“Many speak of opportunities- ‘When one door closes, another one opens.’ But rarely about the hallway. The transition. The in between where you are and where you are headed. The hallway doesn’t have to be a scary, dark, endless confusion- it can be a space of massive transformation, great memories, and peace.” -Unknown
In May, over three months ago now, I closed my Peace Corps service, ringing the bell (as is tradition for Peace Corps Tanzania) for a solid half-minute – it felt too damn good to stop. That seems like years ago now. I then undertook a solo trip through Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, ending the journey with an 8 day stop in Paris. In my opinion, travel, especially solo travel, is the best thing to do after completing the Peace Corps. One needs time for reflection, for it to sink in, to realize the inherent accomplishment of Peace Corps service, to feel pride, to be thankful for the experiences both good and bad.
Travel is also a way of distancing oneself from one life to help prepare for the next. Life in the Peace Corps is, quite literally, life on the other side of the world. And the world is a huge place. Traveling – transition in and of itself – allowed me to get my head in the game as I knew I’d be returning to a place once familiar, now somewhat foreign: the ultimate and most confusing of transitions.
What I’ve found I miss most in this transition is my Peace Corps family.
When we serve in the Peace Corps, our fellow Volunteers become kin. As Americans in a foreign world, we rely on one another to make it through service: to understand the ups and downs we feel; comprehend the cultural nuances; remember what it’s like to be ourselves. We are each other’s lives. Unfortunately, I’ve found, as have many friends from service, that this familial camaraderie does not always travel with us back to America. When we need it most – during readjustment – it can become elusive as we are each swept up in the feeling of our culture found as foreign, in expectations that simply seem too grand for us.
I’ve come to understand that community is not the same in America, and while we sometimes make the time to visit our people from service here Stateside, time is forever running from us, and we realize relationships must change. When we arrive in new places here in America, it is not the same experience as when we moved to our country of service, to our regions, to our towns or villages. There aren’t collections of smiling faces to welcome us, show us around, tell us what to expect or to look forward to, to take us in as new comrades on the island of misfit toys.
No, Americans are independent, proudly so. We don’t need each other, we don’t need our extended family, we make our own name, our own lives. And yes, even Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) get caught up in the American system that only really encourages selfishness and hate. It’s a tragedy of circumstance, and a tragedy of the societal and social expectations and habits of our generation in America.
Sorry to sound so bleak. But that is my perception of the United States after my 3.5 years in East Africa. As we all know, however, it is human nature to surround ourselves with like-minded people. While that may keep us in bubbles of our own creation, it also allows us to find comfort in one another – if we so choose to find it. I certainly do, and have been hopping around visiting my people since arriving home in mid-July.
“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” -Winnie the Pooh (A.A. Milne)
Over the past month plus I’ve been able to reconnect with well over 30 friends from various places and parts of my life, sometimes in groups, sometimes one-on-one. While visiting with my people I’ve also been able to meet their people, a great many new friends. Seeing the diverse perspectives and approaches to life back in the States has been both overwhelming and beautiful. The differences in expectations – those people have for themselves and for the world around them – is astounding. Daily life can be so different: the pace, the priorities, the needs, the desires…
AC vs. open windows
TV vs. reading
Need to be going and doing vs. staying in
Perceptions of what’s possible
Tea vs. coffee
Bicycle vs. walking vs. trains vs. car
People who see rain vs. people who see the potential for rainbows…
People have different ways of doing and coping with things, they’ve led their lives down different paths centered around different priorities for many different and all valid reasons. But there is one powerful commonality: everyone has to take life one day at a time.
“One day at a time – this is enough. Do not look back and grieve over the past, for it is gone; and do not be troubled about the future, for it has not yet come. Live in the present, and make it so beautiful it will be worth remembering.” -Unknown
Now perhaps a bit about my travels since May: a run through of my East African explorations, and then my experiences since returning to the States.
I took a bus from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania (my home since March 2017) across the border into Kenya. First stop: Diani Beach. After exploring the sandy stretches along the ocean, visiting a sacred forest, touring the Colobus Conservation Center, and riding a camel named Obama, I went further North to Mombasa, a classically noisy, busy, chaotic, dirty East African city. There were tuk-tuks (motorized mini taxis) everywhere, masses of people, trash all over, honking, yelling – quite the scene! I was outside of downtown to the North, but did enjoy a walking tour throughout the downtown area and to Fort Jesus in the Old Town section. While some compare Old Town Mombasa to Old Town Zanzibar for the similarities between their labyrinthine narrow streets, in my opinion Zanzibar is much more impressive (although also more attune to the tourists). But I liked Mombasa too.
Taking the new fast rail from the Star Trek-esque train station in Mombasa, I then proceeded to Nairobi. I stayed in the Westlands area, which is quite hipster, with two RPCVs from Tanzania who were Volunteer Leaders when I first began my service. We went to an amazing glass workshop/arts village, visited the elephant orphanage where my friends have an adopted elephant, hiked in Karura Forest Reserve, and simply enjoyed some television and lots of good food.
After Nairobi, I continued on by Peugeot (shared 9/10-person taxis) to Lake Naivasha. Here I spent 5 full days. I explored the nearby crater lake, bicycled and hiked through Hell’s Gate National Park, rode a horse through a game sanctuary, and visited Elsamere Lodge where Joy Adams (author of Born Free) lived, now a museum. Then I took a shared taxi, a bus, and a motorcycle to cross the border and arrive at my next destination: Jinja.
Following an easy border crossing at Busia, my first stop in Uganda was Jinja, the location that some claim as the source of the Nile. I toured around on a motorcycle my first day, seeing the source, exploring downtown, and enjoying a good meal. Then I went back to my backpackers and spent the evening paddling on the river with new friends as the sun set.
On day two I planned to go horseback riding and on day three to go white water rafting – the main reason most people visit Jinja. I did go horseback riding, but did not get to go rafting (which is okay because it looked terrifying). Instead I got to visit the Jinja International Hospital after being bucked off and flipped over my horse. No one could tell why I got pitched off, but I had a powerful landing on my head/shoulder/upper back, ouch, which resulted in some scrapes, a few bruises, and a concussion – no broken bones though!
After a day of trying to relax, with some great views (above), I continued on by shared taxi to Kampala. Luckily, I had no strenuous activities planned here and enjoyed my time sleeping and relaxing at the backpackers, touring around the city to see the sights via motorcycle, visiting the national museum, and even seeing a movie in the mall movie theater around the corner (so many malls!). Kampala was also a bit hipster but did not feel as massive as Nairobi.
Next up was a trip to Murchison Falls through another backpackers out of Kampala. This three day trip brought me together with some fun and interesting traveling companions, all from various parts of Europe. We visited the falls by foot and by boat, and had a few excellent game drives. The days concluded with food and drink and stories and debate around the campfire, then a night of sleep interrupted by grazing hippos just outside.
I then returned to Kampala for the night and took a bus the following morning to reach Kabale and Lake Bunyonyi down South. I tested my hiking abilities (back and head still not fully recovered), and tried to canoe a bit with a friend from the island there, but otherwise relaxed in my beautiful lodging, a “geodome” that opened up to the lake.
I started a private organized tour at this point in my journey, to visit Bwindi Impenetrable for gorilla tracking, MgaHinga National Park for golden monkey tracking, and then to continue on to Rwanda to visit Volcanoes National Park for two days of hiking.
First, the gorillas of Bwindi. Unlike other experiences I’ve heard, my group did not have to trek for 5 hours to find our gorilla family (probably a good thing for me as I wasn’t fully healed). We found them fast after only a short hike through the dense forest. And they were magnificent. My favorite moments were watching the youngsters playing, rolling about as balls of fur, showing their teeth in playful smiles, one even beat his little chest. And I cannot explain the majesty of the silverback. His eyes saw everything, he was so calm and powerful, his stature and presence inspired respect and absolute awe. The most majestic and noble creature I think I’ve ever encountered.
MgaHinga National Park was also a beautiful place to visit. On the drive down from Kabale, I stopped to visit a local organic coffee cooperative and learn about growing and roasting coffee beans. It was a fun activity and fantastic to see this local initiative for sustainable agribusiness.
While visiting MgaHinga, I had the pleasure of spending the majority of my time there with the head researcher of golden monkeys, Sandra Gray. She has been there studying the ecosystem as a whole, tracking the golden monkey groups for her research, and working with communities to spread the necessary education to help protect the unique primates since 2009. And she was abuzz with excitement to learn the evening that I arrived that BBC will be coming to film with her in MgaHinga this September. An enthusiastic and wonderfully eccentric women, it was a pleasure to track the golden monkeys with her, and to have many engaging conversations.
The following day, I continued on with my driver to cross into Rwanda and reach Volcanoes National Park, a part of the Virunga range.
While my back and head were still on the mend, I was able to go on a few excellent hikes in Volcanoes National Park – one to climb Mt. Bisoke and see the crater lake at its peak, and the other to reach the old research site of Dian Fossey, called Karisoke for its location between Mt. Bisoke and Mt. Karisimbi, both volcanoes. Dian Fossey lived at the Karisoke Research Center from 1967 through her death/murder in 1985, and she is buried there next to her favorite gorilla, Digit, along with many other gorillas. Her story is a fascinating one, and I highly recommend learning more about her, or even reading Gorillas in the Mist, her book published in 1983. If she had not started the research and conservation efforts in the Virungas, the mountain gorillas would quite simply no longer exist.
The hike up Mt. Bisoke was challenging and beautiful, a perfect climb through changing vegetation with that dynamic crater lake at the top. Unfortunately, the summit was covered by clouds, so I couldn’t see into the Congo, but had some nice views of Rwanda’s side of the Virungas on the way down.
The following day I set off with the hiking crew to reach Karisoke. I split to go ahead with a few rangers and armed guards (everyone hikes with both rangers and armed military because there are not only gorillas, but also larger animals that can be even more dangerous, like forest elephants). This allowed me to have a nice quiet time at Dian Fossey’s gravesite. It was moving to be there, to see the remains of the research center and to know the impact that that fierce, stubborn, and passionate women had in those forests and beyond.
On the hike down, our group had the most amazing luck, and I think it was meant to be. By far the most memorable and heart-racing moment of my trip, our path crossed with that of a group of gorillas. We only saw males, a group of blackbacks (not yet silverbacks). There were eating and tussling, and crossed the trail just above us. We only had a minute with them (we had only paid for a hike, not the $1,500 USD for a gorilla trek), but that minute felt like an hour.
Then when we turned to head down the trail, to leave the blackbacks behind and continue on our way, there was the silverback. On the trail just below us, he watched us, patiently, calmly – not fully trusting us, but also not feeling the need to show aggression. Our hearts racing, we moved to one side of the trail. After a moment of study, the silverback seemed to understand and walked up the trail, passing right beside us to rejoin his younger family members. In disbelief, we continued on our way, they continued on theirs, and I was left with a memory that will never fade.
The following day my driver dropped me off in Gisenyi, a town on the North tip of Lake Kivu, just across the border from Goma (DRC). I spent a few lovely days enjoying the water, then began my mountain bike trip down the Congo Nile Trail to Kibuye. This three-day ride was challenging for me, but my head seemed to relish the hard physical exertion, while my back didn’t hurt too much. We rode through villages, along the lake, up and down the hills. I travelled with two other women from the UK and our guide, and we had a great time chatting, playing games, and telling stories by the bonfires in the evenings.
I felt tired but accomplished by the end, and enjoyed my short respite in Kibuye following the trip. I visited the nearby islands, seeing both monkeys and an insane number of flying foxes (large fruit bats), paddled around a bit myself on the windy water, and enjoyed some nice walks through the villages. Soon enough, I was on a small bus to reach my next and final stop in East Africa: Kigali.
Kigali was such a refreshing city. It was green, quiet, so very clean, there were parks, a fantastic arts scene, great food and coffee shops, and a collective spirit – that I somehow simply felt in the air – of a nation united. Rwanda of course has a very intense recent history. While in Kigali, I visited the memorials and museums and was able to learn a great deal about the genocide, and to understand that the lives of the vast majority of Rwanda’s citizens were touched – if not destroyed – by those months in 1994.
But even if lives were destroyed, life still existed, grew, blossomed, overpowered the pain and suffering in the years following. That is what is so beautiful about Rwanda and its people – they chose life following 1994. They chose forgiveness, they chose love, they chose community, they chose art and music and celebration. That is what I felt in the air in Kigali, that is why I loved the city, and the country, so much.
“Don’t let your fear of the past affect the presence of your future. Live for what tomorrow has to bring, not what yesterday has taken away.”
During my trip planning, I’d decided I’d need a little stopover in Europe following my East African explorations – to people-watch, to ride around on trains, to walk city streets, to stay in a place with comfy beds and pillows, reliable electricity, hot water, and no need for mosquito nets. Paris was a random choice, but turned out to be a great one!
I’d been to Paris once before on a school trip, but it had only been for a couple of days. This time I truly got to explore. I spent all day every day out on the streets, in museums, joining walking tours, exploring old cemeteries, and then taking breaks for meals or coffee while enjoying a pair of my favorite pastimes: people-watching, and writing. I also did two day-trips out into the countryside – one to Mont St Michel, the other to visit the castles of the Loire Valley.
I found Parisians to be quite welcoming and friendly. There is certainly a stereotype that you shouldn’t expect hospitality or friendliness from the stuck-up French, but I found it not to be true. If you try to learn some basic greetings, and how to ask, “do you speak English?” how to say thank you and please, that is a great start. Then, if you are polite and respectful and willing to take the time to greet shopkeepers, etc., and if you have the ability to laugh at yourself, who could be rude in response? Unless someone is having a horrible day, Parisians will be polite and respectful back to you. And they’ll be more than willing to laugh with you too 😉
Rather than flying into Rochester (which is much more expensive), I flew into Toronto and met my parents there. We spent a few nights, went to the aquarium, went to see a play, had some yummy food, and then drove back home. We of course had to stop at IKEA on the way, and to prevent myself from getting too overwhelmed, I simply thought of it as a museum – lots of interesting things to look at.
When we arrived at the house, it was hard to believe I was home – back in America, back in Rochester, back in our house, back with family, and the cat.
Since returning to the States…
A few weeks after I got back from my travels, I got on a plane to Chicago 1) to visit one of my best friends from childhood, and 2) to attend a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer career conference. The morning of my arrival my friend and his girlfriend took me out for breakfast. I ordered what I thought was an egg scramble, but after ordering the waitress asked how I would like my eggs… I was confused. Umm… cooked… how else? I stared at the waitress, stared at my friends, and asked what the options were – oh yes, over-easy, sunny-side up, etc. Umm… just scrambled please. Whew. Good. Decision made. “Do you want cheese on it?” Cheese?! Good god… sure, yes! “What kind of cheese?” Are you effin kidding me?! We’re in America. American cheese please. I had started to sweat, too many decisions! I realized then that reverse-culture shock can reveal itself at surprising times.
I took things slow and easy, figured out the train system in Chicago, enjoyed some quality time with my friends, then attended the two-day conference. After some great sessions led by the Peace Corps team, there was a career fair. It was great practice chatting with the different organizations and schools present, and I did get a few job offers – unfortunately I don’t really want to work as an FBI agent at this moment in my life. Maybe down the road, but not now.
After my visit to Chicago, I continued on to Boston with another easy flight. I stayed with one of my best friends from the Peace Corps, and visited some other Peace Corps friends and college friends who also live in the area. I was there for about four days and had a jam-packed schedule: cycling to the arboretum, coffee shop hopping, tossing a frisbee during an evening of fine folk music, hanging out at a bar, attending a dinner party, losing at darts, brunch and lunch, going to see Beyoncé and Jay-Z, reading books, making music, and having excellent conversations.
A few days after returning from Boston, I hopped in the car and drove to the Adirondacks to meet up with college friends for the weekend. I stayed in my friend’s cabin on Upper Saranac Lake, enjoyed some paddling, beautiful sunsets, swimming, bon fire burgers and s’mores, and an attempted hike to the mosquito-infested Moose Pond. Just the adventures I was needing in one of my favorite places in the world.
I was on the move again a few days after returning from the Adirondacks, lake-hopping in the Finger Lakes. First stop: Canandaigua Lake to visit my good friend from the farm. We worked together at the Rochester Folk Art Guild years ago and have been friends ever since. It was quite a gathering as well, and I was able to see many other farm friends and meet their friends and significant others. We had a fantastic night cooking dinner together, playing charades, and of course doing a late-night skinny dip. The following day, I helped them with flower preparations for a wedding – the reason so many were in town. Such a fun reunion.
Next up was Cayuga Lake and camping at Taughannock Falls State Park with childhood friends. We hiked, we bon fired, we cooked, we ate, we drank, we played music, we hiked some more, we river-walked, and then it was time to go home again.
A few days after that, I took a little trip with my Mom up to Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada. This has become our tradition, and this time we extended our usual stay so that we could do some things we’ve always talked about doing but haven’t had the time for. In addition to seeing two plays at the Shaw Festival, we took a jet boat ride down some class 5 rapids on the Niagara River – fun and wet; we went to the Butterfly Conservatory to surround ourselves with fluttering beauty; we did some wine tasting and visited the local chocolate factory; and finally, we spent a morning exploring the Niagara Parkway Recreation Trail on bicycles, riding along the gorge and river.
The morning following our return from Niagara-on-the-Lake, I was off again traveling with some Returned Peace Corps Volunteers down to Shawnee, Pennsylvania for the Peace Corps Connect conference. Peace Corps Connect appeals to those Returned Volunteers who know, miss, and want to feel again the comfort of their Peace Corps family. It doesn’t matter in which country people served or in what decade, those who attend the conference care about Peace Corps and the amazing impacts it makes. Some RPCVs finish service and are finished with the Peace Corps. Others finish service and want to keep the missions of the Peace Corps in their lives forever. “Life is calling, how far will you go?” They keep going, around the world and back again, again and again.
On the day of arrival at Peace Corps Connect, I went canoeing with a group of RPCVs. We were driven up river and dropped at a boat launch. The moment we stepped foot in our canoes and pushed onto the river, the sky opened up in a deluge upon us. But we just shrugged our shoulders, laughed and paddled, told stories, enjoyed the view. After a few minutes, the rain stopped, the sun came out, and we all had to pause to appreciate the beauty, to reflect on the reflections of trees, clouds, blue sky, and ourselves in our canoes leaving subtle trails on the surface of the water behind us.
Over the course of the weekend, time seemed to slow down; I felt as though I walked on a ground level with those who surrounded me; a certain understanding pervaded the rooms; the warmth of coming home was blowing on the breeze.
Once the conference ended, I was also able to visit the nearby Bushkill Falls to go hiking with some fellow RPCVs. It was great to get out, hike around, and visit 8 different waterfalls… And now I’ve just returned from Shawnee a few days ago! September is pretty much here, autumn, then winter. I haven’t had a winter or fall for three years now, so I am very excited.
The week after returning from my travels in East Africa and France, my brother and sister-in-law came to town for the baby shower. The baby is due September 6th – so any time really – and they are waiting to see for themselves if it is a boy or girl, which I love.
That same week of celebrating new life, the same day of the baby shower, I received news that a friend from the Peace Corps had committed suicide. He returned the year before I finished, and so was here in the States, not in Tanzania. I was once again reminded that you never know what tomorrow may bring, so it’s wisest to love every moment of today. And that people are fragile, that that’s okay, and that we need to more frequently say and mean the words I love you.
“I don’t think people have demons, I think they have themselves and things they aren’t ready to be honest about yet. It is not easy to come to grips with the fact that we’re capable of hurting people with the same instrument we love them with. The heart is a hungry wolf and it is made of glass.” -King Longton
Also the week after returning from my travels, and the day after getting that sad news, I was adopted by two kittens, sisters, who I’ve named Harriet (Harri for short because she has hairy ears and toes and tail) and Adele. I was chatting on the phone outside, sitting beneath a tree when they walked right over to me from the bushes. They started climbing all over me, purring like fiends, and fell asleep in my lap.
I thought it was meant to be. Throughout service I resisted taking in a cat, even though one would have been a great comfort, great solace, at many different points during my three years. I was tired of resisting. I needed some furry friends in that moment – both following the news about my friend, and as I continued to absorb the overwhelming cultural shifts. Luckily I convinced my parents to take them in, and they’ve been with us since, growing into the sweetest little ladies.
I’ve arranged a part time job for myself at the YMCA’s after school program, so I’ll be working with elementary and middle school kids for a few hours each day starting next week! I’m looking forward to a both fun and creatively challenging job that will give my life a bit of structure as I think about my next steps.
Upcoming trip to DC:
Besides work, I’ll also be taking a trip down to DC and beyond for another Returned Peace Corps Volunteer career conference, informational interviews with various organizations, and to visit some friends in the area while I’m at it.
Overall, I think I’m transitioning well. I was ready to complete my service and my time in Tanzania, was ready to leave East Africa by the end of my travels, and have been keeping myself very busy visiting good friends, meeting good people, seeing beautiful places, and spending quality time with my parents – and all the cats. I also feel productive in that I am working towards discovering whatever my next step may be, and will soon have some structure (and money flow) with my part time job.
Plus, I have support. I have my people, my community, my family, because I know how important it can be… Friends still in Tanzania, friends spread across the States, friends here at home: they are all my family, and I don’t know what or where I’d be without them.
“Family isn’t always blood, it’s the people in your life who want you in theirs: the ones who accept you for who you are, the ones who would do anything to see you smile, and who love you no matter what.”