Thursday, May 19, 2011


I have been watching scenery since New York, where I landed on the 27th of April. Except for a quick trip home in February to take care of some family business, this is the only time I have been home since the beginning of 2009. If you choose to extend your service for a third year, as I have, Peace Corps takes good care of you. They gave me a month off, tickets home and back to Senegal, and some pocket money. I decided to fly only as far as the east coast, which defaults to New York City because of flight restrictions from Africa, and then make my way west by other means. Because of this choice, I’ve been living out of my big orange backpack, on my feet, in cars, and on trains for over 20 days.

While most of the people I meet on this trip look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them I’m going all the way to Los Angeles without letting my feet leave the ground, I have enjoyed every second of this trip. Not only have I been able to visit with friends in Philadelphia, DC, Annapolis, Chicago, St. Paul, and Portland, which is all too much excitement for me to deal with anyway: I also have been staring out the window the whole time.

On the way from DC to Chicago, we passed through the Cumberland Gap heading west (and yes, though that was a Kaolack shout-out, it also happens to be entirely true). I had forgotten the particular beauty of that part of the east coast, maybe because I went to college in Maryland and got so used to it at some point. North Dakota and Montana were too flat to be real places, even, but at some point the wind came up and I watched the green and amber waves of grass as we rushed by. Finally we got into the mountains again. We climbed and climbed, and suddenly there was snow everywhere, rushing rivers and sudden waterfalls coming out of every crevasse, fog creeping up and down the tall pine trees, taller than buildings, taller than I could believe. Portland seemed like a city offered to us in a basin of rolling hills that led away darker mountains.

And the trip south from Portland, which I find myself in the middle of as I write this, has been perhaps the most beautiful stretch of land so far. There is a lake somewhere up here. The train tracks skirted around it for ages. The clouds covered the sky completely, so even though it was still light out, there was not a fragment of blue to be seen above the train, the lake, the mountains. The trees covered every square meter of the rolling hills around the lake, and though you could not see the terrain directly because of how thickly they grew, you knew where it rose and fell again because the tops of the trees echoed the shape of the earth below. So little blue, but so much green. The lake shone with it, rippling, closer to green than blue, sometimes even a bright living green, changed by the strange foggy light and the green of the trees into something more reflective, more in its right place, than other bodies of water. As we were gliding by in the train, there was nothing to suggest to us that any human had ever been able to come here, had ever been able to do more than we were doing, passing by in silence, staring, not touching it or being allowed to share it.

I think I prefer this passiveness, this watching the scenery go by outside. Sure, it could be frustrating if I wanted to get out and listen to the crunch of snow under my feet, or shake some of it from the lowest bows of the trees. There is sometimes a path going off into a forest that could be for me.

But there is a privilege in simply sitting and watching, in not engaging. This is my vacation, after all, my first one in over two years of being a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal, and to not engage with the world around me, for once, is a feast. I suppose that is what this vacation has been: an opportunity to be passive and unengaged, to relax and rest. If I were in Senegal, there would be something calling me back to the world: Thian or Fama pulling on the hem of my skirt, asking for a piggy-back ride; a simple task or a more complicated project to be planned or carried out; even the need to bathe, to drink enough clean water, to eat enough food to stay healthy. But here in the States, on this train, hovering somewhere at the border of Oregon and California, I only have to sit and watch as everything passes by outside the window.

Don’t get me wrong; I look forward to waking into the real world again. But I know that won’t happen until my plane touches down in Dakar in another ten days.

Until then, love and guts,



  1. Jessie,
    I just found your site a few days ago and I'm reading from the beginning at the same time I'm reading the latest posts. You are my new hero! Years ago I wanted to be in the Peace Corps and life intervened, so I'm living vicariously through you and thinking "maybe" for the future.

  2. Hi Jessie,

    Props on all the hard work you've done and welcome back to the states! I worked in Togo for 6 months last year and know how strange it is finding the sense of home in opposite sides of the world. I foudn your blog from the LA Times article and will continue reading interestedly!