I Almost Ate a Rock
Most of my memories are a compilation of moments that I remember as a whole entity of feelings, thoughts, sights, sounds, and even scents. However, often, distinct memories surface in my mind and I can recall sharp details around an incident. Just such a memory occurred to me recently as I recalled several years ago being in the front passenger seat of our family vehicle with my mother driving. She had put in a CD on which the speaker gave new vocabulary words in great detail including the etymology and usage. “Vi-ci-ssi-tude-s” the voice emphasized each syllable clearly. “The ups and downs of life” elaborated the speaker. I took an immediate liking to the word and since then I’ve often found cause to employ it. ‘Vicissitudes' is the most accurate word I can think of to describe my first two weeks as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
I Am A Peace Corps Volunteer
Elation, solemnity, nervous energy and excitement were running through all 42 of us *Ed-10 Peace Corps trainees as we stood and recited in unison, first, the oath of service administered by the U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda and then the Peace Corps pledge led by our country director. Each said short phrases after which we, as a group, would repeat after them. In concert, we delivered each line promising to defend the constitution of the United States, and pledging to embrace the mission of world peace and friendship. The last phrase from the pledge was the final drop in the brimming well of emotion I already felt: “I am a Peace Corps Volunteer” said our country director. “I am a Peace Corps Volunteer” I said. And, cue the tears. There was something profound in those words that struck me with a depth of meaning in that moment and every time I recall them. To be a Peace Corps volunteer is to walk in the steps of dedicated and resilient human beings that came before us and to pave the way for the ones that will fill our shoes. To be a Peace Corps volunteer is to have a rich and powerful heritage and the opportunity to shape a dynamic and sustainable legacy. All of these thoughts and more layered themselves on my psyche while a Hollywood-style film reel of all the effort it took to even arrive at that ceremony played in my mind. Those few words inducted us into a network, a family of thousands of other individuals who have worked all over the world striving to fulfill the same mission that we just took upon ourselves as well. That sense of togetherness, of being bound by mutual passion and mutual purpose, arrived in full force in uttering those words ‘I am a Peace Corps Volunteer’. Can you blame a girl for shedding a few tears?
Unbeknownst to me, those tears of joy and gratitude and relief from our swear-in ceremony would be rapidly followed by tears evoked by a series of other emotions over the next 72 hours. But at least for that moment, it was mostly joy. Basking in the glow of our newly acquired volunteer status, my fellow volunteers and I took all the photos, ate all the food, said all the things, and then were whisked off to celebrate by…going to the immigration office. I told you this post was about vicissitudes. But celebration was in store and although our 6:30pm curfew had officially been made obsolete, my attempt to stay awake past 11pm was quashed and the next thing I knew, it was rise and shine and time to pack up from our hotel and make our way to our respective sites with the expectation that we wouldn’t see one another as a group, again, until our in-service training session three months hence. You guessed it. More tears!
Once all the trucks were fully loaded and farewells were said, we were off in the pouring rain to be installed in our new homes. By the time my designated staff member, our driver, and I were about half way to my site it was around lunch time and we popped into an eatery for a quick buffet meal. Somewhere in the midst of the beans and spinach, my teeth met something unrelenting and removing the obstacle I discovered, with some consternation, that I had almost swallowed a tiny rock. The rock-eating incident was evidently an omen of things to come because the road got tougher from there.
As I’ve only been to K-town (my nickname for my site) once and I have a notoriously bad sense of direction, my being asked to navigate to my house was less than successful as we stopped no less than four times to ask for directions. I’m always in awe of others’ direction giving skills and with the help of several individuals we finally made it to my house. As the truck pulled up in front of my future abode, approximately half of the town also pulled up to observe the spectacle that eventually became me…not moving into my home. Unfortunately some of the items on the housing checklist weren’t fulfilled so yours truly unloaded the full regalia into my landlady’s home under the watchful and inquisitive eyes of my new neighbors. The next day things were brightening up, literally, as the sun came out and I spent the day meeting my community. Strolling down the main road, I registered and absorbed somewhat anxiously the curious stares and inquisitive glances. Slipping into a boutique (small convenience shops) to purchase a notebook, I struck up a conversation with the shop owner, Murerwa. Soon the tiny space was full to bursting with other shoppers who remained after making their purchases to alternatively make conversation with or just stare bemusedly at the stranger in their midst. Even with the limited verbal communication that took place, our short conversation left me feeling oddly elated. There was something quite gratifying about weaving the first thread of connection between myself and the community to which I now belong.
At the end of a full day of walking and talking, I decided to wind down by watching a rather silly and completely predictable Christmas hallmark movie on YouTube. Right as the small town lady was deciding to stick it out in the big city with her man (who also happened to be fabulously wealthy), my phone powers off and refuses to restart. The extent of my technology diagnostic skills are a) restart the device and b) wait a day and try again. No surprise, neither of these methods were successful. Thus, after only two full days in K-town, I hopped on the back of a Moto and made my way back to my regional town to attempt to resolve the issue. I gave myself a mental high five for reaching the town without any mishap and figuring out how to contact a friend who let me use her computer to attempt to restore my phone. It failed. Annoyed but resigned, I purchased a basic functions phone (think three letters to one button kind of phone) and began making the trip back to my site. The sun was just beginning its recline so I felt confident about reaching home before it got dark. I’m sure you can guess, dear reader, that did not happen. Having accidentally told the bus driver the wrong stop, I overshot my actual destination by over half an hour. Confused and nervous, I attempted to retrace my steps and ended up at a slightly familiar bus station but still not the stop closest to my site. At this point, the sun had retired and apparently so had the bus drivers as the number of operating buses was shrinking by the minute. My brain begin piecing together the disparate aspects of my situation and a creeping sense of panic started to set in. Clasping my tiny new phone, I called the one programmed number and with a stalwart effort to keep my voice calm, I contacted one friend who sent me the number of another volunteer living close to my site. Another call to her and she confirmed my dreaded suspicion that the buses had stopped running to the location I need to go to. Let’s take stock of the situation. I am alone, at night, in an unfamiliar bus station, with limited communication with the outside world, just two days after becoming a Peace Corps volunteer. If you are thinking, dear reader, that I started to completely freak out. Well, you would be on the right track. I did the only thing I could think to do, hop on one of the last buses going to my regional town and stay the night with my friend. A little levity returned when I realized I was going to a familiar place and I would have a place to spend the night so I suspended the urge to fall apart in favor of those optimistic facts. The next day perpetuated the sense of optimism and I successfully made my way back to my site.
I dove headfirst into my next travel challenge a day later as I still had a defunct iPhone and needed to visit an Apple technician in the capital city of Kigali roughly three hours away. Y’all, I made it there without a single mishap and with relief delivered my phone to be examined. Unfortunately the result of the examination, after over two hours of wait time, was unfavorable. The technician was unable to determine the source of the issue or a solution. With a stroke of goodwill far above and beyond his call of duty, he decided to lend me an iPhone he had on hand while keeping mine to look at it further. Surprised, humbled, and grateful, I thanked him and for the third time in as many days, journeyed back to my site. I arrived back in my village just as the sun was going down and decided to take matters into my own hands regarding my house. Recruiting my landlady’s daughter to assist me, the two of us hauled boxes and bags and a gas tank that felt like it weighed a ton from my temporary lodging into my neighboring abode. Such a sense of relief came over me to finally have a project that I could dive into and produce a successful result. Laying the first rug and mattress on the floor in the room that would become my bedroom was the first step in making my three-room concrete house a home. Over the next two weeks, I spent the majority of my time between setting up my house, reading, and moving about in my community. My comfort level grew with each expedition outside the confines of my house as I steadily learned names and faces and made connections between different people. Each day ushered in more of a sense of ease and by the time Christmas Eve rolled around and I left to celebrate with some friends from my region, I could barely recognize the frustrated, slightly panick-y version of myself that had moved in just a short two weeks previously.
I have now been settled in my site for four months and, recalling this experience, I recognize that I am still dealing with daily challenges some of which are relatively minor while others require more fortitude to address. In a desire to keep my commitments fresh, and motivate myself during the ‘lows’, I printed the Peace Corps Pledge to hang up on the wall in my house. ‘I pledge to meet the challenges of service with humility, patience, and determination’. I said those words and I meant them. Now, I have the obligation to fulfill them to the best of my ability. That vocabulary CD from the car ride with my mom all those years ago had another word that embedded itself into my long-term memory. ‘Aplomb; self-confidence or assurance, especially when in a demanding situation’. If the first two weeks were any indication of the next two years, demanding situations will be abundant but so will my determination be to meet them. I am a Peace Corps volunteer and I’m just getting started.
*The 10th cohort of volunteers with Peace Corps Rwanda working in the Education field