How can I even begin to describe this roller coaster ride Peace Corps training has taken me on? Recounting my physical movements isn't hard, but I can only partially put into words all the thoughts and feelings racing through my brain.
Let me try anyway.
After months of anticipation and preparation, I flew to San Francisco on April 24. The next day I started my two years overseas with only 45 newly met trainees as companions. We formed an immediate bond after the grueling trip: a 14-hour flight to Hong Kong, a three-hour layover, and a seven-hour flight to Port Morseby. During the last leg, a rough stretch of turbulence, after jolting us all awake provided a fitting introduction to: "The Land of the Unexpected."
We spent the first ten days in Port Moresby, recovering from jet lag, adjusting to the tropical heat, fighting off various microbes, and getting an introduction to the language and culture. Only in hindsight is it easy to see how sheltered we were, but it all seemed very exotic at the moment.
The full realization of our adventure occurred after we arrived in Madang on May 7. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy immortalized culture shock when she said, "Well, Toto, it looks like we're not in Kansas anymore."
I realized that I wasn't in Minnesota, that I wasn't at camp, and that I wasn't on vacation when I was dropped off that day in the village of Wagug. It was the start of a seven-week home stay.
The picture you have in your imagination of a rural PNG village is probably pretty close to Wagug. A man-made driveway cut through the jungle opens into a small grass clearing where five families live in a dozen or so thatched roof huts. There's no electricity or plumbing, just cooking fires, kerosene lamps, barrels to collect rainwater, pit toilets, and a small stream to bathe in.
The stream is about 500 meters in the jungle, down a steep slope, which can be especially treacherous after it rains. During the three-month dry season, all their water needs to be carried from a small spring near the stream, I'm told. I have enough problems navigating the path with only my towel and shampoo, let alone with several jugs of water in a bag strapped to my forehead.
Communicating solely in tok pisin, the Melanasian version of Pidgin English, was a similar struggle for me, especially at first. Every sentence, every phrase, every word, every syllable required conscious thought for a long while. Equal concentration was needed to recognize and adapt to the new dynamics of village life.
Six weeks have already coasted by, and I'm used to sleeping on a wood floor; to eating yams, potatoes, and soup; and to living with ants and bugs. By the time this is published, I should be already sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer on June 25.
So what have I learned?
Here's where it gets tough. Did you ever notice that a rooster's crow sounds remarkably similar to the opening bars of the theme from "The Odd Couple?" I've also learned how to make fried dough, how pineapples grow, to wash clothes by hand, to speak tok pisin, to drink tea with loads of sugar, to avoid using the public restrooms in Madang, and plenty more.
More seriously, I've gained a new appreciation of time. Certainly during the past two months, there have been plenty of moments where time hasn't coasted. For the past week, time has moved at a snail's pace.
One day earlier in the home stay, my host father and I waited for half an hour under a store awning for a rain storm to stop. When's the last time you did that? The longest day of my life was one dreadful Sunday when all I accomplished was going to church and eating twice. My patience has been tested.
There's no better evidence of the difference in time than my schedule. For the first time in my life, I'm usually out of bed by 6 a.m. and usually in bed by 9 p.m.
Another thing I've learned is the awkwardness of being different. Collectively, we attract attention. We stick out. It's easy to spot a Peace Corps trainee across the crowded market.
In the village, the attention gets more acute. One day, my family watched me write a letter. I'm still a constant source of entertainment. All my personal habits are scrutinized. I've never had audiences while bathing or brushing my teeth before.
It's called the fish bowl effect, because you're constantly being watched. Normally, I'm pretty comfortable with it, though one Sunday I was particularly bothered by a young boy who kept staring at me throughout the service at a distance of two feet.
For me the most important lessons have been political, social and economic, which will have to wait for the next column.
(Michael Jacobson was a reporter for the Paynesville Press before joining the Peace Corps.)
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