It’s rare these days to receive a hand written letter. Once in a blue moon, I will receive a postcard from a friend traveling. But a legitimate hand-written letter? I haven’t received one of those in a long long while. But today, I received one. It was written in French, from my Cameroonian friend, Victor, who lives in my village. It was, incredible.
I left Cameroon two years ago, and in this past year, I have finally felt “normal” again, free from those severe bouts of reverse culture shock. And as such, I haven’t been nearly as good at keeping in touch with my village friends as I had been during the first year back. Time is funny that way. It can soothe the pain but also wash away memories.
My “replacement” (someone who took over my post in village), Cristina, came back to the US two weeks ago. We had been keeping in close touch throughout the past two years, as she triumphantly took the Books for Cameroon project to a whole new level. We met up for brunch today, along with two other Peace Corps Cameroon friends, Gabe and De-Ann.
Cristina brought me a lovely gift on behalf of the village, a painting that depicted the map of our village and traditional dance. It came with the letter from my friend in a sealed envelope, wrapped in a black and white striped plastic bag that mamas use in markets. The plastic bag alone was enough to make us extremely nostalgic.
The four of us reminisced on life in Cameroon over delicious brunch in Brooklyn. Cristina returned merely two weeks ago, and is experiencing the same sort of adjustments that I had gone through. De-Ann had been back for less than two months, and Gabe had returned a year ago. It’s refreshing to be around “fresh-off-the-boat” volunteers. Listening to them talk about the wonder of washing machines, and the complication of choice overload puts things in perspective for me.
Later in the afternoon, Gabe, De-Ann and I hung out at a Brooklyn bar, but Cameroonian style. We just sat there, all afternoon, with no agenda in mind. People don’t seem to just sit around in public for hours on end in New York. One, because most of the restaurants and bars will kick you out if you sit there all day nursing only a few drinks. But two, every New Yorker seems to only do things with an agenda. I am equally guilty of this. Seeing friends is to catch up; otherwise, I’m shopping, going to yoga classes, visiting museums, attending events. I hardly ever just sit around in public for the sake of sitting around.
Yet, there is no greater pleasure than sitting around in a public space, people watch, and being with your closest friends for hours on end. We were sitting near a street fair, and there were children running around. Everything was as close to hanging out at a bar in Cameroon as one can recreate in NYC. While sitting there with all kinds of time to kill, I decided to open the letter from village.
I read the hand written letter, filled front and back, and it took everything I had to keep the tears back. Two years later, this friend who looked after me in village, is still bursting with kind words of my service there. Victor reported good news on the business that I had helped him to grow, and credited a lot of the success to the business classes that I taught. I don’t think any Peace Corps Volunteer could ask for anything more.
This is exactly the reminder I need as I embark upon a career – I want to feel as fulfilled and as impactful as I did during those two incredible years in Cameroon. All the information I can find in New York City cannot inspire the way a letter from village can.