A year and a half ago, my parents and sister drove me to the Indianapolis airport in a driving rain. It was 5 a.m., still dark out, and I hadn’t slept in two days; I was turned inside out with exhaustion and nerves and anticipation. My weighed and re-weighed suitcases, 50 pounds apiece, were with us in the car, full of everything I thought I’d need to live in Zambia for 27 months. At the airport, we said goodbye. (This is a moment for which you can never prepare, even if you believe otherwise. In the moment, you are in a free fall.) I flew to Philadelphia, where the Peace Corps preparatory staging would be held for a day before we started our journey to Zambia.
In the Philadelphia airport, however, none of that had yet begun. I walked to the baggage claim area with my old life behind me, and my new life still ahead (at least until I reached the hotel). I belonged to no one and no place for about thirty minutes. Neither America or Zambia had a claim on me; it was easily one of the strangest moments of my life. Stranger, even, than a few days later, when I actually landed in Africa and set foot on it for the first time, and knew–without yet knowing how–that everything was probably going to change now, forever, or that it should.
A month ago, I came back home, and saw things from the other side.
I had been told, by other volunteers who had journeyed home and returned to Zambia, that it was easy to get used to being back in America. This is true. If you have lived in America for most of your life, and Zambia for a year and a half, you will adjust. And everything in America is easy. EASY. If you want something, it is there. Anything you can think of. Whenever you want it. I would walk into a Walgreens and goggle at the shelves. I mentioned Chinese food on the night of my arrival, and–in less than an hour–I was eating it, because someone had delivered it to me. In my old neighborhood, there are two new coffee shops in the same short stretch of buildings across the street from the train station. You can go to one, or go to the other. Or to the coffee shop down the block a bit. Up to you. The electricity never went off. The train I took to Milwaukee departed on time; my best friend bought her ticket on her phone as we sat there to show the conductor. I never waited in the cold for so much as ten seconds to attempt to hail a taxi–everyone used Uber. There were many kinds of everything.
I drank a glass of water directly from the sink. I did not have to pump the water from a borehole into a 20 liter container, carry the water home, pour the water into a filter, and wait for it to be clean. I just drank it. Let me just say something that bears repeating: this is a miracle. It is a daily miracle every single time we turn on a faucet and clean water emerges, water we personally did nothing to procure and which appears like magic, water that will not make us sick, water for everything we need. Some months before I came to America, the borehole near my home ran dry because of the lack of rain this year. My water supply was drawn from one of several holes in the ground throughout the village. When the children went for my water and brought it back, I had to be sure to ask where it came from; certain sources yielded water that could absolutely not be drunk, but which I could use for washing dishes and clothing. When I left for my trip, my host brothers had begun digging a deep hole on our family’s compound, hoping to hit water. When I returned, the rains had returned as well. The borehole is working again. Last week, I swung my can to and fro on the short walk down the path past my house to the borehole, filled the can joyfully, and practically skipped home with the heavy load. Simple as pie.
One rainy afternoon in Chicago, walking down the street with a friend, I passed a teenage girl and her younger charge, perhaps her brother, and thought of Zambian children their age. (This happened each and every time I saw a child in America.) They were comfortably dressed, wearing full backpacks, chattering away, and I abruptly realized that they were as far removed from Zambia and the daily lives of their peers there as it was possible to be. There was no overlap between the world of America and the world of Zambia, in that moment. Zambia was not even a glimmer in their eye. They did not know that it existed, what life there entailed. Earlier this year, when my school in Zambia was performing their annual tally of student information–numbers of boys, numbers of girls, et cetera–I learned that my school has 100 students who are orphans. How could I assume that these two American kids would be able to comprehend such a thing? Conversely, America looms so large, so vast and perfect and unknowable, in the minds of my Zambian students that they could scarcely frame a question when I inquired if they had anything they wanted to ask the American students I would be seeing. They came up with two: how much did bread cost in America, and were there waterfalls?
Things that were wonderful about America: meeting my new nephew. Walking back to my old apartment early one evening and smelling the catalpa trees on the corner. Autumn. Seeing my old co-workers, and being reminded that they are my friends for life. A used bookstore. Dinner with my parents. Dinner with my best friend. Beer lists.
Things that were hard: realizing that life continues on for everyone, whether or not you are there to see it. The bite of memories you put behind you, awoken by being back in a specific place. Realizing that it may be possible that you will never be able to truly be fully at home again.
At the end of my trip, my parents drove me to O’Hare to fly back to Zambia. I remember looking out the window as we drove down the highway, thinking: are you really going back? You are here now, back in the place where everything is known. But this thought was fleeting. At the airport, waiting at the gate, I felt like drinking an orange juice, so I bought one. When I landed in Dubai for my layover, I drank a glass of chilled white wine, ate dinner at an American chain restaurant, had a latte at a Starbucks. When my plane landed in Zambia, it was easily in the mid-nineties. The heat poured off of the tarmac. I made my way inside and hauled my suitcases off of the ancient baggage carousel, then walked over to the one ATM available in the tiny vestibule you pass through when departing the airport. It was out of order. I went outside, and a taxi driver approached me. We haggled over the price, then departed together. He picked up his sister on the way. When I arrived at the house of the friend with whom I was staying, there was no power or water. The next morning, I boarded the 5 a.m. bus to Solwezi. My seat was broken, and my feet rested on top of a toolbox (until I begged some men to move it). The door to the bus was only partially attached, and the driver had to secure it by tying it to the railing on the inside steps with a rope.
And when I made it back to my village, and walked onto my family’s compound, and saw all of my host brothers and sisters come running–my Stan, and Ernest, and Emma, and Benny, and everyone–and greeted and kissed and hugged, and talked to my host father and caught up on the family news, and began to unpack while Stan sat on one of my suitcases and pretended to read a Dostoevsky book I had brought with me, I was completely, profoundly happy.
This is a picture of the last meal I had before I came back to Zambia.