Peace Corps service presents the average volunteer with a variable host of new tastes, textures, and sensations as we adjust to our country of service. While most volunteers enter their service vaguely aware of all the rather unpleasant illness, parasites, and other maladies that may afflict us, it is much easier to ignore these things with a sort of hopeful and horribly misguided optimism. Then, when we least expect it (or perhaps we see it coming when we find the center of our dinner sausage still wiggling), our bodies revolt against us without even a whisper of mercy.
This bodily malfeasance may strike any part of you at any time of day or night, and while the prudent volunteer may take precautionary measures (protip: always carry a role of toilet paper – ALWAYS), there is simply no way to completely prepare for the inevitable. In short, your body will turn on you like the kitchen scene from ‘Alien’, and you will find yourself not-so-metaphorically running in horror from your house, bound for your outhouse, wishing Sigourney Weaver would show up with a flame-thrower and put you out of your misery. So while you’re squatting in the dark, trying not to imagine the spiders descending from the ceiling, here are five ways Peace Corps service turns your body into an alien.
#1: Say Goodbye to Your Hair
For reasons that likely have something to do with a mixture of heat, diet chances, and folicle malfeasance, Zambia is not nice to volunteer hair. Don’t get me wrong; my locks have never looked so beautiful blonde with the sun and voluminious with the humidity (oh, the humidity). But after the first week of living in Zambia, I began to notice that my comb was collecting an alarming amount of hair with each brushing. What was this?! Female pattern baldness? Some horrible hair-losing parasite? Turns out, hair thinning and loss is a fairly normal part of being a Peace Corps volunteer. Thankfully, “it usually grows back.”
#2: Don’t Panic. Period.
Ladies, let’s get personal for a hot second. Having your monthly visitor is often an important part of any woman’s mental assuredness that nothing unexpected is occuring. I, for one, am someone who appreciates the timely nature of my body’s cycles, and have never skipped or been noticeably late. And then I met Zambia. Somewhere between the malaria drugs, vaccinations, time zones, diet changes, climate adjustments, and not a little bit of stress, it’s very possible that your period may be thrown into a state of untimely confusion. Because you totally need to worry about an absent period on top of everything else, right? Peace Corps, unfortunately for myself and a number of other ladies in my intake, did not warn us that this was a possibility, and so those of us who could set a Swiss train schedule by our monthlies found ourselves a little panicked. Moral of the story: things might get weird down there. Don’t panic.
#3: Am I Dirty or Tan?
Cleanliness in Zambia is a funny thing. Your body will suddenly possess the ability to collect dirt in a way I had never experienced before living in africa. Between the dust and the sweating and the bucket showers, I seem to be constantly digging dirt out of an ear, from under my nails, or inexplicably from around the edges of my armpits (armpit dirt? What?). Feet truly bear the worst of it. The other day I was admiring my sandal tan before my shower, and then was mortified to watch it wash nearly completely away with my evening shower. I could have sworn it was a tan, but a little light aggressive scrubbing revealed that, in fact, I am just gross.
#4: Does This Look Alive to You?
Growing up in Alaska, I was fortunate, nay, blessed, to live without most of the creepy crawly parasites that infest the warmer places of the world. In Alaska, if something is going to hurt you – a bear or irritated moose, for example – you are at least granted the courtesy of knowning that your life is about to be cut abruptly short or seriously dismembered. In Africa, the lethal critters of the world do not grant such niceties to their unwilling victims. Your body will suddenly become a potential host to an extravaganza of unpleasant things, many of which may invade your tissues without any sort of warning. The first inkling you may get that something is amiss may be a subtle itching (is it bedbugs? Lice? Fleas?), or perhaps a strange growth (perhaps a tick? A bacterial infection?), or even a live, wiggling larva slowly carving out a nest beneath or your skin (fear the bot flys, my friends). As our Peace Corps medical officer informed us, “All volunteers get something a some point.” The best we can hope is that it’s easily excised, doesn’t do any permanent damage, and isn’t too heinously gross as we pluck it from our pores armed with only a pair of tweezers.
#5: THE D.
In Peace Corps Zambia, there is a diarrheal demon that dwells in each of us, waiting to rear its ugly head when we are least suspecting and at our most vulnerable. On a 15 hour bus ride, for instance. This affliction is affectionately known as “Mr. D.” I find this moniker too endearing. To me, it is THE D, reaching such legendary status so as to deserve simply one name. Like Cher, but slightly less pleasant.
Perhaps you are reading this now and thinking, “Pssh…I’ve had diarrhea. Weak sauce.” Au contraire, my friend. True diarrhea is the number one killer of children in Africa (competing neck and neck with malaria), and my experience with it thus far (excuse me while I find some wood to knock on) has left me without doubt as to why. Allow me to explain:
Several weeks ago while out on a leisurely walk with friends, there was suddenly a “rumble in the jungle”, if you will. A series of movements in my downstairs regions that alerted me from my otherwise internally complacent state. My thought: “Perhaps I should find a chim (bathroom).”
Moments, just moments, later, the security level of the situation had advanced considerably (code red…or maybe brown) and it was only there by the grace of god that I went and found a chim and had a moment of horrified privacy. In the short hours between my otherwise healthy bowel movements of the morning and now, my GI had turned on me in a serious and disconcerting way. I made a pointed suggestion that perhaps we end our hike early, and thankfully no one argued. I hustled back home to eat some plain crackers and wait. What was to become of my evening? The anticipation did not have long to kill me, as my body cut right to the chase.
I spent between the hours of 5pm-11pm making frequent and enlongated trips to my chim, each time marveling at how I had become a gattling gun of fecal misery. To suggest that anything solid came out of me last night would be to reach for deluded fantasy. As an extra bonus, weeks worth of eating the hottest sauces I can find came rushing back (literally, rushing – class five rapids) all at once, further elevating my misery and nauseau with a distinct and powerful burning sensation in my nether regions. They do not make toilet paper gentle or fluffy enough to soothe this situation. By the time I got ahold of Peace Corps medical and was given medical clearance to find pharmaceutical relief, it had become painful to take any position except that of the dead (which, at the time, I had high hopes for a quick and merciful one). I finally managed to find some fitful sleep, but only after the only remaining substance in my system was agonizing woe and self-pity.
For all the traveling I have done and traveler’s diarrhea I thought I had encountered, Africa was here to prove me utterly and inconsolably wrong. It is now no mystery to me, whatsoever, why people die of this ailment. Literally shit themselves to death, and pray for it as they do. It is miserable, painful, and terrifying to feel every ounce of fluid you possess evacuate your system like a team of paratroopers from a plane over enemy skies (GO GO GO GO GO!). The silver lining: time in Asia has taught me the “asian squat”, which I learned I can hold for over an hour. Come to know this squat, my future PCVs, for there are no seats in Zambia.
So, as you prepare for your service abroad, take stock of how nicely your body currently behaves. How well you know its functions, and how predictably they come to pass. Enjoy them now, for you will need those memories when the fiesta of bodily surprises that is about to overtake you comes to pass (not a diarrhea pun).