July 5, 2010

I Still See a Flash

Yup, beginning with another song reference (Madrigals, Howie Day: I still see a flash / From the time I opened my eyes too wide...).  Concert withdrawal, worse than PCD!!!  (Post Concert Depression—not a Peace Corps acronym, for once!)  Anyway…

As you may have noticed, one of the recurring topics of my blogs, and indeed, one of the ongoing struggles for most Peace Corps Volunteers is the absurd emotional roller coaster that exists in day-to-day life.  As much as Peace Corps service is about serving your country and your host country community, it also entails a great deal of personal growth, and requires volunteers to really stretch ourselves to the limits; and from what I have heard from other volunteers, this struggle persists throughout the full two years of service—it doesn’t lessen, volunteers just become more accustomed to it.  (Indeed, I have heard from several RPCV’s [Returned Peace Corps Volunteers] that one of the challenges of returning to the States is re-learning what life is like WITHOUT daily mood swings, and feeling crazy for maintaining a single emotion for a duration of more than fifteen minutes!)  Though a great deal of the tumultuous emotional tremors of PC service are the result of internal battles, external events obviously have an enormous power as well, so even though the shaking is constant, some days are a 3 on the Richter scale, and others are higher. 

For me, last week was about a 10.  To begin with, my only sister got married last weekend—an event which I was devastated to miss, and was nearly the only thing that gave me any pause over accepting my invitation to serve.  Incredible low.  Then, Monday, I received my first care package, and managed to have a texting-conversation in real-time with one of my friends in the States (I LOVE YOU EILEEN!!!), while eating the Oreos she sent—incredible high.  (Accidentally finishing the box without realizing it—that stupid plastic cover makes it hard to see—so I didn’t even get to properly savor my last cookie, and realizing that it’d be months until I got another chance to eat an Oreo, definitely a low.  A parenthesized low because it shouldn’t be as important as my sister’s wedding or a care package/talking to a friend.  But I won’t lie.  It’s been haunting me for a few days now…)  A productive day at work, and calls from both of my parents.  Another amazing high.  Then, the next day, not one, but TWO letters (THANK YOU LINDSAY AND KATHERINE!!!!!!).  AMAZING. (Incidentally, EVERYONE who has sent me something, has something in the mail now…so keep an eye out!)  To top it off, I made a real Motswana friend and had a fun night “on the town” (see previous blog).

But just as I was thinking I had gotten over the whole “emotional phase” (this is among the worst things about the beginning of the Peace Corps roller coaster—you are still deluded enough to think the whole thing will pass)—SPLAT.  The next day, I had no care packages.  No letters.  No phone calls.  And no chance of either; why would my parents call me a day later, unless something bad had happened, and what are the odds that another care package or letter would arrive in such a short span of time?  Because of scheduling conflicts I wouldn’t be able to meet up with my new friend until next week.  The confidence I had built up at work was shot down, and I felt the internal sting of a few cultural clashes.  So just like that, I was back down.  (I realize that these lows may seem trivial compared to the significance of the highs, but, again, the cycle is partially internal and partially external—so a downward fluctuation in both at the same time has an exponential effect).

On Friday, with the permission of the Peace Corps, I made a trip to Maun for banking (money is important—can’t buy a bucket in a China shop with a credit card) and shopping (produce is sparse, if available at all, in Shakawe this time of year, and is somewhat necessary for a vegan).  It is not an easy trip to do in a day—6 hours each way on the bus—but as a new volunteer I am still in lockdown, and not permitted to spend the night outside of my village, except in extenuating circumstances, so 12 hours on a bus it is.  Fortunately, as most of you know, I have long been a fan of roadtrips, so I was actually looking forward to the commute. 

Whenever I travel, wherever I am, I always bring a book, and tell myself I’ll read it or pass the time by chatting with my neighbor.  And I usually do those things—in this instance, 12 hours is enough time to allow for completing multiple tasks—but honestly, I always ultimately find my gaze drifting out the window.  Hypnotized by the world passing beside me, watching the gradual change in landscape and vegetation, seeing the clouds form and dissolve on the horizon, and meditating on life.  For some reason, it is here, engrossed in the world around me, yet not really in it—hovering above it, moving through it, but somehow disentangled from my surroundings—that I usually find peace, resolutions to whatever issues have been troubling me.  Roadtrips and running have always been the two things that have given me solace—as though I must physically move forward in order to spiritually or psychologically do the same. 

(Ok, just an FYI, it’s about to turn REALLY hippy-dippy, so if that last phrase was a little over-the-top for you, turn back now and wait for the next blog, ‘cause it’s only going to get worse. Much, much worse.  Proceed with caution and consider yourself warned.)

So, that evening, as I sat on the bus, and felt the familiar forward motion of the car on my way home, my eyes lingered on each branch of each passing tree, and I patiently waited for the clarity that I knew would come to relieve me of my gloom.  But as the bus moved and I examined my surroundings, I only felt worse.  Yes there were trees—but they were not my trees.  I couldn’t tell you anything about them—would they change when the season changed?  If I saw a tree in the States, I could tell you whether it would shed it’s leaves or retain it’s needles.  Whether it was young or old.  Even whether it had rained recently, or was going through a dry spell.  But here, I know none of these things.  Yes, there was land, but it was not my brown, clay-covered land—just pale white sand, with no “ordinary” dirt in sight.  Yes there were birds, but they were not my birds.  If I saw a seagull or duck in the States, I would know it meant water nearby; I know that a crow is a scavenger bird, a woodpecker gets its food from trees, a hawk hunts for prey.  But here, these birds, though incredibly beautiful, mean nothing to me.  Why were all of their nests only on one side of the trees?  Do they migrate, or is Botswana their home?  Even the stars—oh, the beautiful stars—are not my own.  And that’s not just some poetic metaphor; I’m in the Southern Hemisphere,  so the constellations are all different.  Although I bought a star chart in the hopes that I will learn more about them, for the time being, even the very sky above me is foreign—no Big Dipper to guide me to the North Star.  Instead of finding comfort in the predictability of the world around me, the steady passing of the bus felt like it was taking me farther and farther away from, rather than bringing me home. 

So suddenly, I felt so small, so lonely, so isolated; acutely aware that I was sitting on a bus full of people, so different from myself in so many ways, riding in the dark through a world so far away and unlike anything that I am used to—I honestly wanted to cry.

But, as with most of life’s great epiphanies, it was then that it started to make sense.  Full of melancholy, I began to zone out, stare blankly, rather than focus on the world.  And as I shifted my view, I realized—really, it still kind of looked the same. Yes, the trees are different, and the dirt is different.  But they sit atop the same earth.  Yes, the birds are different, and the stars are different.  But they occupy the same sky.  Yes the people are different, but we are still people.  It was as though the differences were just an illusion, a different mask decorating the same face.

So I found myself presented with two profoundly different views, in nearly polar opposition, each rendering an entirely different experience of the world around me.  And yet it was so easy to shift focus between the two.  To a certain extent my view was of my choosing—but not entirely.  Try to take in the big picture, until the flash of a bird’s teal wing catches my eye as it swoops past and draws my attention to the immediate view.  Scrutinize each thornbush until my eyes lose focus and I find myself observing the scenery as a whole.  With the snap of a finger, the world can become an entirely different place.

Although this is clearly some manifestation of an obvious metaphor (“can’t see the forest through the trees”), I don’t think I’d ever felt it so clearly until that night.  And it really is the perfect metaphor for the fluctuation of my emotions right now.  Just as easily as these views oscillate so rapidly, so does my experience of the world—one minute, immersed in the differences, feeling alienated, alone, and confused; the next minute entranced by the bigger picture, connected to everyone and everything, a part of something greater. 

The thing is, upon really thinking about it, the emotional fluctuations aren’t actually that different in the States.  One common pitfall that I think many PCV’s have, myself very much included, is the tendency to idealize life in the States—surely EVERYTHING was easier there, right?  This is partly because since the struggles we face here are so different from the struggles most of us faced in America, it is easy to forget what the struggles we faced there were.  It is also partly because for many of us, the time prior to our departure WAS exceptionally good—we weren’t bogged down by many of the stresses of everyday life because we were about to leave and preoccupied with planning, daydreaming, and saying our bittersweet goodbyes.  It is also because over the course of the decades of our lives in the States, we have developed our own coping mechanisms, created our identities, and found our own little niche in the world.  In a strange way, joining the Peace Corps is almost like being re-born (not in a religious way, at all)—you begin as a child with what feel like absurd restrictions in PST, living with a host family, going to school, learning how to act and talk.  Then you go to site, still with a “curfew” (lockdown), and begin to experiment with making different friends, going different places, figuring out how to spend your time and what role to play in the world.  And eventually, (allegedly), you kind of figure it out.  (And then go back home and start all over—perhaps the greatest irony of Peace Corps service!).  But even as an adult—both in the States, and once you’ve reached metaphorical adulthood in the Peace Corps—there are still emotional hurdles, rational and irrational, triggered and entirely out of the blue.  It’s just that in the Peace Corps, these things are happening in an unfamiliar context, and without the comforts we have become accustomed to, so it feels scarier.  When my eyes would fixate on the small stuff in Seattle, at least I knew a pine needle was a pine needle and a Starbucks sign means “take this exit” (haha…ok, I wasn’t really a Startbucks fan, but so far I have found exactly five coffee places in all of Botswana, so it’s looing pretty good at the moment…).  Here, though, it’s hard not to be perpetually aware of just how far out of my element I am, so when life throws a little bump in the road, it feels a lot bigger.

In any event, I don’t really know how much this revelation will help me, but it was one of those moments where I felt things come together, and begin to make a little more sense, and it felt pretty good.

Or maybe it was just case of the road crazies…

(((((In an unrelated and totally personal note, it also got me thinking about why I in the past I had the natural tendency to connect with animals more quickly than people.  I think I tend to automatically focus on the thornbushes and pine needles—the small things.  And obviously, in the immediate sense, I’m pretty different from a dog, donkey, chicken, cow, etc.  Because those differences are so obvious, my natural assumption is that they will be different from me [obviously a cow goes “moo” and I say “Do you have any soy ice cream?”], so when I spend time with an animal, what sticks out to me is not the differences, but the similarities [we all feel hunger, we all feel pain, we all feel the need to communicate with others, etc.].  With people, on the other hand, in the immediate sense, we’re pretty similar, so my natural assumption is that they will be similar to me, and when I spend time with them, what stands out are their differences, which, as a child, made it feel difficult to relate, since, let’s face it, I am pretty different from a lot of people.  But as an adult, I slowly began to shift to the bigger picture view and acquired my love of people [and still of animals, of course], and an appreciation of the differences, because of just how much we do, in fact, share.  Unrelated, but one of those little moments where I made a little more sense out of my life, so I felt inclined to document it on the interwebs, and it’s my blog, so I can do whatever I want!!!))))))

**Also also, I feel compelled to quote another Howie song, so, and once again, it’s my blog and I’ll post if I want to!

Is it dark where you are?
Can you count the stars where you are?
Do you feel like you are
A thousand miles from home?
Are you lost where you are?
Can you find your way when you’re so far?
Do you fear where you are?
A thousand nights alone
Can we go too far to find what is waiting here?
A little fall from grace
On the longest night
Did we go too far to find what is waiting here?
We’ll take a little time
To open up again

-Longest Night, Howie Day

I know, totally not actually related to Peace Corps, but it still makes sense in this context, so whatever…Post-Concert Depression, people!!!)))

Show Me How Pretty the World Is

Ok, so apparently I’ve shifted from puns to semi-obscure song references for my blog titles…I guess puns are just no longer what I require; what can I say—it moves me, it soothes me, it fills my heart and soul when I groove to rock and roll.  (Awesome Botswana post card for the first person who knows all three of those references.  They were pretty easy if you know my musical tastes at all.  Yes, I have succumbed to bribery to induce comments.  So if you want a post card, the time is now.  You’ve gotta, stand up, stand up.  Use your voice speak out.  Ok, that’s four references.  But, seriously, really easy.)

Anyway, I digress.  (Wow, junior high writer’s club flashback!  Ok, seriously, WILL get on topic now.)  Tonight was a rather monumental night in my Peace Corps experience—I made my first Motswana friend.  To be clear, I have had the pleasure of meeting many, many Batswana, including my work colleagues, all of whom have been incredibly kind and whom I most certainly do consider friends.  But, as I have referenced earlier, the Batswana are a welcoming, inclusive people, so the American role of acquaintance doesn’t really exist here—most people who would fall under that category in America take on the role of friend here. 

But last night, for the first time since I have been here, I felt the sort of connection or bond that is more consistent with my American idea of friendship.  My new friend and I had been planning on going out for a while, but because of conflicting work schedules, we weren’t able to make it happen.  And I’ll admit that last Friday night, she wanted to take me out, and I could have gone, but wussed out.  She told me she wanted to take me to the Pontoon, where she and her friends go in the evenings.  Because I didn’t know her well (as I have mentioned before, people here meet up after merely exchanging greetings), I asked her what the Pontoon was, and she wasn’t really able to explain, so I got a little nervous.  One of the large issues in my community is alcoholism and underage drinking, and because my role as a Peace Corps Volunteer requires me to live by example, I am committed to not visit any of the bars or be seen intoxicated in my community (word travels FAST here, and it is a small town, so everyone knows everyone’s business, especially the white American who sticks out like a sore thumb), so I was concerned that she might be trying to take me somewhere I did not want to go.  But she sensed my nervousness, and later sent me a text letting me know that the Pontoon is just a boat that goes across the delta and back—something that is actually right up my alley. 

So, last night, we met up, and she took me to the river, we took the pontoon, walked around, and talked.  But it wasn’t superficial talk, or talk dominated by cultural exchange—it was legitimate, substantive talk.  And GOOD talk.  You know when you have a conversation with someone, and you have those moments where you really click—“ohmygosh, you do that too?!!!?!” kind of moments?  We had those—a lot of them.  First we bonded over customer service woes (she is a cashier at a grocery store, and as most of you know, I cashiered at Whole Foods for a year), then favorite childhood books (Babysitters Club and Gooesbumps, anyone?), then more broadly about life, boys, music, goals, hobbies, clothes...  She loves nature, as do I, and the part of town she showed me was so beautiful, right on the water, but slightly elevated, so you can actually see quite far; where the birds swoop down from the palm trees, a quiet spot, where she said she often goes to think or get space (and I think I will now be taking advantage of, too.)  She is a bit younger than I, but reminds me a lot of myself a few years ago.  Clearly there are cultural barriers, and there is always a certain amount of awkwardness as a result of differences in communication styles.  But overall, it was amazing.

And just like that, I have a friend.  And suddenly the world feels a lot smaller.  And a little prettier, too.

P.S.  For those of you who do get the title song reference, I am well aware that the song as a whole has nothing to do with the blog, I just like the phrasing of that line.  And that’s just how I roll.

Sand, Sun, Stars, Moon (I really wish “moon” started with an “s” to complete my alliteration)

I’ve mentioned it before, but since moving to my site, I’ve been even further struck by the immense beauty of the sky here in Botswana, so I wanted to devote a blog entry to it. 

I don’t know what it is—the lack of air and light pollution, the difference in latitude, the flat, sparsely developed landscape, without skyscrapers, or even two-story buildings obscuring the view, or some combination of these things—but the sky here is simply mesmerizing.  It seems as though the sky takes up nearly 90% of the field of vision here, from the bright red sunrises, which cast long shadows in the sand, to the spotless mid-day sky—slightly pale near the earth, then stunningly deep-sea blue overhead—to the pink and orange cloud-spotted sunsets.  And the night sky here is like nothing I’ve ever seen.  The glistening arm of the Milky Way stretching across the sky, and the large constellations surrounded by thousands of tiny sparkling dots—more stars than I have ever seen.  And the full moon…ahh.  It is literally light enough to read outside when the moon is full.  The ground in Shakawe consists only of pale white sand—it’s just like the beach, minus the ocean—so during the full moon, the moonlight reflects off of the sand, and it is so bright that you literally have to draw your curtains at night because it is too luminous to sleep. 

I want to take pictures of the entire sky every second of every day, but even the few pictures I have taken don’t begin to capture it.  The feeling I get when I really, really look at the sky—even in America, but especially here—is like nothing else in the world.  Centering, calming, humbling and almost terrifying in a strange sort of way, all at once.  So I just had to write about it.  Also, I was a little concerned that my last blog might tarnish my hippie-cred, so, you know, I needed to post this to step it up a bit. ;oP

And, since I’m being all sappy, I think it’s been a while since I’ve articulated this, because I take it so for granted now, but I miss you all more than you know, and am so grateful for your support…I got my first care package (THANK YOU EILEEN) yesterday, and it was amazing.  I never thought Oreos and a coloring book could make me an emotional mess, but what can you do?  LOVE YOU ALL SO MUCH!!!  Oh, and I’m doing my best to get my mail out.  It takes a few weeks, and I’ve gotten behind because figuring out the post office has kind of been a logistical nightmare, so I’m sorry to everyone who has written me and not gotten anything back—I have written everyone who has been kind enough to send anything; they’re in my backpack as we speak, and I’m really hoping to make it happen this week!

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…