Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Living in a world of mood swings

Mood swings.

I don’t think of myself as a moody person. In fact, if anything I am always known for being perpetually happy—sometimes even annoyingly so.

It’s a phenomenon that maybe only other Peace Corps volunteers can really relate to, or other people living abroad in development, I don’t really know. But it is a constant source of fatigue right now in my life.

Yesterday I went to the cyber café and uploaded a blog entry about how great I was doing and how easily I was settling in. And at that moment, it was absolutely true. I felt on top of the world.

Today, I hate everything and everyone and I just want to shut my door and blast music and dance around my room and throw things, and scream and yell and cry and call my friends and seek out sympathy.

And today started out as a good day but as I’m learning, here, my mood can and does change in an instant.

It’s not any one particular thing, but it’s like the straw that broke the camel’s back. Sometimes you can only take so much. And ultimately, I know that it’s okay to have these moments, or days, that they are normal, that they are part of what makes this experience so challenging, but in the moment, there is nothing that can console you.

This is what happened.

I started the morning off great, I had gotten a great night’s sleep (this is rare) and had a lot planned for the day and was looking forward to market day (every Thursday) and buying peanut butter and hard boiled eggs and a pumice stone (to scrub my feet!) and I was going to go to the tailor, and the post office, and prepare the scholarship applications to be sent it and it hasn’t been all that hot the past couple of days (only 110 in my room!) and and and…

In the morning my Yaaye came in my room and helped teach me how to clean my douche. This was pretty embarassing, but I’ve learned that she is never mad, it’s just lost in translation sometimes. She showed me what tools I needed to make my shower area drain because I had a lot of standing water (perfect mosquito breeding ground and scorpion drinking opportunity) and so she was very clear and patient with me and helped me to clean it all up and told me that I had to do that EVERY DAY. Now, I was pretty embarrassed being told how to clean up sand, and felt guilty that I hadn’t done a good job, childish really. And I asked if she was mad at me and she was so surprised and reassured me that she’s never mad that I am just like her child and she wanted to help me.
So I cleaned and cleaned and now it will be easier to take care of.
I love my Yaaye.
I went through my daily routine. Did yoga, ate breakfast, showered. So I had a bit of a late start, but I was ready for my day.

I set off for the post office hoping my package from my mom had arrived, but no such luck. (I did have a postcard waiting for me though!! Thank you!) But I was still in a great mood. Met a nice woman who said she worked at the pharmacy in the next village over and hoping I could come by there sometime and maybe do a presentation there. (She is somehow related to my family….sort of like everyone else!).

What started it was my sister. Binta, the older one, who is actually my sister-in-law and is the one who relentlessly asks me for things. On my way to the market she stopped me and asked me to change a 10,000 CFA bill for her. A challenge and I was dreading it cuz no one EVER has change, but I was up for it. Then she grabs my shirt and starts buttoning it all the way up (I leave the top buttons undone, because it’s like 1,000 degrees and p.s. We live in the DESERT) saying that I need to keep my shirt buttoned. When I protested and pushed her hands away laughing and claiming that it’s WAY too hot to have a shirt fully buttoned, she started at it again and told me that the breakout on my chest (a couple of annoying zits that are a product of sweating CONSTANTLY and having sand and dirt blown all over me) was not nice to look at and that I needed to button up!

Now, this is not a cultural thing. Women’s breasts hang out of their shirts and dresses all the time, and you can wear lowcut things so that is not the issue. It was just so malicious and unnecessary and it took me aback. She is already the one that I avoid like the plague because she is CONSTANTLY badgering me for things and this was just enough. (I held my tongue about the fact that she has some sort of fungal infection on her hand and arms that isn’t so pleasing to look at either. Maybe I should’ve said something?).

So I quite quickly told her (in Pulaar mind you) that she was NOT my mom “Wonaa neene maa” and explained (in French) that I could not help it and that it’s hot and I sweat and that’s what happens. I think she got the idea that I was pissed at her and she tried to make a joke out of it and I walked away (and accompanied HER mom) all the way to the market and tried to shake it off.

Right then I should have avoided the market. As much as I love getting the things I want it is an exhausting exercise. EVERYONE yells at me to come by their stuff and all I hear is “toubak argaaye!” Most times people are jolly and in good humor and most things I can let roll off my back but when the 6th child asked me for money without even greeting me first, I could feel myself getting really annoyed and so I bought everything as quickly as possible and headed out.

The market is a whole beast on its own. Because when I say that children come up to me, I don’t mean they tap you on the shoulder politely and step back and give you space, I mean they follow you around and grab your hands and pull your clothes and try to look in your bags. And people shove things in your face and ask you to buy them and men tell you to take them to America, meanwhile you’re paranoid that at any second someone is going to steal something out of your bag etc etc etc.

I decided to stop by my counterpart’s house because I hadn’t seen her for a few days. When I got there the first words out of her mouth were “I’m mad at you.”
“What?” I said.
“I’m mad at you because you haven’t come to my house for so long.”

This is a typical Senegalese reaction and it isn’t really a big deal (so I’m told) but in training we are grilled with the fact that we need to keep up regular relationships and try to visit people as much as possible so I was feeling badly and worried that I’ve screwed things up with her.
Long story short she wasn’t all that mad, it’s just a typical reaction. I told her I’d spend the day at her place tomorrow and that I would go with her to a causerie on AIDS on Saturday in the next village. (which is great cuz it’s something I need to see how to do). There were a couple of men there though and they kept trying to tell me something in Pulaar and I just wasn’t understanding them, and at that point I was done and just wanted to go home. But they just kept repeating themselves over and over and over the exact same way and at the exact same speed. Obviously I didn’t understand. And I started to get so frustrated.

And there was another man there who had worked with the previous volunteer on a Malaria Awareness Day project and he started asking me to come to his village and get the materials to do a mosquito net dipping project and kept asking me when I was going to come do it and that it should be soon because the rainy season was coming.
But I’m not even supposed to be doing ANY work during these first three months. I’m supposed to be getting to know my OWN community and learning Pulaar first and foremost and not rush into projects and especially not projects in other villages yet.

I tried to make myself feel better and explained to my counterpart that I had done a TON of stuff this past week and had finished all 7 interviews and home visits, and applications and recommendations, and been to the mayors office and had met a lot of people to prove to her that I had been busy and doing a lot and that’s why I hadn’t come by her house. But she seemed unimpressed and it just made me feel worse.

And then I walked passed those men again and they tried to repeat the same thing and were obviously annoyed that I didn’t understand what they were saying. The worst part is that there were people there that DO speak French and yet nobody bothered to translate to me so that I didn’t look like an idiot. I mean, I do actually speak really good French, but it’s often underutilized and I’m still unsure as to why.

So I excused myself and told my counterpart that I would come by tomorrow and I just burst into tears as I walked out of her house.

It was all just too much.

So I called another volunteer and cried and cried and of course couldn’t talk as long as I had wanted because I ran out of credit and we aren’t getting paid until next week so I didn’t have the money to buy more.


Then at lunch I wasn’t understanding what anyone was saying to me and we had a guest so of course I had to have the “why don’t you want a Senegalese husband conversation” and I still wasn’t understanding what they were asking me and then they started talking about me and how I wasn’t learning Pulaar quickly enough and that the OTHER volunteer learned it faster and studied more than I do blah blah blah.

Then to top it all off I excused myself from lunch and then the infamous older sister Binta, called on everyone to stare at my butt as I walked away and they were yelling at me to shake my ‘jaye fondae’ for them as I walked away (something they do CONSTANTLY) and I became overwhelmingly self-conscious of 8 people (men and women) all staring at my butt and whooping and hollering. And again it was too much.

So I retreated to my room and burst into tears for the second time that day.

I don’t mean for this to be a whining session. Not at all actually. In fact, as they told us at staging, when you’re having a bad day, if you are going to keep a blog, please take a step back, and cool down before you rant all over the internet.

And I have cooled down and reflected on what it is that makes it so hard.

And while I can’t pinpoint it this time, I know that it really is just all the little things that build up and then explode. I think the hardest part about being a PCV is that it’s impossible to get away. Even when I retreated home things just got worse. There is nowhere to ‘hideout’ when you need it. Even in your room, people pass by constantly to say hello and ask for things and all the while you feel guilty for sitting in your room and not taking every moment to study or practice Pulaar.

Part of me is even hesitant to post this blog entry. Part of me wants to keep it to myself and hide it away and then read it in 2 years and look back and laugh at how hard it was at first and how much I’ve conquered and accomplished since then. And part of me is embarassed at my own weakness and inability to cope with such trivial problems.

But there is a more persuasive part of me that feels like it is my job to paint the whole picture for all of you at home. For you to understand and glimpse a little bit into my life. Into the mood swing rollercoaster ride that is the Peace Corps experience.

And part of me hopes that I will find understanding among my peers and my family members at home, and maybe even random strangers who take the time to follow along with this crazy adventure that I have embarked upon.

There is one thing though, that despite all of this, keeps me smiling and reassures me that this is the right choice/path for me. That is, that despite how hard today was, despite my frustration and feelings of guilt and awkwardness, and inferiority and being put on display, there was not a second…not one second, when I wanted to throw in the towel and go home. I think that is something to be proud of. And that makes me smile.


So after writing all about my bad day, I went out again to buy some phone credit once it had cooled off. As I was strolling by the elementary school near my house an older man laying on a mat called out to me. Usually I just give a quick greeting and wave or quickly shake hands and carry on, but this time he called out in English,
“American or French?”
“Are you Peace Corps?”
“Yes. I am. I’m replacing Koumba Lam (the volunteer before me)”
“Thank you. Thank you for helping us.”
“I’m sorry?”
“Thank you for coming here. You’re here to help us. You sacrificed a lot and left your home to be here with us. Thank you.” (For a split second I was totally dumbfounded. I almost burst into tears. I wanted to run up and hug this man. He had absolutely no idea how desperately I had needed to hear that.)
So I went over and shook his hand and thanked him for saying that, all the while fighting off tears.
Turns out he is the head teacher at the elementary school and I’m hoping that when the next school year starts up again that he will be a great collaborator and ally.

And that was all he wanted. Just to thank me. He did not ask me to take him to the states, or ask me if I wanted a husband, or ask me for money, he just went back to resting on his mat as if nothing had happened. And then I was elated. In the ‘upswing’ as I like to call it.
So on my way, I wandered into a random compound to greet and I came across a wonderful new family. They were SO excited that I came to greet them and the girls sat around me and told me how beautiful I was the day of my baptism (apparently they were there, but I don’t really remember). “Le jour de ton bapteme tu était RAVISSANTE!”

And they offered to help me with my Pulaar anytime I needed it, and they made me promise to come back and visit them often and they were going to go out and buy me some cold soda (something you do here for guests, eventhough its expensive), but I had to get home and promised to come back soon. But it was just such a lovely interaction and further boosted my mood.
Then I ran into my little sister and we had a lovely quiet walk home hand in hand.

And I spent the whole walk thinking about what a good mood I was in compared to that morning. Exhausting, but at least the day ended on a high note!

Living in a world of mood swings.


Barry said...

I'm exhausted just reading it.

Rebecca said...

I can empathize.

The next time a Pulaar person (don't know if your counterpart is Pulaar) tells you they haven't seen you forever, tell them "woto jam wayri" - it means something like 'may peace not stay away a long time' and they will get a HUGE kick out of it. Trust me.

Ronak said...

I just want to tell you how proud of you I am...especially when I read a blog like this last one. I hope you can look at it as not weakness but as a sign of how great you're doing--sort of like a badge of honor. And just like you said, at least you haven't wanted to throw in the towel and come back to the US. And even if you should ever have a moment like that, I know you would stay and struggle through it as best you could, and that too is something to be proud of. Nothing you are feeling is something to be embarassed about or's those types of interactions that make up our days and you're handling some really uncomfortable and even hurtful situations beautifully...I think it's just important to recognize that you while you're not handling them as you might back in the states, you can't. It's a different culture, different language, different rules to the social game they play and given what you've been handed, you're doing amazing.

It takes a lot of strength and courage and caring to do what you're doing, in another language, in another country, without anything familiar, without any escape, and that is something to be admired not just by those of us sharing in your experience through your stories thousands of miles away, but by yourself as well. I really hope after a day like that you take a moment to admire what you managed to do in middle of all the other crap--keeping your cool, not making the cheap shot about the fungus hand (like I bet, I KNOW, I would have), agreeing to go out of your way to do something nice for someone who isn't always the nicest to you, sharing or trying to share in meals that a lot of people would balk at, brushing off the bad events of the day or the day before to meet new people when you really might rather want to just retreat for awhile...and so on and so on.

I know I'm being repetitive, but I really can't say it enough, I'm SO proud of you...and I brag about you all the time to my friends, like being associated with someone like you makes me cooler ;)

xoxox, ronak

Caitlin said...

Thanks so much for the tip Rebecca! That is GREAT advice. I'm definitely going to try it next time.

It's hard to explain to everyone how much your support and posts/comments/emails like this give me renewed energy to tackle the next day or task, or moment. Not that I need my ego stroked or anything, but it's so wonderful to think of all the people at home who I am privileged enough to be 'ambassadors' for. Thanks for reading and thanks for the encouragement.

Kelli said...

I really appreciate you writing genuinely and openly about ALL your experiences in Senegal--good and bad. It really gives a full picture of the life you are leading as a Peace Corps volunteer and I truly look forward to reading each new entry you write.