Life in Freedom Land

Attending my alma mater’s graduation this weekend provided me with the opportunity to perfect my two minute summarization of my first year out of college that went something like “West Africa-Niger-no, not Nigeria-small village-loved it-al-Qaeda kicked me out-no, really, we were evacuated after a terrorist attack-went to Morocco-didn’t know what to do with my life-attended an Indian wedding-got a job-stayed four months-now back in Oakland for three months-got a community organizing gig for three months-after that?-maybe back to India.”

After looking a bit taken aback, my friend/professor/person whose name I really should have remembered, would inevitably ask me the question, “So, what’s it like being back in the U.S.?”

My answers varied at first, alternating between “America is really, really clean” to “everything is just so much easier in this country.” Finally, I decided on “strangely perfect.”

Coming back home gave me a small glimpse into why so many of the people I met abroad wanted nothing more than to come to this so-called land of the free. On the surface, America seems so perfect. Large shiny cars drive in straight lines on streets devoid of trash or stick-thin children; well-lit grocery stores sparkle with an abundance of fruits, vegetables and boxes from all over the world, perfectly arranged in one convenient location; fashionably-dressed people walk along wide sidewalks, some of them seemingly talking to themselves until a thin white cord snaking over up from their smart phone to their earphones comes into view.

In Niger, the only means of transportation was hopping on the back of a motorcycle for a terrifyingly fast ride wobbling through the sand or–and this was what I usually did since Peace Corps forbid us from the motorcycle joy rides–waiting endlessly by the side of the road for an ancient, overpacked pick-up truck that may or may not break down before reaching the intended destination. In India, my transportation options were overwhelming since the streets were forever packed with auto-rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, motorcycles, cars and taxis, all of which clearly reigned supreme to mere pedestrians. Crossing the street was, quite literally, often the hardest part of my day. The few sidewalks that did exist were usually occupied by street-vendors, trash and children who surrounded me, gesturing to their mouths in the all-too recognizable sign of hunger. Knowing that the money would only feed the beggar mofia and do nothing to persuade these children to discontinue their lucrative begging profession, I usually swallowed hard against a sharp pang of guilt and hurried on.

Finding food in my Nigerien village was usually an all-day adventure, the most epic of which occurred one day when I had the audacity to desire eggs when they  were clearly “not in season.” Telling my friends that such a thing couldn’t be possible–chickens in America lay year-round–I spent an entire day, morning till dusk, going from house to house searching for eggs without any luck. Though that day ranks high in my list of absurd food scavenges, like everyone else in my village, I had to go to multiple houses and multiple stores just to secure the few basic foods I ate of onions, garlic, pasta and tomato paste. Finding most fruits and vegetables wasn’t even an option; they simply didn’t exist except for in the brief “cold” season of December and January. And my mother wondered how I got so skinny…

India, needless to say, certainly fattened me up but even with all of the vegetable and fruit vendors (or “wallas” as they’re called in Hindi) surrounding my house, shopping for food was still quite the endeavor. For one thing, there was never a set price and my pale skin automatically lifted me into a bargaining category far above what my meager internship stipend could afford. Arguing, feigning shock at price quotes and pretending to walk away usually got the price down to something at least near the normal price but it was certainly far more exhausting than making small-talk with the American supermarket cashier. The one aspect that I did enjoy was that I always knew what was in season because, quite simply, everything that wasn’t did not exist on the cart or (as I found out when I tried to buy a papaya in mango season) was horribly rotten.

While most aspects of my life seem to have become simpler since I moved back to the States, I’ve found getting dressed in the morning to be far, far more challenging. For one thing, I now actually have a range of clothes to choose from rather than the only African skirts or long Indian shirts that appear to be clean. Most woman in my Nigerien village seemed to be perfectly content to pair a brightly patterned skirt with an equally bright but differently patterned top and still walk around as though they owned the place. While Delhi was quite a bit more fashionable in the Western sense, it was still India and bright colors were not only accepted, they were encouraged.

The other day, in Portland, I counted the number of people wearing black jackets and jeans, stopping at 20 only because my friend told me he “got the point.” I’ve adapted to being able to show my hair after seven months of covering it in Niger but I still find myself staring at women wearing shorts and low-cut shirts that leave very little to the imagination.

Just as I’m becoming re-acquainted with my skinny jeans and short-sleeve shirts, I also am adapting to life in smart-phone land. Don’t get me wrong, I love having an IPhone again but it is a trip watching so many people walk down the street playing on their phones or mp3 players and then realizing that I’ve become one of those people. It’s a far cry from walking down the street in Niger where I always needed to greet each and every person I saw.

I know America is not perfect. I know that our public schools are failing, our consumption patterns are deadly and that our unemployment rate (particularly for my age group) is record-breaking. But man, its good to be home!