This is (obviously) after the snow happened. I was too busy freaking out to take pictures during the actual blizzarding. But that's neither here nor there.
At the end of my vacation, I made a quick stop at Knox to give a talk on my Peace Corps service, spanning my experiences in both Mali and Zambia. I like to think that the whole thing went rather well. Towards the end, it was brought up that returned PCVs often say they gained more from the experience than they ever gave, and I was asked my own opinion on what I've gained from my time with Peace Corps. To be honest, the question threw me.
|If you zoom in (can you zoom in?), this is what my face looks like when a question throws me.|
As I believe I've mentioned here, I do feel that I have learned more about myself, the world, and life, than I could ever reciprocate during my time here. But how do you put that in tangible terms? I faltered, stumbling along "I learned patience and... uh... listening..." before shrugging and saying that I learned a lot. Not my best moment.
During my return trip, while navigating London, waiting for 5 hours on an emergency landing in Crete, and then especially when getting to Lusaka, I realized something I forgot in my mangled response: trust. Trust in the universe that everything will work out, even if the way it settles isn't the way you expected, and trust in strangers and our shared humanity.
Lusaka and Bamako have a seemingly similar public transport system. The minibuses, really just giant vans with too many seats, pick you up either at designated pull over spots, or just on the side of the road. Along with the driver, there is a man working the bus - he hangs out the side and yells where that minibus is headed, ushers you in, haggles the fare, and makes sure you get off at the correct spot (in Mali these men are called the prend-tigi, but I have no idea what they're called here. I call them boss). Though similar to the way any bus system works, this whole thing can be intimidating. There aren't signs, maps, nor machines asking you for your exact change - just a few crazed men in your face hustling you to get in RIGHT NOW. In Bamako, a taxi was rarely more than about $3, so I just avoided the minibuses. In Lusaka, average taxi fare is $ 6-8, also known as more than I want to pay. So, minibus, here we go.
I rarely find a minibus going directly where I need to be. As I am not in Lusaka enough to have mastered the details of this rather complicated system, I just tell the boss where I'm going and he decides if he can help me get where I need to go. Then I'm dropped off at different places and other strangers guide me to the next bus. It's all very pressed and urgent; I think I get a rush from the whole ordeal. This last time around, my friend Carrie and I were going to InterCity, the major (big) bus station. I told the boss and he said where he'd let us off - after 3 attempts I was too embarrassed to admit I hadn't the faintest what he was saying. He let us off at one of the main switching places, and we were fairly sure that we were close enough to walk. But no idea how or where.
While asking some very unhelpful drivers, some random guy says, "InterCity? I'm going there; come on, I'll take you." After an exhaustive 3-second background check (Does he look crazy? Nope. Is he clean/well dressed? Yes. Nice briefcase. Is he creepy? Not really.), we followed the guy. "It's quickest to just go straight, I know the shortcut," he said as we started off. While exchanging plesantries and talking about the upcoming AFCON, he lead us between buildings, through a hole in a fence, and across some traintracks. 5-10 minutes later, there we were at the bus station. We thanked him and exchanged emails. Stopping to think about the whole situation, I can see how it might seem strange from an outside perspective. But here, it's normal. Why wouldn't some random person help us get where we're going? Why would the guys running the busses take me to the wrong stop? I'm not saying that I don't keep an eye on my surroundings, assess the situation, but trusting people to be helpful, and trusting that things will work out, it does pay off. And, as a bonus, you're reminded that people are kind. Makes you feel pretty good inside.
The world has changed in my absence. The bits of earth that can be seen are darker, richer, ranging from clay reds to coffee-tan sands as we drive; most of it is covered in a rainbow of lush green. Everything feels alive, the air seems to pulse with a collective heartbeat. Crisscrossing short-cut paths I knew a month ago have turned into a maze of mud and streams, surrounded by grasses almost as tall as me. The idea of taking one step to the side and becoming invisible, enveloped by the thriving grasses, is somehow a comfort.
My own return has a similar entrance. I'm not changed, per say, but refreshed, invigorated. I've always found New Years resolutions an amusing concept - this idea that we have new beginnings and can reinvent ourselves year after year. But, even as few people stick to their resolutions, there must be something to it, some reason we all keep trying. So, resolutions in hand, here's to 2013 - to doing all I can in the next 6 1/2 months here and to whatever comes next.
I'm compelled to take a moment for Mali.
My family and friends, down in southern Mali, are thankfully safe and far from the fighting, but many Malians are in a different, extremely difficult, and scary situation. Words, at the moment, are failing me. Instead I would like to share a few really helpful links on the conflict:
Bridges from Bamako (well-written, informative blog on Mali in general, as well as the current situation)
And, because this should end on an up-note, let's talk about music in Mali
Please keep the people of Mali in your thoughts.
Peace & Love