October 22, 2009

Define normal

Entry from my journal- Oct 21, 10:30pm:

So I just smoked a clove (are they actually illegal now in the US?? I can’t believe that!). I don’t smoke often, but some nights, when the sky is particularly beautiful and I am sitting in my backyard it just feels right (don’t worry, Mom, I promise I rarely smoke). So anyway, as soon as I finished the clove, I took my fourth poo of the day. So now—worried that I might shart myself—I am starting to regret my decision to have one in the first place. Hold on, time to make it number five.

And back. Phew, it’s always bad news when I have to switch from my usual squat to the Gambian squat (feet totally flat on the ground). It means I’m in it for the long haul. Anyway, poo-ing aside, well actually, poo-ing included (I don’t poo very much here, so I welcome any and all poos), all is well now. For the first time, maybe ever, I really feel like I’d rather be living here than in America.

Let me qualify that. Do I want to be home for a week/month and see everyone and eat delicious food? Of course I do. But do I want to be living there for good, never to come back here? No.

Wanting to be here more than home is a relatively new phenomenon for me. Even a few days ago, I was still grappling with whether I could actually stay here for the entire 27 months and be happy. I don’t really know how or when this happened, because not much has changed in my life recently. Granted, the weather’s better (PRAISE ALLAH!), but nothing’s changed in my work. And it’s not like I suddenly no longer feel used by my family and fit in perfectly.

In fact, I was at Tavi’s site (another volunteer here), and her family is amazing, basically the complete opposite of mine. Totally appreciative and grateful of anything and everything Tavi and her husband, James, do. Their host sister refuses to let them fetch water and insists on doing their laundry (while my family overcharges me for mine and sometimes doesn’t thank me at all when I bring gifts). It was amazing to feel like our being here is a privilege to Gambians, that we should be appreciated, not extorted or used.

That being said, I’m starting to accept my family and my place in it, which makes it easier to not feel guilty about being gone, or reading in my house, or saying no, etc. But mostly, I think the reason I’d rather be here than America is because life here has become normal and life there now seems weird. Although some things here are still a pain in my ass—like how disgusting my house gets, having to sweep it every day, washing dishes, etc.—it’s all ok. (Well, actually, the state of my house at the moment is really stressing me out, but I realize this is not a Gambia-specific problem. I hated cleaning in America, too.)

This notion—that life here is now more normal to me than life in America—hit me when I was sitting with Adrian in Bansang, thinking back over my day, and realized that at no point did any of it seem weird to me.

The day: I left Tavi’s house at 8:15am. She lives about 1 or 2k in the bush, so we walked and got to the road around 8:30. We waited 30 minutes on the ONE north bank road (and could have waited hours), before a car showed up—a truck, that agreed to take me all the way to the Georgetown north bank ferry. The ride was pleasant enough. I only got toubab’d twice. But, surprise surprise, they didn’t take me all the way to the crossing, just to the police check point before the river.

*As I mentioned before, Georgetown is an island in the middle of the Gambia River, a river which divides the Gambia in half. So to cross from the north side of Gambia, where Tavi lives, to the south side, where I live, I have to take a ferry across the river on the north side of the island, go across the island in a car, and then take another ferry across the river on the south side of the island. (Make sense? No? Map it on Google.)

So I walked another k to the ferry crossing, sweating balls and sunburned. Even though people and cars were waiting to cross, the ferry was parked on the other side, appearing like it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. No problem, clearly the government transport system never operates in a timely fashion. So I hopped in one of the small boats and went across, pleasantly surprised that the engine started on the second try. Then I got in a gele-gele to take me across the island to the south ferry. But first, we sat in the car for several minutes while bags of rice and a goat were loaded on the top of the vehicle, totally normal. We got to the ferry crossing and because the ferry has no working engine, we had to pull ourselves across the river. There were so few people so the women pulled, too. “How great,” I thought to myself. “And look at that girl in pants!!” There were no cars on the south side going to Bansang, so I snagged a ride to the next police checkpoint, where I waited for a car. I was again pleasantly surprised when one came 15 minutes later. I arrived at Bansang around 10:30.

To sum it up: A 35k trip (about 21 miles) took over 2 hours, 3 cars, and 2 boats. That seemed fairly reasonable to me.

I met Adrian in Bansang and she wanted coffee, so we went to a restaurant near the car park (one room, a couple of bunches, tons of flies, lots of mayo and MSG). We sat outside on a bench that had one side missing the leg and so was propped up on a bidong (a 20 liter jug formerly used to carrying cooking oil, but now used to carry fuel, honey and, in my case, drinking water). Adrian drank her coffee. As we sat, we watched the town crazy walking around, harassing people. I was surprised to see him in Bansang since last time I saw him, he was in Basse (a town about 55k away) and was asking me for money to get to Bansang. No way I’m paying for you to come back to Bansang so you can yell, “It’s the German!” at me whenever I walk by, I thought. I got thirsty and we tried to figure out which boy I could send to get me a bag of water. But then Adrian noticed that the ‘shop’ behind us had a fridge. So I woke its owner up, the guy sleeping in the chair behind me, and he got me a bag. Then I busted out the salami Tavi gave me. Neither of us had a knife, so we proceeded to take a few bites straight from the salami.

At some point, I looked around and thought about my day and realized, “Oh, this is actually not normal at all.” But up to that point, I hadn’t even noticed. Had I left Tavi’s, gotten on a bus or in a taxi and gotten to Bansang in 30 minutes, THAT would have been really weird. Or, if I walked into a restaurant with no flies and A/C and ordered a cold soda and a burger, THAT would have been really weird. But pulling myself across a river on a broken ferry, sitting in a car with a goat strapped on top, eating straight from a chunk of salami and drinking water from a bag all seemed totally normal. And I’ve only been here a year. I started to understand why it’s so hard and scary for people who have been here for two years to go home: This life truly does become more normal than the one in America.

But until that point comes for me to start freaking out and wonder how on Earth I’m going to adjust back to life in America, I’m going to sit back and enjoy the fact that I’ve somewhat adjusted to life here and no longer want so badly to go home.


Margaux said...

love the poo comments at the beginning :) and so glad to hear that you're doing so well!

Katie said...

I love this post; I think it is hilarious and sad and beautiful and uplifting. I think these past few months have completely changed the way you write and communicate and I can picture every single thing you describe so clearly. So proud of you! See you soon!