Friday, October 15, 2010

Field Trip

After settling in and somewhat readjusting to citified living, I’m heading back to the interior. On Monday I’ll be leaving the capital with UNICEF to work in the field for roughly 4 weeks. We will be traveling between several different regions evaluating individual communities’ water and sanitation situations – 21 villages in total. Oy, I get a little overwhelmed just thinking about it. It will inevitably be a whirlwind of information and people, but, man, what an opportunity. We will be visiting areas that I didn’t think I would get the chance to see while here. One of the villages is an Amerindian community, natives of South America, in the far south of Suriname, near the Brazilian border. This village is only accessible by plane or boat, but the boat trip would take at least 2 weeks, so really, only by plane. I am very excited to experience a little more of the different cultures present in the interior. Ok, and I’m also excited about the information we hope to gather. :-) Data currently available about interior communities is severely lacking, and hard to come by.

As I’ve written in previous posts, the village I was living in is a maroon community inhabited by people that are descendants of runaway slaves. While maroons do make up the majority of the interior, there are also scattered Amerindian villages (many of which are in the southern regions). Due to this, not only are there strong geographic differences between many of the villages in the interior, there are also very significant cultural differences as well. Synchronizing information about the various villages in Suriname, and the issues they face, is a challenge that Ministries and NGO’s continually tackle. So, for myself, I am simply looking forward to being able to observe these differences, over a relatively short time frame, first hand.

I will, yet again, be out of internet service for the next few weeks. I plan to have a lot of pictures when I get back in November, and will post updates and photos as soon as possible!

Much Love.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The City and The Village

I have officially moved! I moved out of the village in the middle of June and am slowly adjusting to my new lifestyle in the city working with UNICEF. I am struck daily by the little (and some not so little) differences in my Peace Corps experience first in the village, and now in the city. I thought it would be fun to do a little side by side comparison. ;-)

So, let’s look at the differences:

First, instead of wearing garish plaid sarongs (koosus) everyday to fit in, I’m wearing business casual and incorporating bright orange shirts when appropriate (GO HOLLAND!).

Instead of going to the river with my fishing pole and a handful of rice to catch my dinner, I can walk down the street and order a pizza. Instead of fried fish heads, I can eat cheese and pepperoni! Unfortunately, my budget won’t allow this all that often, but a nice treat none the less.

Instead of running down a narrow jungle path each morning (jumping over roots, and ducking under vines), I run on a paved (very flat) road while busses and DAF trucks blow exhaust in my face.

Instead of waking up to the sound of children softly calling my name, “Seeimai? Seeimai?”, and my neighbors splitting firewood, I am greeted each morning by the sound of birds outside my window and the silence that reminds that I no longer have a tight-knit group of family and friends right outside my door (literally…RIGHT outside my door ;-) ).

Instead of speaking solely Saramakan for weeks on end, I speak English with people daily (I’m talking face to face, not on the phone!) and I get called by my real name by almost everyone around me (except for Kimmy, who still insists on calling me “Seeimai”).

Instead of tucking in for bed at 8:30 every night with a book and my headlamp, I stay up past 10:00(!) and do things like write letters and watch movies. Of course I still read, but with the help of electricity I manage to get more distracted.

The obvious… I now wash my dishes in a SINK, not the river! I wash my clothes in a washing machine, I shower in a shower (though I really miss my wash house and bucket baths), and I have a flush toilet! If nothing else, I know my lower back will be happy about not bending over to wash my clothes on the rocks at the river.

My workday now consists of wearing high heels and v-necks while sitting in a swivel chair at a computer typing away about different types of toilets and water treatment. My workday USED to require me to tromp out into a field wearing a koosu and a sports bra, with another koosu tied around my head to keep the sun off my back, armed with nothing but a pocket knife to cut bundles of rice…for hours…and hours.

Finally, instead of a barrage of people stopping by daily to talk to me and check on me, I have yet to find that support network here in the city. I will need to put a lot more work into cultivating friendships, but I am determined: this will happen. :)

There are certainly more, in fact I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. :) I miss the laughter of the children running around my house, and I miss running to jump in the river after a hard day’s work in the fields, but I am really happy with my decision. There are perks and draw backs to both experiences. Being in the city working with UNICEF will allow me to further develop my thesis, and (hopefully) be a resource to other PCV’s and other communities (including mine!). I am trying to keep close contact with friends in the village and have already had one visitor from the village, and am hoping for more!

Sending nothing but love and good thoughts!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

One Year Later

The time certainly does fly by! It is hard to believe I have been here for a year...out of the States for a year, haven't seen my mom for a year, and haven’t had REAL cheddar cheese for a's all very difficult ;-) No, really though, it is a little surreal; it feels like I just left. But the year has been so full of new experiences, challenges, and lessons they feel like they have been stretched out over much more than a year.

Things are going pretty well down here on the equator. I'm not sure where to start...Village life has been very interesting. The way I have started to think about it is that I live in a giant rambling house in the jungle: the house is the village. Let me explain. The way the Saramakans traditionally organize their villages, their houses are built side by side, front to back, back to front, with very little space between them. This has to do with originally being on-the-run and in hiding. Clearly, it's safer to be tightly packed if something were to happen. The houses are mostly just wood plank walls with zinc or thatch roofs. My point is that there is very little privacy. When I'm in my house at night, if someone calls my phone, all my neighbors will hear it and in the morning ask "Who called you last night? Was that your mom? Was that your man? Was that Amber?". During the day most people spend their time outdoors cooking, sewing, and working. All areas are pretty communal...the river is the giant shared bathroom/kitchen, the areas between homes are the shared living areas, and the homes are simply the bedrooms where you sleep at night. I like to think that I live in a giant 100 bedroom house, with lots of natural light and great cross breezes. ;-)

I have been able to form some very good friendships with people and have gotten really close to many of the children. My biggest struggle living out there has been dealing with isolation and not feeling very productive. Both things you would expect with the Peace Corps, right? Well, over the last several months an opportunity to work with UNICEF on a water/sanitation research project has presented itself. After thinking about it for quite awhile, I decided to take it. Which means that I will be leaving the village and moving into the capital and will be working in the UNICEF office Monday-Friday! I still have mixed feeling about this, but as a whole I am very excited and know that it will be a good decision in the long run. :)

Colin (my boyfriend) came to visit! We were able to spend 10 days in Tobago, and 10 days here in Suriname. It was an incredible trip. Being apart for this long has definitely been extremely hard. There are so many pieces of this experience that can not be conveyed by short phone conversations or emails. Being able to relax on a beach with nothing to do but share our stories with each other felt like coming up for air after being underwater for too long. Then, being able to actually show him my life here...well, it doesn’t get much better. I am going to visit him in Uganda for the month of December and will then be able to see his life there. Very much looking forward to that! But I am trying not to get too excited too far in advance...

I am hoping to run a half marathon in November, but I have along way to daily 20 minute jog on a soft jungle path has done very little to prepare me. Maybe by posting my aspirations here it will hold me more accountable? We’ll see ;-)

That’s most of my updates. Things are going well here, and there are a lot of exciting things on the horizon this next year. Now that I will be in the city I hope to be more diligent about sharing them! Sending good thoughts and love!


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Adventures in Running

You know that your life has changed and that worlds are colliding when during your daily morning jog you are stopped on the trail by the sight of a man, in nothing but loose fitting shorts and flimsy sandals, with a shotgun aimed intently into the jungle at some unseen animal. Not only you do you stop with minimal concern, but also out of habit reach down to pause the timer on your watch. This is exactly what happened to me earlier this week. It wasn’t until after the shot had been fired (and missed), I had exchanged a few pleasantries with the hunter and some of his friends, and continued on my way down the path (and restarted my watch timer) that I recognized what a bizarre encounter it really was. I’m not sure if this story is a good indication of what my life is like here in Suriname, but it makes a good story regardless: getting accustomed to things, trying to “fit in”, and also holding on to pieces of myself from home.

I haven’t posted updates here recently. The reasons for not writing being many, but mainly just simply that there is often too much to write and not enough time with electricity or internet. The last several months have been intense, emotional, overwhelming, and wonderful. Getting settled into my new community was both harder and easier than I thought it would be, and there were (and will be) a lot of ups and downs. Trying to find my place in the village is teaching me invaluable lessons about myself, and life in general.

On the day to day basis most of my time is spent is spent doing little daily chores. Cooking, eating, and washing manage to take up a fair amount of each day. As I mentioned, I do manage to go for a run most mornings, but this was only after the first couple of months. The people in the village were already trying to get used to me and understand why I was there, so I figured recreational exercise might push the limits too much initially. The day I finally decided to suck it up, and deal with the stares and questions, and laced up my running shoes also makes for a good story.

The first time I went running I tried to get up early enough that not too many people would be witness to the spectacle, but most people get up with the sun so it is hard to avoid. I made my way through the huts towards the back of the village stopping to explain where I was going along the way. There was some confusion, but mainly just amusement and a little disbelief. Most of the women just chuckled and shook their heads, “What is the Bakaa doing now?” (Bakaa is a word they use to describe “outsiders”, but generally means white person). I reached the path the goes for several miles into the jungle to family farming plots, and set off! The trip on the path was uneventful. I had left early enough that I didn’t encounter any groups of people heading out to grounds for the day. As I was heading back into the village I was cruising along and feeling that it had been a successful first run. As I came a little closer I saw a woman with a giant bowl, filled with tools, balanced on her head. She was walking along the path towards me. As soon as she saw me running towards her, she froze. She took a couple of half steps backwards, and before I could flag her down or call out to her she threw the bowl off her head, onto the ground, and started running full speed the other direction! Fortunately, I was able to call out to her and get her to realize that everything was actually ok. She turned around and came walking skeptically back. “What are you doing!?” she asked. I tried to explain that I was just running, just to run, but I’m not sure she really understood. However, the next couple mornings as we passed each other on the trail she would nod to me and say good morning and ask, “You’re running?”. I would say good morning back and “Yes, I’m running”. We would both smile at each other and continue on our ways. Whether or not she understands why I am running, she (and the rest of community) have gotten used to this part of my daily routine, and some of the women even joke about coming with me.

This post has turned out to be mostly about running! Shoot. Well it’s a start in the right direction. I will promise to be better about posting updates. I miss family and friends immensely. I know that I have been a terrible correspondent, but please know that I think of you all often.

Sending my love from Suriname!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Swearing In

The speech I gave at the swearing in ceremony:

My name is Ashlee. I lived in Asigron for the last 8 weeks. In Asigron they call me Bendemai.

I'm happy that I am starting my Peace Corps service, but I'm sad to leave Asigron. The people there didn't just give me a name, but they taught me how the Saamakan people live and they gave me something that I will carry with me always. My family there and the people of Asigron took great care of me. They wanted me to learn many things, but if I learned slow they had a lot of patience. Everyday we laughed together. Sometimes we laughed because I didn't understand, but other times we laughed because I did understand. Everytime we were happy because we understood eachother. The made me feel like we were family. I will miss them very much.

I was one of 10 people who lived with Saamakan families during training. When we arrive in our sites we will thank the people of Asigron, Drepada, Victoria, and Hermansdorp. We will live better because we will know the Saamakan way of life. Thank you.

Now in Saamakan:)

Mi nen da Ashlee. Mi bi libi na Asigron dee 8 wiki de pasa. Na Asigron de kai mi Bendemai.

Mi wai mio bigi mi Peace Corps wooko, ma mi tjali taa mi go disa Asigron. Dee sembe ala an da mi wan nen wanwan, ma de bi lai mi unfa dee Saamaka sembe ta libi ku de bi da mi wan sondi mio tja ku mi-seei u te mi dede. Mi famii ala ku dee sembe a Asigron bi solugu mi bunu. De bi kai mi lai hia, ma ee mi bi lai teigi de bi abi hia pasensi. Hini wan daka u bi lafu makandi. So leisi u bi ta lafu bika ma bi fustan, ma oto leisi u bi ta lafu bika mi bi fustan. Hii ten u be wai bika u bi ko fustan u seei. De bi ta mbei mi fii taa mi ku de de famii. Mio hungi de poi.

Mi bi de wan u dee 10 sembe bi ta libi ku dee Saamaka famii a training. Te u doo a Saamaka, wo da tangi a dee sembe a Asigron, Drepada, Victoria, and Hermansdorp. Wo libi moo bunu bika wo sabi di Saamaka fasi u libi. Ganntangi funu.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

End of Training

Training is officially (almost!) over! We left our CBT sites on Friday and are now in the city shopping for home furnishings for our new houses in our new sites and getting ready to swear in as official volunteers. Leaving home stay was even sadder than I had anticipated it to be. I knew that it was going to be difficult to say goodbye to the people and families I had gotten close to and formed relationships with, but when it actually happened it just about broke my heart. The people there took such great care of me, and treated me like family. I could feel their support for me, and their investment in helping me learn. There was a mutual understanding and respect that I hadn’t anticipated, one, happening so fast, and two, affecting me so deeply. I am going to miss the village and the people immensely, but I have every intention of going back to visit over the next two years.

On a different note, a few other happenings the last few weeks of home stay are worth mentioning (mainly because they’re funny and help illustrate what living conditions are like). First, one night while sleeping soundly in my hammock (on my side) I was woken up by (what I thought was) the sensation of something crawling up my back. As I began to reach a more complete state of wakefulness I realized that it was real, and was moving towards my head! A mouse (or rat, I like to assume mouse) had managed to get through my mosquito net and was literally climbing up my neck. I, of course, started thrashing around and screaming. It ran away, and I spent the next 30 minutes sitting in my house trying to figure out what had just happened. Another night a frog hopped into my house and I couldn’t get it out for about 2o minutes. A teenage girl halfheartedly tried to put a beetle the size of palm on my leg. In addition to the many, many, mosquito and mypia bites on the lower half of my legs, I got an ant bite that blistered and turned into the worst infection I’ve had in my life (thank goodness we have an awesome Peace Corps Medical Officer). Also, two separate children pooped on my porch! Some of this I laughed at while it was happening, but I laugh at all of it now. :)

Now as I get ready to leave for my new community I need to gear myself back up to start all over, but this time with a few different challenges. For starters the language becomes relatively different the further upriver you go. Closer to the city the language is mixed with Dutch and their pronunciation is quite different. I’ve reached a point with my language where I can communicate in most situations, but I know that moving upriver I’ll be taking a step back and will need to re-learn a few things. Also, my CBT site was very accustomed to Peace Corps and Americans. Now, I’ll be the first volunteer in my community. Many of the children are genuinely afraid of me. Many of the adults don’t really understand why I’m there or why I’m staying for two years. I won’t have electricity or running water, but I am close to the river. I know that this next transitioning phase is going to be tough, but I’m excited to get it underway. I know that this is an opportunity that I won’t likely get again, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

We have our swearing in ceremony on Wednesday, and the PC staff asked me to give a little talk in the Saamakan language. Yikes! My host family will be there along with all the current volunteers, so I’m feeling the pressure. Wish me luck, and I’ll hopefully have some pictures from the ceremony soon afterwards.
Love Always,

Saturday, July 4, 2009


Happy 4th of July everyone!
Here in Suriname the Peace Corps volunteers are headed to the Ambassador's house for a bbq party. We got into the city last night, and will go back out to our community based training sites tomorrow. Even though it is a short trip, I'm trying to get as much "city-type" things done: internet, random supplies, real shower, ice cream, and speaking more English than Saramakan with other PCV's. :)

So, the last few weeks have been chalked full of learning the language and new experiences. In case it wasn't entirely clear in the last post, right now I'm living in a community 2 hours from the city for my language and cultural training, but my actual future site is almost 10 hours away. My community based training site (CBT) has been amazingly wonderful. It’s a relatively small village (~100 people) on the lower Suriname River. When we arrived (I’m there with two other PCV's) they gave each of us our new names, and I was given "Bendemai", which means tall thin sister. The woman that lives next door to me has an 18 month old daughter, Sino. Whenever Sino she sees me coming she calls, "Mamamai! Mamamai!" since she can't quite say the B. It's pretty precious.

Each morning at 6:15 I go for a little run down to the dirt road that runs out of "town" and borders some of village families' plots of land where they grow their fruits and vegetables. The sun is usually on it's way up and each morning I'm still taken by surprise at how beautiful and different the tree line can look depending on the sky and the clouds. Then we have language class all morning until noon. In the afternoons my activities usually consist of playing with some of the kids, helping women cook, going to the women's grounds with them, and/or playing Slagbal. Slagbal! What a wonderful game it is. :) Only women are allowed to play, and it's a little like baseball, but played with a tennis ball, a paddle, and 6 bases. There about 1,001 rules that I'm still trying to learn, but it is a LOT of fun. Games can break through language barriers and give you a little glimpse at someone's personality that you might not get otherwise. I feel like I've gotten to know some of the women here better because of it.

Washing of any sort is done in the river. This includes bathing, dishes, and laundry. Although my environmentally minded self cringes at the non-biodegradable soap (among many other things that I won't mention) floating away into the river, I find myself enjoying it. It is absolutely a community activity complete with gossip, advice on how to wash, and of course the ladies laughing at me for doing it wrong. Plus, the scenery is gorgeous.

I'll be living in my CBT site for another three weeks, and then I'll head out to my permanent site on the Upper Suriname. This past week I got to go out there and spend 5 days getting to know the people and the community. It really helped me to have a better vision of what my time here in Suriname will really be like.

Hope all is well! Till next time. Pictures, hopefully, coming soon.