This is my life



It is popular to say that Peace Corps Volunteers "put their lives on hold" while serving in foreign lands. It is also easy to understand how that sort of thinking develops, as we take great pains to tie up business at home, move overseas, learn foreign languages and customs, as well as beginning relationships with an entirely new group of people, both foreign and domestic. Add to that a variety of daily life features that we, more than likely, took for granted at home: food, money, shopping, transportation, well-established ties to family and friends, body language. The list could go on.

I have to admit that I felt that way, too. "My life" was in San Francisco, and this (Peace Corps) is what I will be doing until I can get back to that. It was as if this were something other than my life. Peace Corps purgatory, perhaps?

However, I have had a shift in my thinking about it during the last week. I have come to realize that this is my life. It is not as if I don't realize that this is temporal. It's just that I have come to realize that I am shopping where I am shopping, living where I am living, and doing what I am doing as a means of living my life, as opposed to their being the means of living my life until I get home to do things the way I used to do them.

Two things happened during the last week to help me understand this:

First, I begin each day with a type of meditation that includes a blessing for the wonderful things in my life: my health, my family, my friends, my home, my job, etc. In thinking of these things to myself, I conjure their images. I realized last week that when I thought of "my home," I was picturing Sixteenth Street in San Francisco, not the place where I physically was at the moment.

Since then I have added my new home, which is not to say that I don't also think of Sixteenth Street, where Connie, Jesse, Andrew, Alzak, and Susan are now living. I do.

Secondly, I have spent some significant time paying attention to the way I have organized things in my apartment. I have also made a significant shift from eating in restaurants to buying food and preparing it in my own kitchen. These things have helped me to claim this home as my own. And from my home base, I have come to feel more comfortable in my neighborhood and city.

I have not started my work yet. The APCD in charge of the education sector has been on vacation. Why should that stop me, you ask? Because I need him to take me around to "do protocol," which is a very important process here. In fact, I asked one of the veteran Volunteers about how necessary that was and she cautioned me to wait for the proper introductions, saying that if I didn't, it could be counter-productive to my future relationships with work colleagues. I wait (patiently).

One of my fellow Volunteers went into a boutique (that's what they call the ubiquitous "corner groceries" here) and asked for a Sprite. There were many on the shelf behind the boutique man, but Marc wanted a cold one, so the boutiquierre opened the door of the refrigerator and looked inside for one.

After a time, he located the only one in the refrigerator and handed it to Marc, who paid for it and left. As he was getting ready to leave, Marc noted that the man took one Sprite from the shelf behind him and put it into the refrigerator!

I went for dinner to a restaurant where I had had lunch two months ago. When I saw the list of salads on the menu, I inquired about their contents and told the waiter very pointedly that I did not want any kind of animal in the salad. I made sure to emphasize that I included fish in this category, since there seems to be a worldwide misunderstanding that fish are something other than animals.

Usually, I make sure that there will also not be any mayonnaise, but this time I forgot to mention that because I was so focused on the meat. (Salads here frequently include a few generous dollops of mayo.)

When the salad arrived, the owner of the restaurant, who had served me two months ago, was sitting in a car in front, conversing with somebody. I looked at the salad, noticed some suspicious cubes mixed into the mayonnaise dressing, and asked the waiter what they were. He told me that they were from a pig. I reminded him that I had already made myself clear about what I didn't want in the salad.

During this conversation, the owner of the restaurant got out of his car and came over to my table to ask what the problem was. When I told him, he surprised me by saying, "Of course. No animal. I remember from the last time." I was surprised at what a good memory he has, considering that "the last time" was also the only other time I had been there.

The owner told the waiter to get another salad for me. Once again, I forgot to say anything about the mayonnaise. A few minutes later, the owner himself served me my salad, along with oil and vinegar in a separate bowl, saying, "Dressing on the side." Even though I had forgotten, he remembered to bring me the salad just as I had ordered it from him two months earlier!

I am enjoying being media-free: no television, newspapers, Internet news sites, movies, or news magazines. (Note: It's not as if these things are unavailable - just that I have chosen not to partake.) I have also not brought a collection of tapes or CD's with me. My primary entertainment, then, is reading. Here is what I have read since I left home in June:

Home Town by Tracy Kidder
This is the third book of Kidder's that I have read, the others being Among Schoolchildren and House. A master documentarian, Kidder usually spends at least a year with the people about whom he is writing. In Home Town, he immerses himself in the daily life of Northampton, Massachusetts, and in the process tells the stories of a police officer, the mayor, a Smith College scholarship recipient, and several unsavory characters. The Pulitzer Prizewinner scrupulously researches every aspect of whatever he writes about; for example, when one of the people in the book is diagnosed with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), he writes about the person and the diagnosis with authority.

To Africa with Spatula by Jane Baker Lotter
This was the first Peace Corps-related book that I have read since I got here. The author wrote it as the wife of an early Country Director in Malawi, in the southeast portion of Africa, during the Sixties. Also figuring into the story are the couple's three young sons. The book was fashioned from letters that she sent home to a neighbor. As such, it has a conversational tone, very folksy, and was written with insight, candor, humor, and heart. On several occasions, the author inserts updated information about the people in the book. It's especially heartening to read that the entire family is still involved in humanitarian work.

Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
I didn't realize how salt had influenced history, and I'll bet you didn't, either! The author refers to many aspects of world history and has examples from all the settled continents. The amount of research that he put into this book was tremendous, and the bibliography shows it. There were times when the book bogged down in detail, but overall, it was fascinating to read.

Notes from a Small Island
by Bill Bryson
It is hard to beat Bryson for his combination of observation, insight, intelligence, research, wit, and humor. He's my favorite author writing today. An American, he takes a good-bye trip around Britain after having lived there for twenty years, just before he moves back to the United States.
(Once on the other side of the Atlantic, he launches into I'm a Stranger Here Myself, in which he settles with his family in New Hampshire and writes about his home country as if he is seeing it for the first time.)

Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa by Katherine A. Dettwyler
The book is written by an anthropologist working in Mali. I bought it because somebody told me, "If you replace 'Mali' with 'Mauritania' in this book, you will learn a lot about what it is like in Mauritania.
True enough, cultures are not interchangeable. But there is much about the observations of daily life in Mali, just next door to Mauritania, that are also valid here.

Around the World in 78 Days by Nicholas Coleridge
This Briton sets off to replicate the fictional voyage of Phileas Fogg and to see if he can do it in as many days - or, better yet, fewer. He writes with wit and humor. It's an enjoyable account of his trip, the characters he meets along the way, and a confirmation that whether you call it baksheesh, chub-chub, or graft, money not only helps to make the world go round, but can help you get around it.