We came back from our trip to the States a month and a half ago. The moments since we last hugged our families and friends are a blur in between getting back to Cameroon for a week of mid-service medical check-ups, traveling first to Ngaoundere and finally to Ngan-ha, then my traveling to the North West region to visit a friend briefly before a conference in Bamenda. Where did the month ago?
Peace Corps Volunteers are told to expect (fairly tumultuous) ups and downs during service. Due to the unfamiliar environment, language, and distance from support systems, challenges are exacerbated here. Alex and I have to remind ourselves with the chant “small victories!” A few PCVs have asked me lately if I’m happy that Alex and I went home during our service.
Yes – I’m so glad that we got to catch up with our dear ones. That privilege was an incredible comfort for us. As were the privileges of familiar, delicious and nutritious food, task efficiency, cold beverages and hot, hot showers. I deeply enjoyed family cookouts, fishing, and enjoying the Midwestern summer. The financial side of it falls in the middle. I feel like we made a good investment in the trip home, but my bank account stared back at me a bit accusingly when I checked it earlier today. I probably could have gone without reading the Washington Post’s “Six Money Milestone’s To Hit In Your 30’s” this morning. Not an uplifting read at this time.
And also, no – going home wasn’t a good idea. While I couldn’t sleep on the plane ride home because I was so excited, I cried as the plane landed in Yaoundé. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to come back. Friends and family are so kind in saying positive, supportive things to us, volunteers while we complain to one another sometimes, are either largely positive or largely stubborn, most often a strong mix of both. Year One was hard. Hard on me, hard on Alex, hard on our marriage. Just really challenging. I didn’t feel ready to do it again.
The transition especially was rough. Getting home, adapting back quickly, but also having this undeniable gap in relationships, a difference of experiences in close relationships that you can’t quite explain. The transition of Cameroon to home and then back again, the feeling that as my friends and peers start or continue new education/career/life paths, get engaged, buy houses/cars, and start/continue growing their families, that Alex and I have taken an off ramp just grew. We weren’t there to support our friends and families. It felt as if we’d taken giant leap sideways. We knew this when we made our decision to join PC, but the reality is another beast. Have we made the right choice? (cue bank account glares)
Alex and I made this decision together. My backing out halfway through wasn’t an option. But I also couldn’t feel happy about it. So, I just tried to feel appreciative. It’s an ongoing conversation between Alex and myself: If we can’t entirely happy with something, at least we can try to take stock of what it’s given us and be grateful. And in that, I found a little bit more.
After two weeks back in village, I gained a little perspective: how excited Soulay was about our return (and us to see him!), his gift from the US, and his self-proclaimed changing views on marriage/life from conversations and observations of Alex and myself, seeing how possessive and joyful Oudou gets over the “I Spy” book that he’s declared is his own and keeps hidden in our bookshelf, how much my neighbor friend appreciates company during her 4 month mourning period and how fulfilling I’ve found our increased hang out sessions to be, the joy of seeing my students again and hearing about their summers, the knowledge that nothing in village is remotely as hard or intimidating as it was a year ago.
Then I traveled to Bamenda for the education conference. It was a good reminder that EVERYONE’S first year was hard. Things we’ve seen, experienced, a myriad of pretty darned good reasons to feel cynical and call it quits. Equally it was a year for lots of growth and we’re all still here, gearing up for Year Two, however we can.
In those things, knowing that the challenges are felt by all, and being able to see the things in village that make it home, if only for a while, I’ve found a bit of satisfaction in being back. I’m still feeling apprehensive about the school year “kicking off” on Monday (though we won’t have full class sizes until October), but I’m determined to be a better teacher this year and I’m thankful to have the support from home and my fellow PCVs to do so.
I still miss home a lot and for so many reasons. Lately I especially miss the smell of a campfire on my hair and clothes, it’s that time of year in the Midwest. But a recently I heard a PCV say “Two years of “discomfort” in the span of a lifetime? That’s nothing when I think about what I’ve already gained from it.” And she’s right. So we keep on keepin’ on.