The best question I got from a friend after this most recent visit to Africa and my old Peace Corps site was “how did you change since Peace Corps?”. I knew I could expect a good question from her and she didn’t disappoint. With this question, she spoke exactly to the insights I had about myself on this trip.
Returning from Malawi seven years ago, I knew a ton had changed about me and I was going to have to adjust to the “new me” re-entering my “old life.” For me, that adjustment was one of the hardest things I’ve done and it took place amidst a whole host of emotional roller-coaster moments that I will classify as “my twenties.” Although going back to Malawi this time around was nowhere near as difficult as that cultural readjustment I went through in 2006-2007 returning to America, but I gained a better understanding about how I have changed in the last seven years.
I’m not surprised by the fact that I changed, but I was surprised at what changed in some cases. For an experience that shaped so much of who I am and what I am doing with my life, I was somewhat unprepared for some of the personal realizations. Oh sure, I knew some of this to be true, but to be in a place where it puts certain aspects of yourself under a microscope, they can only be seen as insights in the moment.
With that, here are 3 things I learned about myself on this last trip. And as of this writing, I have completely accepted about myself.
1. I will never do Peace Corps again.
Occasionally, I am asked if I’d ever do Peace Corps again. My answer has always been, “yeah, maybe with a partner and/or when I’m retired.” Now I can say, “no, no I will not do Peace Corps again.” My main reasons are pretty straightforward: 1) I’m not as hard core as I once was before, and 2) my disdain for third-world public transportation.
I’ve Gotten Soft
There’s something about having once lived in Africa with no electricity or running water that makes you think that you’re forever a “hard-core” person that can do and adapt to anything. Although I’m sure that’s true to some extent, I learned on this trip that I am definitely not as adaptable as I once was. I’m fine with a couple weeks of constantly dirty feet and occasionally sitting in the back of a falling-apart bus that throws me into the air every time it goes over a bump, but I’m also fine with not accepting those as a daily part of my life. Also, I’ve become more inclined to a bit of “luxury” (or maybe let’s call it “comfort”) for my travel experiences. I’m still drawn to third-world travel, but I’m also much more inclined towards first-world travel than I used to be.
This, of course, is an extension of losing my “hard core-ness,” but deserves its own description. Public transport in Africa ain’t the DC metro system or even the Baltimore bus system for that matter. It’s a whole different beast, one in which you put your life into the hands of a barely capable driver on roads where goats and children regularly run in front of a vehicle that would crumple like an aluminum can upon impact with anything larger than a garbage can. During Peace Corps, the more appealing options were, of course, hitching or a slow-moving ride in a larger bus, and those options were only available between major cities. A friend serving in Ethiopia right now talks about transportation speaks to the adventure of transportation very well in a recent blog post.
My disdain for public transport in Africa wasn’t necessarily a surprise to me, but I thought my sense of adventure could override that and I might one day join the Peace Corps again. But I realized on this trip that is not so. I am fine taking a crappy bus or hitch-hiking occasionally, but after the second eight-hour bus ride during our Mombasa-Lamu-Mombasa leg of the Kenya trip*, I knew within the pit of my soul that I never again want to be in the situation where this is my primary mode of transportation.
Look, I’m all for adventure. I’m even willing to do public transportation for a few weeks at a time. I totally get into the “zen of transportation” where you basically zone out for 8-10 hours doing nothing but look out the window thinking deep (or really more often, shallow) thoughts, but I don’t want to rely on those forms of transportation if I don’t have to.
When we were in Malawi this time, Molly had a car, the freedom of which was a new concept for me in that country. When I lived there, I planned trips to the city, other volunteer’s sites, or to the lakeshore by how long it would take me by public transportation – in some cases that would be days. It’s the lack of control that transport gave me that led me to dream often about teleportation. With a personal vehicle during this visit, though, travel time decreased by more than half and the deep dread I felt at the bottom of my stomach when walking towards the Lilongwe bus depot was gone. It was so freeing, we could leave whenever we wanted, we could make stops, and we could change our minds halfway through if we wanted.** Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think volunteers should have their own vehicles, public transportation is one of the best ways to instill empathy in a foreign country. But, I don’t want to have to rely on African (or south american, or eastern european) public transportation for day-to-day life again.
2. My mad bargaining skills are not necessarily a point of pride for me anymore.
Back in the day, I would spend all day haggling with the curio boys outside of the Lilongwe post office over $1 off on a wood carving. In most cases it was less about the money and all about principle. I was bound and determined not to get ripped off just because I was a foreigner. Being out of practice, though, those bargaining skills have gotten a bit lost along the way.
In Mombasa, after arriving early in the morning and less than 2 hours of sleep that morning, Cory and I wandered the markets mid-day to stay awake. We happened upon the spice market (okay, it was more like we were “herded” there by a dude named “Charlie” who was likely to get some commission off of two mzungu who were much easier to rip off than the locals), and got smooth-talked into buying some spices from the dude Charlie took us to. Out of exhaustion and annoyance, we caved and in the end paid way more than we should have. Cory and I couldn’t shake our annoyance at getting ripped off as we contemplated bargaining steps we could have taken. That said, I think it was more personal frustration that we were off our game.
But then as we wandered the shops on Lamu later that week, we came across a European woman aggressively bargaining for a piece of jewelry and I realized something else was bothering me. It seems bargaining can, in some circumstances, bring the traveler farther away from experiencing the place. Maybe it’s that the girl just annoyed me. Honestly, she should’ve just walked away if she was so committed to the price instead of touting her experience with “buying silver all over the world” [insert eye roll]. But also, I recognized myself in her. When I had visited Zanzibar in Tanzania years ago, all I could think about when I walked the streets of Stone Town was what cool stuff I could buy and bring back with me. Same goes for Morocco. Instead of enjoying the winding alleyways, the architecture and the culture, all I could think of was what I could bring back to show people. The moment I had that realization when we were in Lamu, we happened upon a silversmith shop where instead of bargaining, we engaged in genuine conversation with the proprietor which did result in me buying some of his jewelry at a reduced price, but more so, it resulted in two afternoons of chatting and coffee-drinking and story-sharing (more to come on that story in another post!). Not to say that I don’t still want to be on my game with bargaining (it sucks to get taken advantage of anywhere you go), but this experience definitely put it in perspective.
3. I have a new commitment to “slow travel”
With only two weeks off work, we wanted to make the most of a long and expensive flight to Africa by knocking out both mine and Cory’s Peace Corps countries in one visit to Africa. Although I’m happy we were able to visit both (and I got to hear Cory’s kiswahili-speaking skills with people who could speak back to him), the speedy nature of each trip made it hard to relax and be in the moment without having to think about the next step. Thus, both of us have decided that future trips will be much slower.
This realization has led me to commit more to the concept of “slow travel”. I hadn’t really heard the term much before this trip and only came across it through the browsing of other travel blogs, but there’s something that this movement has right. Stemming from the “slow movement” which “aims to address the issue of ‘time poverty’ through making connections.” For travel, it’s to experience a place in full rather than to pass through and knocking out all of the tourist sites.
Neither Cory nor I are huge fans of the tourist traps preferring experiences that elicit the personal connections. On this trip, when we were in each place, we tried our best not to schedule too much sight-seeing and just let things happen. We were able to spend a couple relaxed days on Lake Malawi reading and catching up with Molly and getting to know her boyfriend, Pierre. In Lamu, we wandered the alleys of traditional swahili buildings for a couple of days with not much else planned which led to some great connections. So, we got that right, but the trip overall felt rushed because we only had a few days in each country, so, there’s room for some “slow travel” improvement.
Of course, the challenge here is that work only allows me short periods of travel at any given time. I’m not sure what it will mean for future trips, but I know that my approach to travel is going to change from here on out. Next time I go back to Malawi (and I will), it will not just be for a few short days, and it will not be to visit all of the sites I didn’t get to during Peace Corps, it’ll be to live, feel and understand the place at the slow pace that I know so well from when I lived there. Same goes for any other place I happen to visit in the future. Now, I just have to find a way to make that work and still have a job.
Accepting the Changes
As a person with “traveler” as part of her identity, it’s easy to say that I’ve learned all there is to know about travel in the last 10+ years, but this trip was a good reminder that whether I’m going to a familiar place or somewhere new, there is ALWAYS something to learn. A place might not change, but I always will and my perspective on it will. Since I last lived in Malawi in 2006, I have built a career in service-learning and social justice education, got a master’s, lived in Washington, DC and Baltimore, dated a ton, been in 3 serious relationships (for good or bad) and have traveled to numerous other countries both on my own and with student volunteer groups I’ve helped organize. My perspective on what has happened in Malawi since 2006 and my reactions to it have undoubtedly changed. If I didn’t allow for humility and reflect on how I had changed during that time, then I miss the beauty of travel because even though a place isn’t new to me, the experience is completely different.
*It is worth noting that we almost missed the return bus from Lamu to Mombasa. Since Lamu is on an island, we had to take a boat. Somehow with a combination of miscommunication and the bus leaving earlier than it said on the ticket (yeah, in Africa…WTF?), we missed the bus. Luckily one of the guys at the station called the driver to hold and we hopped on the back of two motorbikes – piki piki – and made it to the bus where I’m sure we gave all the Kenyans a good story about how the mzungu were late.
**I should also note that I am a total tree-hugger that advocates for biking or public transport over personal vehicles if at all possible. But, anyone who has taken public transportation long-term in the third world can understand that there are times where there might be exceptions. I’m not justifying it or saying it’s really the right thing, I’m just saying it nonetheless.