The Mad Mad Mad Mad World

Be sweet, and do awesome stuff all the time

The Three-Month Rule April 24, 2011

Filed under: Ottawa — themadmadmadmadworld @ 3:44 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

My first overseas adventure was a week or 2 after my 13th birthday, when I went to France for a three-month student exchange. Looking back, the experience was a very positive one: I learned a lot about myself, was exposed to a life that was different from my own, and (almost) became able to communicate in a language I knew next to nothing of before I left. At the time, however, I was an angsty young adolescent who was her own worst enemy in a strange land. The first month and a half I spent in France I was completely miserable: I barely spoke to anyone other than the other 2 Canadian exchange students at my school, and I spent most of my time locked in my room writing letters to my BFF’s back home, who were so lucky to have been able to go to the mall and have sleepovers with each other all the time while I was stuck in this weird, smelly, mall-less hellhole for another hundred years (or so it seemed at the time).

As time went on, I eventually got my act together and started allowing myself to enjoy the experience. About half way through my time in France, I realized that I could actually speak and understand French at an acceptable level. This opened to door to independence, pain au chocolat whenever I wanted it, and new friendships with people who were as foreign to me as I was to them. I started to participate more in activities with my host family, no longer relying on their English-speaking daughter to be my sole companion and guide, and became a part of a new family. By the time my 3 months were up, I didn’t want to leave. Forget the mall, le printemps dans la France m’attendait!

There’s this idea of a parabola of culture shock: after the peak of the initial honeymoon period is over, you start to resent the differences between this culture and your own, and you sink to an emotional low point. After a time (the length of which is different for everybody), you reconcile yourself with these differences however you see fit, you get happy and comfortable again and you settle in for the long haul. (Or, you don’t reconcile, and you leave if you can.) Once you return home, a similar parabola of reverse culture shock usually follows.

Ever since my formative experience of spending three months in France, I have found myself relating to this culture shock parabola for not just travel, but for any big life changes. It’s different for everyone, but it seems that for me three months is the amount of time it takes to run the gamut, establish a level of comfort with a situation, place, person, idea, etc. and have a clear opinion of whether or not it’s for me. Over the years I’ve had relationships, jobs, and living situations that have reached the three-month point and been abandoned, just because by then I knew it wouldn’t work. I have often caught myself living my life in three-month chucks of time. Last year was a prime example: 3 months in Mexico, 3 months in Haiti, 3 months in Canada,  another 3 months in Haiti.

Now it’s been just over three months that I’ve been back from Haiti. I haven’t been blogging during that time, mostly because I felt like I didn’t have much of interest to say. I’m pretty sure that exposes me for the crap blogger that I am, so let’s pretend that it was because I’ve been riding out my three-month adjustment period. How have I reconciled myself with the difference between my new-old life, my old-old life, and my most recent travel experiences? It hasn’t always been easy. Sometimes I still can’t believe that last year really happened, or that it was actually me who lived the experiences I did. (Re-reading my own blog now I think, “Really? There’s no way it was me who wrote something with a title as pretentious as ‘Political Cacophony’. Please.”) It was hard to come back to things like fashion, consumerism, and the way people go on about things like how unfair the electoral system is in Canada (compared to how they roll in certain other places I’ve been). It freaked me out to think of how I maybe used to think before, and how I might return to thinking that way, being back in this world. It’s hard realizing that the more you learn, the less you know, and trying to find a way to work that realization into your daily life.

At first when I came back there were some aspects of my new life that I tried to force, to prove to myself that what I’d learned was tangible and real. That ended up making me pretty unhappy. So I did the mature thing and gave my whole experience the middle finger, declared it just a bunch of stuff that happened, and wallowed in some serious regression for a while. That also didn’t really do it for me, so I decided to just stop worrying about it and just let myself live. Much to my surprise, the laissez-faire attitude has been working out pretty well so far. Maybe the things that I’ve learned aren’t tangible, and the changes that came didn’t come because I decided they would. These lessons and changes are manifesting themselves in surprising ways now that I’m allowing them to just be. Some of it is what I’d hoped for, some of it maybe isn’t. For example, I’m no longer obsessively following the situation in Haiti as I was trying to do when I first got home, although I do stay in touch with my friends and dream about being back there at least once a week. I’m prioritizing taking care of myself and focusing on doing what I’m doing here and now as well as I can, instead of relentlessly planning my next adventure like I usually do. I’m not frantically working my butt off to be able to make everything happen as quickly as possible, and it’s insane how much free time I’ve discovered as a result.

My life right now isn’t as exciting and interesting as it maybe was this time last year, but I feel happy and healthy and sane, so I really have no cause for complaint. Adventure comes in many forms, and right now the one I’m on is a bit more slow-paced than I’m used to. This likely means less blogging, but it’s good to not share everything with everyone all the time. (Especially when it makes for an uninteresting read.) Maybe I’ll write again in another three months, by which time I might be on a whole other level I’d never imagined before. Or I might still be here in Ottawa, doing the same stuff and feeling the same way, which would be great as well. You’ll know I’ve reached a point where it’s time to stage an adventure intervention when this turns into a cooking blog…but considering the state of my perpetually dirty kitchen, I don’t think there are any worries for the time being.

 

Back in Haiti and Sweaty as Ever October 16, 2010

Filed under: Haiti,rubble — themadmadmadmadworld @ 2:30 am
Tags: , , , , ,

I arrived back in Haiti just over 48 hours ago and the amount that I have sweat can already be measured in litres. The seasons have changed since I left here in July, and everyone agrees that it’s much cooler than before. Great news! I no longer pour sweat out of every part of my body from just lying around; I now have to at least lift my little finger before I feel that familiar trickle.

Today I lifted much more than just my litte finger. It was my first full day back out in the field “rubbling”, and man was it ever amazing. When I first started volunteering with All Hands Volunteers in May, it was called Hands On Disaster Response and their main function in Haiti was clearing rubble and doing demolition work for residential properties. Over the course of my time here, and during the three months that I was back home in Canada, the project has changed a lot. Instead of having 120+ people living together on base all the time, we’re down to about 70-80 volunteers. And instead of sending out 5-10 teams of volunteers to rubble, today we were just one team of 12. More people are here long-term and are involved in more sustainable development-type projects like developing hygiene education programs and constructing schools. It makes for a very different feeling on base…fewer sweaty shirtless men, more people cooped up in the office or in meetings, and a generally elevated level of hygiene. Being a fan of filth, I’m not sure how I feel about it yet.

Not that it’s not great to be back. In many ways, I feel like I never left. A lot of my friends who were here before have either stuck around over the past few months, or have done as I have and left for a while and then come back. The volunteers who are new to me all seem wonderful, and it feels good to be back in this communal environment where everyone feeds off each other’s energy and ideas so readily. I’ve been blown away by how well received I’ve been. All our Haitian voluteers made me feel like a long lost sister when I walked through the door, and random people from the community who I never expected to remember me have been calling me by name to come get a hug and a “welcome home!”. We had a big dance party my first night back, and I’d almost forgotten how good it feels to dance barefoot to terrible Haitian hip hop in the pouring rain. (Still very sweaty!)

Whenever I’m about to set off on a new adventure (or set out to revisit an old one), I always have a few solid freak-out sessions during which I question everything and wonder what I was smoking when I decided to go through with this crazy plan, whatever it may be. (Usually this process involves  teary phone calls to my parents and at least 2 of my best friends, and eating my feelings through either ice cream or poutine. All of the above is sounding pretty good right now, actually…) The more I’ve experienced the easier it has become to reason with the voices inside my head, but they still pop up every single time. Even once I get to where I’m going and am doing what I’ve set out to do I can’t help but experience serious doubts now and then about the choices I’ve made and my reasons for making them. I tend to act on impulse or instinct (often confusing the two) and my “shoot first ask questions later” lifestyle does catch up with me from time to time.

But no matter where I end up, I always end up finding something that reassures me and makes me want to keep doing what I’m doing. In this case, it was my reception from the Haitians I was involved with last time. No matter how different or frustratingly the same things are here, I know I will be able to count on the personal relationships I’ve established, and the culture I’ve grown to love, to keep me going. I still have conflicting feelings and opinions about “the situation” in Haiti and my role as a volunteer here, but at the end of the day I know that if I have treated people well and kept a smile on my face, I’ll know I’ve done some good. This is one lesson that is amazingly easy to forget, considering how relevant it is to everyday life no matter where you are or what you’re doing.

I am excited about what the next 3 months have in store for me. Over the weeks to come I’ll figure out what I’m doing as far as work goes and what my role in the orgaization will be. But for the time being, I am just so unreasonably happy to be back with a sledgehammer in my hands and an obnoxiously repetitive song called “Anba Dekomp” in my heart (and in my head, 24-7). I can’t wait to build up some muscle again and get dirty cleaning stuff up. 

The generator gets shut off in half an hour, so I’d better wrap it up. Now it’s off to treat my heat rash, drench myself in carcenogenic DEET to avoid Dengue fever, check my teeny tiny tent for tarantulas and poisonous centepides, and curl up on the concrete floor on my yoga mat so that when it inevitably pours rain tonight I don’t get wet from touching the tent walls.

Wait…what the hell am I doing back here again?