As I sit watching the sunset tonight I realize something: if you have never seen an African sunset, you have never truly seen the sun set.
I balance on top of a rusty iron sculpture and stare into the distance. Beyond the trees and leaves in front of me, the wonderfully painted sky stares back at me in the distance. I cannot seem to articulate the immense beauty of the horizon before me; an umbrella-like canvas with deep blue watercolor above and speckles of shimmering white flakes splattered throughout. The stars have emerged early tonight. This deep blue gradients down the umbrella sky into lighter shades while the pastel yellow, red, and purple strokes rise from below. These colors meet perfectly in the middle, directly in my eyeshot, in such a graceful way that it makes me think every inch is intentional and planned. The unspeakable beauty before me helps clear my head, as overflowing as it is right now.
As I sit gazing into the birth of nighttime before me, the numbness and exhaustion of my day dissolves within me. Day One of In-Service Training (IST), a time when all 38 members of my Cohort reunite with our counterparts to receive additional training (usually a very happy time), yet most of us have never felt more down about ourselves than we do right now. An “experiential learning” activity gone bad, sharing with members of the cohort what you like and dislike like about their personalities, left us jaded, isolated, and anxious. This forced emotional vulnerability has me feeling the lowest I have felt in my service.
Judged. Negative. Alone.
As I sit atop this tetanus-filled iron structure I consider the lives of the other metal structures around me. I realize that these large contraptions are the makings of a playground but only in their barest forms. The five metal pipes that are welded together once were a swingset, or perhaps were intended to be but never reached their full potential. Someone gave up. The “see-saw” to my left is stuck in one position, defeating it’s so-called purpose. I am unsure of what I am sitting on now, two small ladders leading up to a decaying metal box on top, my current seat. What purpose could this possibly serve besides a waste of time, money, and somebody’s lavish dream.
As I sit recognizing the rusty, metal audience around me, I correlate it to the Peace Corps experience and the irony in its pronunciation. As unintentional as it may be, “Corps,” pronounced “core,” is far more symbolic and meaningful than I ever could have imagined. If you would have told me that I would be stripped to my core emotionally, psychologically, and physically during my service, I would have told you that is what I signed up for.
That is Peace Corps.
As I sit here today I realize that I had no idea the inner growth and transformation that is demanded of you during service. A “survival mode” of sorts kicks in, either you make it or you break it. “Breaking it,” while alone in a secluded village, would be detrimental to your sanity, your health, and quite possibly your life, so you have no other option as a volunteer. You make it through the two years or you Early Terminate (E.T.) and go home. Yes, there may be some grey area within that spectrum but what I am trying to say is that absolutely no person, no brochures, and no documentary could ever possibly prepare you for this life. But what does that mean, to “make it”? I’ll tell you one thing, it doesn’t mean you’re always happy, supported, and healthy. No. In fact, it means quite the opposite.
As anyone could assume, to make it here I have had to give up everything. I have given up the life I knew thousands of miles away: my friends, my family, my home. I have given up possessions, “things,” and the ease of communication. I have lost luxuries, cleanliness, safety, and privacy. For me, these have been big adjustments but certainly not the hardest part of the job, by any means.
Now a year in, I would say that was the easiest aspect of my life in Uganda and in fact, I didn’t lose these things at all. If anything, I found the real meaning of them.
I have had to question, what is my core? If you would’ve asked me this twelve months ago I would have listed off values and dreams that sound great in theory. Honestly, this question is not a concept we really think about wholeheartedly. I did not think about it until this moment actually, sitting alone in the dark field staring into nothingness and feeling the same. Who have I become in these past months? Better yet, why have I become this way?
I learned early on (the hard way) to focus on my locus of control in life; I can’t control what others do or think but I can control myself and my reactions.
I was always under the assumption that my locus also contained my image, my body, and my thoughts but I have learned that our locus as a volunteer is so minuscule I sometimes question if it exists at all. I like to compare it to those doodles I used to do during organic chemistry lectures, the spirals that just keep wrapping around and around until there’s no more room left on your page. No matter how big the spiral is or where it ends, it all started from the same point right in the center. That small little dot where the pen first touched the paper, that is my locus of control right now.
You might be asking why I’ve let myself lose control of so many aspects of my life but I promise you it hasn’t been my choice. Now a year in, I am so thankful for this drastic change. I have been grabbed, poked, pet, and prodded by random men and women in the streets, at work, and by people I know. Rats, lizards, and cockroaches crawl across my face at night. I’m sardined between two large, sweating men for eleven hour bus rides. I came in knowing that my “personal bubble” would deflate a little bit, as per usual when traveling out of the states as an American, but instead it has completely popped. I have lost the control of who and what touches me. Bucket baths, infected water, sweaty days, no mirrors, no gyms, conservative and worn clothes. My outer appearance is certainly not what it was before I left for Uganda. And yet, I am happier with it now.
So what I am left with is my inner self; the part of myself that I feared the most, whether I knew it or not. When I am sardined on a bus, all electronics dead, and no possible way of reading because the ride is way too bumpy and I can’t move my arms, all I can do is stare out the window and think. When I am waiting for my 8 AM meeting to begin for four hours, I think. When I am sitting in the dark because my electricity went out six hours ago and I can’t sleep. I think. And even when I am in a room full of people who are speaking three different languages, laughing loudly, and the room is echoing with noise that I’m not contributing to. I think.
The amount of alone time I have had with myself these past months would be terrifying for most. Self reflection, nostalgia, contemplation, meditation. As an extrovert, this was new, this was uncomfortable, and this was necessary. For the first time in my life I can sit and my brain is not streaming through worries, to-do lists, or questions. Just numbness. A very peaceful numb; a new freedom. I’ve never known. This is a newfound serenity I have discovered, a literal “peace of mind.” But it has taken over a year to get to this point of comfort, beforehand my thoughts were racing faster than ever before. What is there to think about? I thought about everything from memories to my future life to everything in between.
“What am I doing here?”
“I wonder what my mom is doing right now?”
“Remember that time Danielle fell down the stairs with a ketchup bottle?”
“And when Andy got down on a knee on stage at prom?”
“What are all the components of an antibody again?”
“Wow, she must be about eight months pregnant by now.”
“I’ve missed three weddings already, I bet they were beautiful.”
“I would probably have a really awesome job by now if I had stayed at home.”
“I wonder if how many people have forgotten about me.”
“What am I going to do to distract myself during Christmas this year?”
“I still have so much work to do tonight, I should’ve charged my flashlight.”
“Is someone outside my door right now?”
“I wonder what they’re all talking and laughing about. Probably me. I’m too tired right now to ask.”
“Is that noise a goat or a chicken or a baby?”
“I want to go home.”
“I never want to go home.”
“This place is beautiful. Wait, what’s that smell?”
And the list goes on. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I appreciate myself and my thoughts a lot more than I ever have before.
Your mind is your only constant here, it’s the only thing you can control. Even then, it’s always flooded by intense opinions, beliefs, and misrepresentations being tossed at you all day. It’s your best friend when your alone or for some it can be your worst enemy at first. Give it time. It’s your travel buddy, your planning partner, your date at village restaurants, your calming mechanism. Your mind is your everything. It’s scary too, the alone time with yourself when all you can do is think for the majority of the day, everyday. As scary as it is, I would consider it the highlight of my service thus far. Although I have been stripped to my core and work to rebuild myself each day, I feel blessed to have had this opportunity and growth at such a young age.
I’ve spent this year “growing in”: growing into myself and falling in love, with the present, and with the world simultaneously. I know I’ll continue to grow and with that I will change my mind, my desires, and my opinions but this extreme experience had made me so okay with that. I’m not afraid of my own thoughts, of alone time with myself, of feeling judged or wrong. I like it.
All in all what I’m trying to say is prepare yourself, if you’re a future PCV, for what that second word of your new “employer” ironically means. If you’re an returned PCV, a traveler, or anyone reading this, remember the thoughts you had the last time you really felt alone? Those realizations, worries, or self discoveries?
Reflect on how you have changed since those moments. Think of your lowest, hardest times in life and see them as blessings. If you can’t now, try to do so sometime in the future. Forgive yourself. Forgive others. GROW IN. Remember who you were and think about who you are now. The more you love yourself, the more you’ll love the world. And if you’re just an innocent reader thinking that I may sound like a crazy person right now talking about my “core” self, don’t think that I’m just saying I talk to myself in my head all day everyday. Upon making countless new lifelong friendships, the one I value the most is the one within me.
I have become my own best friend, and that is an experience worth writing about.
Can you say that about yourself?
What’s in your core?