Aaron’s been laughing at me because a group of Italians made me nervous to go back to the US. We spent last weekend at a fancy resort in a national park, and in the middle of our lunch a group of fifty or so Italians joined us on the deck. The few couples and friends who were all enjoying their meals with a view of the river soon got a view of the tour group’s backsides as these interlopers crowded in front of tables to take photos, yell at each other across the other guests, and then go pile mounds of food on their plates and sit down. I looked at them, horrified, and told Aaron I wasn’t sure I could live in the US. “They’re Italian, Leslie,” he said, but then he also started eating quickly and we got the heck out of there. It was a funny thing to prompt it, but it really got me thinking about what moving back to the US means. We’ve been trying to process our time in Uganda and what’s next for us in the States, but it’s hard to put five years of life into the 30 seconds that we expect to be given in conversation. I’m full of excitement, but also a little nervous, and I will probably stand out as a complete weirdo as I re-enter American society.
In 2005, when I emerged from Malawi after two years, the two first things I noticed as distinctly different then when I stepped on the plane were texting and Frappuccino Lights. On the little tram between terminals at one mid-journey airport the teenagers, particularly, were all tapping away at their phones sending messages. At the next airport I approached the Starbucks counter warily – it had been a very long time since coffee did not come instant from a can – and asked the difference between a normal Frappuccino and this new light version. The guy behind the counter looked at me like I had just lived in a village for two years. I just stared back. The busyness of the airport also overwhelmed me a little. I was used to two, maybe three hours of interaction with people a day, and all of it at a walking pace. This was a race of humans streaming by me as I sat in the airport cross-stitching. “How did you get that needle and scissors past security?” asked one woman. “Oh,” I said, “I guess I just forgot.” I didn’t mention that I don’t think Malawi even had x-ray scanners and certainly wasn’t looking for a pair of mini scissors disguised as a pen that had offered unending delight to my village kiddos who tricked each other all the time by offering them the “pen”.
Now, the two things that immediately come to mind–don’t judge, these are just my very first two thoughts–when I think of reentering life in the US is cauliflower rice and USB chargers in cars. Blame Pinterest for the cauliflower rice (but what is this, really?!?) and the fact that our car here got broken into and our plug-into-the-cigarette-lighter phone charger went missing (as did the cigarette lighter) combined with shopping for a car for the second. These don’t seem particularly earth-shattering things, but then again, Frappuccinos weren’t either. (I blame my disorientation of that back-from-Malawi journey on the fact that the entire 48 hours felt nearly impossible to reconcile with my life in the village.) This time I’ve been back to the US on five trips in five years, although stacked toward the end, and I had internet even during those first two years and so I am not quite the new-world newbie that I was from Malawi. The world can’t sneak up on me quite like it did before.
A few months ago, Aaron and I spoke at Peace Corps’s Close Of Service conference for current volunteers about to leave Uganda. Readjustment is hard, and one of the hallmark examples is crying in the grocery store because of all the choices. I had to tell them that returning from Malawi, I rejoiced at the cereal selection. Then the amount of people all got a bit too much and I quickly wrapped up the trip, but still: Cinnamon Toast Crunch hadn’t changed in two years and was every bit as wonderful as I remembered. I did say the hardest part was people asking how my “trip” was after two years away. Speaking at the conference was like speaking to myself, since we were essentially leaving Uganda at the same time, and it was a great experience.
As a nice bookend to talking with the outgoing group of volunteers, a few weeks ago I led a training for the incoming class of Peace Corps Volunteers on community mobilization. During my hour-long session, I repeated the words “learn” and “listen” approximately one bajillion times. It has certainly been my mantra for my time here: from experiencing and asking about Ugandan culture to figuring out how to lead a nonprofit organization, I’ve been stretched more than I expected. I assume the same thing will happen when we get back to the States. I mean, I’m going to let rice be rice, but otherwise, I hope to embrace changes and explore our new home in Charleston. (One more caveat: all I hope to learn about humidity is how to live in a house with air conditioning for the first time in my life.) I know I won’t love everything about being back—there’s a reason those Italians made me think of Americans, and it wasn’t just because several of them were wearing red baseball hats with white lettering that made me look twice before I made out that it said Actionaid—but there’s a lot I’m looking forward to. I don’t really have an answer yet to what I learned or what things were like for the past five years, but I know that I’m excited for the adventures to come and I’m so glad we have had our experience here in Uganda. Just please be warned that if you ask me “how was your trip,” I will kick you. It was a crazy, fun, hard, long, short, and sometimes disorienting five years of my life, thank you very much.