Thursday, January 28, 2010

Back To Liberia

Well, I leave Pennsylvania tomorrow (er . . . technically today, I guess), and to be perfectly honest, I'm about as unexcited about the prospect of going back to Liberia as I can be [WARNING: WHINING AHEAD].

Here's the deal: I got back from California yesterday, and am still feeling the effects of the time difference. I've been stressed about interviews, stressed about imposing on family, friends, and acquaintances for housing during my travels, stressed about traveling, and stressed about spending American money on a Liberian salary. When I get stressed, I eat a lot of junk. When I eat a lot of junk, I gain weight. And when I gain weight, all of the people I know in Liberia feel the need to make me aware that they've noticed. So, overall, I'm tired, I feel physically pretty crummy, and I'm irritable and negative about all of the bullshit that I know I'll have to deal with when I get back.

On a positive note, it really was great to see everyone. And it was nice to be reminded how much support I have, both from family and friends, back in the US -- even if it feels awfully far away sometimes. It was also kind of cool to get to see several different parts of the US -- the Northeast, Southeast, and West Coast (albeit for a very short periods of time); it reminded me of what a beautiful, diverse country I live in. So for those reasons, I'm very grateful that I had the chance to come home for a bit.

About my last entry: it may seem odd that I feel the need to write about what an unpleasant, petty person I can be. But part of the reason that I write that kind of entry, which probably contains more information about myself and my flaws than you really want to know, is because I need to remind myself why I wanted to do this.

Sometimes I wish I were more religious, that I felt some kind of a higher force pushing me to stay committed and do my very best work, that I had an easier answer to why the fuck I want to live somewhere with no shower when I don't have to. Of course, I'm not religious, and even if I were, religion isn't necessarily an "easy answer." So I have to find my own personal and secular reasons for choosing this experience. (Although those reasons often come down to "it's better than anything else I can think of," and "shit, I forgot . . . did I have reasons?")

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Ego (Again)

Interviews are over and done with. I’m flying back home now from the final one, and in two days I’ll be beginning the long and unpleasant journey back to my site in Liberia.

Looking back, it was pretty ridiculous of me to be so upset by all of the medical school rejections. I actually did pretty well – all of the schools at which I was offered interviews were darn good schools. So even if I don’t get in at this point, I’m feeling a lot better about the prospect of reapplying.

Of course, it goes without saying that I very much hope that I do get in somewhere. Aside from the expense and hassle of reapplying, I also can’t help but feel as though the whole application process brings out the worst in me. I have an ugly streak of insecure arrogance that I’m ashamed to admit has been exacerbated during this ordeal. As I mentioned in a very early entry, one reason (among many) that I was attracted to Peace Corps was that I have a tendency to base my self-worth on extrinsic factors, such as grades and scores. I wanted to do something that was intrinsically beneficial, something that would move me away from the mindless competitiveness of high school and college. I hoped that Peace Corps – an environment with no grades, no scores, and altogether almost no outside evaluation of competency – would help me to sort out my priorities, and to become more confident in myself and less reliant upon others’ evaluations of me.

But the fact that, in the end, I ended up deciding to apply to medical school suggests that, to an extent, I failed in my goal of being less dependent on external measures of worth. True, I have very solid reasons that I want to get an MD, reasons that have nothing to do with ego: a strong interest in the biological and social sciences; a desire for stability but also flexibility in my career – the flexibility to work in the clinical and academic worlds, and to work in the US or abroad; a realization that I will be a much happier and more fulfilled person if I work in a field that directly benefits others. But at the same time, I’m very much aware that the status and money that are a part of the medical profession are also important to me. And there is an embarrassing, immature part of me that wants to say to all the people who made me feel stupid and inadequate (intentionally or unintentionally) during high school, college, and my year at Georgia Tech: “Suck my metaphorical dick, assholes. I got interviews at good medical schools. Fuck all y’all.” (Which is particularly ridiculous because the only person I can definitely say has consistently made me feel stupid and inadequate throughout the years is myself).

Of course, there’s a very good chance I still won’t get in anywhere. But even if I don’t, there’s a part of me that feels very relieved that at least I got as far as I did. At the same time, there’s a different part of me that feels pretty crappy that my reason for feeling better is still so empty and status-oriented.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


I've been in the US for about 2 weeks now, and have completed 2 out of 3 interviews.

It's both really nice and really weird to be back. It's nice because it is awesome being with people that I love and enjoy spending time with. It's also nice because, well, things are just easier here – potable water comes straight out of the tap, the indoor temperature can be controlled with the press of a few buttons, and nobody makes me feel uncomfortable and guilty by demanding money or calling me a racist when I refuse to give out my phone number.

It's weird to be in the US for a lot of reasons, some of which I can't quite identify. The fact that I'm here primarily for interviews certainly plays a role in the weirdness – it goes without saying that interviews are stressful. (Having said that, I should say that I've been very impressed with the ways in which schools genuinely try to make the interview process as painless as possible. And for the most part, the questions that interviewers have asked have been easy to answer – questions about Peace Corps, about why I want to be a doctor, and so forth).

In addition, I think that, under any circumstances, it is always a little bit strange to return to a place to which you have a connection, but haven't visited for some time. Coming home to central PA always feels that way for me. It's my home, and in that sense it is familiar and comfortable. But it can also feel small and restrictive, and even though I lived here for 22 years, I somehow feel like I don't quite fit in anymore (if I ever did). As an example of this, the very way that I talk apparently is un-Pennsylvanian. I've had several people (interviewers and fellow interviewees) ask me “Where are you from?” and then act surprised when I reply “Pennsylvania;” some people seem to think I have a Midwestern accent. This is a silly thing to be bothered by, especially because I don't particularly want to speak with a strong central Pennsylvanian accent, but it makes me think: Am I trying to be somebody that I'm not? Is this just one more indication that I can't really call this place “home” anymore? Am I and was I ever really a “true Pennsylvanian,” and if not, do I give a shit?

I guess it's kind of absurd to think about these things, especially since I have never had a desire to spend the rest of my life in PA or felt a particularly strong connection to my “Pennsylvanian roots” (I feel ridiculous even typing that). But I think there is something about spending a lot of time in a totally different culture, and trying to understand how and why others think and act the way they do, that makes me think more about my own background and upbringing. In much of Africa, the tribe that one belongs to has a very strong influence on one's values and beliefs; regional and national identities are of secondary importance. As Americans, I think we have a much stronger national identity, and relatively weaker cultural identities, possibly because (in theory at least) inclusiveness is highly valued here (in contrast with Liberia, where it is actually unconstitutional for white people to be citizens). Paradoxically, because we value individuality, I think that we encourage the formation of unique personal identities to a greater extent than in communal cultures, and to a certain extent this comes at the cost of the development of a group-based identity.

I've been thinking about these issues a lot as well because, being in the US again, I now am trying to integrate my experiences from the past few months back into my “American self.” I feel as though being outside of the US teaches me a great deal about not only Liberia, but about America and about myself as an American. But I struggle somewhat with trying to maintain what I've learned abroad without falling back into old habits of thought and action that I had before. At the same time, I know that I haven't really changed THAT much, and I don't want to become that weird white girl who can't fit into her own American culture because she somehow thinks that her experiences have made her more “worldly” and “wise” than others who have not had the same experiences, or who allows her experiences abroad to completely define her personality (which are not uncommon pitfalls for returned Peace Corps volunteers).

Anyway, my point was that I feel like the questions of who I am, where I came from, and why I am the way I am have been at the forefront of my mind during this visit home. It's been great to be back, like I said, but I can't help but wonder as I visit family and friends – how have I changed since I've been gone? How have they changed? And how can I continue to grow and move forwards while still maintaining the connections that I have to the people and places that are important to me?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Home At Last

36 straight hours of travel later – including many, many security checks and thorough friskings – a 3-hour delay in Brussels – a 9-hour flight in a center seat between an older couple, one member of whom spent the entire trip attempting to cough up a lung – many odd looks for being the only person in the snowy Brussels, Chicago, and Philly airports in flip-flops and a light sweater – a mad dash through the Chicago airport, with only 1 hour to clear customs, recheck my bag, re-enter security, and find my connecting flight – a 4-hour drive through the snow to arrive at 2 AM (thanks again, Dad!!!) -- I'm home!

My bag is not home, but I know that it made it to the US, as we had a brief but joyful meeting in Chicago, and I have faith that we will soon find ourselves happily reunited.

Anyway, now that I'm back home, I'm starting to get REALLY nervous about these interviews. I'm thoroughly clean now, but the hair and clothing still need work, and I still have a lot of preparation to do, including arranging all of my travel within the US.

I'm hoping that, by the time of the first interview, the feeling that I'm a weirdo will have somewhat passed. I definitely felt conspicuous and eccentric in my summer clothing in the airports. Maybe I'm too sensitive, but I dread the conversations in which I have to explain where I've been to people I don't really know (such as the one I will soon be having with the hairdresser, wherein I will try to excuse my unruly moptop). “Peace Corps, cool!” people always say with false enthusiasm, but many times I can see something behind it that says “This girl must be very strange.” I know it's silly for me to worry about such things, but part of me can't quite help it.

Monday, January 4, 2010


Step 1 of the Journey to America: Complete. Here I am in Monrovia – showered (albeit in a cold shower, but a shower nonetheless – my first since August) and enjoying the noiseless, generator-less electricity. There is even a fan in my hotel room, and a sweet Incredible Hulk bedsheet. Luxury indeed.

As it turns out, I was wrong about several aspects of the ride in the NGO car. While it was indeed a functioning vehicle, it was stuffed to the brim with people. There was quite a bit of luggage and livestock (one sad-looking goat), although these were tied to the top of the vehicle and not in it with us. I lucked out and got the front seat, which was spacious and uncrowded and as comfortable as a seat in a Land Cruiser can be. (. . . Actually, “lucked out” is not entirely correct, as I'm relatively sure that I was the only person in that car who was actually authorized to be getting a ride. But who can blame the driver for picking up extra people along the way? It would be a waste to travel all that long distance at less than full capacity).

The trip took about 11 hours in all, but would have been much shorter if the other car with which we were traveling had not blown four tires (not all at once), requiring us to stop several times to assist their driver. Still, I have to say – for the most part, I actually enjoyed the journey. For one thing, it allowed me to see a part of Liberia I haven't really seen before, or saw but didn't really appreciate (I traveled this same road once before, in August, on the way from Monrovia to my site). The roadside billboards I found especially interesting; I felt as though they gave an interesting insight into the problems that are at the forefront in Liberia. There were many signs encouraging parents to send children to school instead of keeping them at home to work, and many about preventing corruption in the schools. Just as common were the billboards promoting the prevention of diarrhea through hand-washing “after pupu” (graphic illustrations included). There were quite a few about rape (“Rape is a crime”) and domestic violence. Then there were the anti-HIV/AIDS billboards, encouraging sexual fidelity, condom use, and awareness of HIV status. And just outside of Monrovia, my personal favorite appeared – a large billboard that proclaimed “DON'T SLEEP IN THE SAME ROOM as chickens.”

It was also interesting for me to compare the experience of traveling in Liberia to that of traveling in Kenya. Maybe I'm looking back through rose-colored glasses, but I quite liked traveling in Kenya (despite the horrendous roads) – I loved the vendors selling snacks (pineapple slices, sesame seed candy, peanuts, biscuits, roasted corn, and so on) through the windows of the vehicles, the sense of terrified exhilaration that resulted from traveling way, way too fast for the conditions of the roads and the vehicles, and the unpredictability of every journey. The terror and exhilaration were definitely still present here (nothing gets your adrenaline pumping like dodging herds of goats at 80 kilometers per hour). The vendors were present too, though not in great numbers, and not with the variety of wares that were sold on the streets in Kenya.

The biggest difference, really, between travel in Kenya and travel here is that, as with just about everything else, public transport in Kenya is simply much more organized. If you want to travel across Kenya, you have several options – you can take a bus (which you can even make reservations for in advance), or choose from among several different levels of matatu (the standard 14-seater van or the luxury 8- or 6-seater vehicle), or take the train (which only breaks down two out of three trips). Even the seemingly chaotic transport hubs in most cities are actually relatively well-organized. So even though one still might sit for three or four hours waiting for a car to fill, or take a car halfway to one's destination only to find that the driver of said car has decided not to go any further -- in general, the system works, particularly for travel between major cities.

Here, there is not really a good system for travel at all. The public vehicles – mostly old Toyota station wagons -- simply are not designed to travel long distances over rough roads, and break-downs are extremely common. For this reason, I would suspect that part of the problem with the system is that the profit margin is very slim. The types of vehicles that are affordable to a local business owner, and can be easily repaired using locally available materials, are prone to costly damages when driven over long distances. And even though transportation is a necessary service, people are on such tight budgets that it is not possible to raise the prices significantly. So while an increased organization of car owners and drivers could help to alleviate the transport situation, it really cannot be fixed until the roads are improved. (Fortunately, this process is under way; Bangladesh and China, in particular, have sunken a lot of money into improving Liberian infrastructure, and small sections of road are beautifully paved).

Anyway. I'm happy to have made it this far. I probably won't write again until I go home, and then I suspect that I won't write very much when I'm in the US. After all, this blog is supposed to be about life in Africa – “The Whitest Girl Visiting Friends And Family In The US And Also Attending Some Medical School Interviews” just doesn't have the same appeal.

EDIT, 5 January 2010, 10:13 AM:

Just took a cab in Monrovia. Public transport within the city is incredibly disorganized, compared to transport in Nairobi. While Nairobi was a far step below the system in America (no timetables, no posted routes), there were at least set routes within the city that different vehicles traveled regularly. Here, yellow cabs patrol the city, picking up anybody who needs to go anywhere. Definitely not an efficient system.

Also, I saw another billboard in Monrovia, rising above the trash that is piled along the streets. It read “Don’t Throw Dirt In The Street.”

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Journey Begins

Today was busy, in that last-minute-preparations kind of a way. I finally managed to confirm that I can get a ride to Monrovia with an NGO, which makes me feel much better about the journey – it will still be a long ride on a very bad road, but at least it will be in a functioning vehicle, which will not be overstuffed with people, luggage, and/or livestock.

At this moment, I'm actually sad to be leaving, which is silly, because I'll be coming back very soon. And for the most part, I've been itching to get out of town recently. I haven't left my site at all since I got here at the end of August, and I've been pretty bored these past few weeks with no school to fill the days. In addition, one of my neighbor's relatives died recently, and there have been mourners coming at all hours for the past week. I haven't slept the whole night through in six days or so, as 2-5 AM seems to be peak wailing time. So, in light of all of these things, I've very much been looking forward to going home.

Still, the process of packing up now just reminds me that I'll be packing up to leave for good in a few short months. And even though the work here can at times be frustrating, tedious, and lonely, there is still something about living here that is . . . very satisfying, I guess. I can't quite put my finger on it. It's something that is difficult to explain to people in the US and impossible to explain to people here. In fact, when I try to explain to Liberians that, no, really, I'm much happier here than I was in the US . . . that I feel incredibly lucky to have been born an American but that America is far from perfect . . . that when you have everything you could need (really need, not want) that it is not only easy but natural to forget how fortunate you are to have it . . . that wealth is by no means an ultimate protection against unhappiness . . . that we Americans do have very real problems but also have a neurotic tendency create problems in their absence . . . when I try to explain these things, Liberians look at me as though I am crazy.

And I guess it is crazy. It's easy for me to romanticize life in Africa, because I have the ultimate safety net – when I want to, I can always leave. Inevitably, my conversations with Liberians about how America is not the perfect haven they imagine it to be end with me feeling guilty and spoiled. Sure, I like living here, but I like living here under the condition that I stay in my little bubble – with free, quality medical care only a phone call away, with the assumption that, in the case of any danger, someone will come to rescue me, and with the knowledge that my time here is limited. As much as I pretend to be living the real Liberian life, I'm not, nor would I want to be.

Anyway. I'd better get back to packing. My car leaves at 6:30 AM tomorrow morning, and I certainly don't want to miss it.