Don’t let it slip

I’m fast approaching a date that I don’t want to pass. I’m terrified of November 20th. I don’t want it to come.

I don’t want to say I ended my Peace Corps service over a year ago. I want to remain within my one year mark. I don’t know why, but I don’t want to tip over into that territory. I want to be still fresh off the plane. Three days isn’t going to make a difference, because that date is going to pass no matter what, but I feel it sometimes. I feel it slipping. I feel the connection to my service slipping from my hands. Somedays I come home and cry because I miss Peace Corps so bad. No I don’t miss the hardships or the heartbreak, but I miss the feeling. I miss feeling impactful. Arabic makes me feel selfish. Learning a language is selfish. I’m learning this for me, so I can converse with others. I’m not doing something that has a direct impact on others right now. I get that this whole mindset of wanting to be impactful is just as selfish, but entertain my line of thought. I miss feeling smart because I had all this time to think and better myself. I miss being loved by a community of strangers. I miss feeling like I was doing something. I was someone. I miss that feeling when lights have been off for hours and suddenly the lights are back on and everything seems amazing in the world, like I could do anything because suddenly I had electricity. I miss the intellectual conversations I would have from my porch with other Peace Corps Volunteers, locals, or sometimes the goats. I miss the look on a farmer’s face when I told them something that changed their minds. I miss the smile from my small girls when I would turn on Gangnam style and we would have a dance party in front of the ravine. I miss my fellow Volunteers and the stories we shared. I miss it all.

I enjoy Arabic, for the most part (except when I’m patronized and demoralized), but I can’t really measure it. I can’t describe its impact on me, not yet. I can’t see it smile at me from across the courtyard when I run out of my room because a mouse scurried under my bed. Arabic doesn’t care that I know all about cashew nut quality. Arabic doesn’t excite me like a fresh batch of farmer data ripe and ready for analysis.

We are always ready and looking forward to the next moment, stage, or period of our life. But sometimes, you have to look back and realize where you came from. As much as I miss Ghana, I know that I’m going to enjoy going to my fridge and making dinner in my government apartment though. But right now, I don’t want missing Ghana to end.

Mini Goal Accomplished! Paying it Forward

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I stayed with a lovely couple in the capital whenever I visited. They just so happened to be USAID Foreign Service Officers. I also made good friends with one of the Treasury’s version of Foreign Service Officers. They fed me, housed me, and helped me keep my sanity by offering the occasional comfort from home. I’ve been waiting to pay it forward and help another PCV feel loved. Last night I had that chance and better yet, it was one of my best friends who is on home leave! His fellow PCV and friend was also in town, so I treated them to a delicious dinner. I can’t tell you how much it made me feel comforted though, especially to hear the latest news from Ghana. It was like I was getting a taste of home. It made me feel connected again. Connected to something I miss so dearly. I’m still in reverse culture shock being in America, and I’m still readjusting. I loved being able to hug my best friend and pick back up where we left off, but I also loved feeling reconnected to the world I left behind.

Sometimes all it takes is picking up the tab to show someone you value their service and their sacrifice. All Peace Corps Volunteers just want someone to appreciate their efforts and acknowledge that they too are doing a service to their country. No matter where I go, my goal is to keep paying it forward.

It Goes to Eleven

It’s hard to believe it has been 8 days since my birthday already. It feels like just yesterday I was standing at the station in Techiman, waiting to board my final bus to Accra. I didn’t expect my service to end this way. I never expected anything that happened to me during my service. But I did expect these final moments to be a mix of emotions. In just eleven days I’ll board a plane bound for Germany. My service will be over. It already feels over though. I no longer have a site. I no longer have attachment. I’m just ready to go home.

For the past week, I’ve been a robot. I’ve had to forget my emotions and set aside my beliefs. I became numb to everything. The days passed by and I didn’t even realize it. I’m tired. My bones ache. I long for a sofa. I long for a bed that my feet don’t dangle off the edge. I long for home. Home is no longer here. Home is America. Home is my family. Home is so close, but still so far away. I’m ready.

I said my goodbyes to my community. Today I said goodbye to my favorite batik lady in all of Ghana – Auntie Esther. She surprised me with a gift too. I felt humbled and loved. In the coming week, I’ll say goodbye to my Peace Corps friends. And I’ll be heartbroken. They have been there for me through the many many difficult times I’ve endured. I’ve listened to them cry. I’ve listened to them rant. They’ve heard me scream. They’ve heard me laugh. We’ve been to hell and back together and that’s something no one will understand. Now it is time to return to my friends who’ve waited patiently for my return, for my friends that supported me even though I could never fully explain what has happened here. I hope they will still recognize me underneath the plethora of freckles and African fabrics.

Life will never be the same.

Last night I attended a cultural event that was fantastic. One of the most powerful moments of the night came from a famous Ghanaian singer. She didn’t sing, she told her story. She told the story of a famous woman being denied the privilege of singing the National Anthem at a World Cup match because some Ministers, big men, said a woman was a bad omen. At this point, she couldn’t even continue telling her story. It was too raw and too emotional for her. To have the honor of being the first woman to sing the National Anthem at such a big event and then watching it slip away from you because some men think they know what’s best. Her story seemed simple on the surface. It seemed typical to me. But it stirred something in me. It reminded me of the injustice I’ve dealt with being a woman in Ghana. It reminded me of the times I had to work twice as hard to get even a shred of respect, because I was a woman. It reminded me of the times I wasn’t taken seriously because I was a woman. It reminded me of all the times someone treated me like I wasn’t good enough. It reminded me of the fear I’ve experienced living here. The fear I still carry with me.

Her story made me reflect on my service and the challenges I’ve faced. And I came to one conclusion:
I’m strong.

Despite everything, I’m still here. I’m going to finish my service. I’m going to get the hole punched in my ID that proves I’m now an RPCV. No one can tell me I’m not worthy. That I’m not capable. I’m not good enough.

Africa has shown me that hidden beneath this freckly white skin, I’m really a sassy black woman.
And I’m damn proud of it.

My Last Trip to the Market

The Techiman market is famous for its wide selection of just about anything. It is one of the largest markets in West Africa. I’ve enjoyed my weekly jaunts to the random stalls dotted along the market. Today my first stop is my friend Vida’s shop in the fabric section. She isn’t around so I tell all the neighbors I’ll be back later. I meander through the stalls stopping to look at the random assortment of clothes. I don’t have anything in mind to buy today, I just want to wander. I check out the jeans stalls to see if there are any hidden treasures, there are! But alas, they are all too small for my Ghana mama hips. I make my way over to the piles of clothes baking in the hot sun. This is my favorite part. Last time I pilfered through these piles I found a dress for 50p that I wore to Ghana Fashion Week. I made my way towards the start of the piles and slowly snaked my way through the crowded mess. There was one table with coats, but unfortunately the only decent and warm looking one wouldn’t fit around my hips. Cursed hips.

I found my favorite pile to look through. The pile with clothes from India. The silks and beaded tunics are beautiful. The colors are so vibrant and unique. Sometimes you find a matching tunic and pants. Sometimes it is just the pants. Today I opted for some pants. One pair is made from soft silk, another from comfy cotton, and another from some sort of synthetic fabric that doesn’t matter because they are ridiculous.

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The bright chartreuse ones have an intricate beaded design at the bottom. In America, I never would have bought anything like that. I would have thought – gah, how am I supposed to wash these? Now I know – you throw them in a bucket with soap and wash them. Easy, done. And what’s not to love about harem-style pants? I now have the coolest pajama pants. All three cost 1.50GHC (about 68 cents).

As I worked my way through more piles, I stopped and decided on a whim to turn down a small alley between two buses. And I’m so glad I did, sitting in front of me was a pile about 3ft tall of scarves. The lady in charge of the pile would scream out the price and then pick up the pile and turn it. I stuck with this pile for a while because I knew it would contain some real gems inside. (After all was said and done I spent 2GHC, or 90cents) I saw a scarf that made me smile, but opted not to pick it up. I regretted it immediately because the lady then turned the pile. Would I ever find it again? There had to be hundreds of scarves tangled in a giant heap. I pulled aside one because I liked the colors and it was larger, so I knew I could actually wear it. I’ve developed a real fondness for random bits of orange since being in Ghana too.

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The next one I found I grabbed immediately. Pile shopping is a very visceral experience. If you like it, grab it, you can decide on it later. But countless Peace Corps Volunteers before me have always said – if you like it, buy it, because you’ll never find it again. (Like that Jar Jar Binks head backpack I regret not buying almost two years ago.) Anyway, this one reminded me of my Oma. One of the only things I have of hers is a necklace with a pressed Edelweiss flower inside. The flower reminds me of my childhood and it brings back the happiest memories of growing up in Germany and time spent with my Oma.

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As the lady was turning the pile once again the scarf I regretted not grabbing resurfaced and I latched on to it. It just makes me smile. Yes, those are frogs and a princess. Who would ever give away a scarf this whimsical? (I found another scarf with roosters wearing Nikes that I thought the same, but I hate roosters, so screw them and their scarf likenesses.)

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Lastly, as the suns rays started to wear on me, I decided to give it just a few more pulls and then call it a day. Tirelessly throwing clothes around is exhausting. I noticed a pale blue busy scarf that just caught my eye. I flipped it around and tried to take it all in by letting it billow in the wind. I stopped dead in my tracks. Suddenly memories from my childhood came flooding back to me. I thought of my father and all my extended family in Germany, including in the Schwarzwald. I don’t know what I’m going to do with this scarf. I won’t wear it, but I needed it. I needed those memories. I especially needed them this week. I’ve been struggling with so many different things. I needed to remember that happiness is mental. You chose to be happy. Some things trigger sadness and despair, but you can always choose happiness. This scarf reminded me of that. I walked away clutching it in my hand, knowing that I will always treasure finding this at my crossroad. A German scarf that reminds me of my family, my childhood, my future, and I found it in Ghana.

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The past, present, and future. As I walked away from the market for the last time, I didn’t look back. I walked away smiling and happy that I found joy in the simplest things. These past two weeks have tested my resolve, but I know that I’ll leave Ghana with happy memories. Yes, I have scars. But a scar is always a reminder that you lived to tell the tale. And I’ll have many tales to tell, both sad and happy. It is the happy ones I’ll tell well after the sad ones have faded.

Obamacare Update

I finally got through the application process, which admittedly was difficult given my iffy connection and the system glitches. I had to do some tricks in order to get through but I finally did. (In case anyone is having issues, try creating a new account. Also, if you are stuck at the to-do list and can’t get through, click the link for help on each item. Somehow clicking that link, despite everything being locked, opened it up for me. I imagine I was playing a game of Myst or something.)

Before we go into the plan information I found, I want to be able to compare the plans with the same criteria. So let’s use these estimates:

According to my research an average trip to the doctor for an illness costs $150. Need your blood checked for about three things? $60. One trip to the ER might cost you $700. Say you need to take daily generic heartburn medication, that costs $50 a month. (These numbers are all actual costs and do not factor in insurance) Let’s estimate in one year:

3 trips to the doctor for illnesses: $450
Blood tests, because those are fun: $60
1 ER visit: $700
Prescriptions for the year: $600
Total: $1810/year

Here’s the information I got about the plans available. First of all, I anticipate I’ll get a job at some point so I estimated my income to be around $37,000. That number seemed high enough to not qualify me for subsidies, but reasonable enough to not get my hopes up intrinsically. I used Oklahoma as my state for right now. As a single female who doesn’t smoke (yes, they can still charge you more for smoking), here are the numbers I got:

Bronze plan

The cheapest plan is $103.06/month with a $6000 deductible, but you have to pay for full doctor visits and generic medications until you reach your deductible.
Premium per year: $1236.72
Typical yearly healthcare costs (from above): $1810 (You’d have to pay for these in full until you reached the $6000 deductible)
Total cost for year: $3046.72

Silver plan

The cheapest plan is $154.82/month with a $6000 deductible, but I don’t like it, so let’s use the next cheapest option. Why? Because now I have choices! $161.24/month with a $3000 deductible. The copays are $35 for doctor, $0 for generic meds, and 20% coinsurance on diagnostics after deductible is met.
Premium per year: $1,934.88
Typical yearly healthcare costs (from above, factoring in copays): $865

Doctor visits: $105
Blood tests: $60
1 ER Visit: $700
Prescriptions for the year: $0

Total cost for the year: $2799.88

Gold plan

The cheapest plan is $198.99/month with a $3000 deductible, but surprise! I like lower deductibles so let’s go with the next options: $205.35/month with a $1500 deductible. $10 copays, no charge for generics, and still the 20% for diagnostics. ER visits are going to cost you an arm and an leg no matter what plan you choose.

Premium for the year: $2,464.20
Typical yearly healthcare costs: $180

Doctor visits: $30
Blood tests: $60
1 ER visit: $700
Prescriptions for the year: $0

Total cost for the year: $2644.20


So even though it might cost you more monthly, the better plans will save you money in the long run. This reminds me of the people who take lump sums when they win the lottery, you get much more money if you receive it in yearly payments instead. So, if you visit the doctor more than three times a year, take medications regularly, and aren’t in perfect health I would recommend either the silver or the gold option. Plus, what if something does happen? Having a lower deductible can save you from traumatic sticker shock when you get that bill for your MRI.

I’m still deciding between plans, but so far I’ve been really impressed with the options. There were 65 plans available to chose from. I enjoyed being able to compare benefits. It was great to just have a choice, period.

Why Obamacare is Fantastic, Albeit Confusing for Peace Corps Volunteers

For many Peace Corps Volunteers serving out in the bush somewhere, we’ve all but forgotten about Obamacare. Why? Well, the days blur together and no one is ever quite sure what year it is. Also, the bush part. Yes, we have access to news and facebook and email, but sometimes that means standing on a rock waving your arms wildly in the air hoping to get a signal. So I’m sure it simply slipped the minds of many PCVs worldwide that the online marketplace has gone live. Or they have no idea what that even means.

For the Volunteers returning to America in the next 6 months, Obamacare is fantastic. We are perfect candidates for the new system. Most of us will be returning unemployed, previously uninsurable (chronic Montezuma’s revenge should be a pre-existing condition), and likely in serious need of insurance. Peace Corps provides one month of insurance upon returning to the States, after that you can decide to purchase AfterCare for some months. (Word on the bush path is AfterCare will no longer be an 18 month contract, but 3 months instead.) After reviewing the premium cost (about $240/month) and reviews (terrible) of AfterCare, I’ve decided that shopping for options on the marketplace is a better alternative.

Shopping for plans hits a snag though for Peace Corps Volunteers. Firstly, you need to know what state you live in. Secondly, you need to estimate your 2014 income. I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that all Peace Corps Volunteers returning to America hope that their income will be higher than their in country allowance. If I go back to America and I get a job making $175 a month, I’m coming back to Ghana! So you can see the difficulty here – we don’t know where we will be living or how much money we will be making (if we can get a job). We might move back in with our parents while we look for a job, but odds are many PCVs are looking for jobs in multiple states. So, what’s a poor, homeless RPCV to do?

Well, let’s learn some facts about the new Obamacare roll out and answers some questions (scroll down for some insurance related definitions as well):

Income Related

1. 2014 income estimation determines whether you qualify for tax subsidies or Medicaid. The tax subsidies can change your out-of-pocket premium expenses in the long run. If you earn enough though, you won’t qualify for subsidies. Let’s do an example of what a returning PCV might have to pay:

Example A: a 27 year old PCV has just returned to America. He’s living with his parents right now in Oregon as he readjusts to running water, stable electricity, grocery stores, and hipsters. He is applying for jobs in Oregon and estimates that once he gets a job, he’ll be making $30,000 a year. Here’s his estimate for the Silver plan:

$164/month ($1976/year) premium
No subsidies

Example B
: a 25 year old has just returned and wants insurance. Since she’s 25 she still qualifies under her parents’ insurance. She tells her parents to add her as a dependent on their insurance. Done.

Example C: a 26 year old RPCV is looking for jobs in many different states, she needs insurance in the interim though. She doesn’t know how long it will take to get a job, so she’s living at home with her dad in Texas. She’s looking at nonprofit jobs though for when she does get a job. She guesses her salary will be $25,000. Her estimate:

$223/month ($2680/year) premium
$951 tax subsidy
Premium after subsidy: $144/month ($1729/year)

(All estimates are from: http://kff.org/interactive/subsidy-calculator/)

2. If you estimate your income incorrectly, it will be adjusted for your 2014 taxes (read: April 2015). But what does that mean? Here’s a breakdown:

You estimate $30,000, but end up making $42,000 (first of all, congrats!). You don’t qualify for subsidies either way. You’re fine.
You estimate $22,000, but end up making $37,000. You qualified for subsidies with the lower income, but since you made more money, you’ll have to pay the subsidy back.
You estimate $40,000, but end up making $20,000. You probably qualify for subsidies now, which means you’ll be getting money back.

So, my advice: estimate high. It is better to be pleasantly surprised with a subsidy check, than disappointed when one doesn’t come. (Although, not having a subsidy means you are doing well, so win win either way.)

3. Does my readjustment allowance count as 2014 income? If you COS before December 31, 2013 you don’t have to worry about this question.
For the past two years, you’ve been paying taxes on your readjustment allowance since it has been adding up each month. In terms of income, it isn’t the lump sum in tax terms you think it is. If you COS in 2014, your income should be adjusted based on whatever remaining months you had for your readjustment allowance. (Disclaimer: I am by NO MEANS a tax accountant or professional, my mother is and this is what I understood from her.) So that means:

If you COS in March, that’s $825. It isn’t going to affect you terribly when estimating your income, but if you feel wary overestimate.

4. If I take cash-in-lieu does that count as income? Again, according to my tax-loving mom and the Peace Corps (http://files.peacecorps.gov/multimedia/pdf/policies/taxguide2011.pdf), it does not.

Where do I live?!

1. If you move after you apply/receive insurance, you are qualified for a 60 day new open enrollment. If you apply for insurance in Oklahoma, but move to Texas a few months later you will have 60 days in which to reenroll for insurance. After 60 days, you have to wait for the next time to sign up for insurance – October 2014. If you COS in 2014, you will most likely apply for this exception as well. So you can apply for insurance after returning to the States.

2. What if I get a job that offers insurance and I already bought a plan through the marketplace? You will have to decide if you want to keep your current plan or switch to the insurance provided through your employer. If you want to cancel your current plan, you will have to contact the actual insurance company and discuss with them cancelling. Be sure to ask about premium proration! If you want to keep your current plan, but switch later – talk to your new employer about the next open enrollment period. Mark that date on your calendar and switch then.

What are these terms?

open enrollment – a couple months during the year in which you can sign up for insurance. This is the only time when you can sign up for new insurance or switch.

premium – consider it like a monthly subscription cost. This is the amount of money you pay each month in order to have insurance. (Just like car or renter’s insurance)

income – if you are curious what qualifies as income and what doesn’t check out this website: http://laborcenter.berkeley.edu/healthcare/MAGI_summary13.pdf

subsidy – The health care subsidy is in the form of a tax credit, but unlike most tax credits, you won’t have to wait until you file your taxes to receive it. The subsidy will be applied directly to your insurance premium when you purchase a plan through the online marketplace.

 

My Recommendation

You have until March 31, 2014 to purchase insurance through the marketplace. Starting April 1, you will have to pay a penalty for not having insurance. For Peace Corps Volunteers returning to America with our incredible amount of parasites, worms, and scars – Obamacare is a great thing. So ditch AfterCare and pick a plan that works for you.

If you are looking for jobs, estimate your income based on the salary of jobs you’re looking at. Check glassdoor for more ways to estimate salary. If you move, just reapply for insurance. You never know, you might get a better deal in a different state!

If you are still curious about Obamacare and how it impacts new RPCVs, ask away in the comments below. Or check out these websites for more information:

https://ttlc.intuit.com/health-care

http://kff.org/health-reform/

Wary about Obamacare’s impact on your taxes when you return to the land of paying taxes, here’s information about how Obamacare/Affordable Care Act is being paid for:

http://obamacarefacts.com/obamacare-taxes.php

http://www.irs.gov/uac/Affordable-Care-Act-Tax-Provisions

You can find the marketplace at: https://www.healthcare.gov/

Update: October 21 – for details on the prices I found for plans check out this post: https://mapya.wordpress.com/2013/10/21/obamacare-update/