Sunday, April 1, 2012

It's been a year: Reflections on ETing

One year ago, I departed for Peace Corps service. I wanted to do an anniversary blog, despite having ETed from PC Botswana, to commemorate the time and update folks on life at home.

March 31st, 2011 was one of the scariest and most difficult days of my life. The morning I was to get on a plane to Philadelphia, I really did not want to go. My plane was delayed at the airport, and Colin had accompanied me to the departure gate. It just meant more time to contemplate my fate and wrestle with leaving him. My plane finally arrived, and when it was time to board, I lingered for as long as I could. I was the last person on the plane. I knew that if I looked back while walking down the gate ramp, I wouldn't actually get on the plane.

Philadelphia is kind of a blur. I remember meeting Kristen and Jeremy for the first time. I was anxious because I had so much to carry and I didn't know exactly where to find them or the shuttle to our hotel. I finally spotted them after a few phone calls and with the help of our giant camping packs that made us look like true PCVs, and we made awkward hellos. We all seemed a little nervous, a little irritated, and anxious to get our adventure underway. I had chosen Jeremy during my restless invitee syndrome time through Facebook stalking as one of the folks who would be a new BFF. We arrived at the hotel and were assigned roommates. Mine had not arrived yet, but I recognized her name as one of the people who had been on the Facebook page- Carolynn. I dropped off my bags and sat around trying to relax. Carolynn arrived and we were both too hungry to wait for dinner, so we walked around the corner and found a Thai restaurant. The two of us chatted over cheap and delicious food and then made our way back to the hotel.  We had to check in with our staging leaders. Immediately, I spotted Tija. We met through blogging before ever being invited to Botswana, and had determined after our invitations that we would have to be friends. After checking in and signing a bunch of forms, we started to organize for dinner. I ended up going to Pod with Jeremy, Todd, and Britt. The conversation was easy and the food and cocktails were just as I remembered them. After we got back to the hotel, I chatted with Carolynn for a bit and then we went to bed. Let me just say, this hotel was ok, but it sucked due to non-free Internet access and non-free breakfast. WTF, Peace Corps? WTF, hospitality industry?

The next day we had to be up early for vaccinations and lots of workshop-type activities. We woke up to rain in Philly. We did a lot of "getting-to-know-you" stuff and a lot of "what-to-expect" stuff. It was exhausting. I don't remember the details, but I know I sat at a table with Patrick and that I learned that Tom was also from New York and serving without his wife. I also met Jim, who was set to be the oldest Peace Corps volunteer ever at 84 years old. During lunch, a bunch of us went back to the Thai restaurant that Carolynn and I had been to the night before. I don't even remember who was there- I think Britt, Shanta, Christina, Virginia, Jeremy, Brittany, and maybe a couple of others. We ran some errands, too. Christina needed a watch and Shanta had to find a drug store, and I had to pick up some pictures that I had emailed to a nearby Walgreens. I learned that Shanta was a scientist and I thought that was cool.

For dinner that night, a pizza restaurant close by had been recommended to Marion and Tish, so a bunch of us went with them. I know Charlie, Susan, Tija, and I went but I can't remember who else. While we waited for a table, we went to Wawa, a Philly favorite, to pick up some snacks to stuff into our luggage. I do remember that mine and Tija's life changed due to the amazing arancini that we ate there. Also, we drank a fair share of wine. It was the perfect "last meal" before we were to depart.

After arriving back at the hotel, I prepared to dump my iPhone and made some last phone calls to my family. I remember the conversation with my sister and with Caitlin, but I don't really remember what I talked about with my parents. I know Colin was a mess on the phone and that I ended up keeping my phone until I walked out of the hotel to leave at 1am or whatever time it was because he wanted me to call him again. I didn't sleep, but I think I napped for like a half hour before showering and making sure everything was packed to get on a plane. Tom ended up being my bus leader (we took two buses to New York from Philly). We arrived in New York at around 4:30 or so and of course there was no one set to check us in for our flight until like 6:30. We looked like a church group lounging around on our bags on the floor in the South African Airways area. I sat around with Zoie, who I remember seemed sort of grumpy, lol. We finally checked in and all of our anxiety about overweight luggage was for nothing- they didn't even seem to notice, let alone care. We had several more hours to wait for our flight to leave, so we filled the time with more bonding, eating, and coping with our anxiety in various ways. Once on the plane, the rumor that one of us had not boarded and was going home spread quickly. TJ, who I hadn't gotten to talk with much, had decided not to make the trip. By the time I found out, we were already in the air and I was kind of pissed because if I had known we could still change our minds, I might have. This was the first of many Bots 10ers to leave, and every single one made me long to be home, too. On the plane, I was excited to have a window seat, which ended up sucking because it meant I was reluctant to get up and disturb my seat-mates. I don't remember who I sat with, other than some random professor guy who was not "one of us", but I know Todd and Zoie and Jeremy sat near by. The flight was incredibly long and I didn't sleep very much. I remember watching the map on the headrest tv and wondering what Africa looked like below us. It was dark when we hit the continent.

We finally landed like 30 hours after leaving Philadelphia (16 hours on the flight from NY to Joburg). We had another flight to catch to Gaborone and many more hours to wait for our plane. I realized after getting through customs, that I left one of my bags on the plane. It was a cosmetic bag that I had taken out of my bigger bag that I had forgotten to put back in. I couldn't remember exactly what was in it, but I couldn't figure out what to do- there was no way to go back to the plane. Tija and I ended up finding an information booth and the woman was able to call the plane and find a flight attendant who could bring the bag to me. I opened it to see what I had almost forgotten. All of my meds, no big deal. Crisis averted.

We took a tiny plane to Gabs which held just about none of our luggage, a sure sign of trouble. Of course, when we arrived, our bags were not there and some panic ensued. We took a bus through Gabs to our hotel- the Big Five Lodge. It was our first glimpse of Botswana. Gabs was a bustling little city that had traffic lights, petrol stations, restaurants, and neighborhoods. The Big Five was a tourist-friendly hotel with little cabin rooms and a big dorm-style building, plus a restaurant & bar, pool, and conference rooms. I roomed with Theresa, a fellow SUNY Albany alum. She was very easy going, funny, and friendly, and we got along easily. The first thing that happened when we arrived was a massive thunderstorm. It was loud and dramatic and the rain came down in sheets. I was at the pool for tea time, and it was the first time I realized, "This is Africa! I'm here!". Tea time became my favorite time (besides cocktail hour) with its tiny sandwiches, Rooibos tea, and fruit juices. We met some of the currently-serving PCVs from Bots 9 and we had to be present for dinner and a presentation afterwards. We'd been traveling for something like 36 hours and it was about 4:00 pm when we arrived at Big 5, but we wouldn't have time to sleep until around 9 that night. We were all exhausted and cranky.

The next few days were spent at Big 5, doing admin work, learning Setswana (or trying to learn it), adjusting to the time change and jet lag, adjusting to new foods, and getting to know each other. We tried mophane worms for the first time, learned about pula (the local currency) when we were given our walk-around allowance, were given "scared straight" type lectures by PC Safety and Security officers, and learned extensive lists of rules and regulations. We got several more vaccinations. We got cell phones. We were prepared to meet our host families. This all happened from Sunday (when we arrived) and Wednesday night (our last night at Big 5).

Thursday morning, we left our comfortable bubble of big 5 and drove to Kanye to meet our families and move in with them for the duration of pre-service training. I was TERRIFIED. There was a ceremony for what seemed like hours and we sat across the room from our prospective families waiting. We looked nervously at each other, trying to figure out who belonged to whom. The time came for us to be matched up, and I was one of the last. Finally, my name was called, and I met my host mother. She spoke to me in rapid Setswana and held my hand for at least two hours without stopping. She paraded me around and cut me in front of lines for food and hand washing. I had NO idea what she was saying to me, but someone explained that she was telling me that my Setswana name was Lorato (it means love). After lunch, we boarded a combi with others from my neighborhood- Zoie, Shelley, Brittany, Dan, Clayton, Maggie, Easton, Patrick, and Carolynn. Our new moms, dads, and sisters sang songs the whole way and one by one, we were dropped off. I was so nervous and wondered which house would be mine as we drove further and further. I was the last in the combi with my mom, and finally we stopped at one of the most basic and run-down structures I had seen yet. It was concrete with a tin roof, like most of the other houses. I was alone. No PCVs to talk with, and no idea where any of my friends lived in relation to me. My mom took me inside where I was immediately greeted by a young woman with a baby, who I later learned were my sister (Amogelang) and her son (Buhle). There were a few other people in the room, but I didn't really take any of it in. My mom showed me to my room, with a bed and two nightstands, window, chair and nightstand with a mirror. There was a lightbulb (on when power to the house is on, off when power is off) and a door with a lock. I dropped my things and then she showed me the kitchen (in another house on the compound), the pit latrine, and where we would collect buckets of water in the yard for bathing, cooking, laundry, and drinking. I sat with the family, who I thought only spoke Setswana for a short time, held the baby who was thrust upon me naked and crying, and then my mom offered to let me rest. I went into my room, shut the door, and started to cry. I tried to sleep for a bit, but did not unpack because I had decided I was going home. I know my cell phone rang a couple of times- I talked to Colin briefly before we were cut off, and then my mother-in-law called and I lost that connection after only seconds, too. I don't remember what was so scary for me in those moments other than the idea that I was living in a place where I couldn't communicate with anyone and I didn't know how to function. I came out of my room a couple of hours later and met my brother (Obakeng), who was home from school, along with the two tenants (Kago & Thabano) who lived in the other house on the compound. They spoke English! They made dinner and I helped as much as I could, and then they showed me how they did the dishes outside in buckets of water. Anyone who knows me understands that this was one of the scariest things in the world for me- knowing that dishes were being washed in lukewarm dirty water- dishes that were covered in raw meat. It still skeeves me to think of it. My sister came into my room and made me unpack, which made me feel totally unsettled. I didn't like her seeing how much stuff I had. This may sound weird. It's not that I didn't trust her (though I didn't know her yet) or that I didn't want her going through my things (though that is probably also true), but what made me totally uncomfortable was knowing that I had more belongings packed in one of my bags than my family had in their entire house. She kept holding clothes up and talking about how nice they were and how pretty my things were and I just felt so guilty and like I should have packed less stuff. There wasn't even a place for most of it, so many of my clothes stayed in my suitcase for the duration of my stay in Kanye.

The next morning, I prepared myself for training. I got ready in the dark and my sister showed me how to bath. We warmed water over the fire and then she mimed how I should clean myself in the dark bathroom. I brought my flashlight with me and washed my body, not trying to wash my hair yet. After I was ready, my mom walked me to the kgotla, where I would catch a ride for the first few days of training with the others from my ward (neighborhood) until we would be expected to make our way to the training site on our own. I had no idea how to get from place to place in Gakebuang ward, let alone anywhere else in Kanye because every time Mama or Amogelang would take me somewhere, they would show me a different way. I was so terrified of being perpetually lost. After arriving at the kgotla and waiting with my friends with our host families huddled close by, we were picked up and driven to the training site which would be our home away from our home away from home for the next 9 weeks. We would spend about 8 hours a day there with our language and cultural facilitators, trainers, and various members of Peace Corps staff trying to prepare us for the next 2 years in Botswana. The main task of our first day at the training site was to process our first night of homestay. We were split into two groups and we went around the room talking about how it went. Most people were doing ok with some minor complaints about having to share rooms with someone (not allowed by PC), having a door without a lock (also not allowed by PC), or just not knowing who was who in their family. I was the crier. Not because I wasn't ok with my host family situation or anything, but because I was incredibly homesick and I didn't know how to deal. I knew that the solution to my problem was to go home, but that I shouldn't do that, and knowing that there was a simple solution that I couldn't allow myself to access was just the worst. I am sort of a crier, but generally not in public, and it's not something I like sharing with other people, but there I sat, crying my eyes out rather hysterically in a room full of relative strangers and Batswana PC staff who just really had no idea what to do with the crying American girl. It felt stupid and dramatic but I couldn't really stop myself. There were a lot of pitied looks thrown at me that day. Then we had the entire weekend in front of us to be alone with our families and I was totally dreading it. How was I possibly going to fill about 60 hours with these people?

Fast forward. It's the end of training. I've done the following:
- learned how to wash my hair and body in less than 3 gallons of water in the dark
- learned how to speak enough Setswana to impress my family and neighbors with basic introductions, adjectives, verbs, and nouns
- learned how to do laundry in a bucket, though not to the satisfaction of my host family, who thinks I do it wrong
- learned (sort of) how to shut down dudes who hit on me
- learned how to cook a few Setswana dishes
- taught my host sister Amo how to make s'mores and French toast
- learned how to make my family laugh
- learned how to get time to myself in a house full of people
- became hooked on Setswana soap operas
- became addicted to magwenya (fat cakes, i.e. fried bread)
- learned how to navigate Kanye and my neighborhood
- got over the fears (to a small degree) that were instilled in us about going to bars and walking at night
- passed my Setswana Language Proficiency Exam thanks to my great instructors, especially Tonic and Lasego.
- threw up in Zoie's bucket thanks to too much wine at Shelley's birthday party
- found a scorpion in my room and brought it for show-and-tell. Turns out it was one of the really dangerous ones
- learned the ins and outs of traveling by bus in Botswana
- made a trip up north to Maun where I got to go on a game drive and hang out with real life actual PCVs Ross and Heidi
- become close friends with my host sister, Amo
- learned how they throw parties in Botswana thanks to my nephew Buhle's 6-month birthday
- attended a wedding, a funeral, and church
- walked about 5 miles a day
- ate a chicken foot
- enjoyed the simple things, like clean socks (rare), clean feet (rarer), wine straight out of the bottle, splurging on chocolate, Buhle sleeping through the night, going to the bathroom in the middle of the night and being able to appreciate the amazing sky, the sunsets on my walk to training, the incredible rain storms, the sound of birds, bugs, cows, donkeys, and chickens, watching the kids dance in my yard, holding hands and getting hugs from a million children on my walk home every night, greeting Zoie in the morning for our walks together, texting late at night with Jeremy or Todd or Tija or Shelley or anyone, really, and snuggling with Magwenya, our training kitten.
- became super appreciative of my privelege as a white, middle-class, college-educated, cisgender, straight, married, American woman
- had not gotten over the fear that I would probably be killed in a horrific car accident in Botswana during my service due to the road conditions, darkness, lack of seat belts, airbags, and windshields, amount of drunk drivers, amount of animals in the road, and the general craziness of Botswana drivers
- met amazing people and made lifelong friends in my fellow Peace Corps volunteers. As of the end of training, we're down to 36, since we've lost TJ, Easton, Sarah, and Michelle

Things I missed at home during my service:
- Colin struggling to live without me (tongue in cheek, but really, he missed me tons)
- My parents finding a lake house to buy
- My friends Jody and Josh, Tom and Michelle, and Colleen and Luke getting married
- Many birthdays, including Colin's 29th
- Many anniversaries, including mine and Colin's lucky 7th
- Spring and the beginning of summer in Rochester
- My cats dealing with various medical issues that sounded serious

June 7th came, and it was time to swear in as a Peace Corps volunteer. By this point, I was ready to stay. I would have been disappointed if I had been sent home. I was proud of myself, and though I didn't know how I was supposed to go about doing all of the things we were supposedly trained to do, I was going to figure it out somehow. I was scared to go live in Molepolole, mostly because I'd have to learn my way around and most of my PCV friends would be far away in other villages. I took comfort in knowing that Patrick would be with me and that there were several other more seasoned volunteers there, too. Also, there was a KFC.

I began the process of settling into my village. I met my neighbors, though I'm not sure they were thrilled with me being there instead of the two volunteers who were there before me whose house I had moved into. I got to know my coworkers at the women's shelter. I figured out my neighborhood and how to find my house (big deal!). I unpacked and cooked for myself. I texted regularly with the other PCVs who were also starting off on their own. I travelled to Gabs by myself on the buses and combis. I tried to get used to the idea that not much work was actually done in my office and that I didn't really have any idea how to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. I got to know my new landlady, MmaKoda, and her family. I dealt with the bizarre bureaucracy of the district government offices and was beginning to understand why progress was slow and there was no real urgency to things in my village. I became frustrated with being away from home and with the (self-imposed) monotony of my days in Moleps.

I escaped Moleps during lockdown and made a trip to Mahalapye to visit other PCVs during 4th of July weekend. By this time, we'd lost 3 more members of Bots 10: Karen, Jean, and Jim. We were down to 33 of our original 40. Karen's departure hit me the hardest. I had been getting to know her and never expected that she would ET. But, she was in a car accident and was mostly unhurt, but shaken enough to want to be with the ones she loved at home. I understood this completely and wondered how long I could go without being with my people at home, too. Would it take a near-death experience? Would I even get the chance to make the choice to go home safely? Or would I die before I could decide? These are honestly the bizarre and dramatic things I was thinking. I worried about car accidents, about being murdered in my home or on my walk between work and home, and about my family members back home becoming ill or dying without me there. I was preoccupied with death. But during this time, I decided to break the rules and go to Mahalapye with friends to get out of my own head. We made the trip and had a great time. Ate too much, drank WAY too much, and made a nuisance of myself. I made the bus ride back to Moleps and snapped along the way when the woman in front of me shut my window on the hot and smelly bus because she didn't want her child to "catch flu". Tija saw me loose my shit. I was so fed up with this non-science idea that a person could catch anything from fresh air and that all illnesses were flu. It made no sense that I was angry and it was completely unproductive, but I got home to Moleps in a state of frustration and total disgust for where I was.

I spent the next couple of days really analyzing whether or not I should stay. I made a trip to the house of another seasoned PCV, Sandy, from Bots 9 who lived in Moleps to talk about what I was thinking. She really asked me some good questions, like, why was I being so hard on myself? Why was so much of my worth tied into whether or not I "succeeded" at being a Peace Corps Volunteer? Why did I not begrudge others who had ET'ed but I was judging myself so harshly for contemplating it? Why did I want to sacrifice my happiness in order to finish what I had started? Why was success so tied in finishing regardless of the cost? Our conversation was so helpful. I didn't feel much closer to a decision, though. I took a combi back to my house, and on the way, I had another conversation that made me one step closer to going home. Two women sat next to me and started asking me questions. They were from South Africa, doing mission work in Moleps. They were so excited to meet a PCV because Peace Corps volunteers were doing such great things, in their eyes. They told me how awesome it was that I was there and blah blah blah. I was feeling like, yeah, maybe this IS where I'm supposed to be! Then they asked if I was a Christian. Now, this may sound awful, but I had learned to lie when answering this question because it was just easier because of language and culture. But I was so drained that I didn't even have the energy, so I just said, "No." And they were like, "Oh, so you don't believe in God?" Me: "No, I don't.". Women: "You know you're going to hell, right? Because you're a horrible person?" Me: "Yeah, I guess so." Umm, so much for our earlier discussion of PCVs being cool. End of conversation, this is my stop, thanks, bye. I had many conversations with Tija and Jeremy that week and wrote a lot of emails to my family. I talked with Colin for hours about what to do. He told me to stay, which for some reason made me even sadder. I think I was looking for him to tell me to come home. It would have been easier than having to decide for myself.

I eventually made an appointment in Gabs on Thursday to talk to the medical officer. I went in and we chatted and I said I needed the weekend to decide. But by then, I knew- I was going home. I wanted the time to tell my coworkers that I was going and I had made a commitment to them for the weekend because we were attending a health fair in the village. I had lunch with Carolynn in Gabs before going back to Moleps- we had a great meal, shared a bottle of wine, and had cake and it was almost like lunching at home. We had a great conversation and it really solidified for me that I was making the right choice for myself. When I got back to Moleps, I told Patrick that I was probably leaving, along with a couple of the other volunteers in my village. I packed up my stuff to a small extent. Sunday night, Patrick and Paco tried to convince me to stay by getting me drunk and feeding me pastries. It *almost* worked, and regardless, I appreciated the effort.

On Monday, I went to Gabs to tell Peace Corps that I wanted out. Tija came back to Moleps with me that night to help me pack and clean up my house. We snuggled in my bed and then were up early to frantically try to get all of my stuff out of there, get to the appointments we had in Moleps, and catch the bus to Gabs in order to make it in time for my various appointments there. I am so grateful for her help and Patrick's that day- it was crazy.

I made it to Gabs to outprocess with medical, dental, etc. They put me in a hotel for the night where I was staying with a handful of other volunteers who were there for conferences and doctor's appointments. I roomed with Christina, and it was great to see her before going home. I spent one more half-day in Gabs finishing up appointments and relaxing. I ate two very memorable smoothies, seriously, they were so good and I haven't been able to recreate them. Wednesday evening, I was on a plane from Gabs to Joburg and then from Joburg early Thursday morning to JFK, and then in Rochester by early afternoon.

It was over. My Peace Corps service was less than 4 months, but it had felt like an eternity. I didn't know if I would regret coming home or if I would be devastatingly disappointed in myself, but I also knew that I wasn't happy staying in Botswana. Most of my fears about coming home were about letting people down and not being able to redeem myself in terms of good karma. Could I be a good person without being a Peace Corps volunteer? Could I be successful? Would I find a job, or go back to my seemingly endless life of job hunting and rejection?

It's been a year. I still think about Botswana every day. I miss my friends. I regret leaving my host family without much of a goodbye and regret that I haven't had any contact with them since I got home. But, I do not regret leaving. It was the right decision for me. I look back on my time fondly and I am so glad I had the experience. I'm proud of myself for stepping out of my comfort and trying. I'm proud that I was able to see through the cloud of judgement I was placing on myself to make the decision to come home. I'm happy to be with my family, especially Colin. Much like readjusting to him coming home from deployments, we had some readjusting to do when I came home. His new routine, which he had barely settled into, was upset with my presence. I felt out of place. We had both changed. It was difficult. But we did what we always do- we figured it out. I adjusted to grocery stores and driving and showers and money conversions and constant Internet access. I adjusted to sharing a bed again and sleeping without a sleeping bag and ear plugs. I adjusted to the time change and the weather and the daylight. I ate my way through Rochester.

I have two jobs now- my full-time, dream job as a Community Health Specialist at an agency that provides care for people living with HIV, and education and outreach to the community. I do HIV testing and counseling; I provide educational programming and presentations; I have group sessions with people who are living with HIV on how to stay healthy and reduce transmission to their partners; and I work with youth leaders as their health educator. I also work part-time in retail at the mall.

I am happy. Bots 10 is down to 30 now, I think, at last count. Regardless of when we left, though, we are all RPCVs.

To all of my friends and my family, thank you for sticking by me. Your emails, phone calls, and messages of support went straight to my heart and kept me going both while I was gone and once I got home.

Especially, to my PC friends- I have only known you a year, but you have all changed my life for the better and I will never forget the four months I spent getting to know you. I miss you all!

To Colin, thank you for gracefully handling my quarter-life crisis with love and compassion. I am so happy to be home with you.

It's been a year. I am a RPCV! Ke a leboga!


  1. Hey Tracy.
    I realize this is an old post. But as a peace corp trainee from Brockport, it has helped me SO MUCH. I would love to chat with you if possibke!

  2. Hey Tracy.
    I realize this is an old post. But as a peace corp trainee from Brockport, it has helped me SO MUCH. I would love to chat with you if possibke!