16 August 2013

I took the one less traveled by

Despite my best efforts, I’m still not fully convinced that Mr. Frost had it right. The road that wants wear might not have been the best choice. I’m prepping for my first R&R (I kinda wish it weren’t so quick on the heels of the last two work trips, but at least the time has been passing quickly). Those of us in Bunia get a five day R&R for every 12 weeks in-country. Some whine that it’s not as much as the field bases, but it is so much nicer than Afghanistan! Sort of. It was surprisingly difficult to find someone to come hang out on the Kenyan coast for two weeks. Instead, I’m going to Uganda for the five day minimum.

As excited as I am to see some gorillas, booking a safari for one is a bit of a downer. I’ve had two companies come back and ask for confirmation that I’ll be traveling alone. As if I wouldn’t know. It’s like trying to go out to eat by yourself at a restaurant. You can sense the same pity in the email that you see in the server’s face. Oh, you poor woman. You think you’re so empowered. If you don’t learn to be less demanding, your eggs will expire.

Apparently, my neuroses have turned everyone in the service industry into my intrusive and judgmental grandmother.

Vacationing alone is not exactly an uncommon occurrence among people in my line, though. I was discussing it recently with the others (women) in my team, reflecting on how hard it can be to travel alone. We concluded that to do so effectively, you really have to know yourself. Are you happy to sit on a beach and read? Go to Zanzibar. Crave a nightlife so that you might meet new people? Try Kampala or Nairobi. Really just need a good cup of coffee and some cheese, price be damned? Amsterdam is calling. I would feel lonely and enter a spiral of self-loathing on a beach and be full of trepidation in a city I don’t know, so it’s gorillas and mountains for me!

For a lot of humanitarian workers – or soldiers, or contractors, or really anyone who lives abroad – this life can prove emotionally isolating. You talk with your friends and family about their lives, because it’s easier for you to relate to them than vice versa. It’s not that they don’t want to. It’s just that it is so different and can be hard to absorb. Moreover you don’t always want to share – it gets to be like an unintentional game of one-up-manship. You were fighting with Pepco about your bill? That sucks. We haven’t had power for a month. You forgot to get a shot at CVS and now you think you have the flu? I totally understand – this is the third time I’ve had malaria. Your new apartment is a little too close to the bars and it can be hard to sleep because of the noise? Totally – the rats and bats that live in the roof keep me up at night, too, when they start running around. Oh, you had a hard day at the office? We had to evacuate to the UN through the secret door in the back of the compound because the rioters were burning cars at the front gate (though all true, these are not exclusively my personal stories; I’ve gleaned several from colleagues). And for what it’s worth, we do it to each other, too. Oh, your significant other broke up with you? How sad. I just found out my dad died and now I have to figure out how to Skype in to deliver the eulogy.

Some people live for this difference. They toss out antidotes about bribing their way across borders or being menaced by child soldiers and then say TIA with a jaded laugh. I think that each of us strive for that somewhat. I mean, that’s pretty much what I do every time I write on here. So, yes, I do recognize the hypocrisy of complaining about how I have no one to listen on a blog. Seriously, though, ten people read this and four of them are either in Pakistan (which makes sense) or Ukraine (which…does not). To the Pakistanis, I’m sorry it’s no longer about Afghanistan.

But as much as we all reach for the studied air of the blasé aid worker, we (I) eventually get sick of putting on that armour. You get tired of making jokes about things that actually horrify you, and are too scared to admit to being horrified in the first place. So you just stop talking. How are you? I’d love to say ‘well, I went to sleep to a rat behind the tomato bowl and woke up to a cockroach in the sink. How do you think?’ But I don’t. just say ‘fine, thanks. How’d you sleep?’ So much easier just to say that you’re super busy, but the work is really rewarding and the experience is amazing and you’ll send more photos soon. At most, people want something uplifting about the work – to feel like there is some good reason why you’re so far away – balanced by funny anecdotes about how bad the roads are or the lizards you have to chase out of your bed on the cold nights. You don’t talk about the crushing loneliness or the doubts or how empty you feel or how, at some point, even the lack of power and constant cold showers move from adventure to annoyance to exhausting, monotonous reality. How you wonder if the deprivation is worse because you know that you don’t have to live like this, and then how you second-guess your choices, and then curse yourself for being both weak and spoiled. You don’t talk about it with other NGO workers, either, really, because you desperately don’t want them to know how weak you are, either. So you sit, in the quiet moments alone, with your fear and self-loathing and pain, and wait for the next morning when you can bury it all again.

You hope that there is at least one person who will be your anchor (we actually call them that. Not anchor. Person. Who’s your person, we might ask of a colleague in distress. Have you talked to your person?). Who will be willing to understand life the way you understand theirs. To ask about your day beyond ‘how’s Africa?’. And if you don’t? Well. Better words of wisdom come from Dag Hammarskjöld. Pray that your loneliness may spur you into finding something to live for, great enough to die for.