Friday, December 24, 2010

The End

It's after midnight here in Kennett Square, so it's officially Christmas Eve. I've been home for a week now and haven't found any time to write this blog! Turns out America is pretty overwhelming. Lots of people ask me if I've "adjusted." Like it's just a yes or no question. At moments it's so normal -- I'm happy to be here, and I'm blown away by how friendly people can be while working in the service industry (a foreign idea). But my mind is definitely still confused. Example #1: I was in the basement when my mom turned off the lights, but I didn't blink an eye because I assumed the power had gone out... until I remembered that that doesn't just randomly happen in America. #2: I was in my room when out of the corner of my eye I saw something move across the wall (my own shadow). I first assumed it was a lizard, obviously... but I guess they don't populate domestic interiors in suburban Pennsylvania. In December.

The fact that I traveled a bit on my way home, though, definitely helped to ease the transition. It certainly would have felt stranger being transplanted here directly from a rural African village. My time in Senegal was pretty luxurious as Peace Corps goes, I have to say. My friend Andy lives in a high-rise apartment overlooking the ocean in metropolitan Dakar (the nation's capital, population 2.5 million). Then I passed a few days at Emilie's site, Louga (regional capital, population 85,000). I've spent time in Senegal before so most of the sights weren't new to me, but it was nice to have a chance to relax and catch up with old friends. Emilie is quite proficient in Wolof, so it was fun to see her interact with neighbors and her host family. Speaking of which, check out the sweet impact Em has made in the form of American hand clapping games. Featured here is her young sister, Aïda Lô:

Other highlights of the time in Senegal included ever-entertaining market shopping, delicious food (both Senegalese and other international fare), cooking adventures, Christmas decorations, and a visit to a Belgian-owned liqueur factory that uses only local fruits. See pics for more brief stories.

But THE ABSOLUTE BEST part of my West Africa travels was... the opportunity to go back to my village in Mauritania!!! I wasn't sure if it would work out, and frankly it was a bit of a hassle to get there, unsurprisingly. The visa cost about $83, and transportation was as fickle and agonizing as ever. But it was all absolutely worth it.

One of my big concerns was that I wouldn't be able to speak Pulaar anymore, something kind of essential in my tiny village where that is the *only* thing spoken. When I took a bush taxi from Dakar to Rosso, the border town with Mauritania, there were a few Pulaars in the car with me. As I listened to them speak to each other and on the phone, I just kept smiling to myself as I recognized one thing after another. It was just like opening a floodgate in my brain, some torrential force that had been barricaded up for so long but suddenly came flowing out in abundance. Honestly, by the end of that six-hour ride, I felt just about fluent again! Which was certainly helpful for the border crossing. "Oh, she speaks Pulaar!" they all said. "Are you Peace Corps? You must be Peace Corps." Sadly, no one seemed to realize that PC has left the RIM (Mauritania).

I had so much anticipation as I finally pulled up to my village, sitting on a pile of pebbles in the back of a "prison van" delivery truck. In 18 months since my leaving, I had spoken to literally not a single person from Dar el Barka. What if the village looks different? What if my family's not there for some reason? What if I'm not welcome?

...not welcome?! HA!! I guess I was forgetting this was Mauritania, home of seriously the most hospitable people in the world. I got off the van and started shuffling across the village towards my family's house. It was 2:30 PM, a great time to arrive. A couple people recognized me on the way and called out to me by name. I smiled to myself, trying to contain my excitement. I rounded the last bend, spotting some of the girls' heads over the compound wall. I think Goggo spotted me first. "HAAAAAAIIII-YO, RAKY TUBAKEL!!!" She physically dropped what was in her hands and came racing to me, followed quickly by at least five others. They swallowed me in hugs and breathless greetings. The children hopped up and down. I had envisioned this moment for months upon months, and in the end it was better than I'd dreamed.

I spent less than two days in Dar el Barka, but truthfully that was all I needed. It gave me such a wonderful sense of closure that I just had been lacking. And other than the little kids getting taller, everything was exactly the same; that was somehow so comforting to me. When I rode away this time, with hennaed feet and beaded wrists, it was not with sadness but with peace.

The flight to Washington, D.C., was uneventful and fine. I got through customs very quickly, even though the agent seemed surprised when he read the list of countries I'd visited during my stay abroad: Rwanda, Uganda, Togo, Benin, Senegal, Mauritania. He asked what I was doing there, and I hesitated before deciding to answer, "Visiting friends." He gave me a skeptical look. "You have friends in all these places?" Yes sir, in fact I do!

For my welcome to America, my mom's car broke down on the drive home, just as a snowstorm kicked up. While we sat at the garage, everyone seemed so apologetic -- about the snow, about the car, about the wait. I just laughed. I was thrilled! There was a 7/11 right next door where I could get SO MANY KINDS of food!! So my first "meal" in America was dried-out chicken tenders with bleu cheese dressing, a taquito, a muffin, and overly sweet cappuccino. And in that moment I was so excited about seeing snow that I didn't even much mind that my only protection against it was my thin rain jacket (all I had!).

And that's all, folks. Thanks for following me on this meandering, two-and-a-half-year-long Peace Corps journey. Murabeho from Rwanda and... well, there's no word for goodbye in Pulaar. You just say thank you: On jaaraama.




Really happy that you got a chance to go back to Mauritania and say your proper goodbyes. What a blessing that was to you, and I suspect, to them, as well. You have had sooo many wonderful adventures and new experiences. What a treasure those memories will be for you.
Glad that you are home, safe and sound, (and that I get to see you soon, too.) I hope you have an extra special Christmas and can keep warm enough in this part of the world.


Thanks for sharing your experiences with us. Your writing is very detailed and a joy to read. I had always wanted to join the Peace Corps after school, but grad school, a house, marriage and a kid all caught up so quickly. I'm glad you were able to do so.