Tuesday, November 27, 2012

It's Over...

As I sit here in the air-conditioning of the Maputo Peace Corps office, using high-speed internet, gazing at the stunning Indian Ocean through the windows of the PCV lounge, listening to some program on DSTV in the background, and knowing that once I post this blog I can retreat to what I have determined to be the world’s most comfortable couches, I can only think about how I wish I had had a site anywhere near this haven.
I kid.
Mostly, I am thinking about Invinha, and even though it was unnecessarily far from any regional Peace Corps office and the small comforts of home they strive to offer, and even though I definitely had my (VERY) despondent moments, let’s face it, I absolutely loved it. Before I go travel around Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Tanzania for almost a month, I am here in Maputo, the capital, for a few days of administrative tasks: medical exams, bank closures, a Portuguese assessment, the final filling-out of paperwork, and an exit interview with the country director. On Thursday afternoon, I will no longer be a Peace Corps Volunteer. I am not actually going back to Invinha after this trip.
Downright unbelievable.
But has to happen.
The two years are up.
“Real life” is calling.
Am I ready?
Can’t answer that.
How do you actually prepare to leave somewhere that has challenged you to go beyond your previous conceptions of where you could have possibly hoped to go, that you have grown to love and call home, that afforded you a community and a range of experiences that you will never be able to recreate even if you come back to visit or work later in life, in which resides some of the most amazing people you have ever met, that taught you 17 new things every day?
You don’t.
You can only hope to take the memories of the people and the experiences with you and trust that it is enough to sustain you through your transition back to America-land and beyond. Memories like chatting with Cristina in the shade on a hot afternoon on her reed-mat, helping to prepare the next day’s batch of Mozambican popsicles for sale. Like eating leaves and xima with your fingers out of a communal pot with Daniel’s family out in the bush. Like having a student come running and screaming up to your house to announce that he passed the entrance exam and got into a teacher-training institute to be an English teacher. Because of you, he says. Like teaching some orphans to count and add and subtract on your porch. Like having a woman hold your hand as she gives birth. Like talking to girls about women’s health issues. Like having Daniel call you his mother and say you saved his life. Like scaring the shit out of a little old woman carrying a large bundle of firewood on her head, as you run by with your pasty-white legs, showing off your knowledge of the traditional local language greetings. Like having the whole girls dorm sing the cake-cutting song to you on your birthday or the song that goes “what an immense joy it would be if you took me with you” on your last night in Invinha. Like the reactions, both positive and negative, when you make a Mozambican eat something definitively American. Like the chorus of Tia Anas that you can hear across the neighborhood as the kids come gallivanting up to your porch wanting to color. Like watching the student who had only one line to memorize and deliver in your English Theater play, and who never quite got it at rehearsal, bang out every word perfectly at the competition. Like singing REDES songs with the girls in the back of a truck on the high that only the REDES conference can exude. Like having the whole neighborhood begin to refer to you as “sister of Cristina.” Like the sun rising over the tea fields, with the majestic Gurué mountains splashing the background: an image that photography has time and again failed to sufficiently capture.
But how do you physically walk away from it all?
Apparently you have a hard time closing your door, especially since the day before, Daniel had sat on your uncomfortable wicker couch and cried for nearly an hour.
And Mozambicans don’t really know how to react appropriately to you leaving, as they are not so good with goodbyes. Not sure they really get the finality of it all as they are more community-minded than we are and create families wherever they happen to be.
So amidst the (minimal) tears, and the awkward stares and hugs and kisses that the tears caused, you wait for a ride with Daniel and Cristina and ultimately take a chapa to the provincial airport, 6 hours away, to board a plane that will take you away from what was your home and your family for two years.
You know its over.
But it doesn’t feel that way.
It hasn’t sunk in yet.
And it won’t.
Probably not for a while.
Months even.
Because when an experience as powerful and shaping as Peace Corps Service ends, there is no way to adequately ready yourself. You just have to give away all your clothes and hope for the best.
At least nowadays, I can take the phone numbers and/or emails of my Mozambican friends back with me.
As I told them, Teacher Ana will always be here for you, even when we are separated across oceans.
I sure hope I can be.
Thank you for reading my blog. If you are reading this right now, you are incredible and I appreciate you and your commitment to taking in my words and putting up with my complaining. I sometimes think that blog-writing is rather self-indulgent, but I do also think it has been a great way to think about and resolve all the craziness of Peace Corps service. Not sure if I will turn this into something beyond Peace Corps. I am open to ideas. Again, thanks so much for reading. It means a lot.
Dedicated to Grandma Ruth, my most loyal blog-fan, who from a year and a half of reading, learned that “Africa is not as backwards a place as [she] thought” and diligently printed out each entry to take to the country club and pass around to her friends. Love you Grams. Everyday.

Random comments from my last week at site:
-Mozambican nuns love matzo-ball soup (I called the matzo-balls “xima balls”) and Grandma Ruth’s World Famous Cornflake Stuffing
-Daniel does not
-Watching “Schindler’s List” for the first time ever, under my mosquito net in the dark by myself was an interesting way to spend a Friday night that I never hope to repeat
-As I learned in my two weeks of doing all the administrative preparations for the 10th and 12th grade national exams, I can organize papers in numerical order and staple at a rate that is two or three times that of the average Mozambican.
-As a parting gift, I let Daniel wash my running shoes, something he had been asking to do for months. He said, “Now people will stop thinking I am bad at my job.” His smile would have made you think I had just given him a thousand meticais.
-On Teacher’s Day, in October, Cristina and I threw ourselves a party. Cristina is not a teacher but no matter, we cooked a feast anyway. One of the neighborhood kids, who is an orphan and taken in by the secretary at the school (though she treats him horribly: withholds food, beats him, and makes him do an astronomical amount of the housework), was visiting with Cristina’s younger brother outside, so naturally, we gave him a plate full of food. And then seconds. I mean, this kid is always more dirty and scraggly-looking than any of the other kids, we had so much food, and it’s the right thing to do. The secretary, known for getting drunk and causing scenes, did just that. She stormed into the house and started yelling at Cristina and I, that we can’t give Justino food. She pulled him out by a piece of his already ripped shirt and apparently, as I learned last week, sent him away. She had been punishing him by denying food, and he knew that but ate with us anyway. When I found this out, a month and half later, I asked Cristina if we were at fault. We decided that we couldn’t let a kid go hungry, especially not with the massive spread we had to offer. But I couldn’t help but feel awful. I hope Justino, though not the world’s most well-behaved child, is being treated better and fed more wherever he may find himself now.
-After being friends this whole time, I finally admitted the other day to Cristina and Benvindo that I do not take a bath before I eat at their house. I take my daily bucket bath right before I go to bed, I conceded. They then reprimanded me, insisting that I must always bathe before I eat, not after, or I will die, like what happened to Cristina’s uncle. I am more than a little skeptical of that story, but they would not explain further.
-While going through all my stuff and cleaning out my house, I found some mascara. So I called Cristina over and taught her how to use it. Yes Neely Norris and Eileen Allen, I know more about makeup than at least one other person in this world.
-Cristina’s sister-in-law Odete, who is 17, is staying with them. When chatting one afternoon, the conversation turned to why I don’t have a husband, naturally. I then asked Odete if she “namorars” (“hooks-up” I guess is the best estimation of a translation), she admitted to doing so. I warned her about pregnancy and STIs. She confidently told me “prevenção existe” (prevention exists) and strode away. I was blown away, impressed, and proud. Well-put.
-There are often random infestations of various bugs here, asserting scientific and experiential proof of the plague of locusts in Egypt. For a few days, there was an invasion at dusk of these moth-looking bugs that formed clouds so thick and elongated that I had to walk a good portion of a run because they were entering my mouth. Other nights signal the arrival of a swarm of bugs with un-proportionally large wings that they shed overnight into piles on your porch, as the bodies lay squirming in nearby mounds. They are highly annoying. But they lizards on my walls love to eat them. After watching one lizard stalk and kill one of these bugs, I decided to open my door a peep to let in a few more. The ensuing action, live discovery channel, entertained me for a good hour. Afterwards, I decided that if I have truly come to believe that this is an acceptable way to pass a Saturday evening, I need to get the hell out of here.
-I was jokingly (sort of) telling Cristina that I would save money to send for her to come live in America with me. At first she seemed excited about the prospect, even though she realized that it was never actually going to happen. Then she thought for a moment, and asked, only half-kiddingly, “But how will I be able to make xima?”
-I have also gotten myself into conversations with Cristina recently about all the “machines” we have in America. My attempt at explaining a breast-pump failed miserably, probably because I am a little unsure how they actually work. I did successfully convey to her the idea of dishwashers, washing machines, and dryers. But then Cristina pondered for a sec, and said, “But why don’t they have a machine to iron things?” Food for thought.
-I got a ride home from town in a truck with no windshield the other day. And I didn’t realize that it was missing this, normally, essential auto-part until I was getting out of the truck. Like I said, I think its time for my jaded-ass to go home.
-I am passing my dog Devin on to the next volunteers in Invinha so I decided in my last week to renew his rabies vaccine. So I called up the vet and said I would pay for his transport and a little extra if he would come out to my house with the vaccine. After vaccinating Devin (he had been unhappily tied to my window grates for like 5 hours so he wouldn’t run away before the vet got there), the vet and I hunted down all the other dogs in the neighborhood to vaccinate them. I just kept a tally for how many I would have to pay for later (each vaccine is about $1.10) and we romped through Invinha on a mission, duping dogs into getting their shot and running away from their growls. I then had to take claim to about 8 dogs and fill out all their paperwork, assigning names, ages, and sex at random. I thought vaccinating dogs was a fitting good-bye present to the community. But tramping around a neighborhood, procuring random dogs to vaccinate while women laugh at us is something I will never be able to do in America. Oh Africa…
-My school threw me a “surprise party” to say goodbye. But, either they don’t like me that much or they decided to throw the party at the last minute because only about seven teachers showed up and the cake wasn’t ready. And you can’t have a Mozambican party without dry, sugarless “cake.” In any case, we drank sodas and ate “cake” (after like an hour of waiting around) and they criticized how I cut the cake and passed it out, naturally. The cake-cutting song, however, was sung only by men because my school only has one other female teacher, and thus it was a less than superb rendition, women normally providing the choral aspects of a party. They gave me two matching capulanas and made me wear one as a skirt and one as a head-wrap, to the chagrin of everyone involved, and then it was speech time. I’m not going to lie, I don’t have the best relationship with the teachers at my school. It’s a boys club and many of them are straight-up jerks. Some of us have had our words and of course, they decided my goodbye party was an appropriate forum to discuss our difficulties. One teacher even equated our relationship to that of the Frelimo president (the ruling party) and the opposition leader. Awkward. But still sad and I will miss my colleagues.
-I would like to make an addendum to last week’s post about things I will miss:
            1. Calling people (strangers or not) the Portuguese equivalents of mother, uncle,      older brother, son, etc
            2. The fluidity of ownership: people lend and borrow things to pay homage to the  cultural and societal collectivism that is also responsible for why Mozambicans are            bad at             goodbyes (they may love you and miss you but they become less attached to    individual people than Americans do, moving around and quickly making new     friends and “family”
3. Having a guy for everything: the peanut guy, the green pepper guy, the flour and rice guy, etc
-But my biggest accomplishment of my whole service has been securing Daniel a job at one of the biggest restaurants in the city. We had been working on it for a few months, with me pestering the owner and saying I knew a kid who was a great worker and needed a job. And finally, out of the blue when we had decided randomly to go to town to see him, the owner said, “Come back at 2pm in a white shirt with black pants, and black shoes.” Apparently an unsolicited recommendation from a white person can get you a job. So we went to the market to buy the clothes (the pants ended up being H&M women’s skinny dress pants) and get them taken in by a random street tailor. And off Daniel went to his first real day of work. They taught him to be a waiter and Daniel loved the tips he got (the restaurant is the most popular in town with foreigners and “rich” Mozambicans). In a country where unemployment is around 85%, this is an indispensable opportunity for him and I almost cried when he came by after his first day, showing as much excitement as Mozambicans ever show. Kid is legit employed now. #Proud.


  1. Wow, I teared up reading this! It seems like so recently we were at your sister's wedding and you were talking about getting ready to go...I have LOVED reading your blog through it all! Good luck with everything as you transition back to life in the states.

  2. Hi Annie,
    I can't believe how fast these 2 years have flown by! I'm a friend of Daniela's mom - and I've been reading your blog from the beginning. I've loved every word. You have done an awesome job painting a picture of your life there. I spent 5 months traveling through Africa in the back of a truck in the late 70s, which gave me enough time to appreciate Africa - and completely "see" all that you've experienced.

    My friends who were in the Peace Corps, to this day, still carry their experiences close to their hearts, as I'm sure you will. Theoretically, you were there to teach - but invariably, it is the PCV who comes away with a new education.

    Re-entry to America will likely be harder than you might imagine. Thank-you for making all our lives richer for all that you shared with us.

    Alison Stone

  3. Tigger. First off, I'm very impressed that you know how to properly use the hashtag. I see you've been keeping up to date with American internet trends! Second, I'm so glad you got Daniel a job and that you let him wash your shoes. I laughed out loud when I read that.

    How ironic that the transition back go America is something you can utterly not prepare for. Its going to be weird, and may be frustrating to relate to people here. But based on your resilience and strength in character, I think you'll do fine.

    Can't wait till you get back!

    -Lil Dip