I remember getting off the plane, vaguely. Feeling the anticipated heat and humidity hit my body, and following the crowd of backpacks and tired, pale faces into a large cement room—everything tinted an odd yellow now in memory, as if lit by streetlights on a suburban street. I remember coming out of the bathroom and realizing that I’d used the men’s room by accident. I laughed, short and sharp and maybe a little hysterically, to myself. I didn’t know any of these people well enough to share my mistake with them, and I remember deciding to keep it to myself, a small glowing secret about how this whole experience was starting in exactly the way I should have expected it to—with a slightly embarrassing incident, another piece of evidence that I had no idea where I was, or what I was doing.
I remember the older volunteers, our wranglers, giving us the chance after a few days in country to walk from the Peace Corps headquarters back to the hotel—half a mile, maybe a little more. And I remember saying no, feeling completely and utterly exhausted at the very idea of it. The heat, the spectacle, the mass of people outside the gates of my little island of familiarity, all speaking languages I couldn’t understand, and buying and selling and carrying such an abundance of things, and the noise of a million cars and small motorcycles…there was nothing I wanted to do less than walk through that. I remember thinking how disappointed I would be in myself, if I had the energy. I got in the van with the others who’d turned down the more adventurous option, and we rode quietly back together, looking out the windows at the new life we weren’t ready for. I climbed the four flights of stairs to my room and laid down on the bed. I don’t remember falling asleep.
I remember that first, four hour drive out of Yaounde to Bangante, the village that would be our home for two months of training. I remember talking to Seth for maybe the first time, telling him that if I could choose any three bands to play at my birthday party, of course they would be Radiohead, Tom Petty, and Dolly Parton…or maybe The Boss…or Britney. Inexplicably, I remember defending James Taylor. I was desperate to talk and think about anything other than the fact that I was heading down a rode through what was the closest thing to a jungle I’d ever seen, on my way to the home of strangers—on my way to my new home, with strangers. Out the window, there were houses interspersed along the highway, built of what were obviously handmade mud bricks, and people on porches, or in the shade under trees. Just sitting. I remember wondering what all of these people could possibly be doing, out there in the middle of nowhere, watching the world move very slowly by.
I remember walking home one evening, maybe a month after we’d arrived. The sun was going down, the sky was calm and pink and lovely. There were children running around on the red mud road, and I could see more playing soccer on the red dirt field in the distance. It was one of my first moments of bliss. One of the first times that I truly felt the beauty of this place, and my internal monologue was finally quiet enough that I could forget briefly that I was an anomaly here, and a novice one at that. I walked, and the air was cool, and this new, foreign gloaming calmed me with its peace—so familiar, and charmed me with its colors and sounds—so different. I remember recognizing for the first time the true and utter privilege of being where I was.
I remember too, the moment when I lost control, although I’d almost prefer not to. Tears that wouldn’t stop, and the embarrassment of crying them in front of strangers. I think maybe that night, my first night in the village that was to be my home, was the most overwhelming that I have ever experienced. Everything was beyond me. All I could do was sob, and apologize for sobbing, and marvel at the fact that I was so incredibly unprepared for this life that I couldn’t even figure out how to wash my feet in a bucket. I was balanced on stairs outside my neighbor’s door, trying to keep out of the pouring rain and get the mud off of my impossibly dirty feet, and all I could think was that this wasn’t the story I wanted to tell back in America. That there was no way to explain to anyone why I had to leave the Peace Corps because my feet were dirty and it was too much for me. I remember waking up in the morning with a headache, my journal open in front of me with one, eloquent, four letter word sprawled across two pages. And I remember thinking of Jess, and how she would understand me and my dirty feet and how maybe I didn’t actually have to go home, maybe I could just pick up the phone. I remember realizing suddenly that not only did I have support, that I needed it.
I remember the sense of accomplishment Kate and I shared the morning we spent with a group of women, cooking and eating a meal using the soy we’d all planted and harvested together. It was a very small victory, but one that had required a long list of things to happen over a long period of time—and we’d earned it. We’d had many other days of canceled meetings, and rain, and cars that broke down, forcing us to hitchhike home in the sun, without even a bag to put the live chicken we found ourselves carrying in. I remember celebrating with spaghetti omelets at Chez Jackson’s Club International, by far the best in town. It probably wasn’t the same day, when we found the bar where bathroom was made up of a sink, sunk into the muddy ground between two flimsy tin walls, but I remember that too.
I remember waking up before dawn one morning, to hike up a small mountain and watch the sun rise over Nigeria. I kicked a rock on the way up, and because I was wearing cheap plastic flip-flops, I ended up with a gnarly bruise on the top of my foot. It made me happy for some reason—it seemed like physical proof of the remarkable fact that somehow I’d become the type of person who wakes up early in a remote corner of Africa and goes on hikes up large hills. The fact that I did it in alarmingly inappropriate footwear was comforting too—clearly I hadn’t changed that much.
I remember the volunteer I met near the end of my service, the one who had just arrived and had clearly studied ‘Development’ as an undergrad. She used a lot of phrases like ‘balance of power’ and ‘white privilege’—phrases that I found fascinating and would have asked her more about, if she hadn’t been so busy making sweeping statements about how anyone having a less than idyllic experience with their Cameroonian colleagues and neighbors wasn’t asking themselves any critical questions. I remember the frustration I felt, and the swift anger, and the inevitable moment when my face turned red and my thoughts scattered. I remember not speaking up, not defending myself, and the days and weeks I spent afterwards, arguing with this girl in my head. I remember that it took me a long time before I was able to feel grateful. To this girl in some small way, with her abundance of knowledge and theories about other cultures, and her complete lack of understanding about how to communicate them to someone in her own. But mostly for the chance to be in a place that forced me to argue with myself about large, heavy issues. I realized that some of the ideas I’d had about development work at the beginning of my service had changed under the weight of experience and time. Maybe this girl would spend two years successfully ending the oppression of all women, curing AIDS, and ridding the government of corruption. Maybe she’d go home early, frustrated and confused. It didn’t matter, I remember deciding weeks later. I’d earned my opinions, and that was no small thing.
I remember thinking that it would never end. I and remember that when it did, I couldn’t imagine the feat of trying to explain it to anyone. To convey two years of work and boredom and excitement and laughter and tears and strangeness and familiarity to someone who hadn’t seen it. I still can’t, really. I haven’t come up with enough short and charming anecdotes, and the real answers always seem boring somehow, or too long, or insincere. I am torn between feeling like I talk about it too much and like I don’t do it justice when I do. Which is why, when people ask me how it was, I so often just say ‘great’. It would be nearly impossible to tell them the truth, that it was everything all at once, that it was simultaneously ‘just life’ and the most insane thing that I have ever experienced. To explain what I remember.