March was supposed to be the easiest month, the month of auto-pilot as I awaited the end of it, when I would board my first flight since last May and spend my two-week spring break in France, drinking wine, wearing sweaters, and exploring new avenues with my own personal tour guide. Instead, I write this halfway through my two-week self-quarantine in a trailer outside my parents’ house, after the Peace Corps decided to evacuate all volunteers worldwide as COVID-19 uprooted lives everywhere.
But March had already started out rocky. A week after my birthday, on another long run, rounding a corner in a neighboring village, three familiar dogs emerged running and barking at me. Years of running in unfamiliar places has taught me that a convincing reach to the ground to grab a fake rock to fake throw will almost always scare local dogs off. It had worked with these three dogs many times before. Except that day, they continued approaching, and I freaked out. I turned and sprinted the opposite direction, they chased me, I screamed, one nipped me in the butt, and soon enough it was all over. I continued on my run, assuming the bite had done no harm, until a mile later when I was far enough into the bush to stop, pull down my shorts, and check. To my complete dismay, there on my right cheek, two puncture marks that had, in fact, broken the skin, which meant I would be calling the medical office in Lomé and, probably, going there. Sighing, I turned around early and stopped to chat with the dog’s owner, who told me that yes, they were vaccinated, but no, he did not have the cards proving so with him. Three hours later, I was searching for a car to Lomé armed with four days’ worth of baggage, and six hours later, I was in the medical office receiving the first of two rabies shots, spaced three days apart.
No part of me wanted to spend the entire weekend in Lomé, but in not-unusual fashion, I made the most of it. On Saturday morning, disappointed outside the closed Independence Monument, a stranger befriended me, convinced the gardener to let us inside the monument so I could see it, led me to the nearby soccer stadium to watch part of the Togo women’s team’s scrimmage, and then brought me to his artists’ collective, where he and his fellow artist roommates provided, over the next many hours, coffee, pâte, rice, guitar and vocal music, a gallery viewing, and great conversation. By the end of it, I had agreed to join their “spectacle” in a few weeks and play saxophone with them, if they could find me a saxophone to play, and they bid me farewell with a beautiful wood carving as a gift.
On Sunday, I submerged myself in the ocean for the first time in far too long, and for the first time in Togo. Because Togo’s coastline is quite rough and dangerous, another volunteer and I went to a beach featuring a built-in rock wall and rope protecting swimmers from riptides and unpredictable waters. The weather and water were perfect, and it felt so amazing that I might even say the dog bite was worth all the trouble for that. I also left Lomé having sampled plenty of delicious food so rich it made me a bit ill, having been exceptionally lucky finding clothes at the giant market full of Goodwill’s and other thrift stores’ shipped leftovers, and having passed many lovely hours talking with other volunteers.
Three days after my return from Lomé, and two days after a wasp finally stung me between shoulder blades and between classes in the karmic culmination of my constant battle against them in my house, Peace Corps made the decision to restrict all international travel. This meant, of course, no France, which for me also meant a broken heart. I passed the weekend with many tears, punctuated with brightness by a belated Women’s Day parade, a visit to a good friend’s village, and an entire day spent reading a book cover to cover. That Sunday night, I sat on the steps outside my house gazing at the stars while Joni Mitchell’s Blue played inside and I wrote in a note on my phone I feel impossibly at peace, triumphantly comfortable alone, ready for whatever came next.
Perhaps that is why, when I woke at 4 a.m. the next morning to the news that Peace Corps was evacuating all volunteers around the world, I felt like I had already prepared for that news, which was in some ways the worst possible. Still, the following days, in which I packed my life into three suitcases, gave much away, talked with my friends and work partners and students, and assured everyone including myself that I would be back, though I did not know when or how, were excruciating. In times of crisis, I am calm and task-oriented, and so I compartmentalized the uncertainty of it all, the seeming finality with which I must leave my village, suddenly and without warning, and I took comfort in the fact that 82 other volunteers in Togo and over 7000 other volunteers in the world were going through the same thing. And that people all over the world were changing their lives for the sake of mitigating the virus’s spread.
Now, a week since arriving back in Oregon, still often disoriented, devastated, and full of dread (but also comfortable, healthy, plugged into all amenities, and benefiting from the generosity of family and friends), I have not yet made sense of it all. It is certainly not as simple as me, a privileged American, being sad to leave my borrowed home and job across the world. I am most disappointed for my village, and every site in the world, for being abandoned so swiftly and with little idea of what comes next. Yes, I want to go back, and if it is at all possible I will do so as soon as I can, but I also know I cannot just wait; I must do something in the meantime. And yet, for the time being, it is a time of doing nothing, of staying home for the good of everyone. Likewise, I have many emotions and experiences to un-compartmentalize and process before they begin to sour and rot. So, it seems the only thing left for me to do is navigate how to make Oregon feel like home again, and how to make something of my days here, when a tiny village in the mountains of Plateaux and a tiny country full of endless fascinations, lessons, and kindness still have a hold on my heart.