July 19, 2010

I Don’t Stand Out, But I Don’t Fit In…Weird

*Edit* AHH!  I didn't mean for the last line of this blog to sound like a passive-aggressive complaint that I haven't been getting enough letters!  On the contrary, I meant that I hope the letters I sent HOME to YOU start arriving soon! AHH!!!  Your letters and support are AMAZING and I would NEVER try to imply that you're not doing enough--you are all blowing me away with everything!  *big hugs all around!!*

Before beginning, I feel the need to apologize to anyone who actually reads all of my blogs and is growing weary of my frequent redundancy…I have no idea whether most people persevere through each and every one of my long-winded soul-purges, or just catch a few snippets here and there…actually, I kind of have no idea how many people read any of these at all, save for a few loyal friends (y’all know who you are!  Represent!!!  XOXO!!!!), but I like to pretend a lot of people read them…because, clearly, I’m not narcissistic enough as it is ;o)…but anyway, I’m trying to make each entry fairly coherent in and of itself, and all of my experiences are kind of intertwined, so the repetition is kind of inevitable.  Anyway…

As they say, sometimes you have to turn around to see how far you’ve come.  For me, this past week was pretty much a 180 degree shift from my past three months, and even I am shocked at just how far I’ve traveled—both literally and figuratively.  And, as is no surprise to those who know me or have been following this blog, this epiphany has once again left me with conflicting emotions—exuberant and unexpectedly confident at just how much I have adapted, but also almost inconsolably homesick, because of just how far removed from of my old comforts I really am.

There were three big events which triggered flashbacks that forced me to reflect back to the beginning of my service and my life in America.  First of all, as I mentioned in my earlier blog, because my PCV village-mate’s cat was sick and she had to travel to Gaborone for mid-service training (MST), I spent several nights last week cat and house-sitting for her.  And her house is worlds different from mine—nicer than any apartment I’ve had in the States.  Indeed when I first stayed there during site visit, there were several occasions when I entirely forgot that I was not back in America, only to be jolted out of my temporary mental retreat by the startling sound of an angry cow mooing or children singing and playing in Setswana.  As a result, I fully expected the same experience when I stayed over this time—comfort, security, and that feeling of “home.” 

But what caught me entirely off-guard was that I did not feel that way at all.  It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate all of the amenities, which up until three months ago I took entirely for granted.  On the contrary, I think it will take good money to get me to turn down a hot shower ever again (pause to appreciate your access to hot showers…they’re pretty freaking amazing).  I relished each and every flush of the toilet, each time I turned the stove on and it actually worked, each evening curled up on the couch with a book or an episode of Gossip Girl (the Official television program of the Northern Delta.  Anyone not in Botswana right now is not allowed to judge…being here makes you do crazy, crazy things; bad TV is quite possibly the least concerning).  But the whole time I was there, I couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling of being entirely out of place.  Instead of feeling natural and intuitive, these things made me feel like I was staying in some sort of luxurious resort, not someone’s home.  I actually missed my one-room block house and all of my buckets—which is great, considering I’m going to live here for the next two years.  But it’s also quite disconcerting to feel so out-of-place in the environment that I have always considered to be my own.

So that was shock number one.  The second was a bit more subtle.  Although PST provided us with a great foundation to be rather conversational in Setswana, there are a few go-to phrases which come up time and time again and have become staples in my daily interactions.  Among those phrases is the following: Ga ke bidiwa lakgoa!  Ke bidiwa Gofaone, fela!  In other words: I am not called “foreigner!” I am called “Ho-fa-oh-nay” (my Setswana name) only!  Although lakgoa is not intended as an insult, seeing as I actually live here in Shakawe, I would prefer to be addressed by my actual name, instead of “out-of-towner.”  So, each time I pass someone on the street and they shout “lakgoa,” I bust out my crazyawesome Setswana and offer up this phrase from my playbook.  Despite my best efforts, though, I was beginning to give up—apparently lakgoa is just more fun or easier or something, because my name just didn’t seem to stick. 

Until I went for my most recent run through town.  It was astonishing—nearly every person I passed shouted out Gofaone or Gofa for short; almost no one called me lakgoa.  It was as though a group decision was reached; as though the community decided my hazing was over, and I could now me called by my real name.  Which is amazing—finally, I am not a foreigner, I’m being accepted as a part of the community.  But it’s also kind of upsetting.  After all, Gofaone isn’t my real real name.  My actual real name is Chelsea.  And although I am the one who decided to continue using my Setswana name, to help aid my integration, I miss being called Chelsea.  Being accepted as Gofaone is another step closer to integration in my village, but another step away from my real identity at home—both literally and figuratively.

My final shocking moment came from Canada.  Yes, Canada.  Each year, my NGO partners with an NGO in Canada called Northern Youth Abroad to host a group of 10 or so high-school and college-age kids for a month to volunteer and learn about the local culture and community.  Because of the similarity between Canadian and American culture, my NGO typically puts their PCV in charge of the group (my NGO has had several PCV’s before me).  I was quite nervous about this, seeing as I have only been in the country for three months, and my village for one month—who am I to try to show them around, when I myself still feel overwhelmed?  Except that apparently I don’t feel that overwhelmed anymore.  Seeing a group of people suddenly pulled from their own culture and dropped in the middle of Botswana, expressing the same concerns I once expressed, consumed by the same fear and homesickness that I once felt, and bewildered by the same things I was once bewildered by, made me realize just how many challenges I have already overcome, just how much I have already learned.  Being able to show them around town, answer many of their questions, and introduce them in Setswana to other members of the community—who already knew me, and carried on conversations with me in Setswana—made me suddenly realize how integrated I have already become here, even if I do still have a long way to go. 

But as with my inadvertent acceptance of my current house, and my community’s sudden acceptance of my Setswana identity, this realization also made me feel a greater gap between the “me” that exists here in Shakawe, and the “me” that existed at home—while my integration means that I am transitioning well into my new community, it also means that I have already changed enough that I will have to re-transition back into my old life.  I knew that re-integrating into American culture is a part of the Peace Corps experience.  After all, if you have to modify your identity in order to acclimate here, obviously it will have to be altered again when you return home.  But I guess I just didn’t expect it to happen so quickly.

So I once again find myself perplexed by the special kind of crazy emotional mood swing that only something like Peace Corps service can create—simultaneously lost and found, simultaneously home and worlds away from home.  And, as with all other shades of Peace Corps Crazy, all I can do is wait for this uneasiness to pass.  Which it will.  And probably sooner than I expect it to.  But in the mean time, I’ll just keep crossing my fingers that another one of your AMAZING letters comes soon, because hearing from you guys is nearly the only things keeping me from going insane or crying all the time!  Love you all and miss you more than you know…and I hope some of my letters start arriving soon—mail takes so long!!!

Bigfoot, Bit Steps

This weekend is my three month anniversary of leaving the States, and my one month anniversary as a Peace Corps Volunteer living in Shakawe.  In some ways I can’t believe it’s been that long, and in other ways, I can’t believe it hasn’t been longer, but regardless of my personal feelings on the matter, it has been three months and I have twenty-three more to go.  I was kind of hoping to have some momentous event, symbolic statement, or deep inner-reflective moment to postulate on as a commemoration of this occasion, but no such luck—this weekend was no different than any other in my service.  

But then it occurred to me—this weekend was just like any other day in my service: entirely unpredictable and nothing short of bizarre.  It’s just that I’ve gotten so used to it that all of the crazy twists and turns no longer throw me for a loop (haha…twists and turns…loop…ahh, it’s a good thing I’m so easily amused…).  So rather than try to make some grandiose statement, I can think of no better way to commemorate this milestone than to provide a glimpse into the strange world that has somehow become a mundane part of my life as a Peace Corps Bots-er.  And I think it actually speaks volumes as-is, without trying to superimpose some higher meaning onto it.  Because, really, sometimes things just don’t make sense, and coming to terms with that is just a part of Peace Corps life.  So here goes….

Saturday morning I went for a three-hour run, nearly to the border of Namibia and back.  On my way up, I saw a flock of what I later found out are extremely rare birds—large, black, and with very long, bright red beaks—hanging out in a field with a herd of cows.  I was heckled by a group of construction workers (no surprise there) who, on my way back, were extremely concerned that I did not have enough water and insisted that I stop while one of them drove to the Mohembo ferry to buy me some.  So I waited and we chatted about my knowledge of Setswana, and they insisted that I should have learned French instead since it is widely spoken throughout Africa and (obviously) also France.  (I tried to explain that I wanted to learn about Setswana culture, and also that the Peace Corps requires us to learn Setswana, but I don’t think my point really got across.)  Once the person returned with the bottled water, I drank it, and our chat was concluded with their declarations of love, requests for my phone number, and a marriage proposal.  (In their defense, that was one of the longest conversations I’ve had since being here before those things came up.)  I of course explained that I am not looking for a boyfriend and don’t give my number to strangers and proceeded with my run. 

Then, when I was almost home, I ran into some tourists from Europe who were trying to get to Namibia but were lost (well, they were a father and son—men—so of course they weren’t “lost,” just “having difficulty with the map” haha—if you guys happen to be reading that I couldn’t resist adding that, sorry… :o).  We chatted for some time and I pointed them in the right direction (there is a strange and wonderful sort of camaraderie amongst all of the travelers and volunteers I met—I quite love it and think I have officially been bitten by the infamous “travel bug”), and then headed home. 

Except that instead of going home, I actually went to the house of the other Peace Corps volunteer in Shakawe, because the previous week her cat had had a urinary blockage (thanks to the help of some wonderful expat animal lovers, we were able to save his life), and I needed to cat-sit to make sure that he was recovering properly, because the other volunteer had to go to Gaborone for mid-service training (MST).  And because she is not one of the twenty or so NGO volunteers in Bots, she has government housing—which means two bedrooms (each bigger than my entire house), two and a half baths (with running hot and cold water) a real kitchen (with actual counters and cabinets, a large pantry, a sink with hot and cold water, a real full-sized stove/oven and fridge, which are reasonably new and in perfect working order), fully furnished (queen-sized bed, nice headboard, dresser, solid wood dinner table and chairs, coffee table, couch, etc.), and entirely finished interiors (ceiling, rather than exposed tin roof, tiled floors instead of exposed concrete, actual lighting fixtures, and plenty of them, instead of my single dim exposed bulb...you get the picture…).  So instead of taking a bucket bath, I got to take a hot shower...sigh…(incidentally, this is NOT to imply that her experience is any easier than mine—each experience is different and poses its own unique challenges, and many volunteers lament having the opportunity to have the “Peace Corps experience” which I am actually extremely grateful to have.  I’m quite happy with my housing…but realistically, of course I’ll jump at every opportunity I get to take a hot, clean shower—who wouldn’t?!)

Following my run, I went to meet my best Motswana friend, because one of her friends promised us a boat ride when we ran into him at the beach earlier that week.  So, we went to meet with him, and he told us that his other friend (who of course just had to live all the way across town) had the boat, and that if we met up with his other friend, his other friend would give us a boat ride.  My friend suspected he was lying (apparently he had tried to get her to give him my phone number because he wanted to date me, and he was upset when she told him I was not looking for a boyfriend), but considering we had no other plans, we decided it was worth a shot.

So we walked several miles across town to her friend’s friend’s house (I don’t mean for this to be as difficult to follow as it is, but without using names it’s tricky!!).  I spent a good portion of the walk explaining to strangers why I wore a headband the day before (there was no reason—I just felt like wearing a headband.  But around here people talk, and as a white American, I stand out…so when I do something a little different, word gets around…so at least a dozen people said “Ah, I saw you yesterday, you were wearing something in your hair!”), and saw my first Botswana squirrel (pretty much the same as regular squirrels, but exciting nonetheless), and discovered that my friend shares my warped sense of humor (she told me how she likes to fool people from outside of the Delta by making up crazy stories about the plants and animals of the Delta, and I told her about how I thought it would be awesome to be a Park Ranger because you could make up all kinds of crazy stories and everyone would believe you because you’re a Park Ranger…and then I told her about Venus fly traps, and we laughed because she couldn’t tell whether I was serious or messing with her…hahaha).  On the way, to her friend’s friend’s house, I ran into one of my other friends who was picking lemons from her yard and insisted that we take a very large bag full of them (again, the collective culture works both ways—awesome!), so we did.

When we arrived at my friend’s friend’s friend’s house (are you up enough on junior high she-said-he-said skills to follow this?!) he was not there, as we initially expected.  So, seeing as it was starting to get dark, we began our long trek home.  On the way home, I ran into yet another friend.  While chatting with him, this amazingly sweet, totally trained and neutered dog appeared out of nowhere.  We learned that the dog had belonged to an American who left him behind when he returned home to the States.  The dog apparently sensed what a crazy animal person I am and immediately bonded with me.  So as the sun set, we walked home on a trail right next to the river (SO beautiful), carrying the world’s biggest bag of lemons, and trailed by who would soon become my dog (well, until I can place him with a permanent resident who shares my opinions on companion animals—I’m working on it as we speak), talking about Sasquatch and Botswana monster legends (since it was getting dark and we were walking through the “forest,” we decided to exchange scary stories) all the way home.

Sunday morning I woke up and walked with my new dog to Choppies so that I could meet some of my friends to go to church at my supervisor’s house.  My supervisor is an expat from South Africa and lives in an amazingly gorgeous house right on the Delta—it feels like a little oasis, almost an entirely different world from downtown Shaks.  Because most of the congregants of the church are from South Africa, church was held half in Afrikaans and half in English.  Following the service, homemade pastries were served and I drank REAL coffee, played with dogs that only knew German (because my supervisor’s son-in-law is German and they are his dogs) and watched the monkeys (vervet monkeys and baboons…!!!) play in the trees and try to eat the paw-paws, while we chatted about potato farming in South Africa.  Then I returned home, picked my dog up from Choppies, did chores, worked on my Peace Corps community assessment, watched some Gossip Girl, and wrote this blog.

So there you have it…an average weekend in the life of Peace Corps Bots-er.  Three months in Africa (and counting) and somehow my sense of normalcy has been turned entirely on it’s head!

Proud to Be an American…No, REALLY…

I’m sure you’ve figured this out, but as a result of limited internet access combined with my attempts to make sure each blog is reasonably coherent, there is a bit of a lag time between when the events discussed in each blog have taken place and when the blogs are actully posted…case in point: it’s nearly August and I’m just now posting my July 4th blog…so you’ll just have to take yourselves back a few weeks to relive the magic :o)

Oh holidays…how they always seem to serve as the mile-markers of life.  It’s nearly impossible to mark the passing of one holiday without at least vaguely reflecting on your experiences of holidays past.  For me, this Fourth of July was no exception.  Because I knew there was a possibility that I might not be in the United States this year, last year I was determined to have THE bona-fide American Independence Day experience.  So I made my now much-missed commute from Portland to Seattle, my favorite city on the world.  I sat amongst my fellow Americans packed onto the grassy hills of Gasworks Park, passing around beach balls and light sticks, watching the plethora of unofficial illegal neighborhood fireworks shows illuminating the horizon, and chiming in on the collective groans about the woes of big crowds, over-priced cotton candy, and the apparent inability for any large event to ever begin on time.  But despite my apparent involvement in the event, all the while, I was stuck in my own head, preoccupied with the uncertainty of everything in my life at that point—I literally had no idea whether my next year would be spent here in America, living the same way I always have, or in some foreign place halfway across the world re-learning even the most basic elements of life.

The sky grew dark, a handful of stars emerged, and the display finally began.  The bright colors flashed hypnotically overhead then drizzled down over the Seattle skyline, with the full moon on one side, and the Space Needle on the other.  I was in my favorite, most familiar place in the world, completely certain of my surroundings, yet I was entirely uncertain about my own life, my own future.  The thunderous booms of each explosion drowned out the noises of the crowd and the world around me, and I found myself feeling all alone—a sense which is certainly not uncommon on holidays, but it wasn’t in a bad, lonely way.  And it wasn’t really in a good, independent, empowered way either.  Knowing that I was at one of the greatest metaphorical forks in my life’s path just made me feel extremely detached and isolated, even though I was embedded in the midst of other people.  I couldn’t help but to be consumed by the dichotomy of possibilities that lied in front of me—was I about to spread my wings or plant my roots?

So that was last year.  This year could not have been more different.  There is one other PCV in my village, from last year’s Peace Corps class (Bots 8).  We have been making a point of trying not to spend a great deal of time together during my initial time here in Shakawe, to ensure that I am integrating into the community, rather than just hanging with her.  However, because holidays here are prone to extreme homesickness, we decided to spend the afternoon of the 4th together, making American food, watching American television, and embracing American pop-culture (which, ironically, is something I loved to loathe before I left the States).  So I spent the week before making cookies and coconut ice cream (which took two days to freeze, seeing as the power did not seem to want to stay on—oh the perils of PC Bots—sometimes the freezer doesn’t work—ha!) and procuring vegan hot dogs, Cokes in glass bottles, and Heinz Ketchup from Choppies.  When the Fourth arrived, I got decked out in red, white, and blue, and headed to her house. 

We didn’t have fireworks.  We didn’t have patriotic music or large crowds and cotton candy.  We didn’t even have family or old friends.  But we had our Coke floats.  We had our episodes of Friends.  We had our stories about home, about our traditions and of our 4th of July’s past.  We had each other.  So for a few hours, we let the world around us fall away and allowed ourselves to relax and enjoy the comfort of each other’s company. 

But as it got dark, it was time for our bubble of Americana to burst, and as I stepped outside, I felt it shatter as I found myself involuntarily uttering “Dumela” rather than “Hello” to the first shadowy figure I passed.  As I trudged along the dusty road, attempting to make sense of the darkened shapes of my village at night, illuminated only by the stars above, I realized that I was literally in the opposite place—both physically and emotionally—that I was in last year.  I was entirely uncertain of the unfamiliar world around me, but had no doubts about what I would be doing for the next two years.  I was literally alone, but feeling so much love from family and friends, thousands of miles away, and my new second-family of PCV’s here in Botswana.  And unlike the slightly smug attitude I used to have towards American pop culture, which was so easy and convenient to suavely maintain while sipping my fair trade organic soy latte and feeling self-righteous for driving a Prius, I find myself overwhelmed with gratitude for all of the opportunity and privilege that America bestows upon its citizens, and so appreciative of the culture and values that I grew up with. 

I know that probably sounds entirely cheesy and over-the-top to a lot of you…and of course, America is far from perfect—but what isn’t?  And I really do think a lot of us take a lot of stuff for granted—and just the fact that we are able to do that is demonstrative of just how great America is.  None of this is intended to be derogatory towards Botswana, of course—but I think it’s important for all of us to embrace where we came from every now and again…and what better time than on our Independence Day?  Now someone go get a soy latte and take a spin a hybrid for me…pretty please?!