So You Think You Want to Be A Peace Corps Volunteer [Part 2]

 

It is a tale as old as time that to every story, there are two sides, and sometimes many more, needed in order to understand it fully (can you tell I watched Beauty and the Beast recently?.  This is no less true in my service here in Namibia and often complicates my feelings about how I have spent the last two years.  Yes, of course.. there are incredible stories of friendship, laughter and splendid surprises, with memories I will cherish for the rest of my life, all thanks to my time here.  People who have welcomed me into their homes when I did not feel like I belonged anywhere.  Sunny days and sunsets with people I love that will be etched into my mind and looked back on fondly.

As with anything, especially when you are doing development work, the good comes with a healthy helping of the bad, and the bad sometimes comes with a side order of the awful.  With only one month left of service, I am doing a lot of reflecting on the multi-faceted memories that I will be taking along with me on my travels and then back to my birthplace.  I have been thinking about the questions that people will ask, what they will want to hear and how that will affect me.  No one wants to hear the negative parts of an adventure – no one wants to be told about the sadness and frustrations felt – but I believe that is all part of the process of reacclimatizing.  It will be important for me to share in the decompression process with those that I love, and who I know love me.
In an effort to begin that process now, and to complement the “What I will miss about Namibia” post I finished recently, I want to share a few of the things that I will not miss about Namibia.  Not because I dislike Namibia or want to dissuade anyone from visiting, living or volunteering in this country, but because I think that the balance of truth is far from being available to people thinking about serving in the Peace Corps.  The things that I will not miss are very real and probably felt by most volunteers at one point or another during their service – if I am able to give even one person insight into how to cope, or to be more prepared for what is imminent in their lives abroad, I will feel peace.  It is also part of my healing and reintegration process, so please bear with me.  And in order to make this post a bit more positive and focus on constructive criticism, I will also include how I coped with these frustrations.  Because what is venting without a way to move forward?
So with as little cynicism and as much truth as I can muster in these last few weeks of life in Namibia, I present to you..
The 5 Things I Will Not Miss About Namibia
  1. Sticking out in a crowd (and sometimes even an entire town or village).  I would NEVER have expected this to be as exhausting, time consuming and emotionally draining as it turned out to be.  Sure, we got advice on how to integrate and to not take every stare, laugh at our attempts at the local language and unexpected question to heart (owe me money, give me your number, give me a white baby), it it difficult not to internalize many of these remarks.  Especially when you have to hear them every day.  Multiple times a day.  For the better part of two years, apart when I was traveling outside of Khorixas, if I went outside that day, it meant that I had given people the liberty to speak to me (of course this is usually fine – greetings are expected and important in this culture), ask me for my personal possessions, ask to date me, and often times touch or grab me without my consent.  This is easily the most upsetting and frustrating part of being a volunteer for me.  HOW DID I COPE?: It takes a long time and an even larger amount of patience to come up with ways to be culturally sensitive about teaching respect from your own point of view and your own important cultural identity.  I found that telling someone that they are disrespecting me, as respect is a hugely important part of Damara culture (whether you are giving it or not sends a message to everyone involved and watching), and that what they are doing is not appropriate in my culture helped.  This gave the person some context and background information about why I was reacting the way that I was, instead of making me seem cold hearted or unwelcoming.  There are certainly quite a few cases where this did not work and alternative facts – I mean, alternative approaches had to be taken, but those stories will be saved for in person conversations.
  2. The lack of fruits and vegetables in traditional Damara food.  A typical meal cooked in my town consists of pap (corn maize mean cooked with oil and salt), a large piece of red meat (remember that chicken is sometimes considered vegetarian here) cooked with spices and more salt, and potato salad cooked with mayonnaise, spices and.. you guessed it – salt.  It is rare to find local vegetables and even rarer to find someone with a garden at their house, growing their own.  Vegetables and fruits are also quite expensive at the store, since they have to be shipped in from nearby cities.  I can’t wait to be able to afford healthy options, and to simply HAVE those healthy options, at my disposal.  Fresh pressed juices, local produce, ALL OF THE AVOCADOS.. I am coming for you.  HOW DID I COPE?: Planting a community garden where I sourced most of my vegetables right from my front yard at the Ministry.  I not only got to teach others about the importance of home gardening, but got to have the most fresh and tasty produce for my meals.  I also purchased fruits and vegetables on my way back to Khorixas when I was traveling from somewhere else, getting a better selection, cheaper prices and saving on travel money since I was already heading that way.
  3. The oppressive, patriarchal, downright hateful sun.  This may be more specific to Khorixas in general, as I have spoken to many volunteers who do not have the same blinding, gates of hell, rays of the devil sunshine that we have here.  And I certainly do not want to generalize an entire country when most of my experience has been in one town (because the mountains cast a valley-effect onto this town, and they reflect the sunshine, Andrew.. I know you believe it now).  But good god.. I have never witnessed a sun like the one that we have here.  You can go outside for a minute and feel your skin sizzling.  You can walk from your room to the front door of your compound and already have sweated out the liter of water you drank in preparation for an outing into society.  I cannot wait for clouds in the sky, rain that lasts for longer than 5 minutes and the unpredictability of weather that I forgot existed.  Aside from drunk taxi drivers, the sun has become my worst enemy during my service and I am thrilled to leave it behind.  HOW DID I COPE?:  Wearing all the sunscreen.  I hate the sticky, oily feel of it, but man.. my skin is thankful for the effort I put into it.  I also caved and bought a tourist hat and umbrella for the days when the sun was just too strong.  I might have stood out a bit more (I didn’t think that was possible), but it was worth it in the long run to have the extra protection.
  4. Hitchhiking as a mode of transportation – or, to put it more bluntly, the only mode of transportation – in Namibia.  It has been incredibly interesting to meet such a vast array of people in a method that I never thought possible 2 years ago.  As one of my past blog posts indicates, I have met some of my best friends and had some of my best experiences through hitchhiking through Namibia.  However, this does not negate the fact that I was putting my life into the hands of total strangers and hoping that they were decent enough drivers (at the very least, that they had their driver’s licenses).  It was always a risk getting into a car with someone you do not know well, or at all, and hope that you have made a good choice in your intuition.  Aside from the measures of safety I have become a bit lax on, it is a lesson in patience to be at the hands of another person’s concept of timing.  If I plan to travel to the capital city of Windhoek, I know that I have to get up at 6:30 to make coffee, have breakfast, pack the last minute things and walk to the road by 8:00.  Even though Otjiwarongo is about 2 hours away, I know that I will not get there before 10:45/11:00 due to waiting for a ride and the potential for a slower car traveling that way.  Once I get to Otjiwarongo, it takes an extra 30 minutes to walk to the edge of town where I will await another ride.  This ride usually arrives quite quickly due to the frequency of travelers from OTT to Windhoek, but I still will not make it to the city before 3:00 pm.  A 4 hour trip in (a normal) car turns into a 7 hour adventure, full of negotiating, squatting on the side of the road to pee, sharing snacks and conversations (mostly enjoyable) with strangers in the rides.   HOW DID I COPE?:  Books.  Conversations.  Understanding that everything ends at some point, no matter how painful or uncomfortable a ride may be.  Remembering to write little notes or send an sms to look back on and laugh at some of the absurd moments.  Take a deep breath and remember that I have had the privilege for a lifetime to live in a country that I did not even know existed 2 1/2 years earlier.
  5. The weddings, babies and life events that I have been gone from during my time of service.  I did not realize how much it was going to impact me to miss three weddings, four babies and a few engagements to people that I love dearly.  I wanted to be there to celebrate with all of them, and to console the ones who lost special people in their lives.  I felt dissociated from the parts of myself that I hold dearly, such as my strong sense of loyalty to my friends and the ability that I used to have to be there for my loved ones in times of great happiness as well as overwhelming sorrow.  One of the most difficult things during my service was to be reminded constantly of “how you must miss your family” from colleagues, friends and even random strangers.  Although I plan to live a life of travel and adventure, I am excited to have a home base that is closer to the people I care about.  At least for the time being.  HOW DID I COPE?:  I’m gonna be honest here, not well.  I do not cry often, as most of my family and friends know at this point, but the random tears that erupt out of nowhere have posthumously been blamed 90% of the time on the sadness I have felt for missing my family and friend’s important life events.  I did as much as I could to keep in contact with them as much as possible, despite my limited access to internet and not having a smart phone that connected to data – Skype, FaceTime and giving updates through blog posts became a treat.  A lot of my friends were really great about sending letters, packages (thanks, Aunt Alexa, Mom and Dad!) postcards (thanks, Kels Kels!) or pictures through Facebook and email (thanks, Ashley and Lana!) to help me feel a bit more connected to what was going on in their lives.  I have appreciated every moment that someone took out of their day to think about me and send a small message.  You guys probably have no idea what kind of impact that had on my motivation and overall happiness, and I can’t thank you enough for making me smile on the tough days (which there were plenty of).

 

I have begun to formulate my feelings on closing my service and moving into the unknown abyss that is the next step in my life.  I have thoughts on how I am ‘supposed’ to feel, and I am sure I will begin to acquire the feelings as they come.  For now, I can look back on the paradoxical experience of my Peace Corps service, relishing in how truly lucky I feel to have accomplished what I did in two years, and grappling with how strangely onerous living in Namibia has been.  I would never change my decision to fulfill my dream of serving.  I will always cherish the memories I have made, the people who I have come to know and love.  It will take me some time to find the humor and gain humility to process some of it, but until then, I will continue on to what is next.

 

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6 thoughts on “So You Think You Want to Be A Peace Corps Volunteer [Part 2]

  1. Love your memoirs, Alex. I can’t wait to see you when you return home, hug you, and thank you for making a difference in the lives of others. Love you, Cathey

  2. I’m not sure whether I shall miss or not miss my week-on/week-off schedule of having great fruit and veg in the week after a trip to Swakop, and subsisting on apples, onions, carrots and canned stuff for the week before a shopping trip. It did kind of make things like grapes – GRAPES! – more special. Maybe back in the US I’ll try to do that only-eat-what’s-in-season-locally thing… except for avocados.

  3. I read this and picture the women surrounding you with prayers and tears on a roof top in San Miguel. You are one of the most courageous and adventurous women I know. Blessings on this journey that is only your beginning.
    Sally

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