Staging in Philadelphia

 

This has been a remarkable experience. The only things I can compare it to are arriving at college for the first time and the first day of school. The influx of new people into my life has been exhillarating, especially since the trainees and the four Peace Corps staff members who are leading the training are, by and large friendly, competent, and highly motivated people. It's a thrill to be in their presence.

We are joining 7,000 volunteers currently serving in 70 countries. Here's another bit of trivia (or maybe it is NOT so trivial) that we learned: the entire Peace Corps annual budget, $295 million, is equivalent to the cost of ONE B-2 bomber plane. Looks like some people are much more concerned about appropriating revenues to the armed forces than to the unarmed forces.

My training class has 23 men and 33 women. The programs in which we are working are: agro-forestry ("Ag-fo"), environmental education, community health/water sanitation, education (my program), and small enterprise development. The small enterprise development (SED) group has five people who are going to specialize in information technology; they are going by the initials ICT (information communications and technology).

Upon registering at the sign-in with Peace Corps at the hotel, we got our first money: $180, plus $13 additional for early arrivals. This is our per diem for expenses in Philadelphia. All the folks west of the Rockies had to fly in the day before so that we would be able to register on time.

On Monday night at dinner, I was talking with one of the other Trainees, Chris, and hearing about his work in film-making. I remarked to him that I have a godson, also named Chris, around his age, also a film-maker, who also studied at UNLV. So Chris asked, "What's his last name?" When I told him, he said, "I know him!"

My Philadelphia roommate also has Las Vegas roots. He is retired from the Las Vegas Police Department. Charlie beat me out by a few months to be the oldest member of our training class.

On Tuesday I was able to have lunch with my cousin Rich, who works in Philadelphia. He is my godson Chris's father, so I was able to tell him I met somebody who knows Chris. When I told Rich about my retired cop roommate, he asked me, "Does HE know Chris, too?" (Fortunately, he did not.)

We covered some basic and essential information in Philadelphia: personal safety, establishing the Volunteer safety support system, the Peace Corps approach to development, goals of the PC, coping with unwanted attention, risk reduction strategies, and policies for which we could get kicked out (though nobody uses the term "kicked out," as it is referred to as being "administratively separated").

Part of the time in Philadelphia was spent at "clinic," where we got our first shots: yellow fever, polio, and mumps/measles/rubella. I was able to talk my way out of that last one, as I am older than 50 and remember having each of those diseases.

Throughout all procedings, my fellow Trainees have proven themselves to be good-humored and very well-traveled. Despite their youthfulness (average age is 26), many have been to Africa and already done various kinds of volunteer work here. It's the humor that I appreciate most.

The training staff was excellent. All activities were well-planned and well-executed. (I have to admit I was surprised by this, as I expected it to be tedious.)

I brought my autoharp with me. As our bus left the hotel for the airport (JFK in New York), I took it out and played "The Wheels of the Bus Go Round and Round." We enjoyed the ride to the next phase!

Imagine the scene as 56 people tried to check in with everything they will need for the next two years! Once I checked in, my father showed up at the airport to say good-bye. (He lives in the next county.) And then I found I have another connection to somebody in the group. One of the Trainees came up to me and said, "I'm supposed to ask you if you know D------- J--------." She had told her parents that there was this retired San Francisco teacher in the group, so they asked if I might know their former neighbor, who also taught in San Francisco. (Yes, I do!!)

Our flights went fairly smoothly, but everyone was exhausted by the time we arrived in Nouakchott. It didn't take much to wake us up, though, as that's when we were pumped up about FINALLY being in Mauritania after the long process it took to get here! We collected our luggage and went to the PC offices in their vehicles.

The weather was in the 80's and it was overcast. There was a nice breeze. And there was also lots to do: get our welcome packets; get our first local money (3,500 ougiyas, worth about $12.25); get more shots (typhoid, rabies, meningitis); collect any valuables we want to be kept under lock and key for safekeeping; get a security briefing from the US Embassy security officer; and be welcomed by the country director (CD) and her associate PC directors (APCDs). There is one APCD for each program, and we will be reporting directly to our APCD, so these are important folks!

We stayed in Nouakchott for two nights. During our time there, we had individual interviews with our APCDs, were briefed on procedures for purifying our water, learned about some cultural norms, had a fashion show of typical Mauritanian clothing, and also some pointers about eating Mauritanian style (with hands rather than utensils).

Then, on Sunday morning, we were off to the training center in Kaédi, a five-hour ride from Nouakchott. We were wide-eyed throughout, as we traversed the desert, complete with roadside donkeys and camels.

Now begins our Pre-Service Training (PST) in earnest!