After being back in America for one month, I’ve had time to reflect on how my experience has truly changed me and my outlook. First and foremost, I spent three months living in a third world country. This is enough time in one place where you aren’t living out of a suitcase and actually settle in. I made connections and memories with people from all over the world, some that will hopefully stick with me throughout life.
One of the things that I have been asked frequently throughout the summer into the present is about the transition to life there. The transition to living life in Mozambique was nothing like I expected. I actually think I “over prepared” for the shock I expected to experience. My initial thoughts were that I would be without power some days and would have limited internet access throughout the entire time I was there. In reality, power outages were rare and I had better data coverage in Mozambique than I sometimes get in my office in Baton Rouge, LA.
I was surprised at how easy it was to still find cheese! Almost every restaurant I ate at had pizza on the menu (not all, but surely more than half). Along with food, I was curious about the local cuisine before I got there. I had no idea what to expect, and surely expected to be surprised with exotic food. However, in reality, a lot of the available food consisted of things I was familiar with such as grilled meats and seafood, rice, salad, fried potatoes (way better freshly cut than frozen McDonald’s fries!) and curry of all different varieties. These aren’t foreign to my palate in any way on their own, but often the way food is cooked stood out to me.
Food is often cooked in large pots for a whole family or a group of people, or in many cases, cooked in bulk and sold till it ran out. Many days during lunch and dinner, when I didn’t feel like making food, I would head down to the local market and get whatever was hot and ready. One of the signature local dishes is called “matapa” which is simply cassava leaves cooked in coconut milk. Often there was even some fresh fish or crab cooked in it to give it extra flavor and variety. This wasn’t my favorite meal because I typically don’t eat fish or crab, however, beans and rice was something popular among my appetite (don’t worry mom—I got my protein!).
Being back in the United States forces me to combat loss. Inevitably I have lost the ability to go down to the market and get a very cheap pineapple for an incredibly low price when compared to something I’d find in a local supermarket. That loss makes me miss the access I had to locally grown produce. Since being back, I have started cooking more with fresh produce and I realized it isn’t always that I don’t have access to fresh veggies, but rather, taking a trip to the grocery store every few days is a hassle. Fresh produce has a shelf life and goes bad quickly if not utilized. Sometimes when I try to bulk up to eliminate those trips, the produce ends up spoiling before it is utilized. The convenience having a market within walking distance eliminated the hassle it is to drive to the store and the guilt that followed from allowing excess food to go bad.
Things I lost also included many of the friendships that formed in Africa. I made great friends. I think part of this is because many of the people I met are similar to me in the sense that travelling to expand their comfort zone is highly important. Time spent with friends didn’t need to be extravagant or planned out at all. Many times, a simple deck of cards was able to amuse us for hours on end. Life was simple and centered on interacting with people rather than productivity. I often went to dinner shortly after finishing up with work for the day. Dinner would not be rushed at all, and conversation between two or more people without a screen between them. Pretty amazing and rare phenomenon in the US.
Overall, when people ask me how my time in Africa was, I jump right to the stories of swimming with giant mantas and whale sharks, but often the memories that have the most meaning to me are difficult to convey without actually being there because it seems so simple. To me, those are the best memories. I feel it would be hard to fully convey how meaningful the simple times were, but it is easy for others to think of swimming with a 5m whale shark as amazing and something to never forget. That’s true. All these memories will stick with me for a long time. However, I think the only way for people to really understand how I feel returning to the US, they need to go abroad. Go abroad and meet people from very different walks of life. People that are more fortunate than you and people that are much less fortunate. See a different part of the world with different values and different lifestyles, maybe even speak a different language. Sometimes you’ll feel really far out of your comfort zone, but other times you’ll have this feeling similar to “How many people really get to experience __________? Life is pretty cool.”