Euphoria of a mellower kind

Now that I feel relatively comfortable here, I fail to notice what used to strike me and consider formerly unusual happenings unworthy of note. I’ve somehow neglected to tell anyone that Rwandan mothers use pieces of fabric to strap babies onto their backs, that although their fat little cheeks press against tense edges of cloth and their bottoms sink down into what seems like a highly uncomfortable position, these little bundles don’t utter a sound. I’ve forgotten to mention that a squealing pig fell out of a packed truck right outside the Peace Corps hub, that neighboring cows and deafening rainstorms interrupt our training sessions on a regular basis. I look past the goats that scamper past me on market days and rarely heed my weather app’s faulty predictions of intense rain or shine. I avoid the all-you-can-eat buffet for 2000 RWF because spending $2.50 on lunch seems absurdly expensive when a make-shift avocado and tomato salad costs approximately 3 cents. I just accept that people walk in droves along the shoulder of the road as motos, bikes, buses, and trucks pass alarmingly close. After almost two months in Rwanda, I’ve begun to feel more amazed by what now seems ordinary than by the extraordinary itself.

In some respects, adapting to Rwanda after many weeks of exposure is a blessing. When clusters of wandering children appear before me, my heartrate doesn’t increase. When I hurry home as darkness falls, I no longer imagine myself the victim of an impending crime. Mopping my room on Sunday or Saturday mornings is more of a pleasant, meditative task than a frustrating inconvenience: I move every box, shoe, and suitcase into the hallway at a deliberate, leisurely pace. It doesn’t bother me that my feet perpetually bear traces of Rwandan mud, and the poor lighting that prevents me from noticing as much when I shower doesn’t bother me either. I don’t feel disgusting when I decide to save time and wash my hands ‘next time,’ after a truly gross ordeal that merits the effort. I look forward to my morning bread and tea instead of dreaming about state of the art oatmeal and Aeropress coffee. These days, my collection of neutral pants and shirts seems more drab than understated; I’ve begun to crave the bright colors that surround me for their own sake, not because they may help me blend in. I love the dullness of my host mom’s big knife because none of my clumsy maneuvers are capable of slicing me open.

There’s beauty in finally grasping a new way of life, at least its bare bones. It’s comforting to fall into a rhythm, to find that your days are predictable in many respects, that the people you live with understand your patterns as you understand theirs through observation and repetition alone. It seems we can’t help getting used to things as hard as we can, bending any environment to our will, mastering the oddities of a new context until it becomes unremarkable. When we arrived, we dreamed of feeling at home: we dreamed of eating dinner with our host families without feeling awkward, of wielding laundry bar soap like experts instead of watching it slip and slide out of our hands into the mud, of stepping outside our compounds without apprehension. We’ve braved a sea of extraordinary circumstances with the heroic intention of finding them ordinary one day.

Two months later, the confident assurance we longed for is not as glamorous as it seemed from afar. Now that I’ve made it to the promised land of the accustomed and un-phased, of daily habits and routines, I miss the audacity of my overwhelmed yet determined former self, who felt euphoric for conquering the smallest of obstacles, and struggled towards a future in which no such obstacles would be left, who savored every shred of goodness she earned and discovered. It’s so easy to feel joy when there are so many little battles to be fought and won.

When I move to my permanent site, I’ll experience another surge of adrenaline inducing, uncertain discomfort as settle into a new community, entirely alone. But after I emerge ecstatically unscathed, the same glow of euphoric survival will dim and fade too, and when it does, what will follow? Maybe, what follows is the more subtle, but even more crucial effort to see through the eyes of the person you were when you expected little and rejoiced at the slightest success. Maybe, what follows is a greater, more difficult responsibility: choosing to live like a newcomer in a strange place, who does not feel entitled to any of its beauty or promise.

Instead of marveling at what I took for granted in the States, I marvel at the things I’ve already begun to take for granted here: the abundance of stars in the sky, the harmony of my host family’s household, the beauty of an hour to myself, the delighted smiles of strangers when they realize I can get by in their language, a rare slice of carrot cake on a birthday, a sunny afternoon that leaves my laundry warm and dry, the delicious, minty taste of Pepto-Bismol tablets and their incredibly rapid effect.

Yesterday, I bought myself an electric kettle for my future home. I used it for the first time this morning to boil water for my bucket bath. When I poured the first cup of lukewarm water onto myself this morning, and I didn’t lose my breath or gasp, endless possibilities suddenly arose in my mind: boiling water for tea and coffee, boiling water to wash my moldy water bottle, my towel, even myself, every single day, when I want, how I want! To be free and boil water any time of day, for any purpose under the sun! So, there is hope yet; even as complacency settles over me and my eyes glaze over, a tea kettle still jostles me awake; the slightest breach in a well-established pattern draws attention away from the mind-numbing habit and routine, towards the daunting appeal of the potential and the unknown.

This, in the Peace Corps, is what clear-cut euphoria has been: delving into absolute uncertainty and emerging, time and time again, with something you didn’t think you’d have or know before. But there’s another kind; less thrilling maybe, more mellow, but also more profound: the conscious, affectionate realization that what you have before you is something you fought for, a gift, a discovery you made: my host mother and my teacher, chatting about me in Kinyarwanda, outside in the dark, as green bananas boil on the stove. I’m not particularly eager to leave Rwamagana because I love my host family, and frankly I’m intimidated by everything that lies ahead. When I admit to myself that I could use a new beginning, since life here has become so easy, I also force myself to remember that I did not expect to be standing next to these two women I love and trust. I remind myself that it doesn’t take another disorienting move to recall, with euphoria of a mellower kind, that this warm, reassuring gathering was unpredictable, unwarranted, and still amazing to behold.


4 thoughts on “Euphoria of a mellower kind

  1. Dear Lia,

    Years ago, when I was a Cross Cultural Training Coordinator for a Pre-Service Training for Peace Corps/Tanzania, we often dealt with issues of culture shock and talked about the Incompetent to “Mellow” progression one might go through in another culture: first, Unconscious Incompetence (How long, I wonder, can one be oblivious to cultural difference?), then Conscious Incompetence (for me, the realization that I was functioning as a Man Child in a foreign land), then Conscious Competence (where one had to think before doing “the right thing,” as in, Do I put my hands in my pockets when I talk with someone?) and finally, hopefully, Unconscious Competence (where one did not have to think!).

    The book that I loaned you, Culture Matters: The Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Workbook, was helpful here, although your insights are much better written and more profound!

    With thanks and love,

    Uncle Garry


    • Hi Uncle Gary,

      Thank you for reading, and for your thoughtful replies! We discussed this too, at one of our training sessions. I think each phase lasts a good many months…

      I missed you and Aunt Connie at Thanksgiving- we’ll be cooking our own Thanksgiving next Saturday (December 2nd) once most of our heavy-duty PST work is over.

      Thinking of you both and sending you love!


  2. Hi Lia!
    After so many years abroad among “expats” (quotes because it’s a word I dislike, prefer to think of myself as an immigrant), reading your blog is a humbling dose of reality. The speed with which you seem to be adapting and reflecting is incredible. A million years ago, I considered joining the Peace Corps but chickened out; hearing about your experience makes me wish I had been braver!

    Looking forward to your next post–


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