.  I may have gotten lucky, but it was definitely worth a try.

March 17, 2015: Depart for Surabaya, via LA-Narita (Tokyo), Narita-Changi (Singapore), Changi-Surabaya.

March 19th: 2015: Arrive in Surabaya.  Begin Pre-Service Training!


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“ATTRACTIVE!” : coming to terms with looking like an idiot

We watched a comedy movie on Monday, Asal Aswid (Black Honey), about a guy who lived in the US for 20 years and then came back to Egypt.  We were with two Egyptians who laughed uproariously throughout.  Even if there had been subtitles I probably wouldn’t have gotten it, since many of this guy’s foibles were very specific to Egyptian culture and customs.

The movie deals hilariously with his readjustment and the odd cultural differences and idiosyncrasies you have to be Egyptian to really understand.  For me, it was weird just seeing what I’m going through fictionalized and put on screen, except this guy actually had the language down pretty well.  Well, he was a bumbling idiot with the street smarts of a drunken Care Bear, but that’s beside the point.

The point is that I still have a lot to learn about this culture.  My “notes to self” so far:

  • You WILL f*ck up the language as a language learner. It is going to happen even if you review vocabulary every minute of every day, even if you fall asleep to language drills, even if you try to say as little as possible.  I still crack up about one of the first language gaffs I had in Alex.  We were at a very nice restaurant at the Library of Alexandria and I tried to order a strawberry juice. I forgot the word for strawberry (farawla) and knew what it sounded like, so I said the closest thing that came into my head. Very precisely and primly I said, “3aseer faraag, lawsamaht” (“chicken juice, if you please”). The waiter stood there confused and stifling giggles. 
Second story– at the mall the other day, I was waiting for Hannah to check out at the grocery store and the security guard started chatting me up.  Eventually he asked how old I was and I, distracted and tired, forgot to add the last part of “twenty” that differentiates it from “ten.” He gave me one of those looks that means “How are you a functioning human being?” and then laughed it off.
  • Even if you make mistakes, commit to saying SOMETHING.  I often have these language gaffs where it’s a simple issue of substitution.  For example, I might confuse two words that sound quite similar, “Kazaab” and “gazaab” that are miles apart in meaning.  Wanting to call someone out on a lie, I might accuse them of being the latter instead of the former and I will have called them “ATTRACTIVE!” instead of “LIAR!” Similarly, I might want to express my fatigue, but with a slip of the tongue I will have announced that I am, contrary to popular belief, a snake (“Ana ta3baana” vs. “Ana tha3baan”).
  • When in doubt, go slow and use any available resources to make your point.  I swear I will be a master of Charades and Pictionary by the time I leave here.  Every other moment I am using gestures and facial expressions to explain or question something.  I usually end up more satisfied and more likely to remember the word for whatever I just explained if I don’t use English or another language as a crutch.

you WILL look equally absurd

  • Get someone to go through nonverbal expressions with you.  Egyptians favor the “limp fish” handshake over the firm American one and if you’re of the same sex as whoever you’re meeting, you can expect to kiss cheeks.  Also, know if your stock hand signals might be offensive.  Your thumbs up could be another’s “please, take a dump.”
  • Master the everyday expressions.  Most of my interactions are made easier because I know the words for “Yes,” “No,” “Thank you,” “Please,” “Goodbye,” and “Where is the toilet?” and can pronounce them correctly.  In a pinch, learning the numbers from 1 to 100 is a huge help and “Excuse me,” “Speak slower,” and “Leave me alone” are great, too.
  • Put your best foot forward. As a traveler (not a tourist) I am here to acclimate myself to the culture.  That means being at my best whenever possible to make sure people feel comfortable talking to me (even though I sound like a beluga whale sometimes).

your brain on foreign languages

Part of this is how I dress and how I carry myself, but some of it is watching my words.  I have been known to curse like a sailor when the mood strikes so I am trying to resist the urge to learn the curse words in Arabic for fear of their becoming the majority of my utterances.  They sound so much more eloquent in Arabic, too! None of that grating nasal stuff from English…

  • Don’t assume you’ll automatically understand things that look familiar.  Case in point: Egyptian traffic.  IT IS INSANE.  Everyone might be heading in the same direction, but the concept of lanes appears to be moot and cars may not stop for pedestrians.  They will honk, definitely, but they will probably not stop. I feel like I’m in a massive game of Frogger every time I cross the street.  (see cursing, above)

  • Expected behavior will be different, too.  For example, people seem to be ok with just throwing their trash anywhere.  I watched a woman today throw all her used tissues, a sandwich wrapper and an empty plastic bottle out the window of the tram.  If there are anti-litter laws, there isn’t any enforcement, so there is a lot of rubbish all around.  This does not mean you are obligated to participate, but just don’t make a scene every time you encounter the foreign phenomenon.
  • Even the appliances may not work in your favor.  I was in the bathroom of the local mall and couldn’t get the toilet to flush properly (A pox upon you, low water pressure!) so I turned a knob I thought was the flush, but instead I was hit with the bidet function straight in the pants! Thank goodness I was wearing dark pants anyway, but still!  Turns out I was just one hour of walking around looking like I’d suffered a bout of incontinence away from never underestimating the power of thinking I know more than I do.
  • Things will be confusing and seemingly contradictory, but it’s best just to relax and have a good time with it.  The worst or most embarrassing things that happen are usually the best stories.

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Tutankhamun’s Revenge

Getting sick is an inevitable and unavoidable part of traveling. We were sufficiently warned about a lot of things during orientation: wash your hands with hot water and soap, don’t eat from street food-stalls, avoid swimming in the Nile, don’t pet the animals (even the cuddly-wuddly widdle stray kittens that wander the streets), don’t drink the tap water (too much chlorine for our sensitive western stomachs), know the signs of severe illness, get vaccinated… and I’m doing all that! Somehow my stomach has decided to take the night off and let everything pass straight on through. Arggggh!  Don’t you know we have class in the morning, stomach!?

Thank you, Natalie Dee, for helping to elucidate my point.

Yeah… well… I was planning on doing a post about food but I’m probably going to leave that for another day.  Gotta keep my fluids up and all that.

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Making Faces

Now that orientation week is past and classes are starting, we are moved in and we are settling into our studies, the nitty-gritty about being abroad for this amount of time starts becoming clearer.  What was initially awe at a culture so different than our own becomes a sense of purpose: how do we find our places here, at least, how will we fit in for the next three months? Now, things like how much we actually know of the language become issues of practicality, not just classroom concerns.

One thing I have been struggling with is my facial expression.  It’s true that in conversation Egyptians are often expressive and emotive, but walking down the street people tend to have this blank expression that I can’t seem to master.  The reason this is important is that my stock expression is a little too positive to work on the street.  People, especially men, think I am smiling at them and so I draw too much attention to myself.

Therefore I have been trying out some new faces:



We have been warned sufficiently of the issue of sexual harassment in this country.  It is important to note that this happens all over the world and I have personally experiences sexual harassment in the States and elsewhere.  I don’t mind the calls of “Welcome to Egypt!” or even “Ya amar!”(Literally, “oh, moon!”—in context it translates to “What beauty!”) which I’ve gotten just walking around, but when men make lewd noises, say anything more aggressive, or stare it is uncomfortable.

That’s been a very interesting thing to think about: almost all Egyptian women go through this at some point.  In any situation, I am not happy making myself any more of a target, but I know that most, if not all of it is out of my hands.  Most of the hassling and harassment is not physical, but every type of woman and girl—tall, short, fat, skinny, foreign, local, veiled, not veiled, made-up, au-naturale, conservatively-dressed, scantily-dressed, those wearing a niqab, those with their hair blowing free in the wind—everyone could experience this phenomenon here.  I haven’t been wearing a headscarf because I have not yet felt the need to do so regularly and it doesn’t always end the problem.  During and after the revolution especially there has been a backlash against this misogynistic behavior, but it remains a part of life for women here and all over the Arab world.  Riding with my female classmates on the women’s car of the tram, I feel a sense of solidarity with these women I do not know.  This is just one of those things that helps you realize just how far this country and our own have to come yet.

Please don’t think I am surrounded by discomfort, though.  Sexual harassment happens perhaps more frequently here, and without as much prosecution as in the States, but it is better to be aware and continue to live my life as normally as possible.  I am thoroughly enjoying my time here.  The hospitality and kindness the Egyptian people are known for have been part and parcel of my experience so far.  Even with the base behavior of a select few, I am constantly reminded of basic goodness: the central Buddhist tenet that says everyone, deep down, is a good at heart.  So when a boy tapped my hand on the tram today, my first reaction could have been anger at his touch, but I would have missed the fact that he was offering me his seat.  Because he knew I probably didn’t speak (much) Arabic, this was his way of communicating a very kind and gentle gesture.

If he can be such a sweetheart, I hope other men here can accept my smiling face as part of the scenery and not think it for them alone.  There are a lot of good men and good people out here, too.  I can’t afford to forget that.



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Packing cont’d

Yes, it’s early to have everything basically packed away already, what with another 5 days to sit around hemming and hawing about it. But that’s just my thinking: if I forget to pack something, or I’m in any doubt whether I should or shouldn’t pack something, I’ll have 5 days to figure it out.  Who knows? I’d rather feel like an ninny for bringing something unnecessary than experience that awful cold sweat on my way to the airport, having left something behind.

More pressingly, I refuse to indulge the “wear your heaviest items” idea for this leg of the trip.  I will not look like I could keep a round of strip poker going for 6 weeks… so I am packing smart.

The different restrictions on carry-on and checked baggage are the first hurdle, as my itinerary involves multiple separate airlines and each has something similar, but different enough to make you pay attention.  I figure I’ll just satisfy the tightest restrictions and hope it all works out.  So, here I go with my 8 kg/17.6 lb (Lufthansa) 55 x 40 x 20 cm /21.7 x 15.7 x 7.9 inch (Air Swiss) carry-on and my 20 kg/44 lb (Lufthansa) 157 linear cm / 62 linear inch (United) check bag.

Did you know Lufthansa and Swiss International Airlines have a special clause for ski bags? Yep! Passengers are allowed one carry-on, one checked bag, plus one ski bag.  Leave it to the Swiss to keep things classy like that.

Even though it is supposed to be nice and warm in Alexandria pretty much year-round, I have to consider winter in France (I arrive in mid-December) and especially wherever else I might end up in the gap between programs.  Pittsburgh has certainly prepared me for braving all that is wild and woolly and ready to claim any and all appendages –remember Snowpocalypse?— but I have a feeling the transition period from relatively balmy 15°C/58°F averages for December in Alexandria to whatever else will be confusing.  So, along with the chinos and breezy shirts I’ve got mittens and a thick wool coat.

 to  ?


Anyway, the bundle method wins again! I basically just rolled everything into logs, separating out sleepwear from day wear. I swear by it every time.  3 pairs of shoes (1 pair sandals, 1 pair walking shoes/sneakers, 1 pair heels) and my coat are the biggest space-hogs, but otherwise it’s no problem.

The nice thing is that wardrobe has been one of the biggest items in my brain-space for months now.  Anything that needed thinking about has therefore been thunk to exhaustion.  Hence, not much left to ponder on the fashion front!

There have been some mixed messages about fashion in Egypt, especially about what is appropriate and what might get a girl in trouble.  I’ve consulted everything from travel guides to photos from the January 25th revolution.    Some sources (various forums, the woman at the arabic market near UPenn) say that everything should be covered in loose material from collarbone to ankles, along with a headscarf when going out on the street.  Others (my Arabic adviser, the study abroad literature) basically say to keep it modest: no cleavage, nothing too tight, top of the arms covered, knee length or longer, but not to the point of neurosis and especially not to the point of covering up head to toe for every mixed-gender setting.  Others still (2 Egyptian women I met at a Couchsurfing meetup in Chicago) say not to let the No Bare Skinners get me down and just to wear what a savvy, classy girl would wear in the US; one can be modest without wearing bed sheets over one’s head.

  [I am not going for the ghost look here.]

My goal is to look like a traveler and not like a tourist.  This basically means I aim to blend in, even at the cost of what I’m accustomed to wearing.   Yes, I am super pale, very blue-eyed and quite blonde, but I’m trying here.  The next step is the field test. Who knows? Maybe the things I’ve been hearing are all off.

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As part of any journey here comes the first question: what to bring? There are several things to consider here:

  • what do I absolutely, unequivocally need that I can’t (or would rather not) get overseas?
  • what one-time-wear type stuff will I need to pack for special events?
  • what might be a comfort to have on hand?
  • how much can I maneuver by myself AND get on an airplane without a headache?
I’m decent at downsizing and going light, making sure I have exactly what I need for exactly what I’ll be doing, but seeing as this is several months of not being home, it’s hard to anticipate everything that might come up.  Then when I do add something really specialized to the pile, I get that sour feeling that packer’s remorse will probably come around to smack me in the face.
[did I really think I needed this many socks?] 
At least it’s a chance to brush up on my ninjapacker skills:
I’m really into travel blogs, especially http://www.flightster.com/ and there’s a lot going round about the “100 items or less” or “50 items or less” challenge.  Funny enough, the only people I’ve seen pull this off convincingly are guys.  Two of my favorite bloggers, Colin Wright and Tim Ferriss both pull it off regularly. But here I am counting my things: does makeup count as one, since it’s in one little bag?  By no means am I stuffing every last zippered pouch in my pack with war paint, but it still strikes me as unfair.  I mean, it’s not my fault society demands I wear a bra (thereby adding at least 3 items to my required set). So, should I call it the “54 items or less” system?
I’ll figure out the final count sometime soon.

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