Monday, September 10, 2012

Sometimes things happen..

One of the things that I learned on past service trips is to never go into things with expectations. Another thing that I’ve learned, through life really, is that things don’t always go as planned. And that’s the exact thing that has become extremely evident with the Peace Corps- things never go as planned. So it was no surprise when, after spending 6 days at Bens site for our second site visit, PC never came to pick us up and take us to our individual sites when they were supposed to. They said that they would be getting us at 7am, and when 11am rolled around, we texted the drivers and those in charge to see when they would be there. We had gotten up early, gathered our things from all around Ben’s compound, rolled up our sleeping bags and packed up our tents already. They replied that they wouldn’t be getting us that day, we’d have to spend another night. At this news, we told Ben we were all sleeping in his double person bed (all 5 of us), and we were quite excited that we’d get to walk with him to the headmasters house where there was a TV, so that we could watch the Zambia vs. Uganda soccer match- the first qualifier for AfriCON (Africa Cup of Nations). I read and finished a book I had borrowed from our PC house library, took a nap, cooked some Soya, and then we started on our journey. We packed into the headmasters house, Slumdog Millionaire status, 29 of us in a small room crowded around a tiny TV, and watched as Zambia beat Uganda 1-0. Afterwards, the headmaster told his elderly father that I was single, and he proceeded to propose to me. This is very common, everyone wants an American wife/husband, because we’re apparently rich. I gave him one of my many excuses that I tell everyone else who foolishy proposes to this cold-hearted gal- I must marry an American.  We joked, we laughed, and we slowly danced our way back to Ben’s village, wondering about what we should cook for dinner. When we returned, we lit the braziers and began cooking a simple meal- white rice and soya- and then pondered what drove us to consume all of our alcohol within the first few days, and why didn’t we have any for tonight? We sent Ben’s host sister to a tuck shop to buy us a few cartons a ShakeShake- a Zambian alcohol made from maize corn that they let ferment. You shake it up before drinking it. I had never tried it before, and have only heard that it’s disgusting, but we went for it anyway and bought 4 cartons. The other two trainees with me did not enjoy it, but I told myself it tasted like white wine, and after a while we started adding cinnamon and sugar to it to make it taste a bit better. When the first two cartons had been finished, Ben’s host family comes walking up to his site carrying dishes a food- a regular occurrence. One of these particular dishes, however, contained 3 mice, that had been captured in the field, salted, and cooked in a pan over an open fire. It’s a traditional dish of Eastern, and as I’ll try everything at least once, I decided to partake in the tradition and enjoy a little mouse. They still had all of their fur, their legs, their tails, their nails.. everything. I started by eating its little tiny livers, and then the rest of the insides, and then the legs. They were crunchy, and salty. At first, I pulled the fur from the skin, but then just ate the entire thing, fur and all. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, and was sort of chewy and tasted like beef jerky. After [enjoying] the tiny field mouse, we made a campfire, cooked some popcorn, and lit up the hookah while sipping on our ShakeShake, to celebrate an extremely awesome 2nd Site Visit. As we shouted many times throughout the week, this was the “BEST SITE VISIT EVER!!” We got to experience so much of the Eastern culture- the Nao dancers came and danced for us, we walked to Malawi (who else can say they did that?!), we witnessed a huge bush fire that caused us to haul all of our bags and our butts out of Bens hut so it wouldn’t burn down, we ate mice, we saw a Zambia soccer game, we drank ShakeShake, and we hung out with the locals. Pretty solid.
That night, since we had decided that we weren’t going to set our tents back up if we were being picked up early in the morning, we all crowded into Ben’s room, Ben, Courtney, and I in the bed, Jesse and Andrew on the floor. We had some pillow talk, then just as we were drifting off to sleep,  Ben’s phone rings. He was reluctant to answer it, as it was 11:30 at night, and it was Lauren- one of our bosses who is Acting Country Director at the moment. Ben answers the phone, and I hear him say “Yea, she’s right here next to me.” Now… when Lauren calls, it’s bad news bears. Ben hands me the phone, and the first thing that Lauren says to me is “Caitlin, don’t worry, your family is fine” (she’s the one that reports to us if a family member or friend has passed away or had something terrible happen) and then she continues “But I want you to know, one of your good friends has died.” Now, before Ben handed me the phone, and after her first sentence, I started freaking out that I had possibly done something wrong and that they were going to send me home. Until she told me that: “Paul Blum passed away this evening, due to natural causes. The cruiser will not be picking you guys up tomorrow morning, and you will not be going out to your sites. We want to have you all come back to Lusaka together, so that we can plan a memorial service for him. I am so sorry. You were listed as one of his closest friends, and you are the first person that I am notifying. Can you identify anyone else that was close with him, and do you have their numbers?” The only thing I could muster out was “Oh my god.” And then I broke down crying, and Courtney and Ben started rubbing my back, even though they hadn’t heard the news yet. I told her that I knew other people and had their numbers, but I honestly couldn’t come up with any words. I couldn’t think. We hung up, and within seconds, the rest of us were crying from the news I had to break.  
The good thing about things not going as planned and us not getting posted to our sites this day was that we were all still together when we heard the news. We were able to console each other, to grieve together. Unfortunately, as we were the only ones who weren’t posted that day, I can’t say the same about the rest of our group. There were only a select few of us that were notified late that night of Paul’s passing, the rest finding out the next morning. But I cannot imagine how hard it would have been had I been alone, for the first time in almost two months, in a mud hut in an unfamiliar village without a single person to turn to when I found out the news.
We decided to pack up a bowl of hookah for Paul, as the first time he had smoked hookah was with us, from Ben’s hookah, during first site visit. For the next few hours we laughed, and we cried, as we remembered Paul. We wish to honor the things he spoke of during our training, his dreams of what he wanted to pursue while he was in Africa. Paul was the coolest 65 year old man I had ever met. He was so chill, so easily able to go with the flow, and was completely down with whatever. He’d joke with us. He’d say stupid things. He always hung out with us, even though we weren’t his age- and there are a few people in our intake that are around his age who don’t hang out with us. He was young. And he was so extremely positive. He always spoke about his girlfriend back home, his daughter, and his grandchildren, and would share with us pictures that they drew for him and mailed. Paul was a great guy, an angel, and I’m glad I had the chance to get to know him over the last few months. There are so many things running through my mind about how this could have turned out differently- if they had posted us like they were supposed to that morning, he would have still been with other health volunteers, and someone might have been able to resuscitate him. Maybe, while in his new village, he was saying that he needed help, and they just didn’t understand English or know what to do. There are so many maybe’s, but the fact of the matter is he’s gone now, and nothing can bring him back. We don’t know how he died, so we don’t know if it could have turned out differently. All we know is that we were lucky to have him, and that he’d want us to continue doing what we came here to do. He decided, after 60 years on this planet, that he wanted to give back.  That he wanted to serve those less fortunate than himself. Serving with the Peace Corps had been a long time dream of his. And although we are still in training and haven’t been able to start our projects yet, he’s already changed lives here. I’m glad to have had the time with him that I did.

I knew that when coming to Zambia, I would befriend people that would possibly pass away during my service. I just never thought it would be another Peace Corps trainee, like myself. Our hearts are broken.

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