How many Peace Corps Trainees can you fit inside a thatched roofed hut?

I have traveled to 15 countries on six continents, lived by myself in a rural Ugandan village for two years, and stayed with a host family in Volgograd, Russia who spoke no English. Recently someone asked me if I ever felt like I was in over my head during my travels and I almost said no. But that isn’t really true. I answered with the story of my first night in Uganda as a Peace Corps Trainee, and the truth is, I could probably think of several other times I felt “in over my head” if I took some time to reflect.

Jet Lag and Malaria
I don’t recall exactly how long the flight to Uganda from JFK took, but with the layover in Brussels, it was more than 24 hours. Fifty-six Peace Corps Trainees who just met the previous day landed in Entebbe, Uganda, around 10:00 PM. It was dark and we had to wait in line outside with the mosquitoes for at least half an hour, but we were not taking our malaria prophylaxis yet and malaria was a big, scary, tropical disease. I maniacally swatted at mosquitoes, watching others in my peripheral to see if they were as worried as I was. As a newbie in a developing country, I had not yet learned to just let it go and accept what I do not have control over, which is pretty much everything. After what seemed like hours, we got our luggage and were met by a few smiling Ugandan strangers who ushered us into two buses and whisked us off.

The long and winding roads

Every seemingly simple aspect of life brought something new to learn in Uganda and the next surprise, after being dropped off on the mosquito-infested tarmac, was how much darker night is compared to the U.S. It was like a massive void of nothingness with a few lights flickering here and there. I may as well have been in outer space. Our driver took us speeding down what I tried to imagine were roads (lesson number three – bathtub-sized potholes) and I tried to make out the blur of faces as we flew past the fire-lit huts. There was laughter, shouting, a lot of dancing, and music blaring (not quite the idyllic, romanticized scene I was expecting). We learned from our driver that these were not house parties, but that people were actually running bars out of their living rooms, which we found hilarious at the time but became normal to us pretty quickly (my village had a waragi hut that was right across the road from my house, but that is another story).

Exhausted and disoriented, I watched out the window as our bus turned corner after corner, left and right, right and left. We could have been driving in a circle and I would have had no idea. It made me uneasy to be in a foreign country with a group of perfect strangers and no idea where I was or how to get back to the airport. Eventually we pulled to a stop in a place just as dark as all the others. As we unloaded the two buses, trying not to walk into each other, the driver tossed our luggage in the mud.

Welcome to Uganda 

I was so happy to finally get to our destination so I could get some sleep. By the time we collected our luggage and got to our room, it was midnight. Some of the women really wanted to shower after such a long flight and we were disappointed to find that we would be sleeping 20 in our dorm room with one bathroom. Several girls were calling dibs on the shower when we learned we were expected in the dining hall for tea and dinner. Were they serious?!
A rather plump Ugandan woman stood at the front of the dining room to greet us with a huge smile that covered half of her face. I was in no mood for smiling people at this point. She was very nice and welcoming, but I was not able to listen to anything she said as I reluctantly scooped up the plantain mush on my plate and sipped on my tea, my vision beginning to blur . When we finally got to bed just after 1:00 AM, a mere five hours from wake up for a full day of training, I lay awake in my top bunk. I had never slept in a thatch roof hut before and I was hearing all kinds of unfamiliar noises – knocking, scratching, rustling. Was it something crawling in the thatch? What could be crawling in the thatch? Almost anything, and just a few feet above my head. Rats, lizards, snakes, cockroaches, giant spiders… I tried so hard not to think about it. After all, there was a mosquito net covering me and I tucked it into the mattress so nothing could get in bed with me. I tried to take comfort in that, but it ended up making me feel trapped.

After realizing I was trapped beneath the mosquito net and would have to take my chances with the imaginary creatures in the thatch if I had to use the bathroom, I also realized I was trapped in the room. For starters, the lock on our only exit was really hard to unlock (I started wondering how quickly a thatch roof hut with one exit that is difficult to open would go up in flames if a fire started). Also, even if I could get the door open, the corrugated steel door would wake everyone up, and I would be going back outside to the malaria mosquitoes and whatever was out there making noise in the dark. There were two things I knew for sure were out there; stray dogs and the guards, who were armed with bow and arrows. Why did they need those? What dangers required armed guards? And if I went outside, would the guards mistake me for an intruder and shoot me with a bow and arrow? My mind went racing in so many directions that I just couldn’t calm myself.

What was I doing in Uganda? Was I crazy? What on earth made me believe I could live in Uganda for two years? There’s no way! How embarrassing to be the first one to terminate my service, and before we even finish training. This was a horrible mistake.

Exhausting all other options, I listened for sounds that would indicate at least one other person was still awake. “Guys?” I whispered. Two voices in the darkness answered, “Yeah?” “I’m having a panic attack,” I answered. I felt a little embarrassed, but two young women who barely knew me talked me through my panic attack as if they were helping out a dear friend that they have known for years. It not only calmed me down, but made me realize we were all having this new, exciting, and sometimes scary experience together, and that it wouldn’t be long until these “strangers” became family.

Paradise with a 6:30 wake up call

I am not a morning person, but I woke up the next morning, dressed quickly, and jumped down from my bunk to make a beeline for the nearest caffeine, which turned out to be instant coffee (and not the freeze dried kind, but a powder mix). I stepped out the door to find that the noises I had been hearing in the night were monkeys swinging through the trees above and running across the roof of our hut. What an incredible sight! I’m getting choked up right now thinking about it, and at the time, walking out into this new paradise that was far from threatening in the light of day, I was moved to tears at such a breathtaking scene. I knew at that moment I was going to make it.

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