Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Best, The Worst, The Unforgettable

Location: Morocco, North Africa

Cities Visited: Casablanca, Fes, Chefchaouen, Merzouga, Marrakesh

The Best: Miniature cakes, avocado smoothies, coffee, fruit, roses, camel treks, privacy, Art Deco buildings, handmade rugs, street food, and Arabic music.

The Worst: Frantically deciding how to descend from a cliff and Matt yelling “JUMP!” as three boys hurl huge rocks at our heads for refusing to give them a tip after an unsolicited explanation of Fes at sunset. Also, freezing in the hotel rooms that never had heat but always had blankets I was allergic to. Oh, and all the times we had to pee in the shower cause rooms just don’t have toilets.

The Unforgettable: The first bites of cous cous and tajine- Morocco’s classic, delectable cuisines- and wondering if I really could still be in Africa.

Location: Madrid, Spain

The Best: Riding the metro. Experiencing fabric softener. Huge burgers, not from McDonalds. Tapas with the tapa expert of Madrid.

The Worst: Throwing up after consuming huge amounts of ham and paella after realizing my body had no idea how to digest fats anymore.

The Unforgettable: “HELLO MADRID!”- Matt’s reaction to a girl wearing a short skirt and tights in his first minutes of being off the African continent in over 28 months, and his exit from the Muslim world where knees are never seen. Later, a moment of ecstasy in the form of the tortilla EspaƱola.

Location: Italia

Cities Visited: Rome and Venice

The Best: A bed & breakfast in Chinatown. Italian accents. Riding boat taxis all over Venice. Shopping for Carnaval masks with my mom. Eating gelato and more gelato, tasting horsemeat, and buying pizza by the kilo. Watching glassblowers make a horse.

The Worst: N/A. Is that a serious question???

The Unforgettable: Seeing my parents get off the train after two hours of waiting and running around the terminal convinced they were wondering aimlessly, lost somewhere in Rome.

Location: Minneapolis, MN, USA!!!

The Best: Making it back in time for my best friend’s birthday! Seeing my brother and old friends. Being home.

The Worst: Bringing home itchy skin lesions from the Gamb, and getting a letter in the mail saying it was likely to be Schistosomiasis, a parasite that enters the body after contact with contaminated river water. Only thing is, I was never in a river. So then a visit to a dermatologist with the conclusion that they are probably blocked hair follicles, 20 of them, in areas where I do not have hair. Treatment- One month of antibiotics with side effects of intense heartburn and uncontrollable gas.

The Unforgettable: Walking into Mall of America with the intention of buying clothes but getting totally distracted by Dairy Queen and its strawberry sundaes. And then Matt, stunned by the sight, grabs my arm and says dreamily, “Look, Tam, roller coasters……!” So of course we ride roller coasters and eat ice cream and leave, without buying a thing.

To see more pictures of Italy, click here.
For more pics of Morocco, check here.

It's been a wild ride, but boy is it good to be home.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tam in the Gam- The Official Record

Between the laughing and the crying, through pouring rain and scorching heat, after dropping dead mice down the latrine and before cooking mac ‘n cheese for the millionth time to quell the unstoppable hunger pains, I actually did squeeze in some work.

I know I have tried to explain what I do, but I always seem to get off track with some story about a gecko secretly pooping on my bedsheet or my friend eating a boa constrictor or the ram that sits next to us on public transport. So here, I am posting an official record of the work I did. Just in case you wanted to know, just in case you wonder what I did with my time, and just in case you know of a job I can get based on my stunning qualifications.


Volunteer Name: Ms. Minh-Tam (Tammy) Truong
Country of Service: The Gambia, West Africa

Ms. Minh-Tam (Tammy) Truong began her work with Peace Corps in Bolivia, South America but her service was interrupted when volunteers were evacuated from the country in September 2008 due to political unrest. She then elected to transfer to the Gambia, West Africa where she served as a volunteer in the Environment and Natural Resource Management program.

Training Summary

Ms. Truong arrived in country on October 23, 2008 and took part in a three month training program consisting of:

Technical Training and Trainee Directed Activities (136 hours): Covered environmental challenges faced in the Gambia and proactive agro-forestry practices, improved agriculture and horticulture techniques, natural resource management strategies, and environmental education skills.

Language Training (150 hours): Formal and informal Mandinka language lessons enhanced by living with a Mandinka host family. Rated at Intermediate-High language proficiency level at close of training.

Cross-cultural Training (20 hours): Increased awareness and understanding of Gambian culture, history and politics of the Gambia, Islam in the Gambian context, traditional beliefs and taboos, gender roles, and non-verbal communication.

Health Sessions (30 hours): Included preventative health measures, self-diagnosis, and basic medical treatment

Safety and Security Sessions (8 hours): Emphasized a lifestyle that reduces risk at home, work, and during travels, dealing with unwanted attention, and emergency action plans.

Work Summary

Ms. Truong was based in the coastal village of Sanyang, approximate population of 10,000. Her work included management and coordination of the Sanyang Women’s Community Garden and Skills Center and performing market research, informational surveys, and sales and marketing training in her role as a business consultant for Gambia is Good, a U.K. based NGO. She was also a fundraising coordinator for the Against Malaria bed net campaign raising $15,000. In her free time she completed various projects in graphic design and wrote blog entries detailing her Peace Corps experience to share with those back home.

Detailed Project Descriptions

Gambia is Good
Pro-poor horticulture marketing NGO linking rural farmers to the tourism industry. Promoting locally grown fruits and vegetables and reducing imported products, Gambia is Good helps its farmers move from subsistence agriculture to commercial enterprise to create sustainable livelihoods

Gambia is Good Business Consultant

Training of Sales and Marketing Team- Established customer database, led training sessions on sales techniques, customer service, marketing and advertising. Helped to improve inefficiencies.

Promotion and Sales- Designed display stand to increase impulse buys at point-of-sale, designed awards to recognize highest-volume vendors, and wrote script for radio ads.

New Item Feasibility and Customer Satisfaction Surveys- Designed and executed detailed surveys through interviews with purchasing officers, chefs, and general managers of major customers.

Competitor Benchmarking- Researched pricing, product availability, and selection of major competitors.

Agricultural Excursion Tour- Designed tour taking into account logistics, time-frames, and feasibility. Composed tour description for marketing product to tour operators.

World Bank Mango Processing Facility Project- Local Market Researcher

Conducted detailed market analysis seeking most compelling opportunities to maximize value of mangos, including both fresh and processed products. Results of market analysis used to carry out feasibility study and business plan to capture identified opportunities. Estimated local demand for mango products through interviews with importers, wholesalers, and retailers.

Agricultural Extension Support Officer- Liaison between Gambia is Good and Sanyang Women’s Community Garden and Skills Center, a key vegetable production site. Duties included:

Increasing technical capacities and horticultural capabilities among associated farmers

Coordinating with production managers to ensure timely sowing of correct varieties
Reporting activities and progress of producers to Gambia is good general manager and production managers

Sanyang Women’s Community Garden and Skills Center- Joint project between the Gam-Holland Foundation and Sanyang community aiming to provide income generating opportunities to increase rural female earning potential.

Managed various activities within the garden including inventory control, garden bed layout and demarcation, and supervision of reservoir and fence construction teams.

Nominated to Board of Directors as garden expanded from 4 to 12 hectares, and membership increased from 300 to 600 members. Planned long term objectives and membership rights and privileges. Instrumental in devising simple database management strategy for recordkeeping of member registration fees.

Represented the community organization at the Association of Small Scale Enterprises (ASSET). Networked with other member organizations, gaining access to tourism fairs for marketing and promotion and coordinating with Dutch agricultural expert to bring specialized trainings in improved gardening techniques

Wrote grants to secure additional funding for continuing expansion and improvement of garden and skill center.

Against Malaria Bed Net Campaign- Teamed with U.K. based organization Against Malaria, and U.S.’s Suto Yediya, initiative focused on raising money and building awareness to help prevent the transmission of malaria through distribution and proper instruction on the use of treated bed nets.

Co-chair of country’s web-based fundraising efforts. Personally raised over $1800 in an effort that yielded $15,000 over the course of five months.
Published newsletters to motivate fellow volunteers and track fundraising progress

Graphic Design Projects

Worked with local restaurant owner in tourism sector to plan and design menus for upcoming season

Performed edits and created publication design of “Freebee-The Gambia”, a beekeeping manual to be distributed to 30 communities.

Intercultural Exchange- Posted over 80 blog entries detailing life in a developing country through the eyes of a volunteer, initiating dialogue and facilitating cultural exchange to fulfill one of Peace Corps main goals. Online readership of several hundred individuals.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Only Africans Can Help Africa

*Disclaimer: You know how you have those down times but you pick yourself up and go on, and realize it's not that bad? This is one of those down times. It's not representative of my entire emotional state of being but I did want to include some honest truths along with all the rah-rah-schish-boom-bah that happens when you save the world. Though I do appreciate all of the concern and support from friends and family. I love you guys!

I am tired. I am tired of sweating all the time. Of oppressive heat and the feeling of suffocation. Of never having a clean house, clean kids, or clean me. I am tired of people who cannot see a different perspective, who expect me to assimilate 100% to their way of life but will make no concessions to mine. I am tired of a host mom who takes every opportunity to tell me in the most indirect, confusing manner ever that my boyfriend is not welcome in the compund because we are not married and I am living in sin.

I am tired of skinny, starving children. Of poor medical care. Of collecting rain water to drink. And of never having a COLD drink. Of communicating with only two year olds. Of trying to watch DVD’s to escape it all, but having to give up when they skip from all the dust in the air, and I just bought them that afternoon.

I am tired of the begging. Of people who feel they are entitled to everything I might own. Of everyone who won’t listen. Of everyone who cannot formulate a single original thought. Of being told that I should observe all Muslim customs and holidays, when clearly, I AM NOT MUSLIM.

I am tired of bathing outside with the mosquitoes. And waiting for the middle of the night to sneak out to use the bathroom cause the privacy fence around my latrine fell down. I’m tired of everything in my house filling with mold and mildew from the rains and of cleaning up after the mice and geckos who share my living space.

I am tired of testing my patience to the breaking point. I am tired of hot, dirty, unsafe public transport with a fat woman sitting on me and squishing my leg. I am tired of people yelling at me as I walk down the road and people who invade my personal space.

I am tired of being fed up with this country, these people, this life. I am just so tired. I want to go home.

-Journal Entry, September 2009

It’s not always rainbows and butterflies…sometimes it’s just a lot of mosquitoes and malaria pills and Gold Bond Medicated Body Powder. Somehow the founders of Peace Corps knew that two years is the breaking point for most people. That after two years pass, minor irritations have become major frustrations. It's the point where you can’t remember exactly why running off to live in the Bolivian mountainside or African bush was ever a good idea and when you decide that maybe the world doesn't need saving after all.

My Peace Corps journey started in August of 2007 and will come to an end on Nov 27, 2009, when at the stroke of midnight I will be carried away to the airport in the last Gambian taxi I might ever have to take in my entire life.

At three in the morning my plane takes off and whisks me away from the Gambia, out of the life that I was wildly thrust into a year ago. After a service filled with ups and downs, evacuations, surprise reunions and new beginnings, I must admit that I am exhausted yet still enormously thankful for the opportunity. I leave with no regrets, only a true belief in the words of President Obama when he says, “Only Africans can help Africa." (And maybe only Bolivians can help Bolivia.)

So as I leave the development of Africa to the Africans, my boyfriend and I are off to take romantic camel rides across the Sahara of Morocco, spend Christmas in Rome with my parents, and finish off somewhere in Greece. If you’d like to meet up anywhere, let me know. If not, I’ll see you back Stateside early next year. Party planning can start now!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sensory Overload: Metros & Starbucks & McDonalds & More

Travel can be glamourous and exciting. Traveling in Peace Corps countries is often not. Taking advantage of my proximity to the developed world, I recently took a little trip to the land of milk and honey. Otherwise known as Spain.

We started our tour of Spain in France. I was fascinated by the pink house.

And the harbor.

And the food, once back in Spain. I found an old friend who happened to be living in Madrid. He invited us to his hometown where his parents took us out for a night of traditional San Sebastian eating. It's called Tapa Bar Hopping. You get tapas, little appetizer sized portions of food and drink, and you consume a little at one bar before heading to the next.

Obviously, Kasey and I have been a bit food deprived in the Gambia.

And ice cream melts under the African sun.

That's Alex, #1 Spanish Guide, buying us drinks at the world's #1 Bartender's bar.

We caught a glimpse of San Sebastian from above when we went to check out a castle.

And then the castle happened to have a thrilling roller coaster ride, which was in fact scarier than initially thought to be.

I then took a night train to Barcelona. My brother Tony met up with me for some traveling and quality time, and I must say I embarrased him with my Peace Corps habits. One being- always take advantage of the luxuries. That includes grabbing extra free mints at the hotels, buying food when it's available even if you're not hungry, and of course, stretching out in the extra leg room on public transport.

We saw one of the most amazing sights as we stepped off the metro in Barcelona- The Sagrada Familia Cathedral.

Tony loves the sights, I love the food. I also really really loved the human statues. I tricked this particular statue into moving several days in a row. And on the last day in Grenada I paid him a few Euro cents and he did a robot dance for me and blew me a kiss.

Lots of Gaudi, not gaudy, art. I learned this trick from a friend. You can now photoshop yourself into the picture and it will look like I have my arm around you. Oh, memories!

My bro Tony, after lots of European shopping, right before attending a meeting for Shopaholics Anonymous.

Food. Ham. I don't get ham in the Gam. It's Muslim.

We then went to see a palace in Grenada. Unfortunately we got lost heading up there. We did find a water spout.

And then we decided to have some fun with the water spout.

Eventually we got to see the palace after first finding out that the tickets we bought online were for the day before. And the only way to get in without paying again was to be elderly or disabled. The ticket man told me to cut off my arm and we could get in free. I opted not.

More palace-y stuff...
And a little more. The palace was too big for my taste.

And then we got lost going up to see the palace from the hillside at sunset. But it was beaUtiful.
Back in Madrid, I found that the Spanish are still making fun of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

And then I got back to the serious business of eating delicious things.

And staring at delicious things...

And returning to the same delicious place for more delicious things.
We also got down to business doing what I'm kinda known for... Clubbing.
And clubbing some more.
We cracked ourselves up as we were riding the metros, eating, shopping, sightseeing, catching up, gossiping, and remembering the old times. And then, because he loves me so much, Tones put on the African outfit my host mom had made for him.

Trip summary:

Cost of bush taxis, ferry, horse cart and flight to Madrid: $450

Cost of incidentals while in Spain, including Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, tapas, sangria, chocolate eclairs, sushi, and Chinese buffets: $900

Sitting down to a McDonald's Happy Meal after eight months in the African bush: PRICELESS.