Today marks one week since my earlier-than-anticipated homecoming to the States, after having left home over two years ago for Peace Corps. As you might imagine, it’s quite an experience re-integrating into my home culture and observing how people and things operate, while still trying to retain some of what I learned in rural South Africa since 2012.
The purpose of this post is to sort of walk you through my thought process these past seven days and give you an idea of how I’m sorting through some of the most striking observations.
In no particular order, I’ll start with size. And how big things
seem to be are. I'm not just talking cars, which was one of the first things I noticed; maybe re-noticed, because they've always been big here. (Do you need a Hummer driving down the Hutchinson Parkway? Probably not.) But it's everything from shopping carts in stores, to the proportions of people's bodies (lots of whom are cruising down aisles on scooters with baskets in the front so they can do their grocery shopping from a seated position), to the rush that people seem to be in to get through a robot (traffic light in American speak) that they would otherwise wait a minute or two at before they're allowed to carry on their way.
I learned a new sense of patience during my PC service. Not to say that I was especially impatient before, but if you can't get used to sitting in a hot Quantum taxi at the Teacher's Center rank in Durban for 3 hours waiting for a handful of passengers to arrive and decide they want to go to the same place you do (and you can only go when the taxi is full), then making it through two years would be a serious struggle. I've been doing pretty alright so far, and hope to keep it going strong.
Like most Americans, my family has a television. Actually we have two, but the second one isn't used all that much. I have never consciously spent so much time away from the TV as I have since last Friday, honestly because I'm intimidated by it. I watched the first season of The Newsroom while in South Africa and really loved it, so I'm working on watching Season Two with my parents. In the few moments it takes to scroll down the list of Tivo'ed programs to get to the episodes I wanted, there was a commercial on the real time channel playing in the background talking about how you can set your device to record shows it thinks you would like in addition to what it's already scheduled to record for you. As if however many countless shows we as Americans watch and then re-watch and fast forward through commercials of to get to the next episode isn't quite enough. A machine can tell you more things to watch that you might like. Please. Go read a book.
In the usual trips to the store or to buy Dad's newspapers, I'll run into someone that I know or that knows the family. They greet me, ask about Peace Corps, I tell them I was in South Africa, and then either a blank stare comes over their face or they make a very generalized comment about Africa as a whole. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying this was the case with everyone that I talked with, but at least 50% didn't really seem to have a clue about where geographically I spent my past two years. As a culture, we have what seems like very little concept of a lot of the rest of the world. I'm really not trying to make a blanket statement here, this is just from personal experience. Maybe it's because I really like/ am pretty decent at geography and love maps. I was just a little taken aback.
I returned home to pretty much a disaster of a room, which only got worse as I unpacked each of my bags. My closet is full. My dresser drawers are full. And I have two laundry baskets of clothes that don't yet have a spot to call home. I'm stuck asking myself how I have accumulated so much stuff. Why do I need dozens of sweaters or long-sleeved shirts or half a dozen hoodies? My personal goal for the next couple of weeks is to go through and donate at least half, if not three quarters, of the clothes that I own. Not only am I trying to seriously down-size my life and belongings, but I've seen first-hand how much more people could use this stuff than me.
Not everything I've observed is bad. While this reflection may come across as overwhelmingly negative, it's actually quite the opposite to me. I've never felt so grateful in my life. I've lived on quite a bit less financially, done a lot more things by hand, and spent more quality face-to-face time with other people as a result of lack of electricity or simply lack of decent services (here's lookin' at you, Vodacom). I'm quite happy to be leaving some of those things behind, like washing all of my clothes by hand on a miserably hot Manguzi afternoon, or waiting by my phone waiting for an SMS telling me that we got paid so I don't have to eat popcorn for dinner again. But all of those things have made me that much more thankful for the objects that are so often taken for granted here.
I have been waiting to use and thank my washing machine for being a machine so I don't have to clean my clothes. I was truly kind of confused at how fast the wifi worked (and works), and surprised to once again see what a GIF looks like when it actually has enough internet to load. More than anything, it's probably been best to talk to my family whenever I want: sitting with Mom in the backyard watching the butterflies and admiring her veggie gardens, calling Derek and talking to him on the phone for 20 minutes without worrying about an international call charge, having Dad drive me to a job interview and wait for me the whole time because I don't have a car of my own yet. I've missed them more than words can properly express.
And speaking of home, I live in a seriously beautiful place. It always hits me most when I'm away from the area, so it's coming on especially strong this week. The sights, the smells, the sounds, everything. The ice cream truck driving down the street as kids run down the driveway to meet him, the mountains looming over most roads that you travel anywhere in Red Hook; the smell of freshly cut grass, the street after it rains, and the earthy scent of digging for some veggies in the backyard; the sound of the geese overhead (or "honkers" as they've been called as far back as I can remember), the crickets and tree frogs that come out to chatter after the sun goes down. All in all, I may not end up staying and settling here in the future, but right now it feels damn good to be home.