Friday, 7 December 2012

The Next Frontier

Hello. My name is Valerie. And I'm a bloody coward.

Three years ago I got on a plane with very little idea of where I'd be living or what I'd be doing for what I thought would only be two years. Though it was a tearful farewell...well...I was too excited to ever reconsider or second-guess my decision. And I haven't really looked back at all.

Except now. Since looking back is now looking forward.

I'm terrified.

Venturing into the great unknown with almost no preparation (remember, I was on a plane to Turkmenistan the week before I got to Moz)? Exploring strange new places and meeting strange new strangers? Forcing myself to learn another language in order to survive on a daily basis? I'll take it!

It wasn't any sort of bravery that brought me here in the first place - it was part boredom, part wanting to see more of the world, part wanting to have a job in my field without having to cover dog and pony shows as an entry-level reporter at a local paper.

...But what happens now?

Nine-to-five desk job with hour-long morning commute? Sterile grocery stores where finding a box of Corn Flakes suddenly isn't the highlight of my week? Getting in trouble with police for standing on the side of the road and waving my hand in an attempt to get a free ride to the other side of the country? What happens when I go from being "whoa, a white girl!" to just another white girl? When having a college degree is a given instead of a specialty? When every day isn't a constant challenge just to get by? Will all the personal growth I've experienced over the past few years slowly melt away along with my Portuguese?

Completely new experiences are always worth the risk. Even if things go horribly wrong, at least you'll end up with a lesson learned and some great stories. But do I have the courage and motivation to go back to what I already know, and try to make the best of it? Do I have the guts to sleep in my high school bedroom (still adorned with Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter) while waitressing tables and filling out countless applications for jobs and schools? Am I brave enough to start at whatever entry-level position I can find, no matter how mundane it might seem?

I know life in the States has so much to offer and that - especially now - I'll do everything I can to make the most of it. I also know how many times I complain about the guy sitting on top of me in the chapa not wearing deoderant, and the criancas chasing me up the street shouting "muzungo!," and arriving at a big project meeting only to find no one else came because it was raining. Moreover, I know I'm going back to an incredible system of support from family and friends that I've sorely neglected over the past two years, and I can't wait to make up for lost time and see how much they've changed and grown.

At the same time, I'm giving up a job that I could see myself doing for life. I'm quitting a beautiful culture and a simpler way of life that I've finally come to understand and even adore. I'm moving out of my own three bedroom house with a yard full of cherimoya, guava, papaya, grapes and passionfruit. I'm acabar-ing being able to constantly improve my second language. I'm leaving behind some of the people on which I depended on a daily basis. Once again, I'm ending a relationship to move continents.

So bear with me. Be patient when I start every other sentence with "In Mozambique..." Don't laugh when I ask where the bucket is to take a shower. Correct me when I use "negar," "ja," "conseguir," and "epa!" in daily conversation. Don't judge me when I use half a bottle of oil to fry an egg. Remind me that people still like me even though I don't get three marriage proposals a day.

I've put off returning long enough - even signing up for another year in a new province. The easy, cowardly thing to do would be to just go to another country and see what trouble I can get into there. But I'm going to try to be brave. I'm going to say farewell and boldy go where I've been before. I'm going home.


Africa will bewitch you, a boleia once told me. I don’t remember the when or where or why, but I remember him saying it and I remember chuckling to myself. I remember it was the dry season where even the rivers are brown, unquestionably over 100 degrees out and we were clunking down the road with the windows down for lack of air conditioning. You would have to be bewitched, because no one in their right mind would willingly stay in a place like this.

And yet here I am.

Back home, I would never be in such a situation. Riding in the air-condition-less beat-up car of a guy who just picked me on the side of the road through a land that was abandoned due to drought. In the States, things are clean, they’re efficient, they’re organized, they’re safe. They’re everything Africa is not. And that’s where Africa gets you.

Africa is gritty. Most of the time, it’s really not pretty. It’s not here to impress. It’s here to be survived, through whatever means possible. In the cities, there are layers of bureaucracy. Outside of that, you wouldn’t know there was a government. Concerning how you live your life, there really are no rules. There’s no FDA to tell you what not to eat, no Surgeon General to convince you to stop smoking, no guard rails on cliffs, no fences around wildlife parks. If you decide to do something dumb, there’ll be no one to stop you and no one to sue afterward.

As such, you can get as close as you dare to the hippopotamus in the river behind your house. You can eat rats on sticks. When you go hiking, you can make the trails. You can cannonball into the water off of a random boat you find anchored in the middle of the lagoon in the middle of the night. You can wander where no one’s been before. And no one will know or care. It’s just you, your imagination and – hopefully – your common sense.

It’s gritty and it’s dangerous, but you’ll never feel more free.

But, it’s not complete chaos. There’s probably more people looking out for you in Mozambique than anywhere in the first world. In the States, when you fall on hard times, or need to get to the hospital in an emergency, or need to locate a resource, there are organizations, entities, programs to help you out. Here, there are friends and family – which are essentially one and the same. When you hit rock bottom, you move in with a relative who – no questions asked – will take care of you and give you all the tough lovin’ you can take until you’re back on your feet. There are no firetrucks or ambulances – there are neighbors who will share with you if they have the means. In cases where the police simply aren’t sufficient, mob justice does more to deter crime than any jail. And when you’re too busy to take care of your own kids, it doesn’t matter – there’s 20 other kids in the street who will look after each other and the younger ones. When you want to see where a road goes, there’s no Google maps. You have to ask someone or go down it yourself to find out where it leads.  

Of course, this has driven me crazy at times over the past two years. When teachers don’t show up to class because they simply don’t feel like teaching and there’s no real accountability, it’s enough to drive anyone crazy. But it is awfully helpful when your boleia breaks down on the road home after a beach weekend.

That attitude has been infectious among PCVs and pretty much anyone you befriend along the way. I've always prided myself on being as independent as possible and never asking for help. But here, I'm okay with being dependent, because I know I'll just pay it back - or forward - in some way. People stay at my house that I’ve never met before they showed up at my door. My Chimoio family includes a married couple that doesn’t hesitate to offer their house, car or other resources to us PCVs; a Lebanese businessman that refuses to let us pitch in money for the near-weekly BBQ nights at his house; my adopted Canadian father that makes sure I never lack anything – including parmesan cheese; of course, my site mates, whom I see more than I ever saw my family in the states. We’re connected only by the fact that we’re strangers in a strange and difficult land, and we need that support system.

Africa might be considered wild and "undeveloped" by some standards, but in some ways I think that's exactly the way it should be.