It was a good day. The needle on the ETometer had settled back down a bit and things were looking hopeful. The ETometer is a little imagining of mine. It’s a gauge that measures my propensity to leave the Peace Corps early, to ET. We volunteers use ET as a verb when referring to Early Termination, such as: “Mary ET’d in September,” or “Do you think Reggie will be the next to ET?” I picture my ETometer as a cross between a barometer and a geiger counter, one measuring pressure, the other my radioactive thinking. On any given day the needle swings wildly back and forth, from “I think I can do this. I can stick it out” to “I can’t stay here one more day. What the hell am I doing here?” The stupid contraption needs to be whacked on the side every now and again to settle the fluctuations down and to get a more accurate reading of what’s really going on.
At lunch this particular day my co-teacher asked if I wanted to go on a road trip with him and the other teachers at our school in April. It would be a week-long tour, by bus, up through Thailand into Laos and over to Vietnam. The price was right and I’m thinking “Hell yeah, sign me up.” This one request, this one act of inclusion, became salve for the ache of isolation and disengagement I was experiencing. This was acculturation and was one of the things I wanted to see happen to make me feel better about sticking it out for the full two years of my commitment to the Peace Corps.
With this brief exchange I was idling on cloud nine, enjoying the soft, ethereal feeling (or delusion) of finally becoming a bonafide member of my school community, someone they were willing to share a long trip with, when Bruce stopped into the office. Bruce and Myrna are Canadian artists who winter in this little village. They arrived in early November although I didn’t run into them until the beginning of December. This is their fourth year here and we forged a quick friendship based on a common language, eh? and a common segregation from the community-at-large. Here were two people I could talk to in complete sentences, at a pace and cadence I didn’t need to modulate. I could use words with more than two syllables and they spoke using definite and indefinite articles (a and the), something my kids and coworkers can’t do. Bruce dropped by to tell me that he and Myrna would be leaving in a few short weeks (their own early termination) and they wouldn’t be returning.
I was crestfallen. It’s not like we spent an inordinate amount of time together; we would run into each other on the street occasionally and we got together for dinner a couple of times. In a few short weeks they quickly became a comforting factor in my stay here. I felt a little less lonely knowing they were just on the other side of the village and that we shared many of the same struggles in living here and communicating with the locals. So in the space of a few hours the needle on my imaginary ETometer swayed and oscillated from calm to frantic.
I don’t mind being alone. Really I don’t. But to be isolated and disconnected from a community you’re supposed to call home is lonely. There’s no one to share your thoughts with, no one to share the struggles and joys of daily life with, no one who is willing to explain the things you don’t understand, no one who understands you and can see what you’re going through just by looking at you. Despite all the advances in technology and social media and smart phones and video chatting and texting and all, something is still missing. When I text and email friends back home or in other Peace Corps posts, the conversation is brief, stilted and lopsided. Immediacy, continuity and flow are flawed. On social media I find I’d rather be witty than honest. In video chats I feel like a docent, showing only the highlights of the museum’s best pieces. And I’ve always found talking on the phone intrusive, even back when phones were attached to the wall and had rotary dials. At home in the States when I felt lonely I could choose to go somewhere where fellow travelers, or sufferers, go and we could have snippets of conversation, little exchanges that went beyond, “Hello, how are you? I am fine, I am happy.” I could choose to visit close friends, sit across from them over a cup of coffee, look into their eyes and say, “I’m feeling…”