Life on the Boat
It's Peace Corps Week! In celebration, I'm re-publishing this essay from 2012, written during my service in the Dominican Republic.
My brother just sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on a 40-foot sailboat, and as I stared at his pixilated, bearded face on Skype last week, a few minutes into our first conversation in a month, I joked that I guess he was a grown-up now. After doing something like that, I think you earn the right to be called an adult, even (or perhaps especially) if you’re only 21 years old.
I have these fierce mental images of Jake crossing the ocean— I see this idea of a squall, the cloud-tops dark and billowing, with the long sharp-edged flat bottoms that Jake tells me mean a storm’s coming on. I see the water, the color of metal and endless to the horizon, and the deck of the boat, and I imagine the feel of salt on my skin—layer upon layer of it, dozens of days of saltwater accumulated to a coarse film on my chest and legs. Feet bare on the fiberglass deck, the boat’s body the only thing tangible for miles. Jake says that dolphins would come play in the waves breaking off the ship’s bow, and I imagine it—imagine my brother lying belly-down on the deck, one brown arm dangling off the edge of the sailboat, the dolphins larger-than-life and mesmerizing as they dive up out of the wake, their bodies like sleek impossible shadows, just a few inches down in the turquoise depths.
It’s not just the accomplishment of the journey that marked my brother, not just the unbelievable checked-box of an Atlantic Crossing— he’s changed, too. He thinks with a clarity now that boggles my mind. As I watched the palm trees click back and forth in the delayed stop-motion of our video chat, Jake said that while he was on the boat, he worked hard to not think about time. It took 24 days to sail from the Canary Islands to Antigua, but Jake wasn’t counting the days. Nothing made the time pass faster or slower, he said, and our speed was completely out of my control— so I just put time out of my mind, and tried to take each day as it came. The three other people on the boat kept counting the days and the passage of time drove them crazy, but I was almost surprised when we finally arrived; like, oh, it’s over?
And I said to him, as our voices grew jittery and robotic over the weak Internet connection, that that was some pretty wise shit for a 21-year-old. Two minutes later, the connection failed entirely, and I was left staring at an empty black box on my screen, my own hazy features reflected back where Jake’s face used to be.
Weeks later, on my sugarcane-covered outpost in the sea, I wake up thinking about bicycles. I can see the road stretching out in front of me, smooth two-lane asphalt magically free of cars, green endless farmland all around and a little river with big maple trees reaching their fat arms across and casting shadows onto the blacktop. I spend hours plotting bicycle routes from city-to-city, take notes on mileage, bid on eBay auctions for vintage touring bicycles I won’t be able to ride for months.
I think about work, too. I think about the classrooms full of eager 20-somethings in Elias Piña and the South and up on the coast in Cabarete, think about my endless hours of computer work, editing the curriculum for our human rights promoter program— think about moving accent marks and punctuation from one place to another, copy-pasting logos into headers and footers, sending medium-long professional emails that I sign with “Atentamente” even when they’re in English, out of some inexplicable habit.
I think about West Virginia, the place I lived and worked before I came to the Dominican Republic to speak Spanish and eat chicken and yucca and forget who I used to be. I think about autumn on the high plains and the hawthorn thicket on the hilltop and the time I saw a family of wild turkeys on the edge of the spruce thicket and how they startled me so much I actually grabbed my chest and gasped, like a some fainting Renaissance maiden. I think about going back to the mountain in August, after I leave this island, and I think about staring up at the Milky Way as thick and bright and solid as I’ve ever seen it anywhere in the world. I think about peppermint tea and warm whiskey and crystaline mountain air.
I think about Maria, ever-smiling, her long weave tucked up by four extra-long bobby pins, one of her daughters’ bedazzledheadbands holding her bangs in place. I think about Maria’s husband Enriquito and his clumsy, childlike brand of hospitality, the big empty grin he paints on when I bring my American friends to their house to visit. He beats Maria and doesn’t respect her, and he resents her for the positive changes she’s made in her life and the independence and fierceness that she’s taught to her daughters. I hate him for being a man in a house where women should run everything. I hate him for not leaving her, because she would be so much the better if he did.
So I am here and I am not here. I worry about Maria and I listen to the neighbor’s cat meow pitifully in Jefe’s bean field, I say hello to everyone and I mop my floor and get water and do the dishes and make coffee, and I reminisce and fantasize and think obsessively about May.
May, when my 27 months will finally, unbelievably, be over. May, when this island stops being my home and starts being a place that I come back to visit when I can save up the cash for a plane ticket and manage to find the time.
I’d do well to learn from my brother—to be where I am, to stop counting—but living in the moment has always been a challenge for me. I am a writer, ever considerate of the ways I can retell moments later with greater clarity or brighter colors, and I am a maker of plans. I know the passage of time is beyond my control, but I’m so good at pretend games, at reliving the best days and nights endlessly in my mind and my journals, at using the Internet to build a complex plan for the future that’s one quarter possibility and three quarters dream.
I’m not proud of this part of myself; I know everyone fights to be present, that there’s a reason “live in the moment” is such a tired cliché (because we all could use the reminder, because none of us really know how), but I struggle to change. I think I will always be struggling to be where I am. I think, too, that maybe the only way I’ll ever really live in the moment is to stop struggling—to exhale into it. To be on the boat. To let the ocean reach out around me and to sit down on the bow and to watch the water pass me by.
In December I met my family in Belize for three weeks of vacation, an absurd privilege that I was almost embarrassed by—don’t mind me, friends, I’m just leaving Peace Corps for a family vacation in Central America real quick. Jake was there, just a few weeks off the boat, tanner than he’s ever been with a scraggly, untrimmed beard framing the bottom half of his face. We’re brother and sister, our parents’ only two children, and even with the year that passed since we’d seen each other last, the camaraderie was instant and complete as it ever is. But we’ve both changed, immeasurably, both of us living lives too wild and weird to not transform us.
He’s known me since before either of us can remember knowing anything at all, and he saw changes in me I can’t see in myself. Peace Corps turned you into a square, he said. More than a few times, I knew he was disappointed, frustrated, even disgusted with my reactions to things. I was not the partner-in-adventure that I think we both had hoped I would be. It took his critical eye and a new country—not America, not the Dominican Republic—to show me this side of who I’ve become.
I am more conservative. I am more compelled by material comforts—clean sheets, fast Internet, new clothes. I am more cautious. I am less culturally engaged and less capable of blending into a crowd of hip, international young people on the balcony of a hostel overlooking some sleepy, bougainvillea-draped mountain town or in some smoke-hazy dive bar in the city. I live in the country, here—I speak Spanish like a campesina, I spend most of my time with people who never graduated high school, I dress like someone who’s only recently left the Evangelical fold. I avoid eye contact with men. I’m ice cold if spoken to by strangers, I am desperate to be accompanied, at all times, by someone I know, and I hate being alone in public places.
It’s not arbitrary. Being alone in public makes me unsafe. I am catcalled, harassed, I make myself a target. Everywhere I go, I am with my gente de confianza, people I trust— my motorcycle driver waiting for me at the curb, by Maria or her sister, by the girls I work with at World Vision or the documentation promoters on the batey. In the capital, I meet with other volunteers and we are inseparable. Being alone means becoming too visible for comfort— all but asking for unwelcome leers, unwanted conversations, someone trying to aprovechar or engañarte, to take advantage, to trick you.
My brother’s judgement embarassed the hell out of me. I care how he sees me and I hate that he thinks I’ve changed in a negative way. But I’ve done what I had to—you adapt or you are miserable. You become this place or you fight it bitterly for two years, every day a frustration, every failed meeting or difficult bus ride something to gnash your teeth over, to shout about, to hate. We talk about integration like it’s a neutral activity, but it’s not. It’s the path of least resistance, but when you get to the end you can’t just turn around and walk back to the beginning again. One month of vacation will not take this country out of me, it’s not enough time to try and reconstruct the things I’ve lost or the changes I’ve made. My identity is more complicated than it was before I came here. The cross-stitching and overlap of reactions and desires aren’t as easy to disconnect as I wish.
From the beginning, Peace Corps trainers tell us that going back to the States will be hard. But there are so many other impossible things between now and the end of service that it never feels real, or anything like close to real. The daily challenges of life in-country, of trying to do your laundry or flush your toilet or feed yourself, let alone have a project or build meaningful relationships—it’s never time to think about the end of things. But May is creeping closer and it might finally be time to start. I am trying to take a step back from myself and see the person I’ve become. I’m trying to start charting a road that will take me back to the States in a way that won’t hurt like hell; or at least that hurts for a reason, that hurts in the right places, in the right ways.
In May I’ll get on an airplane and leave this island, and I will be so different from who I was when I came. And on the plane ride, at least, I will be in that special suspension of time that comes with travel, and I’ll think about Jake and his month on a sailboat at sea. I’ll watch the air passing me out the airplane window and think about the dolphins dozens of miles below and in the water, the boats sailing in slow motion and the many miniscule human lives tracking their precise courses in the cities and towns on land. It won’t take weeks or months, but if I don’t count them, the moments pass the same—time moves through me and I am in it— on the boat, eyes on the water and on the horizon. I am in my own space, distinctly myself, with no desperate reaching for the hours or the days to come.