Intense learnings, followed by intense reflections. As of late, that seems to be my rhythm of life. So many new experiences and situations that I never would have imagined myself in, not in a million years.
I am one of two former Bolivia volunteers who chose to continue service in Africa. We had a range of choices- among them various countries in Latin America, plus Bulgaria, China, and a sprinkling of options in Africa. I have been asked numerous times why I would choose to go to the Gambia. Why of all places, if I was offered Caribbean islands or Costa Rica, did I pick a place that I myself had never even heard of?
This is especially mind-boggling for the Gambia’s volunteers who dream of being in Latin America and whose jaw-dropping reactions to my casual mention of living in the Amazon and Andes is quite comparable to my giddiness when directions to a friend’s house includes the phrase, “Just walk towards the ocean.”
My decision to leave Latin America and come to Africa, however naïve, was fueled by the desire to experience something different. I felt I had spent enough time in Central and South America that I had a good enough grasp of the language and culture that I wanted to travel and live in a part of the world that was completely foreign to me.
I also knew that one year ago when I received my invitation to be a volunteer in Bolivia, had the invitation been to Africa I would have had serious doubts on whether I would really make it. Bolivia provided the training wheels I needed to feel comfortable with an offer for the other side of the world. So of course, though I am about to be the veteran in a group of trainees that have not yet experienced Peace Corps life, I do have a very high level of respect for those who come in totally green and take the plunge without testing the waters. I don’t know that I could have done it.
My first week in country I went to visit a volunteer in an extremely rural site. I thought it would be so different. What I’m finding though, is despite the difference in modern conveniences and luxuries (ie. a toilet), the Peace Corps experience continues to be very similar. The details change but the ideas remain the same. Instead of being called a “chinita,” I now get “TOUBAB!!” Kids still love to talk to you and men still love to hit on you. Major infrastructure does not exist, roads are just sand instead of dirt, patience is of the utmost importance, and sitting around relaxing and talking is still a major past time.
There has been one notable difference that I can’t get over here in the Gambia, and that is the attitude towards Peace Corps volunteers. They love them. I remember one time at a taxi stand in Bolivia when some random Bolivian struck up a conversation with me and asked what I was doing in the country. I told him I was a Peace Corps volunteer and he responded by dropping his voice to a whisper and saying, “That’s not something you want to be telling strangers. I work for the Embassy…I know.”
In the Gambia, though, being associated with the Peace Corps is a sign of status, a badge of honor, a free pass through police checkpoints and an intimidation factor that brings shame and embarrassment to out-of-line officials looking for bribes. It gets discounts and warm welcomes into restaurants and clubs where DJ’s grandly announce the entrance of a group of volunteers.
Moving from an area where volunteer status warranted accusations of spying and sterilizing women to one where I am regarded as a superstar and a hero is quite a change of pace. Forget the changes in religion, politics, language, and culture. Just give me a second to get used to that one.