Big Decisions and Small Gifts

I’ve only just arrived in Liberia, and I already have to think about leaving.

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Today is election day in Liberia — a day that his historic for a variety of reasons and happens to coincide with some big personal decisions.  As I walked around this morning to get a feel for what election day feels like in a developing, democratic nation, it was not dissimilar from what election day feels like in the US: just another day, but with lines of people here and there.  Citizens were lined up out outside of polling locations, waiting patiently under the already baking sun; the colorful array of their respective clothing lending a festive air to the occasion which contrasted the almost solemn manner of their behavior.  Andrew actually had the honor of participating as an election observer and was tasked with reporting data from various polling places in the area.

For the past year (or more), these elections have been an important topic of discussion, and I have followed the discourse in preparation of my arrival here.  With the culmination of election season, though, has come a discussion about Andrew’s and my departure from Liberia.

It is bid season for foreign service officers who work for USAID.  That means, for everyone who has served their time at their current post, it is time to select and compete for the next post that would best suit their preferences as related to their lifestyle, pay, experiences, proximity to loved ones, and — most importantly —  opportunities to make use of their talents.  

This is only my second time being involved in the bidding process.  Last year, at this time, Andrew and I were a new couple, we were long-distance, and since he was in the process of completing his two years in Liberia, we were looking forward to him being assigned to a new post where we would start our life together, individually make use of our talents, and enjoy a relatively healthy lifestyle.

I quickly learned how stressful bid season can be, though.  I remember receiving a text from Andrew late in the morning that simply said, “They’re all gone.  None of our choices are available.  There’s nothing left that we would want.”  My heart dropped because I knew that after our top choices, Andrew was considering bidding on Afghanistan — a post that is only a year commitment, but where I would not be able to join him because it is considered too dangerous and difficult.  

“Call me,” I texted back.

It was a cool, September morning in Atlanta, Georgia.  I walked outside to breathe the cool air as my heart rate quickened and my face flushed with mild panic.  My phone rang, his name flashed on the screen, and I picked up immediately.

“Hey.  There is Haiti, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan,” he said.  “There might be an opening in Turkey, too.  Of the choices, Afghanistan is looking pretty good because at least the pay reflects the difficulty of the post.”  

I was quiet as he said these things to me.  My eyes focused on the leaves in the tree branches above me, and I remember thinking how peacefully beautiful this moment would have been otherwise.  His voice in my ear made it seem like he was so close, but I couldn’t have felt farther away from him.  Had he already made up his mind?  Would we survive something like this?  Was I even important enough to factor into this decision?  I was asking myself questions that I knew I didn’t want the answers to.  So, I said nothing out loud.

He sighed heavily, resigned to how difficult a decision this had become now that we were together, now that he had someone else to consider.  “I don’t know, babe.” he said.  

Then, the moment when I knew we were in this together:  “What do you think?” he asked.

What did I think?  We still had ten months of a long-distance relationship ahead of us while I finished teaching that school year.  We were just beginning as a couple and we still had most of a year ahead of us as a long-distance couple.  And now, he was telling me that we might be looking at an additional year of being apart?  “I think Afghanistan needs to wait,” I said, on the verge of tears.  Please, please don’t go to Afghanistan, I pleaded in my mind.

In the end, he decided it would be best for him to extend for an additional year in Liberia.  That way, my transition into the foreign service lifestyle would happen in a country with which I was already semi-familiar.

It is exactly this familiarity that has made it difficult for me to be excited about this year’s bidding season.  For the past year, I have learned about, connected with, researched and written about, and looked forward to Liberia.  In so many ways, too, I’m still in the process of trying to feel settled here — both physically and mentally.  Very few of my personal belongings have arrived, Andrew and I are just learning our way as a married couple, and my programs with the US Embassy are only just in the planning stages.

I am just getting started, but the lifestyle dictates my time now, and it is time to think about moving on.  It’s already time for this big decision.

And while the process of bidding is indeed stressful (foreign service officers must compete with colleagues–friends and strangers–for desired positions), the prospect of moving on is music to my husband’s ears.

Being posted in Liberia is difficult.  Individuals sometimes suffer depression and anxiety, and there have been some who have had suicidal thoughts as their tour here progresses.  It is a 2-year post, and — from what I’m told — the agency considered decreasing it to a 1-year post because of the toll it takes on people (for some context, see here an article from The Foreign Service Journal about “The Cost of Longer CPC Tours”).  Even though Liberia is no longer classified as a CPC post, I can see it wearing on my husband, and he has shared openly with me about the anxiety he often feels because of the frustrations that life here creates for him.  Not being able to ride his bike or run outdoors for miles and miles, not having ready access to a variety of healthy foods, not having recreational activities from which to choose…. It adds up.

Furthermore, everything we do takes place inside of compounds.  We live in a compound, work in a compound, shop in a compound, and exercise in a compound.  One of the saving graces of where our compound is located is that we have a beautiful hotel across the street that has a variety of 3 (soon to be 4) wonderful restaurants, a compound next door with a pool (we have yet to visit, though), and a beautiful view of the ocean from our back balcony where I have taken up sunbathing on afternoons when there is a break in the clouds.

Watching my husband struggle with his frustration makes me feel extremely helpless.  Worse, it sometimes makes him distant and closed-off.  I am learning, though, that it is not my place to try to fix what is causing his frustration.  Rather, what is best is for me to focus on my own happiness and contentedness so that I can be his refuge and oasis in a setting that offers little in the way of comfort or serenity.  I still like to do little things for him, though, that I think would make him smile.

For instance, this past weekend, Andrew had a particularly low couple of days as he continued to recover from an intense bout of the flu.  With little energy and mounting frustration at not being able to be as productive as he prefers, we had an exchange about milkshakes when he mentioned how great it would be to have a chocolate, malt milkshake but then lamented that it was impossible to get anything like that here that would taste as good as what he remembers from the US.  

This, together with his ennui and malaise, made me determined to put a smile on his face.

I left him at home to rest and went to the market to load up on groceries (because I knew we’d be stuck at home for the weekend with election rallies going on around town).  While shopping, I picked up chocolate ice cream and milk.  I knew the malt flavor was what he really wanted, so I considered what I might use from what the market had to offer.  Ovaltine!  Its bright orange label called out to me from the bottom shelf, and its familiar malt flavor from childhood washed over the taste buds of my memory.  Perfect!

That night, at dinner, I told Andrew to make sure he saved room for dessert — a meal course that doesn’t usually happen in our house.  I told him I had a surprise for him and to let me know when he’d like it.  “NOW!” his face lit up, and his excitement startled me a little.  “It’s already working,” I thought to myself.  “Just you wait, Parks.  This is gonna be great.”

I worked quickly with the blender and served the cold, smooth drink in a tall glass that showed off the milkshake’s rich, cocoa color.  Pieces of chocolate collected at the bottom, and a little froth collected at the top providing a nice layered look.  As I walked toward Andrew, he looked at me questioningly.  Almost like, “So, where is this dessert I heard about?”  Then, when I handed him the glass, his eyes widened and he sat up straighter.  “What is this?!” he asked.

I smiled.  “I made you a chocolate malt.”

He called me his angel that night.  And he said it was exactly what he needed to feel right again.

Small gifts like these can often mean a world of difference in someone’s day.  I had a taste of this myself when, last weekend, I stopped to visit my favorite fruit vendors for some bananas, avocado, and limes.  I visit these ladies at least once a week, and I make it a point to try to purchase the items on my shopping list from them if possible.  They know this, and I know they — as any vendor would — appreciate having a regular customer.

As one of the women bagged the bananas that I had purchased, I laid down $100 LD (the equivalent of $1 USD) on her stand and turned to request additional items from the woman beside her.  As I completed this transaction and turned to thank the first woman, she picked up three small bananas and said, “This for you. If you want snack later.”  She smiled as she put these little treats in my bag and handed it to me.  “These are my favorite!” I exclaimed with a huge smile on my own face.  “These are my absolute favorite.  Thank you!”

“Sure.” she replied, still beaming.

The significance of this small gift was not lost on me.  These women sit at their produce stands every day, all day, trying to make their living.  To give away even a portion of their stock is incredibly generous and meaningful, and the gesture was one of the most significant acts of kindness I have ever experienced.  So, with all of the difficulties of life at a post like this, I will keep trying to find these little moments of joy and beauty.  

Bidding season will last for a few more weeks, and then Andrew and I will know where we’re headed to next.  While he completes all of the requirements of this process and leads us into our next adventure, I’ll focus on continuing to make the most of my time here and doing what I can to ease whatever frustrations he might be feeling.

After all, I have many more years of my husband asking me, “What do you think?” when bid season comes around.  And as stressful as it can be, it means everything that we get to do it together.

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