My adventures as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Federated States of Micronesia.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Now that I have fast enough internet, I wanted to post a few videos. This first video is a compilation of lots of quick scenes that I filmed to give you a sense of my daily experience with my host family. (Lots of dancing!)

The 6th graders perform "Peace Like a River" on the last day of school:

The girls sing "Let It Go" from Frozen:

Need a book recommendation?

There’s a lot of free time in the Peace Corps. Like, A LOT. I’ve never had so much time for pleasure reading! 

Here are my top ten recommendations:

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver – I felt obligated to put one of Babs’ books on here since I read so many of them. The Poisonwood Bible is still by favorite, but I didn’t technically read it here.

En el tiempo de las mariposas by Julia Alvarez – The English version is also available (In the Time of the Butterflies). Based on the true story of four sisters who protested the dictatorship in the Dominican Republic.

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving – I generally don’t like John Irving novels (they’re just so weird!), so I was skeptical when my dad sent this one to me. But this book is possibly one of my favorite books of all time. Hilarious and heartbreaking. I can’t explain it and do it justice, so just take my word for it and read it!

Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin – I read the first five books (possibly a 6th one came out while I was here…?) and the first two were my favorites. Yes, there are dragons, but the fantasy elements play a secondary role – it’s about political intrigue and scheming. I haven’t seen the tv series yet, but everyone says I have to watch it.

Columbine by Dave Cullen – A disturbing book about the Columbine shooting, but absolutely incredible, and an important read. And sadly, very timely.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett – It kind of pains me to put a Follett book on here, since Ken Follett’s smug author photos are something of an inside joke in our volunteer lounge. But this book was just fabulous – an epic about building a cathedral.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – This one is a beast at 1400 pages. You might want to get an abridged version, seeing as Mr. Hugo has an unfortunate tendency to go off on tangents (like a chapter about the history of the Paris sewer system in the middle of the climatic sewer escape).

River Town by Peter Hessler – A memoir of a Peace Corps volunteer in China. Fascinating and funny.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt – So sad and touching, but also funny – just a gem.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson – A science book for non-scientists with Bryson’s fabulous storytelling. This book had me gazing up at the night sky in utter wonder. The universe is amazing!!!

And here’s the comprehensive list.

1.      Longshot by Dick Francis
2.      Loving Frank by Nancy Horan
3.      The Tortilla Curtain by T. Coraghessan Boyle
4.      La ciudad de las bestias by Isabel Allende
5.      The Testament by John Grisham
6.      The Year of Living Dangerously by C.J. Koch
7.      No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
8.      Emma by Jane Austen
9.      The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
10.  Catch Me If You Can by Frank W. Abagnale
11.  The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett
12.  Empire Falls by Richard Russo
13.  Gap Creek by Robert Morgan
14.  Coyote Waits by Tony Hillerman
15.  Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
16.  Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
17.  La sombra del viento by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
18.  The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost
19.  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
20.  The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
21.  English Creek by Ivan Doig
22.  The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonczewski
23.  A Room with a View by E.M. Foster
24.  The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria
25.   Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
26.  The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
27.  Shakespeare by Bill Bryson
28.  The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
29.  The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris by Chris Ewan
30.  Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener
31.  The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
32.  Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg
33.  En el tiempo de las mariposas by Julia Alvarez
34.  The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein
35.  The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
36.  The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
37.  The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
38.  The Island of the Colorblind by Oliver Sacks
39.  The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
40.  Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi
41.  To Sir, With Love by E.R. Braithwaite
42.  Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende
43.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
44.  The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
45.  A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
46.  Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel
47.  The Valley of the Horses by Jean M. Auel
48.  Digital Fortress by Dan Brown
49.  The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
50.  The Unheard: A Memoir of Dearness and Africa by Josh Swiller
51.  Once Minutos by Paulo Coehlo
52.  Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
53.  A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
54.  A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
55.  A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin
56.  A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin
57.  Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer
58.  Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver
59.  Columbine by Dave Cullen
60.  The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
61.  Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
62.  The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
63.  Escuadrón Guillotina by Guillermo Arriaga
64.  The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson
65.  All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
66.  Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
67.  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
68.  A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
69.  Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
70.  The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs
71.  The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber
72.  El amor en los tiempos de cólera by Gabriel García Marquez
73.  The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
74.  White Out by Michael W. Clune
75.  Moby Dick by Herman Melville
76.  Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
77.  Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
78.  The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
79.  The Help by Kathryn Stockett
80.  The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
81.  Yes Man by Danny Wallace
82.  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
83.  Home by Julie Andrews
84.  The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy
85.  Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris
86.  David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell
87.  When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
88.  The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
89.  The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory’
90.  One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Marquez
91.  A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell
92.  The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkein
93.  The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkein
94.  The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkein
95.  Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski
96.  The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
97.  Dune by Frank Herbert
98.  The Canterbury Papers by Judith Koll Healey
99.  I, Elizabeth by Rosalind Miles
100.                     Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman
101.                     A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
102.                     The Pawnbroker by Edward Lewis Wallant
103.                     Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
104.                     Forrest Gump by Winston Groom
105.                     The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo
106.                     La casa de los espíritus by Isabel Allende
107.                     Marriage, A History by Stephanie Coontz
108.                     Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
109.                     Into Thin Air by Jon Krakaeur
110.                     Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
111.                     Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
112.                     Slam by Nick Hornby
113.                     Empress by Shan Su
114.                     The Runner by Christopher Reich
115.                     Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer
116.                     Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
117.                     The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger
118.                     Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
119.                     Wild by Cheryl Strayed
120.                     The Edge of Paradise: America in Micronesia by P.F. Kluge
121.                     Labor Day by Joyce Maynard
122.                     The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester
123.                     Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
124.                     Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris
125.                     Every Last One by Anna Quindlen
126.                     1984 by George Orwell
127.                     River Town by Peter Hessler
128.                     Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
129.                     Ape House by Sara Gruen
130.                     A Hell of a Place to Lose a Cow by Tim Brookes
131.                     Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
132.                     Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
133.                     Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
134.                     Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
135.                     Animal Farm by George Orwell
136.                     I’m a Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson
137.                     Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
138.                     The Awakening by Kate Chopin
139.                     ‘Tis by Frank McCourt
140.                     Teacher Man by Frank McCourt
141.                     The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
142.                     The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
143.                     Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver
144.                     La mala hora by Gabriel García Marquez
145.                     Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
146.                     City of Thieves by David Benioff
147.                     Drown by Junot Díaz
148.                     A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
149.                     Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
150.                     Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
151.                     The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
152.                     The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan
153.                     Dear Life by Alice Munro
154.          Plainsong by Kent Haruf
155.          In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Summing up the Peace Corps Experience

Well, we’re getting down to it – only six days until my COS (“close of service” – gotta love Peace Corps’ obsession with acronyms). I dedicated two years of my life to this experience, so I’ve been doing lots of reflecting this month.

Most importantly, would I do it again? Yes and no. If I were able to go back in time and talk to myself two years ago, I would absolutely say “YES!” But looking ahead, I don’t want to do Peace Corps for a second time in my life – two years is just too long.

The best part of my experience was undoubtedly been building relationships with the kids in my host family and at school. I’ve gotten to watch babies learn how to walk, students graduate from high school, elementary school, and ECE (the equivalent of Kindergarten), plus lots of goofy dancing and singing. I don’t think I would have made it through without the kids – I relied on their smiles and laughter when I was struggling.

And to be honest, I struggled a lot. I don’t remember how many times I went down to the river to cry. I was frustrated almost daily at school dealing with cross-cultural attitudes to teaching, treatment of children, work ethic, etc. I missed home and never really found a way to discuss my feelings in a meaningful or deep way with my host family (I relied on my fellow volunteers for that). I confronted aspects of the culture that were truly horrifying to me, and came to truly appreciate America’s gender roles and attitudes. I survived some very unpleasant illnesses (and even got a free trip to Thailand as a reward for my suffering, he he).

Overall, though, it was a positive and life-changing experience (sorry for the cliché). Like many volunteers, I think I got much more out of it than I was able to give to my community. I think it’s an inevitable paradox of volunteering.

Also like many volunteers, I am constantly questioning whether or not I made a difference. Once again, I think the answer is both yes and no. I know that I had an impact on my students. Over the two years, they improved their English and, more importantly, they developed their abilities to think critically and express themselves creatively. The 8th graders that participated in GLOW and BoyzIIMen camps learned the skills that will hopefully help them transition to healthy, respectful, confident adults. Some students started reading for pleasure and others gained a concept of world geography from our Magic Tree House/World Map project.

But helping my students was only half of my task in Micronesia. Peace Corps’ larger goal is SUSTAINABILITY, meaning that, after I leave, the progress will continue from co-teaching and “skills transfer” (Peace Corps’ favorite phrase). In that sense, I don’t know if my work will prove at all sustainable. It depends on what the teachers choose to do when I leave. One of the other volunteers described it well – we are only the catalysts for change, but the actual change is up to other people. I am very lucky that my school is receiving a new Peace Corps volunteer in August, so the progress will continue for at least another two years!

The Micro Games

I’ve missed out on two Olympics while I’ve been on Pohnpei, but this month I got to watch Micronesia’s version of the Olympics – The Micro Games!

I can’t really overstate what a big deal this is here. There’s been a countdown outside the government buildings for the past year (since I knew I would be leaving Pohnpei around the same time as the Micro Games, it was a strange reminder of my impending COS).

The four states of FSM, Marshall Islands, Palau, Nauru, Kiribati, Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam all competed here on Pohnpei. There were standard events like track and field, basketball, volleyball, swimming, etc, and also traditional Micronesian events like spear fishing, canoe racing, and the “Micronesian All-Around” that consisted of coconut husking, swimming, tree climbing, spear throwing, etc. (Pohnpei won gold in the all-around, by the way.) 

Speedy coconut husking
A rainy day for a canoe race
The crowd watching the volleyball game
Pohnpei did quite well in the medal count – I think 2nd in gold medals after the mighty Guam. But this was little comfort to many of my family members who were focused solely on volleyball and basketball. Guam swept both of these sports in both the women’s and men’s divisions.

This being Pohnpei, the crowds always showed the most excitement for the dancing spectators during breaks in the game. The first thing my nohno would ask when I got home was not “Who won?” but “Did you dance?” They need a dancing event at the next Micro Games! 

Pohnpeian Weddings

On Sunday my host sister and her husband got married. He was already her husband by Pohnpeian standards. Sort of. The whole thing is kind of confusing, but I’ll try to explain based on what I’ve seen in my village. Things vary a lot on different parts of the island, so this post probably doesn’t represent Pohnpeian culture as a whole.

Generally, when a relationship becomes public (when the parents find out about it), a traditional Pohnpeian “wedding” takes place. The wedding is just a sakau ceremony between the families. Then usually the woman goes to live with the husband’s family (although sometimes the man moves instead – of my nohno’s five married daughters, only one lives away from her family compound). 

Since the arrival of Christianity, however, couples need to have a second wedding in the church. (One woman translated the traditional Pohnpeian ceremony as an “engagement” in English, but most people translated it as a marriage.) This second wedding isn’t rushed at all – it happens whenever the couple gets around to it. Often, the church wedding happens several years later after the couple has started a family and built their own house.

So anyway, congratulations to Padian and Jetny! (I had been putting the pressure on them to get married before I left Pohnpei .)

The family

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Boyz II Men (Not the 90s band)

I made it through my third camp of the year, this time for 8th grade boys. Surprisingly, it went better than either of the girls’ camps. This was surprising first because we planned it at the last minute, and second because it was for 8th grade boys. I expected lots of behavior problems, but the boys were great (it helped that we had less than 30 boys, whereas the girls’ camps had 60 and 70 each). Plus, this camp was the most fun because the boys got so into the teamwork and leadership games. The enthusiasm was just off the charts.

The gang
Human knot
Acid river: cross without touching the ground!
BoyzIIMen focused on five pillars: respect, community service, leadership, teamwork, and ambition. We also had some peer educators from the high school talk about drugs and HIV/AIDS. They brought ukuleles and sang some awesome songs – the boys were singing the “say no to drugs” song on the bus ride home!

Improvised CPR lesson
Discussing goals
The best part of the camp was our evening bonfire. We introduced the all-American s’more, which was a huge hit (how could it not be?), and glow sticks (which I guess would have been more appropriate for the girls’ camp, considering it’s called Camp GLOW).

This camp served as a “pilot program” for BoyzIIMen on Pohnpei (we got the framework from the Chuuk volunteers have been doing it for several years), so hopefully next year the remaining Pohnpei volunteers will be able to expand the program to more schools. 

Summer Science

We’re halfway through my last Peace Corps project! It’s a cross between summer school and day camp that focuses on hands-on science. Unfortunately, science in Pohnpei is very textbook-focused due to a lack of materials and teacher training. My principal is trying to get more support from the Department of Education, but in the meantime I decided to give the students and some of the interested teachers an introduction to scientific experiments. It’s nothing fancy – just a very rudimentary overview of the scientific process and some fun experiments.

We’ve already conducted classes for 5-7th grade, and during the next two weeks we’ll be focusing on 2nd-4th grade. I originally was going to teach a computer class for the 7th graders, but the computers aren’t working (what else is new?). They were disappointed, so I they joined in first week and they served as my assistants the second week.

(By the way, a huge thank you to those of you who donated money for supplies!)

Here are some of my favorite pictures from the first two weeks:

Learning about density by layering liquids
Gak! Is it a solid or a liquid?
Neither! It's a POLYMER!
Landslide simulation
Egg drop experiment!
Explosive baking soda and vinegar volcano! (Probably the
most popular experiment of all)