Ingenuity is borne of desperation.
The other night, with the three of us yet-to-be-posted volunteers running dangerously low on kwacha and needing to scrounge together a meal on the cheap, we conducted an experiment to see if we could make a dinner using only the house food supplies (certain basic food staples like rice, flour, spices, and sugar are paid for using the house fees that volunteers pay when they come to stay at the house). We had at our disposal a pumpkin, a few eggs, a few odd leftover vegetables, and lettuce from the garden. From this eclectic assortment of ingredients we cobbled together an unlikely meal: Ryeon whipped up a batch of pumpkin pancakes, Michael excavated the seeds from the pumpkin and
burnt roasted them, also assembling a salad with balsamic vinaigrette, and I took everything else and threw it into a skillet and ended up with curry pumpkin fried rice. The meal was startlingly good, and we even had enough leftovers for breakfast this morning.
For the past week I’ve been living at the Peace Corps provincial house in Mansa, waiting to be posted to my site in Nchelenge District. It’s been an interesting few days, mostly because it feels so different. Different from both Pre-Service Training in the quickly receding past and from Community Entry in the imminent future.
Apart from shopping for getting posted to site and a few informational meetings with local government officials, most of the time that I’ve been here has been mine to do with as I please. This starkly contrasts with the highly structured, summer camp-esque programs of PST we were shepherded through for the past three months. What to do with all of this free time? Well, I’ve watched a lot of movies, listened to a lot of loud music (and had a few impromptu dance parties), eagerly scanned TrueReddit to catch up on news articles and essays that I’ve missed, geeked out with photo post-processing, and eaten a huge variety of foods. Oh, and I’ve practically camped out in front of Facebook every day since acquiring the internets. May as well air out all of my dirty laundry while I’m in self-disclosing mode.
I find myself amazed at how quickly I can revert back to a lifestyle so remarkably similar to my daily life back in America. Scene: The day is Wednesday, May 8, 2013, the time is 22 hours. I am sitting on a couch, watching Stand By Me, exchanging surprised noises of recognition with Siobhan and Ryeon when a young John Cusack appears on-screen, laptop perched on my knees, sneaking glances at the day’s baseball scores on ESPN.com. Dorkus, the house cat, brushes up against my leg and then continues on, prowling for his next hapless victim. It’s like I never left home. It feels as if the past three months of living in a one-room mud hut with monstrous spiders on the walls were just a dream.
And then I look ahead and acknowledge once again what I’m too pragmatic to ignore but too emotionally self-regulating to allow myself to dwell upon – I’m about to move into my site, a place where I will be the only white person living for several kilometers in every direction. A place where I am openly stared at and laughed at and talked about when I walk down the tarmac. A place where I will be drawing all of the water I need to use for drinking and cooking and washing and bathing from a well by hand, and cooking all of the food I will eat over a brazier with charcoal lit by matches. A place where half of the people who see me think I am a woman, where nearly everyone thinks I come from China, and where I do not feel even remotely at home. At least, not yet.
It seems scary. I should feel scared. Perhaps I am. Perhaps I deal with fear by ignoring it. By rationalizing it. By talking about it directly while appropriating an attitude of casual detachment and flippant self-disclosure. Hell, I don’t know.
The logical, pragmatic side of me is hovering at my ear, arguing that there’s no point in worrying about something that will happen in the future when you can just tackle it when it comes. The thinking, analytical side of me rifles through the worn pages of my memory, searching for pertinent bits of information to usher to the front of the que as it chatters nonstop about to-do lists and constantly monitors my pulse for levels of stress (low), anxiety (very low), and fear (not getting a clear reading). The feeling, emotional side of me is silent, waiting for the pulse-taker to finish collecting data before deciding upon a course of action. It’s seen this all before.
But if I lean in and listen intently, I think what I’m feeling is a quiet sort of restlessness. I’ve seen nor felt nothing that will fully prepare me for the journey I’m about to embark on so I’m uncertain what to think or feel. Right now, at this moment, I’m sitting at the dining room table in the Mansa prov house, alone with my computer and my thoughts. The house is empty. The Land Cruiser carrying me and all of my clothes and food and house supplies will leave in a couple of hours. My mind wanders. Yesterday I made a couple of experimental clothes hangers out of a ring of 4mm wire I bought from the hardware store earlier in the week. If I can make more than four hangers out of the K15 wire, it’ll be cheaper than buying hangers from PEP or Shoprite. Sure, making hangers takes time and there is an opportunity cost associated with that time, but here in Zambia and in the Peace Corps that opportunity cost is much lower than it would have been in the States.
And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m reminded of the parable of the fisherman and the tourist:
A boat docked in a tiny Mexican village. An American tourist complimented the Mexican fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took him to catch them. “Not very long,” answered the fisherman. “But then, why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more?” asked the tourist. The fisherman explained that his small catch was sufficient to meet his needs and those of his family. The tourist asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”
“I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, and take a siesta with my wife. In the evenings, I go into the village to see my friends, have a few drinks, play the guitar, and sing a few songs … I have a full life,” the fisherman responded.
The tourist interjected, “I have an MBA from Harvard and I can help you! You should start by fishing longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra revenue, you can buy a bigger boat.”
“And after that?” asked the fisherman. The tourist responded, “With the extra money the larger boat will bring, you can buy a second one and a third one and so on until you have an entire fleet of trawlers. Instead of selling your fish to a middle man, you can then negotiate directly with the processing plants and maybe even open your own plant. You can then leave this little village and move to Mexico City, Los Angeles, or even New York City! From there you can direct your huge new enterprise.”
“How long would that take?” asked the fisherman. “Twenty, perhaps 25 years,” replied the tourist. “And after that?” the fisherman asked. “Afterwards? That’s when it gets really interesting,” answered the tourist, laughing. “When your business gets really big, you can start selling stocks and make millions!”
“Millions? Really? And after that?” the fisherman asked.
The tourist responded, “That’s the best part of all! After that you’ll be able to retire, live in a tiny village near the coast, sleep late, play with your children, catch a few fish, take a siesta with your wife and spend your evenings drinking and enjoying your friends!”
If I lean in and listen intently, I think I simply want the waiting to stop and the living to begin. And that I want some more of that pumpkin fried rice.