dear little leonard

I haven’t known what to say the last 24 hours. I woke up yesterday morning to news that you had been found, but not in the way I last remembered you. A few of your teachers and I were speechless, wondering how something so horrifying could happen to someone so gentle and kind and bright as you.

Today is my birthday, but I had wished it wasn’t. I felt guilty. The days were just too close… while I felt obligated to celebrate my life, I grieved the loss of yours thinking about how scared you were, how hurt, how alone. Leonard, I’m so sorry. I’m furious and confused… why didn’t anyone help? why did they wait until it was too late? why you?

I don’t have any explanations. No understanding of the reasons. It makes me angry at the way life is. This beautiful, precious thing. Beaten, stolen, ignored, neglected. Found floating in the river.

You were only my student for a few days, but it didn’t take long for me and the other volunteers to agree that you were one of our favorites during Miss Ari’s camp. That soft voice of yours and that smile that spread so wide across your face, none of us could forget. None of us will and the world should know that that’s the kind of boy you were. The kind of boy you’ll always will be to those who knew you. You were loved.

I’ll be looking for your smile in the stars tonight, little Leonard.

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a love letter to introverts

QUICK DISCLAIMER: Guyana is a vastly diverse place so this is not an accurate depiction of what the entire country is like. This is just my specific experience.


It’s true what they say, you do learn a lot about yourself in Peace Corps. Not only do you have a lot of time to yourself, but you’ll be placed in circumstances and communities that are drastically different than environments you’re used to thriving in. And in them, I think you’ll find that it’s difficult to be yourself, sometimes forcing you to figure it out if you haven’t already.

I never used to identify as an introvert. But when I look back, it’s pretty clear that I’ve been one my whole life. Perhaps I’ve just been too ashamed to admit it. It’s easy to feel that way when my personality is often misunderstood. It hurts me when people call me a loner or mock me when they ask if I’d wanna live alone in the middle of an empty field, far away from any civilization. None of this is true.

For those who know me can probably agree that I’m not shy, but I’m pretty soft-spoken. I was never the student that raised her hand in class or the first to sign up for anything. I spent a lot of time in coffee shops (or really anywhere) by myself just because. I don’t always like being the center of attention and I often feel awkward in big groups. I’ll go to large extravaganzas, but you’ll have to give me the next week to recover from it. I’m often afraid of appearing “full of myself” and insecure about my talents. And I spend a ridiculous amount of time writing my thoughts out.

It’s been a lifetime struggle for me to be ok with these things and it didn’t get any easier when I moved to Guyana.

When I joined Peace Corps, I felt like in order to be successful I had to be a specific type of volunteer. An always enthusiastic, energetic, eager super human. And I’ll tell you now, it is impossible for both introverts and extroverts to be this type of volunteer; but your communities, counterparts, and colleagues won’t always understand that.

In the beginning of my service, I learned that the working environment at my hospital is either speak up or get stepped on. I often felt weak and incompetent because I don’t have a dominating personality like many of my colleagues. No one would actually say, “Mel, you look stupid right now because you’re not loud enough.” But I have had someone order me to speak. Yikes. I was advised to strengthen my iron hand and harshen my voice if I were to see anything get done. I agreed and although it was for my benefit, their advice made me feel like who I was won’t ever work here. It was defeating, annoying, and aggravating.

I have often felt like society has placed bravery, courage, and power so out of reach for introverts. I used to beat myself up believing I could never be any of those things. But here’s the truth:

I am introverted. I am quiet. I am soft spoken.
AND I am brave. I am courageous. I am worthy.
All in my own way.

I felt it was important to not use the word “but” as if they were some sort of exceptions. Many introverts have done brave, courageous things in this world and it’s been good for me to start looking up to them instead of awesome people I can’t relate to.

Emma Watson
JK Rowling
St. Teresa of Calcutta
Rosa Parks

They are all women who are/were their total introverted-selves and change/d the world.

I think it’s easy to feel inadequate for who we are when we’re submerged in a new culture. This challenge really hindered me from feeling comfortable and confident in my capabilities as a PCV.

But once I began to love the way I choose to do things, I found more power within myself and freer to accomplish what I want just the way I am. It’s been a long process learning where in my timid nature do I find the power to be brave, courageous, and worthy but I did. I found that my input never fuels anyone’s fire; that some people appreciate that I didn’t come storming into the kitchen thinking I knew everything; and that my ability to listen and observe longer has allowed me to better problem solve. And while I’m seeing that being an introvert has helped me in some ways, it’s also caused me to fail too.

So from one introvert to another, it’s important to remind yourself it’s ok to be a little more behind the scenes or a little wallflower in society. You can be in your room for days and it doesn’t make you a loner. You can be quiet, shy, soft spoken and still be a bad ass. In fact, you ARE a bad ass and you have all the power within yourself already to contribute to something big in this world. We just gotta realize it and set it free.

Love always,
Mel

something about seasons

It’s September and I am thinking of the fall back home. The escape from summer beginning, the leaves changing colors, the saturday night lights turning back on (GO RAZORBACKS), the warm apple cider and whiskey before bed, the comfort of wrapping myself up in sweaters and scarves, the excitement I got eating from new fall menus, and the sweet smell apple-pumpkin candles everywhere that I go. It’s my favorite time of the year for both my skin and my soul. The warm, windy days and the cool, crisp nights; I miss it every morning I wake up sweating bullets down here in Guyana.

People have often asked me what the weather is like living by the equator.
Leh me tell you, budday. De place be hot bad!!!!!

Technically the temperatures range from 80 to 90 degrees, but the 100% humidity (and being what feels like zero distance from the sun) makes most afternoons sweaty and miserable. Truthfully, it’s always hot in Guyana but we do have two seasons: a dry season and a rainy season.

During the dry season, everything… well, dries up. The afternoons are slow, water tanks run low, vegetables and fruits become less abundant and more expensive, and the sun drains all of your energy by 10am. But it’s not so bad when you catch a good breeze. This invisible magic is so sweet to your skin that you will stop everything you are doing just to enjoy it. This will help you get through. That and a nice, cold juice from auntie up the road.

The rainy season is hard to track these days with climate changes, but based on the chatter in the market, May to July is when it rains the most. The severity of rainfall varies from different regions, but flooding during this time is pretty common everywhere you go. This is why most houses are typically built on tall stilts. Rain restores crops, water supplies, and cools down the place but it causes a lot of damage as well. Heavy rain and flooding destroy farms, roads, foundations, and make transportation extermely difficult. Some volunteers in Region 9 had to take small boats across town because the flooding had reached over twenty something feet. So when the rain falls, it really falls.

 

Flooding in Lethem, Guyana (Region 9)
PHOTO BY: PCV Chris Sutton in Aishalton Village

 

I’ve lived here for eight months now and I’ve gotten used to these extreme weather patterns (and sweating all the time). I’ve never quite had an experience where almost everything is dependent on the weather. Food, water, shelter. This aspect of living in Guyana truly reminds me that I’m living in a developing nation. There is no hope in seasons changing like there is in the US. There isn’t a way to hide from the heat or strong standing infrastructure in place to prevent natural disasters; it just happens and you adjust. It’s a hard way of living, but this is their world and the Guyanese thrive at making it work without a single drop of sweat (literally). Just boats, breezes, and brilliance.

 

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Sunny day in Linden, Guyana (Region 10)

 

Do I like the hot weather?

Hah noooo, not at all. But I can’t complain. I’m learning to work through the heat and adjusting to how things change with the rainfall like my fellow Guyanese. Let’s just say I’m really looking forward to the day I’ll feel fall weather again 😉
Love always,
Mel

garlic herb garden pizza

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Ingredients:

  • 2 cups of all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup of warm water
  • 2 tsp of active yeast
  • 4 cloves of garlic (minced)
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1 tbsp dry basil
  • 1 tbsp oregano
  • 1 tsp of oil

Toppings:

  • Calaloo (aka spinach) $200 GYD/bundle
  • Tomatoes (sliced) $100 GYD/bag of 4
  • Sweet Peppers (diced)  $100 GYD/bag of 4
  • Pineapple (diced) Currently 3 for $500 GYD
  • Shredded cheese $660 GYD/lb
  • Marinara Sauce (homemade or pre-made)

Directions:

  1. In a large bowl, mix together flour + oil + garlic + herbs + water w/ yeast. I usually leave the yeast in the warm water for a minute before adding to the dough mixture.
  2. Dough should be soft. If it is too moist, add a little bit of flour until the dough is less sticky.
  3. While the oven is pre-heating at 450F, roll out the dough. Sprinkle flour on top as you go to roll them out easier. I like thin-crust pizza’s so I cut my dough into three and rolled each out to about 8 inches.
  4. Chip and put all your toppings on.
  5. Bake in the over for about 15 to 20 minutes.


I catch myself missing food from home like thin crust pizza with stringy mozzarella cheese that melts in your mouth and yummy toppings that fall of the sides with every bite. But thankfully, I’m still able to make a lot of my favorite foods here in Guyana. It’s been fun challenging myself to try new recipes on limited resources. It takes a little creativity and some budgeting, but I get the job done.

Pizza isn’t hard to find in Guyana if you live on the coast. If you don’t go to Pizza Hut or Mario’s, your Guyanese Pizza is about 95% bread, 4% cheese, and 1% toppings. The toppings vary from things like pineapples, onions, sweet peppers to ketchup, hot dogs, corn, and bora (green beans). It’s not what I’m used to, but who’s to say it doesn’t work. That’s the beauty of pizza–you can put whatever you want on warm bread and melted cheese and be happy.

I’m a firm believer in eating pizza as an act of loving yourself. As a health promoter I feel obligated to say I wouldn’t recommend it all the time, but sometimes you just need it for your soul. So when you finally get that long-overdue day to yourself, sit in your stretchy pants and enjoy!

 

from plate to patient

I only have experience working in a hospital in the US and now in Guyana, but I’m almost sure that it’s a universal truth that nobody wants to eat hospital food. There’s a terrible stigma of hospital kitchens. It’s certainly not everyone’s favorite place to eat on a Friday night. But what about the people that have no other choice?

If I didn’t understand it then, I understand it now just how important it is for hospitals to provide nutritious meals that support the health of patients. But like most things, I’m learning that executing such an obvious statement is much harder than one might think. Hospitals in the US face their own set of problems, but what about the problems of a developing country? You don’t always have the technology, the resources, or the capacity to support nutrition, let alone basic health, in a hospital.

What do you do when you haven’t seen a single fruit pass through the kitchen in months? Or you get barrels of eggplant and pounds of flour, but not enough greens to last until the next delivery? Or say you do get bundles of greens, but the poor ventilation in the kitchen and the only dysfunctional storage units you have leave the them to spoil before they can be used?

When you live in a country where food is more of a means of survival than it is a courtesy (or in some cases a demand), the expectations change. You serve what you have because anything is better than nothing. And sometimes that something is… well… some kind of gray soup. But can I blame them?

Helping this hospital figure out how to work within their limitations and provide meals as nutritious as possible is where I come in.

For the last three months, I’ve been trying to understand how food moves from the farms in Guyana to the plates of the patients. This includes how food is ordered, purchased, and delivered to kitchens; how diets are communicated from the patient to the cooks; and lastly how the meals are prepped and served. Only a couple days ago was I able to put it all together. Now begins the part we identify where education, training, or a slight suggestion is needed. I’m quickly realizing that it isn’t as simple as cutting down on the salt.

I wrestled a lot with wanting this project. Thinking back to my experiences working as a Diet Tech and the nightmares I had from it… I didn’t want to step foot into another hospital kitchen. But when I walked through the wards the other day and saw the helpless suffering of so many peoples in one place, I was reminded why what happens in a kitchen matters.

I think about what food means to me when I’m sick and how a good meal sometimes makes all the difference in the pain I’m experiencing. Didn’t you appreciate it when someone brought you a bowl of chicken noodle soup to make you feel better? You feel loved, you feel taken care of, and you feel like you have one less thing to worry about. You might feel like you’re dying, but at least the food isn’t killing you.

And that’s how it should be.

A doctor I interviewed earlier this week put it perfectly, “People come to a hospital to heal. It doesn’t make sense to serve them food that doesn’t help them do that.”

My project is complicated and complex and certainly not a task I can tackle in a few weeks. Not even a few months. But I’m willing and determined to help push this hospital in the right direction as far as I can in my two years. Alongside some passionate doctors, a handful of cooks, and an amazing counterpart that are up to the challenge… little by little we’re going to see change from plate to patient.

Love always,
Mel

learning to swim (a four-month update)

When I think about what these last four months have been like for me personally, the image of learning how to swim comes to mind. Don’t you remember?

We loved getting into the pool so as long as we had a neck to hang onto. But oh how we’re not babies anymore… What are those little, yellow submarines that fit so snug around my chubby, little Michelin arms? Mother dearest is so proud to see her tiny person finally splashing around on their own. She thinks we’re ready now. Where did my floaties go?! WHAT DO YOU MEAN THE FLOATY FAIRY TOOK THEM BACK? She jumps in, our entire bodies wrapped around the womb that so lovingly carried us, and suddenly those hands that are holding our entire lives above water starts to gently pry us off. What used to seem so fun just feels like torture now (or so the screaming suggested). She smiles at our poor little panicked hearts as we wale our arms back and forth like… well, I don’t suppose there is another animal quite like a human trying to swim. But after the frightened rage, the “No, no, NOOOOOO!!!!!!”, and the desperate cries to be saved… suddenly, we’re swimming.

All I’m saying is… whether you are actually learning how to swim or learning how do this Peace Corps thing like me, eventually we’re gonna get the hang of it. Then nothing can stop us from jumping in from there. It’s fair to say some people get it sooner than others. But be kind to yourself. You probably won’t look like Katie Ledecky, but at least you won’t drown. 

 
Love always,
Mel

food in guyana: part 2

PAPAYAS: They’re called “papaws” and they are my favorite fruit. You know when it’s ripe if the skin is soft and yellow. At the market, they usually sell them a little unripe so that you can let it sit for a day or two before enjoying. The other day at the market, I scored a papaya bigger than my head for $500GY ($2.50USD) I was proud of my harvest as I saw other people buying papayas the size of softball for the same price. I’m planning on planting one of my own soon and in 8 months time, I hope to see these little pieces of heaven growing in my backyard.

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ESSENCE: It’s always the first thing I taste when I bite into a piece of cake. I can always tell when they use it. It’s similar to any extract you might use in your baking, except it’s not extract. I don’t know what it is, but like many things in Guyana, you don’t question it. It’s essence.

BURGERS: If you know me well, you know burgers are my love language. Nothing beats a juicy burger with a beer and fries, am I right? Burgers in Guyana are chicken sandwiches though, unless you’re in my house. Then of course, a burger (according to my 5 year old host brother Jeremiah) is a sliced hotdog slabbed between cheese, mayo, mustard, and ketchup in a bun. Sometimes it’s cheese and mayo. Sometimes it’s just mayo. And lots of it.

SEVEN CURRY: If cook-up isn’t your favorite food, then curry is. And my gosh, seven curry is a wonderful thing. Inside a giant water lily-leaf, this Indo-Guyanese delicacy consists of seven different types of curry. SEVEN. Served on top of rice is pumpkin curry, dahl curry, potato curry, bagee (spinach) curry, belanjay (eggplant), edoe, and catahar. You can eat with a spoon, but come on. There’s no fun in that. The first time I had seven curry was at Meena’s (a family friend and kitchen supervisor at the Psychiatric Hospital) wedding. It certainly was a day of celebration. One for Meena’s happily ever after and one for my tummy.

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PLANTAINS: I remember passing by plantains at the markets back in the States, but I never thought to buy them. That was my mistake because I eat these all the time now. When it’s the end of the week and we’ve gone through our groceries, there will always be plantains. I can always count on them. Unripe or ripe, I like them fried.  You can of course boil them with sweet potatoes, mash’em up (or leave in chunks), and eat with some salt fish. Either way, I think me and all of Guyana can attest a tribute to plantains for keeping us full on days we don’t have enough money to buy other things.

BELANJAY CHOKA: Yum. An Indo-Guyanese dish that takes practice to make. It’s quite a lengthy process, at least for a beginner like me, but it’s worth the effort. It’s roasted belanjay (eggplant) stuffed with garlic and mixed with tomatoes, shallots, and celery. One day I was gaffing (aka chatting) with two of my friends, Vido and Kim (vendors from the Corentyne that sell produce on the road), about how much I loved belanjay choka. At the end of our conversation, they generously gave me a few belanjays and a bundle of shallots to try making it myself. And voila! The recipe will be up soon so stay tuned!

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Love always,
Mel