Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Epilogue: A Clean Slate and Clean Face

On March 23, 2013, I made my return to the United States after completing my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uganda.  Waiting for my bags, I put on my headphones and jammed out our unofficial Close of Service anthem, "Coming Home"by P. Diddy (  As I walked through arrivals at LAX, I poorly negotiated the turns of the pathway with all my bags piled onto a cart and almost overturned it when I saw Nathan waiting for me.  Within that moment, our two year long distance relationship magically transformed into just a relationship.  We didn't say anything- we just held each other tight.  A woman leaned over and said, "Oh wow, you kids don't know each other."  Mortified, I pulled away from Nathan and looked around.  A young family walked by with their child tethered by a leash.  Jeez, welcome home?

Adjusting back to American life was no easy feat, and I sometimes think I'm still adjusting.  I openly stare at people, and sometimes say things too loud- thinking no one can understand my fast English.  I still scoff at Instagram and Pinterest.  Don't even get me started on Snapchat or Tinder.  I'm trying to find a healthy relationship with food, constantly reminding myself that the frozen yogurt shop will still be there tomorrow, and I have a refrigerator for leftovers.

When I first arrived in Uganda, it was severe culture shock.  Everything was so new, but I just tried to roll with the punches.  I was patient and flexible- the model Peace Corps volunteer.  But when I came home, the reverse culture shock was just that- shocking.  It was beyond shocking; it was almost painful.  I'm America, born and raised!  Why do I find it so difficult to relate to everyone here?  Why don't I understand the jokes that everyone laughs at?  Why the hell is everyone on their smart phones?!  I felt like a stranger in a very familiar place.  I was "home," but in many ways, I had to find my home again.

When people find out that I'm recently back from Peace Corps, they enviably ask, "So, how was it?"  This is by far the worst question to ask- there's no real way to answer it concisely.  I usually just shrug my shoulders and say, "It was good."  Peace Corps isn't some two week vacation that you can sum up in a sentence or two.  It would take me hours, maybe days to really tell you how it was.  Maybe that's why so many volunteers end up writing books!  But what I think most people are truly wondering, "Are you happy you did it?"  That one I can answer.

Yes, I'm happy that I did Peace Corps.  For years, I had planned on Peace Corps.  If I hadn't done it, I woud have always wondered what it would have been like and really regretted it.  I learned a lot, had crazy adventures, made friends and finally lived in another country.  In my two years, I explored and experienced all kinds of avenues for my future: international development, education, business, foreign affairs.  One night, as I sat on the cement floor of my house scanning an HIV reference book in hopes to answer a teacher's question, Nathan asked me to come back to bed.  "Wait, wait, I'm almost finished."  As he patiently waited and listened to me rattle on about HIV, he said, "You know Chelsea, I don't understand why you're not going into medicine.  You're so passionate about it.  I've never seen you like this about anything else."  One year after his inspiring comment, I am enrolled in general chemistry to start knocking out my premed classes.  With my post baccalaureate program at Scripps College, I will be able to take all my classes in a year, and hopefully be in medical school by 2015.  Without Peace Corps, I would have never discovered my passion for women's health, and I doubt I would have had the courage to start the long road to an MD.

That being said, Peace Corps is by far the hardest thing I have ever done.  Peace Corps knows this, or they wouldn't have a recruiting campaign with the tagline: "The hardest job you'll ever love."  Peace Corps is a lot like running a marathon- it tests your endurance.  A better analogy would be a marathon in San Francisco- there's a lot of ups and downs.  I had a lot of good days, but I also had a lot of really bad days.  Everything was initially challenging: fetching water, learning the language, trying to figure out what projects I should tackle, battling the loneliness and committing cultural faux pas.  Eventually, those became second nature.

After two years of total immersion in Uganda culture, just about everything became "normal."  Well, almost everything.  If you haven't already noticed, I refused to accept the status and treatment of women in the Ugandan culture.  In Uganda's patriarchal society, women are not treated as equal in nearly every aspect of life.  Boys tend to receive more education, particularly quality education at private school, whereas many girls drop out due to lack of school fees, menstruation or pregnancy.  Girls and women perform nearly all of the demanding household chores and duties.  Although some women have jobs, they are forced to forfeit their salary to their husband's control.  The list goes on.  As a college educated woman, I was beyond frustrated with most of the men I worked with.  Frequently, I was enraged by the way men were treating me or my female counterparts.  It's no surprise that by the end of my first year, all of my projects focused on female education and empowerment.  I'm happy I was able to redirect some of my frustration and resentment towards Ugandan men into positive projects like Camp GLOW and RUMPS, but I still struggled daily with my status as a woman in my village.  For that reason and many others, I'm thrilled to be back home.

For my dedicated readers, you should be proud of my younger brother- he kept his word and his mustache.  For those of you who don't know, when I left for Peace Corps, my younger brother bravely offered to support me by maintaining a mustache for the entirety of my service.  For some men, this would be no small feat.  But for my 21 year-old brother, he was struggling to grow noticeable facial hair due to his blonde locks.  As my Close of Service date approached, I heard from Grant more and more often.  "When are you coming home?!"  The real question he wanted to ask: "When can I shave my mustache?!"

The Uganda Stache in all its glory.

Finally home!
When I came home, I realized that "my service" really wasn't just my service.  In my first few weeks, and even now, Peace Corps comes up in many of my conversations.  It's kind of hard to avoid, considering it was the last two years of my life, although I'm sure people are getting really tired of "In Uganda..."  The part that surprises me is how enthusiastically the people around me talk about my experience!  When I tell my stories, my mom can't help chiming in about village life.  Nathan loves to complain about public transport.  My service really became a shared experience, which ultimately is the third goal of Peace Corps.  I'm so happy I was able to share my service because I couldn't have done it without all the support I got from home.  It was a struggle for everyone who loved and cared about me, especially my family and Nathan.  Thank you to everyone that helped me along the way, whether it was through phone calls, packages, letters, postcards, emails, Facebook posts, or keeping a mustache.

Thank you to everyone who read my blog, encouraged me to write more, left comments and made me feel like my service was meaningful and important.  I never thought my blog would be successful.  To my surprise, the task of creating post ideas and writing my experiences helped me process my experience.  I was able to share my accomplishments, letdowns and wisdom with my friends, family and even strangers!  Ultimately, it forced me to reflect on my service as it was happening, and served as a weekly reminder of what Peace Corps meant to me.  Again, thank you for reading my blog and keeping me positive during dark times.  Hope you learned something about Uganda and Peace Corps!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Final Chapter

It has taken me over three months to post about my final days in Peace Corps.  Leaving Peace Corps was a lot like leaving for Peace Corps.  Behind all of the good byes, there is an excitement for the next step.  However, leaving my community was very different from leaving my friends and family at home.  At least when I left California in February 2011, I knew I would come back.  I knew I would never lose touch.  But, leaving the village doesn't come with those guarantees.  I have no idea if I'll ever be able to go back to Uganda, so the good byes felt very permanent.  Below are photos from my last week of service, which was filled with parties, gifts and lots of food.

The family I lived with for two years

My final tea with the family while waiting for dinner

My last dinner with my family

The eldest daughter in my family.  I visited her at school to say goodbye

The oldest son in my family.  He's now in university.  We're trying to tell Barbra how to use the camera!

All of the head teachers I worked with in my community

My Farewell Party with the head teachers of 15 schools

The "African Outfit" the head teachers gave me so I could show African style in America

Getting "flowers" from the students at my center school.  These were the students that saw me most at school and around the community.

All of the teachers at my center school.  They also gave me an "African Outfit" known as a gomezi, which is a traditional Ugandan outfit for a woman.  It's usually only worn at weddings or parties.

The head teacher at my center school.

Although most Peace Corps Volunteers dream about the day they finish their service, I think everyone is surprised how difficult it can be to say good bye to your home and community.  I had spent hours envisioning my grand return to America.  Despite all this preparation, I was shocked to find myself unprepared to actually say good bye.  During my one of my farewell parties, I choked up as I was addressing the teachers.  Although crying is not socially acceptable in Uganda, I couldn't help it.  As I looked around the room full of faces that had helped me over the last two years, I couldn't believe this was going to be my last day with them.  Thankfully, everyone forgave my tears, and we were able have a really fun party.

Two years is a long time, and despite how different the culture, the climate and the food, you really learn to own it.  My last few days in Kampala was not spent at Cafe Java or New York Pizza Kitchen.  I craved local food, and surprised myself by taking huge helpings of matooke- who knows the next time I'll eat that.

When saying good bye to my family, teachers and students, I was saying good bye to my Peace Corps life.  Yes, I was looking forward to running water, reliable electricity and ice cream; however, I was saying good bye to adventure.  Every day in Peace Corps is not an adventure, but you certainly get your fill over the two years of service.  I found it thrilling to bargin down prices, catch local transport, travel all over, set my own schedule, finish difficult projects and try new foods.  I spent two years being a "Peace Corps Volunteer."  If you don't know, that title trumps everything else in the volunteer world.  We have the longest commitment, the lowest pay, the worst living conditions and tend to be the most culturally sensitive.  It's nice to feel like you're at the top of the totem pole, even if most people wouldn't want to be on that totem pole to begin with.

My last night in Uganda was spent with all my Peace Corps friends out dancing our hearts out.  As our last night out, we stayed out as late as possible, even though my flight was at 4 am.  I ended up having to dash back to the hotel, ditch the sweaty clothes, shower in a mad frenzy, check to make sure I had my passport at least, jump in a taxi and pray I made my flight!  Of course I did, but as I boarded the plane, I knew I had firmly closed the chapter of my life labeled "Peace Corps."

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Peace Corps & Uganda by Numbers

44 – People in my training class when we arrived to Uganda
32 – People at my Close of Service Conference
21 – Age of our youngest volunteer at the beginning of service (it wasn’t me!)
3 – Pairs of running shoes loved and destroyed in Uganda
2 – Hours my computer lasts without power
5 – Liters of water I drink daily
15 – Government schools that I work with
45 – Minutes to my closest volunteer
48 – Vacation days over two years
20G – Amount of music acquired in two years
$8 – Cost of a hotel room that your average Peace Corps Volunteer stays in
4-10 – Tomatoes eaten daily
100 – Jerricans waiting to be filled at my borehole during dry season
54 – Languages spoken in Uganda
$2 – Cost of local lunch of beef with huge portions
0 – Times I used my sleeping bag (why did people say to bring this?!)
8 – Inches cut off my hair for Peace Corps and completely regretted
5 – Journals filled during my Peace Corps Service
$296 – Monthly Peace Corps salary
3rd – Highest birth rate in the world
13 – TV series watched while in country, some of them multiple times
6 – Hours to reach the capital, Kampala, from my site
3 – Dead rats found in my house
$0.40 – Cost of a Coca Cola in the village
14 – Passengers legally allowed on a taxi
22 – Passengers usually on a taxi in my region (not including babies and small children)
41 – Plays in the past month of the song “Coming Home” because I’m COMING HOME
1 – Day remaining in my Peace Corps Service

Monday, February 11, 2013

Offically an Oldtimer

Today, I celebrate the two-year anniversary of my arrival to Uganda.  Time has been very warped throughout my service.  I never thought training would come to an end.  There have been some days when I was completely stumped by how to get through 12 hours of sunlight.  There have been some meetings that dragged on so slowly, I was convinced my watch was broken and I might pass out from hunger.  On the other hand, there have been weeks when I didn’t have enough time to get everything done.  My vacation days certainly flew by! 

Yesterday, Aubrey and I were hanging out with a new volunteer.  She got to site about three weeks ago.  It was surreal to hear her questions and find myself rattling off advice.  I found myself realizing, Oh my god, we’re the most experienced volunteers in country now, except for the people that extended for another year.  Despite feeling like I never had any of the answers and so many things were just beyond my control or understanding, I suddenly found myself having quite a lot of answers.  At some point during our informal Q&A, she asked, “Does your service go fast?”  One year ago, I would have said “Hell no!”  But at the two-year mark, I said, “Yeah, it really does.”  And I was being completely honest!

As I reflected today, amazed that I’ve been in Uganda for two years, 104 weeks, 731 days (last year was a Leap Year!), I thought about how different my life has become.  For two years, I have…

  •   Bathed outside, completely exposed to the elements, including lots of mosquitoes and sometimes rain.
  •   Used the metric system (it rocks!), i.e. “I just drank two liters of water”
  •   Texted using T9 (predictive texting).  For those of you that don’t know, it’s a texting system that doesn’t use a nifty keyboard like an iPhone, but just the numbers.  I’m super fast!
  •   Taken malaria prophylaxis- preventative medication for malaria.  That’s 731 pills!
  •   Been confused how to spell center, color, counselor, recognize, behavior, etc.  In British English, they are spelled centre, colour, counsellor, recognise and behaviour.
  •   Worn 45 SPF everyday on my face, neck and chest.  I still think my skin got sun damaged over two years!
  •  Drank water from plastic bottles when away from home.  Still got giardia at least once.
  •  Covered my thighs, unless at home or the pool.  Thighs in Uganda are your “power,” and it’s very inappropriate to show anything above your knee.  That being said, I am appalled when I see someone showing their power- usually tourists.  American summer is going to be shocking!
  •  Spoken “Uganglish” to most Ugandans.  Uganglish is a term coined by PCVs that refers to slowing down your English and annunciating very clearly.  Do you ever notice that Americans say “wader” instead of “water.”  It’s very confusing for Ugandans.  Some PCVs throw in a British accent too.  It’s awkward, but necessary.
  •  Slept under a mosquito net.  It’s very confining, but comforting because it keeps you safe from mosquitoes, rats, cockroaches, spiders and lizards.
  • Been able to dance like a maniac without caring.  Ugandans are awesome dancers and totally encourage enthusiastic dancing.  Aubrey and I have decided to hit the clubs together when we get home so we can get adjusted to American appropriate dancing.
  •  Used a currency whose lowest denomination is 50 shillings, although those coins are very rare.  I have made purchases of 1 million shillings.  Shillionaire!
  •  Worried about my “airtime.”  In Uganda, you have to load money to make calls or send texts.  It’s a pay-as-you-go system.  It can be really stressful when you run out of airtime and need to reach someone.  Even if you have it, you are constantly trying to calculate how much longer your call can last.
  •   Turned down marriage proposals.  Although, I didn’t get nearly as many after Nathan’s visit!
  •   Explained Americans and our behavior.  Yes, we talk fast.  No, we don’t marry our cousins.  No, we don’t eat posho.  Yes, women wear trousers (pants in British English refers to panties!).

The last two years have been an amazing adventure.  Although some of my things seemed negative, it’s all been part of the experience.  Two years ago, I ate my first Ugandan food with 43 other sleepy and confused newbees, attempting awkward conversations while we were thinking, “Oh no, what have I gotten myself into?”

Towards the end of my conversation with the new PCV, she finally asked the big question- the question every PCV is wondering during their first doubtful few months.  “Are you happy that you did Peace Corps?”  Without a pause, both Aubrey and I said, “Yes.”

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Note to Self

“When you were trainees, two years ago, we asked you to write a letter to yourselves that you would open at your Close of Service Conference.”

Wait, really?

Apparently, yes.  Almost no one remembered this exercise!  Someone’s letter said, “Souvenirs are for people that have bad memories.”  I guess we all needed that souvenir.

As I was handed my envelope, I was convinced my letter would be short and sweet, if it even existed at all.  Imagine my surprise when I opened a two-page letter, front and back.  I should have known better- I’m sure you’ve noticed that I have a tendency to ramble.

Obviously, two pages- front and back - is too long to post here.  Here are the highlights:

April 15, 2011

Hey self,

So currently, I’m sitting at my host family’s kitchen table wondering what you’ll want to hear about two years from now.  It’s the last day of training- thank god…

I sincerely can’t express how happy and relieved I am to be done with training.  It was such an absurd event that felt like it was never going to end...
Our trainers said that training was the most difficult part of their service.  Is that how you feel now?

We move to our sites in one week.  I’m honestly a little concerned about getting all my *stuff* there.  I’m sure that will be an experience.  I’m looking forward to finally getting to site and starting this whole experience.  I hope I can get my house set up to the point where it feels like home.  As of now, I can only think of that windowless cement box as a suffocating cave.  Yeah, a little bleak, but I’m sure it’ll get there…

Shirley said something about writing aspirations or something like that.  I’ll do my best.
1.     To become integrated into the community
2.     To make a difference, somehow, even if it’s small
3.     To make Ugandan and PCV friends
4.     To figure out what my next life step is
5.     To learn more about Uganda
6.     To share about America
7.     To have fun and stay healthy

Hopefully some of these got accomplished.  Even though it’s last, I think #7 is the most important.  I really hope that I can look back on the last two years and say that I really enjoyed my Peace Corps experience and that I stayed happy and well…

I guess I have more questions for my future self than I really have to tell you.
1.     Is it everything you thought it’d be? (à la John-Paul style)
2.     I’m so curious about which PCVs you’re close to now!  And how you all stay in touch after service.
3.     As of now, I’m thinking about going into non-profit business, maybe education, maybe development…So what am I doing now?  Did all that change?  Do I still want to go back to school?  Where am I going back to?  California?
4.     It’s weird.  Now I’m just getting over the initial hump of culture shock entering Uganda, you’re about to experience culture shock, in reverse.  What are your fears about that…?
5.     I’m very interested in the whole Nathan situation and how that all played out two years from now.  Two years is a short and long time all at once.  I hope it’s not too sore of a subject, but did it all work out?  Right now, I feel pretty good about our relationship… Congrats if you made it.  Sorry if you didn’t.  Hope it wasn’t too much of a mess, but knowing me, I’m sure it was a complete transcontinental disaster.
6.     With the largest portion of starches I’ve ever had in my life and the limited exercise, I’m pretty sure I’ve put on 10 pounds.  I hope that’s not actually true, but it definitely could be.  I really hope I find a better balance at site…
7.     I wonder what you consider to be your greatest accomplishment in service?
8.     What are you going to miss the most about Uganda?
9.     What are you looking forward to most in the states?
10.  Did you keep up with your blog?  I know in the beginning I really didn’t think I would, but I got pretty into it during training…

I really hope Peace Corps service and these last two years were everything you’d hope they’d be.  I really hope you enjoyed your time in Uganda.

I should probably actually get to sessions because I skipped out this morning to do washing…

A quote that Ilse gave to us yesterday: “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”

Congratulations kiddo.  You made it.


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Joy of Eating, Laundry and Google

Despite my last post, of course not everything in America was confusing and awkward.  Here’s a short list of what I loved in America, besides my family, friends and Nathan.

1.     Free refills.  You don’t think about it too often, I’m sure, but free refills are awesome!  And you should take full advantage when you can.  At most restaurants, I was drinking at least six Diet Cokes, to my mom’s dismay.  One restaurant was slow at bringing my drinks, so I requested two glasses at a time.  Obviously, Uganda sells their soda in bottles.  If you feel the urge for another one, you have to pay for it!  Unfortunately, I think I was constantly overdosed on caffeine.

2.     Grocery stores- with a car.  Kampala has some pretty big grocery stores, so the sheer size of our grocery stores didn’t overwhelm me.  What did- I actually wanted everything in the store.  And, I wasn’t limited!  I could buy a whole grocery cart and put it in the car to take home.  Holy cow.  When I realized that, I couldn’t make any decisions.  When I got used to it though, I was so happy to go to the grocery store.  And you have a refrigerator so your food doesn’t go bad in two days!

3.     Food!  Greek yogurt, frozen yogurt, ice cream, cinnamon rolls, bacon, steak, bread, sandwiches, salads, broccoli, soup, strawberries, blackberries, pie, In-N-Out, Chipotle, chips, salsa, pancakes, whipped cream, Starbucks, garlic bread, crème brulee… ah such good food!  But by the end of the three weeks, I felt like I had eaten too much.  I was ready for a break!  (The first question PCVs asked me when I came home- what did you eat?!  Then they hate me for listing all the amazing food I ate).

4.     Running.  No one bothered me.  No one was following me.  No one was yelling at me.  I didn’t have to worry about getting hit by a motorcycle, car or cow.  I think I looked paranoid because I kept looking behind me, expecting to see little kids trailing behind me.  It was actually a little boring because I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing if I wasn’t waving at everyone, looking for oncoming disasters and dodging goats.  My runs became peaceful and unrestrained by the sunset- it’s pretty safe to run at night!

5.     The washing machine.  I washed my clothes at least every other day.  I honestly can’t believe that I used to dread doing laundry.  It involves almost no effort.  I was so happy to have clean, warm clothes out of the dryer.  On that same note: a dishwasher.  Sometimes I just reuse dishes in Uganda to avoid doing dishes…  Currently, I have a whole basin full of used dishes!

6.     Water.  Showering.  Washing vegetables under running water, instead of soaking them in a bowl.  Drinking water from the tap. Never worrying about fetching water, how much water I have in my house, being able to get clean water, etc.  However, I did get anxious one night when it was raining, and I had no basins to put out.

7.     Credit cards.  Although I think I want to use cash more often than I did pre-Post Corps, it was great to charge something!  You never had to worry about how much cash you had on you.  I had a hard time using cash anyway.  All the bills are green!  How do you tell them apart in your wallet?

8.     Netflix.  Streaming TV shows is awesome!

9.     Fast internet.  Not just fast internet.  Not having to plug in a modem, wait for it set up, then log on.  Internet is just up and running once your computer is.  So fast that I could use my normal gmail account without worrying about running over my internet time (some of you might not even know that you can load gmail on a basic html!)

10. Cars.  I never actually drove when I was home.  Newport streets are either really narrow or four lanes wide!  I was too scared to drive my mom’s big SUV, my brother’s pick up truck and I can’t even drive Nathan’s manual car.  Thanks for everyone chauffeuring me around!  It was nice knowing that when you got in the car, it was going where you wanted it to go.  You could leave things in it!

11. The radio.  When you listen to the radio in Uganda, and an American song comes on, you have to get into it!  It’s YOUR jam, even if it’s Vanessa Williams.  In America, I was excited about all the music!

12. Being invisible.  Not actually, of course.  But it’s so rude to stare at anyone in America; whereas in Uganda, people easily can stare at me for five straight minutes.  Even when I was dancing in the grocery store, I didn’t get a single look!

13. Dogs.  As my mom says, I’m not the biggest dog person in the world.  Barking tends to drive me crazy.  But, I had really missed all the dogs in my life.  Shout out to Kosmo, Henri, Riley and Shasta.  It was so nice to snuggle up with them, especially because they kept me warm.

14. Carpet.  Yes, this partially has to do with my cold feet, but carpet is just nice on your feet in the morning.  Basically all Ugandan houses have a cement floor.  Unless you’re meticulous and clean the floor often- like Ugandans do- you wake up in the morning feeling grit and dirt under your feet.

15. Well-stocked restaurants.  Not once when I was home did I have to ask, “Are avocados there?”  At most Ugandan restaurants, you’re better off asking them what’s on the menu today.

16. Facials!  Yup, I got a facial when I was home.  It felt so good to have two years worth of dirt scrubbed off my face.  Looking forward to one more when I get home.

17. Google it!  Whenever people have a question about something, they just google it on their iPhones right away.  When PCVs are talking, they try to make a list of things they want to look up when they are near internet again.  And it’s the most frustrating feeling when you’re sitting in front of the computer, and you know there is something else you wanted to know.

18. Good drinks- with safe ice.  I had a fun microbrew, a mojito, a margarita, champagne, wine… well now I sound like I have a problem!  But it was really nice to some choices.  No Nile Specials (one of Uganda’s top beers)!

19. Contacts.  So nice to wear contacts again!  I am really tired of glasses.  Can’t wait to be back full time to contacts.

20. People who listened to me even if my stories were weird, crazy and didn’t make any sense.  I am so grateful for my family, friends and boyfriend that have been supportive of my service and my crazy adventure home.  Watch out guys!  I’m coming home sooooo soon!  Love you all.

Well, I feel like my list could go on and on.  As you can tell, I have missed home a lot.  I have a lot to look forward to when I come home too.  Here are some things I didn’t have a chance to do then, but I can’t wait to do when I come home for good!

1.     Hanging out on my mom’s couch
2.     Going to the dog beach with Nathan
3.     Meeting Grant’s new dog (we chose the name Cami)
4.     Seeing John-Paul’s new glass shop
5.     Going shopping with Bridgette
6.     Watching more Shark Tank
7.     Brownie ice cream sundae
8.     Going to Basil Leaf Café with my mom
9.     Hiking with my dad
10. Going to the gym- especially a gym class!
11. Pedicure
12. Sushi
13. Driving
14. Home made tacos

Here are some things that learned about America, but still don’t really understand.

1.     Instagram
2.     Pinterest
3.     “Checking in” on Facebook
4.     Gangnam style dancing- we did finally do this at our COS conference, but only Audrey knew it very well.  The rest of us just pranced around.
5.     My favorite restaurant in Newport no longer has mud pie- C’mon guys!

Raising Eyebrows in America

I always said, “I will never go home at any point during my service.  Well, unless someone is dying or something.  But otherwise, nope, I’ll never go home!”

Never say never.  I surprised myself and everyone at home when I decided to go home for Christmas.  Most of my Peace Corps friends were leaving Uganda for Christmas- Zanzibar, South Africa, England, Paris, etc.  I missed everyone at home.  I had the vacation days.  So, I booked a three-week trip back to California.

As I traveled back, I had a layover in London.  The perfect layover treat: Starbucks.  The line was at least 20 people long, but totally worth it.  I only got a hot cocoa so I could still sleep on my next flight.  Waiting at the end of line for my drink, the barista asked me, “Whipped cream?”  I responded yes.  “MISS, DO YOU WANT WHIPPED CREAM?!”  “Oh my god, yes please!” 

What the hell had happened?  I was stunned as I walked away.  Why did she yell at me?  It hit me about a minute later: I had only raised my eyebrows!  Many Ugandans express “yes” by raising their eyebrows, and maybe saying “mmmm.”  It was the first clue that coming home wouldn’t be so easy.

My first night home was my mom’s birthday.  Due to my 24 hours of traveling, we did an easy celebration of pizza at home with my brothers and Nathan.  As I savored my first piece of American pizza, I was completely overwhelmed by the rest of the table.  Everyone was talking so fast and so loud.  I also didn’t really understand what people were talking about.  I was definitely out of the pop reference loop, the football playoff lineups, the family gossip.  Everything.  I was forced to vote on Grant’s new puppy’s name.  Zoe, Sophie or Cami?!  Backup, when did Grant decide to get a puppy?!

My dad called Grant the next day.  “How’s Chelsea doing?”  Grant’s first response: “She talks so slow.”

Needless to say, social interactions were really difficult at home.  The best description of myself: painfully awkward.  I talked slow and used weird phrases, like constantly saying “Sure?” as a response.  All of my stories were about Peace Corps- as foreign to other people as the Gangnam style dance was to me.  I kept forgetting that everyone around me could understand me perfectly.  “Oh god, do you see how that girl is dressed?!”  SHHHHHHH…  Whenever I talked to someone, I never knew what to expect.  In Uganda, social situations are practically scripted.  It’s almost comforting because for the first few minutes, you know exactly how your conversation will go.  In America, people were all over the place.  I couldn’t figure out how I usually addressed someone.  In Uganda, you always have to say Sir or Madam.  When I asked an employee at the grocery store where I could find hot cocoa, I lingered wondering how to even start my question.

I was absolutely freezing the entire time I was home… in California.  During the day, it was mid 50s or 60s, and at night, it was in the 40s.  I know it makes me sound like a total baby, but my toes were numb at least 50% of the time.  I was wrapped in a blanket whenever it was somewhat appropriate.  I treasured the new Uggs my mom bought me- it was the only time my feet defrosted.  My body is completely adjusted to Uganda’s heat, humidity and sunshine.

In Uganda, the sun rises and sets at 7 pm, exactly.  Many PCVs talk about how much they miss seasons in America, but I think they forget how depressing winter sun really is.  I felt it immediately.  Why is the sun setting at 4:30 PM?!  The first week, I was falling asleep at 8 PM, about four hours after the sunset.  In Uganda, that would almost be 11 PM!  And I would want to sleep until 10 AM, although that’s pretty normal for me.  My body just couldn’t accept that there was limited sunshine.  I couldn’t get into the habit of planning for darkness that descended around 5 PM.  I finally realized that it was safe enough to run at night, so that helped me schedule.

SCHEDULING!  God, Americans like to have a plan.  Uganda has conditioned me to roll with the flow.  It’s completely acceptable to show up two hours late or to never show up at all.  Plans don’t need to made more than a few hours in advance anyway.  I always told myself that PCVs still follow American expectations when making plans with each other.  Well, we used to.  I was stressed by everyone asking me when we could hang out, see this movie, go out to dinner, etc. 

It was exacerbated by texting.  I would get texts, read them, then go back to whatever I was doing.  By the end of the first week, I thought my mom was going to strangle me.  “Why aren’t you responding me?!”  Oh, well, I was going to respond.  Texting in Uganda isn’t free- you are charged per text.  So, you usually don’t text back unless you have an answer.  Plus, I wasn’t as good texting on an iPhone as I was with T9 on my old Nokia.  Also, I was completely confused by this whole group texting.  The whole group could read my texts?!  Awesome.

Even as I’ve written this blog, I keep hearing a phrase I repeated constantly at home.  “Well, in Uganda…”  Someone finally pointed out that I was no longer in Uganda.  I became pretty frustrated with myself.  What is wrong with me?!  I am American, but I felt so uncomfortable, unnatural and just weird in my own freaking country.  Why was this so hard?

By the end of the three weeks, I did finally find my groove.  Nathan even said I got my fast talking back!  At my last dinner, John-Paul asked me if I was worried about going back to Uganda.  “Sure, I’m worried I’ll get hit by a car.”  (Not only to Ugandans drive on the side of the street, but they don’t believe that pedestrians have the right of way.  In fact, the entire system is upside down.  The rule of thumb- if something bigger than you is headed your way, better get the hell out the way!)

I know I didn’t really answer John-Paul’s real question.  He wanted to know if it was going to be hard for me to go back.  I kind of wanted to avoid it- for their sakes, not mine.  Yes, I was going to miss everyone, miss my greek yogurt, a working refrigerator and hot showers, but I wasn’t worried about coming back.  Maybe because I knew the end of my service was in sight, I could be really positive about coming back.  In fact, I was looking forward to the Ugandan sunshine, to catch up on Peace Corps gossip, to finishing up my projects, etc.

Physically, coming back wasn’t easy.  I missed my flight in London, had to sleep in the British Airways lounge in Dubai, arrived a day late and my bags got lost; however, when I reported my lost luggage, I was immediately comforted by the slow, predictable conversation.