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Peace Corps year 2

The Honeymoon

Everyone who asks me how my readjustment to the U.S. is going does so with just a hint of morbid expectation, as though they’re looking for signs of an impending meltdown—or at the very least some involuntary twitching. However, after a week of re-immersion in the warm, soapy bath of American culture, I’m here to report that I’m finding it all pretty freakin’ great.

I’m in what the Peace Corps literature on re-integration describes as the “honeymoon period,” where the elaborate American systems designed to quickly and painlessly part me from my money still seem new and thrilling. Eighty kinds of shampoo? I’ll take ’em! Four-dollar coffee in twenty flavors? Put it on the Visa!

What have I noticed so far? When I first arrived at the JFK airport and was hauling my baggage between terminals, I was distracted by the airport employees’ idle banter. I don’t think that what they were saying was especially loud or obnoxious, but it demanded my attention because it was in English. I had become so used to tuning out 90% of what was going on around me because it was in languages I didn’t understand that it was startling to find myself involuntarily paying attention to overheard conversations.

Everything’s so clean and functional! I’ve been driving around Baton Rouge in near-orgasmic bliss, following smoothly paved, clearly marked roads from one air-conditioned destination to another, depositing money along the way. I feel so grateful to every store employee who’s polite to me. I’m going to have to get back in the habit of remembering what mall entrance I used or where I parked my car.

Last Tuesday, my first full day back, I called the village. After only a few false starts, I was speaking to Kanni, Deya, and the rest of the family. They asked me if I was in Dakar and were surprised when I said I was already back in Amerik. They even put Aadama on the line—I could hear Kanni and Maymuna coaching her through a series of mumbled “jam tan”s. Speaking to them just like I would have if I was calling from Tamba was reassuring—a reminder that that world really does still exist, that it wasn’t just a hallucination.

I don’t quite believe that I was really gone for two years—it sounds like an impossibly long time considering how familiar everything here feels. (It often felt like an impossibly long time, too.) The village is never very far from my thoughts; I entertain myself by imagining my village moms wherever I am at the moment—walking into a grocery store or driving through suburbs. It would all be so amazing to them. There’s something in that reaction that I’m trying to hold on to—some element of awe that will remind me that this is an incredibly wondrous, privileged lifestyle that we live here.

I drove to a Baton Rouge coffeehouse last week to attempt to work on the grad school essays I’d been avoiding for months, and, wouldn’t you know, the paintings on the walls, by a local artist, were bucolic scenes of livestock frolicking under bright blue skies. There were chickens, cows, goats—even a donkey. While I’m sad that I probably won’t be seeing any more Donkeys of the Month, I’ve found a way to get my daily donkey fix: Behold! The DonkeyCam!

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Peace Corps year 2

Home!

clare at airport

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Peace Corps year 2

Go West, Young RPCV

My last African sunset, for a while at least:

sunset

And me—headed in that direction later tonight:

clare points

To everyone who offered support and encouragement during the past two years:
You were all an integral part of my Peace Corps experience—thank you, thank you.

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Peace Corps year 2

the R + a few lists

Today, with the brief flourish of a pen, I became an RPCV. Granted, before that there were also mountains of paperwork, rivers of blood tests, and three poop samples—but the final moment was, as most endings are, anticlimactic. No brass band, no ticker tape parade, just a little boogie in the hallway and the dawning realization that I had just been dumped into the rest of my life.

The “R” in RPCV stands for “Returned”—which of course I won’t technically be until Monday. I’ve been asked how easily I expect to make the transition back to the U.S.; I’m not sure. I’m lucky to have a full schedule for the next few months—Baton Rouge, Suzanne’s wedding in North Carolina, a mini-reunion in Austin, submitting my Berkeley application, and moving to the Bay and finding a job (anyone need a roommate? anyone want to hire me to… do… stuff?)—so at the moment at least I’m expecting it to be a happy reunion of motherland and prodigal daughter. Most volunteers travel around a bit after their service, but at this point I’d be ready to go straight home even if I didn’t need to get back for the wedding. As I explained to the hat-seller who accosted me at the bus stop today and spent ten minutes trying to talk me out of money, my home address, and/or a visa to the U.S.: I’m tired.

There are some things I will miss:

  • Being able to solve most household maintenance problems with rope, a nail bent into a S-hook, and/or a bucket.
  • Donkeys braying, especially when one sets off all the others within earshot.
  • Thunderstorms and clouds. (A wall of wind and dust rolling in at sunset, lightning on the horizon.)
  • The illusion that I’m doing something noble.
  • Dance parties and long conversations with fellow PCVs.
  • Care packages and hand-written letters.
  • Cheap and plentiful mangos and papayas.
  • Cold bissap from a plastic baggie.
  • Having the time to read all the books and authors I never would have gotten around to otherwise.
  • Sleeping on the Tamba house roof and waking up to the sunrise.
  • Stunning people by speaking their language.
  • Talking about people right in front of them because they don’t speak my language.
  • Being able to make children cry just by looking at them.
  • Bandi Bah.
  • My village family.

Some things I can take or leave:

  • Crapping in a hole.
  • Making friends by insulting someone’s last name and calling them a bean-eater or a thief.
  • Eating any number of things that I’ve picked up off the ground.
  • Not understanding 90% of the conversations around me.
  • Calling a day a success if I accomplish one thing.
  • Being on a first-name basis with all of my friends’ bodily functions.

And some things I’m ready to be done with:

  • Strangers shouting “toubab” at me.
  • That traveling anywhere in a vehicle is flirting with death and dismemberment.
  • Bugs constantly invading my personal space (mosquitos, flies, earwigs, giant demon spiders).
  • Being treated like a truant teenager by parts of an organization that I devoted two years of my life to.
  • Sheep.
  • Having to bargain for the simplest of purchases—and suspecting that I’m getting ripped off just for being white.
  • Non-ironic conversations about celebrity gossip.
  • Everything Wolof.
  • That the vast, overwhelming, and otherwise depressingly huge majority of romantic advances here are unwanted, if not outright offensive.
  • That all of my public actions attract an audience, which is usually happy to provide unsolicited commentary and/or statements of the obvious.
  • Village food. (With the notable exception of nankatan. And maybe leaf sauce. Oh, and fish balls.)
  • Having to accept that women are second-class citizens here.
  • Guilt and boredom and guilt over my boredom and frustration over my guilt and my boredom, ad infinitum.

Tomorrow I go to Thiès for the new stage’s site announcements, where I’ll meet my replacement. I’m excited to have a chance to talk with him/her before I leave.

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Peace Corps year 2

aadama

A series of photos of my favorite photo subject in the village: Kanni’s youngest daughter, Aadama. I watched her go from the Terrible Twos to the Terrible Threes and almost to the Quite Sociable Fours. She stayed cute-beyond-all-reason throughout.

aadama earrings1   aadamaearrings2   aadama earrings3

aadama hair1   aadamahair2   aadama hair3

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Peace Corps year 2

new photos

Maymuna harvesting beans

New photos are up for month 23, demystification, and The End. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but if I’d written a thousand words for every photo I uploaded, I’d be done with my final reports and essays by now.

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Peace Corps year 2

walk on

I left my village for the last time on Monday morning. I had packed my hut the day before, so there was nothing to do in the morning but sit in the compound and wait for two hours while the boys found a horse and charette. There was no sign of Bandi, which was okay since it saved me from having to chase him down and lock him in my hut so that he wouldn’t follow me to Tamba.

I said goodbye to the family that was there (Madame had gone to visit another village, I think Fanta was still in bed), shaking everyone’s hands and saying thank you, thank you. Aadama got upset and refused to give me her hand but eventually let me pick her up and hug her—she seemed to be the only kid who understood I was leaving leaving.

Kanni and Hawa came along on the charette, and in Tamba we went to the bank to deposit a giant chunk of change in the group account. We said goodbye in the street outside the Peace Corps house. I gave them each an awkward hug and then we shook with our left hands, which signifies departure. They started walking away, but when I got to the house gate and turned around, they were standing in the street watching me. We waved and I went inside and it was okay because I will come back and see them again, even though they don’t believe I will.

I found that if I only took quick, indirect glances at the enormity of all that was happening, I was in far less danger of crying.

Last night we had a very nice candlelit Tamba dinner of pizza and champagne, and today I made the eight-hour trip to Dakar for the last time. I dropped off my bike at the Peace Corps office and received the first of many necessary check marks for the COS process.

Then I took the most ridiculous taxi ride of my two years in Senegal. The car itself didn’t seem all that much worse than most of the cabs wheezing their way around Dakar, but I soon found out that almost every time it came to a full stop (which is often in rush-hour traffic), it stalled. The driver would then reach down to the left of the steering wheel and restart the car with his left hand while jerking wildly at the stick shift with his right. The car would falter, jolt forward, and then, if we were lucky enough to get going that fast, maybe or maybe not transition from second to third gear. It is a testament to my increased patience and dulled senses that I sat there calmly during the almost hour-long ride and found it all vaguely amusing.

In a week and a half I fly back to America. Three nights ago chocolate peanut butter spread was a special treat for breaking the fast in the village, and today I ate tomato basil soup out of a white china bowl. I sense that nothing will qualify as “normal” for a while to come.