The Emotional Journey

Edging in on 13 months of service, it’s not difficult to feel the full-blown force of the dreaded Mid-Service Crisis. That point in time when PCVs question the slightly insane logic behind their decision to be volunteers and wonder whether the seemingly inconsequential gains they are making at sight truly outweigh the icky feelings of loneliness, inadequacy, and general frustration. It comes in waves- one moment I’m tossing a Frisbee and playing netball, the next I’m overcome with sadness and anxiety- reevaluating my every move and pushing myself to snuggle deeper into my sleeping bag as I binge on yet another episode of Grey’s Anatomy.

Some days it’s fleeting, a brief moment of overwhelming emotion washing over me, and sometimes it’s a full 24 hours where I need to stop, reach out to a friend, and embrace some serious self-care.

This past week I hosted trainees at my site. Their fresh eyes, eager to embark upon their own journey, demonstrated the depth of my emotional growth since last July. One year ago self-care was a phrase I threw around because Peace Corps constantly made me consider my coping mechanisms. I made the lists of self-care activities: yoga, coloring books, reading, (sleeping)- not yet fully aware of the level of importance these activities would take on and the immense difficulty it might take to bring myself to partake in them.

When my hair is gritty and greasy, unwashed after a week because there is no water in my village, simply washing it is both strenuous and an act of self-care. Exercising when all I want to do is crawl back into bed is an act of compassion for myself- though so is allowing myself to chill out and watch that extra episode when the reality is that that is all I can bring myself to do. When I can’t name the emotions coursing through my veins or the reasons for the sudden influx of emotions, calling or texting a friend grounds me- reminds me to breathe, to sit quietly with myself, and to bring my focus inwards until I can once again manage to consider the world outside of me, through a podcast or a shy knock on my door from a learner asking to borrow my basketball.

Wading through the muck of service is painful.

But I sit and remind myself to embrace it all, this too. This pain, this anger, this confusion, this joy, this bliss, this anxiety, this immense love… this too. All of these experiences combine to build my unique experience of service and are integral aspects of the often-nicknamed 4th goal of service- personal growth.

Though I look forward to overcoming the slump of Mid-Service Crisis, each phase of service presents its own emotional challenges. And in each moment, I must continue to be accepting and gentle with myself because, as I know all to well, this too shall pass.

Around the World in 48 Hours

In less than two days I emerge from wandering the pier on a gloriously sunny afternoon in Seaport Village to sweeping mountains of chalky red dust out of my home in rural South Africa. This journey around the world encompasses immense change- from time zones to food, weather to language. It’s tough to believe, as I sit in my camp chair peeking out at the quickly fading afternoon light, that just 48 hours ago I sipped a Cold Brew coffee from Starbucks and mindlessly scoured Instagram- blissfully unaware of my data usage.

But as difficult as it was to hop from the U.S. to Germany and over to South Africa- all the while swapping SIM cards, sorting through cash in a desperate hurry to find the appropriate currency, and pulling on and off my thick North Face as I navigated the divide between summer and winter, frozen tundra airplane and unspeakably warm terminal- that other place so quickly fades away as I sink into the slow pace of the village.

Arriving in my village, at least on a sleepy Friday afternoon, wipes away the stress injected into the daily activities of the developed world. As I reflect upon the journey- spotting the bright lights of Rome and Tunis, skimming the ocean in San Francisco, and bumpily pushing through a smoggy Johannesburg morning, I breathe a little easier, these adventures belong to memory, attaining a dreamlike quality that causes me to question if indeed that chaos is how I spent my last two days.

As I travel more and live in more places, I attach exponentially more identities to myself- shimmying in and out seemingly as easily as flipping a light switch. In South Africa, slipping on my village identity means being quick to smile, grasping for Setswana, drastically lowering the pace at which I operate, and storing my nicer clothes for vacation. It also means bracing myself for anxiety-riddled scenarios, accepting isolation, and shedding my innate desire to do everything myself.

So 48-hours ago I flipped from station to station on the radio, irritated by songs I disliked and the impressive amount of commercials, and today I listen to my few downloaded Spotify songs on repeat echoed by the hoots reverberating from nearby conversations and the steady ever-present thump of the bass rising from the taverns. I think it’s safe to say I am physically and mentally in a very different place, fully aware that I don’t need 180 days to take myself around the world to a different home and a different Alyssa.

Until the Cows Come Home

Almost one year ago, when I first arrived in South Africa, the cows scared me. Not just like a minor freak out, rather a desire to walk a completely different path going way out of the way to where I was going in order to avoid the cow kind of a big deal. Growing up in the suburbs my limited experiences with cows extended to the times that my mom called animal control as cows streamed down our street after escaping from a local farm with a broken fence. So upon arrival I really didn’t know what to make of these guys, they’re loud, large, and horned- a combination that doesn’t typically bode well. One year later, I barely give the free roaming cows almost any thoughts, except that as they pass by their cowbells contribute beautiful chimes to the background rumble of the village.

One year ago my idea of a fabulous Saturday night wasn’t handstands and solo dance parties in my long underwear as a means to keeping warm. One year ago I freaked out about cockroaches, pit latrines, and bucket baths. One year ago I didn’t consider a trip to the grocery store with a friend to be the highlight of my week(end). One year ago, cows scared me.

Last week as I was on my evening walk around the track, listening to NPR’s Invisibilia, a herd of cows moseyed through, splitting my route in half. I paused with a group of girls as we got caught in the midst of this dusty, stomping horde, which could clearly care less about us. And in the middle of this swirling, mooing, clanging chaos, I realized that I’d made it. Two weeks out from beginning my second year in South Africa I’ve banished my fear of cows.

Life’s still tough. Living in a village comes with a certain dose of monotony, bucket bathing will never be fun, and yes roaches definitely suck- but cows, cows now mark the passing of time- a year, a day, a lap around the track.

the volunteer in the zoo cage

There is one experience that most volunteers would consider universal in some fashion or another; the feeling of being a zoo animal trapped for the viewing pleasure, commenting, and ogling of curious onlookers. Today I returned home from a fun weekend away, exhausted and ready to rest and prepare for the week ahead. Instead, I came home to a gaggle of young children chattering and beating on my front door, “Sesi Rea… Tshameka le rona”, a roaring soccer game on the field directly across my house attended by nearly half the village, the villages animals in rare form, and of course the persisting drum beat resonating from a nearby tavern. My peaceful afternoon disappeared in a split second.

As volunteers, we are on and working 24/7, and 90% of the time, living under scrutiny like this is manageable. It pushes me out of the house to learn netball with my neighbors, encourages me to go on walks with crèche learners, and enables me to determine the plethora of ways I could potentially serve my village. By now, most people are used to my presence, recognizing me simply with a standard greeting or wave across the field, but for the days when it seems that preschoolers incessantly pass by shouting “Shahp!” or “Sesi Rea!” and when a flurry of excitement and curiosity burgeons as visitors from neighboring villages stop by, the microscope zooms in, and even a trip out to the pit latrine requires greetings and conversations.

On these occasions, my home is simultaneously my safe haven, providing a space where I can close doors and windows and shield myself from the onslaught of spectators seeking a piece of me, and my cage in which I cower, waiting out the exhaustion that accompanies the wave of enthusiasm and the guilt for ignoring the interest of others.

But here’s the thing: it’s impossible to be on all the time. On most days, I humor the curiosity, allow kids to gently pet my hair, ask questions about America, and greet me at every turn. Monday to Sunday I (somewhat) gracefully handle stares from department officials and insurance salespeople stopping by the school, I engage with the taxi drivers and the array of people gawking as I clamber rather ungracefully onto a full taxi at the rank, and yes, I even greet people as I walk from my home to the toilet.

So maybe today it was just one (or three) stimulant too many calling my attention and fueling a sense of unsettled fatigue. But really, it’s just another reminder that life as a PCV is never simple or calm. And in the end, is a never-ending line of adoring toddler fans and shy smiles from preteens really the worst welcome home?

 

wading through a shit show

Host families are integral to the success of a Peace Corps Volunteer. Your family during training teaches you how to hand wash laundry, take a bucket bath, and live safely in South Africa. Upon moving to site, we build more independent relationships with our host families, but allowing them into our lives and enabling them to support us can make a volunteer’s journey much smoother.

Transitioning back to South Africa has been rough. While in the states, I let myself get accustomed to hot showers, dishwashers, and laundry machines. Returning to ZA, I opened the door to my house only to encounter that mice had overtaken it during my time away. Pounds of mouse droppings littered the floor, and almost every object in my home- from books to jeans to my mosquito net- had been gnawed at if not fully chewed through. This startling find was more than I could bear given my jetlagged and emotionally exhausted state- I broke down. I finally summoned the courage to show my host mother the damage, and she invited my cousin, Tumi, in to help me clean. Tumi began cleaning, sweeping things out, mopping, removing furniture, separating objects turned to trash, and the loads of laundry now requiring attention. Meanwhile, I stood there agape (alternating between shock and overwhelming anxiety), still struggling to come to terms with the implications of this infestation.

Seeking assistance is often considered shameful, and yet, actually reaching out is liberating and transforms a situation from one of crushing panic to something you know you’ll laugh about eventually (but definitely not today, today the mouse infestation is still decidedly not funny). My family opened the doors of their home to me, allowing me to seek refuge in the big house until structural adjustments can be made to my home and poison administered to root out the rodents. They sorted through bedding that I deemed useless, and zealously washed it- saving me from my American need to simply throw out and purchase fresh.

South Africans demonstrate affection differently from Americans. Rather than showering you with praise and hugs (although some do dish those out plentifully), they express love by problem solving and taking action- a quality greatly appreciated in situations such as this. This is true grit- simultaneously handling my emotional breakdown, tackling the problem, and providing a safe place for me to strengthen relationships over a meal of goat, mealie rice, and chakalaka.

no mud, no lotus.

Disclaimer: I initially wrote this post a week ago, but I was waiting for confirmation of my medical clearance to share this with you all. I am overjoyed to be returning to site (like jumping up and down, dancing around the room, singing at the top of my lungs kind of happy). Thanks for bearing with me and allowing me to open up my heart and soul to you!

Read and remember; not all Peace Corps service experiences are the same. True as this is in understanding characteristics unique to each village, province, and nation that a volunteer serves in, it also reflects the journey that a volunteer embarks upon. Upon applying for the Peace Corps and throughout the preparations for departure we tend to sum up an experience which we fail to fully understand in the best way we can, “It’s a 27 month commitment, so I’ll spend the first three months in language and technical training and then the next two years at my permanent site as a volunteer”. This barebones explanation of service that we tend to clutch tightly to throughout Pre-Service Training and the early phases of service fails to create space for the reality of a Peace Corps Service.

Peace Corps service is hard. I’m not complaining, I knew what I signed up for, and I love it, I’m simply stating my truth. It’s hard in ways that you cannot possible prepare for or imagine no matter the extent of your research or training. Regardless of the length of time a volunteer has served for, it is often all too impossible for another volunteer to fully understand and empathize with any other volunteer’s experiences. For every similarity that builds the bonds of the Peace Corps network and develops mutual understanding of the PCV lifestyle, there is a twist, something to differentiate your experience- whether a challenge or a success, your experience is different.

While I can elaborate on the dozens of things that make my service unique, this post will focus on one. Where have I been for the past few months? Silent on the blog, initially because I was swamped with work wrapping up term one, then attending a regional training conference, then on vacation in Mozambique, and finally because I’ve been home in the United States for the past five weeks.

I’m currently on Medevac, a 45-day opportunity for volunteers with various health conditions to return home and recuperate while seeking and receiving treatment. While on Medevac, a volunteer’s sole job is to get better, a tall order considering the short time frame, and the current toxic environment surrounding healthcare in the US. But you press on, meet with the doctor, and focus on activities that bring you joy- again, easier said then done. Because that things that bring you joy may have shifted over the previous 10 months, and if not, following a traumatic event, you may not be physically or mentally able to enjoy them in the same way. But day-by-day, week-by-week, things get easier. At yoga class you don’t shudder when an instructor provides an adjustment, and you can manage to really relax into the vulnerable pose of ultimate relaxation- Savasana. You don’t freak out at being in crowded places or with people swarming right behind you, you start meditating, reading more, studying for the GRE, and begin to rebuild and embrace the abundance that life has to offer.

But then it’s time to go back. Six weeks flew by in the blink of an eye and all the hard work you’ve done feels as though it’s coming to a crashing halt. Fear and anxiety creep in calling you to question your desire to return. And then you remember all the work that has to be done to rebuild a sense of safety and security, work that will require repeating upon returning to your village. But the thought of not returning fills you with an immense sadness and a fear of not reclaiming your life. So you listen to the wise words swarming around you, “one day at a time”, “the choice to go, to leave, to stay, and to change your mind are always yours”, and my new personal mantra, “no mud, no lotus”. The gross, the gritty, the messy, and upsetting are intrinsically connected to the wonderful, abundant, joyous, and calming experiences of life.

So while the thought of my learners and family in South Africa beckons me earnestly, it is this deeper understanding of myself that drives my return. I return to South Africa on my own terms: I can choose to take each day as it comes, with plenty of options and support to combat the overwhelming, in one month, I will get a break as I journey back to the U.S. for my sister’s wedding, and I am armed with the knowledge that whatever decision I ultimately make bears no judgment on my character. The journey continues, reflective of life, it is messy, frustrating, and deviates from the expected- but the reward of growth and the continual pursuit of greater understanding, empathy, and self-love provides the strength to keep going, despite the murky paths ahead.

When Violence is Normalized

There is a culture, certainly far from unique to South Africa, whereby violence has become an accepted and condoned aspect of society. Under the Apartheid government, violence in South Africa was pervasive and permeated all aspects of society from police brutality to the necessary actions taken by protesters to fight for their vital human rights. Since the transition to democracy, violence has not disappeared from the daily lives of South Africans; rather it remains present as those socialized in violence continue to impart those values among the youth. It is not to say that this is wrong, rather that this is the reality of growing up as a tool of a system of oppression.

I witness violence daily- amongst my learners’ families, between learners, and imparted by teachers and other respected community leaders. The links connecting these various forms of violence is not lost on me, when children see adults committing violent acts, they learn that these behaviors are acceptable and in turn partake in similar actions. But at what point does learners hitting each other in class, or beating one another with sticks stop being just “playing”? And how does one impart values of love, caring, kindness, and mutual respect in children who have been taught that hitting, shaming, and throwing stones are acceptable actions?

I continue to urge my staff and learners to remember that violence cannot possibly lead to the same cohesive nature guided by a society built on mutual respect- but my background is not theirs. I grew up in a society where I was taught to respect authority, because authority had my back. I was taught not to hit others because there were systems in place to handle students who broke the rules. I was shown that violence is not the answer by living in a loving and caring household where my voice was valued from an incredibly young age. In other words, my childhood was incomparable to that of many South African children- and my values, entrenched in the largely privileged set of cards I was dealt at birth, naturally differ from those I am now experiencing.

Nonetheless, it is crucial to me to set an example of love and respect for my learners. In my classroom, we apologize for hitting others, sticks are banned, and I strive to learn each learner’s name in an effort to demonstrate the importance of their humanity to me. Hugs, high fives, handshakes, and sharps (or thumbs up) are prevalent in my classroom, simple methods through which I aim to sow seeds of understanding in my kiddos.

So while the reality is that I cannot change the violence witnessed and experienced by my children outside of my classroom, I can demonstrate to them that there is another way, that by using our words we can combat our perceived, and sometimes very real sense of helplessness and by so doing, we can more deeply connect with other humans as we work towards similar goals.