Two weeks ago was the All-Volunteer Conference for Peace Corps Volunteers in Uganda. One-hundred and sixty kids, adults and beyond-adults (I don’t think anyone fits into the “adult” category, or would do so only begrudgingly). Last year’s conference was a Glee mash-up of corporate seminars and Spring Break pool parties. I can only imagine that this year’s proved equally as flawless. Yet it’s okay that I wasn’t there; surprisingly. True, I did have one day where I conspicuously sat alone at Jacob’s pool, feeling the isolation acutely. But in general, I become more accepting of a fragmented life in the U.S. every day. As follows is my scorecard, if you will, of those adaptations that have been facile, difficult or, if I was expecting the opposite, simply surprising.
First, those I jumped into with the fortitude of a cannonball into a cool pool on a 90+ day:
- Vegetables. Living in a village in which only cabbage, tomatoes, onions and pumpkin can be purchased with any regularity resulted in my continued over-consumption of broccoli, zucchini, red pepper, mushrooms, spinach, sweet corn, cucumbers, you name it, I’ll eat it.
- Tap water. What? No boiling or chlorine-concentration required? AND fluoride is included? Nyongeza! (Bonus!)
- Anything but the Daily Monitor or Red Pepper. For a country reticent about sex, they sure do print a lot of suggestive material in their nationally-syndicated newspapers. “Oranges help promote boob health.” Please, for the love of all that keeps me sane, please somebody pass me a Wall Street Journal!
- Fitness centers. True, I had no reason to rejoin a gym until the crutches became a little bit less obtrusive, but the wait was well worth it. The day I’m able to participate in a spin class will be a monumental occasion. Heck, I’ll even relish running on the treadmill again!
- Driving. I foolishly presumed I’d have nary a need for an automobile for, oh, 3-4 years after returning from Uganda. Not so. Things are far away! And after being hit by a car on a public road, the chances of buying a bike look scant for the time being. But anything’s better than a matatu jockeying down the road at breakneck speed, 10 over the 14 person capacity. Punch the gas and shoot for 65 in a 25; that’s what I’m digging these days.
Next, those I needed caution and uncertainty for; a gradual entrance into a scalding hot tub:
- An iPhone. I’m used to the internet being static, transmitted from looming cell phone towers at the acme of the steepest hills in the country. Don’t see a tower? Chances are you won’t have internet access either. But 3G iPhones: are you trying to tell me that you can check your email while you’re sipping on a boat drink from a raft in the middle of a pool? It may not be wise, but damnit I’m gunna do it because I sure as hell can. This is America. Although the constant barrage of Facebook status updates as a result ought to go.
- Shorts. And not just because my quads hadn’t seen the sun in 15 months. True, I was protecting you, the general public, from that display, but it honestly came down to a shift in societal norms. Shoulders, freely-growing armpit hair, breasts: all fine. But show a little kneecap in Uganda and you’re branded a hussy. I still prefer my flowing skirts and basketball shorts to anything more constricting…
- First impressions. Meeting new people is swell; I generally delight in the opportunity to understand where a person has been and where they’re heading. But lately all of that has been overshadowed by a powerful distaste for having to explain where I’ve been and where I’m heading. The interest of a first meet-and-greet is too superficial for me to really concede anything. Yet this will improve with time. Hopefully…?
- The dollar. Whoever denies the U.S. Dollar’s strength need only move to Uganda where it’s ratio against the Ugandan Shilling is $1:3,000/=. Having to pay the equivalent of 25,000/= for a mediocre lunch is terrifying. It does not help that Peace Corps left me with so little annual income that I’ve actually been denied a credit card. “No, sir, $6,000 per year is not a gross underestimation.”
- Consumerism. An obvious successor to my previous concession, laying out the dolla bills for anything now is a bit tricky. Add to that the swift propulsion into a credit-based society from one that is cash-based, and the result is an overly-prudent citizen. I am not helping reverse this recession.
Finally, those I met with the surprise of stepping into an unexpectedly warm lake:
- Ice cream. My favorite food group, without question. Yet parasites and a district teeming with cows but somehow devoid of dairy (blame it on the poor nutrition), leaves me with a queasy stomach and a knack for locating the Tums aisle in the store. But I will persevere; ice cream is too important for anything less.
- The ultra-conservative Tea Party. What is this? Where did this come from?
- Friends. I’m not sure if I’m capable of reconciling the draw to two groups of people, separated by half of the U.S., the Atlantic, and all of West Africa. Solution: everyone come to Chicago!!!
- Showering. I was asked the other day if it’s true that I had to bathe with one water bottle’s worth of water in Uganda. While this is a gross exaggeration of the sacrifices I made, I still can’t justify waiting until the water has reached an optimal temperature before stepping in; what a waste! However, I may be singing a different tune come winter...
So for now, I’m still maneuvering this transition as if driving a grocery-laden cart through an overcrowded Wal-Mart. But, instead of being frustrated, all I really need to do is shop at Target, right?