Chikunguya

        I haven’t written a blog post in a couple weeks for a two reasons, I had visitors!…. and I also had chinkunguya….

            As Chinkunguya is making its way into the news in the US, it’s already made its way into almost every home here in the Dominican. Where I live, I can say it’s been in every house, if not every person. About 2 months ago my neighbors first started getting Chinkunguya. I thought I has escaped it until last Thursday, when the tell tale signs of joint pain, fever and headache hit me.

         Chikunguya is a virus that’s transmitted by mosquitos. It arrived in the Dominican 2 or 3 months ago and has spread through most of the country rapidly. It has spread so rapidly that there are plenty of conspiracy theories about how it got here. Most of my neighbors think anything from, an explosion in Haina that contaminated the air; the government deliberately polluted the air with Chinkunguya, or that the government accidentally polluted the air then covered it up with the “mosquitos”. Whatever my neighbors think, none of them believe Chinkunguya is from a mosquito. I tend lean more towards science and doctors, and believe mosquitos transmit it.

         I also believe the disease is from mosquitos because I bathed in bug spray for 2 months and was one of the only people here to avoid getting it. I let my guard down at the end of July, thinking it was dissipating, just to get the virus one day before my brother and friends’ visit and 4 days before my birthday!

         Some of the Chinkunguya tales of rashes, fevers, extreme joint pain, vomiting and diarrhea I thought were exaggerations…until I got it. Thursday afternoon I started to feel weak, I thought and hoped it was just the summer heat. I got back to my house from the main town around 5 when my back and wrist started to hurt. One of the strangest things about Chinkunguya, or CHiChi as it’s fondly referred to here, is that it attacks your weakest spot. I thought this was an exaggeration until my wrist, that I broke 14 years ago was the first thing to start hurting! I called my parents Thursday night to say that tomorrow I’d probably have the ChiChi.

     But I didn’t even have to wait until the next day. That night I woke up shivering and freezing, not a normal thing on a Caribbean island. I had a 102.7 fever. I tried to roll over to get acetaminophen and couldn’t even get the mosquito net out because my fingers were like jelly. Every joint in my body hurt, not to mention the splitting headache and high fever. I drank medicine and slept on and off until the AM.

     Friday I was up and down. I would take pills and feel well enough to hobble to my neighbors, just to have my fever go up and have to hobble back to my bed. I thought it was an exaggeration but Chinkunguya actually does make you hobble. Every time your foot hits the ground you’re in pain and your legs can’t handle any pressure either so it’s just better to stay seated. At night, I made it to my neighbor’s to call my brother to confirm his flight and immediately had to go home. My fever went up because again, I was freezing. I couldn’t even look at the dinner my neighbor’s gave me without being nauseous and my joints were on fire. My neighbor, who lives literally a one-minute walk, drove me home because he didn’t want me to walk. When I got home, I could barely wash my own face and brush my teeth. My fingers were so weak and painful I couldn’t even take the hair elastic out of my hair. Every time I tried to do something I was surprised at how nothing in my body worked. I learned Chinkunguya was no joke.

       Luckily I have amazing neighbors. I was expecting visitors Saturday and had planned to clean my house Friday. My neighbors brought me food, juice and even cleaned my house, washed my dishes and mopped my floor.

     My visitors were the best medicine. The excitement of seeing them battled my Chinkunguya and I made it to the airport. I still hobbled but I seemed to forget about the pain. My brother, Eva and Arielle made it to my house safe and sound. We visited neighbors and tried to avoid mosquitos. It was so nice to have them see where I live and experience a day here. Later that night the Chikunguya came back, but in a new form.

       During dinner, I became so itchy. I was getting the ChiChi rash. I got a rash all over my chest, spreading to my arms. Days later at the hotel I got rashes all over my legs. Along with the rash, I got intermittent pain and fevers on vacation but nothing like the first day. I got to enjoy my birthday in the perfect way, with family and friends, pool and beach side.

        Chinkunguya is a weird virus. This one virus affects your nervous system, your joints, your skin (rashes) and your stomach (I’ll spare you the details) . It also attacks your most vulnerable parts, example my 14 year old broken arm and my neighbor’s bad knee. Also the pain can last 1 to 3 months or even up to a year. It’s been a week and a half since I had it and I still wake up with sore feet some days. Once you start moving the pain goes away but after Chinkunguya you wake up and feel like you’ve aged 50 years.

       Also, I forgot to mention the fatigue. Maybe it’s the August heat or remnants of the Chinkunguya but I’ve been sleeping 9-10 hours a night and still can’t keep my eyes open throughout the day. For now, I’ll be sleeping away the Chinkunguya, dreaming of the good ol’ days when mosquitos only transmitted Dengue.

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Spark Reignited

Many people say your Peace Corps service can be a roller coaster; one day you feel great, the next awful. I didn’t believe that too much until today. These past few days I’ve been in a slump with my service (evidence by previous post). Projects were getting stale and I was looking for new motivation. Today everything was renewed.

Today the foundation that is managing the overarching project in the village called a meeting. They wanted to meet with the women’s association. We thought it must just be another routine meeting, to talk about future plans, future things, that may be planned to maybe happen.

These women have had their fair share of disappointments. They’ve been organized and working for 15 years, trying to get their business to the next level and in their experience there have been a lot of promises not kept. They’ve had politicians take pictures with them and say on the news they gave them aid, when not a cent made it to their hands. They’ve met the President who promised them a loan to help grow their business, again never to see a cent of it. They finally planned a beautiful project with a project manager and friend they trusted, Tomas, just to see him pass away right before it was implemented. After his sudden death, many people from the organization visited, just to say the funds allocated for their project were being redirected to the water project. Instead of sitting on their hands waiting for the project they’ve been moving forward on their own and have been paying a lawyer large amounts of their hard-earned money to get legalized, just to have their eyes opened and realize he has been stealing it.

These women have hearts of gold and faith that the world will treat them with the same care they treat others. This is sadly not the case. Unfortunately too many people have taken advantage of the women’s generous and honest spirit and they are learning they need to be more careful. These disappointments I listed have only been in the last year and months I’ve been here. I was becoming discouraged after just one year, while these women have been at it 15 years and still take everything in stride. They never seem frustrated and always have faith, patience and a calm determination that things will work out.

This is how they felt about the meeting. The women realistically didn’t want to get their hopes up, but they did have an odd sense of optimism and anticipation for this meeting. People were coming to this meeting whom hadn’t visited since December, before Tomas passed away and the projects were still moving and caliente.

Well the meeting happened and it couldn’t have been better. Throughout my Peace Corps service I’ve learned to enter things with flexible expectations because things just never seem to go quite right. This meeting blew all my expectations away.

The foundation announced that they are finally starting on the women’s project. Between a few organizations the women will receives classes and workshops to better production and quality of their products, as well as better the administration and organization of their business. The architect was present in the meeting, measuring and drawing designs for a bathroom, vehicle entrance and maybe even a second floor. But the best news overall was that the specialist listened to the women and are including all four of their products in the projects. Previously they only wanted to work with one product while the women fought for two, today they arrived with a plan including all four. Not only that but the organization will buy all the equipment the women need, including the grinder I had been looking to buy them! Previously the women were going to have to be dependent on an intermediary for their prime material, now they will be completely self sufficient and independent! In the future there are even plans for a computer and training.

As the specialists were giving the news I glanced at the women to make sure that they were understanding and they were taking in the news very calmly. They did clap when they heard all four products would be in cooperated into the plan and clapped at the renovations as well, but overall for how I assume they felt on inside they remained very calm on the outside. I assumed it was beacause again these were just plans, a lot can happen between now and receiving the benefits.

At noon, the meeting closed how it had begun, with a group prayer. I exited the little concrete house (soon to be factory!) behind Isabel and Maria to help bring the food down for everyone to eat. These two women have become like mothers and sisters to me. I’ve talked to them daily about their business; about whom we can trust, about whom we can’t, about rip-offs and about how we can do better in the future. In private, I’ve seen these women furious, sad but always determined. Today when we exited their little concrete house I saw them, jubilant.

As I exited, I saw Isabel almost jump on top of Maria with a burst of excitement. Maria didn’t expect it as they both are always so composed in public and the two almost fell over each other in excitement and smiles. All their hard work is about to pay off…hopefully. In the beginning of my service I felt I was the spark that got the community moving on projects but witnesses this moment of pure excitement I know these women have become the spark I needed to get motivated again.

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One Year Slump

Okay so it’s been more than a year. I’ve been living here for fourteen hot, hectic, amazing months. A weird thing happened after I hit the 12-month mark, home is in sight. When I arrived, I had left everything behind and was just focused on completing this crazy Peace Corps journey. Now that I’ve been here for more time than I have left, home is in sight; life after Peace Corps is creeping up. It’s a great feeling to be almost done, but it’s also distracting to focus on a life that isn’t mine yet. Also seeing the end near, you start to reflect on what you’ve accomplished in your time here.

Throughout my service I’ve had this feeling a couple of times. I’ve felt stuck between two lives, my “real” life back in the US, with all the modern luxuries I could want and the simpler Peace Corps life. I live in a rural campo with almost none of the modern amenities, while I vacation in the nicest parts of the island. Here my host family struggles to put food on the table while my family at home is grilling steak on the grill. My friends here worry about how they are going to do laundry if it doesn’t rain while friends in the US worry about what wine to bring to a party. Neither is better than the other, they are just very different lives and it’s odd to be living both simultaneously.

These feelings of being in two worlds as well as the lack of concrete results I see in my site have contributed to my one-year slump. In my 14months here I’ve done a lot, but when I look around I don’t see drastic difference in people’s day to day lives. I’ve talked to a lot of people and I feel better about this now. Although there isn’t a huge infrastructural difference I can take pictures of, hopefully people have new skills and have had new experiences because of my service. I just can’t shake that American spirit inside of me that wants quick results, but I try to remind myself long-term sustainable change takes times, many times more than two years.

So for the next ten months I’m going to try to stay focused on my work here in the Peace Corps. This next month my business students will be going to the national conference, renovations should start on the women’s work house, the water distribution lines should arrive at the houses, 40,000 cacao plants should be planted and I’ll continue my girls & women empowerment classes. But most importantly my brother and friends are coming to visit for my birthday! Hopefully It’ll be a nice mixing of US and Dominican life.

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El Chinkunguya and Visitors

            Being sick in the US and in the Dominican are two totally different things, and not only because you’re ten times hotter and lack basic amenities while you’re sick here.

            The differences between the same experience in the two difference countries has become so clear to me because recently everyone’s been sick. I don’t know if Chinkunguya has made the news in the US yet, but here people are dropping like flies. Chinkunguya (also referred to as Chimmi-chunga, Chimmi-churi and many other variations) is a virus transmitted by mosquitos that has swept the DR, including my little village. The symptoms are a high fever, severe headache, and joint pain and swelling until most people can’t walk. They’ve nicknamed it “The Gimp” in my town because everyone walks gimp like they’re 85 after they have it and can stand again. I have been fortunate enough not to have it, but I’ve spent almost everyday visiting at least one neighbor who does. This is one of the differences of being sick in the DR and US, visitors.

            In the US, when we are sick we like to curl up in a ball in our house, alone. We wear sweatpants all day, lie on the couch watching Hulu, with balled up tissues around us and maybe only want to see the pharmacist at Walgreens who is selling us Thermaflu and Advil. If someone rang your doorbell, you’d probably ignore it because obviously they’d call first. Here is the opposite!

        When someone is sick, you visit, and your neighbors visit, and their neighbors visit, and maybe the whole church visits. I think the visiting comes from the fact that 1) people do lack the basic necessities and when sick rely on their neighbors to help them 2) there are so many weird diseases in the DR people like to see them up close and personal and 3) it’s custom for people to die in their houses so if someone is laid up, you go visit. I’ve come to like this custom, when other people are sick. I visit my neighbors like everyone else when word spreads they are sick. I bring a tea or IB Profuen and enjoy what usually turns into a social event bedside of the sickly. The bad thing is when I’m sick, I’m still American.

            I can’t change the fact that I want to be alone while sick and my neighbors can’t change the fact they want to be as close to me as possible and never leave me alone when I’m sick. This week I had a stomach and headache, nothing major. I was with two of my Doña’s and at their urging went to lie down at about 2pm. I got to my house, shut my door, got in my PJs and mosquito net to rest, just to have my 8-year old neighbor start calling me outside my window. He brought me lunch. I open the door, trying to hide my PJs and took the lunch. Got back into bed. Half and hour later when I’m falling asleep his mom, my neighbor, comes up, yelling into my window to check on me. She wouldn’t leave until I opened the door to assure her I was living. And so it continued, and old man showed up with leaves from and orange tree to rub on my stomach, a little girl came by, my host mom, my project partner. Instead of resting I had a parade of caregivers. I accepted all their care and love but all I really wanted to do was shut my door and daydream about Hulu access.

            The other thing that is very different about being sick here is the treatment and reasoning of the sickness. I grew up in America, where we rely on medical studies to explain diseases, medical studies to approve pills, and we take a lot of pills to solve things. Here there is a lack of that same kind of medical care. Here everything is natural and everything is explained by stories and superstitions. For example Chinkunguya, Peace Corps doctors explained to me that it is a virus transmitted by mosquitos, that isn’t contagious, and that it has been moving across the Caribbean islands. It’s a virus; rest, take acetaminophen for the pain and stay hydrated. Here in my village people refuse to believe it’s a virus from a mosquito. They believe there was an explosion that contaminated the island and that the government is covering it up saying it’s a mosquito. They say the disease is so weird it can’t be natural and is obvious from the “contamination”. Also they believe it’s contagious, which oddly enough doesn’t stop them from visiting. This has been interesting, but my favorites are the traditional superstitions.

            Here there are superstitions for almost everything. The island is very Catholic, but most people at least in my campo believe in some kind of spirits or magic. There are stories of witches and dead people, as well as old wives tales parents problem invented to scare their kids. Here are some superstitions about when you’re sick:

  1. You can’t get wet in the rain or you’ll get a fever
  2. You can’t touch cacao or you’ll die
  3. You can’t paint your nails
  4. You can’t do laundry
  5. You basically can’t be around any strong smells

          The last thing different about being sick here is the treatment. I do have incredible Peace Corps doctors that are always on call should I need something serious, but luckily I haven’t and I’ve had great neighbors that take care of me (as much as I don’t like it sometimes). Here they have a leaf for every ailment. Tea of a certain grass, cherry leaves and passionfruit leaves cures the flu. Tea of leaves of a bitter orange tree (which I think are grapefruit) cures a stomachache. Lemon and salt also cures a stomachache. This one is real important, to all the Peace Corps Volunteers out there, carrot and garlic juice kills stomach Amobeas. I didn’t arrive believing in leaves and home remedies but after they’ve worked on me, I do.

      I don’t know if it’s the love my neighbors put into their remedies or the remedies themselves but they always seem to cure me. It could also be the visits that cure me, but I’m starting to believe there is a little magic in Corozo.

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One year

This past weekend I went my one-year in service training or IST. One year IST is a time to get together with the same Peace Corps volunteers you came to this country with to talk about successes and failures, as well as vent about and praise your projects. One year for me was a time to reflect. The good, successful projects and progress we’ve made in my community, validated my service. Suggestions and tips from fellow volunteers on how to solve the same old challenges that I consistently face refreshed me. And lastly, the realization I only have 11 more months to finish all I want to do on this crazy, hot island stressed me out!

Writing my presentation for IST was a good reflection. Sometimes work gets frustrating. When I’m sweating under my tin roof, scratching mosquito bites, eating boiled bananas for the fifth night in a row, hoping someone shows up to my class the next day, or just get finished with another women’s association meeting that took five hours too long, it’s natural to think, “Why the H*ll am I here?” But the best advice I’ve heard throughout Peace Corps still rings true. Your bad days will be worse than any in the US, but the good days are some of the best you’ll have in your life. It’s so true, the bad and good are so extreme here. This has been exemplified to me by the water situation in Corozo.

We have no running water. We have three sources of water: rain, public waterspout and river. Rain is considered the best quality, so we all collect it in tanks to drink and bathe. I knew I was integrated into the culture here when it started to rain one day and I immediately ran home to make sure my rain catching gutter was aimed perfectly at my tank to catch the most water. The next best option for water is the public waterspout. You manually have to pump water from the ground, fill your buckets and carry them home. It can be annoying to walk , pump and carry your water home but it’s a good steady source of water. This water is good for bathing, cleaning and washing dishes but not for drinking because it tastes metallic. The last option is the river, which I don’t even like to get my toes wet in. The river water is so contaminated it gave me skin infections the first time I used it, so needless to say I stay away. It’s so contaminated because pigs live upstream, bathing and pooping in the water. Despite this contamination a lot of men and little kids still bathe in the river (picture below) and many people wash clothes in the river as well.

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The water has been such a source of pain and joy in my service I think it perfectly shows how the worst days here are worse than any in the US as well as the good days being better than any in the US. For example, the day I had gone to the capital for the doctors to look at my skin infections. After a long day of traveling I arrived back in Corozo, sweating and tired, arms and legs swollen, painful and wrapped in gauze. All I wanted to do was shower and sleep, when I realized I had no water in my house. Not showering wasn’t an option so at the moment I just wanted to sit down and cry, I realized I had to carry two buckets to the waterspout to get water. Usually in the US when I got home from a long day at work, I could just automatically turn on my hot water and shower.

Another brutal day was just last week. It’s been dry so my rain water tank is empty. I went to the public water spout and it was dirty. It seems it’s rusted so the water smells very oxidized and the people warned me not to use it. So the dirty, nasty river was my last option. At 8pm I planned to head down the river in the dark to look for water. I was near tears I was so frustrated, when my neighbor came out of his house, scolded me for thinking I could bathe in river water and personally delivered 5 gallons of rain water to my house.

So that’s the bad, but even in the bad there is good. Last week I didn’t even have to ask my neighbor for his rainwater, he just gave it to me because he thought it better I have it than him. That type of generosity is normal here. Also because rainwater is so coveted, when it rains here it’s a marvelous sight. Usually you can hear and see the rain moving across the mountains, people running to take their clothes off the lines and then it hits the tin roofs like tiny acorns. Sometimes the rain gets so loud you can barely hear people talk in the same house. Also all the little boys run out into the rain to shower. They dance and play carefree in the falling rain. It’s an amazing sight.

The last amazing thing that water has brought me, is watching the water project come together. I’ve seen communities come together, plan, fundraise and literally build a water system with their sweat. The system is about 11 or 12 kilometer long, with the intake structure high up in a mountain. When I first saw the plan I thought it was impossible, but they did it. They dug wholes through mountains, constructed three huge water tanks, removed rocks and dug ditches along mountain roads. These men worked once a week for over a year, unpaid to get this water system working. This week we are building the last water tank and it’s amazing to see. I never thought in my life I’d get to see villages who never had running water get it, in just over a year. Just about a year ago I went to the capital with my project partner Isabel and she didn’t know how to turn on the shower faucet because she had never seen one before, this year she’ll have her own in her house. That’s progress.

Overall, one year was a time to reflect. I thought about my failures and what I could do better as well as looked back on the progress that’s been made not only in my communities but within myself. Hopefully I leave an impact on my community, because I’m positive they’ve left one on me.

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Trip Home

I’m back in the Dominican, the very hot Dominican. Haven’t blogged in a while because I was home. I had an amazzzzing trip home filled a wedding, visiting old friends, strolling and shopping through my old city and family time. Couldn’t have been better. The only thing that could’ve been better was the trip back. My trip from Boston to DR was already long on paper, 9am to 9pm, with a 6 hour layover in Miami, but it got even longer. I got a truly Dominican welcome back to the country filled with mishaps, hard work, dirt and love.

Everything went smoothly until Miami. After already sitting through a six-hour layover, boarding wasn’t starting. People were getting impatient, when the airline man announced our plane had a mechanical problem and we had to change planes and gates. Grumbling people moved, waited two more hours and by 9:00 we were 10th in line for takeoff. After almost another hour on the runway, we took off, three hours behind schedule. I thought the mechanical plane problems in Miami were the worst of my travel problems getting home. Like most of the time, I was wrong. Two weeks in the US and I forgot what a real inconvenience is, but I quickly was reminded.

Finally landed in Santo Domingo, a little late, but my ride was still waiting for me (Thank God because it can dangerous at night to leave the airport). The trip to the airport to the main town, Peralvillo was actually smooth, I slept most of the way. I stayed the night in the main town, ready to travel the mere 11 kilometers to my house. I thought the journey was basically over, but I was wrong. This 11 kilometer road always is filled with surprises.

The next day, I shuffled down to the main street with all my bags around 3:15 to wait for my favorite chauffer to pass. I sat on a bench enjoy the clear day and sun until he showed up at 3:45. He showed up FULL; people packed inside, cargo tied to every part of the truck and people literally hanging off the back of the truck. I assumed there was no room, but again was wrong. In his always happy, friendly way he kicked someone out of the truck to sit in the back so I could squish inside. Then he tied my suitcase and backpack to the roof of the pickup truck. Didn’t seem that safe but I just wanted to get home.

Three minutes into our sunny drive, the sky darkens and opens. It started to downpour all over the people and cargo. The chauffer was convinced it would stop but after five minutes of serious downpour he pulled over to put a tarp over the people and cargo. At this point I took my backpack, already soaked, inside the truck on top of me because my laptop was in it. So in the backseat there is a woman with grocery bags, a pregnant woman with a 3 year old on top of her, me, my purse, helmet and now soaking backpack and an unfortunate gentleman next to me, who was not skinny. The four of us are jammed together, suffocating with the windows closed because no one wants to get wet. The people in the back of the truck are all soaked and hanging on, so I really can’t complain about being squished.

Also now that it is raining so heavily, everyone is worried that the rivers are going to flood or we won’t make it up the big hills because the roads get so bad. So everyone is rushed and feels a little pressure, but the driver had to stop twice to fix my suitcase. The first time he left it on the roof with the tarp over it but it was still getting soaking wet. So he stopped again and tied it to the back of the truck like a tumor and put the tarp over it, which seemed to work. So after multiple stops fiddling with tarps, most people soaked and us suffocating, we thought we just had to hold on for another 15 minutes and we’d be free. Yet again I was wrong.

In the hill right after the second river crossing, through the driver’s window we hear a PSHHHHHHHH sound. It sounded like someone was letting air out rapidly of a very full balloon…or tire. Yea, our back tire exploded on a rocky hill. Surprisingly everyone stayed calm. The driver tried to give it one last push up the hill but it wouldn’t go. So he puts the emergency break on and we’re stuck, still being rained on. The four women in the back, lived close enough so they just started walking, leaving maybe 8 of us and the cargo. Thankfully someone passed with a car jack and all the men started replacing the tire. Meanwhile the truck is still full, of cargo and people. This crazy driver replaced the tire, even got under the truck, full and on a hill. No big deal to him, they changed the tire in maybe 15 minutes and again we just had to hold on to get home.

I finally did make it home, soaked, with a soaked suitcase and backpack but thank god the stuff inside wasn’t too wet. I opened the door and it was good to be home. Quickly, I changed and put on nice clothes to visit my neighbors. As I go to walk out the door, my dog Charlie comes charging in the door to greet me. Instantly he jumps all over me before I can stop him. Because of the rain, everything was mud including Charlie’s paws. So minutes after changing, I am wet and dirty again, but instead of being pissed I just laughed. I was home.

Things here aren’t as easy as they are in the US. I couldn’t take a hot shower when I got out of the rain, or throw my clothes in the washer or dryer. I could barely even make it home, but that’s life here. When I signed up for the Peace Corps this is what I signed up for. After all this, I still visited my neighbors, soaking and dirty because that’s not important to them. Everyone hugged me, told me I got so fat and beautiful in the US and life was back to normal. My first day back and the resiliency and love of my neighbors continued to inspire me. Also for me, this life is temporary, I go back to my hot showers and modern conveniences in a year, for this village the daily struggles really are life as normal.

Charlie and my two next door neighbors spent the night with me just to make my house feel like home again.

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Coming Home & Working

 

 I’ll be coming home in 6 days and hope I can see all of you. Wanted to share I will be talking about my Peace Corps service and experience at Salem State University on May 14th along with US Representative John Tierney and Peace Corps Acting Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet. If you know someone who is thinking about joining the PC or wants to see me real nervous come to the talk! 

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