Saturday, 21 April 2012

Couchsurfing - Without the Couch

James’ alarm breaks into song at 3:19.

I hear him immediately turn it off and then nothing. Thirty seconds later, mine vibrates against the window will where it sits and I turn it off before it can announce the time, and I hear James’ feet on the floor.
He’s one of the most efficient travelers I’ve seen, even by Peace Corps standards, and within four minutes his water bottle is filled and his backpacked and sandals are strapped on. I grab the keys off my nightstand and escort him through the gauntlet that is the front of my house – first the front door with the chain and three full turns of the key to open the deadbolt, followed by the padlock on the grates immediately beyond that, the lock on the door of the enclosed porch and finally down the steps into the yard to the locked 8-foot gate that’s topped with an explosion of thorny bushes.

He says he’ll let me know when he’s on his way back and I wish him a safe trip and we hug before he steps out onto the street – still completely dark outside range of the streetlight – and disappears down the sidewalk in the direction of the bus station. His leaves at 4, and he’ll be in Zambia by nightfall and Victoria Falls the day after that. I get a strange feeling of déjà vu: James lives two hours from Chokwe and had been a regular at our house when Clancy and I lived there – especially, he’d joked over dishes the night before,  when he ran out of water and didn’t want to have to haul it up from the river.

But even more than that, this is a déjà vu because it also happened the day prior with another PCV, and though I don't know it at the time, it's going to happen the following morning, and the morning after that, and the morning after that...

At this point in time, though, as I go back through all the locks, I don't realize this. In fact, I'm thinking I might be alone that night. Which is also what I thought the day prior, before getting James' text that he was coming into town. And the day before that, before Emiliy and Laura and I had decided to celebrate finding cilantro by having a Tex-Mex dinner and movie night. Though the night before that, I’d known Ian and Hannah were staying over because they had for the couple nights in a row, including the night that Joanna, Dereck, Adrienne and the other Emily had also been there. Prior to that had been a jumble of Mona and the two Emilys back up until that night over a week ago I’d crashed at Joanna and Mary’s in Catandica, a few hours north of Chimoio.
And that’s how it goes, having a massive house in the largest city with PCVs for 400 km and being a five-minute walk from one of three Peace Corps offices in the 801,590 km2 country. And that’s just how it should be.

Youth groups, sororities, marching band – they’ve got nothing on the instant and endless camaraderie of Peace Corps Volunteers. You show up in Philadelphia before flying out to your new home for the next two years and it’s like the first day of kindergarten: no one knows each other, no one really has any idea what to expect but you look around and know that these are the people you’ll be depending on to get you through whatever’s ahead.

Of course, once at site, we all strive to become as “integrated” (key PC term) as we can in our community, and some manage to an impressive extent, but you really can’t replace being able to speak your first language with others from a similar culture and going through the same trials and tribulations as you. As such, destination get-togethers (usually at a PCV home) and mass PCV travels are common. Those travelers usually determine their routes based on how far they can travel in a day between PCV sites, and it’s pretty much an expected open-door policy. I can’t count the number of PCVs whom I met for the first time when they showed up on my porch – Chokwé or Chimoio – to spend the night.

There’s an unspoken etiquette to be followed – it’s best to advise the host at least a day before, and if there for dinner the hostee will usually offer to pick up stuff from the market for dinner on the way in, and visitors should be pretty self-sufficient overall. In the case of high-traffic PCV sites (the beach, big cities, middle-of-nowhere where there’s simply no other option), coordination between guests is advised to avoid inundation.

For me, it provides a nice balance to living alone. Having the house that I do, I almost feel obligated to share the wealth, or “spread the blessings,” as a college church member put it. I have certainly been blessed, with electricity, running water, two completely empty rooms, a bed the size of some PCV houses.

With two people in the bed, you can toss my stuffed dog Rosco in the middle and never know the other person’s there. We’ve comfortably fit four people so far, and when that isn’t enough we toss any combination of reed mat, yoga mat, standard-issue PC blankets, sleeping bags and capulanas on the floor. And in extreme situations, there’s always a PCV tent in the PC office.

Ironically, this might be one of the ways we’ve integrated most. When Mozambicans travel, they never stay in hotels. On top of being pricey, only the biggest cities have them. Instead, there’s always a “cousin,” “aunt” or friend of a friend of a friend who’s practically family with whom you can crash. That’s pretty much how I see other PCVs.

This is one cultural exchange I’d love to send back across the pond. I don’t know how I’m going to manage to travel in the states without free boleias for transport and a guaranteed place to stay every couple hundred kilometers.


  1. Val! I love reading your blog from time to time. You put such great perspective on all things Peace Corps. It makes me proud to have done what I have done and miss it terribly at the same time. Jordan and I always talk about how we wish you had been in Chimoio while we were still in Central. Talk about a perfect addition! As for traveling in the States. We have already been fortunate enough to host many PCV's here in Portland, Oregon so you better know that you are always welcome to crash with us as soon as you get stateside and visit the lovely Northwest!! Enjoy the remainder of your service and take care of yourself. Brian Mills

  2. B MILLS! Seriously, had I known about all the joys of Coesao with the 14ers, I might've just fugir-ed the south. But the 15ers are pretty darn cool too. And didja hear we won Beer Olympics? :) Count on me visiting when I'm stateside (though I'll probably use my own car instead of boleia up there). And thanks for the Hope all's well with you guys ai! Beijinhos.