At the beginning of Pre-Service Training we were given a worksheet entitled, “Cycle of Vulnerability and Adjustment.” On it was a T-graph depicting how periods of vulnerability and adjustment change over the course of the 27 months of one’s Peace Corps service. Over the first three months in country, the emotional roller coaster ride represented by the line on the graph goes through more peaks and valleys than the John Muir Trail. Vulnerabilities are discovered and the ride drops, and as adjustments are made the ride climbs back up again. Still other vulnerabilities are recognized and the corresponding adjustments made – more valleys and peaks. But then a funny thing happens at the end of month 3: the roller coaster begins a long, steady drop into the realm of vulnerability. What happens to cause this plummet? The newly sworn-in volunteer arrives at site. Commence emotional and mental swings like a pendulum from hell.
First thought: I’m overwhelmed. It seemed like the entire community numbering more than fifty people was waiting to greet me when the Peace Corps Land Cruiser (helmed by Luapula Province’s rockstar PGSA Ba Manowa) crashed up the short bush path from the tarmac into the middle of the village last Friday. Granted, the mere presence of a vehicle in the middle of the village, any vehicle, is cause for much wonder and speculation, but this was no ordinary check-out-the-motoka crowd (sound it out slowly – a lot of words in Bemba are corrupted from English). This was a crowd befitting of a let’s-not-miss-the-arrival-of-our-new-very-own-personal-muzungu show. And what a show it was.
The Cruiser lurched to a halt, stacked high with bed frame/luggage/wicker chair/storage buckets/bookshelf/bicycle! two muzungus stepped out of the back of the vehicle like movie stars wearing sunglasses and beards and broad grins and started high-fiving all of the iwes! (David and Stefan, two other volunteers along for the ride.) then came a muzungu woman, smiling and waving! (Siobhan, our fearless PCVL/my extremely patient babysitter for the week of posting.) then last of all was the muzungu, the one who’s not from China and not a woman but who looks like he’s from China and looks like a woman, taking pictures with a huge silver camera!
I’m kind of a big deal. People know me. It’s flattering at first, but this ego boost lasts approximately fifteen seconds and then is replaced by a weary wariness which comes from being constantly watched.
Second thought: I’m really overwhelmed. Imagine a fish. It’s a pretty small fish, but it’s had a good life, is reasonably intelligent and self-aware. It does enough pullups to show that it cares about physical fitness but not so many as to imply narcissism and an unhealthy preoccupation with physical body image. It dabbles in guitar playing, writing, cycling, cooking, backpacking, has intelligent if a bit indiscriminate taste in books and movies and music, favors a minimalist design style, is partial to a good pair of tapered-leg chinos. Imagine that this fish suddenly finds itself living in a fish bowl, with clear glass on all sides.
Imagine that this fish bowl is in a second-grade classroom full of bright-eyed, eager, curious young scholars who want nothing more than to know everything there is to know about this fish. Imagine the stares, the excitement, the joyous laughter, the noses crowded around the bowl all crammed together like a sea of hovering alien spaceships, the smudged fingerprints on the glass. Imagine how the fish, exhausted from the constant effort of being alert and on display and acting in a culturally appropriate manner, darts into the small plastic castle in the middle of the fish bowl. Imagine how the fish must feel as it flits back and forth nervously inside the perceived security and isolation of that tiny castle, wondering why it is here and if it will ever become used to this and what it is going to do with its life.
Imagine that it knows it will be living in this bowl for two years. Imagine that it thinks two years will feel like an eternity.
Now picture a pristine alpine lake high in the Sierra Nevada. Picture sapphire blue waters shimmering with sunlight reflecting off the towering granite crags above. Picture the water, cold, clean, still. So still. Picture a quiet so quiet that you could hear a pin drop, except there is no pin to drop, because there is nobody else there to drop it, there is only the steady and deliberate beat of your own heart, at peace. Picture vibrant trout erupting above the surface with showy splashes in pursuit of grasshoppers, struggling to break free from the water’s sticky film.
Something tells me that the fish in the fish bowl has extensive, vivid dreams about that High Sierra lake.
Third thought: home improvement is chicken soup for the displaced American’s soul. I’ve spent a large chunk of time working on the house, from hanging chitenges gallery-style in the living room to installing a wire for hanging pots and pans and cooking utensils in the kitchen to nailing wire mesh over each of the windows. Outside these four walls, I’m still the new muzungu who everyone watches intently in every part of my daily life to see what muzungus do. Inside these walls, I’ve discovered that 8mm wire, duct tape, and fish-themed chitenges are the most valuable tools at the disposal of a budding Zambian homemaker.
And I’ve also realized that the time I’ve spent decorating and installing shelves/curtains/hangers are an emotional salve more powerful than having someone to love you unconditionally and shower you with affirmation. Thanks to my needy little kitten who mews plaintively when I haven’t looked at her in the past ten minutes and whose favorite place to sleep is wherever I happen to be at the moment (nestled on my lap in the wicker chair in the living room, curled up at my feet on the thick chitenge rug in my bedroom as I sit and journal, wedged into the corner of the bed as near to my pillow as the mosquito net will allow her), I have both.
Hobbes is sleeping in the north window frame right now. All that cat does is sleep until it’s time for me to cook or eat and then she pops awake. I swear she knows how annoying it is and she’s toying with my patience like the hapless crickets she pursues at all hours of the night. Little kids pass by my window, calling out, “Ba Matt! Ba Matt! Ba Matt!”
I hold out as long as possible, but like Hobbes, the iwes always outlast me. I respond, “Muli shani?”
Ten seconds later: “Ba Matt! Ba Matt!”
I think I’ll be fine.