September 16, 2010

ET...Phone Home

(Yeah, I'm sure everyone who has ET'ed from the PC and has a sense of humor as awesome as mine has made that reference.  But that's just because it's an awesome reference.)

As I read over my many failed attempts to capture my experience of going through the actual process of ET-ing, it is becoming clearer why I am having so much difficulty writing about this ever-so-pivotal moment in my life.  Although the whole process took place over a period of about 72 hours, emotions (and travel-related sleep deprivation) have a strange way of distorting time, and it has all blurred together in such a way that reflecting back on it feels more like looking through a prism than wading through a stream of events.  My memories don’t feel sequential or logical; it is as though it happened all at once, and each cut of the prism contains a different portion of the experience, each angle entirely unique, casting a different light and a different view, all with equal depth and detail and all of equal importance; jarringly unrelated, yet glommed together.  So when I try to write about it—or even think about it—it feels jerky and disjointed, delving into one crystallized moment then flashing over to the next.  So here are a few of these moments flickering through my mind, in absolutely no rational order—because that’s how surreal and strange the memory feels to me.  And I am aware that bits of it (if not all of it) may sound a bit overdramatic, but it was by far the toughest decision I’ve made, and my personality is such that when I have a rather emotional experience, I like to let myself feel it, so that I can move on.  The sooner you fall, the sooner you can get back up.

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I was so numb, as I sat in the lobby of the Peace Corps office waiting to meet with the doctor (a thorough medical exam is required upon termination of service), that I couldn’t even cry as my eyes fixated on the saddest squares of white paper I had ever seen in my life.  I could only focus on how uneven they were—the bottom was cut so sloppily and slanted so far to the right, I almost wanted to ask for a pair of scissors so that I could fix them. 

During training, the Peace Corps takes each volunteer’s picture for our photo IDs, residency permits, and official records, but unbeknownst to us, as we stood in line itching for the driver’s-licence-esque photo shoot to be over so that we could go eat, these pictures are also prominently displayed, along with each volunteer’s name and program, in the lobby of the Peace Corps office (perhaps if we had known that, we’d have made the extra effort to wear clean clothes or brush our hair beforehand, instead of just going with our newfound hippie-not-so-sheik look). 

But as I stared at them now, the flat, black-and-white images of the people who had added so much depth and color to my experience, all I could see were four white squares of paper.  You see, I was not the first volunteer to leave my group.  And rather than printing a new line-up, or just leaving the wall of photos for our Peace Corps class as it was, when volunteers left, their faces and names were covered up with a tiny square of paper.  Whited-out, as though they were a mistake, a blemish that needed to be concealed.  All of the time and energy, tears and sacrifice that had put into their experiences.  All hidden by a white piece of paper. 

I looked at my own smiling face underneath the waving flag of the Peace Corps logo and thought of the imminence of my own white piece of paper.  At that point, all I could do was hope that they would at least take the time to cut a straight edge when they covered me up and erased me from the annals of their history.  But it’s Botswana, after all, so I knew I couldn’t really expect too much.

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I had only really been to downtown Gabs once before, but it was right after my stay in the hospital, so was still a little loopy, and had the luxury of being escorted by a third-year PCV who lived in the area, so I didn’t actually have to pay attention or do any navigational work by myself.  None of this was the case the second time around.  I needed to get from one side of town to another in order to have a dental exam and cleaning (another end-of-service requirement).  Armed with only a blue notecard with the dentist’s name, address, and appointment time (which was quickly approaching), I strutted out of my lodge and proceeded through the pink graffitied alleyway and toward the street. 

Now, to be clear, downtown Gabs is a legitimate downtown—I mean, it’s no NY or LA, but it’s not some small village either.  Four months ago, even two months ago, had I been faced with such a task—attempting to navigate an almost entirely new city alone, with absolutely no idea where I needed to be, how I needed to get there, how long it would take, how much it would cost, etc.—it would have been the source of immeasurable anxiety: a pit in my stomach, a preemptive sleepless night, attempts to locate a map or figure out how to get there beforehand.  But that’s the difference that Peace Corps service makes.  I had no plan.  No worries.  I knew it would be fine.  Either I’d make it to the appointment or I wouldn’t.  Most likely I would, but even if I didn’t, really, what’s the worst that would happen?  Clich√©, but anyone who knows me should know just how significant such a genuine lack of worry is for me. 

So I walked to the main road, approached the first person I saw, and I asked.  In typical Batswana fashion, she took the card from my hand, and walked me to the stop where I was to pick up the combi.  So I picked up the combi.  And as soon as I was on, I showed my card to a man wearing a bright pink button-up shirt in the seat next to me, and asked when I needed to get off.  He told the driver where to stop.  Then we talked about the differences between poverty in the US and poverty in Botswana until the driver said it was my stop, and I paid and got off.  I had to walk a ways to get from the stop to the dentist office, but I had no idea which direction to go or what to look for.  So I asked a group of people, and a woman took me by the hand and walked me down the crowded street to her blue soccer-mom van, and told me she’d drive me.  Again, I should note that pretty much every aspect of this story—including getting into a car with a complete stranger—would have absolutely terrified me before Peace Corps service.  But not so much as twitch of anxiety passed over me at any point in this experience. 

The woman and I chatted as she drove to pick her son up (she said it was on the way to my dentist).  It turned out she was a teacher and worked with some other PCV’s.  When she learned I had been living in Shakawe, she asked me to send her some fish, and was quite disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to, and suggested that I call a friend to see if someone else could, because she thought that Shakawe has the best fish, but it wasn’t worth the trip.  We picked up her son, then proceeded to the area where she thought the dentist’s office was located.  However it wasn’t there.  She pulled over on the side of the road and flagged another stranger down and showed him the card with the address.  He pointed us in the right direction, and I made it to my dentist only slightly late—which is basically on time in Botswana. 

On the way back, I decided to be a tourist and indulge myself in the abundance of traditional art lining the streets the Main Mall—one the only spots ion all of Botswana where such items are sold (even though a substantial portion of the art is from neighboring countries, rather than Botswana itself)—which happened to be only a couple of blocks away from my dentist. 

I left the market with absolutely no idea where I was heading, balancing my Chico bags full of carefully selected carvings and baskets, my mouth feeling almost uncomfortably sterile and clean especially after four months of feeling dirty all over, and hoping that I had retained enough pula to pay for the ride home.   As I walked, I became acutely aware of that oh-so-common aspect of being a white girl in Botswana: it seemed that I was being followed by what appeared to be a suitor.  Yet another experience which would have produced chills a matter of months earlier—alone and lost in the “big city” being followed by a strange man…scary, right?!  But, once again, no fear, no stress.  Instead, without so much as looking back at him, I said “Dumela, rra.  O ya kae?”  (Hello, sir.  Where are you going?)  As it turned out, he was not actually following me because he wanted to try to date me (now THAT shocked me), but because he was an artist trying to sell his paintings.  I told him that I was out of pula, but he was quite persistent and saw a couple of American dollars.  I did like his paintings and had to admire his determination, so I agreed to a price that I knew was on the high side.  “BUT,” I told him, “I need to get back to Game City [the part of town I was staying in] and I don’t know how to get there.  So if I buy this from you, you need to help me.”  And he agreed.  As it turns out, he didn’t know about the combi I had taken on the way there, and walked me all the way to the bus rink—quite farther than I had expected, and completely out of his way.  Not only that, but he took me all the way to the combi I needed, and told the driver where I was trying to go, to make sure I would arrive without any difficulties.

As I rode the combi back to my lodge, still saddled with all of my purchases, now with the addition of the waxy brightly colored painted fabric, I felt a calm, similar to the calm I felt in the Kgaladi.  The ease in this, my final independent jaunt through Botswana, did not feel like an omen that I was finally fitting in, but rather as a farewell sendoff—I did what I needed to do here; I was done.

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It was a little off-putting, to say the least, to find myself once again experiencing such isolation, fear, and sadness in the very same place that I had nearly fallen apart before.  The last time I was in this hotel room—or if not this one specifically, another exactly like it—was when I felt like I had been left for dead, my first night after reporting to the Peace Corps Medical Office with the fever that would land me in the hospital the next day.  At that time, I couldn’t move because I was physically crippled—the combination of having sustained a 104 fever for over 24 hours, severe dehydration, and inability to keep food down had rendered me unable to do anything but stare at the brown animal-print curtains, the fortress keeping any sunlight from permeating the room’s round walls. I faded in and out of consciousness as I listened to my phone emitting the final beeps of it’s battery’s slow death, signaling the impending hush of any connection to life outside my room.  I really don’t think I’ve ever felt more alone than I did on that night. 

And here I was again.  Broken again, but not from a physical malady.  This time it was my emotional turmoil that had rendered me listless.  Despite my inner certainty that I was making the right choice, the sadness of walking away from a lifelong dream, even when the reality was so distorted, is nearly debilitating.  I sat, frozen in a hypnotic daze as Oprah talked about a Catholic monastery, and my phone beeped persistently.  This time the beeps were not a sign of death, but of life—fellow PCV’s texting as they heard the news that I was leaving.  Even though I knew the messages were full of encouraging words, I couldn’t muster any motivation to read them.  I felt equally severed from their world and my own back home; suspended in the purgatory that this room had become, once again counting the hours and minutes until I would be released, consumed by uncertainty about what the future would hold.

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It’s odd how such a pivotal moment in one person’s life is nothing but a mundane detail for someone else.  This was made rather poignantly apparent to me, as I was filing out my final admin paperwork.  Although the Peace Corps has aims very different than most government agencies, the government is the government, and that means there’s paperwork—even when you just want to go home.  From my side of the desk, filling out the paperwork felt like being pricked by a shard of the world that had just shattered around me.  But I’d imagine from the other side of the desk, it just felt like paperwork.  As I was signing my final termination of service, my throat was swelling up and I struggled to hold back tears.  The admin officer sucked on a lollipop.  Every time the red candy clicked against her teeth, it echoed in my ears like children giggling during a memorial service.  I don’t know why it stung so much—all of the Peace Corps staff was incredibly supportive and kind—but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to enjoy a lollipop the same way again.

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My last few conversations before my ride to the airport arrived were appropriately strange and surreal, consistent with the entire duration of my service.  They weren’t at all dramatic or emotional, but entirely matter-of-fact—a conversation with a PCV weighing the pro’s and cons of bed pans versus outhouses; a conversation with another PCV about food in America (that one isn’t especially surprising, as American food is by far the most pined-for aspect of America amongst PCV’s, at least in Botswana); and finally, a conversation with Peggy, our country director, reminding me to bring snacks to the airport, since my layover might be long, and food might not be served immediately on my flight.  Although Peggy and I had several substantive discussions about my reasons for leaving, this was by far my most meaningful interaction.  It wasn’t the face-value of the advice—obviously I knew to get something to eat before I left.  It was the sentiment behind it.  It felt like a parent reminding an adult child to wear a jacket—a nurturing instinct, a final attempt to provide some wisdom and protection to a child taking her first step into the big, scary world.  As I’ve said time and again, I still really value the Peace Corps, even though my specific assignment was a bad fit for me.  The Peace Corps really is a big family, and this was the perfect comforting note to end my service on, before beginning my next journey—what I now feel is my real journey—even though at that time I had no idea what it would entail.

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