Usually they only last for a few seconds. A situation catches me so off guard that for a moment all I want to do is get on the first plane home to be in a place where things are comfortable and familiar and life makes sense. And then the moment passes and is replaced with a quiet certainty that I am exactly where I am meant to be. But recently I had a day when the moment stretched on to an hour and then a morning until eventually the whole day was taken up with one broken-record thought: “What am I doing here?”
As with most bad days, it started with a wardrobe issue. It was washing day and I was down to just one clean pair of shorts. The kind of shorts that I would wear every day during Australian summer, but that I only ever wear around the house here for fear that people will judge me because they are… well, short. But on this day I had little choice, so I headed down to the river in my short shorts and hoped most people weren’t up and about yet. Of course there were people congregated on every corner, and each time I tried for a polite good morning they simply looked me up and down and said nothing.
While I was washing several people gathered around as they usually do, laughing that “Whitey is washing” and telling me I was doing it all wrong. I didn’t particularly want to wash my underwear infront of them, but again it seemed I had little choice. As I was lifting my clean washing into the bucket I dropped half of it onto the ground. This caused a huge outburst of laughter. I sighed and began washing again.
After I was finally done I was sweltering hot and in need of a few peaceful moments to myself so I went further up the river for a quick swim/bath. I sensed several people watching me and tried my best to pretend they were not there. As I climbed out a lady scolded me harshly, asking didn’t I even see that people are trying to collect water to drink downstream? No, I honestly didn’t. I apologised, feeling incredibly rude and ignorant.
On the way home someone called out, “Hey, American! American!” I didn’t bother to correct him. He asked if I was the new volunteer. I told him yes. He said he had to be honest – volunteers hardly ever make any difference here. They cannot ever really understand the community, they just come for their own reasons and leave without doing any real good. I wasn’t sure how to respond, except to apologise again and feel like I was saying sorry simply for being here.
I reached my house and saw I had a visitor waiting. He told me for the fifth time that week that he can see into my soul and we were meant to be together. The first four times it was amusing, but on this day my patience was starting to wear seriously thin. Eventually he left, telling me he would buy me my favourite kind of chocolate (I suppose the inside of my soul contained that information) and come back.
As I started to clean the house two young boys appeared in my kitchen, startling me. Did they even knock on the front door? “Give us honey.” Pardon? “Give us honey.” Taking a deep breath, I asked them to at least ask nicely, but got nothing beyond blank stares. I gave them the honey. An hour later they returned with several friends who demanded honey also. I told them no, I’m sorry, but I just can’t give everyone honey or there will be none left. “You can buy more. You have much money.” I felt taken advantage of and guilty at the same time.
Later some friends came over. They asked if I was scared to live by myself when everyone knows where I live and that I’m alone. I answered honestly: yes. They told me it should be fine, but do I know any self-defence? Unfortunately they weren’t joking. Then they tell me I shouldn’t worry about the homeless man that sleeps in my garden, except don’t leave any belongings outside because he will probably steal them. And since it was going to rain that night he would probably sleep on my porch. Seeing the look on my face they tried to reassure me: Really, don’t worry, he is mostly harmless. All I could think to say was: I wish I had a dog. They told me you have to be careful if you have a dog here because if it gets out of your yard someone will poison it or worse. I did not dare ask what “worse” might mean.
They left and I immediately shut and locked the door. I stood alone in my kitchen staring at the perfectly ripe avocado I was saving for breakfast tomorrow, now half-eaten by what I could only assume was a rat. I wanted nothing more than to pick up the phone and hear a friendly voice on the other end of the line. But I cannot make international calls from my phone.
I told myself to snap out of the ridiculous pity party already. I washed the dishes, threw out the avocado and decided to watch a movie on my laptop. Something happy. With the volume turned up loud so my stomach didn’t lurch at every little noise outside (or in).
Rain started thundering on tin the roof and the power cut out. My laptop had no battery left. I briefly thought about lighting some candles, but instead gave up and crawled into bed. I stared into the complete blackness as the rain passed and was replaced with the howling wind, the creaks of the house and the possibility of a mostly harmless man creeping around my porch.
I reminded myself that what I was feeling was actually one of the biggest reasons I came here. I had always known there were going to be times I would feel afraid; lonely; tested; overwhelmed; lost. I wanted to learn to face those feelings and move unflinchingly through them to something brighter and stronger.
I resolved that tomorrow I would write a whole list of reasons why I am here. And I’d make it good.