Readjustment after Medical Separation

I’ve been putting off writing this post for a while, because it’s difficult to put into words. But I guess I can give a short story and a long story.

The last picture of me taken at Xitsavi.

The last picture of me taken at Xitsavi.

I was medevac’d in early December from the Peace Corps South Africa, and officially medically separated in January 2014, after 30 months of service.

Short Story:
The readjustment and transition back to America has been really hard. More difficult than I ever would have imagined.

Long Story:
When I left South Africa, I wasn’t overly upset. I was seriously injured and dealing with a newly diagnosed neurological condition. I was sad to leave, but I wasn’t devastated In some ways, I was happy to return to my family and excited to spend the holidays with them after 2.5 years. I was also relieved to receive treatment for both my injury and my disease in the States, where I would have access to an internationally-known neurologist who focuses on CMT (my diagnosis). I would be dealing with physical therapy and leg braces, and I needed to be back in the States.

The start of a garden club at a nearby primary school...the only time I got to work with them before I left.

The start of a garden club at a nearby primary school…the only time I got to work with them before I left.

I figured I’d have to get used to American English, flush toilets, driving, and winter again, among other things. But even after going through COS conference and watching almost all of my cohort COS months previously, I had no idea what I was facing.

You see, medical separation is fiercely different than a typical COS, or even an ET. Most PCVs have weeks or months to wrap up projects, pack, and say goodbye. I had two hours. Most end their service with world travel. I ended mine with surgery, pain, and tears. Most PCVs get to prepare for life in the States again, looking for jobs and finding a place to live. I was on a plane just days after they determined I would be leaving for good.

One of my last days in the village...visiting the homes of some of my afterschool care kids.

One of my last days in the village…visiting the homes of some of my afterschool care kids.

I had no idea the emotional toll of all this.

I have struggled to come to terms with my departure from country. Now, almost six months later, I can finally write about it without dissolving into tears. It has taken that long.

The Xitsavi garden that I had to abandon.

The Xitsavi garden that I had to abandon.

I can look through photos and remember incredible memories, rather than feeling guilt-ridden and intensely homesick. I can read through my journals. I can talk to people easily about my experience in South Africa. The dreams of being back in South Africa have mostly ceased.

I want to be open and honest here, so that if someone else stumbles on this blog in the same boat as me, they can know they aren’t alone. It’s an entirely unique COS, reentry, and readjustment situation.

One of the last pictures of me in South Africa.

One of the last pictures of me in South Africa.

Rather than simply dealing with life back in the States, I have had to deal with being torn away from my job, my home, and my friends, then be sent back to friends and family who just can’t understand it all. Because you can’t understand it unless you’ve been through it.

I’m still readjusting. Every. Single. Day. I still feel homesickness for my life back in South Africa. Just about every single day. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about what’s going on there, my organization and school, and my friends.

DSC_0945

I know my life has been fundamentally changed through my experience with the Peace Corps. I know some things will never be as they were before I left. I have changed. But in some ways, I am still transitioning back. It’s taken longer than I ever thought it would.

-Jen

PS. If you have been medically separated and are experiencing some of the things I’ve mentioned here, feel free to email me at jenpcv (at) gmail (dot) com. Let’s talk.

Americans Be Crazy…or Is It Me?

Coming back to the States on Medevac has so far been a bit different than the previous times I visited. There’s a sense of finality, knowing I might not go back to South Africa. Instead of simply enjoying the first world life, I keep wondering whether I need to start transitioning back to it. Rather than only enjoying the company of my family and friends, I’m beginning to readjust. To call the USA my home again.

And it’s weird.

I catch myself truly reflection on how different life here is than my life back in the States. More often than not, I find things to be utterly ridiculous and superfluous, I won’t lie. Some adjustments I made in South Africa to my lifestyle seem logical to bring back here, yet wonder if Americans will understand my quirky behavior.

I will admit that I’m thoroughly enjoying my family’s wifi, but I forgot how incredibly FAST it can be. I went to watch a youtube video, and it loaded almost instantaneously. I had opened another window to slowly download another webpage to read while waiting, but almost before I could open the browser window, my video had loaded. I couldn’t believe it. Youtube is way more enjoyable when you don’t have to wait ten or twenty minutes for a short video to load.

I’m trying really hard not to add the unnecessary “u” to words like favorite or behavior, by the way. It might take awhile to remember, so I apologize.

I also don’t fully understand how someone could possibly use a ziploc baggie only once. So what if you put a piece of pizza in there? It’s not dirty. It’s got at least 3 more uses in it. I physically struggle to throw away a baggie, but I know if my Dad saw me saving them, he’d be grossed out.

Though I definitely identify as a bit “crunchy”, or rather an environmentalist, I haven’t recycled in two years. It’s not like riding a bicycle. It doesn’t immediately come back. My muscle memory has been lost. To be fare, I didn’t technically recycle in the traditional, put-it-in-a-bin-on-the-curb sense. I did, however, find a second, third, or fourth use for nearly everything that wasn’t gross-food-trash. Even that was given to my worm farm. Got an old newspaper? Use it like a paper towel to drain grease off food, because I’m not buying paper towels. Got an old magazine? After reading it several times, cut it up and make African-esque paper beads for friends. Got an old rama container? Jackpot, that stuffs as good as Tupperware. But I think if I tried to use newspapers as paper towels, my family would have me committee.

There’s a lot of things in the USA that seem absolutely crazy. I’ve seen photos of a friend’s child’s birthday, and I was appalled at the amount of things that child got. I’m happy for him, but to my eyes it seemed embarrassingly excessive, when I typical child in my village was likely to get a school uniform for his/her birthday, if it was celebrated at all. I don’t know how I will handle the abundance at Christmas. I can’t imagine a traditional Christmas at this point. I’m looking forward to seeing family I haven’t seen in 2.5-3 years, but….I don’t know, it’s hard to imagine the whole gift-giving side of things, and being able to enjoy it fully.

There are a lot of wonderful, absolutely wonderful, things about being home at this time of year as well. Playing Christmas tunes on Pandora, baking delicious Christmas/winter-themed cookies, getting Christmas cards from around the country, seeing a Christmas tree standing tall and proud in our living room, family, eggnog…I haven’t had a Christmas at home since 2010, and the whole festive “feeling” in the air is something I NEVER found in South Africa. When it’s wickedly hot out, there’s no way to feel like it’s Christmas.

But, to be fair, the cold Iowa winter is brutal. I haven’t left the house in two days. I don’t plan of leaving anything soon. ūüôā

I still don’t know if I’m going back or not, but time’s ticking and I haven’t seen a single doctor. Regardless of what happens with my Medevac, my Peace Corps experience doesn’t end here. It’s a lifetime experience…the gift that keeps on giving, if you will.

-Jen

Medevac….Going Home

As I write this, I’m sitting in my bed back home in America at 4:30 in the morning. I’ve officially been medevac’d back to the USA for continuing treatment for my arm and to explore the options for another condition I was diagnosed with last week. Clearly, considering the time in America and the fact that I’m wide awake, I’m struggling with jet lag a bit. ūüėČ

Medevac means I have 45 days in the USA to show enough improvement to go back to South Africa. If I am cleared medically sometime within that 45 days, Peace Corps will send me back to South Africa to finish out my third year. If I am not medically cleared by the end of 45 days, I will be medically separated, which means my service will officially end.

The decision was passed down from Washington DC last Wednesday, and after the Thanksgiving holiday (which PCSA staff gets off), I went up to site to say goodbye and pack anything I’d want to take home. I had to pack as if I’m not coming back, which is pretty stressful and emotional. I came back to Pretoria on Saturday afternoon, and flew out on Monday evening. After nearly 24 hours of solid travel and two delayed flights, I found myself hugging my Mom in the Des Moines airport, heading home for Christmas for the first time in two years. I flew with Delta, and considering my broken arm, they were wonderful the whole way, helping me preboard and stow luggage, get a seat where someone wouldn’t be bumping my arm, and helping navigate the Atlanta airport with two large checked bags. I was very thankful for all the help both Delta and random people gave me throughout the journey!

I’m home now, well, back in Iowa. It’s hard because I have a home in South Africa as well, and I’m not sure if I will be going back. It’s been an emotional week, after the decision was passed down, and I’m still trying to process everything. Once again, the readjustment is hard, made more difficult by the uncertainty of medevac and the cold Iowa winter. The first thing I did here in Iowa was buy a winter coat. It’s been nearly 3 years since I’ve dealt with an Iowa winter.

I will say that if I had to choose a time of year to be medevac’d, I nailed it. ūüôā I think only people who have lived abroad for an extended amount of time can understand what being home with family for the holidays means. Though I’ve celebrated holidays with friends and near-family back in SA, it also feels like I haven’t had a real holiday for two and a half years. I feel so blessed to be home for the holiday season, though the reason for me being back isn’t wonderful.

It’s still hard to believe I’m home though!
-Jen

“The Day that Changed the World”

Life in South Africa is still a surprising adventure, even though I’m starting on my third year of living in this country. ¬†I still routinely discover new things and the village life never ceases to amaze me. ¬†And this morning was no exception.

When I woke up and glanced at my phone, I immediately saw the date….as an American, I don’t think September 11th will ever pass unmarked. ¬†But I didn’t expect to hear anyone talking about it in my rural village in the mountains of South Africa. ¬†However, I hopped on the taxi to get to work this morning, and the guys on the radio were discussing their memories of September 11th. ¬†How one got home from school and saw the first tower burning, then sat glued to the television for the next 45 minutes as the world changed. ¬†How the other guy thought he was watching a movie, then could hardly believe that it was really happening.

The spoke of the lives lost, and how America changed. ¬†How the world changed. ¬†I was only on that taxi for a few minutes, but I finally understood how much that day in America affected people around the world. ¬†Yes, all of us in America were glued to our televisions, horrified and praying for a wounded nation. ¬†But we clearly weren’t alone. ¬†People around the world were watching with us. ¬†I remember sitting in my living room, sick as a dog, as a twelve year old who didn’t really understand what was happening until I saw my mother’s reaction. ¬†My world changed. ¬†But I wasn’t alone in the feeling. ¬†We, as a nation, weren’t alone.

September 11th didn’t just change America, is was a day that changed the world, as the opening words to the radio segment mentioned. ¬†Clearly the radio announcers had eerily similar reactions to the events on September 11th that we felt in America, even half a world away. ¬†It changed their world as well.

-Jen

And It’s Back to the Grind!

I can safely say I am not good at posting when I’m on holiday in the USA (and that people laugh at me in the States when I say I’m “on holiday”).

I’m sitting in the Des Moines airport now, about an hour away from flying back from my holiday in the States. ¬†It has been a crazy, busy, wonderful month home. ¬†I saw so many good friends and family, though of course not as many as I’d like. ¬†I had amazing Mexican food, delicious cupcakes, tasty ice cream, and all sorts of other great foods. ¬†Including a deep fried Snickers bar on a stick at the Iowa State Fair.

Dad and I spent a weekend in Chicago. Oddly enough, I have flown, driven, and even taken a train through Chicago, but I have never actually “been” to Chicago. ¬†So we “tourist’d” up and set out to hit all the sites: Shedd Aquarium, the Soldier’s Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, the John Hancock Observatory (with an open air balcony….94 floors high), Navy Pier, and the Skydeck at the Willis Tower…aka Sears Tower. ¬†The Skydeck is 1,353 feet (412 meters) in the air, or 103 floors. ¬†It was a fun stop….you can see 4 flights from that high! ¬†We only got a little bit lost driving around Chicago (did you know there’s like an underground highway under downtown Chicago….not sure if we were supposed to be there, but….)

My parents thought it would be fun to move houses while I was back. ¬†So my last week went like this: Friday-get a new dog,Saturday-have Dad’s 50th birthday party at the new house with about 40 people, Sunday-PACK, Monday-move the old house to the new house, Tuesday-pack my bags and have Graham’s ice cream one last time, Wednesday-Leavin’ on a jet place. ¬†Crazy, right? ¬†Notice how we had a party at the new house BEFORE we actually moved. ¬†We like to live life on the edge.

And now I’m looking forward to sleeping for the next 16 hours. ¬†On a plane. ¬†Yeah, right. ¬†But at least I can watch some good movies!

 

And I have a province-wide Permagarden workshop I’m cofacilitating in 3 days. ¬†That’ll be an interesting experience, with jet lag and all!

-Jen

The Biggest Surprise Ever!

I know I’ve been silent the past few weeks, and there’s a very good reason for that. ¬†You see, I’ve been in the USA!

I’ve known for a few months that I would be going home to Iowa in July/August, but I chose to keep it a secret so I could surprise all my friends and family, primarily my father. ¬†Only my Mom and sister were in on the surprise. ¬†On the 25th of July, I border my flight in Johannesburg, landing back home in Iowa on the 26th, where my Mom kept me sequestered at home for the day. ¬†On the 27th, my Mom and I drove to meet my Dad at the end of RAGBRAI, which is a bike ride across Iowa. ¬†I surprised him at the finish line, which was an incredible experience. ¬†He certainly didn’t expect to see his daughter from South Africa at the end of RAGBRAI….speechless for sure!!

Since then I’ve been enjoying life in the States. ¬†I have a month at home before I head back for my third year of service, designated Home Leave by Peace Corps. ¬†PC bought my ticket and granted me 30 days of leave, which I am exceedingly grateful for. ¬†Good food, family, friends, and all the familiarity of home….I’ll post some pictures in the coming days!

-Jen

After Two Years….the Things I’ve Learned

I arrived in Africa two years ago, a wide-eyed, fresh-out-of-college, born and raised in Iowa girl, and I distinctly remember freezing through my first night, almost in tears, wondering why in the world Africa was so COLD! ¬†I grew up thinking Africa was hot, all the time. ¬†Silly me. There was so much I didn’t know….

Leaving home-can you feel the sisterly love?  (Yes, we are goofballs!)

Leaving home-can you feel the sisterly love? (Yes, we are goofballs!)

I’ve learned a lot over the past two years, especially that Africa is NOT always hot. ¬†Especially the Kalahari. ¬†I’ve learned how to communicate with people 8,000 miles, studied a little bit of every South African languages (there are 11), and figured out how to cross cultural lines. ¬†I learned that I should have told my village I was a vegetarian, because goat meat is not very delicious…especially the liver and the nose. ¬†I’ve learned how to expertly pass off unwanted attention and proposals, and how to look a guy in the eye and destroy his dream of having a “white woman”. ¬†I’ve learned how valuable family and friends are, and how new family and friends can pop up in the unlikeliest of places-like at a gardening workshop. ¬†I’ve learned more about my passions and God’s plans for my life.

I’ve learned to sing, dance a bit, greet the chief, dress for a funeral, make a speech at a village function, hail a bush taxi, rush to the front of the bus line, make change in a complicated taxi payment transaction, never to go to the grocery store at month’s end, hide all my valuables while traveling through town, bucket bathe, garden in the Kalahari, teach crazed 12 year olds, beat off thieves, inspire adorable 5 year olds, mourn the loss of a family member from afar, wrangle the best spot on the taxi, say goodbye to my sweet little dog, manuever through a herd of cattle, kill scorpions, dispose of tarantulas, to drive on the left side of the road, what shaving my head feels like, cook pap, insure that the windows stay open on a bush taxi, chase out bats from my bedroom, dwell at peace with smaller spiders, ride in a donkey cart, overcome language barriers, love my African families, carry things on my head….I could go on ad nauseam. ¬†Peace Corps is a whole lot of learning, both deep things and shallow things.

I’ve come to understand discrimination and racism intimately, and it breaks my hearts. ¬†I’ve seen literally starving schoolchildren, and find joy when their eyes light up when they see me. ¬†I’ve understood loss, sadness, blessing, and great joy.

My Grade R babies!

My Grade R babies!

Peace Corps is truly a roller coaster ride…one of a lifetime. ¬†There are some days where I desperately want to pack my bags and head home, and others where I wonder if I can stay forever. ¬†Luckily the latter outweighs the former.

My Peace Corps journey isn’t over yet-I’ve got a whole year left to learn new things. ¬†Yesterday I learned how to wear a traditional Tsonga dress, and the day before I learned how to greet the entire tribal counsel (32 Indunas and the Acting Hosi of the Valoyi people). ¬†This strange-but-amazing adventure isn’t nearly over yet, and I’m glad. ¬†As hard as some days came be, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

101_4482

-Jen