“People think it is so exotic that we are living in Mozambique or Thailand. But they don’t realize it takes days for the laundry to dry… and only minutes to soak it with sweat.”
Robin had been filling me in on how things were progressing for her in Mozambique, the heat, the malaria. I had been moaning about things here in Thailand, ending my first month at site. I did laundry on a Monday, it rained for three days and the clothes didn’t dry until the sun came out and took some of the humidity away on Thursday. I’ve written about Robin before, my electronic pen pal. She is nearing the end of her first year in Mozambique, or perhaps her last.
We Peace Corps volunteers spend our days, and most of our energies, trying to figure out our place: walking through the fog of helplessness in not knowing what’s going on most of the time, barging headlong into the uselessness of trying to plan something, slogging through the mire of language and communication, tiptoeing on the tightrope of our jobs cautiously putting one foot in front of the other, and sometimes dawdling in our aloneness and the way we stand out. We struggle with these and maneuver through our days adapting, adjusting, reevaluating, making do, or simply shrugging them off.
There are so many things vying for our attention each day, things that offend our senses and our sensibilities. We have to get used to new foods and new flavors and a different culture’s idea of what breakfast is. In Thailand we abide by a limitless supply of rice and get accustomed to the lack of dairy and bread and pasta that we had once been used to. Each time we dip our spoons into bowls of who-knows-what we dream of pizza and burgers and good chocolate. We get in the habit of eating food that sits out from early morning until dusk in small plastic bags or unheated, unrefrigerated trays in outdoor stalls.
We endure the heat and the sweat and the feel of our clothes sticking to our skin, continually mopping our foreheads and necks. At night a fan sits next to the bed feebly forcing air through the fine mesh of our mosquito nets. Each morning we are constantly shocked by that first bucket of water poured over our heads and still we marvel at how that same bucket in the evening is such a welcome relief from the 100 degree day. We stop paying attention to the naked children running around the neighborhood before and after they get dowsed with their own buckets of water before dinner.
Our noses somehow get used to, if not wholly accustomed to, the smells of decay and heat, swampy, musty smells, whiffs of sewage and the fetor of raw meat and fish sitting out on vendors’ tables with flies infrequently swatted away. And within a few short weeks we no longer are awakened by the cackle of the roosters or the blare of the public address announcements broadcast to the village at 5 in the morning.
There are many things we see and experience that fly in the face of our American values and affront our sensibilities, our sense of propriety. These are the things that are often times the hardest to overlook, but we must turn the other cheek to them in order to continue from day to day. We need to quickly steel a live and let live attitude and consciously stop noticing: the family of three or four on a scooter, no helmets in sight; the litter; the flies, the mosquitos, the ants, the geckos and the dogs. Oh, the dogs. The dogs that seem to be everywhere with fleas and mange; eating anything that’s tossed their way, fish heads, chicken bones and all sorts of things we would never feed them back home; sleeping on the shoulder of the road or chasing us as we pass on our bicycles. (I think in one of our first medical sessions during training Dr. Rit mentioned that Thailand ranked number 1 in volunteer dog bites.)
We stop noticing that the dishes get washed in tepid water, with or without detergent and that hands don’t get washed much at all. We find toilet paper residing in cute little plastic dispensers on the dining table and is there to be used as our napkin and is never found where we’re used to seeing it. In the bathroom instead resides a spray nozzle like we have next to the kitchen sink in America, to be used in cleaning ourselves up. We get used to these things, and to so much more.
Each morning as the sun comes up with the uncomfortable heat close behind, we swing our feet onto the floor and start anew. It all becomes routine.