One month has come and gone and baby, I’m back in Benin. In early December, I took my first vacation almost 15 months after first arriving in the country and went right back to good old suburban Pennsylvania. To clarify for non-PC folks, we’re allowed 48 vacation days for our two years to use how we’d like. I tried to plan a short vacation earlier in 2019 that eventually fell through so I decided to take a full month to come home and catch a break. One month, 5 family functions, endless catch-ups, 2 phones, 12 extra pounds, and a very full suitcase later- a month at home was everything I needed.
A Visit Home
Honestly, I was very apprehensive about coming home. I love my life in Dogbo and I really wasn’t looking for a break from it. I had really hit a groove in the last few months of 2019 and leaving for that long felt like a huge disruption. When I initially planned the trip though, I thought I wanted a break from Peace Corps life. Leaving for a month showed me how attached to my friends, neighbors, and host family I’d become; and it was a short glimpse at how difficult it will be to leave for real. But I knew I needed a break, a chance to get some sleep, and get ready for a new decade and second year of service.
While the prospect of refrigerators, regular access to toilets, and bagels was exciting, the most important part of this trip was the chance to see my family and friends for the first time in over a year. I cried when I hugged my mom at the airport and then promptly shouted “F*CK IT’S COLD.” Despite being nervous about it, I was surprised at how easy it was to get back into life in America: driving, English, winter, the whole damn thing. When I came back from Rwanda a few years ago, it was really hard to accept being back in the States. But I think knowing the visit was temporary helped me enjoy the time that I had. Little hints of Benin would of course pop up, even from 5,000 miles away. It would be hard to resist telling strangers “bon appétit” when I saw them eating at a restaurant. I had more patience and I think a greater openness to people, and certainly was always prepared to talk about my love for Dogbo and Benin.
I have a lot of really great memories from this trip home. The same day I came back, I accepted an award for young alumni from my grade school and parish. My church was my first experience in community and it ended up being the perfect way to start a homecoming. Highlights included hitting the open bar at the same time as my 7th grade history teacher and asking if it was weird for him, awful photo booth pictures with my best friends from highschool (minus Julia), and a post-event beer at Coco’s. The next day followed up with a coming-home party with my whole family and the first of many opportunities to eat Puerto Rican food over the course of a month. Between this party, my cousin’s (and now a PCV!) birthday party, and Three Kings/Tres Reyes, I got to see my entire family plenty to make up for lost time. I spent a weekend in DC where I really tested how many plans I could cram into 4 days until I was wiped out, learning that even extroverts have their limits. I’m especially grateful for a lot of the one-on-one reflection sessions I had with my friends in DC, especially but not limited to: Grimo, Zunara, Leah, Leeann, and Keiji.
Giving talks at my grade school and high school made me really thankful for teachers who put so much energy into my development as a student and as a person. This trip also gave me a chance to see some familiar faces for the first time in this hemisphere! Back-to-back weekends brought memories of Rwanda with visits from my friends from study abroad days. Christmas and New Years came and went, and I wore a crop top for the first time with help from my friends constantly reassuring me that it looked good and Danielle’s stash of safety pins. As I got closer to returning to Dogbo, I was once more met with mixed emotions.
I was very ready to go back to the sun, return to the life I built here, pick projects back up, and see all of the people I had missed so much. At the same time I was hit by the borrowed time of a visit home and the difficulty of saying goodbye to people I’d love to see more than once a year. It’s a slow lead-up, just like last time, where one goodbye turns into two turns into saying “see you in a year” to all of the people who built you up over 23 (almost 24!) years. We spent a final weekend celebrating 3 Kings Day/Tres Reyes with a somewhat-annual party at my parents’ house, eating my favorite food, and drinking my way through a coquito competition. After that I hit my local Target pretty hard looking for gifts and necessities such as taco mix and Mac and Cheese. I eventually got everything into my suitcase or a pile for my mom to bring when she comes here soon. On the way to New York we were able to say one last goodbye to my cousin, who left for Peace Corps Thailand the next day. And at last I took a midnight plane back to Benin.
Reflections For A New Year
Like a lot of people, starting the 2020s brought lots of reflections on the past few years and vision-setting for the next few to come. I think for us 1996 babies, the new decade hit at a time in our lives where we’re really feeling the transition into adulthood. If we look back to ten years ago, 2010 was really our entrance into teenager-hood and now at the start of another decade we find ourselves entering our mid-20s. Going home came at the perfect time to take a step back and really think about who I am, where I’m going, etc. etc.
One of my biggest realizations ended up being that I don’t want to live in the U.S. I took my first trip abroad when I was 17 and each time that I’ve traveled since I haven’t wanted to stop. So the idea of living abroad has been floating in my mind for years. But now that I’ve been in a different country for over a year, I’ve confirmed that this is the kind of life I want (but with an upgrade to a toilet after this year). I found that I get energy from being surrounded by different cultures, languages, and new places that challenge me. While I’m not set on one specific place, country, or continent, deciding firmly that I don’t want to live in the U.S. has allowed me to think about what life will be like post-Peace Corps.
Instead of a resolution I’m going into this year with a guiding mindset to be more intentional: intentional with my time, my energy, my resources. It’s starting to hit me that I have less than a year left in Dogbo and still so much that I want to do. This is where it’ll be important to be more intentional with my time- last year I took a lot of naps during the day when I didn’t have anything to do. And while I appreciate this time in my life where I can take a nap at 2pm on a Tuesday, I also know those are the hours that I could be using for something more important. Looking back on the month before I went home, I felt very rushed. Maybe it was because of all of the preparation to leave or maybe it was because I was starting to go back into an American mindset. One of the consequences is the feeling that I didn’t put enough time into my relationships here. Now with this intentionality I’m trying to bring into this year, combined with a certain openness I feel here, I want to start putting the time into relationships I know will last me the rest of my life. This means stopping for random conversations, continuing to improve my Adja, and spending time with people, even if it’s just to take a nap at their house. I also want to make sure I finish all of the projects I have planned, explore more of the country, and set myself up to extend my service for a 3rd year in Benin.