Gratitude

Right now, I am on an Amtrak train from D.C . to Philadelphia, heading to Peace Corps Staging, which will begin in just over an hour. I feel strangely serene. Excited, but not really nervous or anxious.

What I feel most, though, is gratitude to all my friends and family who have hosted me, spent time with me, and said such encouraging things to me over the past weeks and months. In fact, I have received so many kind words via e-mail and blog comments that I fear I won’t be able to live up to them!

On my last blog post, I said I wished I could just be in Zambia, and not have to say more good-byes in D.C. I’d been thinking that my pre-PC travels were just dragging out, and maybe had been a little too much. Well, I take all that back. These last three weeks – leaving the Flathead and traveling from coast to coast – have been well worth it.

Thank-you to Gretchen & Shane, who are letting me keep most of my worldly possessions in their pole barn; to Ed, who helped me get everything up the stairs and into the pole barn; to Dabney for keeping an eye on my mail, finances, and stateside life while I’m away, and for being so ridiculously kind, helpful, and organized about it; to Tony for answering all the random questions and phone calls about the stuff Dabney’s taking care of; to Lish for being the most positive, encouraging, pro-Peace Corps person I know; to Alex for making my last weeks in Kalispell so wonderful, and my last day there perfect; to Lee for sleep-depriving himself just so he could hang out with me before I left; to Jay for taking me to a vegetarian restaurant AND to a riverside park; to Mamma for being totally OK with her granddaughter going off to Africa; to Helene for setting up yoga DVDs for me, opening her home, and making time immediately before leaving on her own adventures; to Mark for taking me on another epic urban hike (which I sorely needed by that point), helping me lug all my luggage to the train station on the Metro, and giving an awesome good-bye hug (which I also sorely needed); and to EVERYONE who has sent words of love and encouragement, and/or spent time with me before left.

I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.

Next post will be from Zambia!

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Limbo

Me & Jay. Because we won't be seeing each other for over two years, he humored me by going for a snowy walk in the woods of southeast Michigan with me.

Me & Jay. Because we won’t be seeing each other for over two years, he humored me by going for a snowy walk in the woods of southeast Michigan with me.

I just said my last big good-bye last night, when my brother Jay dropped me off at the train station. Of course, I’m still going to see Helene and Mark in D.C., but (no offense guys!) I’m used to not seeing or talking with them for long stretches. Actually, I’m used to not seeing or talking to most of the people I love for long stretches – while traveling and while working out in the field every summer.

Still, this time is a little different, and saying good-bye to Jay and Mamma seemed somehow more significant than usual. Now it just feels like I’m in a kind of limbo. I’m trying to live in the moment and appreciate this time I have with family and friends, but more often I feel like I’ve got one foot in Zambia, and one foot back in Montana.

Mamma & me during my pre-Peace Corps travels to Michigan.

Part of me wishes I were already in Zambia, living in my appointed village – and that all this traveling and seeing friends and answering Peace Corps-related questions was over. And, I must admit, part of me wishes I were back in Montana, back in my comfortable life – that I wasn’t doing this at all. It would be so much simpler. So much EASIER.

Then again, when have I ever taken the easy route in life? I’ve always managed to balance “Yay, adventure!” with “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” And I’m sure I will again. In the moment when everything’s bubbling and boiling, though, it’s hard not to have doubts. Especially during the limbo of traveling and training, which began when I left Kalispell on January 27.

I’m now in Washington, D.C., through Feb. 10. On the morning of the 11th, I’ll board a train bound for Philadelphia. Once there, I and my fellow PCVs will have seven hours of last-minute I-don’t-know-what with PC staff. Then, at 2 a.m. on the 12th we’ll board a bus for New York’s JFK airport, for a flight that doesn’t leave ‘til 10:30 that morning. After a 14.5-hour flight from JFK to Johannesburg, we’ll change planes for the last leg, to the Zambian capital of Lusaka, where we’ll arrive just after noon on Feb. 13.

Even then, the traveling won’t be over. We’ll have four nights in the capital before heading out to various host families outside the town of Chipembi, between Lusaka and Kabwe. Then there will be about 10 weeks of training in language, technical skills, safety, and cross-cultural issues, spread out between Chipembi, the more rural villages where we’ll be living, and visits to see what current PCVs are doing. On May 3, I will finally go to live in my adopted village, which will spark a whole other series of adjustments, I’m sure.

In short, it’s going to be a long while before I’m any kind of “settled.” Ah, change. I love and hate you in equal measures.

Defending Africa

Often these days, I find myself in defensive mode, trying to explain to someone how amazing Africa is (and no, not just the wildlife, the PEOPLE, the culture!) in the face of some comment or horrified look that basically says, “oh god, you’re going to be with those poor, starving, warring people who live in mud huts.” I am not particularly good at this. Partly because I’ve never actually been to Africa, partly because I tend toward a little arrogance in the way I come across about such things. (You know, the snobby world traveler saying, “You ignorant people don’t know a thing about other countries!”)

But during this extended pre-Peace Corps period, I have found myself constantly explaining what it is I’ll be doing (or at least trying to). And unlike the support I’ve gotten from my close inner circle of friends and family who understand me and why I am doing this, the reactions of all these strangers and acquaintances range from perplexed to dismissive to outright horrified. Over and over again, I find myself frustrated and sad about my inability to form a proper, respectful response in situations such as:

Just yesterday at lunch, a friend of my Mamma (that’s grandma to most of you) told the server at their assisted living facility, “Jean’s granddaughter is going to Africa.” After I’d explained roughly what I’d be doing and where, the server responded with shock, “But how will you stay in touch with your grandma?” I explained about writing letters, then mentioned that I will have cell phone service here and there (even if I don’t have it right in my village) and should be able to text. The server’s comment, said with a kind of knowing sarcasm: “Yeah, they can’t get running water or grow enough food for themselves, but they’ve got cell phones.”

She was gone and on to the next table before I could even respond, but the comment left me fuming. It kills me when someone makes blanket, uninformed statements about any group of people, but somehow that’s always been especially acute with anything regarding the nebulous, apparently monolithic place called “Africa.” I’ve felt this ever since I got lucky enough to write about the continent and its many nations, cultures, and peoples for a job 10 years ago. (Fact of the day: there are many hundreds of different ethnic groups in Africa, and well over 2,000 languages spoken. There are 72 languages spoken in Zambia alone!) These days, that feeling is only getting stronger, and more common.

After all, I’m supposed to be an ambassador, right? A good part of Peace Corps service is bridging that divide between people in the States and people in another nation. Sharing with Zambians all the wonderful, complicated nuances of my home country, and sharing with Americans all the wonderful, complicated nuances of Zambia.

But how do I explain global politics, fair trade, agricultural subsidies, cultural differences, and the weight of history in a casual conversation? How do I say something intelligent and potentially opinion-changing without coming across as a know-it-all, or a delusional hippie?

I need to figure out something soon. At the risk of sounding like a delusional hippie, our world could use a little more understanding and compassion, and a little less judgement and stereotyping. So could I.

My life in two bags (plus a guitar)

I’ve never thought of myself as materialistic. I’ve traveled for months at a time with just one medium-sized backpack. I’ve crammed everything I would need for seven days in the Bob Marshall Wilderness into one large pack. Every one of the dozens of time I’ve moved, I’ve meticulously weeded out what I don’t need and deposited it, without regrets, at the nearest thrift store. It always seemed to me that there just weren’t many things that I truly needed in life.

That was before I was faced with the prospect of living for two years and three months in a very unfamiliar place, with no visits to the Kalispell Mega Thrift or Third Street Market on the horizon, equipped with only two bags and one carry-on. That was also before I acquired a guitar, which I love and refuse to leave behind, and which now accounts for all my carry-on space (and then some). Before I entered the world of technological gadgets and decided to tote around a laptop, solar charger, solar-powered shortwave radio, and iPod. And before I received from the Peace Corps a very long list of things I should bring to Zambia.

In an effort to acquire everything I really thought I would need from that list, I have purchased more “things” in the past two months than I had in the previous two (maybe three or four) years. Among them:

  • The above-mentioned electronics
  • A duffel bag
  • “Nice” shirts
  • A “nice” skirt
  • Leggings
  • A “nice” pair of shoes (I suspect that one of the most difficult things about Zambian life, for me, will be learning how not to dress like a field hand.)
  • Compression sacks to fit all those clothes into my two bags
  • An umbrella
  • Luggage locks (apparently baggage theft is very common in the Johannesburg airport, which we’ll be passing through)
  • Maps of Zambia, Africa, and Montana (I LOVE maps!)
  • Probiotics and grapefruit seed extract – my attempt to not get horribly ill as I normally do at least once when travelling
  • New bicycle panniers
  • A little kit for fixing my glasses
  • A whole bunch of guitar picks and strings

All this and more is now crammed into a duffel bag, a large backpack, my tiny laptop bag, and my guitar case. The duffel bag I’ve already shipped ahead to friends on the East Coast. The rest I am currently lugging around with me as I make stops in southern California, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. on my way to Peace Corps staging in Philadelphia.

We are allowed to bring to Zambia up to 100 pounds of stuff in two bags measuring up to 107 linear inches total (not including the carry-on), and I’m well below that. Still, as I was packing up one more time yesterday, en route from Huntington Beach to Detroit, fighting mightily to squeeze one more pair of sandals into my backpack, I couldn’t help but shake my head. I STILL have way too much stuff!

It’s as if I’m trying to abate all my worries and fears about the next 27 months by bringing every single comfort thing I can think of. Yoga mat? Check. Loose-leaf tea from home? Check. Garam masala and curry spices? Check. Hiking boots? Check. Photos of family and friends? Check. As if I can re-create my life in Montana in a Zambian village. Crazy, I know. It just took me a while to realize it.

A word of warning to my friends on the East Coast: I may be ditching a few things with you before I head out … :+) Just not the guitar. No freaking way.

The mass e-mail

Before I delved into the world of blogging, I sent this mass e-mail out to friends and family, basically announcing, in a loud and excited voice, “I’m going to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia!” I thought it only fitting to copy it here as my first real “post,” since it was my first public reaction to the whole Peace Corps experience. Sent on 23 November 2012:

That’s right, most of you knew I would do this one of these days. Joining the Peace Corps and living in Africa has been a huge goal for so long, I myself wondered if I’d ever really do it. But I’m excited to say that, barring disaster, I will be moving to the southeastern African nation of Zambia on February 11. I am so excited!!!! (And so terrified!!! :+)

Before I write any more, I know I’ve fallen out of touch with some of you. Such is life, I suppose, and I very much hope this e-mail finds you all well and happy. I also hope no one’s too annoyed by yet another mass e-mail from Terri … but at least it’s been a while since my international wanderings have warranted one. Anyway, I’ve decided that I’m still too old-fashioned for Facebook or a blog, so when I have big news … this is it!

So. Rather than try to explain exactly what I’ll be doing (which I’ve found difficult due to the fact that I still know so little about it myself), I’m attaching my official Peace Corps Assignment document. This is the exciting PDF file that was my official invitation to serve in Zambia. (Yes, it’s long, but of course there’s no need to read all of it. Just be grateful I didn’t send the full, 90-page file the Zambia country desk sent me.) This is the first official document I got about my service, the one I read over and over, thinking, “Oh my gosh, this is really real! I’m really going! Wow, Zambia!” Honestly, I don’t think I could come up with a better, more intriguing assignment for myself if I tried. The interface between we humans and the environment has fascinated me for a long time. I also can’t think of a better part of the world in which to live, explore, and try to give something of myself.

I know some of you may be tempted to worry about me while I’m away, but don’t. I’ve heard wonderful things about African village life, and anyway my own fears have little to do with living without electricity, pooping in a hole in the ground, getting parasites, or being harassed by local guys. (I’ve had plenty of experience with that stuff already, in other countries and right here in the United States.) Mainly I fear seeing real poverty and not knowing how to help, feeling that “rich American” guilt, and being completely inadequate for this job. I only hope that I can contribute a little something and become friends with people I otherwise never would have met. I know, at the very least, I will learn a whole lot about myself and my fellow human beings along the way.

As for communications while I’m in Peace Corps, my 27 months in Zambia will include three months of training, during which I expect to have semi-regular access to the Internet but virtually no free time, followed by two years in which I will have more free time, but very little access to a phone or the Internet. My time online will be pretty infrequent all around. Once a month or so? Whenever I get into a town with electricity and Internet access? Of course, that’s not much worse, really, than when I’m working out in the wild in summer time here. So expect me to drop off the radar a bit for two years.

That said, I do plan to send out mass e-mails from time to time, containing tales of my adventures, my emotional break-downs, and my tape worms. If you would like to be on that list, please respond to this e-mail me and tell me so. Otherwise I won’t include you, because I don’t want to clog up anyone’s Inbox for no reason. I know several of you have already said, “I want to be on the mass e-mail list!” but I might have forgotten some of you, so let me know anyway.

Also, I would LOVE to receive letters while I’m in Zambia. (You remember hand-written letters, right?) This will be my most frequent, reliable form of communication, and I do love writing and receiving REAL letters, so I’m actually quite looking forward to getting back to that. I don’t know exactly how reliable the mail will be, but I expect most letters will make it through. (Packages are always a little sketchier in developing countries, and I’ll wait to see what people in Zambia say about that.) If anyone wants to write me, I will be so happy to get something from a friend back home that I will be certain to write you back.

… That’s right, I get to spend the next two months soaking up life in Montana and spending time with my friends here. Lucky, lucky me. :+)

In the mean time, you know that crazy feeling you get when you know you’re standing at the edge of something huge, and your life is about to change forever? Well, I’ve got it. My friend Helene once sent me a magnet with a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt that says: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Well, this one should be good for quite a few days – maybe weeks or months! Here’s to life, to following your dreams, and to scaring yourself every once in a while. In the best, most exciting way possible.

Love,

Terri :+) :+) :+)

Already some of those things I’ve written have changed, or I’ve found out that certain information was wrong to begin with. But the overall sentiment remains the same. I imagine that’ll be a common theme here.