Where the Sidewalk Ends

>> Friday, November 05, 2010

Today, you'll be reading the self-composed interview of one, Jen Olsen, atop her mountain in Busanza, Rwanda, answering some of those juicy questions all you Westerners out there are asking!

JO: Am I lonely? I don't suppose so. I'm definitely alone, but not lonely.

I mean, I have my thoughts, and they keep me pretty busy. And with them, the thoughts of everyone I've ever read. I listen to Whitman almost daily, and Emerson everytime I find myself talking to the chickens. As of recent I've added Jane Austen, Chaim Potok, David Sedaris, Paul Farmer, and Ray Bradbury to the crew and every week the party gets bigger [a commonality between all PCVs, I imagine].

And you know what, it's not that I enjoy living in my head, but I can't help it. I'm either walking down the road with a running kinyarwanda dialogue in my head, practicing and planning for probable interactions, or sitting with my kids during art club, while they banter to themselves and eventually my kinyarwanda runs out, and I'm left staring off into the sky, thinking of synonyms and similes Walt would have given to the setting mountaintop sun. Comprable to that, Emerson would have regarded the brazen simplicity and the solace my home gives, and to turn nature itself into a juxtaposed chaos, Bradbury just stands in the corner, contemplating the way the light strikes through threads of banana fiber. Honestly, it's actually quite crowded in my yard. I mean my head.

I'll keep sitting here on my shoddy twig stool held together with three strips of old tire, quietly considering all their observations, questioning these things and people and places and their opinions on life [and my life, specifically] and suddenly, how can you ever feel alone?

Some of the best minds, the best people [not mutually exclusive, fyi] i've ever known are the ones who take off on their own. who hole up in their room with their thoughts, drive north until the land is no longer familiar, or take off across the country on foot, just to dive deeper into themselves.

If these people all hold a facet for observation, and I'm turning it around also, saying, hmm, yes, very interesting, let's look at it from over here... we're all peering into the same crystal ball looking for insight. And everytime it changes hands it's scuffed, cloudy, dirty or scratched, whether war or time or place has changed, we all keep peering into the same core.

Our thoughts may vary slightly, based on these superficial inflictions, but no one's ever lonely. I'm tied to these people as much as I've ever been. I can't help but see familiar faces in all that I do. I'm not a pioneer. I've just joined a club of great minds and finally got my own facet. Let us hope others will seek solace in me and them and never lose faith in our anonymous, faceless comradery. I'll always be here, and if the sharp plains of a diamond last forever, then so will we. Right?

JO: Daily routine? That's pretty hard to nail down but let's go with yesterday. Yesterday I woke up at 5:56am to the sound of the tiny little bird that used to tap dance on my roof, now taking inspiration from the Broadway hit, STOMP and using what must have been a bird-sized sledgehammer with his already thunderous routine. In my morning delirium I reached out from my mosquito net and threw my flip flips at the underside of the roof. Not much accomplished but I laid in bed until 7 or so when I finally got up, flipped my net up, and fed the chickens [who, since laying eggs, have started to fly up to the windows and whimper if I'm not speedy with their food ((BTW, did I mention the first egg laid was from Gaju flying to my window, climbing through the bars, and laying the egg on my windowsill?))]. On a complete sidenote, Gaju means brown cow and WHY is it Rwandans never seem to think it's funny when I tell them I named my brown chicken brown cow? But they think Shyimbo [little bean] is hysterical..

Anyway, after that, I start filling up my water boilers, boil water, make tea, sweep out the house with my awesome Rwandan broom that requires you to bend your back parallel to the floor, and do a general routine of tidiness.

Yesterday was Thursday which is Art Club day, so the kids came over to draw and play. Usually I try to sneak something educational into the event, but since we've been covering only health topics and I have a dozen or so drawings of me as a stick figure brushing my teeth, the kids and I looked at my world map and drew pictures of our flags and talked about how many countries there were and whatnot. One of the girls had never seen a world map before, so I think the World Map Project is in my future for the primary school in Busanza. I'll be able to paint a mural of the world on or in the school with the kids, so that they always have a map to learn from [a novelty almost all schools can't afford]. [sidenote: since writing the first draft of this, I now have 3 more schools interested in me running the world map project, all of which will commence in the new year, as well as my being an art teacher for a few months so the art program doesn't shut down for lack of teacher. WOOHOO!]

After that, I started boiling some rice, and did my Jillian Michaels workout video [honestly, it should mention in the PC handbook that 80% of volunteers gain weight in Africa]. In between monsoons and drizzles, I read a bit, cleaned a bit, chopped down some reeds in my yard and brought them to my neighbors who feed them to their cow. I visited them for a bit, sat outside with the kids and mom who were laying on a mat next to the cow pen. The dad is really sick; he always tells me he has pain in his stomach and his daughter, who I teach english, always tells me that he is going to die. I hadn't seen him since he went to the hospital two weeks ago but Sunshine [the name I've given to his daughter] brought me inside to his bed to say hello. In the last two weeks he's gone from a sick, old, malnourished man, to a bedridden man who is so wasted he resembles a Holocaust survivor. It's a really hard reality to stomach, to watch a man slowly die. I didn't stay long, for the smell and sight of the room, but he greeted me just as he had when he was more alive. That's something to say about the culture.

After that an old man who saw me with the reeds, begged me to come see his cows and chickens, so I visited his family, played with a cow, wowed some old women with my kinyarwanda, and went home. I made some pseudo rice veggie and egg stir-fry for dinner, watched the Season 3 finale of Lost and cried a little over it, and cleaned up. Thus is a typical day in the village. It's not going to move any mountains, but I don't mind it!

JO: What do I miss the most?

Excluding the most obvious family and friends:
Target, tubs of movie theatre popcorn, Binghamton University Nature Preserve, running without being followed, talking without being self-conscious, fencing, wearing shorts without being confused for a prostitute, using a debit card, ordering pizza, eating pizza, smelling and seeing pizza. drinking water out of the tap, ice cubes, tracks, fields, not being stared at all the time, university classes, lip gloss, and shaving my legs. AND feeling human. That may sound like a grand statement, but when you're always wearing a funny suit, it's hard to remember what you were wearing before. The job is 24/7 so the suit never really comes off and you're always on stage, always on the record.

JO: Unexpected gains from this experience? Well, with the one-year-in-country anniversary coming up, I've made a short list of
Things I never expected to gain from this:
Honing my shakira-dancing skills [one of the few music videos I've acquired is She-Wolf]
Encouraging sanity through personal dance parties and concerts during monsoons when I can't even hear myself sing, shadow puppets when the power's out and befriending chickens.
Perpetuating my hopeless attraction to color and artistic enthralment by finding endless means of expression, whether art club, children's photo perspective, or chalk-on-mud wall-murals
A sailor's tongue
A new understanding of/ respect for my digestive system

JO:Best thing I've seen this week?
So I was walking home in the dark the other night [I was running late, don't yell at me!] and nearing the end of the paved road. From that point I can look left, and see the 60 foot twin pine trees that mark my village on the sky line, or I can look right, and see the edge of Kigali city petering off into the hills. I'm rarely down the mountain this late at night because it's still a 40 minute walk from where the sidewalk ends to get home. But looking right, I see the edge of the city, a thicket of lights all the way to my right and behind me. I pan left slowly and the lights fall into smaller groups, patterns and dimplings of stars on the mountain, evidence of the random assortment of electricity-bearing villages. I keep paning until the lights go out and the mountain fades into wilderness and I'm back on the edge of the road. I look left at my own mountain, and I see not thousands of the city, not hundreds from an up-and-coming town, but 7. Just 7 lights. And mine would soon make 8. There were a few flickering lights, dictating fires outside and it reminded me so much of the traditional practices of Halloween, of lighting a bonfire on every mountaintop, to be seen and acknowledged by other firey minds. And I was reminded of what a rare beauty this was, to see where the lights stop, to know that some places are nothing but light, but I'm luckily in this beautiful world where sharing a bonfire can still acknowledge some likeminded living, one that's simple and hopeful and modest.


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