I was told that you aren’t an official Peace Corps volunteer until you crap your pants. If that is the case, there is no doubt that I am now officially a Peace Corps volunteer.
Last night, as I lay on my bathroom floor vomiting and having diarrhea for the second week in a row, sobbing, I wondered to myself what the heck am I doing here??? Why the heck is it that I can’t just be like everyone else my age and be happy by getting married, popping out a few babies and living in the ‘burbs?? Why does my happiness include living in a foreign country alone and trying to make the world a better place???
Oh, I tell you, it was quite a pity party I had on my bathroom floor. But let me back up and tell you why I crapped my pants. Because, I know that’s why you’re reading this far into the blog anyways.
In the beginning of December, I left my village to travel 7 hours North and return to my training village for In-Service Training for a week. That is when all the volunteers come back together after living in their villages to debrief, get technical training and work on ideas of programs we can implement back in our village.
In the past, volunteers went to the big city of Gaborone for training and stayed in a hotel. However, this time around, we were informed that due to budget cuts (among other reasons) we couldn’t go to Gabs. We had to return to our training village and live on the local college campus in dorms. I was vocal about my concerns about sanitation and security at the dorms, but I sucked it up, packed up my things and headed North with a smile on my face.
The dorms unfortunately had no running water, so we were provided with a big barrel of water to bathe and wash our hands from. We did have filtered water brought in special for us to drink and catered breakfast and lunch. I think that barrel came back to haunt us in the form of cross-contamination.
The next day, I woke up and felt sick. I thought maybe I just had a hangover from the glasses of wine the night before. But, it became clear at breakfast that morning hearing the many stories of others who were also sick, that this wasn’t unique to me.
I tell you, I barely even remember the first three days of training because I was so sick. I would still go to sessions, but when I got there, people were laying on the floor with stomach pains and running back and forth to the bathroom the whole time. Soon, rumors floated around that members of staff also got sick and the cleaning staff had fallen ill, too. Here’s a picture of me with a few puppies that gave me life in the middle of the Peace Corps Plague outbreak:
One day in class, a fellow volunteer asked anyone who was sick to raise their hand; almost every single person raised their hand in response. From the looks of it, there were maybe five people in our group of 80 who didn’t get sick, and that’s not including the staff.
Later that day, I asked a question in front of the class, but as soon as a fellow volunteer started to answer, my stomach grumbled that evil gurgling noise and I responded “Sorry, Cathie, I gotta go!” and ran out of the room. I could hear the hysterical giggles from the class as I bolted to the bathroom.
I wish I could say that week was terrible, but it wasn’t. In a weird way, I felt like our group being sick united us. People began checking on one another and helping each other out. By no way was it an ideal situation, but we powered through it together and it was nice to feel the unity.
So, flash-forward, two weeks later and I am back in my village and STILL sick. Being sick for that long really wears your body down and I had never fully recovered. Some volunteers tested positive for salmonella poisoning and some had rotavirus. I kept thinking I was getting better, and then would get sick again.
Then I hit my rock bottom.
See, what happens when you are alone in a foreign country and sick, is that you don’t have anyone with a realistic point of view talking you out of your pity. So, the pity permeates all around you and it clouds all of your thoughts. I was convinced by the end of the day that no one at my office wants to work with me, I don’t fit in in my village and none of the volunteers really like me.
I felt stupid. I felt like I couldn’t do it. What the heck am I doing here? No one wants me here.
When I got home, I sat down feeling sad, exhausted and isolated. Of course, at that exact moment, a sweet, unsuspecting volunteer sent me a text “hey girl, how’s it going back in your village?” I opened up the floodgates of pity on her in my moment of sadness and sent her a novel of all of my complaints.
At the same moment, I began having an ocular migraine and couldn’t see out of my right eye. It was scary, and I saw flashes of light everywhere. I get ocular migraines once in a while, so I knew what this was, and had medication that I brought with me from the States in case it happened. So, I quickly ran and took the medication.
While the flashing lights stopped, I felt even worse after I took the medication. My head and eyes hurt and I felt nauseous and it became an actual migraine. I closed myself into my bedroom to wait it out. I sat in the dark feeling sorry for myself in pain.
Then it took a turn for the worse and I began to vomit.
A few hours later, I found myself sitting on the bathroom floor hysterically crying, vomiting and questioning my entire existence. Why am I here? Do people even want me here? Is it possible to make the difference I hope to make? Will I find my “tribe”? What is my purpose in life? What does “service” even look like? Why does following my calling include laying on the bathroom floor in Botswana? Will I crap my pants again? Why can’t I just be “normal” like other people my age and sit in a cubicle and work a 9 to 5 job?
I worked so hard to join the Peace Corps – it took me almost two years to get to Botswana. But maybe I can’t do this?
It was a real low point.
With nothing left inside, I pulled myself off the floor and went to bed.
The next morning, I awoke feeling much better and called the Peace Corps doctor. They explained that yes, I likely have salmonella poisoning and the migraine was likely triggered by dehydration from losing so much fluid and the extreme heat. It’s time to go to the hospital and get some antibiotics, they said, and drink oral rehydration salts.
Everything suddenly made sense again. Guys, I’m not insane!
It’s amazing what one night of sleep and a call to the doctor can do for you. I suddenly felt rejuvenated, like I just had a bad night, but will be fine after all. That day I also spoke with my supervisor and with the volunteer I was worried about and managed to voice my concerns and discover there was no reason to worry.
Turns out I will be just fine. I just had a bad day.
That same day I went to the hospital to get tested for salmonella, and was tasked to crap into a cup for testing. When I went to the lab to get the results, the guy working in the lab closed the door and asked me if we could talk.
“Sure, I’m happy to talk,” I said.
He proceeded to carefully ask me every question he has wondered about what it’s like to be white and from America. I was so proud of him and the courage it must have taken to approach me with his questions. Do I think that the color will rub off of a black person’s skin? Was I taught to think that all black people are criminals? Does racism really exist in America? What do I think of African people? Are all Americans rich? What do I think of how the women dress in my village? Do I drink? Am I a spy for the United States?
We sat and talked for almost three hours. I answered every question with an open heart. No, I do not think color rubs off on a black person’s skin. I think his skin is beautiful. No, my parents did not teach me that all black people are criminals and I do not think they are. Yes, racism exists in America and it makes me very sad, and I work hard to fight it. I love the women in our village and feel very welcomed. Americans are not all rich. I am not a spy, I’m simply here to serve the people of Botswana.
THIS conversation is exactly why I am here.
I gave him all the time we needed to talk. He then proceeded to ask me if I knew anything about media or animals, because he loves both, and wants to learn how to make videos. I told him I used to be a TV producer and love animals. He agreed to be my counterpart for the media club I want to start for children in the local school. Score!
If I hadn’t been crying on the bathroom floor the night before, this beautiful conversation would never have taken place. What a wonderful change of circumstance!
As most of you know, I meditate daily. Each day, I close my eyes and begin by asking myself four questions. I simply ask, and then listen without judgment to whatever answers come up.
Who am I?
What do I want?
What is my dharma, or calling, in life?
What am I grateful for?
I love this exercise because it has been really interesting to see what comes up for me. Sometimes, I am even surprised by the answers. It has been really wonderful to see the evolution of response over the years.
In the past, when I would ask myself what my calling is, I would usually be filled with need to take action. “You should work in television”, “you should write a book”, “you should serve”, “you should spread love”.
What’s interesting is that as soon as I hit Botswana soil, my need to take action stopped. I feel that my calling is to listen.
This is my time to shut up, listen and truly HEAR what people are telling me. The conversation with the man in the lab was a true gift. I know I belong here. I accept that my path is unique.
I know I’m going to have good days, and I know I’m going to have bad days. I had a bad day – I’m human. It doesn’t mean anything about me. I just need to stay the course, and listen.
So, I promise to move forward and be the openhearted person I work so hard to be. I want to be a clearing for people to be around; open, loving, listening. I may question it from time to time, but my instinct says I’m on the right path. I KNOW with every fiber of my being that I am. Sometimes that means barfing and crapping my pants, and sometimes that means falling in love with someone’s smile.
Everything will be fine. Ga go na mathata (yes, we really say “hakuna matata” here, to mean, there is no problem.)
But there’s one thing I know for sure… I am OFFICIALLY a Peace Corps volunteer. I have crapped my pants, and survived to tell the tale.