Saturday, June 28, 2008

Preciousness

Thursday, June 26, 2008

I should've

Paul ran into this advertisement :
People are generally very supportive of my choice to join the Peace Corps. One of my big pet peeves, though, has been that so many people say things like "I should have" or "I wish I could" do something like the Peace Corps. My response usually: So do it! If you can't handle 2 years away, then find small ways to serve, volunteer, love. Be amazing, etc. etc. I'm not very inspirational, but I really do believe there is no good excuse to start sentences with "I should've."

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

End times. . .

First off...
Check out the new blog template! Thanks to Paul, my dear friend and master of the web and all things design, for the new look. I think it's Afrikalicious, don't you? I would send you all to Paul's website, except he doesn't have one. Anyway, if you have any commissions for him, I can put you in touch. :-)

Goodbyes. . .
I should have known that as my time in Africa would close, I wouldn't have the time or energy to give everyone the blog-goodbye they deserve. In the last week I've said goodbye to much of my family, Mandi, Jen, Teri, Laura, Kbiv, and I have a lot more coming up. I'm blessed to be surrounded by such wonderful people, and it saddens my heart that my forthcoming adventure separates me from all of you in so many ways. It's not just seeing someone for the last time, it's knowing I wont be talking to many of them on the phone, or on chat, and that I'll be limited to my blog and occasional e-mail for communication.

The Schedule. . .
When I talk to people about my impending journey, they tend to ask about my schedule. Here's what's happening in the next week of my life.
  • June 26th - Moving out of the apartment for good, spending the night in MSP, dinner with brother.
  • June 27th - Good bye to Jason and Elias. Fly at 10:00AM from MSP to Philadelphia. Picked up by Jamie and Ellen, and off to Sea Isle, NJ for the weekend.
  • June 28th -29th - Reunion with the girls from CUA for the weekend, including Jamie, Ellen, Meg, Kathleen, Erica, and more!
  • June 30th - Spending the day with Maria (Sis) and Maia (niece), dinner with Les.
  • July 1st- Day 1 of Staging in Philly
  • July 2nd - Day 2 of Staging
  • July 3rd - Day 3 of staging, fly to Benin!
How do I feel?!?!?
Being a Minnesotan for two years has helped me to learn how to answer these sorts of questions. I can just say "Pretty Good." Perhaps I have enough people worried about my health and safety, that I feel like I don't need to worry about it myself.

Yes, I'm terrified.
Yes, I'm madly excited.
Yes, I'm wildly emotional about the whole experience to come.

What am I about to experience? In the next 1/2 year, I will go through the gravest form of culture shock, suffer the worst diarrhea of my life,

(I have to side track right now and say that my little niece Maia, is learning to speak, and at my sister's Bachelorette dinner, she kept saying "Diarrhea is no fun!")

learn a new language (maybe two!) from scratch, make a home for myself out of nothing, and manage a classroom of 50+ teenagers. Of course I'm terrified, aren't you?

Maybe it's the performer in me. I know that I'm better off not spending a lot of time being worried about what I'm about to go through. It just sits in the back of my mind, and I always know that it's there.

I remember in kindergarden, our guidance counselor, "The Sunshine Lady," came to our classroom and talked to us about anger, worry, and the things that make our minds cloudy. She used a jar of dirty water to prove her point. Then, she talked about how we need to isolate the cloudiness to be happy. She had another jar of water with a black marble in it. That's where I am right now. I'm happy, feeling good, but there's a little marble throbbing somewhere in my cranium. It's flashing bright red, saying "Freak out! Freak out!"

I keep telling it, "No."


Friday, June 20, 2008

Poem:

I just ran into this. I thought that I had lost it (after doing a LOT of work on it), now here it is! Religion dorks might see a bit of Easter Vigil and Pentecost in it, but lets be honest, it's about sex and guilt.

Naked

Come, passion before pain.
Come, world out of water.
In ecstasy we are united,
our vision unwound.
Were we naked there?

We danced on sunken earth,
cold sanguine silt.
We stirred up earth Mother green,
with deep blue plantation.
We dug up seeds she planted.
Were we naked there?

Not knowing our hands were dirty,
we did not dream of fiery hell or lands beneath the dirt.
The ants were our friends, in search of love.
Our neighbors were green, yearning to be reaped.

But hasty interruption:
God dropped us here,
with neither eternal life,
nor imminent death and now
We are naked.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Pink: Mr. President

I just downloaded an Itune of the Indigo Girls and Pink singing this song. I really like it. For a song with political motives, it's very touching, and scathing at the same time.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Wedding!

This weekend was my sister Ann and her friend Kyle got married. I was really proud of them. They're a wonderful couple and they went through a great deal of effort planning the celebration. I helped with the liturgy - giving them ideas for planning, and singing a prelude and responsorial psalm. To top it off I was a bride's maid. Anway, here's the album. Ellen was my "date" and most of these pictures are hers, which explains why there are so many pictures of me. Can you blame her? ;-)








Sorry for the lack of commentary over the past month. It's been wonderful, but very busy! This next week will be the most stressful. I have one last trip home to Iowa planned - - -ots of shopping and packing to do too. . . Benin, here I come!

Goodbye #5 Paul Z


I'm not sure how interesting this is to all of you, but I've really enjoyed thinking about the people I love, and why saying goodbye to them is so difficult. Last week, before I took off for my sister's wedding (more about that in a future post), my friend Paul (from D.C.) made a whirlwind visit to Minnesota.

Paul and I have an interesting relationship, because we probably talk more now (a lot of AIM) then we did when we were both in the same program at CUA. Perhaps our different groups of friends pushed us in different directions at school. It's a shame because I really love my conversations and the little chunks of paul-time I get these days. Besides being a brilliant bass (I made him sing at Mass while he was here), he's a deeply introspective. I can pose a simple question, and we can spend the rest of the day considering it from different angles. If different types of emotional intelligence exist, then I would venture to say that Paul and exist on very similar spectra. That connection is something I really cherish, even if we only get a few hours together every few years.

I should say too, Paul, is working on a new template for my blog. I won't say "good bye, paul!" until it's for real! :-)

On another note, we had a very nice trip up to the north woods. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves:

Monday, June 16, 2008

Boat ride!

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Sunday, June 8, 2008

Goodbye #4





Today was one of the hardest "good-bye" days for me yet. I bid my church, my place of employment, and my spiritual quasi-home and family goodbye today. More reflection on this later, but enjoy the pictures! :-)

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Goodbye #3


(top picture: Anita, Eileen, Myself; Bottom: Aaron, Jody, Julie)

Today I had lunch with my wonderful colleagues here in St. Cloud. These five people are inspirational to me. Strong ministers and caring people. It's no wonder they're so successful in their trade. As I get closer to my departure, I find myself becoming emotional about leaving all this behind, for at least two years anyway.

Goodbye #2

I haven't been posting much lately because I've been away a lot lately. This past week I spent a few days with my parents, helping with some household things, and then the weekend with my friend David in St. Louis. It was quite the week of driving, but I fear I didn't take many pictures. Anyway, Goodbye #2:


I've grown closer to David since this past summer when we were both involved in a workshop for workshop presenters this semester. We've managed to see each other twice since then, and I really do enjoy my time with him. He's a thoughtful, compassionate man and a brilliant musician. One cannot have too many David's in one's life! He's got the curls too. . .Goodbye David!

Wish List

So it's easy to send me care packages and about 90 percent reliable. There are many things I would love, but I would encourage you to take care not to send anything too special or valuable. There are about three padded envelopes I have not received. My friends who receive care packages in boxes manage to get them amost 100% of the time. I believe the USPS has flat rate boxes you can stuff full of goodies ($50, I think). Don't write in french on the customs form, and be very vague about whats in it, boring words like "books and supplements" can be honest but not too tempting for Beninese postal workers.
(August 2009 changes and additions)
I brought a lot of good things back with me, but I’ve already eaten most of them. Anyway, here’s a revised list, written with my last year in mind.

Foods –
-Dried Tortillini (like Barilla)
-Italian/Ranch Seasonings (like some of the marinate packets)
-Asian Seasonings (Indian stuff is pretty common here)
-Crystal Light (Keep in mind, I have lemons and oranges here. Love non-tropical fruit flavors like apple, grape, etc).
-MEAT! I love it. Preserved chicken in packages or cans, summer sausage, beef jerkey (teriyaki!), and slim jims.
-Licorice is always a safe bet. Especially black, strawberry, and cherry. Not so big on peal and pull or rainbow (yes, I appreciate why you sent it). Other candies are good too. Salty foods. Any junk food! I’ll eat it fast, but I’ll love it.
-Processed cheese products (Velveeta, cheese wiz, cheese salsa, etc)

Things –
-Stickers for school.
-Index Cards. I have a lot of the really small kind, but they’re too small for everyone to see in class.
-Chalk Holder (the kind that you click to make it come out, please!)



Love, pictures, notes, letters, stationary. You are all wonderful for even asking if there is anything I need.

This address will work throughout my time here:

John Mark Feilmeyer
Peace Corps Volunteer
Corps de la Paix
B.P.971
Cotonou,Benin
West Africa - L'Afrique D'Oeste

Air Mail - Par Avion

My Address (And information about communicating with me)

I can always be contacted via my e-mail address jmf at johnmark.net .

Below is information for Family and Friends about communicating me, as prepared by the Peace Corps. Most importantly, here is my address:

John Mark Feilmeyer, Peace Corps Volunteer
Corps de la Paix
B.P.971
Cotonou,Benin

Peace Corps/Benin: For Family and Friends
--------------------------------------------------------------

Dear Prospective Volunteers: Please give this letter to a family member or close friend and ask them to hold on to it for as long as you are in Benin. They can use this information to prepare for a visit, help them understand communication constraints and have a better understanding of who they can contact should they have specific questions while you are in Benin.

Communication

Due to technological developments in the last ten years, i.e. fax and e-mail, Americans have become increasingly accustomed to immediate and convenient communication. Volunteers, Trainees, and especially their families will most certainly experience frustration with communication resources in Benin. Peace Corps Benin would like to emphasize the following points to give you a realistic picture of the means of communication available to Volunteers in Benin before they leave home:

1. Volunteers and their families MUST realize that their primary means of communication will be international mail, which though very slow by U.S. standards is quite reliable. (see "Mail")

2. Telephone, telex, and fax communication are limited to larger cities, are somewhat unreliable and expensive ($3.40 per minute/$4 per page). Volunteers and family should understand that telephone and fax contact will be rare; many volunteers do have cell phones, but access to a network is only available in certain areas. (see "Telephones").

3. In the case of an emergency, immediate communication through official U.S. government channels is assured. Families should contact Peace Corps Washington (see “Emergencies”). This will insure that family inquiries are handled in the most efficient manner.

4. All inquiries concerning Volunteers, political situation in Benin, mail, etc. should be directed to the Benin Country Desk in Peace Corps Washington. This will insure that family inquiries are handled in the most efficient manner.

5. A few cyber caf├ęs have been established in the larger cities and many Volunteers have established e-mail accounts for modest charges. However, due to infrastructure problems and the limited service, e-mail is not totally reliable. While not all the provincial capitals have e-mail, there is the expectation that it will arrive soon.

Emergencies

In the event of an emergency situation in Benin, Peace Corps/Benin will notify the Office of Special Services (OSS) at Peace Corps in Washington. OSS will in turn telephone the family of the Volunteer(s) involved.

In the event of an emergency (death in the family, serious accident or illness, etc.), family/friends should contact the Office of Special Services (OSS) in Washington at 1-800-424-8580, extension 1470, or (202) 692-1470 - 24 hours a day. OSS will then contact the Peace Corps country director in Benin and ask him/her to notify your family member as soon as possible and assist in making any necessary arrangements.

If you have an important question regarding a news report on Benin, you may contact the Country Desk Unit. However, the Desk will not always be aware of specific information, such as what individual Volunteer's vacation schedules are, how long it takes for mail to arrive at specific Volunteer posts, etc. The number for the Country Desk Unit is 1-800-424-8580 extension 2319/2326, or (202) 692-2319, or (202) 692-2326.

Volunteers often enjoy telling their "war" stories when they write home. Letters might describe recent illnesses, lack of good food, isolation, etc. While the subject matter is good reading material, it is often misinterpreted on the home front. Please do not assume that if your family member had a malaria attack that he/she has been unattended. There are two Peace Corps Medical Officers in Cotonou. In the event of a serious illness, the Volunteer will be treated in Cotonou and cared for by our medical staff. If the Volunteer requires medical care that is not available in Benin, he/she will be medically evacuated to Senegal or to the United States. Fortunately, these are rare circumstances.

Mail

Few countries in the world offer the quality of postal service that we consider normal in the U.S. Volunteers, family and friends who expect U.S. standards for mail service will be disappointed. Mailed letters take about three weeks to arrive in Benin, but packages take three weeks minimum and may take several months. Some mail may not arrive at all (this is not a frequent occurrence, but it does happen). Some letters may arrive with clipped edges because postal workers have tried to see if any money was inside (again, this is rare, but it does happen). We do not want to sound discouraging, but when we are thousands of miles from our families and friends, communication becomes a very sensitive issue. We would prefer you be forewarned of the reality of third World mail service.

Despite delays, we strongly encourage Volunteers to write to their families regularly (perhaps weekly or bi-weekly). Family members will typically become worried when they do not hear from their Volunteer, so please advise parents, friends, and relatives that mail is sporadic and that they shouldn't worry if they don't receive their Volunteer's letters regularly.

In the past we have noticed a common Volunteer letter writing pattern that particularly disturbs families and friends. During training and their first three to six months at post, Volunteers write home frequently. They are adapting to a totally new environment (which can be very difficult), and writing helps them process the new sights and sounds. However, once Volunteers feel at home with their surroundings and their work starts to take off, many simply forget to write home for long periods of time. Please don't be overly concerned if there is a break in correspondence three to six months after your Volunteer arrives at post!

However, if a family member or friends does not hear from a PCV for over three months, then that person may contact the Office of Special Services (OSS) at Peace Corps Washington (1-800-424-8580, extension 1470). OSS will then send a "health and welfare inquiry" cable to the Peace Corps Country Director in Cotonou and ask him/her to check up on the PCV. In such cases, the Country Director is required to respond to OSS within 5-7 working days.

Contacting the Volunteer at his or her site could involve making a series of phone calls, radio contacts, or even sending a staff member to the site (which means several days travel in some cases). The PCV will then be asked to write home and the Country Director will cable OSS with information to pass onto family members. As you can see, this is a time-consuming process that affects quite a few people. Peace Corps asks Volunteers and their families to try to avoid both heartache and headaches by maintaining a regular pattern of writing to loved ones.

Most packages sent to Benin arrive (sometimes a few months late). Nevertheless DO NOT send things that have important sentimental or monetary value. Don't send expensive items, such as the Volunteer's favorite pair of one-carat diamond earrings. Items such as food, and clothing have usually arrived with no problem, but it's expensive for the sender and receiver. If sending packages, "bubble envelopes" work best. If sending any food items, put them inside a ziploc bag. This will reduce chances that bugs or rats will devour them.

All mail should be sent to the following:
Name, Peace Corps Volunteer
Corps de la Paix
B.P.971
Cotonou,Benin

Once Volunteers complete training and are at their posts, the quickest way to send mail is to send letters and packages directly to your Volunteer's address at post. Remind your Volunteer to relay their mailing address at post as soon as they know what it will be. If you do not know your Volunteer's address at post, mail can always be sent to the Cotonou address above. Please realize that mail sent to this address will be held in Cotonou until staff or Volunteers travel to your Volunteer's province (this can take several weeks).

The following suggestions and postal regulations may be useful:


1. Mail should be sent directly to the Cotonou address or your Volunteer's post address beginning three weeks before the end of the training.

2. Both Volunteers and family members should number letters sent so that the receiver can determine whether any letters do not arrive.

3. Packages should be sent via air, not surface mail (surface mail has been known to take longer than two years to arrive.)

4. Sending packages to your Volunteer in Benin is a risky proposition. Theft of packages is not only a problem in the Beninese postal system, it also occurs on the U.S. side. Although occasionally a package arrives quickly and without problems, it may take months or it may get "lost" along the way. Therefore, it is not advisable to send valuables this way.

5. If you do send packages, bubble envelopes seem to work better than large boxes. They are less tempting to would-be thieves. The sender should clearly and honestly mark the contents on the outside of the package, but a general description of the contents is sufficient: "clothing and candy" rather than "Nike high top sneakers and 2 lbs. Godiva chocolate."

6. Express mail is an expensive option that may take just as long to get to Benin. Perhaps a more secure option than regular airmail for documents, checks, etc., it is subject to more scrutiny by Beninese customs than regular mail. For items other than documents, Peace Corps staff has to submit import licenses to customs, and clearance can take up to 10 days. Thus, you may not necessarily save any time by using Express mail. DHL operates in Benin for those important documents. Note that current prices for DHL services run around $100.00 for one pound or less.

7. There is a tax, which Volunteers will have to pay on all packages received before they can retrieve them from the post office. This tax varies according to the size of the package. It might be a nice gesture from friends or family to send a six-pack of Mountain Dew, but it may cost a Volunteer up to $10.00 to get it out of the post office.

8. Packages are kept in the Cotonou office until a PCV or staff member is traveling to the Volunteer and can deliver them.

9. If Volunteers wish to send a package from Cotonou to the States, Benin postal rates are high and insurance is not available. For this reason, many Volunteers wait to send packages with returning PCVs (whom they ask first, in country) or wait until their Completion of Service (COS) date to send home gifts and souvenirs. Letters going to the States through the Benin post have been quite dependable.

10. US postage-stamped letters can be put in the "next traveler" box at the Peace Corps office in Benin, to be hand carried by the next person going Stateside. Note that this is a courtesy, not an obligation, and Volunteers shouldn't expect any traveler to carry more than letter mail, unless special arrangements are made with the individual. Air travelers may be required to open letters and packages and/or submit them to X-rays, especially when they don't belong to the traveler.

11. The Benin Desk in Peace Corps Headquarters, Washington, is available to answer Volunteer & families' questions about mail. Due to staff and budget constraints, they cannot, however, facilitate the sending of personal mail for Trainees and Volunteers.


Telephones

Most major cities and some larger towns in Benin have access to telephone and FAX services. Unfortunately, the communications infrastructure has not kept pace with the number of subscribers, and it is sometimes difficult to get a line through. It is not uncommon to be cut-off while in mid-sentence. In the rural areas where most Volunteers live, telecommunications is sporadic, although every year more and more communities gain access to cell phone coverage.

The cost of calling the U.S. is prohibitively expensive - several times more expensive than calling from the U.S. to Benin. Often a Volunteer will place a short call to a friend or family member and have them return the call. Please explain this to family & friends so that they are not concerned when Volunteers call, relay a number and then hang up or are cut off!

E-mail

This technology is just making a foothold in Benin. Presently it is unreliable and expensive. However, Peace Corps Benin’s headquarters office in Cotonou has 3 computers available to volunteers, and one computer is available at each of the 3 Peace Corps “workstations” in the northern part of the country.

Diplomatic Pouch

The diplomatic pouch is meant for official business of the US Government only. Since Volunteers are not considered employees or agents of the government, they are not entitled to the use of the pouch.


Sending Money to Volunteers

While Peace Corps does not restrict Volunteers from receiving money from their families, please bear in mind that receiving money from abroad may lead to perceptions by Beninese that mitigate against some of the goals that the Volunteer is trying to achieve (i.e., acceptance in the community). Unfortunately, there are no simple methods to transfer money to Benin. Please note that Peace Corps is not able to transfer personal funds from the United States to a Volunteer or Trainee.

Credit Cards - Visa and American Express credit cards can be used in a few hotels and restaurants in major cities (Cotonou, Porto Novo & rarely in provincial capitals). Some can also be used to obtain cash advances at banks in Cotonou and Porto Novo. Some Volunteers bring credit cards and arrange for a family member to make payments from savings or a checking account in the U.S. Volunteers find credit cards particularly useful when traveling after their Peace Corps service. In setting up arrangements such as this, it is best to designate a family member with "Power of Attorney" to act on behalf of the Volunteer. Visa is the most commonly accepted card in Cotonou. There is also an American Express office in Cotonou.

Visiting Volunteers

Peace Corps Benin encourages family and friends to visit Volunteers. However, experience has shown that visits should be carefully timed so as not to interfere with the Volunteer's service or with integration into their community. First, visitors are not permitted during a Volunteer's pre-service training or during the first three months at post. Peace Corps has learned from forty years of experience that Volunteers adapt better to training and to their sites if they are not distracted by visitors during these critical periods.

The best time for visits are after a Volunteer has spent at least six months at post. They have established themselves in their community and have honed their language skills. Thus they are better able to host visitors. They also have a better understanding of Benin and have a clear idea of what sights they would like to show you! Note that Volunteers' supervisors discourage them from receiving visitors during peak periods.

Answers to Some Common Questions

Can Volunteers travel to the United States while on vacation?
Volunteers may travel, at their own expense, to the United States or a third country with the permission of the Peace Corps Country Director. The Country Director will normally authorize travel as long as the Volunteer has accrued the required vacation time and the trip will not take him or her away from the site during peak work periods.

How can family/friends in the United States send plane tickets or documents to Volunteers in Benin?
The best method is to have the items hand carried by a person who is traveling to Benin or by courier like DHL or FedEx. For example, if another Volunteer is home on vacation or is having a family member come to visit them at post, arrange to have the items mailed to the traveler in the States and then have them carry the items to your country of service. (Please be aware that you and your PCV must make all arrangements yourselves and that you should give everyone involved complete phone numbers and addresses or a phone number of the Volunteer or their families).

Another reliable, but expensive method is to have plane tickets or other documents sent by DHL or Federal Express. These types of carriers are able to ship documents from the States to the Peace Corps office in Cotonou. The price will vary but the minimum cost is currently $75.00 to $100.00 for up to one pound of documents.

Will family members or friends be able to send facsimile messages to Volunteer in Benin?
Use of the facsimile machines in the U.S. Embassy or the Peace Corps office is restricted to official purposes only. Volunteers can receive faxes through numerous private Tele-boutiques located all over the country. As the Tele-boutiques rely on telephones and the telephone infrastructure is poor, this service is not always reliable. If you would like to send a FAX to your Volunteer, please ask them for the fax numbers nearest them.