Thursday, October 11, 2007

Visit to the Sticks

Taking advatage of the forced downtime of Ramadan, I decided to make the trek out to a fellow PCV’s site in the boonies. Out of all of the volunteers up north she is definitely the farthest out. She is 8K from the road. She has a more typical PC placement--no electricity, a working faucet in the early mornings only, and limited cell phone reception (when she stands at a certain angle on the roof at night). Friday, after a few days at my site for our nutrition project at the health post, we went into town (Ourossogui—where I do all my internet related tasks and banking) and left in the afternoon for her village. We arrived at the garage around 3:30pm, got a car at 4pm and drove for an hour to her nearest road town in the crowded and deteriorating buses we call public transport. There we were lucky enough to get a charet right away. But unlucky enough to land with probably the worst charet driver known to man. He could not get the horse to do anything and just kept beating it and beating it. It was awful, and enough to make you sick to your stomach. We must have stopped upwards of 10 times on the 8k ride. The dirt path is full of divets, ravines, muddy puddles, twists, turns, thorn bushes, livestock roadblocks, you name it. The whole way we were holding on for dear life. (Ashley has been thrown off of one of these things…not fun). I grabbed at anything I could get my hands on that was actually attached to the “wagon.” We settled for mostly just holding on to eachother. By the time we arrived at her village, filthy, tired, and dehydrated, it was 7pm.

I stayed there until Monday morning. To get out of her village, we woke up at 5:30am, ate breakfast, packed up, and took off at first light. We knew that if we could not find a charet along the way (as is often the case because they are usually already full) then we would have to walk the 8K. So we made sure to start as early as possible to beat the heat. We did catch a charet, but not until we had already walked 6K.

Besides getting in and out of her village, and the shoddy cell phone reception, I left her site with serious site envy. Her life is so much less hectic and busy than mine. I felt so at ease in her village. During the entire 3 days not one person called me toubak, or asked me for money. It was such a relief. When she walks around the village everyone knows her and greets her by name. And there isn’t that same pressure to constantly be attending events in the name of “working” that amount to nothing except a migraine.

I guess I am just jealous of the romantic, idyllic village experience that she is having, that I expected to have in the Peace Corps: mud huts, no conveniences, just the bare bones and the intimacy of getting to know the culture of and to work with a small village of people. Weaving through the mud huts and stick fences along the mud paths of her village, I realized for the first time that I really would have been fine in a more rural, “hardcore” site.

Up until now I thought that I had lucked out by having such a “luxurious” site compared to most of the other volunteers. I mean, I have electricity (most of the time) and a faucet in my compound (which usually works all day), and I’m on the road, and have full cell phone reception, and lots of resources to work with. I kept thinking that it was a good thing that I was placed where I was because I didn’t think I could have hacked it at a site like hers. Granted, when I first arrived at her site and saw how far out she was I was completely overwhelmed and told her so. I even admitted to her that I didn’t think I could have made it that for out. But I should have realized that like with everything else, we are incredibly adaptable.

Clearly her site has its disadvantages too. If she were ever to get really sick for example, it would take a lot longer to get to medical care and the process would be much more uncomfortable than it would be for me. And getting in and out of her site is truly exhausting, especially on foot. And I’m sure that there are times when she wonders what she is doing there because it is so small and there are almost no set venues to start off her development work.

But I absolutely loved sitting around with different families in her village and piling on the mats with the kids, and looking up at the stars, in complete darkness with no outside noises except for the crickets, and the occasional goat. There was no television blaring horrible Latin American soap operas, or Desperate Housewives dubbed in French. I was jealous of the familiarity and safety of knowing her way around (I definitely get lost in my town all the time). Excuse the cliché but there is something to be said for going where “everybody knows your name.” I guess I feel like in a way, it’s so much easier to really integrate in a small village and abandon the comforts of being an American. I think that sometimes I’m still too dependent on the conveniences of my site because I have no reason not to be.

The immensity and pressure that come with working in a 10,000 person town can make it easy to be reclusive and stick with the safety of the few families nearby that I know well. But I also constantly feel guilty about not running around at every possible moment and trying to raly all the heads of organizations, and health trainers, and bureaucratic officials to band together for the sake of their community’s health. In my head I know that 99% of those efforts would be fruitless and frustrate me further, but it’s tough to shake the guilt.

I’ve always known that I was bad at being bored, but for the first time in my life I think I’m done feeling like I have to load up the activities just to keep from having a moment of idle time. Because in my 7 months I have finally learned that in fact sometimes you learn the most, and the most effective moments for change arise when you are just sitting around with people and chatting, and playing with eachother’s hair and complaining about the heat. Certainly my Pulaar has gotten worlds better this month because there isn’t much to do besides sit around and talk.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my site. Most of the time I feel incredibly lucky and think that I have the best site ever. I believe that I have the right background and qualifications for Kanel. And I love my host family and counterpart and friends here so dearly that I could not imagine my PC experience without them. Of course I would never trade it for anything. But it’s always a little sad when I’m out with other PCVs and we’re talking to new people about our sites and I mention my town and its amenities and they mutter things like, “oh well, you’ve got it easy.”
What they don’t know is that in some ways my site can be much more difficult to work and live in. Even Ashley told me as much. I’m certain that I will always be a little bit disappointed that I won’t have the bragging rights, or the intimate romantic experience of living in a proper Pulaar village.

So kudos to those volunteers who are living in the sticks, and have no amenities. I’m sure there are days that they would kill for a site with running water, a TV, electricity, an electric fan, on the road, with many avenues for work. I’ll never get to know for sure if I could have done it without these things.

Visiting Ashley’s village made me realize how wonderful it can be to live simply.
And I think I’ll always be a little jealous.

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