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Farewell

When I first started this blog two years ago I thought about how great it would be when I would make my last post in country and talk about all of the exciting and interesting things I got to experience, but as I sit here and write what will be my final blog post, I struggle to find the words to accurately describe my time here. The more I think about it, the harder it becomes to explain. I’m not trying to sound all hoity-toity when I say you have to experience it to really understand it, but in this case it really is true. It’s not easy to explain, but I will try my best to help people at home understand when I talk to them about it. Being completely submerged in a new culture for 26 months is not something that can be described or summarized in a few quick sentences; its roots run deep and they have life altering consequences. It seemed that the more I learned about Cambodia, the more questions I had and the less I understood. After a while I was less interested in how you do something, but rather, why you do something. While I have a much greater understanding about Khmer culture than when I came, I will leave with many questions unanswered but that is just fine with me. If you had the answers to all your questions, what would be the point of going on?

As I come to the end of this journey, I do know this though, I am incredibly thankful for this one of a kind opportunity I was given. Cambodia forced me out of my comfort zone, it let me get to know people I would have otherwise never crossed paths with, it challenged me in ways I had never been challenged before and it completely changed the way I view almost everything. It gave me enough memories to last a lifetime and I can’t wait to share them with people back home. I’ve met some truly inspiring people, I’ve created  some of the closest friendships I’ve ever had, I’ve eaten weird things and I’ve discovered endless things about myself. Being genuinely accepted as a member of my host family will be something that I never forget. When my host mom said she was going to treat me like her own son, she really meant it. They have been amazing beyond all expectations and I love them.  Leaving them will be one of the hardest things I’ll ever have to do. The level of hospitality of the Khmer people is something that Americans should take a good look at and strive to achieve. A majority of the population has lived through unspeakable horrors and pains, but yet they stride on and find the time to get to know us, teach us new things and treat us like family. Sure, I came here to try and teach Cambodians things, but I’m leaving learning way more about myself than I ever could have imagined. Cambodia has forever changed me and its impacts will be felt for years to come. I hope everyone in America is ready to listen to me talk on and on and share silly/crazy/disgusting stories from my service. Please don’t be too offended if I’ve picked up some questionable social norms or habits, I assume they will go away after a while.

It has been a journey of ups and downs, exciting moments and dull ones but I am thankful for all of it. I want to express my gratitude and thanks to everyone, both back home and those in country, who has supported me along the way. Your words of encouragement and advice won’t soon be forgotten. Sharing my thoughts with the world has been a fun experience. Thanks for reading.

Through good times and bad, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, Cambodia has always been there. You’ve had me since your first hello kid. I will never forget you and you will always hold a special place in my heart. Goodbye

Tony Schwegmann

Peace Corps Cambodia 2011-2013

2.0

Bong Tony, when you came here you were like a child but now you are like an adult

That was my 6 year old host brother being accidentally philosophical at dinner last night. It was ironic coming from him; physically I haven’t changed much during my nearly 2 years here whereas I’ve watched him grow up. I was here for his first day of school, watched him lose baby teeth, get taller and all sorts of other things that come with growing up.  Now, I’m assuming he was probably saying that physically I look older but I interpreted what he said a different way. He’s right, I am much more of an adult now after experiencing everything I have been through over here. Sure I was a 23 year old college graduate but I was just a giant naïve child; I had never experienced anything like this before. When you apply for Peace Corps you don’t fully understand the impact that it will have on your life. I went into it thinking I would be changing lives, saving the world and doing all these great things when in reality, the results of my work here are not immediately apparent and I’m the one whose life is being changed. During our training they told us that we would get more out of this than we put in and it’s true. No matter how many great things we do over here as volunteers, this experience is going to stick with all of us for the rest of our lives and it is going to change the way we operate and the way we see things.

My views on the world and opinions on things have slowly been morphing and taking new shapes since I arrived here. I didn’t just wake up one day and think, boy I sure do feel like a new person today, these changes have been slow and steady.  When I sit down and think about how I viewed things when I was living in America I can see a clear and obvious change. It’s like I’m Tony 2.0. As I get closer and closer to my return to America (100 days till I have to go home as I type this) I steadily get more anxious how Tony 2.0 will accept America and how America will accept me. One would think that the prospect of going home would get me really excited and pumped up, but honestly it’s scary. I would have to say that right now I am more nervous to come back than I was to leave America the first time. I assume the nervousness will change to excitement as the time draws nearer but that’s how I feel now. There is going to be the obvious rejection stage at first when I’ll just want to run away and I’m not really sure what will happen after that.  I know that most all of my family and friends will never be able to fully understand what I went through here but that is a fact that all of us volunteers have to deal with and we are prepared for it. Just like adjusting to Cambodia, I’ll have to adjust to America.

Recently seeing things I’ve seen in the media about silly American happenings or running into American tourists makes me angry and sometimes even embarrassed to call myself American. Most Americans don’t know just how good they have it and they take everything for granted. Just a quick glance thru Facebook or Twitter gives you a great sample of all these fake problems that people think they have.  After the anger passes I realize that not too long ago I was one of those whinny, complaining Americans. I mean look at me now, I’m complaining about complaining.  I was just lucky enough to be chosen for this amazing experience that helped put things in perspective and afterwards I can share my experiences to maybe change other people’s views. Don’t worry, I’m not going to sit you down and lecture you about how there are starving children everywhere so you should finish all your food or try to make you feel shame for having luxuries, even I want to punch those people, but I won’t be shy about occasionally reminding you of how good you have it. I’ve always tried to keep a positive attitude about all of the things I’ve been blessed with in my life. If something goes wrong I think, yeah this sure does suck but you know what, it could always be worse. If millions of Cambodians can lose their families, homes and everything that is important to them and still march on with their heads up, I think you’ll be fine even if the Starbucks man forgot to add that extra shot of espresso.

This and That

What have I been up to you ask? Well here, let me show you.

I ran a 10k thru some ancient temples

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I went to this cool water park with my host family. (I didn’t go in)

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I stayed a night in a fancy hotel, complete with a delicious western breakfast buffet that we took full advantage of.

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Workshops!

Strategic planning

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Learning to use Excel

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Child and Maternal Health

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Celebrated Christmas and New Years with my friends

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Got second place in my fantasy football league. I also made the trophy. Possibly the craftiest thing I’ve ever done. Notice the thing that says Number 1? That would be a condom; one of the more popular brands used in Cambodia and the kind my health center gives out.

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Got a new haircut

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Celebrated Chinese New Year

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Started working at my high school and organized a local spelling bee then took the winners to the provincial spelling bee. My students did so well and I’m super proud of them.

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Baby Lida was born and she lived at my house for a few weeks. She is my host moms youngest sons second daughter. We also got 2 new puppies that I took a liking too. They were around for about a month and a half but then they ate a bunch of our chickens one night and my host mom got mad and gave them away.

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I planned a trip to visit Malaysia and another to take the GRE in Thailand so I can start applying for grad schools; time to study again.

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I’ve also been busy working with two organizations to get a maternal and child health and nutrition programs started up and funded in 20 local villages. Fingers crossed that we can get the funding. Hooray for healthy babies!

I’ve also learned my official COS (close of service) date. For us health volunteers it’s the same as it always was, September 3 but now it’s official. Due to the school calendar, the teaching volunteers that came in my group will be able to leave as early as July so I will have to say bye to some of my friends sooner than others.  It’s ok though, I’m in no rush to get out of here. After my COS, I plan to do a bit of traveling, hopefully to New Zealand and then a few places in America. After that I’ll be home sweet home, ETA late September. It will be sad to leave Cambodia, the place I’ve called home for nearly two years, but it will also be nice to see America and all my family and friends again. I’ve got about 6 months left here and I’ll make the most of it and then it’ll be time to move on to new adventures; who knows, maybe I’ll end up back here someday.

Jaded?

So, long time no talk. It’s been awhile since I last updated mostly due to the fact I’ve felt like I haven’t had anything to write about. When people ask why I haven’t updated, that’s the excuse I give, I haven’t done anything exciting. Sitting here today I realized that it’s not that I haven’t done anything exciting recently, it’s that I’ve gotten so used to living here that nothing seems exciting or out of the ordinary to me anymore. I’ve been in county coming up on 16 months now, plenty of time to get adjusted and settled in to a new life. Over that time, I think it’s a little safe to say I may have become a bit jaded. Since my last post, we’ve gotten new group of volunteers here and they’re all done with training and out living at their new homes. When reading their blogs and talking to them I hear about all these wild and crazy stories about things that happen to them and it reminded me of how excited I used to be when I first got here. It’s not that these things still don’t happen to me, it’s just that they are part of my everyday life now and I never feel motivated to write about them anymore cause I mean, who wants to read about boring everyday life? Eating weird stuff, constant stares, being chased by dogs when running, seeing animals being slaughtered, people telling me to take their kids to America with me, it’s all normal to me now. Just the other day for example, I was walking down the street with another volunteer and a woman with some mental issues that lives in my town came up and latched on to me. She was screaming words I couldn’t understand as I was trying to push her off me. Eventually the other volunteer had to physically restrain her while I hurried ahead and inside our destination. Was it weird? Sure. Was I bothered by it or think it out of the ordinary? Not really. And that’s just the thing, a year ago I would have been telling everyone about it, but now I’m like eh, whatever, it happens. It’s crazy to me how quickly a person can get used to new things. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be able to change and adapt so quickly.

Coming into and adapting to a new culture has also made me think more about some of the things I’ve taken for granted; one such example, democracy. Now I’ve never been super political and I’d rather not waste my breath over debates about this and that. The fact is that someone is always going to be in charge and there’s always going to be another group of someone’s who don’t want that other someone to be in charge and I’d rather not get tangled up in it. But that’s the great thing about America, if you get enough people together that really care about making a change, it’s possible. Democracy is a great and powerful thing. I’m not allowed to discuss the politics of Cambodia, per Peace Corps policy, but the man in charge celebrated his 10,000th(!?!) day in office last May so that may tell you something. A quick search of the web can show just what kind of things go on over here. If you haven’t been on Facebook recently you may not know but, there’s an election going on (or rather just ended) as I write this post. What brought me to this great revelation of my under appreciation of democracy you ask? Well I’m sitting here at an organization that I help out at every once and awhile, editing grant proposals that are asking for funding to solve problems such as gender inequality and lack of government accountability while I’m following the election, when it hits me just how lucky I am to live in a country where voices can actually be heard and change can happen. It’s hard to go into detail without discussing the politics of Cambodia, but most people here aren’t even aware of their rights and if they are and they voice them…..let’s just say it’s not the same as in America.

To wrap up, I haven’t written in awhile cause I may have become a little jaded and democracy is good. Go America. Now here’s a photo of my Halloween costume. I’m Waldo, can you find me?

Hockey Day In Cambodia

Hockey and Cambodia. Two words you typically don’t see together, but thanks to Sokreaksa Himm, all that is changing. Coming to serve in Cambodia as a Peace Corps volunteer I never thought I would have an opportunity to play any legitimate street hockey, but thanks to the wonders of Facebook I met a man who proved me wrong. Cambodian born Sokreaksa (who goes by Reaksa), developed an appreciation for the sport of hockey while living in Canada; it is after all Canada’s national pastime. Upon returning to his homeland of Cambodia he brought the sport to a part of the world it had never seen before. Before we learn about how hockey has become a hit in a small Southeast Asian community it is important to understand the tragic, yet inspirational story about the man behind it.

Cambodia has a very lengthy and complicated political history but it is most notorious for the events that occurred not even 40 years ago. In 1975 a regime known as the Khmer Rouge seized control of the country. Throughout the entire country families were forced from their homes in larger cities and marched in small jungle villages. Once there they were forced into manual labor. Any sort of complaining or perceived resistance result in death at the hands of Khmer Rouge soldiers, many of whom were young teenage boys. Nearly all highly educated people and supporters or employees of the previous government were marched out into the jungle to “go study” only to never be seen or heard from again. Disease and starvation were rampant and the country fell to ruins.

Caught in the middle of this was a young 13 year old boy named Reaksa. When the Khmer Rouge seized power he and his family, were forced out of their home in Siem Reap province and into the jungle. Once there in his new village he was forced into strenuous work for long hours, day after day after day all while living with the fear of not knowing if he or his family would make it to see the next day. Living in this nightmarish world would cause many people to give up, but Reaksa and his 13 other family members pushed on, relying on each other for strength until one day when the unimaginable happened.

On one fateful day the Khmer Rouge leader of Reaksa’s village ordered his family into the jungle “to study”. They were marched into the jungle until they reached their final destination, a freshly dug shallow grave. The family was lined up and one by one they were clubbed from behind with a garden hoe and pushed into the grave. Reaksa was clubbed, pushed into the grave and left for dead, only he was not. He had received some substantial trauma but not enough to kill him. He laid there still in the grave as the dead bodies of his family members were piled on top of him. After the soldiers had gone, he mustered up all the strength he could and pulled himself out from underneath the carnage and escaped to the jungle. He survived on his own in the jungle for a few months and eventually made his way into refugee camps in Thailand. Once there he was granted permission to move to Canada which is where he gained an interest in hockey.

After living in Canada for a number years he decided that he would return to his homeland of Cambodia to do mission work and do his part in fixing a broken country and also to eventually do something most of us could never imagine, confront and forgive the men who had killed his family so many years ago. Since returning to Cambodia Reaksa has had a hand in starting churches as well as community centers. At one such facility he decided to not make the typical soccer or basketball field, but rather to introduce the sport of hockey to Cambodia.

With the help of an international nonprofit organization and the NHLPA (National Hockey League Players Association) Reaksa was able to construct a playing surface and secure some equipment. The playing surface is made of concrete slabs with small boards surrounding it to keep the ball from rolling out and it is complete with real nets. The NHLPA has donated two sets of jerseys for the kids to as well as some pretty good looking sticks. Much to my chagrin (being a Capitals fan) they are Crosby sticks, but I’ll take what I can get.

I had been in contact with Reaksa for quite some time before I met him in person. I had actually first made contact with him before I even arrived in country and I had been looking forward to my opportunity to go meet him and see his rink for nearly a year. I was finally able to organize a group of fellow volunteers (and my brother who was visiting from America) to go challenge one of his teams to a game. Team Peace Corps would win easy I thought, what do Cambodians know about hockey? I was dead wrong; they smoked us, scoring goals left and right. It was just like a hockey game at home, complete with a little taunting and even some showy goal celebrations. Thankfully for this friendly game no one was keeping score, we were just all there to have fun.

After the game I talked with Reaksa for a bit. He told me about how people in the community enjoy playing hockey. They currently get together at least once a week and play for a few hours, rain or shine. He also gave me copies of the two books he has written. Before all this I had never heard his story, I just thought he was some guy who liked hockey, but thanks to our shared passion of the sport I am able to share his story of perseverance and generosity with the world. It’s funny how hockey can do things like that sometimes.

Opening faceoff

The players

 


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If you are interested in reading Sokreaksa Himm’s story for yourself, you can find his books on Amazon. The first is titled Tears of My Soul and the second is After the HeavRain

This past weekend a wedding and all the beer, loud music and extravagant flair that comes with it, made its way to my house. A friend of the family had a son who was getting married and their house was too small so they asked if they could use my host families’ house. Weddings are a big deal over here and when they have them, they don’t hold anything back. With the help of pictures here’s how it all went down:

The day before, all the beverages were delivered

And the tent was set up

In Cambodia it seems that you can have a wedding where ever you want; in front of markets, stores and homes. Live on the highway? No problem, you can go ahead and set up your wedding and take up a section of the road. Anything goes.

Next, the speakers came

For some unexplainable reason at any sort of Cambodian party they feel the need to let all the surrounding villages know that there is a party. These puppies are cranked all the way up playing music or people are talking on the microphone. During the actual ceremony the person performing the ceremony was on the mic so anyone nearby was able to hear anything and everything that was going on inside.

The night before the wedding family and close friends get together for a meal and some drinking and sometimes even a little pre-wedding dancing

The morning of the wedding there are various different ceremonies and offerings are made

The bride and groom

A mid-service hair adjustment

After the ceremony was over it was time for some family pics. This is my host family and all of my host moms children and grandchildren

Now it’s time to eat

There’s never a shortage of delicious food or drinks at weddings

Khmer weddings even have the drunk guy that steals the mic and makes drunk toasts

Then the dancing starts

So that’s pretty much how a Khmer wedding works. Usually only family and close friends are there during the ceremony then everyone else comes for the reception. You eat, drink, dance, pay money then leave. Instead of giving gifts like we do in America, in Cambodia you get an envelope when you get in and you put as much money in it as you want and give it to the newlyweds when you leave. The money from this usually covers the cost of the wedding. The later you stay at a wedding the drunker the people are and the crazier it gets, just like any American wedding. Cheers to the new couple.

Have/Have Not

Going along with the year anniversary theme from the last post, here is a list of things I have and have not done in the past year.

I Have:

Touched an elephant

Gotten excited when my host family makes Ramen noodles for dinner

Peed out of my second story window

Had a medical procedure performed on me in a hospital with stray cats and dogs wandering around the halls

Used a bike as my main form of transportation

Eaten bugs, congealed blood, chicken feet, dog meat and countless other unidentifiable foods

Stated to prefer squat toilets over western toilets

Sweated through my clothes while doing nothing but sitting in a chair

Had diarrhea

Been offered drugs and prostitutes

Attempted to kill a mouse with and electric bug zapper

Ridden on a bus for 12 hours to go to taco night

Made great new friends and lasting memories

 

Have Not:

Ridden an elephant

Operated a motor vehicle

Had a set work schedule

Had access to toilet paper on a regular basis

Eaten deep dish pizza

Used a washer and dryer (ok, maybe a washer twice)

Seen a DVD store full of legit DVD’s rather than bootleg ones

Felt guilty for taking a nap at any time during the day

Ever run out of rice

Gotten used to mosquitoes

Worn socks to work

Understood why Khmer people must listen to music and the TV so loud

A Year Already?

A year ago I left my home. I left my home knowing that I wouldn’t return for 27 months. I left my home having no clue what I would be doing a year, a month or even a week from then. I left my home for a new home in a strange land that I had never even really heard of just a few months prior. I left my home anxious, scared, worried, excited and happy. I left behind everything I knew; my job and possessions, sad friends and proud parents. I left to go on an adventure, to do something good, to grow as a person.

It’s been a year, but it feels just like yesterday that I was standing there in that airport, choking up as my family said goodbye to me, getting ready to leave America for my first time and not come back for 2 years. The uncertainty of what the future holds is what many people have the hardest time with. But if you think about it, why would you want to know what’s in the cards for you? That would take all of the fun out of life. Uncertainty is what makes us curious, it’s what makes us take risks, it’s what makes us go on adventures. The uncertainty of what events each day will hold is what keeps me going. After a year, I’ve learned to embrace it; learned to love it.

I’ve been told many times that Peace Corps Volunteers always get more out of their experience than what they put in. After a year, I can confirm that that is indeed a true statement. I tell people in this country how to wash their hands and how to feed a child and in return this country teaches me about myself. Over the past year I’ve learned more about myself than I have in maybe my entire life. I’ve learned what I can and can’t do, what I will or won’t eat, what I can or can’t learn. This country tests my limits on a daily basis, it puts me in situations I never would be in while in America and it waits to see how I will react. I’ll admit, I don’t always make the right choices, but I’m learning. I know that this country won’t give up on me; it will just keep hammering away until it thinks I’m ready and then it will let me go.

I have no idea what the next 15 months have in store, but one thing I do know is that they will be exciting. Every day will be a new adventure, a new story to tell someone, a new memory made. In just 12 short months I’ve made new friends, been lovingly accepted into someone elses’ family, changed my diet, made new routines and learned so much more about myself. 12 months in the books 15 to go. Pretty soon I’ll be halfway and before I know it, it will be time to leave. If the first 12 months are any indication, it will be a bittersweet departure; harder than the one I had to make coming over here.

Vacation

Please excuse my absence from the blogging community as of late, but as you’ll see I had a very good reason. That reason being I took my first big vacation since joining the Peace Corps. Not only did I get to visit 2 new countries, I was also accompanied on the trip by some very special guests, my brother Matt and one of my best friends from home, Javier. We saw lots of things and visited lots of places all in a short amount of time. We were going places nonstop.

Our trip began in Bangkok Thailand. Their flight did not get in until midnight so I had a whole day by myself and what a day it was. After being in Cambodia for nearly a year I had almost forgotten what things were like in a bigger city. I had some major culture shock. When I first arrived I just stood around for a while looking at all the tall buildings and the bustling traffic. Once I finally figured out where I needed to go I hopped on the Skytrain (public transportation!!!) and went on my way. My main goal was to eat as much western junk food as possible before my guests arrived because I knew they would not want to come all the way to Thailand to eat at Pizza Hut or Burger King. I accomplished my goal with ease and also did some exploring of the city before they arrived. The next few days we just went around and saw all the touristy sights and sampled some of the local cuisine and had lots of fun. On our last night we celebrated my brothers 21st birthday. I think it’s fair to say he’ll never forget it.

After Thailand we went back to my site. They both got to see where I live and where I work and the community I live in. It’s nice to have someone back home now that truly knows what it is like over here and how I live my life and for them to be able to see where I work. They also got to meet my entire host family and all my neighbors, the reason being we had a joint birthday for myself and my brother, Khmer style. After that we went to Siem Reap to visit the temples at Angkor Wat and they got to experience a peace corps Cambodia volunteer party, which I’m also sure they will never forget and we also played some street hockey which I’ll post more about later. Our last stop in Cambodia was Phnom Penh.

First Dinner at site

 

With my health center staff

 

Birthday cake (I picked it out)

Birthday Party

 

After Phnom Penh we made our may to Vietnam. We stayed a few nights in Ho Chi Minh doing the same as in Thailand, sampling the local cuisine, seeing all the tourist sites and just having a good time. We got to explore the Cu Chi Tunnels that were made and used during the Vietnam War and also a few war museums. The museums were very interesting, but man oh man was it awkward being in there as an American. The walls were just plastered with the things that the “white American devils” had done. Before we entered the tunnels they showed us a video and a good portion of it was about people who had received awards for being American killers. But besides all the awkwardness we all had a blast.

Exploring the city

 

A night on the town

 

And we totally went bowling

 

In between all the language barriers, miscommunications, cultural awkwardness and even the occasional bouts with diarrhea, many irreplaceable memories were made and everyone had a blast. This trip was one of the highlights of my service so far. Even though it was a vacation I came back exhausted. Being able to share these things in person with my friends and family is something that I will never forget. I cannot even begin to express my gratitude that I have for my friends for spending all this money just to come see me, it really meant a lot. And if anyone else wants to come visit, don’t be shy, I still have some vacation days left.

Health Workshop

So I finally stopped mooching off other peoples projects and got around to organizing one of my own. Last week I had a health workshop at one of the universities in my provincial town.  After a few weeks of brainstorming and planning, myself, along with my provincial buddies put it on and it went fairly well. Topics we covered included smoking, hand hygiene, water sanitation, nutrition, hydration and exercise.

Here are some pictures (theres also a video on facebook from the exercise lesson, I can’t load it on here):

The students

 

The panel

 

Nutrition, courtesy of Ms. Carrot

 

Hand washing

 

Exercise

 

My original plan was to have more of a health fair type thing and have the students rotate around to different rooms but after first agreeing to that idea the university changed their mind and wanted us contained in one room. It still went well though and we had a decent turnout. The staff at the school seemed very excited to have us and they have worked with Peace Corps in the past, so hopefully this is just the first of many projects I have there.

In other news: I’ve passed the 10 months in country mark since my last post and in less than two weeks I’ll have my first visitors from America, Javier and my brother; doesn’t seem real. If you want to send me anything for free get it to them soon.

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