“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”
– Maya Angelou
One day recently, a friend and I were puttering around my apartment while the rain beat a steady rhythm against my windows. I was at the stove making lunch, stirring pasta with a mwiko and silently marveling at the wonder of cooking without kerosene (as I often do), while he fussed about with my laptop. Surfing the news, submitting job applications, thumbing through folders marked “PRIVATE DO NOT READ” – probably one of those things. I couldn’t say, as I had my back turned to him; at least, I did until I was struck with a sudden droll thought. I set down my wooden spoon, turned to him, and said:
“Hey, remember that time we lived in Kenya for two years?”
He looked up at me over the rim of my Macbook. “Yeah.”
“That was weird, right? I mean, how crazy is that?”
We reflected silently on this for a moment, before simultaneously returning to our tasks.
Yeah. Totally crazy.
Three and one-half years ago today, I was hunched over a plate of takeaway pasta, a scratchy Ramada Inn blanket draped over my shoulders like an invisibility cloak, guzzling Nyquil for all I was worth and watching the series “Lost” die with a whimper. My bags were packed, I was ready to go. I was excited, and exhilarated, and maybe even a little scared. I had prepared as best I could but genuinely had no idea what lay in store for me. I feel a literal ache in my chest when I think back to those days; I want to reach through time and give that girl a hug, telling her, “It’s going to suck. There will be days you want to quit your jobs, or flip a table, or abandon everything and catch a motorbike taxi straight to the airport. But there will be incredible times, ten times – fifty times – a HUNDRED TRILLION ZILLION times as many as the sucky ones. It will be one of the most magical, empowering, humbling, life-altering experiences of your life. You will live untold adventures, and probably never find a way to express it, it’s just that huge. You will come home and you will miss it. You will never go an hour without thinking about it, even if you start remembering where you are when you wake up more often than not. And when people tell you they always wished they’d join the Peace Corps, 2+ years of memories will flash through your mind at once, but all you will be able to say is, ‘Go.’“
Adjustment has had some intense highs and equally intense lows, and generally in ways I didn’t anticipate – not unlike Peace Corps itself! Go figure. There have been crazy adventures of a sometimes less bloggable type: new apartment! New friends! Using soap again! Being interviewed for newspapers! Speechifying! Traveling on other peoples’ dimes! Wearing lipstick! GOING TO TARGET! OH MY GOD, TARGET!!!
I spent holidays with my family for the first time in years, rather than jaunting off to some remote (and/or potentially hostile) locale. I never bought a television. I applied to graduate school and struggled to condense my own personal brand of awesome into a succinct, sincere 500 words or less. I can only assume that a lot of klutzes work in psychology, and that at roughly two-thirds schools to which I applied, some poor assistant dumped a grande skinny extra-hot vanilla mocha over my application folder and was far too mortified to ask me to re-send my documents. But of those who recognized my quirky, obnoxious brand of wonderful, I chose my favorite. I’m currently pounding away at my graduate thesis in psychology at American University, and learning daily that (as one scholar put it) “Graduate school is less about honing your talents and more about learning to manage intense existential anxiety.”
I also picked up a new roommate – he’s a sassy redhead with soulful brown eyes, and bitches love him. I like him pretty well myself; enough to forgive him when he hides my left shoe under the couch time to time.
As for my American friends – the rotating cast of characters you saw pop up in this space periodically – they’re all chugging along. My fellow PCVs are either still in Kenya, rushing headlong towards their own close-of-service conferences, or making their way in the world back Stateside. Several live in or near my city, and we try to meet up as often as I can. As much as I love my friends from other eras, I don’t know what I would do without these former colleagues. When you’ve been through what we have, no one else gets it, not really, anyway. But that’s ok. Someday we can all chip in on a dental plan to correct the years of grinding our teeth about celebrities who go to Africa for the purpose of being celebrities who went to Africa. (Fun fact: All PCVs have bruxism. I am not even making that up. It’s a truth-fact, for once.)
My Kenyan friends are generally doing well: having babies, shuffling between jobs, buying their own shambas and moving up in the world. One of my host sisters got into university. The family couldn’t be prouder – she’s a smart cookie. I am pleased to say that no one died, or was injured, or even found themselves permanently displaced by the election, irregularities aside. I am also deeply relieved that everyone with whom I have a connection – PCVs, NGO friends, Kenyan family – escaped the atrocities at the Westgate Mall. (At least, physically; the emotional scars of both terrorism and the incredibly graft-soaked government response … well, ask me over a beer, next time you have three hours or so you want to listen to drunken expat rantings.)
As you can probably tell, I have a lot of thoughts on the subject.
Overall, life is good. It goes on. And I’m glad for that.
Before I wrap this all up, I need to say one more thing:
In Kiswahili, this means “Thank you,” and I say it from the bottom of my heart. All you, my readers, were (and are) amazing. From the care packages (OH THE CARE PACKAGES) to the letters, e-mails to blog comments, I am truly touched. I helped a half-dozen people with Peace Corps applications, and wish them all the best. I had notes from women on distant continents who told me I’d inspired them to take risks and travel. I got hugs and expressions of pride from mentors I didn’t think were capable of such affection. All of it was overwhelming and panic-inducing and achingly, achingly beautiful. I talk a big game, sure, but the truth is that I’m a deeply critical, self-doubting introvert who is vastly more comfortable jumping into a shark cage or motorbiking across an African country or navigating a public transit schedule in an unknown language than striking up a conversation with a semi-stranger during an organized happy hour. The love and support I got from so many people over the course of my journey … well, this doesn’t happen often, but I am struck speechless by it. It is this as much as anything that made a closing entry to my blog a feat 13 months in the making – I wasn’t ready to let go, and I didn’t know how to say goodbye. You all are amazing, and at the risk of sounding like some asshole Oprah impersonator, you are the real inspiring ones.
Now go forth and do some awesome.
When I started this blog, I genuinely expected it to get three hits a day: one from my mother, and two from me accidentally hitting “refresh.” However, it quickly outpaced that and I remain in humble awe of your reader loyalty. This blog, which welcomed over many tens of thousands of unique hits from over 100 countries, and at least one quasi-viral post, was an infinitely greater endeavor than I’d ever anticipated. I still can’t believe it happened. I am proud to leave it up as an archived resource for future RPCVs, and as a love letter to all the experiences I had.
Of course, wanderlust is – as we say in the sciences, when one word won’t do when five words are possible – “pervasive across the lifecourse.” When I stepped out of Dulles airport on August 27 of last year, I wanted a home, a castle, a nest, a place to hang my pictures and fall asleep in my own blankets. That lasted … oh, a month. Ponder the following: my grandparents were born, lived, and died having virtually never left a shapeless patch on the map known (then and now) as Kanawha County, West Virginia. A half-century later, their granddaughter, an old spinster maid at the ripe age of 26, has been to nearly forty countries. And many more, in her hopes and dreams, including visions of the silk road and kayaks in Antarctica (it’s just a small matter of budget limitations, as we say in government work). There are more than 150 left one my list, with more big plans zooming laps around my mind every minute of every day. I shall always love the country that brought me first to learn, but my heart will always wander.
On that note, as this blog journey fades to black, and the credits start to roll, I leave you with one final Monday Morning (Well, Sunday) Morning Mix-Tape … play us out, boys.
Safari njema – Travel well.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
– T.S. Eliot