Saturday, April 25, 2009
There...and back again.
Guest Post By Ryan O'Brien
On March 24th, 2009, I left our Colorado home to make the journey to visit my best friend. Sydney Schalit, PCV, serving in the United States Peace Corps in Mali, West Africa, left Denver to begin her training and service on July 6th, 2008.
Almost 8 months later, I packed bags, scratched bits off lists, and bade farewell to my son and familiarity. I spent a night with Syd's brother & company (thanks again, Bro Supremo), and was catapulted into the air the next morning bound for New York. After switching airports, my last sundown in America, and a last ditch buying of gossip magazines (for Sydney, I swear I didn't enjoy one minute of reading every one from cover to cover), the 737 serving from The Great Melting Pot took off bound for Morocco. Being a total tightwad, my itinerary purchased from the fine folks at Cheap-O Air (not kidding-cheapoair.com) included a 15 hour layover in Casablanca. Exiting the airport and putting on my best "Parlevous Englais?," I located the train station and some lovably sadistic athletes that were on the same layover en route to a week long foot race through the desert outside Ourzazate. What a great lot to spend a day with these folks (although the Canadian ones seemed to dislike me bringing up Rush, which rendered their Canadian-ness useless to me). We dodged eager cabbies, Frogger-esque traffic, and pounded the pavement toward the coast. After the most profound three cups of coffee of my life, we trekked through the walled city and along the shoreline to the monumental mosque, ate dinner at the airport and said our fast goodbyes.
Bless the rest of the world for accomodating the tobacco user, as I met a man called Syvel from Montreal (didn't mention Rush this time) in a smoker's concourse of the airport. He was on the same flight to Bamako to begin a month long research project. He filled me in on a bunch of colonial and industrial history of Mali, focusing specifically on China. The plane was absolute mayhem, it was 11:00 at night, and I quickly gave up any idea of sitting in my assigned seat.
Landing. On a plane. In her world.
Travel weary. There was something about luggage. There were passports and signs and there were yellow cards and stamps and uniformed personnel and...these little...white...arms...jutting up from an enourmous Malian crowd.
I'd like to cue the music, slow the film, and give an emotional shot of a love reunited. But it was much more authentic than that. A long, waking holding, yes, but we were quickly overcome,"No, we don't need a cab, thank you. We've got a driver. I'm sure. Yes, I'm sure." For a while, just staring in disbelief that she's her and I'm me and here we are.
We spent four days in Bamako. Being able to meet the other volunteers that Sydney relies on was humbling (Megan, Jon. I meant every word). They were there away from everything, convincing themselves everyday that they can make this place familiar.
The city itself was a mix of buildings that seemed to be either going up or coming down, the traffic a steady river of suggested lanes and daring maneuvers, and the layout was a labyrinthine visual braille of open sewers, street vendors, and amazingly well-behaved livestock. Everyone was unbelievably kind on a one-on-one basis, only to then rejoin the torrent of cast-eyed urban determination, swept back into the moving crowd and unrecognizable forever. This visual riot culminated in a sit at the bus station (an amazingly uncertain place), and a three hour ride on transport to Kita. Even with our blown tire halfway through, Sydney was sure to note that this was one of her easiest bus trips since she'd been there.
Kita's Peace Corps house is everything you could ever love and forgive about dorm rooms. Home made with a capital HOME. It was a refuge from the hotness and the redness and even though the hotness and the redness still made it into the house, it was reassuring to be have a known place. We went to the market, through the puddles and smells and humble fascination of watching people work at their tables. One night in Kita, and then onto Morgoula.
After finding out "What can be that bad about a bush taxi (think work van with 47 people in it)?" I was told by Sydney that we had gotten off easy yet again, as we had not been thrown up on, this basche had seat covers, and had speakers and even better decided not to use them. The baggage was an easy seven feet tall from the roof, everything from bicycles to bags of grain for the boutiqui stores in each of the seven villages we passed (technically six, since this bus decided not to go to its final destination with only two passengers. We caught the next one from Sirakoro after Syd argued enough with the driver).
We arrived in Morgoula. A wide-ish stretch of red road cuts through the forest plain, dotted with clusters of grass roofs and mud walls. And then drums began.
Sydney had the local tailor, Kareem, fashion a traditional boubou shirt and some baggy (samurai) pants for me. She even made the pants Olive Drab, perhaps so she would still recognize me. The dancing that Morgoula brought on was so thorough, so close, and so surreal. They had welcomed not only me, but Sydney was their perpetually honored guest, and I was there as her man. They welcomed 'us.' Safyatu (One of Syd's best friends in vilage and who also gave me the best peanuts on Earth) sang a song that Sydney translated as "You came through the forest/ You came through the desert/ to make Oumou happy/ You make us happy."
The great thing about travel is this: I've never really wanted to be the center of attention. But out in the big world, where I don't have to be me, it was really incredible to have the view from that seat.
Seeing Sydney's house was stunning. Her systems for cooking, filtering, sleeping, bathing, laundering, letter writing, maintaining her place in that culture, that place, were incredible. Her host family was so sincere and accomodating that had it not been for the memories of America, one could call this home. Our week in Morgoula consisted of the most gentle and jarring lifestyle a person could ever hope to combine. We didn't need anything that we didn't have. But at the same time, you couldn't imagine a group of people you'd want to give more to.
Liza, another PC Volunteer came from Sirakoro for an overnight. Her company was so assuring, knowing that this capable woman was Syd's closest geographical ally. Her presence and usefulness and knack for being the missing piece to every puzzle we came across was staggering. It even became the running joke to say,"Thanks, Liza!" every twenty minutes or so because she was always right there, keeping everything on track. Thanks, Liza.
At the core of this, the reason you follow this blog, is Sydney. By all accounts, you'll never meet a more beautiful person. I had ideas about her before, but nothing could have galvanized an image of a person so much, every ideal made real. She's existed in America as the person that always made us our best, brought out what we loved most about ourselves. She exists there the same way. She carried herself against this harshness with confidence, enthusiasm and tangible grace.
There are people in the world that are never uprooted, are at home in their own skin, and are going to thrive anywhere they are. Notice these people in your life. These are the special ones. Send them some FunDip.
We left Morgoula for Kita for an overnight, and then back to Bamako for my flight the next morning. Both of us counting the seconds, not knowing what to do with them. Do we get closer? Do we prime the part of the heart that helps us both deal with the distance? We be us. We are as distant as ever, yet closeness defined.
Watching Bamako get smaller and smaller from the window of the plane, I suddenly understood why people called in false threats to alter an airplane's schedule to their liking (No, please unsubscribe me from the Homeland Security watch list). Everything in my person was fighting the fundamentally illogical thing I was doing. Facing months apart again, uncertain when they'd break. But my brother always says,"Bittersweet is still sweet."
Back to the brightness. Thinking of Fisher, the dogs, the chance of having ice in the freezer. Back to the familiar things. Back to thank everyone that helped me get there, and try to explain what it was like. Homesick at home, more hopeful than ever, for the best reason anyone could ask for.
On the roof of the Kita house, cemented in the confidence that we could look out at the world as an unfailing team, I asked Sydney to be married to me.
She said "yes."
Photos from Sydney and Ryan can be seen at http://www.flickr.com/photos/sydney-not-australia/