Going Going, Back Back, to Cali Cali – A Peace Corps Rwanda Volunteer in America

(Well, not really. I’ve just come back from California…and Texas. But you get the song reference, I’m sure.)

As many of you know, I went for a (fairly short) vacation to the States. I was gone from February 5th to the 24th. Only nineteen days and…after all the layovers and time differences…I was really only in the States for fourteen days. I spent a week in Texas with my grandparents and a week at home, in California. I really couldn’t have asked for a better time. I got to see so many people I love and missed greatly. I even got to spend a night in San Francisco with my college roommates. I gained ten pounds and ate just about every type of cheese I could get my hands on. (No shame.)

There were definitely some points of adjustment, but mostly I was surprised by how quickly I fell into old habits (not bad ones or anything…just American ways of being.) I didn’t really have a ton of culture shock (after all, I lived in the States for nearly twenty-three years…what’s nine months in Rwanda?).

Getting on the plane in Rwanda was certainly weird. It didn’t really seem like I was just a few plane flights away from the States. Going home seemed a world away. (In fact, California is a world away from Rwanda.) I did have the most interesting seat-mates on the flight from Kigali to Doha, Qatar. Within a few minutes of take-off, the woman in the middle seat turned to the man sitting next to the window and asked him, in Kinyarwanda, where he was going. He responded, in English, “I’m sorry…I don’t understand. I’m from Philadelphia.” The woman turned to me and said, in English, “Why were you in Kigali?” I explained that I live in the Southern Province of Rwanda, thus launching us into an hour-long conversation about her assumption that the man was Rwandan and her assumption that I was just visiting. It was all in good fun and we pretty healthy discussion on race judgments. Soon, we were all three asleep and on our way to our respective destinations.

When I landed in Qatar, I had one mission: find a comfy place to rest up on my seven-hour layover. (I opted not to get a hotel room on the flight to the States, since rooms average $200+ and I just didn’t think a seven-hour layover warranted the cost. I was wrong.) I soon discovered an over-stuffed, super comfortable chair in a “television-viewing” room. I, along with four other tired-looking individuals, tried napping in said comfy chairs. Within an hour, a less-than-pleasant security guard came over to tell us we weren’t allowed to sleep there. My question: why in the world would you place some comfortable, sleep-worthy chairs in a place where people weren’t allowed to sleep? The other four people soon fell asleep again, but I headed off to find one of the airport’s “quiet rooms” which were, apparently, for napping. I quickly found one and let me tell you…those “quiet rooms” are going to be where the zombie apocalypse originates. Imagine a giant carpeted, sound-proof room. Upon entering said room, you’re immediately hit with a wave of stifling hot air. As you walk the length of the room, looking for an empty chair, you’re overcome with the feeling of swimming through other people’s exhausted oxygen. After scanning the fifty or sixty lounge chairs (filled with wheezing, coughing mouth-breathers), you make a dash for the exit. Yeah-it was awful. I guarantee every person in that room traded germs with one another.

After my grueling layover, I was on my way to JFK!

Luckily, I missed the huge snow storm by a few hours, so there wasn’t much turbulence and I had a lovely white-ish view of the city. When I landed, there wasn’t much ceremony involved in the customs process. They ask you to pick up your checked bags, go through customs, and then re-check your bags (I really don’t understand that whole process. Why not just send them all the way through to the final destination?) The customs officer stamped my passport and asked why I was in Rwanda; no asking if I had anything to declare, no temperature check, easy enough! Before my flight to Dallas, I had time to grab an iced chai. My first American food item! It was deliciously cold and the everyone I encountered at the Starbucks (staff and patron alike) were awfully rude. Welcome back to America.

When I got to Dallas, things started to feel real. My grandpa picked me up and we were off! I was struck by how many cars there were and how well people abide by traffic laws. My week in Texas was so perfectly relaxing. I got to enjoy thirty minute, scalding hot showers and the most comfortable bed in the entire world. I really just enjoyed getting to wake up naturally (no 5:00AM alarm) and spend the entire day relaxing with my grandparents. So good for my psyche.

My beautiful grandmother! (I fully regret not taking more pictures and not getting one with my grandpa. I was distracted by all the relaxing.)

As I said before, being back in the States was a pretty easy adjustment. The only shockers were how loudly everyone spoke…and how much of everyone else’s conversations I understood. I felt like Superman, being able to hear everything all at once for the very first time. It was pretty overwhelming and there were times when I just had to be alone to collect my thoughts and get some silence. Another strange experience was going to the grocery store. Like…

IMG_6895At what point does someone say…”There are too many chips here.” The “variety” of food stuff was overwhelming. Everything is basically the same…with different branding. I understand the basics of capitalism, but dayummm…how do we function with all those choices? My grandma also took me to get my hair cut…it was definitely the cleanest my hair had been in nine months.

After a perfect week of all my favorite foods (hello, baked chicken and actual sweet potatoes!) and watching HGTV/horror movies with my grandparents, I was headed to California.

Again, I regret not taking more pictures; I didn’t even get one with my parents. Whoops. I did, however, take a perfectly weird picture of my pup:

Zeva! (I spent a lot of time playing with my parents’ dogs, since pets just aren’t a thing in Rwanda.)

I haven’t lived with my parents in five years, but a week at home seemed too short. I felt pretty busy the whole time, but I brought it on myself. I spent a good two days doing nothing at all and I couldn’t take the stagnation; I’m such a bad vacationer. I did, however, get to play video games and watch movies on a huge TV and spent quality time with my parents and grandparents. I really can’t get over the huge amounts of support I get from my family. When I’m here, in Rwanda, everything comes as second nature already. I forget how fascinating this culture is sometimes. My parents and all my grandparents kept reminding me how interested they are in learning more about Rwanda and how proud they are of me…and it was just incredible to feel how supportive they all are of this whacky journey.

I was struck by how accessible literally everything is in the States. Immediate gratification for your every whim, want, and desire. Missed last night’s episode of Vikings? No problem…video on demand, torrentz.eu, or DVR it. Craving chocolate? Easy enough…hop in your private vehicle and hit up any convenience store or drive-through. Hungry, but you don’t want to cook? Within fifteen minutes, you can be nomming on some quality American grub. Also, refrigerators…freezers…oh man-thank you James Harrison for your contribution to the developed world. The amount of cold drinks, ice cream, and Angel’s I ate was…just high enough. My mom took me shopping and I just couldn’t get over all the different things I could buy right then and there.

Not only did I get some quality time with my parents…but some of my friends came into town for a hangout before my trip back to Rwanda.

Kaitlyn, me, Megan, and Morgan!

It was incredible getting to see them all again (we all went out nine months ago…just before my Peace Corps journey began). I’m so proud of these ladies and I can’t believe we’ve known each other for fifteen years.

I got home real late and woke up real early for my journey into San Francisco. I was exhausted, but I wouldn’t give back that night for anything; I had such a great time with those weirdos. Grateful for them coming into town and spending time with me.

My flight out of San Francisco was at 6:00AM Sunday morning, so my parents and I journeyed to the city on Saturday. After getting my In N Out fix and saying a very quick goodbye (we were double-parked), I headed to my friend Diane’s apartment. (In all honesty, I’m thankful for the quick goodbye…I don’t do drawn-out goodbyes very well at all.) Diane came running down the street and we hugged it out…it had been a good year since we’d seen each other and she sweetly offered up her apartment for me to stay at the night before my flight.

I have no idea where the time went, but that day flew by. We grabbed burritos and ate at Alamo Square:

Full House, anyone?

It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d been in SF, but it was the first time I didn’t feel out of place. I guess, before Peace Corps, I felt like I didn’t really have anything to contribute to that whole scene. Now, talking to people, I feel like I actually have an experience worth sharing.

I had to travel nearly 10,000 miles to a hipster SF coffee shop to get Rwandan coffee. Also, check out those $4 pieces of TOAST.

That night, our other old roommate, Alison came to join the festivities. We had a glorious night of talking about Peace Corps, watching Amelie, and cooking/eating pizza bites in Diane’s bed.

Laben reunion!

I got a whopping four hours of sleep before I had to say goodbye to Diane and Alison. I was feeling bad that Diane was going to have to drive me to the airport at 4:00AM, but thankfully Alison had to be up early for work anyhow. (Cheers to two girls who are literally always up for an adventure!) (And, keep your fingers crossed for the both of them, they’ve both recently applied for the Peace Corps and would make extraordinary additions to the family!)

My journey back home to Rwanda was more planned-out than the trip out to America. I had a six-hour layover in Dallas, so I got to get breakfast and shop a bit with my grandpa who picked me up from the airport. That definitely eased the slight pain of going back. My flight from Dallas to Doha was (obviously) a bit longer than the one from Doha to JFK (about fifteen hours in total). I sat by a lovely Indian woman who spoke to me for a couple hours about her recent divorce and how difficult it had been to send her children to college in America. It’s a good thing I’ve become more of a people-person, but I still had no idea what to do when she started crying. I just tried to comfort her and let her treat me like a surrogate child. (No joke…she was very concerned that I get enough sleep and cleared out the middle seat for me to lie down. I still couldn’t sleep very well.) Luckily, I had a hotel for my fourteen-hour layover. I really enjoyed being in Doha; if I have another layover there…I’m going to try swinging a stay of a couple days. It’s a beautiful city…I just wish I could afford really anything there. (Hello, richest country in the world.) I really, really enjoyed the call to prayer played ’round the city.

P.S. Fly Qatar Airways if you have the chance.

After my extended layover, I journeyed six hours back to Kigali. I really can’t say much about the trip other than to mention the flight attendant who was quite forward and asked for my phone number and proceeded to ask me out on a date, since he had a layover in Kigali. I couldn’t believe how openly flirtatious the guy was being…while at work…in front of his coworkers and passengers. I felt bad for blowing him off (I hate being unintentionally mean), but I got to Kigali and nearly immediately passed out for fifteen hours. No regrets. Oh, and as soon as I got into Kigali, I was checked for a fever and had to wait a couple minutes for them to re-check because I was running warm (#noebola).

Zach, Aaron, and I had a very scientific taste-test to determine our favorite Sour Patch flavors.

I spent the next two days eating Sour Patch kids, getting medicine for a skin rash, playing Yahtzee (thank you grandparents!), shopping for a television for my Health Center, re-submitting my grant, working on my VRF (Volunteer Reporting Form…I think?), and meeting at the Ministry of Health. I like to keep busy.

IMG_7284I’ve been back at site for twenty-four hours now. I made my bed with my new sheets and duvet (no more sleeping bag for Melissa!) and slept for nearly twelve hours. I’m caught up on sleep, enjoying the rain sounds, drinking coffee, and reading.

In summation, re-integrating was both quite easy (getting used to American conveniences) and very difficult (finding time to collect my thoughts). I loved visiting home, but I’m so glad to be back. Being in the States just doesn’t feel right for this period of my life. Being in Rwanda, working and living where I do, that’s what feels like home to me. I’m sure in seventeen months…I’ll feel differently…or I won’t…in which case I’ll think about extending for a third year. For now, I’m all relaxed and rested up, fat and happy on American food, enjoying having spent two weeks with family…and ready for the next hurdle!

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