One Down, One To Go

A quick update: I’m working at last.  In mid-May I accepted an offer for a three-month contract at Winrock International, one of the oldest and most respected international development non-profits in Washington.  I’m  toiling for their Enterprise and Agriculture unit, a branch of the organization that applies for grants from USAID to implement food and nutrition programs globally.  I’m currently working as part of a team applying for $20 million that USAID has allocated for Nepal.  Next comes a similar one for Bangladesh.

It’s a logical transition point for me.  In many ways it’s fundraising, using the skills I picked up over the past 10+ years in educational settings.   And there’s the promise of doing more of what I’m truly interested in: agricultural project implementation, in Indonesia and in Nepal to start.

CeCe continues to fight the good fight.  Everyone she meets with tells her she’s chosen a tough career path, but that she’s doing all the right things and that it’s just a matter of time. She’s getting there.

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We’re Washingtonians

Actually we’re in Arlington, Virginia.  And, yes, we’re still looking for work.

Before we go any further, we continue to need your help.  If you have friends in the Washington area with work experience or contacts in international development, please introduce us. CeCe’s interests and degree are in international endangered species conservation. My interests are also international. I am focused on finding ways to connect small farmers to the resources they need to innovate and increase the sustainability of their enterprises.

You can find our resumes and more specifics on our skills and interests on this site now. CeCe’s is here and mine is here.

That we’re still part of the 8.1% is no surprise really.  Expecting each of us to find the dream job in a new field in a new city in a few short weeks was too tall and order.  Rather, we’ve spent much of the last few months seeking clarity and industry knowledge, building networks and, yes, interviewing some. We’ve even turned down some offers.

Given that, as of mid-December, we were living in China and hadn’t looked at our resumes in months, I think we’ve made good progress.  CeCe has contacts in seemingly every conservation organization in town that specializes in endangered megafauna. I’ve been a regular participant in international agriculture seminars all over the District and have met many people who have been wildly helpful.

We’ve also volunteered a good bit.  CeCe’s two mentoring sessions away from certification as a docent at the Baltimore Zoo.  She also been busy working in the office there helping the zoo’s administration prepare for their next Association of Zoos and Aquariums accreditation.  I’ve rekindled my relationship with Baltimore’s awe-inspiring community center, Paul’s Place.  I’ve tutored and monitored the computer lab.  We’ve also helped CeCe’s parents complete their move.  And yet again I have planted a garden miles and miles from my current abode.

We’re in Alexandria for the first two weeks in May, hosted yet again by CeCe’s ever-generous and conscientious cousin Celeste.  Three cheers for Celeste!  And later in the month we migrate to Tacoma Park.  More on that later.

So, we’re more than getting by.  The coming week should be our busiest yet as it’s chock full of volunteer obligations, meetings, interviews and lectures.  We’re getting there!

Since Last We Left You…

A whirlwind swing around Myanmar. A valedictory journey through southwestern China. An immensely pleasurable long weekend in Hong Kong. Kung fu fighting in Shanghai.  CeCe’s successful master’s presentation and an encore performance before the big wigs at ICF.  Graduation!   A tearful reunion with Milo.

In late December, we closed the door on the Wisconsin phase of our lives and returned to Baltimore.  We really do love it here.  Thanks to my in-laws for putting us up and for putting up with me.

And the start of 2012 marked the official beginning of our job searches in our chosen fields.  For me, my interests lie in what many would call sustainable agriculture.  I want to help people increase and secure their access to healthy food or improve their agricultural environments. There’s an increasingly pressing need for that both here and abroad.

CeCe’s dual passions are conservation biology and fair trade.   Perhaps, both together.  To help secure the futures of threatened species, one needs to secure the futures of the people living near those animals. Or, I can envision her as the CEO of a zoo someday.

I’ve been telling everyone that it feels good to network among professionals whose career passions so closely match our own.  It’s not always been that way and we feel lucky to have this opportunity to change gears at the ripe old age of 34.

But when we left Baltimore in 2008, I was still an educational fundraiser with an unruly garden and CeCe was a landscape designer with an ever-growing soft spot for charismatic megafauna.  Thus, we don’t have the professional networks we’d like to possess.

So we turn to you: do you have friends working in our fields in Baltimore or Washington, DC that might be willing to speak with us?  It’s those connections that will allow us to learn what’s out there. Help us answer the daunting question of what we’re actually qualified to do.

Please reach out.  Thanks!

Cranes and Kids – Environmental Education at Work

A primary objective of mine while in Weining has been supporting a progressive local primary school in its effort to implement an environmental education curriculum which was developed by the International Crane Foundation specifically for the Caohai region. A few weeks ago, we were honored to be part of a ceremony recognizing the school’s partnership with ICF.  After the ceremony, we organized a demonstration of the curriculum in practice.

The environmental curriculum teaching team.

The teaching team discussing curriculum and lesson plans.

Working with our translator Cinderella.

The day started with a plaque presentation designating the Weining #4 Primary School as a US-China Environmental Education Project School. Naively, I thought it would be a rather low-key event. When the entire student body started lining up in front of a stage in the school’s central courtyard, I realized we were in for a more elaborate affair.

When the lowai visit the school, things get a little nutty. So the teachers sequestered us in principal's office.

The ceremony started with the presentation of a traditional Communist red neck scarves to participating teachers, the nature reserve staff and us.

Our names translated into Chinese and pronounced "Shee Shee" and "Mah Kuh".

Next there were speeches. Unlike the last speech I had to make (a post on that coming soon), I was prepared this time and even had a Chinese translation that our translator, Cinderella, read to the students.

With the black necked crane student dancers.

Afterwards, two adorable young girls, dressed as black-neck cranes, in white dresses and black tights and lipstick, handed the plaque to me, which I then presented to the school principal.

To end the ceremony, we all signed a banner which pledged to protect Caohai lake and the black neck crane.

After the ceremony, two classes participated in demonstrating a pair of lessons from the ICF curriculum. The first class demonstrated knowledge about the cranes, their habitat and tendencies. A group of a dozen girls performed a dance that mimicked crane posturing and behavior.

Next the students sang a song about the cranes, titled, “My dear black-neck crane.” It was truly inspiring.

Students checking out the new environmental ed curriculum.

Finally, the students played a game that taught the concept of overfishing. Each team circled around a basket of candy that represented the fish in Caohai Lake.

At the signal, they were allowed to take whatever ‘fish’ they wanted from the basket. In one group a feeding frenzy ensued and they grabbed every last treat. The other two groups were more restrained, with each student taking one or two each leaving at least a few ‘fish’ remaining in the basket.

The students then learned that the groups which left some “fish” behind to reproduce for next year were rewarded with a growing population, while the group that decimated their candy supply had nothing left for the future.

What was most striking to us as outsiders, was that after the concept of overfishing was explained to the students, all the candy was distributed to the two groups that had candy left in the basket. The group that had “over-fished” was left watching their classmates rip open and devour the additional candy.  Students learned the hard way. I’ll never forget the dejected look on the face of one of the boys who ended up with no candy.  I’m hopeful that his frustration will ensure he remembers the lesson.

Sizhai (The Good of Cultural Tourism)

I apologize that there aren’t many photos this time around.  We’re dealing with a slow internet connection.  Hopefully we can rectify this in a few weeks. 

I should begin by saying that I’m very reluctant to consider our visit to Sizhai, another Dong village in the Rongjiang area, “tourism”.  But I will call it that if only to point out the tremendous potential of visits like ours for villages in Guizhou. While Sizhai doesn’t have the good fortune to possess the tallest or widest or oldest something-or-other that people will want to come and photograph themselves with, it does boast an incredibly vibrant and resilient culture and at least one resident committed to preserving it. That resident, whose English name is Matt, happens to be a student of one of the Peace Corps volunteers with whom we were traveling.

Matt's Mom walking through the rice paddies.

As I related in the previous post, the morning in Xindi was disappointing.  But once we were in Matt’s capable and enthusiastic hands, we realized what we had missed out on earlier.  While many of China’s rural traditions are being lost as the nation modernizes, the preservation of cultural heritage often hinges on young people like Matt.  He is a capable lusheng player (a traditional wooden flute) and he sings traditional songs with supreme confidence.  Most important to our visit, he clearly enjoyed sharing his life with curoius visitors.

Sizhai is quite isolated or at least it was until the superhighway cutting through the region was completed a few months ago.   Matt’s first language is Dong, and he didn’t begin learning Mandarin until middle school.   If fact, when he arrived at university, his classmates had difficulty understanding his thick rural accent.   Siazhai only sees occasional foreign visitors, primarily during festivals, so our visit attracted a bit of notice and his family spared no expense to honor our arrival.   Most memorable was the milky white goat slaughtered for our dinner.  It was lead screaming to the drum tower adjacent to the family home where it was pinned to a bench to await its fate.  A butcher hired for the occasion whipped out a cleaver, and when enough straw was gathered to soak up the blood,  he made a quick slice through the goat’s throat as all of us looked on,  CeCe the vegetarian included.  Its death wasn’t as quick as one would hope, but I’m glad I can finally say that I’ve participated, however casually, in the death of my dinner.

Rice alcohol fermenting in earthenware jugs.

Once it had been fully bled, a few armfuls of straw and a propane torch were located and the unlucky creature was chared, scraped and soundly flamed to remove its fur. It was an ungainly process and I wonder how the removal was accomplished pre-propane. Butchering happened elsewhere to CeCe’s relief.  

Between the slaughter and dinner Matt helped us explore his family’s modest house, full of traditional items, all novel and interesting to us Westerners: a flint lock rifle used to hunt the animals that he admitted are long gone; the wooden lusheng flute that Matt played with delightful abandon; the fish pickling in barrels; the rice alcohol in earthenware jugs in the store room next to the loom; the giant bags of rice on the second floor along with squash, peppers,  and garlic, all recently harvested or purchased; and many beautiful hand-woven baskets of various sizes and purposes.

Matt's grandmother eating a pomelo.Hats and farming implements outside the house.

During the pre-dinner lull, our group also wandered out to the rice paddies farmed by the family. Matt warned us at least five times of the “danger”.  For some reason, many of our Chinese friends are terribly overprotective. As we ventured out in the slow drizzle, a few of his friends followed half-heartedly, including one in high heels.  

What most interested us once we’d strolled through the paddies was the orange and pomelo grove on the hill above. Matt accomodated us and picked us some of each to tide us over until dinner.  (An aside:  why aren’t pomelos, CeCe’s favorite foreign citrus, popular in the US? They are quite tasty, not too dissimilar from a grapefruit or orange, and with such a thick rind, they must transport easily.)

The rain intensified, so we trudged back to the house .  The views out over the fields to the river were sublime and we could count at least seven water wheels at the river’s edge, presumably for irrigation. Trips to the bathroom were made enjoyable by the neighborly pig in the adjacent stall who eagerly demonstrated that she had half figured out an escape route. The waste jointly produced in the basement powered the stove and a few gas lights with the same biogas technology used by the farmers association back at Caohai.

At last dinner arrived and the family’s immense hospitality expanded to include at least 15 others, including a quintet of female singers who arrived to serve as after dinner entertainment. The menu: roasted goat lion, bean soup and peanuts (familiar); stir-fried innards and bones with meat (unfamiliar yet reasonably tasty); sauteed goat skins thinly sliced like noodles, and fermented fish (borderline swallowable). When we’d eaten all we could (three bowls of rice with peanuts for timid CeCe), and toasting with homewine rice wine had been completed appropriately, the singing commenced. It began with a drinking song in which the singers poured a tea cup full of moonshine in my mouth and down my shirt. 

Soon after we moved outside, back to the drum tower, where a bonfire was going and little trace of the afternoon’s bloody event remained. A community sing-off ensued, with the seven of us trading American songs with the five women as well as a group of young men infomally led by Matt. As we did, a group of villagers, perhaps 25 of them, looked on, laughing when the traditional songs told of humerous encounters. I felt pleased that we were part of the perpetuation of this tradition.

Well after dark we moved to leave, but not before Matt’s mother bestowed upon Charlie, the other male in our group, and me hand-dyed, deep blue tunics she had made. Alas mine was too small.  I guess we’ll have to go back.