Saturday, March 3, 2012


Whenever I describe my experience living in a village in South Africa, my listeners make sympathetic noises about how difficult it must have been. They're not wrong. Hauling water in a bucket under the hot African sun in a desert was no leisurely stroll in the park. Walking up that enormous hill in Kuruman to the taxi rank, with a month's worth of groceries on my back, was hardly a piece of cake. Everyday living took a lot of effort.

However, after a couple months back in America, I can't say I find life here all that much easier. Sure, water comes from the tap, hot and cold, no need to bleach, filter or boil. That's nice. I don't need to walk anywhere. I only walk for fun. That's nice, too. So while staying clean, healthy and mobile requires that much less effort, there are other elements of living here that wear me out.

Social interaction was the most immediately obvious. My first day back in Rochester I went to visit some friends. All we did was chat in a small group, but after the initial giddiness wore off, I was exhausted. I wrote it off as jet lag, but I doubt that now. While I had (and have) many friends in South Africa, most of my time was spent living a hermit-like existence. The majority of conversations I had were with myself. Me, myself and I are wonderful conversational partners. They only speak to you in a way you are guaranteed to understand, they always agree with you and when you want to end the conversation, so do they. There's no need for social graces. In South Africa, I mastered the art of conversation... alone. When I did visit my local friends, the conversation was conducted in seTswana, Afrikaans, South African English, or some combination. Because of my lack of fluency, I wasn't often expected to follow the conversation that closely. If someone really wanted to talk to me, they would slow down and I would listen up. Otherwise, I tuned out. It was a coping mechanism to combat the constant stream of incomprehensible chatter around me. Given that I spent years not listening to people, the sudden expectation that I will be an active participant in conversation is difficult for me to meet. It's not just an issue of attention span, but also of language. Everyone here speaks to me in fluent English, using words, phrases, accents and speed that I never or rarely encountered during my tenure in Africa. While I did speak plenty of English with fellow volunteers, those encounters were few and far between. Here, the English language, in all its astounding expanse and variety, is everywhere, all the time. It's overwhelming.

Grocery stores are also completely exhausting. While South Africa had very modern stores, the local ones on this side of the ocean feel ten times as big compared to where I used to shop. The aisles go on forever. There are a dozen brands for every product. The produce section alone could feed a city block for a week (only slight hyperbole). There's a specialty cheese shop. The ceiling is so high, the lights are so bright. The labels are all so colorful. There's self-checkout. It's a quick trip to the loony bin as soon as I start looking for the kale amongst all the other leafy greens. I'm a hop-skip-and-a-jump from insanity hunting down the sun-dried tomatoes between the rows and rows and rows and rows of canned tomatoes, sauces, soups and whatever else comes in tin, wrapped in paper, splashed with yellow, red and ancient Roman fresco detailing. Peering down one aisle to see if the fish monger might be on the other side, I begin to wonder, neon and metallic Lays products swirling, is this the inspiration behind The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test? Granted, some of my feelings may be explained by my first post-Peace Corps grocery shopping experience also being post-eye doctor appoint which resulted in freshly dilated eyes. That was a trip. Still, I am frequently paralyzed by indecision as a direct result of too much choice. Choosing one item means saying "no" to every similar product. When there are only a few alternatives, it is easy to calculate the best choice. When there are a dozen or more options, not necessarily adjacently located, the process gets tiring fast. Combined with floor plans the size of whole villages, and you've got one frustrated returned Peace Corps volunteer who would gladly return to a peanut-butter based diet in exchange for some peace of mind.

I expect as time goes on I will reacclimatize to the English-speaking world and conquer the local grocery stores. In the meantime, I am concentrating on enjoying the miracles of washing machines and central heating.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Surprising Stats

I could never get the stats page about this blog to load on my Blackberry. Now that I'm back to my regular computing machine, I finally had the opportunity to check it out today. I won't bore you with many of the details, but I'd like to offer a hearty welcome to my readership in (drumroll, please) Slovenia! I have no idea what you were looking for, but I hope you found it and I'm mighty glad you came.

Paranoid in America

I've been back in America for a couple weeks. By and large it's been wonderful, but the occasional waves of culture shock are jolting. As I was lucky enough to spend time in a few of South Africa's modern cities and towns, I am not too overwhelmed by highways or hot water. Rather I am more often struck by how out of place certain attitudes I adopted abroad are here in America. Most common of these attitudes is a strong belief in, and preparation for, ever-present danger.

In South Africa, the danger is usually real. Just about every South African I know has a few horror stories to tell about how many times they have been mugged, how many of their cars have been stolen, and how often their homes have been broken into. It is no wonder that most South African houses are built to resemble fortresses, and that keeping the doors locked and valuables hidden is as natural to residents as breathing. At first, I thought all this 007-like security was a bit much, but eventually, I assimilated. After being chastised repeatedly for leaving my door unlocked or my cell phone unattended in the village or about town, I fell into a routine of constant vigilance and consequently, paranoia. It was normal in South Africa, but it's unnatural in America.

On my return journey to the States, I traveled relatively light. I had just one suitcase, a backpack and a bag. The bag was a souvenir from a trip to Cape Town, but I never carried it while in South Africa. It had no closure at the top, so I deemed it too risky to be usable. Still, it was the perfect size for a carry-on, so I took it along on the trip home. All was well until I stepped out of the airport and promptly hopped on the New York City subway. The suitcase and backpack were locked, as per Peace Corps recommendation, so I had no worries about either of them, but my bag was open and I was very worried about it. With my one free hand I clutched it closed. Every time a turnstile or staircase forced me to let go, I peered around at the crowd, just waiting for someone to reach in and grab my wallet or cell phone. No one did. It's America.

A few days ago, I was asked to fetch something from a parked car. "Sure," I said, "Where are your keys?"

"It's unlocked," came the reply.

My mind raced. "Unlocked? Who in their bloody right mind leaves a car outside, unattended, unlocked? What is wrong with these people?" Nothing. It's America.

The list just goes on and on. Entering someone's home in South Africa involved opening gates, unlocking burglar bars and switching off alarm systems. Entering a house here is usually as simple as turning a knob. I did not expect to find this quite so unnerving, but every time I hear the words, "Come on in, the door's open!" I'm swept up in a fresh wave of amazement and disbelief.