May 14, 2010

When You Can’t Get Through It, Listen To It

Ahh, music.  The power it has to lift me up, console me, and make me feel like myself.  Music is what keeps me whole.  To those of you who are not Fansons or music-lovers in general, I don’t think I can even express how profound its effect is—and how deeply wounding the lack of music can be. 

Today is my one month anniversary of being in Botswana.  One month of learning a new culture, learning a new language, learning new people, and learning a new way of life.  One month of daily battles with myself, tremendous highs, tremendous lows, and moments of defeat interspersed with tiny victories (which I believe are, in fact, the most significant kind).  One month of different food, different water, and different weather.  One month of missing old friends and making new ones. 

But what I am celebrating today is bigger than that.  Today, I got my music back.  And along with it, as it happened, my sense of identity.

I lost my mp3 player at the airport in Jo’burg (there ARE consequences to a 36+ hour journey with little sleep), and although I have had my computer, I had no headphones, and haven’t been able to hear music for weeks.  The reason this is especially difficult right now, is because one of the greatest challenges that PCV’s face, particularly during training when we are brand new to the country and also have so little control over our daily lives, is how to retain our own identities, while also reinventing ourselves within a new culture and adapting our own personality, self-expression, hobbies, and interests to the new world in which we are living.  In a sense, for the past month, I have felt as though my entire identity went missing.  For me, music is like a gateway to my soul, so the lack of music only compounded the feeling that I was slowly sinking in quicksand.  (I simply must insert this quote…I know at least the Fansons will appreciate it: I’m looking for a song to sing and I’m looking for a friend to borrow.  I’m looking for my radio so I might find a heart to follow. I’ve never been just longing for your loving, I’ve never been just wearing down to nothing, I’ve never been just looking for a reason so that maybe you’ll be thinking of me.)

Since getting out of the hospital and returning to my site, I have been making a concerted effort to rebuild myself, testing small things that I can do to feel like me again, in such a foreign world.  Making my own dinner with foods that I am used to and that provide the nutritional content that I need.  Making sure to get some form of exercise every day.  Working very hard to remember to SMILE and LAUGH, even when I don’t feel like it—because in the States, I do those things all of the time, and they are a good part of what makes me feel whole. 

And just as I noted in my previous entry, it is as though as though once I began making the effort to pick myself back up, the universe, or whatever you want to call it, pitched in.  All at once, I received a large pile of letters and postcards.  Let me say, despite the fact that it has only been one month, and I have enjoyed more access to the internet than I expected, I cannot even begin to express the joy that receiving real letters brings.  Something I can touch that came from home, from someone I care about so much, so full of support, encouragement, and love.  I have written back to each of you, and I am still in the process of locating the poso (post office), but hope to have them mailed by the end of the week.  But reading through these letters makes me think about life back home and how much I love each and every one of you—you are all part of my identity.  Each and every word I read feels like a breath of air re-inflating my soul.  I can’t thank you enough.

And as though that wasn’t enough, I finally got my music back.  During shadowing, the volunteer I was with had a spare pair of headphones, which she kindly gave me.   I haven’t had enough of a charge on my computer to listen until today.  Taking in each word, each note, of the songs that have already gotten me through so much is almost like a momentary trip home.  Music has never sounded so sweet.

So, although the one month mark is hardly even a step in my journey and I have an immeasurable amount of learning, adapting, and growing to do, I feel like I am finally starting to figure out how to maintain my sense of self.  I understand now that I am still surrounded by my friends, even though there is a great physical distance between us, and I am finally navigating my way to the comforts, like music, that my soul needs to stay strong.  So, my one-month anniversary is on a good note (hehe, “note,” get it?!), thanks in great part, once again to you guys and all of your support…and I guess Hanson, and Howie too…hehe ;o)

(Also, please please please please DON’T tell me about the upcoming Hanson concerts in the PNW…I literally died inside when I saw the dates, and I actually can’t handle it…thinking about it will literally cause me to curl up in a ball and cry, and I *just* got myself past that point, so just don’t go there…thanks…lol)

Hospitals, Butterflies, and Chocolate Cake…

I would like to begin with an apology to those of you on Facebook, who read a message that I left; a rather cruel “teaser” indicating that I had been released from the hospital, but without any other details about my condition…I assure you, it was only because of lack of time, not intended to induce any stress!  In any event, below is an extremely truncated version of my experience, condensed primarily because a great deal of the story is not suitable for a public blog post.  That said, I am more than happy to e-mail or message anyone privately if you’d like the full story…but without further ado, this is a recap of my most recent week as a PCT in Bots…

Friday, April 30th was a pretty delightful day as far as PST goes—we were getting ready for our LPI (language proficiency…something…it’s a test), prepping for shadowing the following week (an integral part of PST—we are placed with volunteers currently serving, and get to see where they live and work, and hang out for a couple of days, so we can see that there IS a light at the end of the tunnel that is PST), AND we had stadium day to boot (every so often, schedule and weather permitting, we are taken to an outdoor stadium with a track, soccer field, and sport courts, where we can run, play sports, and just generally do something other than sitting in class all day; stadium day is welcomed by all, regardless of one’s interest in physical fitness).  Better yet, our food basket had arrived the day before, so I had food to eat at home, instead of having to use my own money for it.  All in all, it was shaping up to be a good day, and my spirits were quite high. 

Because it was stadium day, when I arrived home, I opted to take a bucket bath before making dinner.  However, after my bath, I was too exhausted to eat (anyone who knows me can hear the warning bells going off already).  I wrote it off as being a side-effect of too much exercise and sun, and decided to head to bed early.  Then my muscles began aching, and my face began burning.  Once again, I assumed that I had simply overexerted myself earlier.  After an hour or so, it occurred to me that I might be sick, so I decided to take my temperature.  Lo and behold, it was 104—and my body temperature is typically lower than average.  I was also having severe stomach issues (which are especially exciting with a bedpan, particularly when you literally don’t have the strength to walk more than a few steps, let alone dump it out) I was rather frightened, but not thinking especially clearly due to my condition, so I just decided to take Tylenol and drink water, and see if my temperature would go down.  It didn’t. 

As I said earlier, I can’t really get into the details here, but fast forward to Sunday, and I’m in a hospital in Gaborone on an IV, fever holding steady and stomach issues worsening.  I have no toothbrush, deodorant, change of clothes, or cell phone charger; only some blank notecards, an umbrella, and a book (never trust someone with a 104 degree fever to pack her own hospital bag…thank god I happened to grab the book).  Again, I can’t really provide many details here, but I will say that while I suspect the hospital in Gabs is among the best in the region, it is definitely very different from the hospitals I am used to in the US—not that I have ever been admitted into a hospital before; I haven’t, but I have still seen my fair share. 

Most of my time there was a haze, as a combined result of my extremely high fever, (which did not drop until Tuesday, the 4th) and a great deal of medication.  Nonetheless, I will admit, the situation was beginning to take it’s toll.  There were at least four distinct moments in which, had there been any charge remaining on my cell phone, I would certainly have requested to be on the next plane home.  It is amazing how completely alone I felt in a hospital, 15,000 miles from home, with no visitors, no one else from my culture with whom I could relate or who knew how to comfort me, feeling more ill than I ever have, with no idea why I was sick, when I would get better, what tests and medications I was being given, and no way to contact the outside world.  It was honestly the longest and scariest 4 days of my life.  (Again, I am more than happy to provide details to anyone in a private message or e-mail if you are interested.)

One of my favorite things about Botswana, which I believe I have neglected to mention up to this point, is the abundance of butterflies—not only the quantity, but the variety as well.  There have been a few moments when butterflies seem to be more prolific than mosquitoes, flapping around from flower to flower in the bush, fighting the wind in the streets.  Were it not for their beautiful blurs and bursts of color, I would imagine they might be perceived as pests.

On Wednesday morning, I was sitting in my hospital bed, waiting for the PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) to pick me up, drowning in feelings of self-pity, completely defeated, demoralized, and ready to give up.  I caught a glimpse of two butterflies outside of my window.  They were circling each other, in an intricate dance, flying rather haphazardly at times, jutting up suddenly along with a gust of wind, flapping frantically against the breeze.  Drawn in by their spectacle, I walked to the window, leaned out, and took a deep breath.  Silly though it sounds, as I looked out upon the vast African sky, dotted with puffs of white, and gazed upon the bush, the birds, and those butterflies, it was as though the land was a giant sponge which slowly absorbed all of my stress and worries.  As I stared at the butterflies, I became overwhelmed by the fragility of their very existence, and their natural instinct to perservere, despite nearly everything—from natural obstacles like the wind, to development and climate change—working against them.  I suddenly felt both selfish and ridiculous for allowing myself to become so overcome by defeat and self-pity after such a small challenge, especially with the abundance of good fortune I have had in my life up to this point.

Now, I won’t lie—I am human, and I can’t deny myself the feelings that correspond with my experiences, and have admittedly had many difficult times since arriving in Bots.  But it seems that whenever I hit a low, I am just as profoundly taken aback by something which comes out of nowhere and smacks me with a sense of perspective, a moment of sanity to pull myself together and remember who I am and why I am here.

And the universe has its way of taking care of you, even when the walls seem too hard to climb.  (Yes, that was an intentional reference, for those who caught it—as a result of an unfortunate misplacing of my iPod during the layover in Jo’burg, I have been substantially music-less for the majority of my time here in Bots…it is rather soul-crushing, and, honestly, I do credit it for some of my more negative days, as music is such an outlet for stress for me, personally…but that’s neither here nor there…).  Because my illness ate up the majority of the week, I was released from the hospital on Wednesday the 5th, the same day I was to begin shadowing.  It was too late and not the best idea for me to travel to visit the volunteer with whom I was originally scheduled to stay, so I was given a rather unique opportunity to stay with a volunteer who had extended for a third year and was staying in Gabs.  Now, let me say, her experience in no way resembles that of any other PCV’s in Bots, but because she was a third-year, she was allowed some exceptional circumstances: she lives in the city, in a completely western apartment, complete with a shower/sink, washer, oven, stove, microwave, and fridge (all of which actually work and are clean and new), a real, queen-sized bed, several western tv channels, and a pool. 

I must say, ordinarily, I might have felt a bit jipped, as I did not really get the chance to experience anything even remotely approximating the life of a PCV in Bots.  But, given the circumstances—having just left the hospital, and coming out of one of the lowest points of my service thus far, I couldn’t have been happier.  Real food.  Real shower.  Real bed.  Air conditioning.  We went to a mall, watched movies, went to the museum, went to watch the Botswana version of American Idol—My Star.  But best of all…I got to bake a chocolate cake!  As much as I hate to admit it, getting to feel a bit American again made me realize how difficult it really is to feel at home in another culture, and how welcome the comforts of home were, even after only a month in-country.

I would be remiss if I failed to express my gratitude for my fellow PCT’s and PCV’s.  It is staggering how genuinely supportive, concerned, and compassionate they are.  Seeing as I cannot be surrounded by the friends and family I left behind in the States, I truly could not imagine a better group of people to have as my second-family here in Bots.  There aren’t enough positive adjectives in the dictionary to describe my fellow vol’s, and how appreciative I am of them.  Thus far, my good fortune to be surrounded by such an incredible group of people has been the best part of my service.

I can’t believe how much I am learning about life and about myself in such a short time.  I am still taken aback by the contrast between my time at the hospital, one of the most abysmal points in my life (I have had a very lucky life), to chocolate cake in a posh apartment, all in less than a week’s time.  It is such a cliché, but it’s true—just as you are on the brink of giving up, life gives you just what you need to get back up.  And apparently for me, that is butterflies and chocolate cake.