When you can’t put a bow on it

This is not one of those end-of-an-experience obligatory tie-everything-up posts. It’s not a how-to guide or a personal reflection about growth and character. Well, admittedly, there might be a bit of this thrown in.

At the end of a major chapter of one’s life or at the clearly demarked “change routes here” sign, it is often customary to reflect on one’s experiences. We use words such as “growth,” “lessons,” “perceptions,” and “fulfilling” when describing what it is we were actually doing during that month (or in this case two months) of Sundays when we were miles away from home, family, and familiar terrain. We often relive the telling moments as we put them to paper. But the way I see it, it’s really hard to put together a neat little package and tie it together with a loose ends-defying bow.

Bows aren’t on our packing lists for a reason—you can’t prepare to be prepared to leave.

I envision my “package” more like a durian, that monster of a fruit that I first witnessed on a Spice Tour on the island of Zanzibar. Never before had I seen something so deceptively sweet. Covered in treacherous spikes and hanging high above our heads, the durian smiled down on us as the guide pointed skywards and said, “it smells like hell, but it tastes like heaven.”

For two months of my life, I was a Harvard Global Health Institute intern with the Association of Private Health Facilities in Tanzania. And now that those two months have come to a close, I am unapologetically incapable of putting a bow on this internship, just as it would be silly to try to put a bow on a durian. It was meant to hang free and smelly, feared by many and enjoyed by those who are willing to take the plunge and try it.

Living in a foreign country is hard–not just inspiring, fulfilling, and adventurous 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, but full of durian spikes that get in your way and force you to accept uncomfortable experiences for reality. You will get lost, cheated, judged, and misled. You will feel tired after walking for miles in the hot sun and feel frustrated when the power inexplicably goes out. You will wonder why there is no free wifi around the corner and how long it will be before you hear your mom’s voice again. You will struggle with a foreign language and make many a cultural gaffe while you’re at it.

And then, you will be welcomed into homes and families who will treat you as their own. You will be led by total strangers who say only “karibuni, you are welcome” at each passing glance. You will taste exotic fruits and eat more rice than you have had in a Sri Lankan household. You will ride on a motorcycle for the first time and see some of the most beautiful sights you have ever seen in your life.

There is no one way to sum up “what I learned this summer” or “how it has changed me,” nor will I be foolish enough to try. But I will say that I know I am different from the teenager who arrived at the Dar es Salaam airport two months ago. I knew from the time that airport taxi broke down that this would be a journey unlike any other—and it was only beginning as I began getting over jetlag and unpacking my bags in a new place. Experiences like this don’t come in neat, little boxes. They are imperfect and spiky, and sometimes you just have to bear the smell in order to get to the sweetness inside.

This country has told me a story.” These words were recently spoken by a friend and colleague and struck me as particularly apt to describe what it has been like to know a page in Tanzania’s book. Just like the visitor’s book that you will find in every hotel and medical clinic here, I have signed my name on the dotted line for some future visitor to read and wonder at.

Don’t you want to know who has been here before you?” Our mentor Joyce had said that, as she explained to me the concept of the visitor’s book in Tanzanian culture while we were sitting side by side on an afternoon in Shirati. Now that I think about it, I see that I do in fact want to know. I want to know who has come to this place before me and what has brought them here—their story too is a part of mine now that we share this place in common. If I have learned anything here, it is the fluidity of environment. A building is just a building until a familiar face pops through a doorway or history wraps you in its embrace and recalls you to a different time. When you visit a place, you leave a mark there. And strange though it may seem, leaving here means facing the reality that the wonderful people whom I have been surrounded by for two months of my life—strong and all-knowing Deodata, always laughing Grace, young and inquisitive Joyce, smile-like-there’s-no-tomorrow Martin, and so many more—are people whom I will probably never see again. I’ve always thought it strange that we accept the rising and lowering tide of people in our lives—how they come and go while we stand on the beach, waiting to catch our own wave. These people have forever made an impression of me, and their names too are etched in a page of my personal visitor’s book.

Though I have gone on at length about the futility of using cliché words like “lessons” and “growth” as I think about my Tanzanian adventures, that is not to say that I do not recognize their applicability. If I had to share just a few of these lessons they would be these:

  1. Don’t forget to keep up with your visitor’s book (figuratively and literally). The people who leave their mark there are those who have made an impression on you and one day, you will need their names to conjure up memories that you alone cannot
  2. You don’t know your true friends until you’ve been in trouble with them, or sat in a broken down tuk tuk, or loudly explained to 5 burly men why they cannot take your money, or fumbled around because one of you lost the hotel room key…
  3. Home is not where the heart is—home is where the people who make up the heart are. Physical places are deceptive. You will come to a new place and feel “at home” there after an arbitrary period of time has passed. So, when you think of home, do not think of a hometown, or your favorite stuffed animal, or your room—think of the people who make it so even when walls come crumbling down.
  4. Don’t ever, ever forget your family. No matter where you find yourself in the world, I am positive that some way or another you will be able to find yourself an internet modem and at the very least, send them an email. Iloveyouandmissyouverymuch. Write it, mean it, and press Send.
  5. Saying hello: we don’t value it enough. Tanzanians have taught me the importance of greeting someone, whether you are walking past them on the street or walking into their office, because first impressions really are everything. And they start when you make another person feel comfortable enough to talk to you. The real gems are where your conversation takes you after that.
  6. Breathe deep and ride a boda-boda. I absolutely love the feeling of flying through the wind at top speed, but that doesn’t mean that I am going to go skydiving (yet). But I am willing to hop on a motorcycle :) Think carefully about your risks before you take them.

As I wrap up my internship experience and my two month experience and my oh-my-goodness-what-am-I-doing experience living and working in Tanzania, I assure you that I cannot actually wrap it up and put a bow on it. This has been my durian—a unique blend of spiky and sweet. And, after all, once you wrap something up and put a bow on it, it would seem that you are ready to give it to away. For me, this country has told a story. The little I can do is tell one of my own when I return home. And therefore, I will have to keep my durian for just a bit longer.

Tanzania, I will see you again one day!

Till next time, Tanzania!
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One thought on “When you can’t put a bow on it”

  1. You don’t know your true friends until you’ve been in trouble with them, or sat in a broken down tuk tuk, or loudly explained to 5 burly men why they cannot take your money, or fumbled around because one of you lost the hotel room key…

    ^ Love it. You make me miss Tanzania so much. Also, you’re going skydiving soon :)

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