Life is Too Short to Drink Lukewarm Coffee, And Other Things I’ve Learned Since I Decided to Join the Peace Corps

It was a little over a year ago I received an email saying a package had arrived for me in the student center.  I left my textbooks open in the library, signed a confirmation for the parcel in the mailroom, and opened a big blue envelope inviting me to join the Peace Corps in Ethiopia.

I sat there, jaw-dropped.  This wasn’t how my life was supposed to happen. I was supposed to do something noble and interesting for a few months, maybe a year, and then get myself back “on track.”  I was supposed to be a part of another culture that had already enchanted me. I was supposed to work with a ministry of people who knew me and loved me and had my best interests in mind.  I was supposed to make at least a decent amount of money and maybe go to graduate school along the way. But I knew then, when I opened that big blue envelope, months after visiting a new church in San Diego and searching futilely for teaching opportunities in South Asia, a day before interviewing with suited, put-together representatives from Teach for America, that nothing else mattered.  I had to go to Ethiopia.  And I didn’t even know exactly why.

Accepting my invitation to join the Peace Corps was only complicated by the fact that I was accepted to Teach for America, an enticing and respectable opportunity for a college grad in the 2012 job market.  My family couldn’t understand why I’d chose dirty, sickly Africa over sweet, small-town Louisiana and $40,000 a year.  I wasn’t very good at articulating my decision either.  Before that big blue envelope arrived, I thought Peace Corps would be a pretty good backup plan; I imagined that my real life would shoot up into fireworks anytime soon.  Turns out, there were no bright and blazing answers in the sky.

When my placement officer from Peace Corps did call to inquire about those final things—my physical endurance, romantic involvement, and vegetarian status—she let me know I was invited to be an education volunteer somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.  Sub-Saharan Africa.  When I thought of all those countries, Kenya, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Ethiopia stuck out like a big question mark on the map.  That night, I was pretty sure God told me so long as I’d be going to Ethiopia, and only Ethiopia, He’d give me the strength to make it through.  And then there it was, right in front of me a few days later in that big blue envelope: congratulations and welcome to 27 months in ETHIOPIA.  How do you put a hunch like that into words?

I flew across the Atlantic envisioning most of my fellow volunteers to be a lot like me.  But I soon realized that although many of them liked to play Scrabble, most of my colleagues hadn’t just graduated from college, weren’t obsessed with Twitter, and could care less about hurting someone else’s feelings by having a different opinion.  I met former business executives disenchanted with the corporate ladder. I met Oregonians who talked about trees the way my friends back home talked about Jesus: life-giving, deep, holy.  But I also met Mexican-Americans, and African-Americans, and Yankee Americans, and gay Americans, and tattooed Americans and endlessly other really, really weird, really, really hippy Americans who all responded to fear and food poisoning the same way; our own feces acting as the ultimate humility-bearer.

I spent three months studying a language and eating a food I didn’t know existed as a progressive, globally minded college student.  It was during this pre-service training that I learned how to love drinking bad beer.  We’d sit there after our language class, my fellow Peace Corps Trainees and me, and drink St. George and play cards.  We pretended like we weren’t so different from everyone else in town as they made us seem.  I didn’t admit it then, but those rural Ethiopians, they with their wide eyes and gaping mouths hollering every possible derivation of the word ”foreigner,” they scared me.  Even so, I loved our three months of training: loved being taken care of by Peace Corps staff and my host family, loved the challenge of learning Afan Oromo grammar, loved walking side-by-side my new best friends.  It made me feel like I was in college again, in my sorority’s letters, at the top of my class.  What I could hardly spit out at the end of the summer, as we approached swearing-in as official Peace Corps Volunteers and moving to sites across the country, was that I still didn’t know if I could make it by myself.

I did make it, but barely.  For the first few weeks, I went everywhere with a sixty-year old man who insisted on being my Ethiopian father.  He ended up being my Ethiopian best friend.  I fetched water each morning, carrying it across the compound to my little mud house.  Eventually my arms became strong enough to move the bucket steadily, without stopping or spilling the sweet stuff all over the dry, crunchy sod. I started to bathe from that bucket in the middle of my fenced-in yard, the sun drying my naked skin before a towel could touch it.  I learned how to cook the most delicious concoctions.  I had no refrigerator but I did have the same fresh ingredients from Wednesday and Saturday markets: tomatoes, onions, garlic, kale, potatoes, bananas, avocadoes, milk, and eggs. I realized that some things actually do improve the quality of our lives, but most stuff can’t.

In making my mud house (oh—with its uneven concrete floors and enormous roly-poly population) a home, I learned that my life is only as creative as I let it become.  I can choose to live in a place that fosters curiosity and inspiration, or I can choose to watch the dishes pile and not leave bed.  I have been depressed here, sleepy and mopey all day long.  I’ve drug on through some months just because I had nothing else to do.  I have experienced a sadness that debilitates, magnified by the poverty and brokenness of all that just don’t seem right.  I’ve felt guilty for spending a dollar on a caramel macchiato in the capital.  I’ve changed my path to avoid a beggar.  There were weeks when I’d spend two hours on a cramped, smelly bus just to Skype a friend for twenty minutes.  I have surely known loneliness.

I have also known an anger that is both righteous and smothering. I’ve exposed my middle finger to more people in Ethiopia than everywhere else in the world put together.  I’ve learned insult after insult in Amharic and Afan Oromo just to keep crazy or drunk or crazily drunk men from touching my butt, inviting me to their residences, or jousting me in the middle of the street on market day. I’ve become so angry I swore I would hit a child, hit her straight across the face and not feel a twinge of guilt.  I’ve done other things I have regretted: screamed at the top of my lungs to people I love, leave my house now!  I’ve felt chaos, my blood boiling, head spinning, with nowhere but this small country town to escape.

I started running to deal with the anger.  I was slow when I began; I’m slow now.  But still, I run.  I run through the rocks, up the mountains, past the streams.  I’ve run so far into the hillsides that Ethiopia not only stops to smell like rotten body, it starts to smell like jasmine, and spring water, and life.  Sometimes the landscapes of my daybreak look like a Thomas Kincaid painting: full of light and absolutely unimaginable.  I’ve run at just the exact time to watch endangered Ethiopian wolves cavort through the brush with such speed, such grace.  Then, when the sun comes up, pink and faithful beyond the mountains, all I can say is hallelujah, amen.  I know I’m where I need to be, even if I don’t like it sometimes.

I’ve learned that no matter where you are or who you are, the things of life are ultimately the same.  You sleep, you wake; you cook, you clean; you laugh, you cry; you work, you rest; you pray, and if you’re lucky, you love.  Not always in that order.  Despite some crushes on a few handsome young men, all I’ve fallen in love with over the past year is Ethiopia.  And that’s been enough of a long and hard affair.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I have a job with complete health coverage and a significant amount of freedom to work and act based on my community’s needs and my own desires.  It’s more than most people in the world can say for themselves. I decided recently, though, that with the sixteen months I have left here, I want to be more than a displaced American.  With my white skin and dirty blonde hair, I’ll never be like them. My little friends on the street often remind me of this, their exclamations of ferenji, ferenji, ferenjooo no longer wearing on my nerves.  But I want to be able to call this place my own.

I don’t just want to make a difference, and I don’t just want to be remembered.  I want a part of my spirit to stay in this country, and I want to take Ethiopia with me wherever I go next.  Like Ethiopians, I want to drink coffee, lots of it, in many dainty cups. I want to make sure the coffee’s exactly how it should be: strong and bold and a little sweet.  I’ll be patient to let it cool if I need to.  I’ll watch the steam flow up, dance like a ghost into the air.  I’ll smell the incense on the charcoal, its scent an earthy mystery.  But I won’t settle for coffee that’s lukewarm.  I want it, like every Ethiopian does, to be just right.

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