Sunday, July 29, 2007

Ants in my pants (literally)

We have been having a summer problem with ants – little tiny red ants that are absolutely EVERYWHERE. They haven’t been bothering me too much because they don’t seem to be finding anything in particular except a few dead bugs to disembowel and sometimes they crowd around droplets of water. They did take an unwelcome liking to my unbaked muesli which was annoying, but I tossed half in the freezer and baked the other half into granola, so all good there. Since then I’ve been even more careful about wrapping up my food and making sure temptation is well sealed away, so in general they haven’t been a big problem.

But as the days drag on there are more and more ants, crawling on my computer, crawling on my desk, crawling in my agenda and on my papers and pens and books, and yes, crawling on me. I seem to be covered in them day and night – little tiny ticklers that catch me off guard and tickle like that persistent shed hair. But the adventurous human scalers are still in the minority, so that’s not even so bad. But (and I suppose this was only a matter of time too), now they are in my bed! Several nights now I have had a fairly uncomfortable time of it because it is true these ants are generally harmless – except when you sleep on them. Then they get, well, antsy, and they bite.

So now I’m paranoid. Every little tickle is an ant. Every pinch is an ant. I am continually vacillating between brushing invisible ants off my arms and legs and then trying to ignore the real thing chewing into my shoulder. And then, with my evening ritual of dessert and frozen yogurt and a good book came the final blow – ants in my pants.

Apparently the ants have taken a special liking to my pajamas. I put them on and the now-normal daytime itching continued…then increased…and increased in a particular region until I just had to check. Yup, pajama pants were full of ants. Go figure.

So, I set to work drowning them and washing them and washing all of my underwear and brushing out my bed (I’m sure I’ll still be sleeping with more ants tonight), before returning to my now-melted yogurt. But they are back – now they’ve even cracked the secret of the Nalgene bottle. I opened up to take a swig today only to find the top inside swarming with the little red buggers. I give up – there really is no battle to be fought. My pants go to the ants.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Down by the Ha Long Bay

Welcome Ha Long Bay, one of Vietnam's World Heritage Sites. It is a large natural bay that opens onto the Gulf of Tonkin, and is filled with hundreds of little limestone pillars and islets. The landscape alone is amazing and when the culture, geology and biology of the bay is considered, it's utterly breathtaking. The name in Vietnamese means "Descending Dragon" Bay. A variety of legends explain the name and all of them in some way involve a dragon (or several) that dashed off into the sea tearing up the land an even digging the bay itself out of the gulf. Whatever did happen, the result is unlike anything anywhere else on earth. We spent the last day of our week-long working retreat out on the water. We rented one of the massive fleet of tourist junks and spent a glorious day out on the sunsoaked bay (we also completely lucked-out on weather - it's rarely that good!). We made a couple of excursions into the limestone caves which were almost all brimming with other tourists. The amazing thing (for me) was the nationality of the tourists we joined. I would say they were 20% Chinese and Japanese, 5% European/American/Other, and the remaining three-quarters of them were Vietnamese! I am impressed not only that the Vietnamese can afford to take vacations like this, but that they actually know about and appreciate their history and culture and want to come and see the places they've learned about. In addition to the caves, another highlight of the day was stopping at one of the numerous floating communities with whole families that live right out on the water, raising and catching fish and seafood to sell to passing tourist boats and for the market on the mainland. Floating homes are lashed together in 2s and 3s with boardwalks floating on tires connecting them. Children and dogs alike gallop recklessly down the floating paths between underwater fishnets, hoping like water-walking mountain goats between the walkways and hand-woven, tar-sealed basket rowboats. These rowboats and the most common transportation between the flotilla and shore and other miniature communities. We bought a huge fish for lunch from one of the floating fishmongers, then headed off on a cruise to see the famous sites including Cat Ba island, the "kissing" rocks, and several famous islets with temples at the very peaks. We gorged ourselves on the Vietnamese-style seafood lunch cooked on board for us by the captain's son. In the afternoon we moored at an islet with a beautiful sandy beach and quiet waters. I spent several happy splashy hours introducing the staff to the art of kayaking. At first they were all too scared to try, but I lured one into the boat and after a few rotations I had lost my own place as everybody else started fighting over the remaining seats. By that time I was soaked, so when the admin/fin coordinator snuck up and splashed me on shore, I didn't think twice of turning and dashing right in after her, fully clothed. So, I spent the rest of that warm afternoon washing my capris and tanktop in warm saltwater. None of us were any worse for the wear at the end of the day.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Don't worry Mom - I can take care of myself

Sometimes my reflexes scare me.

Reflexes are supposed to be what your body uses to override your scheming brain to make you jump up, squat down, dodge, jerk, run for cover, duck, zag, zig, wag, grab or skid in an effort to avoid some potential danger or even save your life. Some people’s reflexes have are suggestive of certain defenses made popular by the animal world. I’ve knowing parrots who let out deafening screeches in response to the least provocation, the grizzly bear who roars his fearsome displeasure, the antelope bounders, geckos who are likely to leave their tail behind in their escape, and even squids – watch out for the ink. My own dear college roommate was a hedgehog: her reflex had a penchant for squeak-tuck-curl.

My reflex is a stoic Mac truck.

When endangered, my body simply stops and stares whatever it is in the face. I’m not sure if this is an actual reaction so much as maybe my fight-or-flight impulses surging from opposite ends of a nerve pathway and meeting in the center only to completely cancel each other out. This chemical reaction not only leaves me frozen in place, it usually also cancels out my fear, which plods along like a water buffalo resolutely chasing my turtle brainwaves that are contemplating a future point when they will inform my conscious self that there might actually be a threat to my well-being. And I know my reaction is not the much scoffed deer-in-the-headlights reaction either, as whatever the reaction going on in my body also triggers some kind of facial expression which by itself often causes would-be assailants to give way.

First, I am happy to say that in my life I have never had to use this reflex in a real danger situation – most of my reference points some from foolish boyfriends running across campus lawns to tackle my roommate and myself. The first found himself nosefirst in a snowbank when my hedgehog friend simply squeaked into a prickly ball beneath him, the second found himself much regretting the move when my reflex was to turn to concrete just as a fairly sensitive area made contact. I’m sure there’s a lot of scenarios when this will do me a lot less good than the tried and true duck-and-cover routine, but it’s what I’ve got.

The reason I’m thinking of all of this today was a specific incident on the road during my after-work decompression walk – one in which the reflex did serve me well. Or, it served my physical well-being, though I’m not sure I can say the same for my diplomatic existence.

I was walking around a green corner in an entrance to a quiet street on a part of my walk I particularly enjoy. I’m sure the guy who came at me on his motorbike only meant to be goofy – except that this is the second time he has done this, in the exact same place, but on the opposite end of the day. As I walk up the last of a rise around a bit of a turn, he sees me and shifts his trajectory to intercept. He, an almost-middle-aged man on a 250 cc motorbike seems to think that it’s de rigueur to play chicken with a 20-something foreign female armed only with running shoes and an MP3 player.

What he also doesn’t seem to realize is that when I’m walking I may have my eyes open, I may be looking in his direction, I may even be looking him in the face, but that does not mean I see him. As I myself learned at the tender age of four with the sacrifice of a large chunk of the skin on my forehead, just because a dog has his eyes open doesn’t mean he’s going to realize it’s you who is petting him when he is startled awake.

The first time around he was the obvious chicken loser as he veered away just at the second that my body seemed to register that there was a guy on a motorcycle RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME. I didn’t flinch until he was well behind me, and the only thing I managed to do then was shout something in English over my shoulder and give him a really nasty look.

Well today he surprised me again. But this time he decided to see just how far he could get with playing chicken. This time I registered he was there much earlier – but the freeze instinct took over. He came right at me and sidled just enough to one side not to have a head on with me. My feet stayed frozen – but my hands flew up – not to protect me – but to GRAB HIS BIKE. What the heck was I doing? Well, I kept doing it – I released the handlebars in favor of his shirt and soon I had his whole sleeve in my fist and I had practically pulled him off his bike. Actually, I would have, except his momentum had him leaning away from me (he was leaning out and away rather than to actually hit me), so the effect was I actually kept him and his bike upright by counterbalancing the fall. I held him long enough and, impressively I thought, a Vietnamese phrase actually came out of my mouth. Accents right or wrong, who cares, my point was made: “Mister, you are EXTREMELY CRAZY.”

He stopped and I released him. He glanced over my shoulder and I turned to see that he had stopped in front of the only habited place on that corner – a wooden shack eatery with a bunch of middle-aged shirtless guys probably drinking beer just staring at us. I have no idea how much they saw – they my have seen the whole thing, but my fear is that they only really witnessed my grabbing a handful of sleeve of a passing motorist and screaming at him. The guy on the motorbike smiled (not exactly sheepishly, but not really flirtatiously either) and said, “Okay, you can get on now,” patting his bike seat. Right. Not sure if he was trying to save face in front of the beer-swilling witnesses or just be silly, but it came across as you would probably expect. My reaction? Snort derisively, pull out a little more Vietnamese and say, “No way, you scare me,” turn on my heel and march off.

Then the adrenaline caught up and I started shaking. More though, I wonder what the witnesses thought. And I wonder when one my reflex moves are really going to get me into trouble. I’ve used the same move (freeze feet, hands grab) to catch several would-be pickpockets (loose-fitting clothing isn’t something you want to be wearing if you’re going to grab my wallet) and a couple of wanna-be drunk drive-by gropers in Madagascar (watch out for market day – bad things happen). I’m not really pretty when my reflexes jump in – and at some point that probably isn’t going to win me friends. But in the mean time it serves me well in the land of strange ideas of fun and petty crime.

And I wonder if Mr. Chicken-Bike is going to think third time is the charm? And if so, what exactly is the charm he has in mind?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Mourning the M-Bag

Mom, do you remember sending me that mail bag full of books a few years back? Imagine, a whole bag full of books, magazines, PRINTED MATERIAL arriving – and you get to keep the bag too! (Just roll your eyes at the drunken post office workers when they tell you that you have to return it).

Well, sadly, that beautiful M-Bag is suddenly a thing of the past. The US Postal Service has eliminated M-bag service as we knew it – that cheap, slow way to send a large amount of media almost anywhere. Now, rates are set to more than triple, meaning a lot of PCVs and other overseas workers and projects won’t be able to benefit from these projects in the future.

A lot has been said in a lot of places about the impact this decision will have on small volunteers and projects – I won’t say more, but will simply ask that if you are willing to support those of us who benefit from big bags full of books that arrive in obscure some several months later, much to the delight and even elation of the recipient, consider following the link below. You can sign the petition to voice your support for leaving a few inexpensive means of doing a whole lot of good in this over-priced world. Please support something that gives back so many times over for what the initial investment is. Even if you never use it – know that somebody in some corner of nowhere will be glad they can still get a whole bunch of books (and a great, heavy duty bag!) delivered for cheap!

For more info about this from the PC community, read on below…

----- Forwarded Message ---- Subject: Connecticut RPCV E-News July 2007

Connecticut RPCV E-News

Important Action Item!!

Recent US Postal Service changes will impact many programs, projects and people who rely on media materials mailed to overseas locations. Here is the link that announces the "demise" of the US Postal Service surface Media-Bag (M-Bag) rates as we know them. "To make it easier for customers to mail letters and packages worldwide, the Postal Service (USPS) has simplified the eight main International Mail products into four." This means that the air mail rate for M-Bags - the only option available as of May 14 - is $3.70/lb, eleven pound minimum. What used to cost $11.55 will now cost $40.70 - a significant increase and one that impacts many Peace Corps Volunteers, literacy programs, and libraries, etc. who rely on having books and print matter mailed to them! Following are 4 things YOU can do - critical actions that may help rectify this change. Please act NOW! (Thanks Shannon Bown & Lance Cole/Friends of Malawi for sharing the following...)

1.) The NPCA Advocacy Director is setting up some meetings with the appropriate Congressional staff to voice our concerns and communicate the impact of this change. There will be 3-5 participants on "our" side. Meetings will be in early July. 2.) Today, we started an online petition, asking that the surface M-Bag be reinstated. The URL is Could you sign the petition? Please make a "comment" about how you have used M-Bag, and the impact these books have. Also, identify yourself as a "Friend of Ukraine", RPCV, relative of a former PCV in Malawi, or whatever! The USPS manager in charge of Global policy is going to be checking the petition daily. That's why comments are so important; and identification of the signer is so important. He can start getting a feel for the impact of this change, by the people effected, and the comments made. 3.) Please ask all of your colleagues, friends, family, etc. to sign the petition. (They don't need to have sent M-Bags or received M-Bags to sign the petition). We need to get 100s of people to sign this! 4.) We have started a Yahoo Group, to keep us all in touch on what is going on, what we have heard, what we are doing, etc. Please join us. If you're interested, you can join the group by addressing a message to Thanks for your support...we expect this to be a long journey. Please, write to your senators and representatives. Share this info with friends and family - take action! Ginn (& Mark) Pulver Ukraine 2005-2007

Postal Changes threaten local CT organization serving Peace Corps Volunteers

Darien Book Aid Plan, formed in 1949, began sending free books to Peace Corps volunteers when it began. There have been various arrangements for the books to get to the volunteers over the years. A normal year will see Book Aid sending between 22,000-25,000 pounds of books to between 300-500 PCVs. In many cases, Book Aid has been the only agency that responded to a PCVs plea for books.

Book Aid is a low-key operation that raises money for the postage and the few expenses associated with the mailings. Up until May of 2007 when the US Postal Service eliminated the surface M-bag method of shipping books, all PCVs got the books they requested. While they certainly fell short of what could stock a library, often the books made a huge difference in the PCV's effectiveness at their site.

Book Aid has been left with a challenge to continue this service with a finite amount of funds for shipping. For now, we are continuing to send books at a rate that is triple the rate prior to May 14, 2007. We are committed to continuing to send books and will do so until our money runs out. Then, we will have to gently fold our tent and wish the best to the PCVs of the future, most of whom will be without the one agency that actually always came through for them.

(I began this one-year job in 1986. Time flies. Peggy)

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Well, I am sadly overdue for posting on a variety of things...but after chatting with a friend on Skype earlier today, I realized just how busy I have been for the last, uh, 3? months.

So, let's go back in time together to April 2007 and take a look at some of the exciting things that I have almost completely forgotten about in the centuries that have passed since then and now. So for starters: Chiang Mai, Thailand (Actually, this was May, so I'm doing even worse than I thought...)

I spent the last two weeks of April inside a climate-controlled conference room in a 4-star hotel in the heart of Bangkok, Thailand. That actually wasn't a bad thing as a tropical depression had decided to make itself at home in Thailand for those two weeks. But after the conference it seemed to let up a bit, just in time for a friend from my Madagascar history to come and go on tour to the north of Thailand.

We flew out the next morning to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. The rain stayed with us, but only in the mornings and evenings - the days were perfect for being tourists. Chiang Mai reminds me oddly of Minoqua, Wisconsin with elephants. Well, of course, there aren't any elephants in town, but the town itself is cute and well-groomed with lots of little shops and inns and the city is bordered by a canal system dressed up with trees and flowers and fountains and the like. And it is definitely tourist central. For anybody wanting to do Southeast Asia for the first time, Chiang Mai is the perfect starting point. It is totally made for easy touring - all you have to do is get there and get a room, and then you can do anything without preplanning it all. We had three full days and did three different tours. And here are pictures from each of them:

Day one: Around Chiang Mai

First was a drive up into the cloud-encased mountains to visit a Hmong "traditional village." I'll confess this was more of a disappointment - I literally couldn't find a village for the bus parking lot and all the souvenir shacks lining the few streets. What I did see of actual dwellings looked oddly like any village in Southeast Asia with close-built wooden houses, cooking fires and people driving around on motorbikes. Oh, well, the shopping was fairly good...

Second stop was Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. "Wat" means "temple" in Thai, and if there is one thing Thailand has in prodigious quantity, it is temples. But this temple is one of the most sacred temples in the country - one of the few where dress code for foreign visitors is actually enforced, despite the Thais' almost Norwegian dislike for being demanding of their guests. Indeed this was an impressive temple, with 300 steps up to the top (or an enclosed tram for the overheated and lazy tourists) and monuments to the sacred white elephant that lead the king to the place for building a temple.

Gold-gilding is ubiquitous of any semi-important or religious site in Thailand. Gold paint is liberally substituted at public levels nowadays, but all of the taller structures out of immediate reach are (according to our guides) still the real thing.

Day 2: Day trip to the "Golden Triangle"

The so-called "Golden Triangle" is the three-way boarder region of the countries of Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Laos. There's lots of history to this area, but the border itself is made pretty clear thanks to the convergence of a couple of rivers, one of which becomes the Mekong and eventually wanders its way all the way down to the Vietnamese Mekong Delta. The region is pretty well fraught with ilict activities of every kind, including trafficking of drugs and people, refugee/illegal immigrant crossings and black market trade. Still it's a pretty area, if you're able to ignore the pristine river banks marred by large casinos in each country for attracting more tourists to the site.

We were able to take a "quick trip" via speedboat into Laos. I didn't manage to get my passport stamped as I sort of hoped, but there was plenty of opportunity for shopping on the quiet far shore (surprise, surprise?), and not much else. But, I swear! I have been to Laos! And I have the canvas bag stamped with "Laos" to prove it!

Crystal standing under the proof of being in Laos PDR

Crystal and Erica standing on the riverbank, waiting to be shuttled back to Thai.

Day 3: Elephant Camp

So on the third day we finally had the chance to do exactly what Crystal had come another 1/4 way around the world for: ride an elephant.

Crystal had a whole morning with elephants - feeding the baby, watching the elephant theater, and then finally the highly anticipated elephant ride. We traded cameras with other girls on our tour - their elephant followed ours, so we have lots of good pictures of the rear-end of our elephant! Then, as the bonus after going all the way out to the elephant camp, we got shuttled off to ride bamboo rafts down a river...followed by an ox-cart ride through the forest. Ahh, how romantic. Ahh, how much like what is called "life" in Madagascar. The afternoon was spent first chilling (or cooking, as the case was, in the sun) next to a pool at our restaurant hotel, followed by a visit to the butterfly and orchid garden. The orchids were quite pretty...sadly, it was the wrong season for butterflies.

The next day we flew back to Bangkok, and then after one last day in Thailand to get our visas (and to eat some really good Thai food...not like we hadn't been doing that all along),

and then we were off to Vietnam (and more food).

With only a couple of days in Vietnam, we stuck to Hanoi (and the Hanoi traffic). We visited a silk village, did lots of shopping, saw the water puppets (a Hanoi must-see), explored the surrounding countryside, and Crystal sampled Vietnamese square cake - a concept she is determined to take back to Madagascar to introduce variations on "rice."

(ahh, least we drive on the right side of the street!)

(a picturesque cemetery in the rice paddies)

(Silk loom at the silk village)

Mmm, sticky-rice square cake!

The Vietnamese version of a temple/pagoda - no gold gilt!!!

And then, it was over. Crystal had to fly back to Madagascar to finish her PCV experience, and I returned to work. But not to a boring life: next post - Ha Long Bay!