Thursday, March 26, 2009

On Love and Loneliness

Maybe it was the wine. It could have been the wine. But, whatever it was, there was this moment when the energy changed. You wouldn’t have noticed it unless you were one of the three of us. Sitting at the edge of that bar table. Talking over the music. Forgetting, for a minute, that we were at a party with 20 of our friends.

"I’m just saying… you can’t force things. Friendships have a limit. We’re friends Here. We’re friends Now. I don’t expect anything more."

"But you must believe there CAN be more…? Some people are capable of maintaining long term friendships… and some people get a lot from the friends they’ve had for years."

"Honestly, Jess, think about your oldest friends… what do you really ‘get’ from them?"

"I have lots of long term friends… good friends…"

"But that’s perseverance… and after a while it’s just forced. It has to be. People change. I expect my friends to change. And because they change I expect them to stop being my friends at some point. There’s no hard feelings. It’s just finite. That’s the reality of human relationships."

"But that expectation limits you… don’t you think? If you’re always expecting people to change and evolve past your friendship-- then you’re never fully investing in them. Your philosophy makes you hold back… and if you’re holding back, how do you ever know the real potential of your friendships?"

"Maybe you don’t. But, I’m telling you-- it’s safer-- no, smarter, that way. No one gets disappointed. No one gets hurt."

Brad wears a red bandana and a button-up shirt. Last month he dredded his hair and it’s finally looking nappy enough to qualify as proper dreds. Blonde hair, blue eyes, sarcastic wit, intelligent banter, life of the party… that’s Brad. He’s addictive. People fall for him all the time.

And then, apparently, they fall away.

"No, Brad, I agree. Especially since coming to Peace Corps. I totally believe that now."

Holly has been listening to the conversation for 10 minutes in silence. When she speaks her voice trembles in a way that makes me look at her a moment too long. She wears a purple sundress and long curly hair. She sips red tinted vodka through a straw.

Holly’s been here a year longer than us and she can feel it. And I can feel it. The thickness of Away. The attention to Change.

"People disappoint you. People forget. The oldest, deepest friendships I’ve ever had just fell apart when I left."

Holly talks into her vodka and Brad smirks at me over the rim of his glass.

"You know what it was: they knew I was happy here… they knew I had met a nice guy… and that seemed to be enough… and so one by one they just stopped writing."

This is that strange little island between stone sober and sloppy drunk where people get cynical, emotional or philosophical. We manage to reach all of three of these and sit in silence for a moment. The music and the lights and the booze feel far away.

"All of them?"

"Yup. Every one. Even my most of my family. I’m going home in 3 months and I have no idea who will be there. Or how I’ll be with them. I mean, how do you go back to those relationships now that you know how shallow they are…?"

Brad slams down an empty beer glass and lets out a brash sigh.

"Yup and That’s Is Life. That’s people, Hol. It stops sucking so much when you stop expecting everyone to love you eternally. That’s not realistic. It’s society. It’s movies."

"But there are exceptions, I say staring at him and holding the air like that.…Brad, come on, you have to admit there are SOME people in your life who’ve stayed. You must have some people who you still enjoy… who still fill you after years of friendship…"

"Sure, some. But they’ll go. And I won’t ask them to stay."

Someone throws a round of shots on the table and the music leaks in and Holly gets dragged to dance and Brad gets snapped into a photo and I’m left standing on that tiny little island with the weight of a very heavy ache that is not my own.


That conversation happened well over a month ago but I have played it over in my mind so many times since then.

People let you into their Pain here in a way they never would at home. They’re more open here because they have to be. There is only so much solitude and difference and stillness that one person can hold on their own.

And so I pick up this thing they’ve placed on me. And I look at it long and hard. And I realize it is true… this painful reality…. but also relative…

like so many truths.

I don’t relish seeing people in pain. I care about Brad and Holly and I hate to see them hurting.

But something about that conversation did help me. Like someone stretched out the spectrum in front of me. Like a map or an ocean. And I looked at that space for a long time and saw myself there and felt incredibly lucky. And incredibly comforted.

Thank you to the Email Writers who talk me through my days.
Thank you to the Package Senders who break the monotony with surprises.
Thank you to the Letter Writers who give me pieces to hold on to.
Thank you to the Phone Callers who nourish me with voice and laughter.

Thank you to friends, families, colleagues, classmates, professors, old friends, new friends, best friends, boy friends, and even strangers who have taken the time in big and small ways to support me in this experience and affirm their commitment to whatever level of relationship we’ve built.

This is the time when it counts. This is the time when it is needed and appreciated without the shadows and distractions of home.

Some relationships are finite, yes. But there are also those that are strong and constant.

I am incredibly alone here.

But I have never felt so far from loneliness.

Monday, March 23, 2009

And Then There Are Days

The race was meant to start at 6:00 with registration at 5:00. It was 8:30 when we finally stood at the starting line.

Jaclyn had organized this 10K “Race for Life” to get her village exercising and then follow the event with a day of health games and activities to teach the community about HIV/AIDS. She invited 10 of us to run and help out with the post-race events.

I am a 5:00 runner. 8:30 in northern Botswana feels scorching in comparison. I also have never run in an organized race. I also didn’t realize they’d be driving us 10K into the desert on a giant bus with no available water. By 8:30 I’m parched and my stomach is in knots.

The bus stops on the paved road between Bobonong and Semolale. We file off and I watch as the men begin urinating on the side of the road, the women slip off their shoes and the makgoa (us whities) stretch our legs.

The makgoa are in running sneakers, nylon shorts, sports bras and t-shirts. The Batswana are in bare feet, skirts, slippers and tank tops (sans bra). It is not one group verses the other but the contrast is hard to miss.

Although nearly 200 people registered for the race there are less than 60 who attend. Jacyln has promoted the event to 3 villages and had an overwhelmingly positive response which, unfortunately, was foiled by the death of two villagers in Semolale.

Batswana bury on Saturdays. Only Saturday. At 6:00. Only 6:00.

The Semalole kgosi (chief) had wanted to run the race as well and petitioned the village to hold the funerals as early as possible so everyone could make it to Jackie’s event. But like all cultures, grieving can not be rushed. None of the 100 registered Semolole residents were able to attend the race. (A sad but vivid reminder of the event’s core purpose)

During training Peace Corps gave each of us a tiny, hand-held blow horn which they advised us to sound for our neighbors and then explain that the noise signifies we are in danger and need help.

I am highly amused by the fact that Jacyln’s emergency blow horn starts the race. (I’m sure the Peace Corps Safety and Security Officer would be slightly less amused)

Alright so, I run a 10 minute mile. I’m slow. I know. But—jeeze…

The men are literally a mile ahead of me within the first 30 seconds. Truly. It’s a long, flat stretch of highway but suddenly I cant see them anymore.

The women. The women are just hilarious. They sprint. Then stop. They laugh. They walk. They carry their shoes. They run beside us. Fall behind us. Sprint ahead of us. I’m purely entertained. My stomach ache goes away.

By 6k Jackie and I have out-run most of our female companions. I’m in a groove but bored with the desert landscape. Fortunately, I’ve given my camera to one of the nurses who keeps appearing in the village ambulance to snap photos and cheer us on with wild waving. His energy is contagious and hilarious.

In the final 2k Jaclyn turns and smiles at me.

We’re making pretty good time, she says (also a 10-minute-miler). For the end we’ll get to go through the village.

There are times here when I feel like a day in Africa could be any day in the States. There’s a routine. meals. friends. a job. a rhythm.

And then there are days—well, moments really—where Africa pours all over me with such style and simplicity that I seem to fall in love a thousand times.

2k through the village and I am falling falling.

The funerals have ended and the people come out of their roudeval huts to watch us run by. The donkey’s stare. The goats scatter. The kids are laughing and screaming hellohellohello. Someone hanging her laundry stops to wave.

The simplest of images but I am elated. Love is that way, isn’t it? The ordinary turned exceptional. The average, invaluable.

There is a hill that rises to the kgotla’s finish line. Two village men join us to sprint this last stretch and escort us over the finish line.

Girl 2! Girl 3!

We dole out sweaty hugs and snap a million photos and marvel at how we’ve placed among the girls at the crawl of 58:36 (the 40 men who’ve been finished and lounging in the shade for 20 minutes humble us).

Helluva first race. My adrenaline-buzz feels like it lasts for hours.

In the post-race activities there are swarms of children in frantic disarray. Fruit and cheese sandwiches are distributed (a h u g e struggle for poor Jaclyn to convince her village leaders that serving chips and soda at a HEALTH fair would send mixed messages about the nutrition) and then the children are ushered towards The Tent.

Now, don’t get me wrong—The Tent is a circus of fun activities and games and prizes but to the Confined Booth Workers it also resembles a torture chamber:

Africa sun + 200 excited kids + closed space = Sauna-Like-Temps

I stand at my booth for 5 minutes before recognizing how close I am to passing out. Someone lifts the flaps on the far side of the tent and a breeze makes its way through the humid space. I regain stability.

The raised flaps are essential but they do create a problem for my particular booth. I have been given The Most Fun of all the game stations and I’m very proud of this. The kids usher through the poster-HIV-quiz and then come to me before carrying on to the “Proper Condom Use” station (where they must correctly put a condom on a cucumber without being able to see their hands).

Still, despite the cucumber-humor, I win for general entertainment. At my booth they get d a r t s .

The challenge for the kids is to get the dart to pop a balloon and then answer the HIV-related question inside the balloon correctly. The challenge for me is to keep the kids from crushing each other in line, darting each other in their excitement or nailing someone outside the tent through the open flaps. Oh—and the balloons on the clothes line keep needing to be replaced… now remember… take the dart from the kids F I R S T before attempting to replace balloons (I manage to engrain this after nearly being dart-ed 10 times…)

I think the Run for Life pictures are my favorites so far from the Peace Corps Planet. The faces that day. The energy. I’ve looked through them a million times… from the barefoot runners to the balloon kids to the post-festivities bonfire and sangria.

Ah, Africa.