08 June 2008

Reformed curmudgeons

We're officially into our last week in Liberia, the last week in a year away from what used to be reality. Sunday, we'll be on our way back home, retracing the steps we took nearly five months ago when we came here. Monrovia. Abidjan. Brussels. New York.

There will, I predict, be plenty of things that we'll have to get used to. Grocery stores (though you could make an argument against that in New York City). Restaurants. Traffic. Sushi. The lack of ready beaches. The ability to take showers that last more than two minutes. Cold weather. And cheese.

But, most of all, I think it will be exiting communal life that will be the hardest.

This surprises me. Acculturated to the fierce individualism of my generation, I figured that being stuck on a boat with 400 other people would frighten me. It had all the makings of immense claustrophobia. I've never been one for small-town living. The blessed, communal anonymity that NYC offers—of running into a thousand people just leaving your apartment for shrivelled hot dog and faux papaya juice, each of whom would avoid your gaze with a studied detachment—that was the sort of community I was all about.

So, my impressions of communal living were uninformed and—I hate to admit it—stereotypical. Unwashed. Militantly utopian. Dandelions and dirty fingernails. Greasy-gray ponytails and socks the color of day-old guacamole. It's hard even to write these descriptors now. Because, see, now I know it's different.

Practicing medicine in Africa has been spectacular. I'm going to miss it. This country itself is gorgeous. I'm going to miss it, too. But missing those pales in comparison with missing community. Community isn't about Esperanto or people who think that the word ganja is anti-establishment verlan.

No. Community is about sitting on a dock, watching the sun take its final spectacular breaths for the day, cheering loudly, with ten people whom you met only a few months ago but who have become your family, as the quickly descending globe scatters its golds and reds and baby blues and ominous greens across the sky with the abandon of a reformed, Dickensian curmudgeon. Community is about watching massive jellyfish over the side of the ship, embroiled in a two-hour-long conversation about the merits of marmite, millenialism, or post-racial presidential candidates. Community is a Scottish dance on a West African pier. It's learning how rubber is made from a man with one eye. It's four Koreans and a Norwegian performing English songs. It's a Canadian, a Swiss guy, an American, and two West Africans dancing to the victory of a British football club. Community is having spontaneous gatherings of music, with people whose voices blend like only the voices of strangers can.

And I'm going to miss it. I'll confess. Maybe there's room for one more reformed, Dickensian curmudgeon in this world.


sdd said...

Have really enjoyed this blog. Found the link from the American Mom who is adopting the baby you profiled that had the cleft lip (and palate?) surgery a few months ago. Wishing you safe travels. You guys do wonderful work. God bless.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for making me feel as if my stay was much longer than it was. While reminiscing and reading this I ate a block of Camembert for dinner. Give me a shout if you're visiting South Africa - Ryley

Drew said...

Wow, rubber is made from a man with one eye?!? All this time I thought it was to do with trees. Drew