Thursday, November 15, 2012


Warning: I wrote this in Notepad and didn't edit it for content or spelling.  (We know my grammar is perfect, so no worries there)   Please comment or ask questions if you have anything at all to say/ask!


I've been back in the states for about six weeks now.  I left Togo on September 14 and met up with Moe in Brussels.  We visited six countries (Belgium, France, Switzerland, Spain, Czech Republic, Netherlands) but the only place we went in France was Paris and we were only in Barcelona for a night.  My favorite places were Gent, Belgium and everywhere we went in Switzerland.  I'll spare you the details because I don't want to be that person that brags about their European adventure via the internet, but please feel free to ask questions.  Moe posted a whole album on FB that has all the pictures (I didn't bring my camera).  It was great to reconnect with her for a few weeks and it was great to dip my foot in the waters of first world amenities before jumping into the water.

That being said, it hasn't been as hard as I thought it would.  A lot of previous volunteers said that once you get back to America, you just get right back into it without a problem; it's like you never left.  I do feel like that sometimes but there is always this little itch inside of me telling me that something doesn't feel right.

The hardest part is not seeing my Togolese friends and family every day.  And I haven't called them because of the time difference/it's just too hard for me right now.  I printed and mailed them a couple hundred pictures, but that'll have to do for now.  We still "beep" each other though, like we did when I lived there.
("Beeping" is when you call someone's phone and let it ring once and hang up.  People usually do this because they don't want to spend their phone credit on the call/hope you'll call them back, but most of my friends and I had an understanding that we'll do it to say hello without expecting a call back. - They are kinda like pay-as-you-go phones.)

Speaking of phones... these damn smart phones, you guys.  Ok, the truth? I do want one.  But I am so scared of how sucked into I'm gonna get because I'm already addicted to the internet as it is.  And I like my simple phone that does nothing but text/make phone calls.  But the map thing is so cool and I can't call Cassie every time I'm drunk and lost in Lincoln Park at 11pm on a Wednesday night.  It makes me really sad though when everyone has their phones in their hand in social settings.

Social settings! Ok, so I've never been one to "fake it" when I'm not interested in people.  I am blunt and straight-to-the-point.  Or I was.  I'm trying to be "nicer" or whatever.  But it's hard when you're just a novelty in some situations.  "This is Jes, she just got back from AFRICA!" is about the worst introduction anyone can give for me.  I don't want to be known as that girl and I DIDN'T SEE THE WHOLE CONTINENT. JUST ONE TINY, ITTYBITTY COUNTRY.  AFRICA IS NOT A COUNTRY.  But that being said, I usually have nothing to contribute to conversations other than "this one time in Togo..."  #firstworldproblems

First world problems... OMG people complain about stuff that would take me an hour to explain to a Togolese person.  The CTA was running late?  HOLY CRAP, YOUR TRANSPORTATION THAT COSTS THE SAME PRICE EVERY DAY, HAS NO GOATS THAT WILL SIT ON YOUR LAP/OR ANOTHER PERSON ON YOUR LAP FOR THAT MATTER, ETC. was 5 or 10 minutes late?  Try waiting hours on end just to get somewhere that would take 30 minutes in America.   You had to wait in line to sign-up for a 5k or to pay for something to you don't need?  BE THANKFUL FOR LINES.  TRY WAITING IN... A CROWD... FOR HOURS... TO MAIL A LETTER TO YOUR FRIENDS WHO WILL NEVER MAIL YOU ANYTHING THE WHOLE TWO YEARS YOU'RE GONE.  Ok, I'll stop complaining- this isn't directed at anyone specifically because it's at least five different people.  And I was like that too and will probably be like that before I know it... it's just hard to hear.

Which brings me to the grocery store.  I CAN'T DO IT.  I go in for like five minutes and then I can't breathe.  My friend needed to get applesauce for her friend from out of town to use to take her medicine... WHAT? Sometimes I didn't even have water to take my meds but ok, fine.  Applesauce, can't be too hard.  There was like eleven effing choices.  Right next to the paper towel aisle with even more choices.  And then the next time I went, my friend spent more money on dog treats than my host family would spend in a month to feed their whole family.  Comparing money/the exchange rate is just bad for everyone, but I can just imagine my host dad walking into a Jewel and being like "what do you do with THIS?" about pretty much 80% of the stuff. 

In the same way it's hard for me to find the words to explain my Peace Corps-Togo experience to you guys, it was hard to explain American life to them.  And sometimes it makes me not want to try.  But sometimes it makes me feel really great.  The best question I've been asked lately:  "What was an average day like for you?"  I think because of this blog, it sounds like I did A LOT... and I guess I did in the big picture.  But in reality, I spent WEEKS just sitting at my house, reading books, dancing with my host siblings and hoping that the sauce that came with my daily meal would be edible.  And I loved it.

I miss my house, my cat, my family, my friends, my life.  I wrote letters to some friends with the pictures I sent and I wrote "mon esprit va toujours rester avec vous au Togo" which was one of the few times I've cried over Togo.  (Translation: My spirit will always rest with you in Togo)  I feel like I left a piece of me there and that I'll never be able to reunite with it/be that person again.  I strangely miss speaking French.  Franglais (Francais + Anglais = Franglais) comes out every so often, especially "ah bon"- Google it.

Coming home during elections was super bad timing.  I just spent two years fighting for women's rights and equality and avoiding the subject of gay rights in fear of my safety ... to "the land of the free and home of the brave"?  We were all there for this (except for those of you still in Togo...) so I'll spare rambling about my political thoughts.  But the contradiction of "I AM SO FUCKING PROUD TO BE AMERICAN" mixed with "This sucks so bad" has caused me so much anxiety.  On the fourth of July, I was so happy to celebrate at the American embassy in the capital (even though I was going through my second round of malaria) because I had never been so proud to be American. Its so cliché, but we take a lot for granted.  Especially our freedom of speech.  But lots of other things too.

Healthcare.  Political debate aside, we have access to things that people couldn't dream of.  I've been to 10+ doctor appointments since I've been home and I got really depressed at almost all of them to the point where the doctors asked me what's wrong.  I FEEL SO GUILTY.  Here I am getting moles removed, a preventative measure against cancer.  Or an ingrown toenail.  Or a check-up.  I wasn't sick.  I watched so many people I knew grow weak, malnourished and some of them die because they couldn't pay the couple thousands francs for their medicine (about $4).  This is where that little itch of "something's not right" comes into play and there is nothing I can do about it.  I try to focus on the feeling of being grateful.

When I was there, I got into disagreements and arguments.  Especially with my host dad.  But we always talked it through.  Through all the barriers (language, age, religion, race, etc.), we'd come to an understanding and hug and then eat together.  It wasn't easy and sometimes I almost gave up, but my relationship with him is something that I will treasure forever.  He is almost 70 years old and he has the youngest spirit of anyone I've ever met.

Papa would constantly beg me, "when you go back to America, please don't tell your parents how bad it is here!" and I'd reassure him that I wouldn't... every family fights, right?  He knows that.  This idea that "chez les blancs" (where the white people are) is so much better than there is something instilled in a lot of Togolese.  Just explaining that America is way diverse is something that a lot of people couldn't grasp... that and that America and Europe isn't the same place.  "'Rich people problems' aren't fun", I'd explain to him.  "The smiles I see here in Kpategan [my village] are more genuine than any smile I've ever seen on an American face", I'd reiterate. He'd smile, hesitantly.  It was such a double-edged sword because it's supposedly so much better in America, but then some of my habits just weren't acceptable.  A woman who doesn't cook? Hell no, Maury!  An unmarried woman without children?  Yeah, in America people are getting married later and later... some of these things were just better left alone.

Alone.  I miss having a lot of time alone.  I thought about things I never had the time to think about before.  I had feelings that I never experienced before.  I lived alone in my own small house.  Most people are surprised by this; they thought I was living with a group of other volunteers.  No.  I was the only (and the first!) volunteer to be placed in my village and the closest American was over an hour ride away.  But I was never truly alone; at any moment of any day, I could take a three minute walk to my best friend's house to laugh, cry, cook, eat, or just sit there.

There's no smooth way for me to conclude this, so I'll paraphrase a story from Dick Day, the Peace Corps regional director of Africa:
You [the Peace Corps Volunteer] are the letter "A".  You're living in Togo.  You adapt to the culture and the life, but you were raised in America.  You're American.  No matter how hard you try or what you do, you'll never be able to be a "B".
Togolese people are the letter "B".  You are an "A" living amongst all "B"s.
When you go back to America, now you're a "C" because you lived amongst "B"s for so long; you're different.  You are now a "C" living amongst "A"s.

Fitting in is overrated anyway, right?  This goes for anyone who has had a big experience.  After visiting 10+ countries, you're the letter Q with a special combination... I think there is comfort to find in the diversity.  I find comfort in those who truly care to listen to my experiences even if I'm a "C" and they're not.  So I'll finally shut up by saying thank you to those rare few who I've truly connected to since I've been home.

1 comment:

Renee Silverman said...

Wow. An amazing expression of your experiences transitioning back into American life and culture, which will continue to evolve and change the longer you are here and the more you integrate back into the world here. I'm in awe of how well you explain the struggle and somewhat envious of this tremendous experience you've had. You'll have to continue to find the balance between the conveniences and excesses we have here with the desperate need in Togo and other parts of the world.