July 5, 2010

Power Hungry

So I must admit, as much as I want to write a single blog about my site, it’s becoming increasingly clear that because there is just so much to say, and because my impressions of my site are so intertwined with my day-to-day experiences, it’s impossible to disentangle them, so I suppose I have to succumb to the fact that it’s just going to come out bit by bit.  So here is another one of the bits.

Let me begin by describing my house.  I’ll admit, when I first saw it, after having been exposed to many of the luxuries of a middle-income country (many portions of Botswana are actually quite developed, including Moleps, where I spent the past two months training, and so Botswana is classified as “middle income” rather than “developing”) I was a bit panicked, particularly because it was still in disrepair when I saw it at site visit.  That being said, I genuinely couldn’t be happier with my house, because despite my recently acquired desire for “cushy” house, when I joined Peace Corps, I was hoping for the “Peace Corps experience”—as rugged and modest as possible.  While my house is far from being on either extreme end of those two criterion, it is closer to the “rugged” side of the spectrum than the housing that many Bots PCV’s have, and it is extremely consistent with the standard of living in my village, so I feel incredibly lucky. 

My building is in a large compound, with ten or so other buildings, including one modern-style house, several rondevals, and some cement block houses.  My house is one of the cement block buildings (although I actually wish I was a rondeval—mud huts and thatch roves stay so much cooler, and it gets HOT—up to 120 F in the summer!) and consists of two rooms, not connected by any interior doors.  For reasons that I’d rather not disclose on a public forum, I have decided to occupy only one of the rooms, but it is quite large (larger than I realized on my initial visit), maybe 20’x20’ or so.  It has two windows, a cement floor, a tin roof with no ceiling, no indoor plumbing (as my earlier blog indicated), one outlet (thank god for extension cords with extra plugs in them!), and one light bulb (although the light switch is in the other room, which, again, has no interior door, so I must go outside and enter the other room, whenever I want to turn my light on or off).  I also have my own pit latrine, which also has a locking door, as per Peace Corps requirements.

In terms of furniture, I was given a single bed (mattress and box springs which sit atop four uneven concrete blocks), a mosquito net (yay—also see previous blog :o), a plastic patio-style table, two plastic chairs, a chest of drawers, and an electric stove about the size of a microwave, with two burners and an oven.  I purchased a plethora of buckets for various uses (also referenced in an earlier blog :o), as well as a rug to cover about half of my exposed floor (concrete floors=cold and dirty), and a refrigerator (definitely pretty posh for Peace Corps, but again, no indoor pluming, no insulated water pipes, and 120 F degrees in the summer. Chelsea needs a way to make stuff cold.).  And that’s it.  So I store my dishes on top of my refrigerator and in a bucket on the floor.  I use my plastic patio table as a dishwashing stand and cooking area.  I use one of my chairs as a nightstand, and the other as a coffee table/computer desk/eating surface.  And as odd as it may sound, I actually don’t at all mind having less stuff—or even the rather basic construction.  I was feeling pretty proud of myself—so evolved, so wise, so “beyond” material possessions. 

But then the power went out.  Which meant no lights, no refrigerator, no oven/stove.  But no big deal, right—my computer and my phone still had batteries, so I could still text other volunteers (unrelated: I kind of really hate texting, but it’s pretty much the only line of communication with other vol’s and I miss everyone!!), listen to music, and watch TV/movies.  And I had my headlamp, so I could still see.  Plus, some of my leftovers weren’t so bad cold.  So ga gona mathata, no worries—I’d just charge everything back up the next day when the power came back on.  And, sure enough, when I woke up, the power was back on; no sweat, right? 

But when I got home, the power was out again.  And nothing was charged.  At all.  Clearly it had gone out shortly after it had come back on.  So.  There I was.  No power.  No stove or oven.  No refrigerator.  No light (and it gets dark around 6pm this time of year).  No computer—so no movies, tv, music, or even blog-writing (I kind of really hate writing by hand, and will only do it for letters).  No cell (it wasn’t entirely dead, but I needed to save it for an emergency).  My headlamp batteries were low, so no headlamp.  Nothing. 

Now, I would LOVE to say that in this instant, I had some great epiphany, some life-changing moment, where I realized that all of those things were trivial, and that it was some beautiful, cleansing experience, freeing me from the clutches of technology, and reconnecting me with my human roots. 

But it wasn’t.  It sucked.  In that moment—that whole night, as a matter of fact—I crumbled.  And then I realized something: this was really only the second time since I’d been here that I was entirely stripped of everything familiar to me (the first time was in the hospital) and forced to actually experience what life is like for so many people, including most people in my community.  It really is astounding what companionship there is in all of the comforts of technology.  Lack of running water, lack of material possessions hardly even phased me, but life without electricity is literally an entirely different experience.  I have lost power long enough to use up the batteries on my computer and phone a number of times since (we actually often lose power in the evenings) and still can’t get used to it. 

It’s ironic—I think a lot of people would have had the opposite epiphany.  I think many people enter the Peace Corps with the assumption that they are very bonded to most American/Western luxuries, and wind up finding that they aren’t as attached as they thought.  But I honestly thought I was pretty far out of that circle—and I wasn’t entirely wrong; as I said, I kind of love living without most of it—so I expected to have that expectation validated.  But, in fact, what I learned is that I am far from immune to having an absurd fondness for my personal comforts, and that it nearly broke me not to have my computer-even just for a short time.  I felt so powerless (ha ha, I know…) not knowing when it would come back, not being able to call the power company and get answers.  And it’s something I’m still grappling with within myself—it’s not even like this technology is only rare in some parts of the world; it’s something that hasn’t even been around for a generation.  What does it say about me as a human being, living in a world full of human beings who have never seen a computer, and coming after eons of human beings who couldn’t even conceive of something like a computer, that one night without it leaves me feeling so vulnerable?

So, on that note…I’ll leave you.  But even now, as I sign off on this blog, I fully intend to keep my computer on—to guiltily enjoy the comforting glow of the screen in my otherwise pitch black room, maybe listen to some music, maybe watch another episode of HIMYM (SO glad that’s on the roaming tera!!  <3 that show thata!!).  I hope that as my comfort level here grows, my dependence will dwindle.  But only time will tell…


  1. I love reading your blogs Chels! When I finish, I sometimes question whether I can claim myself as the writing superior...not always mind you, but well you know ;)

    Anyways, thanks to my dad, I just started watching that show and I'm glad youre graced with it as well. In regards to your hopes, I know your comfort level will grow and likely your dependence has already "dwindled" considerably. Stay strong and always know you have a slew of people back here rooting for you.

    Take care of yourself Chelsea

  2. Hi Chelsea-- O how I can relate to the vulnerable feelings without the comforts of American civilization. When Phil and I were in Europe (a far cry from Africa, but still less evolved than the US as far as in-home comforts) we too did not realize the supreme connection and calm that such things as internet, electricity, running hot water and laundry facilities brought to us til extended time without them. Ya just can't really have an opinion until you've experienced it... good for you for being such a trooper. :)

  3. Thanks guys!!! I love reading your comments...it makes me feel less far away to think that I'm sort of sharing my experiences with you!

    @Jeff, of course I'm the better writer...duh. If you were as wise as you say you are, you'd have figured that out long ago. Hehe. And I'm superglad you watch HIMYM--one of the best shows on TV (not that that says much, really...).

    @ Stephanie I cannot WAIT to hear all about your adventures!!! I can't wait until I'm back (or we meet someplace else crazy) so we can have more!!!


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