One of my friends who had spent considerable time abroad remarked, when I told her that I anticipated having difficulty readjusting, that people always expect that. In truth, she said, they reacclimate easily, reassuming all of their former habits. I wasn’t so sure. Perhaps more so for the expatriate who lives in a capital during their time overseas—but as someone who lived in the field and couldn’t, for example, buy any meat (because there has been an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and avian flu is suspected), I thought it might be more difficult.
My first test was when I arrived at Heathrow. I figured that I had spent enough time in airports that it wouldn’t be exotic. I was wrong.
I wandered the terminal like a vagabond. Wide-eyed, I nearly pressed my face to the glass windows of Gucci and Hermès to get a better view of their brightly-colored, sparkling treasures. Inside each boutique, shopgirls sneered at my clothes—dirty, torn jeans, scratched Doc Martens and a pink Rwandan snowboarding shirt—not to mention my North Face backpack, which I guessed was not this season’s fashion accessory. I wasn’t used to being sneered at. I also wasn’t used to one, seeing so many abazungu, and two, not being stared at constantly. I admit to liking number two. Finally, I was anonymous, just another traveler en route to somewhere else.
The bookshops, with their rows and rows of glossy magazines, drew me in, and I found my eyes darting from one to another because I couldn’t decide which one I wanted to look through first. In the end, I didn’t buy any because I reminded myself how much a pound was worth, not just in dollars, but in Rwandan francs. A Vanity Fair was a week’s salary for Angélique. I couldn’t bear to spend my money so frivolously.
There is always one exception to that rule, in my mind, and in an effort to launch the readjustment period, I followed my nose to the only Starbucks in the terminal. I looked for the bags of Rwandan coffee that they now sell “in select stores,” but this was not one of them. So I soon found myself standing in line, ordering a vanilla skim latte, perhaps my favorite beverage of all time. Certainly it was my favorite beverage when I left the U.S. The thing was, I had forgotten what it tasted like.
While I was contemplating my latte, the woman behind me wondered aloud (and obnoxiously) to her friend, “Now, do I want foam on my coffee or not? Hmm.” She debated it at length with herself, and I looked at her, perplexed. But it doesn’t matter, I thought. Then I realized that her stupid blubberings bothered me. They bothered me because I had gained a sense of which things mattered and which didn’t. Finding shoes so that you don’t have to walk barefoot on sharp rocks every day matters. Being able to get HIV/AIDS treatment matters. Whether or not to get foam on your coffee doesn’t. I shook my head, held my tongue, and retrieved my coffee, eagerly taking my first sip. It was delicious. I remembered suddenly why it had been my drink of choice.
Now that I’m back in DC, I’ve noticed other little things—primarily, the suffocating humidity and oven-like temperatures of August. I lived in Equatorial Africa and it wasn’t this hot! But at least we have air conditioning here.
Then there are the mosquitoes. There haven’t been many coming around me (in Rwanda, you’d have thought they were magnetic) but whenever they do, I easily kill them. This is very different from Rwanda, where the mosquitoes are cunning little bastards who hide once they figure out that you’re aware of them and only come out at 1 a.m. to bite you when you’re passed out. They also somehow manage to survive being smacked ten times. Every night in Rwanda, I slept with a mosquito buzzing like an electric drill. Here, mosquitoes don’t make that annoying sound, but I somehow still hear it in my ears. Often it’s the soft hum of the air conditioning or a streetlight. Yet, when I hear that vibration, I am immediately on guard, a Pavlovian reaction. Oh, and of course, I don’t have to sleep with a stupid net anymore. I love that.
And the food. I think I’m losing weight because I’m no longer forced to eat bananas, plantains, rice, potatoes, or ugali every day. I’m also diversifying—I’ve been eating sushi regularly, just because it was impossible to find in Rwanda (and if you did find it, it probably wouldn’t be safe to eat). I’m still queasy about drinking beverages with ice, and tap water in general still gives me pause; I wipe all of the handwashed dishes until they are completely dry, and it feels strange brushing my teeth with water from the sink. I’m not used to using the microwave, but I’m getting back into it, and remembering how beautifully convenient it is! Especially when you want to boil water for tea.
I’m driving again. It’s weird being so close to the ground—I had been riding high above the road in a Land Cruiser almost every day. I filled up my car with gas and nearly suffered a cardiac arrest when it cost $32 to fill up my little Honda. When I was in college (mind you, this is just three years ago), it cost $19. Ouch. It’s nice to have paved roads, and—amazing!—traffic lights that work, and pedestrians actually use sidewalks instead of walking in the road.
Being back is nice. It’s comfortable. Everything anyone could ever want is available (for a price). But for whatever reason, to supplant the simplicity of this aspect of life, we purposefully make our lives more complicated. In Rwanda, while the people may be complicated, life is simple. People deal with adversity but don’t dwell on it. So you don’t have water in your house for two weeks? Go pump some from a well. No meat at the market? Eat potatoes instead. Your shirt doesn’t match your skirt? You haven’t washed your clothes in days? Wear them anyway. It’s not like anyone would care.
Living there (and I’m sure this goes for anyone who has lived in a developing country) makes you realize that Americans make mountains out of molehills. We’re so concerned about this drug or that treatment, organic produce, tuna with high mercury levels, UV rays, artificially colored salmon, alpha-hydroxy, carbohydrate intake…but how much of it really matters? Being in Rwanda helped me adjust my focus. And now that I’m back, while I’m still going to drink my vanilla lattes, I’m not going to make a fuss about the foam.