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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Mu Rugu (Home)

I'm an RPCV – a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.  I have been for about a month.  When I started this blog I envisioned it as a chronicle of my Peace Corps service in Rwanda that would simply end once I returned home.  Now that I’m home, though, it’s obvious the story hasn’t ended.  The fact of being a Peace Corps volunteer hasn’t ended.  My hot and cold relationship with Rwanda hasn’t ended.

So here I am, writing again. To anyone who might still be reading.

It’s a Peace Corps cliché that the hardest part of service is returning home.  Like the loyal disciple of Peace Corps ideology that I am, I believed the cliché and braced myself for impact.  Literally.  As the plane touched down in Los Angeles, I tensed all my muscles, gritted my teeth and steeled myself for the impending emotional discomfort that supposedly accompanies “reintegration.”   

But arriving home wasn’t uncomfortable.  In fact, it felt great.  Seeing my parents again for the first time in months, getting real fast food, sleeping in a bed with a real mattress – none of it was even remotely uncomfortable.  Anything but. 

I expected to be overwhelmed by the affluence and excess of America, but instead I found myself reveling in it.  I went to restaurants and took an extra ten or fifteen minutes to just read all the options on the menu, loving that I could ask for anything there and expect it to arrive at my table within the hour.  I took extra time in the shower, enjoying the unending supply of hot the water.  I cooked Christmas dinner with my family, taking pleasure in all the flavors and textures of the food, the incredible variety of cooking utensils at my disposal, the ease of using a stove I could light on command.

At some point I realized I was deliberately avoiding thoughts of Rwanda.  Maybe I was distracted by all of the fresh stimulus.  Or maybe I was trying to avoid beginning every sentence with, “Well, in Rwanda…”  Whatever the reason, I’d push Rwanda from my mind whenever something reminded me.  And reminders were, and are, everywhere.  Any time I forget to use a cutting board or wash something by hand in the sink.  Or the sound of rain.  Or the smell of smoke.  Little things.

A Peace Corps friend of mine recently posted a link to some footage of Rwanda. It was designed to promote tourism in Rwanda so it’s mostly shots of the national parks and Lake Kivu, neither of which are even remotely near my site or all that connected to my Peace Corps experience, but it still got to me. Watching it, I realized I recognized every single place he shot, recognized the way people smiled for his camera, the way children thronged around him.  I realized, watching it, that Rwanda will always be a second home to me.  That I can never de-familiarize myself with Rwanda, nor remove Rwanda from my history.  And for the first time since returning home I realized how lonely I am in that sensation and how deeply, how unbearably, I miss my second home.  In spite of all the comforts of America, I miss Rwanda.

I’m still happy to be here.  I’m staying with my family while I prepare for the GRE and look for a job and being with them is wonderful, not to mention how much I still love taking hot showers and cooking in a kitchen with a stove and a sink and all the implements.  I love my smart phone, I love grocery shopping, I love driving.  I still love reading menus, even after a month.  But all of this is still very strange and it’s still difficult not to compare everything to Rwanda, and the fact that most people I encounter have no idea is, in a word, isolating.  Some days are good, and some days I feel very, very alone.

So returning home isn’t as easy as it initially seemed.  Like any transition, it takes time to get acclimated and the process of acclimation isn’t always comfortable.  But it’s doable, and it gets easier every day.