The thousand crane birthday wish.


Hi friends.

It has been a while since I posted anything on this blog. So much has happened over the past year, which I will get to at some future point in time, but there’s something I desperately want to share with you for my birthday. A somewhat long story. Bear with me.

It starts with a square.

It starts with a square.

I spent most of 2012 in a stressful cycle of unemployment, self-doubt, and generally wondering what the hell I was doing. Friends and family – a great deal of friends – received me when I showed up with empty hands at various points throughout the year. They took care of me when they didn’t have to, made me feel like a decent human being, loved me unconditionally, and put up with my idiosyncrasies without making it seem like I was being a burden.

Earlier this year I moved to California and started a new job. I was happier in a way I hadn’t been, a sort of sustained happiness that in other contexts would make me wonder about a potential chemical imbalance in my brain. A large part of it, I think, is my realization that I have a book of unpayable debt toward those who have shown me hospitality, a debt that cannot be paid back with any sort of equivalence.

Anyway. At some point in April I spent an evening browsing through all the people I know on various social media sites. I can’t remember what started me down this path (maybe seeing a long-ago friend popping up?) but something clicked while browsing through the lives of a hundred or so people that I hadn’t thought about in a long time. I eventually thought to myself, “Each of them has contributed to this moment of pure bliss in my life. It is because of them – all of them – that I am where I am today.” The old friends, family, new friends, exes, tricks, former and current coworkers, people I hadn’t yet met in real life, people who I met once – I could easily connect about a thousand or so people, remember something about them and how they helped shape who I am today.

I think that’s the closest thing to spiritual ecstasy I’ve come across.

To say that I was overwhelmed is an understatement.

So. A thousand people. At some point that night I recalled the story of the thousand cranes (senbazuru). A crane, in Japanese mythology, lives 1,000 years and is capable of all sorts of fantastic shit. A legend says that if you make 1,000 origami cranes within a year, you get a wish granted. Or the crane-maker gets eternal luck. Or health and longevity. Who really knows; the beauty of Japanese legends is that so much is non-canonical, probably on purpose.

You might remember the thousand crane legend because of Sadako Sasaki, a victim of Hiroshima who eventually succumbed at age 12 to bomb-induced leukemia and tried to make 1,000 cranes when she was told she had a year to live. It’s a popular story. She may or may not have finished them all before she died (again with the Japanese legends). It’s not really important if she did or didn’t, I think.

While remembering about the story I thought to myself, hey, I could probably (with some help) name 1,000 people that have molded me into the person I am today.

So I started making cranes. One for each person in my life that I could remember.

I started by ripping out pages from a catalog and practicing. Then I started folding in earnest with any paper I could find. I would fold a crane, and think about details. What someone looked like when I first met them. The arguments we got into. That class we took together once. High school. Peace Corps. Road trips. Roommates. That party that turned into a shitshow. Sunrises and sunsets. How you hugged. What I missed about you. I would remember, and I would smile, even if it was a memory colored with pain or embarrassment.

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Some of the cranes have rips in them, some of them have beaks that look like they’ve been broken, some of them have wings turned-up like they’re giving a high-five to other cranes. My hands were cold, or I was still new to this, or I had cheap paper. But I kept folding. Perfection wasn’t the goal; just a few minutes with each one spent thinking about the people in my life.

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Last week, when I was almost finished, I started writing names on the underside of one wing on each crane. I probably wrote your name on one of them.

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I finished the last crane and the last name on my birthday. It took me 8 months, working alone and largely in secret, and I made 1,000 cranes for you.

That I finished the last crane on my birthday was intentional. Birthdays have never been a big deal for me, and I never want anything for them. Not only was my birthday a good 8 months or so away from when I started folding (1000 cranes takes some time to make), it also would give me an opportunity to try and give something on my birthday to the people that have helped me get to this point.

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So then, the wish. I have enough luck; the past 30 years has been one of nearly unbearable privilege and fortune. I’m in good enough health. I don’t want to live forever. But since birthday wishes are the only ones that count, and good wishes for other people are the only ones that work out, I’m going to combine my crane wish and my birthday wish to make a sort of super-mega-wish. Nothing abstract, nothing huge and world-altering, just one small wish for a thousand people. A small wish for you.

For my birthday, and for the cranes, I wish the next year to be full of health and happiness for you.

That’s it. Nothing would thrill me more than for that to happen.

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Over the course of the next week or so, I plan on stringing the cranes up around my house. They’ll flutter around, be rained on, fall off and turn to mush. That’s part of the legend: I have to keep them and they have to fall apart. They’re imperfect and they’re impermanent, and that’s okay. Know that somewhere in Sacramento there is, or was, a crane with your name on it, a name I wrote because your presence is important to me, and your life matters.

Thanks for the first 11,000 or so days, everyone.

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Postscript. There is something that also went through my head as I was folding over this past year. It was hidden from me for a long time, locked in the back of my mind, and it took me a few months to figure out I was thinking about it at the same time. You may or may not find it interesting.

Two interrelated stories. I know, again with the stories!

First: I had a friend of mine die rather suddenly over a winter break back when I was attending university. I saw her just before break, and a few weeks later she was gone. While attending the first day of a philosophy course taught by Lani Roberts, she stopped class during her introduction to talk about my friend. She said (and I’m paraphrasing here, as the fog of time has blurred the exact words), “I just wanted to acknowledge that Gina was supposed to be in class with us, and that her life mattered.”

I was floored. I had never heard someone say, “Your life matters,” but it suddenly became the Most Important Thing. It seemed so simple. Your life matters.

Then: I have had a few times in my life where I have found myself broken and stuck believing that my life did not matter. I have had the privilege of having friends and family pull me up from my pit, corner me, let me fail, love me unconditionally, haul my ass from hell to back, and support me throughout. People who, in their own ways, told me that my life mattered. That my presence was important to them. I remembered these moments when I was walking through the lives of my friends and family at the beginning of this endeavor, and I am humbled by their love. I hold fast to those memories whenever I encounter moments of self-doubt about the value of my life.

So I want to make sure this is absolutely clear, in case you find yourself in the same position. Your presence is important to me, and your life matters.

Thanks again.

What’s in a Name?


For the first 26 years of my life the name I introduced myself with – the name I went by with friends, family, teachers, essentially everyone I met – was Luke. Simple. Short. Even when I lived in Japan I went by Luke to all my relatives, even though Japanese has no equivalent sound to “L” and everything comes out with a trilled and rolled “R.” Oh well. Luke is an uncommon name, but people in the States at least are familiar with it because of Star Wars and the bible.

(As an aside: that piece about the bible is interesting, because my brother John and I happen to have the names of two of the Gospels, yet we were both named for other people, and not raised with the bible. When adults heard both our names, I would often hear “Where are Matthew and Mark?” accompanied by a chuckle and wonder why everyone thought we had two more brothers. I didn’t understand the reference until I was almost an adult.)

When I was younger sometimes kids spelled my name wrong (“Luck”), and occasionally I had to explain that my name wasn’t short for Lucas, and I didn’t spell it Luc (how French!). But those were the easy problems because, see, Luke is my middle name, and wherever my legal name was used (school, banks, passports) my first name was listed as Masayuki. If I ever had a new teacher, or a substitute teacher, I would always turn into a ball of anxiety when roll was being called. I would listen intently and figure out when we were approaching my name, and when I started hearing the teacher inevitably stutter out with that longggggggggggg pause after the beginning part of my name (“Ma… Sa…….?” as if the question-voice made up for my name being apparently unpronounceable), I would preempt them and shout out “HERE!” and explain that I go by my middle name, Luke.

I didn’t want to have a painful name, a name that made adults who were normally very calm and collected throw out the question-voice and the eyes straining and the forehead lines forming every time they looked at it. I didn’t want to have to explain (again) how to pronounce Masayuki, that I was born in Japan, that I am part Japanese, that my middle name really was “Luke” and not the way I shortened “Masayuki” or translated it into English, that no, I don’t speak Japanese, or no, I don’t know what my name means (translation is a tricky bastard). It was just a name, one that I wasn’t particularly attached to. It bothered me at the time that no one else seemed to get these questions on the scale and magnitude that I did. Nor did anyone care about the etymology of “Luke” or the meaning behind it or what it implied about me. Luke is invisible in ways that Masayuki is not, and for someone who can pass as Probably-White-But-Not-Brown-Enough-To-Matter most of the time, being invisible was tantamount to being treated “the same” as “everyone else.”

The anxiety largely disappeared after high school, when I had to begin using my full name for credit cards, student ID at university, official student email, and all the other things adults routinely do. And my middle name would frequently be reduced to an initial, a reminder that it wasn’t what came first on my passport. People were fine with it. People liked my first name, even though I didn’t go by it. They thought it was neat to have a unique name, an ethnic name. I rarely talked about the widespread over-determination of my life it *still* managed to invoke among, well, almost everyone.

For example: once when I went into the student health building to pick up my graduate health insurance card, handed the woman behind the counter my student ID, exchanged a few words about how I was looking to pick up my card, and waited… and waited… and waited, as the person took my card, looked at my name, and started shuffling through a large stack of papers. She couldn’t find my paperwork, she said – did I just turn it in that day? No, I replied. Last week. She went back to looking. I’m having a minor panic attack inside because if they don’t have my paperwork, I’ve missed the enrollment period and am now without insurance until next term. She goes into another room I hear more paper shuffling. She asks another employee if there is another pile of forms. She says no. Commence sweating. First woman asks the second if she has seen my paperwork. Second woman looks at my ID, looks at me, turns to the first and says “Uh, I think I saw him over in the domestic student pile.” First woman, without asking, thought I was an international student. They have specific requirements for health insurance coverage and enrollment forms, which are kept separate from the domestic student health plans. If she had asked me I would have told her that no, I wasn’t an international student.

For example: the number of times at university where someone would email me out of the blue to ask for an appointment for something / clarification about a form I filled out / following up on something and I would call them, inevitably hearing “Oh… you don’t sound like I thought you would” and wondering if it’s because you thought I was a woman (Masayuki doesn’t really code for gender if you don’t know Japanese first names), or if you thought I didn’t speak English very well and surprise! I can form sentences together and make coherent thoughts most of the time!

For example: when I would email someone and then show up, and would (again, this happened so often I picked up on it) be told that I don’t look like what they thought I would look like. I guess I forgot to wear my kimono? Or maybe they thought I was a petite Japanese woman again? Interesting to me is that this happened (much more rarely) if I went by Luke, too – I assume is because I look more ethnic than they thought? I don’t really know, and asking those sorts of questions will make someone really defensive really fast.

Around the time I started graduate school, I got tired of feeling like I had to explain my first name, and why I went by my middle name. If I was going to have to do this so often – it came up with nearly everyone I met at some point – what was the point of going by “Luke”? So I started shortening things to ML Sugie, first in my writing. “ML Sugie” doesn’t really code for gender or a foreign ethnicity, so maybe I would be able to escape the horrors of an Ambiguously Foreign Name, if only in what I wrote, and if only for my academics. My little bubble where I can be invisible again.

Then, I joined the Peace Corps. A chance to start with a group of strangers, none of whom knew me as Luke. So I switched to my first name, and shortened it to Masa – four letters, just like Luke. “Masa” is also pretty compatible with Spanish, and quirky enough to be memorable. Some people called me Mas, some people called me Masa, people back home called me Luke – it was great. All my names were being used. I wasn’t confused, except when pausing to change my name to “Masa” when I would share stories from my past that involved other people speaking my name.

Now I’m out of the Peace Corps. I still go by both names, although I introduce myself as “Masa” now and not “Luke”. I respond to either and don’t care if my pre-Peace Corps friends still call me Luke, which is pretty confusing for lots of people (how does one introduce their old friend Luke, who goes by Masa now?) but not for me.

But.

But.

But!

I’m also applying to jobs. I have had an agonizing, excruciating time looking for gainful employment. Part of me wants to believe that it’s just a terrible economy. A greater part of me remembers everything that I’ve experienced with my first name, and wonders how many people will pass over “Masayuki” if they have a similarly qualified Daniel or Jennifer in front of them. Basically, does “Masayuki Sugie, former Peace Corps Volunteer, MA in Applied Ethics, BS in Chemical Engineering” look like “Foreigner McSushi who earned a Black Belt in origami (flower arranging $5 extra) and speak English good” to everyone who doesn’t know me? Each time I see something that says “Please Print Full Legal Name” I think to myself, should I even bother? How bad is it if I just drop my first name while I am job searching, and will it look like I’m lying when people figure out that I did? I’ve even started looking for jobs that I know I am just slightly overqualified for as a chance to control for the “shit economy” excuse, but the response has been the same – in that case, I’ve probably become an overqualified person with a foreign name (which probably raises all sorts of racist red flags).

This is, of course, not a new phenomenon for people with “strange” or “foreign” sounding names. And I know that. The anxiety ball has returned, only instead of the teachers with the question voice and crinkled brow, I wonder if it is employers, and I wonder at what point I’ll just give in and go back to Luke out of desperation.

The title of this post references Romeo and Juliet, where Juliet declares:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.

To which I respond: yeah, well, it’s not your particular feelings about Romeo that creates the problems here, eh?

Camp it up!


Sunrise at Sandia Crest

Sunrise at Sandia Crest

Transitions are usually okay for me because you know I was born and raised in the borderlands so the expectation of difference is hardwired in me right? But then I get stuck in walmart staring at a wall of plastic bags or I hear the fridge turn off and I think OH GREAT THEY MUST HAVE TURNED OFF THE POWER and then whoops I’m stuck in dissonance unable to function in this country again.

Take last weekend for example. We went “camping” at some reservoir south of Albuquerque. Upon hearing “camping” I think great! I’m prepared for this Peace Corps was basically two years of camping and that wasn’t so bad plus I’ll be near water and there’ll be booze HOORAY. I pack my bag (sleeping bag, some clothes, toiletries, TOILET PAPER) and we’re off! The car is full of snacks lots of pillows an enormous tent and even an extra sleeping bag. I sign off and let people know that I’ll be gone for the weekend. First we stop at this famous diner place to have a green-chile cheeseburger – so good – and then we finally get to the campground. The park has a staffed entrance and there are lots of RV’s around which I find funny because RV’s are basically like taking your house with you no? You might as well just rent a motel room.

So we get there and not only are there real bathrooms with hot water showers but there’s also lighting, electricity, WiFi, 3G phone service, water, and an outdoor covered eating area. I’m like I BROUGHT TOILET PAPER and the boys just laugh at me harhar.

This “camp” site is with the exception of the lack of walls and a roof far better than any Peace Corps housing I ever had during my service which is to say if I was comparing comfort I’d put

AMERICAN CAMPING > PEACE CORPS HOUSING

Which I mean basically makes sense but it’s hard to sit there thinking that this is camping when it’s really just sleeping in a sleeping bag and not having a refrigerator (but supermarkets nearby) for two days. I mean 4 months ago I was sitting in my house chain-smoking in bed because we had no power, it was too hot to sleep, half the food in the fridge was spoiling and we had no water for days. Some days I think OMG gas stove functional fridge and carpet – THIS IS HEAVEN! NIRVANA HERE I AM! JACKPOT! And then my memory gets fuzzy (repression?) about Peace Corps stuff and I think oh, it wasn’t that hard, but then I remember how awful and frustrated I was for a long time hmmmmm.

Also! Apparently when you go camping and then go off somewhere else for the day you just leave all your stuff out? I was informed that we were all going to the lake so I’m in the tent getting ready to go and casually trying to figure out the best spot to bury the good silver in case we get robbed but then I realized that no one else was doing that so I sort of cautiously decided to maybe leave everything there? I kept thinking BUT SOMEONE CAN JUST UNZIP THE TENT AND TAKE EVERYTHING! but I guess that doesn’t happen so much here, question mark?

Basically America makes me forget how hard it is to do even the simplest things in non-America settings except for those strange times when my brain hasn’t caught up yet and I catch it in readjustment.

ALSO! My project partner got a scholarship to go to the United States for two years to learn English and work on environmental science things. She’s basically brilliant and incredibly hardworking and we all wanted her to further her education because she comes from SMALL TOWN DOMINICAN REPUBLIC which is to say that her opportunities for further formal learning is pretty limited no?

SHE ENDED UP IN GRESHAM, OREGON! Basically across Portland from where I grew up. So I spent over a year in her hometown, and now she gets to spend a few years in my home turf, which I find endlessly funny – it’s like we had an exchange program set up only no one knew. She posts pictures of going places in and around Portland and I’m like “WEIRD, I KNOW THOSE PLACES” and then think back like 6 months ago when her and I were in a group cooking spaghetti in a giant pot outdoors over a wood fire beside a river and now she’s all staying with a host family in Portland. Life is strange like that.

I told her to look into taking vitamin D pills when winter comes because lord have mercy, she’s dark and used to tropical sun, and Portland weather is basically going to eat her alive.

Post-apocalyptic Wasteland

Post-apocalyptic Wasteland

This is on part of my run. Basically it’s a failed subdevelopment, with streets and some retaining walls and sidewalks and streetlights but it’s not going to have houses anytime soon. Sort of freaky post-apocalyptic, no?

I’m still job searching which is to say that I have learned many techniques for exercising at home and keeping everything clean. Basically I am going to write a housekeeping book like Hints from Heloise except it’s going to be Tips While Tipsy about how to keep your house clean while holding onto a Martini glass the entire time.

Now that I’m in Albuquerque on a more or less semi-permanent basis COME VISIT! It’s warm and pretty and warm and fun here. Warm.

No Such Thing As a Quick Trip to the Store


America!

So Peace Corps is all like “Hey Volunteer, when you get back the transition back home might be harder than the transition into your host country” because you know we’ve been gone for 2 years 3 months doing something in places that are usually nothing at all like America. Basically if it were a SAT analogy question it would be like this:

Host country : America ::

(A) dog : giant squid
(B) bird : Saturn
(C) baby : CCCP
(D) pony : ennui
(E) ALL OF THE ABOVE

And Peace Corps is all like “IT’S THE LAST ONE, HAHAHAHAHAHA!” except I was born in the borderlands so the transition was weird but not as weird as say the American prediliction to complain about the smallest things and be overwhelmed with “consumer choice” which I’m pretty sure is American for “MANY ROUTES TO EXPLOITATION.”

For example let’s say you’re coming back from Peace Corps and want to find a decent pair of shoes because all you currently have are sneakers, dress shoes, and a pair of street shoes that threaten to rapidly fall apart if you wear them every day. Lets say you go to the mall to find a shoe and you walk into a store to try and find a comfortable shoe you can walk around in and then you find yourself staring at this:

Wall of shoes.

OMG, SHOES!

And each shoe is just *slightly* different than the one before it, and yet somehow you have to pick out one that will work for you. Capitalism is exhausting, how am I supposed to think about anything other than IS THIS A GOOD DEAL OR NOT AND WILL I REGRET MY PURCHASE?!?! I don’t have time to think about the eventual proletariat overthrow of the bourgeois, because OMG NORDIES IS HAVING A SALE!

Another example: the other day I had to go pick up some plastic baggie things, like a ziploc, which in theory should be easy right? And then I get to my local superstore (American for “TEMPLE OF CAPITALISM”) and find myself staring at a wall of plastic bag products:

A row or plastic bags in Walmart

The plastic bag section at a local superstore. WHY!?

Question: If I want to just pick up some quart-sized bags and some gallon-sized bags, how long do you think it would take me to pick them out from the Wall of Plastic Bags? Answer: 6 minutes, no joke. Every time I picked a box up of what I thought was what I wanted, there was something else that might have caught my eye for consideration. Every possible permutation seemed to be there: freezer or regular, snack or sandwich or quart or gallon, zip-top or press-top, 20 or 24 or 32 or 50 or 100 or 200 bags. Based on the math alone there were approximately eleventy-billion different combinations I was searching through (rounded down) which the store had managed to somehow contain using some sort of spacetime portal from the future into a 15 foot space of shelving. After two years where I had on average between 0 and 3 choices for any sort of plastic bag at any given store I didn’t know what to do. Luckily for me a nice woman who accidentally wandered into the Vortex of Plastic also commented that “I didn’t know there were so many options for plastic bags” which made me feel relieved but then I wanted to shake her and say “WHEN DID THIS HAPPEN? WHO WAS IN CHARGE OF THE CHANGE?! WHERE CAN I FIND THEM!!” but decided against it.

This happens to me a lot. A “simple trip” to grab “a few things” ends up taking an hour and I come back with (generally) a cart of fresh fruit and vegetables and some type of cheese you know all the things I craved during my service. Fast food, with the exception of the first week I was here and was like “DORITOS TACO AND SPICY CHICKEN SANDWICH NOM NOM NOM NOM FOOD GOES IN THE FOOD HOLE,” has generally not been on my radar as potential options (thanks for training me out of that, Peace Corps!)

Here’s a list of plusses and minuses from Masa’s Thoughts on Coming to America:

+ Electricity is on all the time… but if I hear the fridge cycle on I think the electricty has come back and wonder which of my electronics to plug in and charge
– Paying in dollars is hard, because I first have to convert it to Pesos, and then I usually get outraged at prices
– Why does the light in the water dispenser in the door of the refrigerator dim?
+ Water comes out of the tap and I can drink it!… but I am still paranoid about tap water and spit when I brush as well as avoid getting shower water in my mouth
+ The internet is fast and almost always available!
+ AIR CONDITIONING!
– Air conditioning (brrrr)
+- My name confuses everyone, which is pretty much par for the course
– People seem very polite if your interaction is short or there is no commitment to maintaining a relationship, but seems that the longer folks think they have to interact with you the less friendly they get, like in this chart I’ve made:

Friendliness vs. Time

Friendliness vs. Time Spent Interacting

It’s weird because I’m used to neighbors always talking to you and instead here it’s like “THIS IS MY CASTLE DON’T MAKE EYE CONTACT WE DON’T EXIST.”

In conclusion, America is a strange place to return to and things like omelette bars and Chinese buffets and 24/stores are weird when you really think about it and what the hell is wrong with the suburbs? THE END!

Coming to America!


I successfully finished up my service as a volunteer with the Peace Corps on May 12th! Two years and three months on the island of Hispaniola, living in the tropics and pretending that I can speak Spanish!

Now that I’ve been back for a bit, I feel as though I have the time and thoughts to start writing again. Especially after the crazy whirlwind of the last few months of service and two months in the US, and just hauling myself and my dog and all my posessions back to the States. So let’s take stock from roughly December onward, eh?

December: Troy and Brazil visited during the same time as my birthday which was possibly the best thing that could have ever happened. Ever. They brought me about 10 pounds of Reese’s products, including a few that I hadn’t seen before. My heart clogged instantly from the sight of the bag.

Nom nom nom.

Then, Cody stopped by again on the way from Jacmel, Haiti to Switzerland. This time for multiple days, so we could hang out at my house and in the capital! Monte flew in shortly afterward, so we all got to hang out – I think it was the first time all three of us had been in the same place in years. And of course it had to be in a 3rd country. That was fun. Took Monte to the 27 Charcos (the waterfalls) as well, which would now be the 3rd time. I think I could start giving tours. Our guide remembered me from when Sophia and I went in July.

Next up was the 50th Anniversary of PCDR conference. I was preparing for a rather large media- and information-gathering project at conference, where there were several hundred returned and current volunteers hanging out, giving presentations, showcasing what we do today, and talking about what we’ve done in the past 50 years of development work on the island. My big part in the shindig involved figuring out a way to smoothly and efficiently gather as much historical information about volunteers and their service as we could in the fairly narrow 3-day window of the conference. We achieved it and then some – several thousand documents and photos scanned, basic information from pretty much the entire conference (including one man who was very concerened about his privacy), and a few dozen video interviews. I was working with an awesome team, which helped tons. Basically the Dominican Republic in the 1960’s and 1970’s = less electricity, water, cars, but still friendly people and the same food.

The day after the conference ended, I began a project to interpret for a medical mission. Med missions are when doctors/nurses/dentists/etc. come from abroad to practice no-cost medicine here. They bring tons (not joking) of medical supplies depending on the mission type, and they usually don’t have very many Spanish speakers among them. Thus, Peace Corps volunteers are used to help interpret between Dominicans and the doctors. I was lucky enough to go on one of the most coveted missions involving plastic surgeons who came to correct lip/palate deformities in children, and deal with scars (burn or otherwise). It’s a great mission for several reasons: they put you up in this extremely nice hotel, and the work they do is astonishing. At one point they pulled back a woman’s scalp in order to correct a droopy eye. Have you ever seen someone’s skull while they’re alive? It was fascinating, and I learned that I could never do surgery.

Then it was off to our close-of-service conference, where we hung out at a hotel for a few days, pooped into cups (always with the stool samples, Peace Corps!) and talked about post-PC life and options. Basically we are awesome, the job climate is pretty terrible, lots of people are going to graduate school, and we’ve almost all made it through the entire 2 years. Which is pretty impressive, that we’ve had less than 10% of my training class leave significantly early.

Then we had about 10 weeks to wrap everything up. EVERYTHING. I had to pack up my life (again) and get ready to move, AND figure out how to get my dog out of the country with me to Americaville!

In case you’re wondering (current PCDR Volunteers), here’s how the dog process worked. My dog is a 25-pound street dog, medium-sized, sweet, good at travel, and potty trained. With that in mind, here was my process:

  1. Pick a flight where the outside temperature was going to be less than 85 degrees – so, the 2am flight to JFK.
  2. Call Delta, tell them I’m bringing a dog to go underneath in checked luggage.
  3. Worry for several weeks that Delta doesn’t really understand that I’M BRINGING A DOG WITH ME.
  4. Get a pet carrier that’s big enough to hold her standing up without touching the sides. One of the Peace Corps doctors loves pets and helped me (and several other volunteers) find a cheap cage. For my dog, it was about RD$3,500.
  5. Make sure Tanuki was fully vaccinated at least 30 days before my flight. My vet was very good about getting the paperwork in order. The official price for the health certificate is set at RD$1,000, and you can only get it the week before you fly out. The vaccines were almost the same price, and those were done months before.
  6. Train Tanooks to get into the carrier and not freak out. It took her a few days, but she was fine.
  7. Get to the airport several hours before my flight. Pay RD$500 to get an “Agricultural Export” form from an official government agent.
  8. Pay US$220 ($200 + tax) to fly her as checked luggage. Fill out lots more paperwork. They put stickers on the carrier.
  9. Fly. Get nervous that Tanuki isn’t really on the flight – HOW WILL I KNOW?!
  10. Take her through customs and show all the paperwork I have – particularly, the vaccination paperwork.
  11. Check her back in after going through the maze that is JFK. Pick her up at the destination.

Total Cost: Roughly $400. The alternative was that I spend no money and leave her in the Dominican Republic, but that would be an almost guaranteed painful-and-early death sentence. I couldn’t do that to her after taking care of her for almost two years.

Plus, she’s super adorable. So says everyone.

She was very happy to no longer be on the plane. I had to go through 4 different airports (SDQ – JFK – Minneapolis – Albuquerque) because of the flight I picked, and the total time she spent in the carrier was about 17 hours. :( She didn’t defecate or urinate in the cage (thank god), and she was very calm for most of it.

So here I am. Back in America. Unemployed, looking for a job, crashing with a friend in a place where I’ve never lived or even visited prior to moving, with my dog. It’s been… strange… coming back. I’ll say more later. Most of it has to do with buying things and what does or does not light up in American homes.

Besos y abrazos!

Project 365: …let’s just say this covers the last few months…


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Tanuki being rude.

Let’s just say that this post is a collection of photos from the last few months, since I pretty much abandoned Project 365 a while back. I’m going to get back to posting more frequently. Oh, and this is a photo of my dog, who, as you can clearly see, enjoys being lifted high into the air.

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The pets are so cute.

And here is Max and Tanuki, sleeping.

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The Hibiscus trees outside my yard.

Pink and red Hibiscus bushes/trees outside. They’re about 8 feet tall now and always blooming.

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View from a resort we snuck into in Samana.

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Chicken and the cat

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New York, New York! Er... I mean, Santo Domingo! Santo Domingo!

The very nice and new Metro system in Santo Domingo.

An update


P365:17-08-11

Fifa (big dog), Max (little cat), random pig, and Mama (chicken, on the right)

The animals (minus my dog, Tanuki) in the backyard. They all get along rather well.

A GIGANTIC update of some things that have happened to me in the last few months. Now with internet more available at my site, hopefully I’ll be able to post more often!

~~~~~

Everything’s free in America!
…for a small fee in America!

Visited the states for the first time in a little over a year and four months. A number of people in my cohort went back in December for family things, but I was like GO HOME WHEN IT’S EVEN COLDER AND RAINIER THAN USUAL? NO WAY. So instead I decided to go back during July/August for 3 weeks, the hottest time of the year in the states.

We land in Miami after our early flight and have to go through customs and immigration. On my customs form I list that I’m a U.S. citizen with residence in the Dominican Republic, and the customs guy looks at me and goes “What the fuck? You’re a resident of the Dominican Republic?” and I go “Yeah, I’m doing Peace Corps there?” in sort of a question voice because WHY IS THIS A BIG DEAL THAT I PUT IT DOWN?! Why would I lie about that? “Oh yes, I was just in the DR to hang out on the beach and drink out of coconuts but I thought it’d be fun to list my place of residence as the DR.” He says “OK, go ahead” and so I pass through. Then we’re in the Miami airport for a few hours waiting for a flight to Dallas and then to Portland so of course we try and find some lunch. We settle on Wendy’s, and I stare intently at something called “The Baconator” which appeals to my inner sense of gluttony. Anything that roughly works out to mean “The Baconer” seems like a heaping pile of DELICIOUS to me, so I order it. It’s basically meat, cheese, bacon, sauce. No veggies. Welcome back to America, make sure to undue your belt at least a notch.

For the record, it was DELICIOUS.

Then we fly to Dallas, and since we have a few hour layover there we grab some more food. This time I get a Taco Bell XXL Grilled Stufft Burrito (notice the delicious spelling of “Stuffed”). It is also delicious and too much but I love it.

Waiting for the flight to Portland was amusing because as time wore on more and more white people showed up who looked like they were from Portland – families looking pale and wearing shorts reading books, people on iPhones, cute hipsters, lesbians with bad haircuts… basically the Portland that I know and love and missed so much. Then we get on the flight and I realize that I AM THE BROWNEST PERSON ON THE PLANE. Where are all the darker-skinned people?! (To note: I know where they are. Not in Oregon, thanks to sundown laws and the presence of the KKK up until the 50’s).

Ah Oregon in summer! We landed in Portland it was cloudy, slightly rainy, and cold. And by “cold” I mean 60 degrees, which in Dominican translates as “COLDER THAN MY FRIDGE CAN GET AND ALMOST AS COLD AS A BEER.” It was loveellyyyy to be under many layers of comforters and sheets at night and not worry that I was about to give myself HEAT STROKE. Also the lack of mosquitos was a nice change as I am used to slapping my arms and legs frequently and also smelling and tasting bug spray all day long, as the mosquitos seem to love my blood for some reason, probably because I look like I would just have the MOST FUN being infected by Dengue, like “Oh Masa’s just loving the bone aches! Look at him dance!” sort of a party.

Things that surprised me about America:
– Everyone’s house looked like a resort hotel
– …except for my former roommates house in Corvallis, which looked like a workshop (which it is)
– Other names for the west coast: “The Cold Coast,” “The Pretty Coast,” “The Green Northwest,” “Land of Hipsters and Wine,” “Ironyland”
– California is mainly a desert – which I guess I knew, but forget since I’ve never really stayed in the valley until this trip
– America has everything. Seriously. Everything. And lots of it.
– EVERYTHING (generally) WORKS

So in summation I was cold for pretty much the entire trip, was amazed at how pretty and trash-free everything was, ate too much, drank too much, and was busy seeing people and hanging out pretty much non-stop.

Getting back was fun and also depressing because Aidan and I flew out of SFO the last night and so hung out in downtown San Francisco. It was like some sort of alternate reality where there was fog, it was cold (so cold!), and everyone was gay or gay friendly. Then in the morning we had to hop onto a flight and come back to muggy hot Santo Domingo, where the gayest thing you can find are tiny gay clubs and a gay park at night. Sigh. But it’s good to be back and see my Peace Corps people, and my dog, and my town.

ALSO, when did those gigantic flatscreen TV’s become the standard that everyone has? Every house I walked into seemed to have a very similar style of gigantic display. That was definitely not the way I remembered it.

~~~~~

I basically live on a farm with a dog, a cat, three+ chickens (depending on if other chickens stop by) as well as the pigs that root through the backyard on the search for this disgusting-smelling fruit called NONI (Dominican for “WHO NEEDS A SENSE OF SMELL?”). Except for the skittish pigs ALL the animals have become adept at sneaking into the house and catching me unawares, the other day I heard birds chirping near my window but then realized it was just CHICKENS STUCK IN MY MOSQUITO NET so I had to extricate them and chase them around and out of the house with a broom. I’ve taken to putting a bell on my little dog because she’s some sort of dog ninja who just WHOOSH appears out of nowhere and the next thing you see is everything but her head sticking out of the trash can and then I’m yelling “HEY! STOP THAT! GET OUT! GET OUT GET OUT!” and shooing my dog out the back. She’s also small enough that she can get through the 3″ space between the iron bars by turning her hips SIDEWAYS like some sort of cockroach or mouse and then she’s off being a street dog somewhere. I’ve received reports that she’s followed my project partner back to her house and hung out there for a while, went over to another Peace Corps volunteers house for a day or two, and REGULARLY SHOWS UP AT A NEIGHBORS HOUSE FOR LUNCH cause she can. Ay yi yi, my dog is basically a street rat with long legs and a pretty collar that has a bell.

One day in the morning she went out and we didn’t see her for a few hours, not to worry, I thought, I’ll probably just see her in the main street on my way to work. Sure enough there she is walking the opposite direction I am, back toward the house, and she sees me and runs toward me. I guess she makes it to the other side of town, stopping to say hi to everyone on her way. I think more people know who Tanuki is than they know who I am, especially because they get me mixed up with the Cuban American volunteer in town, and the Mexican American volunteer who lives in the hills around our town. I am “generally brown” anywhere I go!

Oh oh, the cat only eats dog food, the chickens prefer dog food to chicken feed, and the dog prefers a mixture of chicken feed and used diapers (hence her nickname: DIAPER LIPS). Figuring out who’s food goes where is a nightmare, I basically fill up the big dog dish several times a day and occasionally add chicken feed and old food because all the animals gather around it like some of Serengeti watering hole. My dog is clearly a vulture – if it’s rotting, she’ll eat it!

On the plus side I guess this means she’s pretty independent and self-sufficient which I guess is all we can hope for out of our kids right? MOM – I SYMPATHIZE NOW!

The cat is tiny and basically sleeps all the time which is great because that means he’s pretty independent but TERRIBLE because it means he is an incredibly heavy sleeper. Add to this the fact that he’s also skinny and barely breathes when he’s sleeping and you have these two situations happen:

1) Me and another Peace Corps volunteer have enjoyed ourselves a few beers at the end of a long hot week, and the power’s out, and it’s late, and bedtime is approaching. I’m in the kitchen when I hear a sheepish “Masa…. Masa, I think Max (the cat) has died…” I go in to investigate with my flashlight and he’s upside down and his paws look like they’re frozen mid-run. He’s not moving. I poke him. Nothing. He feels stiff. “Oh my GOD! I think he’s dead!” I say, and back away. We’re both shocked. We wait and he still doesn’t move at all. Then I decide to do another test: I shake the chair and clap next to his face. He wakes up, stretches, and looks at me like “WHY DID YOU INTERRUPT MY NAP!?!”

2) Again with a Peace Corps volunteer, I’m in the kitchen and Max is on a pile of clothes. “Masa… I think the cat’s dead… again.” I go “AGAIN? REALLY?” and go to investigate. Same dead-looking pose, no movement, although the lights are on this time. I poke him… nothing. I sort of shove him. Nothing. Looks like he’s kicked the bucket this time – AND ON SOME CLOTHES, NO LESS. Then I get down low and start clapping wildly and stomping my feet. AGAIN, he wakes up, stretches, and looks at me like I’m being rude. Dead cat crisis: averted.

He’s basically part possum.

~~~~~

THE ODYSSEY OF GETTING MY KINDLE! (DUN DUN DUN!)

A while back I made a financial calculation between getting a 3G internet card down here using one of the cell providers in town or getting a Kindle with free 3G internet access shipped from the U.S. Well I did the calculation and the Kindle was only a smidge more expensive than the internet card (over the course of the next year or so I’m here), but I would be able to keep it after my service so being a book lover and technology enthusiast (read: techwhore), I OF COURSE opted for the Kindle. Aidan received one here in country from Amazon.com with no problem, so I figured WHAT THE HELL it’ll probably get here fine, right?

OH BIG WRONG. It arrived in country really fast (I think 3 days), but then was held up in customs because you know apparently any package with a declared value over $200 means OF COURSE you should pay an import duty equivalent to something like 50% of the cost, which OF COURSE is automatically added to your shipping costs from good ol’ DHL Shipping. My package was $203 because I had it shipped with a cover for the Kindle. A COVER. I call and oh look DHL has an English option on the phone which is great because I don’t speak CUSTOMS or GOVERNMENTESE so I beeeeeep I press that one and of course the person answering says “Gracias por su llamada, coma le ayudo hoy?” and I’m like WELL HERE GOES NOTHING. After navigating for several minutes in Spanish about what exactly I was supposed to do to get my stuff out of customs I hang up thinking that everything was going to be okay, they would simply ship it to the office, where the front desk person would pay the customs cost and I would pay them when I picked it up.

WRONG WRONG WRONG.

I get a call a week or two later reminding me to pay things, and I’m like “BUT YOU SAID YOU’D TAKE CARE OF IT?” and they just go on and on repeating the same thing whenever I ask a question about it, which is so frustrating. Eventually we finish and I restate that I’d like them to send my package to my office and figure that’s the end of it.

WRONG.

I get an email shortly afterward and it turns out I have to somehow get them the money before they’ll even consider moving my stuff out of customs, which is a chore because the warehouse is at the airport. AT. THE. AIRPORT. In Santo Domingo, which is 7+ hours from my site.

SIGH.

So, I’m finally in the capital and decide to spend an extra day just to go to the airport and figure out 1) where on Earth my package is, and 2) how the hell I can get it out of customs purgatory. I get to the airport and then wander over to the customs building, and am immediately accosted by several Dominicans who offer to “help me through the process for a small fee” which is Dominican for “WE ADVOCATE TO KEEP THIS PROCESS DIFFICULT SO YOU’LL REGRET NOT USING US TO HELP YOU.” I, of course, decline their services, thinking to myself, “how hard can it be? It’s just customs,” which I’m sure are famous last words of people who’ve tried to retrieve their packages and years later we find their skeletons somewhere in the building since they died of WAITING and MENTAL ANGUISH.

Get up to the customs window and well, customs might have my kindle, but DHL actually has all the duty papers, so now I have to go through a protected customs area to get the papers from them and then come back. SIGH. So I wander through the warehouses and find DHL. I get the papers from them, and they look at me like I’m insane for even being there – like, no gringo should ever try and do this – where the hell is your Dominican helper? But being a naive and ruthless American, I persevere. I go BACK to customs and pay the import fees, and then come back to the DHL warehouse. Apparently you can’t do this online, I had to physically transfer papers between customs and DHL, and the file system at customs was insane – TWO PEOPLE in a small room rummaging through folders with numbers on them, looking for your customs receipt. It takes 10 minutes to find my file.

The absolute hilarity of being sent to work in a country to help teach IT skills to it’s people, when the government customs office has no electronic way to file documents that are all printed up on computers anyway, almost sends me into a burst of giggles right on the spot, as the two employees rifle through folders upon folders. It was only my growing sense of ABSOLUTE DREAD that held my laughter at bay.

I finally get back to DHL with my receipts and paperwork to prove that I’ve paid my customs duty. He says to take the papers to the back warehouse and let them know that I’m waiting for my package. I do, and they say they don’t have it at the moment – customs has to release it. Okay, well, I guess I’ll just… sit… over here. An hour later, nothing has happened. At this point I’ve been at customs/DHL for 3 HOURS basically shuffling paper across a parking lot and making sure to make a spectacle of myself as the disgustingly sweaty non-Dominican who looks too young to be involved with customs work. I continue waiting. It’s approaching 5pm – quitting time. So I go back to the front office and ask them why I still don’t have my package. They say that customs STILL hasn’t released it, so they don’t have it. And that they’re about to coos up – “what are you still doing here?”

I take a deep breath and SIGH – one of those DMV/Post Office-type sighs – and say okay, well then it WILL be shipped to my office tomorrow, right? Right, he nervously says after checking the address on the paperwork.

WRONG.

It’s not at the office the next day. I come back almost a week later and discover that they’ve decided to ship it to the US Embassy down the street. Why, I don’t know. To retrieve my package now involves soliciting the help of one of the Peace Corps drivers, but only one of the two of them, because only one has the magical badge that allows him access to the mailroom at the Embassy.

It was at this exact moment that I began to feel like I was trapped in some sort of grotesque Harry Potter story, whereby I have to find the hidden key to open the magical door and defeat evil before I can retrieve the sacred artifact. And of course the driver is off doing something for at least another day, so I still can’t retrieve it. At this point it has been a MONTH since the Kindle arrived in country – A MONTH – and finally – finally finally finally finally! – it arrives. I almost cried and kissed the ground and prayed to God/the gods/kami-sama for fulfilling my dreams after my adventure.

Thank you, DHL Worldwide Shipping, and especially your Dominican Republic branch, for really teaching me an important lesson about international shipping: DON’T DO IT. JUST DON’T.

My new site!


The dirty south

Yes, this is where I live.

Well. So this is a photo of where I live now. Sort of. I live in a place called Los Rios, “The Rivers,” so it’s a little bit different than what is pictured here. We have canals everywhere, lots of fruit trees, and water that appears to be running 24/7 now. But this is pretty much what it looks like everywhere else around the lake, Lago Enriquillo, which is a giant saltwater lake, the lowest point on the island (it’s below 129 below sea level) and the lowest in the Caribbean. Neat, huh? And it’s now where I call home.

More to come. I love it down here though, even if it does feel about 5 inches from hell most days.

Update covering February


Another month without a post. The post-a-day thing has really been lost on me at the moment. Some of that had to do with not having a laptop, also not having a camera, and also getting a site change.

Yes, a site change. I asked to change sites when I realized that the work was not materializing in my site, and that there probably wouldn’t be any work materializing anytime soon. So I requested a change, and at the same time I was trying to figure out where I could move to my good friend Sarah mentioned how her community was looking for an ICT/Edu volunteer to work in a few neglected computer labs. And that a volunteer looking for a site change might be best.

Sounds like a miracle, right? Except (thank you John Waters) I know that only ultra-suede is a miracle; this was merely good timing.

I spent some time down there toward the end of January and met people. An amazing community, very friendly, very excited for the possibility of me working there, very interested in community development. I even started poking around the lab and repairing computers as I could. Things seemed to be lining up nicely. At one point we go up into the loma and I can see the entire Lago Enriquillo and even into Haiti, because we are so close and so high up.

Then I was robbed and had all my stuff stolen (at knifepoint? spoonpoint? I still don’t know) while I was waiting for a bus in the morning. Well, most of my stuff. Camera, clothes, shoes, etc. Dealing with that was a chore, but luckily I have amazing friends who are visiting and have collected things to replace some of the stuff I lost.

Mikey is here now, I am writing this on the laptop that he gave me. Which is beyond awesome. So now I have a laptop. So now I can write. So now I can watch a movie occasionally. And do computer work. While the last two months have been refreshingly computer-and-internet free (for the most part), I think it’s time for me to hunker down and get back to doing productive computer things.

Okay, that’s enough for now. Have to ease myself back into computer madness. Oh, but a goal list for the next few months!

1) Quit smoking (yeah, I can hear everyone back home laughing)
2) Start yoga with Sarah at my site, and start running again, so that I can…
3) Run the Lowenbrau half-marathon in June
4) Get the computer center that is my primary project up and running
5) Start giving basic computer classes
6) Help the youth leaders with a conversational English class
7) Finish my community diagnostic at my new site so I have an idea of what other projects are available
8) Explore the beauty of the southern parts of this island

That should be good for now. When I find a camera I will snap some pics.

So an update


I know, I know, it’s been nearly a month without an update and yet you know that I have fun stories to share. Writing posts on limited computer time without a laptop is surprisingly difficult. A rough outline of where I’m at:

1) I’ve almost been here for an entire year – whoa.
2) I’m in the process of requesting a site change.
3) Tanuki is doing great, I just wish she would eat her dog food instead of her preferred food: anything she finds on the street and/or chicken bones.
4) A friend of mine is sending me his old macbook, so I have something to use.
5) THAT IS SO AWESOME!
6) In the last two months I have learned a ton about my own priorities, the things I value, the people I love, and what I need to be happy.

That’s probably good enough for now. Hopefully the pictures and posts will return soon. Miss y’all a lot – I only have a little less than 16 months left, so come visit!