Always at this time of year I feel the need to write about tradeoffs. In fact, a year ago, almost to the day, I was sitting in this same Amtrak station, having packed up my things and closed the house alone, as I did again this year, and I was thinking about the choices I make and what I give up to do what I do. (And for effect, I took almost the same photo from the train arriving into New York City for this post!)
They say you have to gamble big to win big. I remind myself of this from time to time. When you make big decisions they often mean leaving equally big things behind. If you live in smaller circles, it seems, the paths available are less disparate and the tradeoffs less stark. (Though I suppose you could argue that choosing not to make a big change or move or risk is a tradeoff in itself…) But when you choose, as I do, to live far away from familiar places and people, to live in difficult situation where conveniences are few and far between, the tradeoff can sometimes seem too dear. Especially at the end of a vacation in one of those familiar places with those familiar people and all the conveniences a girl could dream of.
The days go quickly when you spend them in the warmth of love and comfort. I try to appreciate each day at home but yet it never seems enough. As long as possible I hold off thoughts of going back to… to… what is it that I’m going back to?
When I tell strangers I live in Congo I often get one of a few responses. Some people just say, “You’re brave… Aren’t you scared?” Others say something along the lines of, “Wow, that must be an amazing adventure. I’m jealous!” And a few even say, “You’re lucky to be out of the US. It’s so much better over there I bet.” This tends to be a vague reference to the politics or cultural trends of the US… a statement on reality tv and malls, which we, for sure, do not have in Congo.
But most of the time my life in DRC doesn’t seem adventurous or culturally superior. Generally it feels like a struggle interspersed with a few moments of satisfaction or excitement or awe. While I work for a conservation project, my days are mostly spent in town, in an office, at a desk, in front of a computer, staring at Excel or emails. I am working on an extremely ambitious project with a dozen moving parts, all of which need intense pushing and pulling into shape. This new job has been my biggest challenge to date and the first few months have been harder than I expected.
My day to day is not so much a daily grind as it is a kind of slog up a mountain. The terrain changes, it is never boring, but it is not exactly fun either. You walk head down, avoiding the rocks and stumps, trying to find a path around a fallen tree, trying not to slip in the mud or trip on a root, hoping that you will eventually get to the top. It’s tiring. It’s only every once in a while when you come to a ledge and get a clear view of the long winding path you’ve walked or stumble upon some small treasure on the trail, a blue mushroom or the flash of a crimson bird, do you stop and say, “Hmm… this is what I’m doing. This is my life. This is worth it. I am glad I’m here.”
But those moments are sporadic and it can be hard to remember them. There are a lot of moments of wanting to scream or cry or yell. There is clausterphobia when I haven’t left the compound in days. There is confusion about how to operate in a totally dysfunctional system. There is a lot of loneliness and a lot of doubt.
Being home, the temptation sets in to just root myself in a place with all the easiness and baked goods and hot water and fluffy tumbled-dried clothes I could want. Not to mention the people I love. So I write these notes, once a year or so, to remind myself. And I try to remember the things I have done that I could not do if it weren’t for the tradeoffs. Like the other day, I was lying in bed while visiting the Seregenti office of FZS, listening to a hyena’s whooping from just on the other side of the wall. A hyena! Outside my window! And that’s my job! I smiled at each bellowy yelp and thought, in my dreamy half-sleep, “This is why. Don’t forget.”