Monday, January 17, 2011

Going on Life

I've said it before, Peace Corps can be quite the ride, and I thought that I had just about seen the highest of the highs and lowest of the lows. I am realizing now, having seen a few higher highs and lower lows in the past month, that the roller coaster ride (which is different for every volunteer) can always throw you into an unforeseen loop. This is a good time to remind myself that I am lucky, and admit that the lows can get much, much lower (and do for many people). I would also like to share my empathy for those volunteers who do go through the worst of the worst. I can not imagine how terrible that must feel. I know that 20/20 just had a program about Peace Corps this last week, and have heard that it paints a bad picture. I haven't seen it of course, but have heard parts of the story (a PCV was raped and killed in Benin a year or two back), and that's the type of experience that would be the worst of the worst. In comparison, what has happened to me is nothing, but it is a definite low point for my service. My host mother, who was weeks overdue when I left my site for a Christmas/New Years vacation, had her baby on Christmas Day, and lost her baby four days later. When I finally arrived home from a trip that also had many ups and downs, it was the last thing I expected to hear. I showed up late in the afternoon, beating the sunset by half an hour. One of my older host brothers was standing outside.

"Hey, Pedro," I said, "How are you doing?"

"Good, Don David. You're back."

"Yeah, is your mom around?"

"Yes, but she is busy."

"Busy? Did she have her baby?"

"Have you not heard?"

He went back into the house for a couple of seconds and stepped back out. I already knew the worst, but hoped I was wrong.

"She says you may come in."

I walked in the house and saw a couple of the other kids sitting around and my host mom lying on the bed, wrapped up in the covers and a scarf around her head. She beamed when she saw me and greeted my with her usual enthusiastic, "Don David, you're back!" I had forgotten to pay the rent before I left and it was a few days late, so I immediately apologized for my tardiness and told her that I would graciously accept any penalty. She, of course, declined, and I felt terrible for both, getting it to the family late, and bringing up a subject like money when I knew what was coming next. There was no baby in the room and I had noticed that the second I walked in. She pointed to a chair as asked me to sit down. I pulled it up next to her bed, sat down, and before she could even begin talking, she lost it. To see one of the brightest. happiest, and most loving people I have ever met, in such a deep mourning, crying so hard, at the absolute bottom of her roller coaster, was indescribably heart breaking. I listened to her recant the story (that I knew was not only recanted several times, but also just as painful for her every time) and it felt like I had walked into a nightmare. The boy was born, 8 lbs., on Christmas Day. She said he was the sweetest gift from God. He seemed content to sleep and sleep, and he hardly made a sound. It was one of the happiest days of her life. The next day, he began to cry. As the crying got louder and stronger, she noticed his temperature rising. Then, he began to have trouble breathing. She did the only thing she could do, and took him to a local medicine man (don't picture a witch doctor, but that is essentially what he was). For the next two days, things continued to worsen. The fever wouldn't break, the breathing declined, and finally the heart stopped beating. Dona Cecilia didn't leave her bed for the next four days. She told me the kids pleaded with her to stop crying and get out of bed, but she just couldn't. She told me she understood it was God's will, and that it was beyond her understanding why he would take such an angel, but knew that she would have to accept it. She told me how worried she was about me during my travels and how the kids would ask her everyday where I was or when I was coming back. The youngest daughter, who can now form complete sentences, would stand outside of my door knocking and yelling my name, she said.

While all this was going on, I was on some beach in Costa Rica, or sledding down a volcano in Nicaragua, or watching a postcard sunset with a cold beer, having the time of my life, forgetting about life in the cumbre for a few days, and throwing money away on tourist traps and worthless enterprises. I was away from the family that took me in and treated me like I belonged in such a foreign place at a time when they probably needed their weird gringo the most. I came back to something I felt I never should have left, but there was nothing I could do about it. I wanted to say so many things to her, but for my lack of perfect Spanish, had to summarize my condolences. I think she understood that too. It was getting late, so I hugged her and said we could talk more the next day. I told the kids that we were going to play tomorrow, and said goodnight. I went into my room and tried to process everything.

Guilt crept in.

What if's had me pacing through my room. Could I have helped? Gotten the baby to a hospital? Been able to break the fever somehow? If not, I would have been a nice distraction for the kids, and for the rest of the family. I don't blame myself at all for any of it. I won't lie, in the weeks leading up to my Central American voyage, I was on edge and needed (and even believed I deserved) a little break. However, coming back to that made all of those needs and wants seem ridiculous. My life is so different from their's, but nonetheless, it is also just a life, and we all live one. To think that I deserved that trip, or that I needed a break from their life is very hard to swallow. The best part of me knows that I need or deserve nothing more than a roof over my head at night, and enough sustenance in my belly to get by, but the truth is, I'm not that person. To some people back home, I may appear to be making a huge sacrifice, and I won't say that the changes were easy, or adaptations haven't been made, but I could be sacrificing so much more. I feel like many other volunteers do sacrifice more, and in many ways, that probably gives them a much more gratifying experience. Eventually, my two years here will be over, just like everyone else's. Peace Corps wants every volunteer to integrate fully into their respective communities. I justified keeping a little privacy and distance from the community I live in by several means, and believe that I don't have much more room to integrate. One reason is out of respect. I feel like, even though I am a member of the community, I will always be an outsider looking in, and for me to really feel like I am integrated would mean that I am no longer an outsider. This could probably be hotly debated, but I still feel like there are some things I should definitely not participate in, and I should never put myself into a position to be viewed as an unwelcome guest (which I am certain would never be said to my face, but very possibly felt). I also don't want to pretend to live the same life, because the truth is, I never could. If I indeed sacrificed everything, what would I do when my two years are suddenly over. I couldn't just go back home and say, "I'll come back to visit! Good luck!" This experience has impacted and changed me in so many ways, but making the complete sacrifice is drastic. It is something that many Peace Corps volunteers come close to doing. I respect that, because that kind of sacrifice is exponentially more difficult with each tiny step. Like summiting Everest, only few even dare, and handfuls succeed... I realize I have been rambling, didn't intend this post to turn into this direction, and do have a point to make. Here it is. Through all of this, I have realized that my best is only better, and that's not so great to realize. I do have a threshold. I won't go down that road, and I know that it very well could be the right path. I am not willing to sacrifice everything, although many things I will. I accept it as the life I am seeking and hoping to always be a giver of much but not all. When I say, "The best I can do," it will always have a silent "almost" included. I am fine with that, but there is a small part of me that is not fine that I am fine with that, and that small part will probably never grow or go away. This is something that has been on the tip of my tongue for sometime now, and took a tragedy for me to fully understand.

The next day, I was still completely exhausted from my trip, and a usually noisy house next door was completely silent. I rested well to say the least. When I came outside the first few times, there was nobody to greet. It seemed so strange and awkward. I had only seen the house like this when the whole family would leave for an afternoon, and somehow I knew they were all there. I dared not enter their house. Finally, after lunch, I was spotted going from my kitchen to my room. I said hello, stopped and waved, and asked how are you, before going back into my room. When I emerged minutes later to feed my rabbits, eight kids were starring at me and smiling.
I greeted them all, shook all of there hands, and attempted to excuse myself to the rabbit cages. They all followed, the little ones tugging at my jeans, and the older ones watching from a distance. I went to fetch water from my pila, and they all came. I began to lift the younger ones up and throw them in the air, they all laughed. I spun them around in circles by their arms, and put the three sisters in a 55 gallon drum (a little game we like to play where I pretend to forget I put them in there and walk away around a corner). I got out my hacky sacks and let them throw them in the air and then at me. I got out my guitar and played "La Bamba" three times until I broke a string, and then showed them how I replace my strings. I lifted them up to my pull-up bar and counted off their fake pull-ups until the next one would beg for their turn. We played for almost three hours. When they seemed to begin losing interest in my guitar, I put it away and went to say hi to their mother. She greeted me warmly. I sat right where I had the day before, and it almost felt like I was returning to the scene of a crime. We talked for almost an hour, and she barely mentioned her lost child. We talked about Nic Bardo, who lived here before me. She talked about how much she missed him, and how she would miss me too when I left, and then she told me stories about how he loved to walk to the market in San Nicolas, and how he loved to play soccer with the boys (something I rarely do, but might start doing more often). She said his parents had came and told me a story about her terrible ear infection and how they had helped. Then she started talking about all the other volunteers that she had seen before him, and how special they all were to her, each in their separate ways. We talked about her family, sisters and brothers, in-laws and cousins, her other children and her husband. She talked sometimes until the animation would lift her to an upright position, and she would seemingly forget why she was lying in bed in the first place. After I felt I had stayed my welcome, I wished her a pleasant evening and returned to my house.

I feel for her and her family so much, and I know that when my time comes to leave, the absolute hardest part will be saying goodbye to them. I will never forget the sort of lives they lead as I return to mine back home. I have learned many lessons here, but I know I cannot stay, this isn't my place, it's not the life for me, and I will have sacrificed no more than I could, and certainly less. Most of me is fine with that.