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I skipped out this weekend on what would have been my first annual car-race event/full-moon party in Tanga. Apparently this 30-year old tradition is a major sport in the region gathering hundreds of people from all over East Africa. First, I was more than slightly depressed after eating the last piece of banana cake we had made that morning and watching a European documentary introduced by a Swedish friend about the Black Panther movement in the 60’s. Even an ocean away, I carry a heavy heart for our dying sons and daughters in America. Second, I fell asleep on my friend’s couch by 8pm, which has more to do with feeling exhausted from traveling and my own personal views about parties in general than anything else. Lastly, I was eager to return to the village the next morning as I come to prefer being among villagers than city folks and expats. Even though from time to time I long for a hot shower, a good cup of coffee and 3G Internet, I’d still rather spend nights in the village conversing over sugarcane, glowing moonlight, listening to stories about family lineage, history of country and children’s laughter.

I haven’t always felt this way. A city person, in constant motion, living in a rural village has its challenges. But travels in a new country, in a very practical way, redefine you. Often I find myself wondering if I were back in D.C., would I have reacted to a situation in this way? In Tanzania, new challenges are always present, days are slower, and journeys are longer, constantly in unfamiliar situations. You are forced to attach much more importance to the things around you because you believe survival depends on them. You become more accessible to others, more trusting, more forgiving because they may be able to help you in difficult situations. You learn to compromise much of yourself to stay balanced. And accept any small offerings with gratitude. At the same time, since all things are new, you see only the beauty in them, and you feel happy to be alive.

This past month was spend constructing water tanks in the village, teaching malaria prevention, hosting friends from out of town, recovering from a painful virus, spending hours under my favorite mango tree with neighbors, starting a women’s income-generating business, having girls’ dance parties at my house, inventing and recreating recipes, learning to milk cows, herd goats, travel to Dar Es Salaam for mid-service conference and attend a soap-making seminar with village women in Zanzibar. Mid-service consisted of doctor’s appointments, meetings, and rejoining with Peace Corps staff and volunteers. Reconnecting a year later and exchanging stories I realize how much we’ve all grown. How views about service, country, and self has been redefined. The past year have made me aware of what makes me upset, makes me put my guard up, what calms me down and motivates me to keep going. I’ve learned to say you ‘are not kind,’ to not always apologize for being human, to stand my ground, and to walk away from anything that doesn’t help me grow. I’ve learned that I find comfort in the company of third-culture humans. Despite my apparent ‘americanization,’ I still reach out to people who have foreign and difficult names to pronounce. I had the pleasure of buying dinner for old friends that I haven’t seen in a year and hang out with new friends who let me crash on their couch, play basketball in the middle of nowhere, get schooled in an intense game of Xbox by a couple of 12-year olds, sit on a street curb at midnight drinking coffee and conversing over God, family, politics and listening to strangers’ stories.

I met the village women in the early morning for a quick cup of tea before boarding the ferry to the island. Most of the women have never traveled outside the region and, despite living on the coast, have never experienced the ocean. Traveling with women, whom otherwise I would have never had the opportunity to get close to, made me realize how similar we are. How everyone needs friendship, love, laughter and a sense of belonging. This group was created to assist women living with HIV generate income and lessen spending. We learned a lot during this trip, from soap-making, social business and more about each other. Traveling is better than a thousand teachers. You discover new aspects of yourself in an unfamiliar place. It was absolutely beautiful to witness the women removed from responsibilities of mother, daughter, wife, sister and just living in the moment. I watch them tease and joke each other, flirt with men, attract locals’ attention, being called ‘wazungu’ by children, put so much effort into appearance, and express frustration, laughter and gratefulness. They were no longer the ‘village’ women I once saw, but friends with needs, wants and worldviews. It was perhaps the most enlightening moment I felt in a while.

I return home to the village, sweep the dust that accumulated while I was away. Bribe the neighbor’s kids with candy to bury the dead rats I found on my bedroom floor. Take a long bucket bath and lay down as mind drift into universe. It is full moon tonight. The darkness always finds its way inside. Most days I feel at home in Tanzania. Feel confident in my ability to navigate the difficult situations, and I’m absolutely sure that I could live here indefinitely if my future career required it. And there are days that splinter my confidence and make me doubt whether I can actually make it. I never imaged living in a developing nation would be easy. From distance and heartbreak I have learned a lot. I have become strong and resilient, as is the case of almost every human being exposed to life and to the universe. We don’t even know how strong we are until we are forced to bring that hidden strength forward. I think about the past few weeks. How grateful I am for the encounters, the lessons, the laughter, the relationships, the hospitality of strangers, and the shared cups of coffee. Someone once told me that that was the purpose of all of this: the traveling, the experiences and eventually the healing. It’s about growth. It’s about creating yourself. It’s about becoming more empathic, tolerant, gentler, kinder, and forgiving toward yourself and others.

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