Just over a year ago, on the cusp of leaving for Senegal, I jotted down a list of my fears about picking up and moving abroad with no job and very little idea of what to expect. I would now like to revisit that list, because it’s a good signpost of how far I’ve traveled both mentally and physically:
– I was afraid that I wouldn’t become proficient in French before my money and therefore my time in a French-speaking country ran out.
Well… It’s now very apparent that I underestimated (way, way, way underestimated) how long it takes to become comfortable in a non-native language when you’re in your 30’s. After a year abroad, I’m still not proficient in French… But neither my money nor my time has run out, so who cares.
– I was afraid of getting really ill and breaking my 25-year no-throw-up streak.
I’m knocking on wood repeatedly and assuring you that my adult self has never felt better than during my time abroad. Apart from a few relatively mild bouts of intestinal wonkiness and one mystery malady that had little to do with my stomach, I’ve been in fine health. And I’ve realized that my fear of food poisoning and other ailments was a product of ignorance and preconceived notions. I feel silly now for ever brushing my teeth with bottled water – especially since in retrospect it became clear that I had been inadvertently drinking Dakar’s tap water from almost the moment I arrived (in the form of those jus de bissaps and gingembres I love so much). After eating lots of things (eggs left out in the sun for hours, meat from butchers at the side of the road, raw vegetables from questionable establishments) that I was sure would make me sick, and didn’t, I’ve also realized that my intuition is not to be trusted in this area, and that my stomach is stronger than I give it credit for.
– I spent thousands of dollars on a camera package before securing a job to use it for, and I feared it was a misuse of funds that were in short supply. I was scared both of not finding work in West Africa and of finding it but screwing it up.
Well, I paid back the cost of my kit with my first job, and the second one came rolling in right after that one. Both were unexpected word-of-mouth type things that fell into my lap without much of a hustle on my part. And the work has remained steady this entire year. I’ve been ridiculously lucky. Every time a job is about to finish, like clockwork I get a call or email about another one. I can only hope this is not beginner’s luck and that it doesn’t run out when I leave Dakar for wherever’s next.
Oh, and I’ve messed up quite a bit on all the jobs I’ve had. But they’ve been par for the course screw-ups, nothing blacklistable, and they have taught me to aim not for perfection but instead for the best work I can do. I have learned so much this year – technically, creatively, linguistically, interpersonally – and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have done that learning in a more forgiving environment than NYC would have been.
– I had a variety of fears related to death and disease.
The thing you should know is that I always have a variety of fears related to death and disease. As of this writing, I am neither dead nor diseased (to my knowledge). Again knocking on wood, and moving on.
– I was afraid to get a super-short haircut right before leaving town.
It turns out I was right to be fearful this time. The haircut was not my favorite, to say the least. But hair frustrations are much like French frustrations: time-limited, and in the grand scheme of things, who cares. Though it was a painfully awkward ride, my hair is now back at critical mass/length, just in time to be seen by my NYC people when I go back for a visit next month.
– I was afraid that I would encounter more than my fair share of roaches in West Africa, and that my barely-in-remission roach phobia would roar back to life.
What is a fair share of roaches, anyway? Certainly not the horrific quantities I saw in Austin and NYC. Compared with those two pits of cockroach hell – and with the notable exception of two separate cockroach apocalypses that I encountered in Senegal – West Africa has been a walk in the park.
Biggest lesson learned this year: Despite my deep belief in them, my fears are often quite unfounded and have very little relation to reality. When I call them out on this by walking boldly – even tauntingly – in their direction, they shrivel up and die like the little twerps they are.
That said, I beg you to PLEASE KNOCK ON WOOD FOR ME. (The only fear that remains from last year is my fear of the evil eye.)