Category Archives: After the R

After the R: The Untold Story of The Final Day

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“You can use it, but it’s not like an American bathroom.”

These words made me lurch.

It was our final day of Peace Corps service, and we were a smidge stranded at the home of someone’s brother, waiting for the funeral of someone we’d never met. But we’ll get to that. The real question right then was: After 27 months in Mozambique, why the hell would this man- who knew how long I’d been there- think I’d be expecting an American-style bathroom!?

We had hitched a ride with this Father from the church in our town, Mapinhane, up to our banking town, where we would spend a couple days with friends before flying to the capitol to close our service. When he told us he was heading that way and offered us a ride, we were elated at the opportunity to throw our 3 large bags in the back of his truck instead of cramming them- and ourselves- into a public mini-bus. Nearly two years to the day had passed since we had first hitched a ride with this same man to this same town; that time he had asked us on the ride home if it would bother us if he grabbed a beer to drink as he drove us back- a mostly accepted Moz norm, which we rejected. Perhaps we could have predicted that this ride with him, two years later, wouldn’t come without a bit of adventure.

We had spent our final morning in a quintessentially Mozambican way: walking leisurely on our favorite path, passing the time taking pictures and conversing with our closest Mozambican friends and neighbors, shaded from the summer sun by large trees. The morning was quiet and slow, nearly all of our boarding school students already packed up and headed home for the summer break. In this calm, surrounded by some of our favorite people, the morning drifted by so slowly that we could just be, and let it soak in. I had already shed most of my tears in the days leading up to this, our final day. Although a deeper sadness had taken up residence in me– and would stay for a while, then go and change and come back to me even a year later- on this day, I was at peace.

 

 

As it was, we would spend the afternoon in a quite different but equally quintessentially Mozambican way: with tardiness, a funeral, and reminders – like that one about the bathroom- of our foreign-ness.

What we thought would be our final moments in our town stretched into our final hours. After having said our goodbyes, our three good friends decided to hang out with us at our house while we waited for our ride to arrive. We mostly sat in silence, for about 2 hours. By American standards this is, of course, unheard of. But, in Mozambique this is quite normal; to be together is to be together, with no compulsion to fill the space with words.

Two hours after our agreed upon time, the Padre arrived.

My heart started to race. ‘This is it,’ I thought. ‘Our final moments.’

In just an hour, we would be in our banking town, our beach home away from home, preparing Thanksgiving dinner with our ex-pat friends.

As we stood at the front door of our Peace Corps house, with these three amazing Mozambicans, I recalled our first day at this house. I was struck by the difference that two years can make. On that first day, we stood on this same stoop, just the two of us. On this last day, we stood with three of our four best friends. I recalled the words of the fourth: “People ask me why those foreigners like me so much. I say it’s because I’ve never treated them like foreigners.” I knew, in that moment, that the people that we were spending our final moments with embodied that and, in turn, had made this place a home in the two years between our wave hello and our wave goodbye.

 

 

 

 

We took a few pictures, and loaded our bags into the back of the truck. We pulled out of our school grounds to the waves and good byes of a small group of lingering students, and to the somewhat sullen faces of those three people that had worked so deeply into our lives with their unending kindness and patience, and their ability to normalize a life that at times felt anything but.

Trying to hold back tears, I watched the landscape pass by as we drove: the tall grasses greening up from early season rains, the reaching of coconut palms, the scraggle of bushes, the humble homes made of grass or aluminum or cement, and the women, always walking somewhere, their vibrant capulana skirts popping amidst all the green and brown. We stopped at one point for a group of women hitch-hiking. They exchanged words in the local language, Xitswa, with the Padre before climbing into the truck bed for a ride.

About 15 kilometers from our final destination, Padre posed the question: ‘Do you mind if we stop at my brother’s house? There’s a funeral starting in the neighborhood soon, and they’d like me to speak. It won’t be long.’ This had been the news that the women had shared with him.

Although we knew that nothing in Mozambique truly starts ‘soon’ and once it does start is guaranteed to ‘be long,’ we replied: “Está bom.” ‘It’s okay.’ We had replied in this way for two years, in all sorts of situations. A counterpart is two hours late for a meeting: está bom. A vendor doesn’t have change and has to run around to three other stores to get it for you: está bom. The door of the mini-bus falls off: está bom. ‘Está bom‘ had become our mantra for Peace Corps service; our verbalized intention of letting go of the multitude of small irritations that were one hundred percent out of our control every day. So, who were we to tell a respected Padre, ‘Sorry, you’ll have to miss your funeral. We’ve got places to be.’ At least, who were we to tell him without giving it a couple hours to unfold first.

We pulled up to his brother’s house, where we were given chairs under a tree. After some time chatting, waiting, listening, wondering, I asked to use the bathroom. This is when Padre felt compelled to prepare me for the experience by reminding me that it isn’t like an American bathroom. As if this were day 1 in Moz, and not day 800 and something. As if I would cringe at the mere thought of peeing in a corner covered in smell-dampening peanut shells, or pooping in a hole. As if I would shy away from having to disclose if I was going in for a necesidade menor or necesidade maior (basically, a number 1 or a number 2) so that I could be directed to the corresponding receptacle. As if I hadn’t come to admire a Mozambican’s pride and determination to keep a clean bathroom, even if it was a hole in the ground or a corner of peanut shells. As if I was, well, a foreigner.

I peed in the peanut-shell-covered corner. We waited more.

When I suggested that we wouldn’t mind calling a taxi, or seeing if our friend could come pick us up, I was told, “Ha de comecar daqui a nada. Esperamos.” ‘It will start in no time. Let’s wait.’ It already had been lots of time, and it would continue to be much more time. Finally, I told Padre ‘We really do need to get going. We have a going-away party at our friends house and we need to prepare the food. But really, you don’t need to leave. We’ll call a taxi.’

No, no, no. He agreed to take us.

As we pulled out of the neighborhood onto the main road, we stopped to let a procession of trucks pass, the beds filled with capulana-clad passengers, standing up, singing. The funeral was starting. The padre was missing it. Our awkwardness was settling in as the minutes-stuck waiting in the intersection- ticked by. A woman approached the car and greeted the Padre. Was he going to the funeral, she wondered. No, he had to drive us to town, he replied. Yes, hello, we are the ones causing the priest to miss the funeral, we waved.

Still, he was in no rush to drop us off and head back. Next up was a stop at a convent, to drop off some goods for the nuns. We unloaded fabrics, food, sodas and were offered to come in and stay, sit down, have a soda, and chat. Much to our relief, Padre turned down the offer, relaying the message that we had a going-away party to get to.

Five hours later than expected, we turned onto the road of our final destination, a subtle ‘Thank God’ kind of joy ready to burst out of us. With the road running directly parallel to the beach below, Padre made one final observation before bidding us farewell.

Olha la. Vossos amigos,” he said, pointing to a white couple walking on the beach. ‘Look! Your friends.’ Perhaps they were French, or Italian, or German. Maybe even Americans. But two shining truths remained. Padre’s truth: They are white. You are white. You must be friends. Our truth: We’ve never seen those white people in our lives.

Our final morning had wrapped up our service beautifully; like festive wrapping paper on the messy gift that was our two years of Peace Corps service. Maybe Mozambique could have let it be, could have let the challenges of service remain inside the box-real enough to add some heft, but pleasantly out of sight until we choose to tear back the layers. The tardiness, the funeral, the bathroom, and the anonymous white-skinned “amigos” on the beach, were the bows on that gift box though: while unnecessary and slightly glaring, they kind of complete the package.

The insight of today was the irritation of a year ago.

A year ago I thought, ‘Of course he’s late. Of course we’re at a random funeral. Of course I’m STILL being treated as a foreigner. Oh yeah, and of coouuurssee I know those white people.’

Now, as I look back, I think ‘Of course he was late. Of course we ended up at a random funeral. Of course I was still treated as the foreigner that I was.’

…’But, still, no…I don’t know all the white people.’

The truth is that the time spent chatting under trees with our three best Mozambican friends, feeling accepted and at home, sitting in simple silence, waving goodbye to our students, and watching our most-traveled 45 kilometers of road pass by was equally as valuable that day- and all the days of our Peace Corps service- as arriving five hours late, waiting for the funeral of an unknown community member to start, peeing on peanut shells, and feeling what it’s like to be on the receiving end of racial ignorance.

These are the completely opposing forces that teach us, broaden us, deepen us, strengthen us, and that change us, even after we feel we’ve walked away.

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Meant to fill a void I have observed in the Peace Corps blogosphere, this series will address personal elements of life after earning my ‘R,’ a designation that changes a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) to a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), after 27 months of service. Look for posts that answer common questions, address elements of transitioning back to life in the U.S., and reflect on Peace Corps service.

 

 

 

 

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After the R: Six months later

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My mother chuckles at me as I fill a pot with water to heat on the stove for tea.

“What??” I reply.

“Why don’t you use the microwave, you silly girl?” she asks.

This was months ago now, during our first visit to the home my parents moved into while we were away. My mother seemd to follow me like a shadow during that, my first time in her new kitchen., checking on my cooking, directing me to the correct utensils, chuckling all the while at my apparent ineptness.

‘A mãe is a mãe everywhere,’ I thought, as I recalled our host mother in Mozambique insisting we use certain spoons for certain cooking tasks, and following us around the little kitchen in much the same way my mother was doing now.

Just as our host mother did, it seemed my mother- perhaps unintentionally- was training me. Or re-training me.

As it turns out, we had a ‘training period’ during our first three months at home that was oddly similar to that three month training period upon arrival in Moz.

There were things like (re)learning the language, first experienced when someone said they were ‘doing lyft’ this summer.

“Do you mean lifting?” I asked, motioning as though I were lifting weights.

She did not mean lifting. I’m sure you know what she meant. I didn’t.

And moreso during things like job interviews, or talking to someone about Peace Corps service, when the English word was right there, but couldn’t quite be found behind the Portuguese word. How many times have I just wanted to be able to say ‘pedir,’ knowing it means ‘to request’ but knowing too that no one says ‘request’ and wondering what is the more common English word we use.

There were (who am I kidding, this is present tense..there are) market stress moments.

I remember the first days in our market in Mapinhane: an overwhelming experience because of local language I didn’t understand, heat I wasn’t ready for, and the feeling of being stared at by lots of eyes. It didn’t take long before that became the norm and lost its overwhelm.

Now, the grocery store is a mess of large carts, too many choices, and lighting that seems meant to scare me. While I’m resistant to this becoming the norm, I suppose it will, eventually.

While the setting has changed, the biggest mystery remains the same as it was in the Moz market: what the hell do I cook with what’s here?

You might recall from my last After the R post that I talked about ‘catching my breath, catching my culture.’ That was a big part of the first 3 months back, and still comes in waves.

We recently passed the 6 month mark since closing our Peace Corps service. Passing that mark hit me hard. Some tears were shed.

And for many of the same reasons they were shed after passing the same time marker in Moz: It’s been a good while since I’ve seen the people I left behind, I still feel unsettled and a little out of place, that life of ours that was so beautifully normal now feels like a dream.

What’s shifted since I last wrote to you about life after the R, is that now that I’ve caught my breath, my culture (more or less), there’s space to start seeing some of the bigger picture stuff. There’s space to start noticing what Peace Corps service truly did for me.

Simply put, in Mozambique, I grew up.

This isn’t a realization that I’ve had only since being back; I knew it toward the end of Peace Corps service. But 6 months out I still recognize this as the umbrella that shelters most of the deep changes that occurred and most of the ways in which those 868 days away taught me to live well here.

I didn’t grow up in the sense of ‘adulting.’ When I started Peace Corps service, I was in my late 20’s, married, and had spent a few years working, paying loans and bills, since finishing college. I had become an aunt. I had travelled. I had published a book.

But still I hadn’t accepted my own anxiety. It had to follow me across the world and dig me a big deep hole for me to really acknowledge it, get to know it, and learn to manage it.

Still, I was often wracked with guilt about various relationships in my life. Then came a simple phrase spoken so strongly that it invited me to believe it: ‘Estou bem como estou.’ I am good how I am. A good friend told me to tell my students this when they said my hair was unkempt. But those may have been the most important 4 words spoken to me during my time in Moz.

Still, I wondered about my Purpose. But when nearly everything in my day to day life dropped away and was steadily replaced by something foreign, I noticed the things that remained and recognized them as shining, glimmering, unwavering Truth.

Being able to witness how the experience of culture, language, lifestyle, and work abroad have woven together to effect life now is turning out to be one of the best paths of discovery since being home.

When I most appreciate these discoveries is not when I’m actively trying to use a skill I learned from Mozambique. It’s not when I can understand Spanish because of learning Portuguese, or when I can get ready for my day using leftover boiled water when the water is turned off for a construction project. It’s not even when someone tells me I have the “patience of a saint,” or that I’m resourceful. In these moments I can smile to myself about Peace Corps skillz.

But when I most appreciate these discoveries is in the moments when I realize how Mozambique taught me, how it grew me, without me even knowing it. It’s when I notice my brain assessing a problem in a whole new, dynamic way. It’s when I understand what I need, when I can say hey to my anxiety, when I can be pleasant but assertive and know that that’s a good thing.  It’s in moments of solid confidence, of letting go and trusting. And it’s in the tough moments, but how I ride them out instead of getting stuck in them. It’s in a feeling, a memory, a knowing, as strong as the sun, as subtle as the tide going out, that I realize the way things were and the way things are.

Meant to fill a void I have observed in the Peace Corps blogosphere, this series will address personal elements of life after earning my ‘R,’ a designation that changes a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) to a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), after 27 months of service. Look for posts that answer common questions, address elements of transitioning back to life in the U.S., and reflect on Peace Corps service.

After the R: How’s being home?

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Before sitting down to write today, I looked back at the first ‘After the R’ post that I wrote. In addressing the question ‘How was leaving?’ the first thing that I mentioned in the post was that I still felt in extremely close emotional proximity to Mozambique and to Peace Corps service. At that moment, I felt that life had changed suddenly in huge ways, that all that we had built up over two years was suddenly pulled out from under us, and that our lifestyle was kind of unraveled when we left.  There was a strange form of grief that I felt for a number of weeks after leaving, and 3 months later it still comes back to me some days. I expect it will for some time.

With 2 months of travel to process through some of the impact of leaving, we arrived home with more emotional distance and clarity. We arrived home to the tune of many questions about life in Mozambique, perhaps more questions about what’s next for us, and one glimmering question about what’s going on right now.

The question is: How is being home?

Remember when I gave you the short answer in that first post? I’ll do the same here.

The short answer is: Good.

The short answer is true. It is good to be home. It is amazing to see our family and friends. It is good to take a hot shower. It is good to eat blueberries. It is good to hike and ski and wander and roam. It’s good to drive to the doctor and not fly. It’s good to drive. It’s good to not sweat. And as a close RPCV friend once told me, it’s good not to have “crunchy panties,” due to residual detergent that’s impossible to remove during hand-washing…

There are mountains upon mountains of things to be grateful for when it comes to being home, and I recognize those things every day, and take note of them.

It is also possible to hold two things to be true at the same time.

It’s good to be home.

Remember when I told you before that the short answer is really only sufficient for small talk but provides minimal understanding? The same applies here.

We’ve been home now for what feels like an eternity but is actually hardly more than the blink of an eye. We’ve been home for 7 weeks.

We were gone for 124 weeks, and we’ve been home for 7.

I often forget the disproportion of those 2 numbers when I find myself frustrated at still being overwhelmed by the 87 varieties of Triscuits in the supermarket or still not being able to find words in English or snow boots in some packed-away box. In this way alone it’s incredibly obvious what’s changed in our lives: we’ve moved from a slow culture where ‘Eu nao sei’ (I don’t know) is an acceptable answer to any question from cracker choice to your life plan, to a fast culture where the expectation is to ‘sabe tudo’ (know everything), from cracker choice to your life plan.

Our life has changed so much, so quickly that some days it seems impossible that we’ve lived deeply in these two very different realities within 3 months of each other. It’s a very uncomfortable truth that Mozambique feels like a long, beautiful, vivid, increasingly distant dream. As I listen to a bathroom fan run, I wonder if it really could be true that I used to urinate frequently in a bucket. As I buy tomatoes only in multiples of 4, I realize how odd it is that Moz made that a habit that doesn’t apply here. I could pick up 2, 5, or 30 tomatoes, and there would be no woman to waggle her finger ‘no’ at me as if the idea of buying some willy-nilly, non-multiple-of-4 amount of tomatoes was preposterous.

These days, it seems that I am supposed to be like a rubber super-ball, bouncing back into life in America-the life I grew up in, after all- after bouncing out to Moz for a quick sec. In reality, I feel more like Silly Putty being tugged on by a nasty, grubby, sticky expectation of what re-integration should look like.

In one moment I am pulled into the terrifying maze of Super Target by the [false and infuriating] expectation that my re-integration should include shopping at mega stores.

In the next moment I am pulled into yet another conversation about the future, under the expectation that I should have a plan.

I should remember the plethora of helpful kitchen appliances now available to me. I should be able to eat all foods without my stomach taking revenge. I should be able to speak English well. I should never accidentally drive on the wrong side of the road for a sec (well, Alex should never…), I should be able to buy a 6-pack in less than 20 minutes and 6ish paces in front of the big ‘ole beer cooler. And, goodness gracious, I should know what Triscuit I want because I ate ’em before and what’s changed, really?

should feel normal.

should understand.

I should feel one hundred percent joyful to be home.

Whether these shoulds are pressed onto me by others or self-inflicted, the fact of the matter is that they are a product of the culture and the environment in which we now find ourselves, and staving them off is a never-ending battle.

I tell myself I should because I want to feel normal in my environment.

Others tell us that we should because they think they understand, because they want to understand and are trying to understand, and probably even give us helpful tips as to how we can re-adapt.

I believe strongly that there are pieces to the re-integration experience that everyone can relate to. Everyone has experienced sudden and drastic change in their life. Everyone has experienced pressure from expectations, and from the word should. Everyone has, at times, felt out of place in their culture or environment.

But just as with any of those unique experiences- and any RPCV reading this would say the same thing- no one can understand unless they’ve done it. Unless they’ve done this exact thing. I’ve had this conversation with RPCVs from Moz, from Tanzania, from Guyana, from Morocco, and while our experiences even vary among us, I think this is a pretty universal conclusion about reintegration.

I’d venture to say that all of the shoulds are about 20 steps beyond what any recently returned PCV feels is urgent and vital in re-integration.

There is a sense of urgency, perhaps, but it is not in what you think. There are a million subtleties that define each day, completely invisible to the person that sees them day in and day out, but stark to the person who doesn’t, or who hasn’t for a while. This is culture.

It defines how we relate to each other. It defines when and what we eat. It defines how we perceive our surroundings and our world. It defines expectations, goals, and desires. It is ‘the air we breathe.’

So, when you ask ‘How is being home?’ and I pause to inhale before I speak, know that I’ve already answered, just by taking a long, deep, slow, breath.

Being home is trying to catch my breath. Trying to catch my culture.

Meant to fill a void I have observed in the Peace Corps blogosphere, this series will address personal elements of life after earning my ‘R,’ a designation that changes a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) to a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), after 27 months of service. Look for posts that answer common questions, address elements of transitioning back to life in the U.S., and reflect on Peace Corps service.

 

 

After the R: Travel and the Transition

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Within the last few days of a 9-week trip around Southeast Asia, on our last long journey on public transportation for a good long while, I wrote the bulk of this post as I reflected on how far we had come-geographically, emotionally, and mentally- since finishing Peace Corps service and leaving Mozambique at the end of November. Alex and I made the choice to take a long trip between the end of service and returning home, and I’d like to share with you a few Smiles and Struggles of travelling as part of our transition.

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Re-energizing: When we left Mozambique I truly felt exhausted to my core. Mentally, emotionally, and even physically. Our last two weeks in-country were a blur of grading, packing, goodbyes, paperwork, medical tests…and who knows what else. Oh yeah, and Alex’s bout with malaria ten days before leaving our site. I remember saying at the beginning of our trip that I was glad we chose to travel before going home because I felt like I had nothing to give, emotionally, to people back home right after we left Moz. Although traveling can be tiring, my reserves of energy got refilled during our trip, and I got on the plane home feeling much more ready mentally and emotionally.

Re-connecting: One of the challenges of Peace Corps as a married couple is that, after a while, there is no news. Every day we saw the same students as each other, the same colleagues as each other, and functioned on almost the exact same schedule as each other. In short, by the end of service there were very few experiences that were noteworthy to share with each other. Needless to say, sometimes things like ‘I cut my nails while you were at the market’ constituted as news. Taking a trip was a great way for Alex and I to reconnect over some still shared but new experiences, see a new part of the world together, and ultimately remember how much we love adventuring together.

Gaining mental and emotional distance: This has to be one of the biggest benefits of a long trip right after service, and over a quick chat in Ho Chi Minh City with a couple other volunteers from our Peace Corps group, we discovered the same to be true for them. Comparisons to Peace Corps life and post-Peace Corps life are inevitable as things change in a huge way. Now, we have something in between, a kind of pause, between our Peace Corps chapter of life and our U.S., post-Peace Corps chapter While the comparisons still seem inevitable, things aren’t so stark: Mozambique vs. the U.S ; Peace Corps vs. post Peace Corps. Having gained a whole lot of new experiences during our pause reminds us of the broader perspective that life is a flow, not a ladder, and that our lives and our world are extremely dynamic things. In addition, having some time away from Moz before having to explain the experience to people at home allows for better clarity; two months out, while still a short time, I can ask ‘what’s sticking the most from Moz for me at this point?’ And then I can move from that place when chatting with friends and family at home. Right after service I felt much more overwhelmed at the thought of trying to sift through the details of Moz life in conversations back home. While Mozambique is just as dear to my heart-if not more- as it was 2 months ago, I know that I am speaking from a less emotionally cloudy and confused place after having some time to sift through some of my own feelings on my experience before trying to articulate it to others.

Struggles:

The Culture Cup: One of the things that felt like a challenge during the first couple weeks of our trip was feeling unready to embrace a new culture. This may sound insensitive, and I didn’t expect it to be a challenge. Even though Moz came to feel like home and we had become comfortable with it’s oddities and challenges and joys, I realized when we arrived in Vietnam that my capacity to be excited about a culture I didn’t understand was very low. I kept thinking ‘I just spent 2 years trying to understand a culture that isn’t my own. I just don’t have it in me to try to do it in another place right now. My culture cup is full to the brim and there’s no space for more.’ After time, after I became more generally re-energized, this feeling faded and I became more excited about experiencing more of the culture where we were travelling. Another thing that happened over time was that I let go of the idea that because this culture was foreign it was on the same plane as Moz in terms of what I should know and understand. It took me a while to realize that I wasn’t here to get to know a culture deeply and that that was not even possible in the amount of time we had. The kind of sad truth is that I will probably never do that again. Travel provides us with the chance to catch glimpses of a culture, but it only takes us so far. Once I adjusted my expectation and accepted this fact, I was able to be receptive to any bits of culture that we found along the way.

Staying away from home for longer: While I strongly believe that we made the right choice by traveling for a couple of months post-service, it meant that we were away from most of our family for 2 months longer, that we missed a third holiday season, and a host of other events. While we were lucky to meet up with some family for portions of the trip, the anxious feeling to see others and the somewhat guilty feeling for choosing to stay away longer was a challenge at points during our trip. The fact that everybody in our family was supportive of our decision even if it was challenging for them to wait longer to see us was a huge factor in helping me work through my own hesitations about being away for longer.

Self-care and feeling okay: I knew that this would probably be a struggle going into the trip, because a big part of me feeling ‘okay’ has to do with feeling stable. So, it goes without saying that living out of a backpack for 2 months, at a time that already felt emotionally tumultuous, had its challenges. Again, working through this struggle came mostly with adjusting my expectations. When we left Moz I was holding onto my self-care routine tightly, afraid to let any of it go for fear of feeling totally out of control through this change. After some time, I loosened my grip a little and realized that we were, after all, on vacation and that no matter my routine on the trip, it wouldn’t be the same afterwards as it was beforehand because we weren’t going back into the same day-to-day routines as it was. I was able to find a balance that mostly worked, that included the most vital parts of my self-care practice and still allowed me to enjoy the freedom and flexibility of travel.

Now, after 868 days abroad, we’re back home in Colorado, working through this change one step at a time, realizing that 50 degrees no longer means what it once did, and starting to catch up with all the people we’ve missed.

Until next time!

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Meant to fill a void I have observed in the Peace Corps blogosphere, this series will address personal elements of life after earning my ‘R,’ a designation that changes a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) to a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), after 27 months of service. Look for posts that answer common questions, address elements of transitioning back to life in the U.S., and reflect on Peace Corps service.

 

After the R: Home(s)sick

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If you’ve been following along with Happily Lost, you know by now that I am writing to you from Southeast Asia, where Alex and I decided to do some post-Peace Corps traveling.  A lot of Peace Corps Volunteers decide to take a trip after their service ends, or at least that’s the way it seems for Peace Corps Mozambique. Traveling before going back to the U.S. serves a variety of purposes: decompressing, processing Peace Corps service, providing physical and mental distance, and re-energizing before heading home to start anew.

I plan to write more about traveling through this transition, but for now I want to focus on a strange recurrence I have noticed while traveling for the past month or so: a dual homesickness.

When Alex and I travel, we tend to travel slowly. We usually take close to two months for a trip and like to stick to just a couple countries per trip. Each trip brings with it moments of homesickness, and this trip is no different in that sense.

What’s different about this homesickness, though, is that as we work our way through Southeast Asia, I feel certain moments of homesickness for Mozambique and other moments of homesickness for the U.S.

Undoubtedly, the biggest ‘missing’ that is shared between both places is missing people. In a messy, swirling place in my mind there are unsettling blips like thinking I need to go visit my good friend Marcia at her shop in Mapinhane but then realizing I can’t, and realizing how odd it is to see my oldest nephew with new braces, like some sort of big kid.

But the majority of these homesick feelings are distinct and unique to only one of the two places that my brain currently considers home.

When I crave the type of comfort that comes with familiarity and normality, I am thinking of Mozambique.

When I miss my physical home, that traveler’s feeling of ‘I just want to sleep in my own bed and cook my own food,’  I am thinking of Mozambique: our bright, sunny bedroom, our neighbors, our garden, cooking and sharing clean, simple meals around our big kitchen table.

When I miss day-to-day stuff, that travelers feeling of ‘it’s been nice to get out of my routine but it will be nice to get back into it,’ I am thinking of Mozambique: seeing friends every day, our outdoor market, slow mornings, afternoon yoga, the flow of students and colleagues, and the routines that were different depending on the day.

Of course, these two ‘traveler’s feelings’ will not be satisfied for a good long while, no matter where we go; I no longer have my own physical home anywhere and I certainly no longer have any semblance of daily routine.

When I crave stability as we are on the move, I am thinking of the U.S.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the other things that I am homesick for in the U.S. aren’t much different than they have been for the past two years: seeing family and friends, amenities, cleanliness, elevation change, waffles, and the type of comfort that can only come from the place where your roots first grew.

Of course, these things will be satisfied before too long, and it’s been a long time coming. I’m pretty pumped for reliably scalding hot showers, snow, and breakfast food.

The choice we’ve made to travel through this transition allows me to reside in this strange ‘no man’s land,’ taking a two-month pause between two very different but familiar cultures, between two sets of people that are so important in my life, between the immediate past and the immediate future, between two homes, after saying goodbye to one and before saying hello to the other.

Meant to fill a void I have observed in the Peace Corps blogosphere, this series will address personal elements of life after earning my ‘R,’ a designation that changes a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) to a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), after 27 months of service. Look for posts that answer common questions, address elements of transitioning back to life in the U.S., and reflect on Peace Corps service.

 

After the R: How was Leaving?

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Meant to fill a void I have observed in the Peace Corps blogosphere, this series will address personal elements of life after earning my ‘R,’ a designation that changes a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) to a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), after 27 months of service. Look for posts that answer common questions, address elements of transitioning back to life in the U.S., and reflect on Peace Corps service.

Feeling still in very emotionally close proximity to Mozambique and Peace Corps Service, I want to start this series in the most objective way that I can think of: by addressing a question that has come up a few times already in the ten days since we left Mapinhane, our Peace Corps site for the past two years. It’s only appropriate that this post comes exactly 2 years to the day since we arrived in that little town in southern Moz, sweaty, naive, and maybe even ready to change the world.

The question is: How was leaving?

Pause. Let me first apologize for how melodramatic the short answer will sound. If you take away anything from this blog series, let it be that the short answer is difficult to formulate and sufficient mostly for a moment of small talk, but will probably bring very little understanding. But here it is.

The short answer: The most similar feeling I have had to this was the feeling I have had after someone I knew has passed away.

The next question then becomes: So, why do I say that leaving Mapinhane felt similar to how I have felt after someone I knew had passed away?

The short answer: Because of the realization that I will never ever have that again in any form.

But to contradict that: That statement seems obvious enough, and even similar to how other moments of change might feel:

‘I am moving houses; I realize that I will never have this house, this view, these neighborhood sounds again.’

‘I am changing jobs; I realize I will never have these coworkers, work environment, schedule, students again.’

‘I am moving cities; I realize I will never have these restaurants, views, vibes, friends on the day-to-day again.’

So, this feeling of something never being the same as it was in that exact time in life is starkly universal; everyone has faced big changes.

To elaborate,

I had those above-mentioned realizations about leaving the physical house: I will never again wake up to the sound of women raking dirt outside our window pre-dawn. I will never again open my eyes to the early-morning sun shimmering through the little holes of our mosquito net. I may never again feel the near-constant presence of students all around the neighborhood and I will never again see my students 7 days a week, at any time of day, in any dress, for any reason that arises in their life-including but not limited to: charging their phone, asking for water, needing advice, oh, and schoolwork occasionally. I will never again open the front door and say ‘Bom dia’ to our nieghbor Cristovao across the way, watering his garden at 6 a.m. as he blasts the morning news from his TV inside. I will never again deal with bats falling from the ceiling. I WILL NEVER AGAIN visit the dreaded communal bathroom. I will never again find solace in the coolness of the cement floor on a 100+ degree day. I will never again walk out my front door to get mangoes from the tree, and out my back door for limes. I will never again brush my teeth under the stars every night.

I had those realizations about leaving the job: I will never again have the stimulating challenge of working with no more than chalk and a chalkboard. I will never again reside in the place between the blurred lines of teacher/mother/big sister/friend/ counselor to my students. I will never again read books to 3rd graders in Portuguese. I may never again encounter 3rd graders who can’t read, or hold a pencil. I will never again have a class size of 50. I will never again (hopefully) storm out of a classroom in a moment of complete rage about the chaos surrounding me. I may never again work with girls so under-served that speaking quietly to the floor is the norm. I may never again work with girls that have such a unique combo of toughness and lightness in their spirits. I may never again teach English to a uniquely dedicated group of rural adults, or see these people that came to be our closest friends.

I had those realizations about leaving the town: I will never again walk a sandy path between peanut fields to go to my outdoor market. I will never again sit in Marcia’s storefront, sharing stories, seeking advice, peeling the spines off pumpkin leaves. I will never again see the same form constant life, colors, and movement along the side of a two-lane highway. I will never again walk around to shouts of ‘Teacher Cecelia’ from inside tin buildings, the shouter obscured by shadows. I will never again buy beer and soda by the bottle, and be trusted to return the empty the next day. I will never again have a bread lady. I will never again eat really quality grilled chicken at a truck stop/the only restaurant in town. Let me be straightforward, as a Coloradoan, I will never again see so much black skin on a daily basis.

Let’s dig deeper than saying tchau to a house, a town, a job, those things that were the threads of daily life. Let’s talk about saying tchau to the fabric those things were all woven into.

I had realizations about leaving the culture: I will never again be told to ‘help myself’ from any plate a person is eating from. I will never again be asked by someone I don’t know for money, my clothes, that banana they just saw me buy, an egg, water, gum…or anything else. I will never again turn a ten minute grocery shop into a 2-hour-long opportunity to catch up on the news of everyone I know, daily. I will never again receive an extra tomato or handful of peanuts for free, just because. I will never again be considered ‘disappeared’ if I don’t see someone for 1 day. I may never again wear a capulana, wrapped perfectly snug around my waist. I will never again be met with shouts of pure joy and disbelief for greeting someone in their local language. I will never again be referred to as ‘big sister’ Cecelia. I will never again function in at least 2 and up to 3 languages on a daily basis. I will never again (hopefully) be so unable to express anything more than thoughts on the weather as I was in the beginning. I will never again have the strangely wonderful feeling of constantly hearing a local language, and revel in the freedom of not understanding what is being said around me. I will never again pilao peanuts, ralar coconut, or make true Matapa. I will never again be surrounded by women always singing softly, children so wild that if I can only hear them I often mistake them for animals by the sounds they make, and men- the ones that were what I was told to expect, with their relentless harassment, and the ones that, sadly, weren’t what I expected with their unending kind spirits, forward-thinking, and bottomless work ethic. It will never again be appropriate to spend hours chatting under a tree, in the middle of a workday. I may never again have people that knock on the front door just to say hello, or to offer me things from their garden.

Are you still able to draw connections between this move and any other? Are you still able to feel like you’ve experienced these ‘never agains’ as well, albeit with different details? This is a good thing, a way for you as a reader to understand, a way for me as a writer to normalize it for myself and for you. I hope you can draw connections between this change and changes you’ve had; that’s how understanding starts.

But what I want to do now is get into an uncomfortable space, a space where those connections may not reach.

This change is different because of the sheer quantity of individual elements involved; Picture this: if house, town, job, day-to-day stuff, sensory stimulus are the threads and culture is the fabric then leaving is grabbing a frayed edge and pulling until it all unravels, and what’s left are two threads, 2 elements still in place.

I can think of only one other moment of change even close to- but still less- the level of intensity of this change, and where the only things that remained the same were the presence of one person (my lovely husband Alex) and my ability to do things to take care of myself.

That moment of change was when we came to Moz. So why was leaving so different than coming? For the sake of not getting too much into that, let me give you the short answer: in coming to Moz, life in the U.S. was put on hold, in a way. What I mean is that leaving the U.S. came with knowing that we would one day be back and that our life would once again contain some elements of what it contained pre-Moz. Leaving Moz is much more final; life will never again contain tmost of the elements of life in Moz.

This is why leaving Mapinhane was followed by a certain type of grief, an uncomfortable feeling of irreversible finality, the unraveling of a tapestry that can never be recreated to look exactly how it looked, even if some of the threads come back into our lives someday. In this way, there are parallels to how I usually feel right after someone I know has passed away: I feel a huge loss in my life, but at the same time a gratitude for what I had. I feel a flatness, a difficulty in being excited about what’s in front of me without feeling like it’s a strange form of betrayal to what’s just passed. I trust that something will remain, but I don’t know yet what it is.

Whether or not this resonates with other Peace Corps Volunteers, or other readers, I can’t be sure, but for me, this change can’t be processed with only the tools used to process change. It has to be processed with the tools used to process loss too.

Based off of past experiences of change and past experiences of loss, I know that this specific form of discomfort will pass, or will maybe come and go in waves. Lucky for me, Peace Corps taught me how to sit with pretty extreme discomfort, and how to view it as a sign of impending growth.

So, the question now becomes: What remains? When a person changes their hemisphere, time zone, continent, country, town, home, language, diet, routines, habits, job, and friends all at once, what remains?