defining challenges

Living abroad for a predetermined amount of time lends itself to a unique set of experiences. For me, it’s been equatable to living a double life: heartedly committed to what is happening in your abroad life while remaining emotionally – and electronically – connected to your home life, which awaits you, right where you left it.

I’ve been grappling with defining my experience and articulating it as it comes to a close and I spend my last three weeks in Uganda. This has been an indescribable adventure, my experience only slightly and superficially detailed to the public in the brief and sparse blog posts I write. I’m already distinctly aware that there are and will be no adequate words to fully recount what I have done, felt and seen in the last eight months.

The aspect for me I want most to articulate, and to articulate well, is what it is like living in a place so vastly different from what you are used to in every way possible. What it is like to be challenged in everything you do, even menial things, such as walking to work or choosing what you eat, are accompanied by apprehension and unfamiliarity.

I am (and have been) apprehensive to talk about these challenges because while I have faced them every day for the last eight months, they are not my reality. This is not my country and while I have lived here and adopted it as my home for a short amount of time, I, unlike the local people, still can and will leave at the end of the month. But I also think it’s important to talk about these challenges genuinely, because in facing them I have begun to understand where they derive from and how decisions in the face of them can define an experience.

In the past eight months I have complained and I have cried, I have been sick more times than I wish to count, I have seen things that have both shocked me and widened my understanding of the world, I have felt deeply lonely and isolated and I have grappled with the inhumanity of poverty, of inequality. My loved ones have listened to countless phone calls and read hundreds of messages, which surely account for the presence of all of these feelings (sometimes present in highly emotional phone conversations in which a combination of hysteria and poor internet quality leads to little-to-no actual comprehension of what I’m saying).

There were times when I succumbed to negativity and wished for home and for comfort, but this is to be expected, I think, because living abroad – for lack of a better word, and trust me, I have tried to find one – is hard. But without the hardship, without the challenges, I wouldn’t have been equally floored by the positives that I have felt. 

Because through the challenges, and perhaps as a direct result of them, I have also learned an immeasurable amount about myself, the world and development work, I have felt undeniable satisfaction in the work that I am doing and in seeing how it contributes to a larger picture, I have met great friends with common interests from all over the world, I have learned to take care of myself without home comforts or western medicine, I have lived (and survived) in an entirely different culture and I have overcome challenges that at the time seemed too daunting to bear.

Of course, being home will bring about a new set of challenges as I attempt to re-integrate myself into a place that will be simultaneously familiar and strange. Familiar as my home, yet strange as I see with new eyes how much I have taken for granted and the vast amount of privilege I’ve been afforded. The challenges of living in this country are a result of my padded and comfortable life back home and problems like unclean water, poor food quality or facing inequality due to my gender are issues imbedded into the lives of a large majority of the world, day in and day out.

These challenges though, aren’t black and white and they don’t have to be defined as innately negative because in being here – and in writing this post and attempting to make sense of my jumbled thoughts – I have begun to recognize them as opportunities, to see them as a way to continuously push my own boundaries and limits.  And despite having had a variety of experiences that have pushed me, sometimes a little too hard, I wouldn’t change the past eight months for anything in the world.

Because it’s easy to fall into a trap of emphasizing the negative, of allowing it to become a characteristic of the place you live rather than as a unique aspect of how you are adapting. It’s also easy to think about another life, the life you temporarily left behind when things are harder than you bargained for, but walking away from what is easy by traveling outside of your comfort zone is the only way you can begin to think critically and hope to redefine your world.

Travel has a way of stretching the mind. The stretch comes not from travel’s immediate rewards, the inevitable myriad of new sights, smells and sounds, but with experiencing firsthand how others do differently what we believed to be the right and only way.” – Ralph Crawshaw

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