Disclaimer: This post was drafted on December 14, 2018 and edited throughout my winter break in Naperville. It is now February 7, 2019 and I assure you my mindset has done almost a complete 180. But the beauty of writing is keeping a log of the multiplicity of feelings/experiences that one person can have, even in a short time span.
It’s hard to believe that it’s almost Christmas when the ground is so dusty with sand. Winter in eastern Chad is definitely not winter in Chicago. I run around in my skirt tied up and short-sleeved tie-dye while Assad, one of the drivers, is decked out in his heather grey pea coat and white turban (though I’m told the turban is more for sun protection). Here at the Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) base in Guereda, the house manager Farida has seven roosters tied up in the little pen just outside. When I first arrived ten days ago, there were three different roosters attached by the leg to the same sapling tree. I can’t really tell the difference between chicken and rooster stew.
I’m feeling unwell. My diet for the past ten days has consisted of round, fluffy loaves of bread baked directly on the dunes, perfectly spongy except for the occasional grits of sand. Farida noticed my addiction to the Chadian beignets, slightly sweetened pieces of fried dough, quickly. She served them in little tin pots decorated with red roses and in my depressed state I would consume an entire container every day, dipping them into strawberry jam. She must have thought I was crazy for eating so many, yet every morning a beignet-filled pot greeted me at the table.
Washing down all these carbs is no easy feat, but Chadian chai does a remarkable job. Unlike most North African or East African chai, the most popular variety in Chad is green tea, spiced lightly with a crushed blend of cinnamon, vanilla, cardamom and even black pepper. Though, of course like all chai in the region, each kettle of Chadian tea contains at least a fistful of sugar.
My movements this year have been erratic, even for me, and eastern Chad constitutes my greatest adventure to date in terms of unfamiliarity (in both place and tasks) and remoteness.
For the past two weeks, almost every day, I take a humanitarian convoy out to the refugee camp Mile or Kounoungou, 20km west of Guereda. This means sitting squished in the backseat between my team leader and the hired Chadian military agent with his AK-47’s wooden handle jostling against my leg for an hour as we scoot across the barren landscape of the eastern Sahel. The car in front of us kicks up a curtain of dust. Its four-wheel drive eats full force at the desert path. Herds of goats would occasionally emerge; orderly in packs, yet I never could make out exactly where the shepherd is among the throng. Our vehicles always take care to part cautiously through this sea. We sometimes zip past groups of camels nibbling on (or around?) the thorny tree branches. Compared to the goats, they look especially tall and regal. We overtake herds of bovines and groups of women on the backs of donkeys laden with kindling wood.
The soundtrack for these trips is most often a mix of West African French rap and more traditional Bedouin Arabic classics. Sometimes I play my own music for the convoy and the enumerators would excitedly name the artists they recognize. “This is…Nicki Minaj!” “Drake!” “Do you have any Justin Bieber?”
Today is my last trip out to Kounoungou. I see the goats, the camels, the cattle, the donkeys. I heard the warbling voices belting out Arabic love songs. I see the miles and miles of sandy desert punctuated by shrubby trees. I feel the DPHR agent scoot further away every few minutes, annoyed, as the rocking vehicle slid us closer together with every bump.
The details may differ – but the fact remains that I have sat in hundreds of different cars with the seat belt on, going down roads in a foreign city or town, peering through the layer of glass separating the world out there from me. Maybe it is a Peugeot taxi or a Mazda Uber instead of a white Toyota 4X4. I must have travelled thousands of miles this way in the US, Europe, Asia, the Middle East – in a car, in a plane, a train. Eventually, does it really matter the specific mode of transportation? How many scenes have passed before me in exactly the same way?
These questions popped into my mind when K mistakenly thought that I had visited Hong Kong recently. The one and only time I’ve visited Hong Kong was 12 years ago. “It just seems like you teleport all over the world,” he laughed. This year I travelled to 15 countries and lived in four of them. Yet I felt the biting chill of Copenhagen’s January air the most while I was already in Paris sitting on the 63 bus from my apartment at Albert de Mun to class at Saint Guillaume. I most vividly felt the cold bench under my butt in the small park near metro Anvers while hailing down a taxi in Hamra, Beirut with sweat dripping down my back. My consciousness seems to need a couple weeks to catch up to my body.
When you hop around too much, you begin to feel like you exist only within the cocoon of your body; nothing external to that remains consistent, so nothing immediately penetrates anymore into your experiences. It’s time and only time that allows a place to seep through your skin and enter your lived experience as you live it. Otherwise you’re seeing but you’re not really being, almost like reading someone else’s travel blog through the screen of your computer. And if that happens, what’s the point of even being there in the first place?
Wholly absorbing an experience was much easier a few years and dozen countries ago. As a twenty year old in November 2013, I walked along the Seine for the first time and was hit by the total-body feeling of being in Paris – excitedly thinking “I’m in Paris!” when I was still walking around in Paris. But that feeling of being present is fewer and farther in between now at age 25. After five years, half a decade, 20% of my life, the means through which I achieve that same grounding experience have become more extreme, more base, more primal.
There are two memories from my weeks in Chad that prompted this realization.
The first was the Sunday market in Goz Beida. Thousands of people travel overnight by donkey to arrive at the central trading place by daybreak. The men and women sell everything from imported perfume to dried fish to spare car parts. The butchery is located in the middle of a massive dusty field, slightly on the outskirts. I remember the eyes still open on the severed camel head, an ironic grin stuck permanently on its bristled lips, unceremoniously upside down with ears punctured into the dirt, like someone forgot about it. The single trail of intestines, the blood dripping down into the sand, the horror of realizing I had worn my Birkenstocks to tread through it all. Turn left and there’s a hack of meat being fileted off with a machete, turn right and there are organs spilling out of ribs. In the very front of this vertically integrated operation, there’s a pyre featuring beef (I’m told) skewered on six feet tall metal pikes, roasting over an open flame. “It doesn’t smell that bad,” I had remarked in measured tones. “….yes it does,” my program manager smirked. I had been holding my breath without realizing it.
The second incident features the famous Chadian chai. In the local culture, it is customary to invite all guests for a small cup of sweet chai, and for guests, it is extremely rude to decline. So to hell with my lactose intolerance, the lack of refrigeration, and God knows whether it was cow, goat or camel milk – the people-pleaser side of me couldn’t possibly refuse, even though my stomach most certainly refused it an hour later. The sinking feeling in my stomach was accompanied quickly by the realization that “ah yes, the toilets do not flush automatically.” I had to first scoop out my own water from one of the three massive water tanks. The weight of it sloshed around the plastic purple bucket as I hurriedly wobbled to the toilet. A single stick of incense was propped up in the middle of an empty cardboard toilet paper roll; one of many rolls tied together in a decorative wreath that lay on the toilet tank. On the spare chair next to it (but why?), someone had left an Italian play script printed out on sheets of paper. Indeed, at that moment the experience was truly inside me, and then promptly outside of me.
I am beginning to think that this is an unsustainable lifestyle if it takes the bloody scene of a massacre and repetitive food poisoning to make me feel present.
Everywhere I look in the JRS living room, I am projecting signs of a woman attempting to stay sane. This living room belongs to A, the only Western expat living within a 100km radius, who arrived in Guereda nine months ago. Her watercolours of young kids dancing and of flowers are scattered around the room, some framed and a few propped up against the windows. I often see her out swinging on the hammock, sometimes reading but most often on the phone with family or friends back home. At breakfast, I watch her carefully ration the yogurt she had brought back from Ndjamena because there just weren’t any to be found out here.
I’ve been rereading Joan Didion’s essay, “Goodbye to All That,” one of the American classics I reread to ease my homesickness. It captures my feelings of progressing through my early 20s – totally free for the first time, scared yet excited to prove my worth, the intoxicating high of knowing that an adventure awaits with every new day. One passage in particular has been looping through my mind –
‘It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.’
For so long my greatest dream was to live abroad – to stroll down Parisian streets in a stylish wool coat, to fly in 12-seater planes over remote corners of the earth, to have adventures powered by my own two feet in cities I cannot pronounce and with people ablaze with the same sense of restlessness. I don’t know yet if this is the end of that life. I don’t know what changed, but as Joan Didion suggests, maybe one can never really pinpoint what spoils a dream fulfilled. Maybe it’s because we start to dream different dreams, maybe we need to embrace disillusionment. Do we need a reason to make life-changing decisions beyond simply feeling unhappy?