Well, I got back from a glorious trip to Turkey on Monday and being back was unbelievably hard. It wasn’t hard because I left a hotel bathroom with a heated floor and three course dinners for a hole in the ground and a communal food bowl of bland rice. It was hard because I left a family that knows the real me and a place with people that speak the same language as me and look the same as me, to go to a family that I can never fully communicate with and will never really understand who I am and to a place where I stick out like a sore thumb and am constantly hassled. And by the transition being hard, I mean I was on the verge of tears for about 48 hours and cried in several different locations during the trip, including the airplane bathroom and the backseat of a station wagon.
It all started in London, well technically on the way there. During my flight from Istanbul to London, I remembered my first time in Heathrow. I stopped there on my way to Rome for my semester abroad. I didn’t have my Alitalia boarding pass for my flight to Rome and spent hours running around being told different things by everyone, going through security three separate times and eventually missing my flight. I never found the Alitalia desk, but I did find the VIP Lounge where I burst out crying and told my story to the nice lady working there, who booked me a new ticket. After that I sat down in this seat in the waiting area silently crying to myself. Even when I arrived at my apartment in Rome, I still felt sick to my stomach. Everyone was already asleep (missing my connecting flight got me in at around 1am) and I thought, I must have missed out on so much. What if I don’t fit in or make friends? I remember thinking, I should have never come. But then Katie came out and saw me and gave me a big hug, and suddenly it was all ok.
On the plane from Istanbul, I started recalling how overwhelming that first trip to Heathrow seemed. I thought about the details of the terminal—the escalators up to the restaurants, the tons of designer shops, the huddled groups of tourists, the toy airplanes flying over my head—and I wondered if I came to the same terminal again, would I recognize it and would it seem as scary? As fate would have it, my flight from London to Lisbon landed me in the same terminal: Terminal 2.
Although I was not in any danger of missing my flight to Lisbon, I was again in that seat feeling alone and scared. I ended up having an 8 hr layover at Heathrow and before I got to Terminal 2, I met up with my friend, Brian, who is getting his masters at LSE (Thanks for the CD, Brian! I love it!). Don’t get me wrong, seeing him was really fantastic. We went to Whole Foods, obviously, and then walked through Hyde Park. It was beautiful, so beautiful, and we were having such a wonderful conversation that the whole time I kept questioning why the hell I am in Africa and not in London or NYC at school or working, where I could actually communicate with people. And more than that, seeing all those people out together with friends and family made me miss my friends and family so much that it physically hurt me. I honestly can’t explain the emotional and physical pain I felt when I got back to Heathrow, but it was like nothing I have ever experienced. Anytime I thought about them or about going back to my village, I had to fight back tears and an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Usually, I try my best to be constantly aware of my emotions, so that I can quickly let go of harmful ones. Being able to remember exactly how scared and alone I felt the first time in Heathrow and also remembering that the feeling eventually passed should have made me realize that THIS feeling of utter loneliness and desperation would soon pass, as well. And it did, but just because I realized that doesn’t mean the feelings went away
I tried telling myself that by the time I get to my village, I won’t feel like this anymore, that there was no reason to hold on to such feelings—but it didn’t work. For some reason, I just didn’t want to let go of the sadness I felt that day. I just couldn’t do it. In fact, after spending the few hours before my flight fighting back tears, I took my first opportunity once I got in the plane to find the bathroom and have a good cry.
Not until I actually talked on the phone with my host family and could hear in their voices how excited they were to have me back did I start letting go of those feelings. I slowly started feeling more OK about going back to my village. And since then, I have been feeling totally fine about everything. And I’m heading back to my village tomorrow and am really excited about it. So don’t worry about me!
Aside from all that, I wrote a lot during my transit from London to the Gambian and here are some excerpts, if you’re interested.
Were I living in London, I would face the same issues I have now. It’s not like I would have some big group to picnic with in Hyde Park—well in NYC I would, but not in London. So clearly the point isn’t to find the place where you are happy, but to find the people/things that make you happy in the place you are now, because it’s not the city that quells loneliness and depression, but the people in it and around you.
I am on my way to Barra, listening to Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me” (Whitney’s “I Will Always Love You” just finished) as I stare at the slum around me. The dichotomy between this and my past week is beyond words, but already I have switched over into non-tourist mode, refusing to take a taxi because it cost D15 (about 60 cents) more than the gele. And so the scenery around me once again seems normal.
As I look at the grime under my nails and my bra I recently stuffed in my bag, I feel happy to be back. No one judges me here. But now, once again, I am the foreigner, the toubab with tons of money. Ever since Dakar, that has been bothering me to no end. This life would be a lot easier if I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb, like one brightly painted neon green house in the middle of all white ones. And that’s the hardest part—how much of myself do I keep when trying to integrate? I never had a problem being called Mahana [my Gambian name] before, but now it makes me feel like I’m playing a role. I’m trying to seem as non-foreign as I can, but it’s impossible. There’s a saying here- no matter how long a log lies in a river, it will never become a crocodile.
So where’s the point where I’m still integrated but also being myself? Is that even possible? How do I know when I’m being too inflexible or when I’m losing too much of myself? I guess I have 20 months to figure it out. Then again, reading Kafka on the Shore [by Murakami, AMAZING! Read it!], I’ve been thinking a lot about time. Times in my life when I was the happiest—Rome, senior year of college, the few months at home before I left for PC—how in those instances I wanted to freeze time and live in that moment forever. So I try to re-create those places or find them in life, not wanting to accept that that period of time will never again happen in my life. So how do I get that pure happiness back? Is it possible to be happy indefinitely? Even if you hate your job, apartment, mother-in-law, etc.? Is the way to be happy to change those things—quit your job, move—or is the point to find happiness despite those things? OR is just something that is fluid and comes in and out of your life, like people you meet? Can it ever be permanent? Can someone live in a constant state of happiness? If so, I imagine it has more to do with one’s mindset than surroundings because a person in a constant state of happiness should, in theory, be happy anywhere. How do you do that?
Well loyal readers, that’s all for now. Thanks for all the encouragement. I keep hearing about more and more people reading my blog and its really really awesome. I’m planning to publish a post next week about all the projects I’m planning in my village, so keep an eye out!
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