12.12.2011

Culture Shock


No one told me reverse culture shock would feel so much like a panic attack.

I stepped off the plane and took a few deep breaths of crisp American winter air, grinning like a maniac as I entered the Minnesota airport. I passed through customs and nearly failed to check my bags through to Salt Lake City. Who knew you had to pick them up, and send them off again? Not this particular little world traveler.

And then I actually walked through the terminals. I’m writing this as I wait for my final flight, because the experience of coming home was so complex. For the first time in my life, I was overjoyed at the sight of a McDonald’s. I passed a half-dozen high schoolers in line at Taco Bell. I saw a beautiful healthy-looking salad being served at a restaurant.

And then I started to get a little panicky, realizing how much I’d missed while in Africa. Passing the Starbucks, already decked in holiday d├ęcor, I asked myself: What just happened? What happened to the last four months of my life?

The problem is that Africa is such a different world that it seems unreal. I spent months there, but what have I gained? What did I buy with the time spent? Right now, it’s hard to think of anything concrete. Which is another thing contributing to my anxiety. What I gained is not a senior thesis, or a hundred hours logged building schools. Those things are tangible, the metaphorical comfort blanket you can carry with you. But me? I feel like I’m grasping at thin air.

How much of life has been lived without me? How much have people changed? How many birthdays have been celebrated, chest hairs sprouted, inches grown? (Okay, that mostly relates to my little brother.) I chose to remove myself from the current of American life for four months. Four months of a completely separate experience, living independently. It’s made me strong, and confident – if I can live in Africa, I can do pretty much anything. But how hard is it going to be to rejoin the flow of American life? How many experiences have already floated right by unnoticed while I was 4,000 miles away?

See? THIS is why I’m panicking. It’s as if a chunk of my life has been excised, and I’ve been suddently dropped back in the thick of it.

I just want a hug from my mommy and daddy. That will make it better. And then I’ll snuggle in my bed, with my dogs, and wake up in the morning feeling more aligned. The question is, will Africa ever stop feeling like some kind of dream?

12.09.2011

Final Countdown

So this is my last 36 hours in Nairobi, and probably my last blog post before I'm back in America! It's been a crazy, wonderful, difficult, eye-opening four months. It's crazy to look back and think about all the things I've done here.

Our first week here, the program directors eased us into Kenyan life. We stayed the first two nights in a retreat center in the "posh" part of Nairobi, then moved into a hostel closer to the SIT building. I was so nervous about meeting my homestay family, because so much of your experience hinges on the homestay. Fortunately, my family was pretty great. My house was one of the nicer ones, with running water, a shower, and a toilet with a seat. I consider myself pretty lucky! My homestay mom was great (although passive-aggressive) and my homestay sister was sweet (although she was a kleptomaniac with ADHD.)

The first month was spent getting a hang of the Africa thing. It all seems so normal to me now, but the very idea of shoving myself into a crammed 14-seater van with 24 Kenyans was pretty terrifying. The SIT students stuck together, traveling in packs of 8 and 9. Now, I walk around by myself most of the time because a group of 8 wazungu totally makes a huge scene. I definitely still make a scene, but a smaller one.

After about a month, we headed to the coast for our village living experience. This was definitely the most intense 10 days of my stay here. After living in the village, I'm pretty sure I could do almost anything for 10 days. It's an empowering feeling, knowing I can cope with extremely different conditions. I also learned that I prefer toilets to holes, sinks to buckets, and non-buggy environments to jigger-filled environments.

After returning to Nairobi, we started to work on preparing for our ISPs, the crux of our program. My month in Kisumu, where I did my research, was the best month I had here. We made local friends, who showed us the best parts of the town. Kisumu lacked the awful traffic, pollution and crowding of Nairobi. If I ever come back to Kenya, Kisumu will definitely be at the top of my list of places to see. And who knows -- my friends at the CDC in Kisumu have offered me an internship any time I'd like. Right now, I'm missing home too much to think about coming back to Africa. That's one thing that'll take some time to think about.

After completing our research, we headed to the coast again, but this time for a true vacation. We stayed at a fantastic resort, with an American-style buffet -- such a treat. We spent two days presenting our research to our peers, and then two days we spent laying out on the beach and by the pool. Not gonna lie -- I'm pretty damn freckly right now. It'll fade quickly in the Utah winter, I'm sure.

And now! I'm back in Nairobi, chilling at my favorite coffeehouse. Well, the only coffeehouse. It's hard to believe I'm leaving tomorrow, because living here has become my new normal. I was so, so achingly homesick right around Thanksgiving. It seemed like the time would never pass. But now, home is so close that I'm not homesick at all. I can't wait for the moment when I come down the escalators in Salt Lake City, and see my family standing there, waiting for me... I can't wait for those first hugs, and I'm pretty sure a few tears will be shed too. (It's okay, Dad. Real men cry.) And then I'll drive home, and my dogs will jump all over me and pee all over my shoes. But I'll forgive those little fluffballs. This time.

I have not fallen in love with Africa. It is a wonderful, lively place, and I have loved the opportunity to live here for a short period of time. But I am not the NGO worker who belongs in the Kibera slum. I am not the ex-pat who feels more comfortable abroad. I am not the clinic worker who scorns America and its ways. What this experience has given me is the appreciation for my life at home, for the conveniences afforded by my lifestyle. I'm not sure if this is a good or a bad thing, or whether it can be qualified at all. It's just a part of who I am. But when I return to my classes in America, learning about infectious disease, I'll remember the excrement-filled paths of the Muthare slum. When thinking about a career, I won't forget the urgent need for health services in Africa. My experiences have shaped my worldview, but have not altered my path.

And I'm still in Africa. I'm sure, over the next few weeks, I'll realize how much I've changed. I'll resume my own life, but not as the same person. I'm excited to see where it all takes me, and a little nervous for the extreme culture shock. But there are so many things about America I didn't know I loved. I think that knowledge is an incredibly valuable thing.

Here ends the greatest journey of my young life. Or does any journey ever really end? Do the journeys you begin stay with you long after you return home? I'll keep you updated on that one.