Friday, April 9, 2010


"Sixty dollars?"
"No one else is gonna drive you for less than that."
"I only have thirty on me."
"You got a card? I have a reader in the taxi."
"Just my personal one. Hey man, sorry, but I think I'm gonna have to pass. I had better give the office a call to see what I should do."
"Suit yourself."

Living in the Gambia has ingrained in me this all-pervasive thriftiness, akin to survivors of depressions, world wars, or natural catastrophes. I pay 300 Dalasis, about 14 bucks, to get from Basse to Barra--about 300 km-- so there is no way in hell I am going straight from that to a sixty dollar cab ride for 15 miles. And why does 40 degrees feel so cold?

The 5A bus gets to the park about half an hour later. It's ten bucks to the nearest metro station, which is a lot more digestible to my tightwad tendencies. A nice guy who is part of some type of Christian group touring the area fills me in on how to get from the West Falls church metro to Rosslyn station, from which I will have to catch a shuttle to the Virginian Suites. I freak out for a second thinking I have forgotten my anti-malaria meds. I find them in a side pocket of the single back pack in which I have crammed all of clothes and personal effects that I will have for the next...week? Two weeks? Month?

The Virginian is nice, but not opulent. Wi-fi, free coffee and tea in the lobby, a shuttle to the grocery store and nearest metro station. My roommate groggily answers the door, as he has not been informed I was coming. We chat a little bit. He was stationed in Morocco, and has been here nearly a month already. He walks with a limp. Some type of nerve pain the doctor's can't quite explain. We get along well.

It's the weekend so I can't get a doctor's appointment until at least Monday. The other medevac'ed volunteers are friendly enough. A girl from Ecuador, who just had some dental work repaired and is waiting on a mouth guard. A guy from China after 2 years in Mauritania who had leg surgery and developed a Staph infection. An older man on his third peace corps term, this time in Georgia, with a badly broken leg. A girl from a Central Asian country who doesn't talk much about her reasons for being there--stress, anxiety, something like that. A girl from East Africa with a stomach issues. My urological issues seem kind of minor compared to some. In the Ecuadorian girl's room we sit and talk about our experiences. The girl from Central Asia asks me about my tattoo. I say it's from East of Eden. "Oh Steinbeck. Don't you think he just kind of vomits on the page?" I don't concur. It's an awkward conversation.

Some of my fellow infirm and I go to Avatar in 3D. In the states I enjoy going to a film at least a couple times a month, but this is my first movie in a theater for over a year. In The Gambia I'm more used to thirty or forty people crowding around poorly dubbed Bruce Lee films on 15 inch televisions with the whir of a generator in the background. This is a bunch of blue cat people on a huge screen in front of me while I wear 3D glasses and drink an Icee that costs as much as my meals for nearly a week in the Gambia. It hurts my head. It hurts my face. But I like it.

In spite of the Thai food, the climate control, the museums, and walking down the street without being noticed, I start to miss the Gambia. Hypochondria starts to take hold. What's this new leg pain? Is my sore throat from the cold or something more sinister? Are the doctors really taking my fears seriously? Should I be taking them seriously? All of my urine tests come back clean, and the Urologist acts surprised that I would be medevac'ed for something so minor. He schedules me for a cystoscopy. It involves fiber optic cable and water-based lubricant.

In the days leading to the unpleasantness, we do some more quintessentially American things. The mall, for instance. I have never actually been in an Apple store, and being in one after a year in a mud hut is like going from Gilligan's Island to Star Trek. The girl from Central Asia is acting a bit strange. She snaps at the girl in the makeup shop. She drops gummy bears over the railing on people on lower floors. She knocks over a wet floor sign and throws a small fit. The rest of us don't know how to react. Is this a result of something that happened to her? None of us had met her before we came here. Who are we to each other?

The cystoscopy is over in less than five minutes. There is no anesthesia, local or general. The urologist talks to me the whole time. It really isn't that bad. But it definitely hurts to pee the rest of the day. My anxiety breaks open again like a scab. My Peace Corps nurse makes an appointment with an internist to check on my sore throat and general malaise. My sister comes the next weekend, and so do two of my friends who are living in Pittsburgh. I can't think of anything that would pick me up more, but I feel like my discomfort hampers some of what we want to do. We still manage to see some of the sights of D.C. and have a couple nice meals before I am alone again. Some new medevacs arrive. One from Tonga, one from Mongolia.

The internalist takes some blood samples, all of which come back clean. They give me some antibiotics and tell me to get more rest and try to relax. Because of some of my discomfort and specific symptoms they set up an appointment with a gastroenterologist in a week. My nurse warns that the more problems we explore, the less likely it will be that I will be able to go back. My mom comes that weekend. I know that I am 25, an adult now by any measure, and should be capable of handling things on my own. Still, it is extremely comforting and reassuring to see her.

We spend the weekend doing as many interesting things as we can, including restaurants, museums, and movies. It's really snowy that week, so walking in my thin West African Converse ripoffs is a bit brutal. One evening we go to a show at the Folger Theatre with the girl from Mongolia and the girl from Tonga. It's a bit strange spending time with my mom and two people we just met, but we have a good time. Later that night I got with the girls from Mongolia, Tonga, and Tanzania to a bar called Madam's Organ--a play off the neighbor hood name--Adams Morgan. There is a latin band playing and the special makes drinking only slightly expensive as opposed to the outright mugging that most D.C. prices are. We have a good time, but I still barely know any of these girls. That Sunday my mom and I have brunch at the only place that serves it near the metro station--a cheap place in the Best Western across the highway. Cheap diner French toast, complete with sealed fake butter packets, those food-industry slide-opening syrup pitchers, and orange juice from concentrate. It evokes the many childhood road trips with my family to the Ozarks or the Gulf Coast of Florida. It's delicious, but for sentimental reasons more than anything. We take the train to Ronald Reagan National Airport and she gets on a plane and I am alone again.

Over the next few days I feel in a sort of snow-induced limbo. D.C. is hit by its biggest snow storm in decades, which closes everything down, including all federal government offices, which includes Peace Corps. As such, I am left in my room wondering whether I will be in The Gambia next week or getting yet more tests. The day before the storm hit, a new girl arrived from Central Asia She is feeling a bit stir-crazy, so we go out into the unplowed snow wilderness that was D.C the day before. It is a strange sight, even for one not used to the city. What used to be traffic-clogged arteries are now venues for community snowball fights, avenues for children to drag each other back and forth on plastic sleds, and dog walking parks. People are friendly to the point of farce, waving at everyone who passes and making lame jokes to complete strangers. "How 'bout this weather?" The girl from Central Asia and I strike up an impromptu friendship. This whole experience has been a microcosm of Peace Corps relationships in general--you meet people, you befriend them out of necessity, and you are often confused about what your relationship to these people actually is. In The Gambia I have figured some of these things out. In D.C., I have no idea.

I see the gastroenterologist, a soft-spoken man in his 50's with receding hair and pictures of his family all over his desk. He asks me a lot of questions I have already been asked, does another very personal examination, labels it a yeast infection, and prescribes some pills and ointment. He says I am clear to go back. I bring this news to my Peace Corps nurse at the office, and she says that's all I need, I can go back as soon as we reserve a flight. The earliest we can do so is Monday, so I have the weekend to fit in whatever else I want to do. Despite the wealth of options, I just kind of hang out. The whole experience has been exhausting. The day of my departure, my fellow Medevacs and I have some excellent Mexican food for my last meal in the states, then head to the airport. I share a cab with two middle aged ladies who are teachers from California, and tell them about where I am going and why. They are interested, but only to a point. The second half of the ride is mostly silent.

One of the in-flight movies is Where the Wild Things Are. It's played on a horrible little screen, but because of the content and my emotionally frazzled state I find myself tearing up. I half read an article on the flight that says everyone tends to cry more during in-flight movies than in grounded ones. I chalk it up to that and try to sleep the rest of the flight. When I can't, I look down on the vastness of the Sahara and wonder if I'll ever go there. I don't talk to the people sitting next to me. I don't really feel like meeting anyone new.

The next day, a world away, there are baobabs near the runway in Dakar, and it starts to feel like home again. One hop later down to Banjul and I start actually recognizing things. Banjul harbor. The ferry at Barra. The coast going south. The plane touches down and I start to think that I can feel normal again. By coincidence my fellow Gambian medevac Jasmin gets into the airport from South Africa at practically the same time. While we wait for the Peace Corps car to pick us up, we get hassled by bumsters. Now, at last, for better or for worse, I feel at home.


  1. I think I already told you, but I love this post so much.

  2. Thanks. It's weird looking back on it now.