Flipping the Coin

Juxtaposing two different realities can be unpredictable. I’ve spent a year away from the US before, but never in such starkly different circumstances than I’ve faced over the last 400 days. Coming home from the UK is a very different beast than visiting from sub-Saharan Africa. You hear stories from past PCVs about trips home and the struggles they faced. You hear stories about PCVs who went home for a visit and never returned to service. It’s impossible to know how you’re going to feel when you’re back.

One week in, there has yet to be an emotional breakdown in a grocery store. I almost cried in the cheese section earlier this week, but I managed to hold it together. I haven’t made a complete fool of myself or done something incredible strange (or at least stranger than usual). All of the threats of overwhelming first world-ness haven’t brought me to my knees yet.

For everything I have missed, I’ve realized there is something I don’t like about it. Each time I sigh and dream about what life could be like if only I still had ready access to X, I then immediately remind myself of the other side. Even the shiniest, nicest things in America are by no means perfect. Peace Corps has given me new perspective on a lot of them.

  • Missed: Having a car. This week, for the first time in a year, I drove a car. It was incredibly nerve wracking because the last thing I wanted to do was to total my sister’s wonderful Prius, but being able to go where I wanted when I wanted was – freeing. I went to one store, which didn’t quite have what I was looking for so I just drove to a different one. And then I didn’t have to carry everything I purchased. I just put them in the trunk. It was magical. And it’s not just driving. Having a public transportation system that is at least very basically functional  (and not crowded or a million degrees)  has been fantastic. It’s not that Botswana’s transportation system is bad, but it’s just not as comprehensive.
  • Not Missed: Traffic.  With cars comes other cars. There are moments when you’re sitting still, not moving at all when you think that you could get there faster walking -which is probably true. It’s also a bit disconcerting when the hazards on the road are traveling just as fast as you are. Sure, donkeys and cows cause a lot of traffic accidents in Botswana, but at least the donkey isn’t hurtling at you at 70 miles an hour.
  • Missed: Endless Choices. I can have most anything I want. If I want a hamburger for dinner, not only can I have a hamburger but I can name six restaurants within a 10 minute drive from where I’m sitting, and even more another ten minutes from there. My every whim and craving can be tended to – especially when you add the miraculous transportation on top of that.
  • Not Missed: Making Decisions. Endless choices means endless decisions. In village life being hungry usually meant a choice of two options, if that. At the very most I might have four reasonable options. It can be paralyzing to have to choose one thing from an infinite number of possibilities. Especially since I only have a limited number of days here, every meal, every tv show, every choice seems to hold incredible importance. And what if I get something wrong? Sometimes it takes me longer to decide where I want to eat than it takes me to actually eat it.
  • Missed: Anonymity. Here, there is no expectation that I will talk to anyone as I’m walking down the street or through the mall. I can be polite and say hello, but no one will hold it against me if I don’t. I also have the pleasure of carrying on a morning run somewhere where no one will give me a second look. I don’t stand out – people don’t know who I am. No one cares who I am. I can do my own thing, uninterrupted and unobserved.
  • Not Missed: Genuine Interest. Then again, no one is really interested in finding out. Sure it sounds self-centered to say that people don’t care about me and my stories, but even people I think might care have a tendency to shift the talking points back to their comfort zones as soon as possible. Questions are either incredibly general or incredibly personal-interest specific. In Botswana, my conversations usually involve everyone to be outside of their comfort zones for at least some of the time.
  • Missed: Convenience. This has already been somewhat covered by endless choices – but everything here is reachable. The grocery store is just around the corner. There are movie theaters and post offices, and people willing to be helpful. The culture of customer service is strong, and everything is designed to make everything as easy as possible. There isn’t anything challenging. It’s awesome.
  • Not Missed: Hustle. But everyone moves at the speed of light. I walk fast. Or at least I thought I did. Here, people MOVE. By the time I’ve unbuckled my seat belt and climbed out of the car, my boyfriend is already sixteen steps ahead of me. The speed of things seems to come at the expense of purposefulness. It’s a flurry of activity, a blur of movement to get from point A to point B, and no contemplation of the activity itself.
  • Missed: Infrastructure. If you read my blog, you’ll know that my village has suffered a water shortage just before I left for vacation. One of the things I’ve loved the most about being back is the constant access to a shower, flushing toilet, and most exciting – a washer and dryer. When I go for a run, it’s on a sidewalk. Crossing the street is aided by a crosswalk. There is INTERNET EVERYWHERE. and it’s so fast I want to cry all the time. All of this infrastructure makes the convenience possible.
  • Not Missed: Expectation. But it also comes with the expectation that you’ll use it. It’s the social contract. Running water means that you’ll have clean hair and smell good. Having a washing machine means my clothes should be clean. Having a sidewalk means that’s where you walk. Not to say being without infrastructure gives you permission to be dirty and gross all the time – but it does adjust expectations about what being clean means.
  • Missed: Quiet. My alarm clock here is not roosters. Or cats. Or donkeys. Or small children. While I can’t say I’ve slept in any crazy amounts here, its not because I’ve been woken up by some obnoxious sound or other. The quiet here is also filled with wonderful white noise – the sound of distance traffic, ceiling fans spinning, small constant quiet sounds that blend together.
  • Not Missed: Brightness. Everything here is bright. Streets are lit at night – which is awesome and makes me feel safe staying out after dark, but it’s also very disconcerting. When I roll over in the middle of the night I can’t figure out what time it is, because the constant glow of the street lights looks the same as everything else.

There are so many things that strike me being back in the US, but all of them are little things. The US feels like it’s been frozen in time where everything is the same, but I’m different. There are ten million things I never noticed before, that I took for granted before. It’s a strange new world.

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