Today marks one month since a flight from Beijing touched down at Dulles International Airport with me on it. It’s been a month of reconnecting with the old familiar and connecting with new folks. A month of rediscovering the city that is the epitome of home. As I reflect on the past month, I figured that I’d share some of the moments that stand out since I’ve been back and some frequently asked questions.
How was it?
– This is one of the most difficult questions to answer. How was what? After 2.5 years away, I’ve done a few things. There was the Peace Corps thing, the AfrikaBurn thing, and the travel around Asia thing among other things.
What are you doing/going to do now?
– Retire. Just kidding. I wish I could. I’m job searching and getting used to life in the city again.
How are you doing with readjustment?
– Eh. Like anything else in life, it varies with the day. Sometimes, it varies within the day. Overall, it’s good. As my uncle would say: “I’m living indoors and eating three meals a day, so I’m pretty good.”
Since I’ve been back, there are things I’ve noticed about the city and things I’ve noticed about myself.
As I was waiting for the bus to come in Northern Virginia, I overheard a lady talking on her phone. She was lamenting about the bus system here doesn’t display when the next bus will come like Seattle’s bus system. She continued that a website stated that the bus was five minutes late. I chuckled to myself as I remembered hoping that the bus (in eSwatini) would come some days. If it didn’t, try again tomorrow. Patience truly is a virtue.
A local DC friend, who currently lives in Thailand, was home visiting when I first returned. As we were catching up and hanging out, we shared a moment about water. We were talking about how amazing it is to have indoor plumbing. To be able to turn on a faucet and drink the water. Fantastic! No worrying about the sickness or death that could follow. It’s a great feeling.
The city is different, but familiar. There is a plethora of electric scooters available for rent around the city. Capital Bikeshare has added Plus bikes, which have electric pedal assist. They are really fast. Speaking of bikes, I’ve celebrated New Bike Day twice since my return. Riding on pavement and tarred roads is beyond awesome. One of my favorite restaurants in the city, Los Hermanos, is still on Park Road and it’s still wonderfully delicious. It was the only food I came back to the US desiring.
The photo above is a small group of RPCVs from G14 gathering for a birthday celebration. I am extremely thankful to have served with such supportive people.
Be kind to yourself.
P.S. – As a cyclist, one of the most important holidays is New Bike Day. Here’s a picture of my new ride (one of them):
P.P.S. – This series, “Monday in a Picture” will continue through the end of the year. After that, updates won’t be as frequent.
I love food. Especially good food. It’s one of my main reasons for traveling to new places. Street food is an exceptional favorite. Walking around to take in the sights and sounds gets enhanced by the smells. Since I arrived in India, I have learned that most of what the western world eats as Indian food comes from northern India. As a very large country with different cultures, languages, and people, Indian cuisine is more than curries, biryani, and naan. Each of the states have their own culinary traditions.
Since arriving in India a little more than a week ago, I have kept my eyes and nostrils open for potential street food adventures. The collage above features some of the street food I ate during my first week in Mumbai. While roaming the city, I try to notice street food places where many people are congregating. Though not always true, popular can insinuate good taste.
In the top left is a dish that I can’t remember the name of, but it is traditional served as breakfast in Mumbai and surrounding regions. The sauce is soupy and spicy, but the spice is a slowly building, subtle spice. Moving clockwise, this snack is known as vada pav. A roll is spilt to allow a spicy chutney and a dab of other chillies to put on the bread. The roll is then filled with fresh, hot fried potatoes that have been coated in a light batter. This roll was exceptionally delicious. Continuing clockwise, this is a dessert/snack and I’m not sure of its name. It’s some kind of fried dough and it’s extremely sweet. Like biting into concentrated sugar. It reminded me of the South African dessert, koeksister. Lastly, there’s the amul dabeli. It’s a small sandwich that starts with some spicy chutney spread on the bun. There’s a mixture of stuff that goes into the sandwich filling including a spicy potato mixture, pomegranates, and cilantro. It’s a decadent mix of spicy and sweet without being too much of either. So far, this might be my favorite of the street foods that I have experienced.
Be kind to yourself.
Just over a month ago, I was fortunate to return to
Karoo National Park the Stonehenge Private Reserve in the Northern Cape of South Africa. The occasion? AfrikaBurn. AfrikaBurn is a regional event of the Burning Man network. It’s the largest of the regional events and the first on the continent of Africa.
When I first received my invitation to serve in eSwatini, I was overjoyed because attending AfrikaBurn went from “possible” to “highly probable”. On occasion, AfrikaBurn or Burning Man would come up in conversations with fellow PCVs. One question kept surfacing. What is AfrikaBurn? Before April 2017, I could only give the textbook answer: “AfrikaBurn is a regional event of the Burning Man network” . Some people would delve further. What is Burning Man? My response was almost always the same. “What I’m about to say won’t make sense, but Burning Man is everything.” Most people agreed. My comments made no sense.
When the theme for the twelfth AfrikaBurn was released, I was indifferent. The theme was “Working Title”. While reading about how this theme was chosen, I got more excited. Working Title is a name given to something still being created. Because that thing is still being created, it can be anything. There can also be collaborations with co-creators. “Working Title” made perfect sense! AfrikaBurn, Burning Man, and other similar events are works in progress. We get to collaborate to make it what we want.
I had an idea. I designed stickers to look like movie slates. On the sticker, the open ended sentence started, “AfrikaBurn is”. Participants were asked to complete the sentence. Afterwards, I asked to snap a photo of the sticker.
So, what is AfrikaBurn?
AfrikaBurn is fuzzy.
AfrikaBurn is freedom.
AfrikaBurn is freeing.
AfrikaBurn is the best experience of your life.
AfrikaBurn is Radio Free Tankwa.
AfrikaBurn is 37 24 16 V M 27 Clap 37.
AfrikaBurn is stepping into your true self.
AfrikaBurn is unicorn exposure.
These were some of responses. AfrikaBurn, like life, is different for everyone. The idea that we get to co-create the experience is magical. Ask any of the 7 billion human inhabitants of Earth what life is. You’re bound to get different answers. The answers may even change with time. None of them are wrong. AfrikaBurn is similar. Everyone has their own unique experience. Everyone is the director, screenwriter, and leading actor. It’s a beautiful thing. So, what is AfrikaBurn? You decide.
Be kind to yourself.
Recently, I’ve had time to reflect. We had our COS conference last week. Three weeks ago, I was galavanting in the Karoo desert during the experience that is AfrikaBurn. Last month marked eight years since my mother died after a long illness.
As I’ve been reflecting, some things became clearer to me. These are five recurring themes that I’ve learned from burns, service, and life.
There’s a saying that there is no time like the present. Strike while the iron is hot. While it’s true that no moment lasts forever, it’s also true that life and all the things in it (including AfrikaBurn and Peace Corps) are mere moments. Admitting to ourselves that nothing is permanent (including us) allows us to fully engage in the now. Now is all we have. Why not love now? Forgive now. Embrace now. AfrikaBurn is seven days in a desert. Peace Corps is more than two years in an foreign community. While those moments won’t last, the memories do.
For the first time since I’ve started going to burns, I was ready to depart from the burn last month. AfrikaBurn was still magical. And it still left me high on life and the awesomeness of humanity. But while the high might be long lasting, it isn’t permanent. The need for a constant, permanent high is addiction.
Don’t try to recreate experiences
I remember discussing my first year at Burning Man with a friend of mine. He was excited as I recounted fond memories. I remember him expressing his desire to recreate my Burning Man experience for himself. When I was doing research on Peace Corps before I joined, I saw many volunteers doing amazing work. I arrived in Swaziland, and thought of replicating the work being done by the previous group. It makes sense. They are successful. I want to be successful. I need to do what they’re doing. I believe that the experience we have is heavily influenced by many factors including where we are in life at that time. The factors that made my first year at Burning Man so amazing might not be present in your life at this time. And that’s okay. I believe inspiration and aspirations are powerful, but they don’t have to dictate our path and experience. You are the creator of your own experience. Which leads me to…
It’s all made up
Everything that we see, hear, do and experience is all made up. JFK made up the Peace Corps. Larry Harvey made up Burning Man. Al Gore made up the internet. When wild imaginations are left in childhood, we try to create a better today instead innovating an exciting tomorrow. Life, like AfrikaBurn and Peace Corps, encourages experimentation and innovation. There’s even a camp at Burning Man called, “It’s All Made Up”. Shouts to the IAMU crew. Again, it’s up to us to create and co-create this thing called life.
Sit face to face with people
We live in a world with many things competing for our attention. Partially because of that, sensationalism abounds. We end up with strong opinions of people we’ve never met and know very little about. Real life people become the nameless, faceless “them” or “they”. This changes when we sit with someone, formerly known as strange(r), and experience their humaness through interactions. Suddenly, Burners aren’t a bunch of naked hippies doing drugs in a desert and Swazis (and by extension, Africans) aren’t a bunch of unintelligent, poor people living in mud huts. When we meet face to face, there is often some common ground. We get to deconstruct the single story bestowed on those who want to share their own stories. Even without common language, interests, and/or ideologies, we’re all humans sharing this planet.
One of the principles of Burning Man culture is “participation”. To me, a large part of that participation is done through interacting with the space and the people in it. Through interaction, we co-create the life experience. In Peace Corps, I’ve found that magic happens when I am a participant in my community. Interacting with the community promotes growth and gets things done. Interaction also promotes relationships and seeing people as more than simple mediums if transaction.
Be kind to yourself.
They will question your/
life’s decisions because they/
are afraid to live.
How much of my life/
would make sense if I wasn’t/
the one living it?
to find solace in things I don’t understand.
Starting to think
that not everything is meant to be understood.
Some shit just is,
while some isn’t.
Some will never be.
My understanding of the world changes,
as the world changes me.
The world is ever changing.
We keep living.
Understanding the world is not a prerequisite for life .
Some seek to be understood.
Some seek to be right.
I think about the day
when we will just seek to be.
This question gets asked by many people. Community members and other Swazis are interested. Friends and family in America want to know. Friends that I haven’t met yet are curious. Of course, potential Peace Corps volunteers want a glimpse into what is potentially ahead of them.
For starters, I’m a Youth Development volunteer in Swaziland. Unlike some Peace Corps sectors, like Education, we don’t have a preset schedule. We also don’t have a specific job description. We are given the opportunity to make our own daily itinerary and work within our framework. In Swaziland, we aren’t assigned to work with a particular organization or person. We’re assigned to an entire rural community.
Though the days vary, I would like to present what a typical day for myself is like.
I wake up between 0530 and 0630 during the week, and sometimes on weekends. I boil a kettle of water (to shower) while I do other morning tasks. After showering, I make breakfast (typically oatmeal with cinnamon and brown sugar) and get dressed.
I try to leave my house by 0700, if I’m going to walk to the high school. I can leave at 0710 if I am going to bike. The school is just under two kilometers from my homestead. At school, I teach life skills. The school administration has also given me some class periods to teach “youth development”. While there is a full grade-specific curriculum for the life skills classes from the Ministry of Education, the youth development time is up to me and my creativity.
I have taught lessons on resiliency, confidence, and leadership from various curriculums floating around Peace Corps. I have lead the students on team building and trust exercises. We tried to play some improv games, but that wasn’t successful. We have played a life skills board game designed by some PCVs who came before my time. I have discussed debatable topics before having students take positions and debate in class. There are also times when the students have vast questions about America. Being the resident American, I get to answer these questions. Sometimes, these question and answer sessions will last for an entire period.
When I’m not teaching (which is often), I hang out in the staff workroom. Sometimes, I’m chatting with other teachers and trying to pick up more siSwati, or discussing life and ideas. Most times, I’m reading a book on the kindle. I bring my lunch to school everyday. It’s almost always leftovers from whatever I made the previous evening. I should mention that there are many impromptu conversations with students, teachers, administration and other community members that happen regarding possible activities, projects, and grants. Some of it pans out. Some of it doesn’t. Impromptu conversation is partly responsible for me teaching a class.
School dismisses at 1535. After school, I ride or walk home. I change into some kind of lounge wear and sit on my porch or go for a late afternoon bike ride. I’ll typically try to find my host mom to greet her, especially if I didn’t see her in the morning. Sometimes, neighbors or friends will stop by to chat. Sometimes, I read a book until the sun sets. This is also when I do my chores, like watering and weeding my garden, sweeping my house and porch, cutting grass or washing dishes.
Around 1800, I start the process of cooking dinner. I am often distracted by a television show or movie, so I usually end up eating around 1900. After eating dinner and finishing whatever I’m watching, it’s time to go to bed (which is typically between 2030 and 2100).
There are other things sprinkled in throughout the day. For example, I might hang out on Instagram looking for bearded PCVs to feature on @BeardsOfPeaceCorps. Sometimes, I’m asked to co-teach a class that relates to my interests, like economics or technology. My students have taught me how to play various card games. I’ve also led permagardening trainings in the community. In the interest of transparency, there are some days that I do nothing and thoroughly enjoy it.
It is both daunting and freeing to be able to do whatever you want (within reason). You want to introduce baseball or ultimate frisbee? Go for it. You want to trick children into analyzing English by studying and listening to the music of Drake and Jay Z? Why not! I’m fortunate to be hosted by a community open to trying new ideas. Thankfully, most days are incredibly freeing.
Be kind to yourself.