I needed a break. After my dengue fever, culture shock was really starting to set in. I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning, even though I was lying in a puddle of my own sweat. I didn’t want to eat anymore because it was a chore. Nothing delighted my taste buds, so what is the point? I couldn’t even force myself to clean (which is usually a relaxing activity for me). The house got messier which only stressed me out more. No electricity. No fan. No refrigerator. No rain. No breeze. No good food. In my mind I was constantly rattling off a list of all the things I didn’t have. If only I had fill in the blank, then I would be happy.
Because God is gracious and omniscient, three months ago our team scheduled our first vacation for this past week. In the middle of deepening depression and lethargy I got the break I so desperately needed. And what a break it was!
I went with six of my teammates, including one of the babies, to a neighboring island that is owned by France. Technically, this tiny speck of land is France. It has electricity 24/7, trash disposal service (there are recycling bins on the street!), air conditioning, good roads, clean ocean water, clean tap water (it is ok to drink from the sink!), super markets, clothing stores, shoe stores, delicious restaurants, white sand beaches, a good hospital, etc. etc. It had everything I would have said I needed on my island to be happy.
My teammates and I took an overnight boat to the island. We arrived the morning of the 13th. My teammates took a car to their hotel but I had opted to couch surf. While I’d been a member of couchsurfing for over 5 years, this was my first time actually using the service. I was staying with some French teachers that were my age. I arrived at their house after soliciting the help of the tourism bureau to find the right neighborhood and a very nice taxi man, but when I arrived no one was home. However their neighbors are from my island so when I started to speak to them in their language, they were blown away and we were fast friends. I hadn’t eaten anything since dinner the night before and it was noon so one of the neighbors offered to watch my bags and showed me a local pizzeria. I ordered a small sausage pizza- first time I’ve had pork in 4 months- it was amazing. Shortly after returning to my house, my host arrived and offered to take me out on his boat to go snorkeling. Ummm….yes, please!
After a scooter ride to the harbor and an hour boat ride to a reef on the north coast, I jumped in with my snorkel gear and voilà, a sea turtle! Swimming through the reef, I felt like I was on the set of Finding Nemo. Every fish found in Nemo’s reef I saw swimming around. It was phenomenal.
That night we went to dinner at a local outside restaurant that served local fare. I was surrounded by French people; after 14 years of speaking French, I could not follow the conversation to save my life! I started studying French my freshman year in high school. My junior year I spent a summer in St. Brieuc, France living with a French family. In college, I minored in French. Then in 2007 I moved to Guinea with the Peace Corps, a Francophone country. Since 2007 I have really only spoken French with Africans. Speaking with my French host, I quickly learned that I don’t speak real French at all! And I certainly don’t understand it well. Maybe it’s similar to British and American English. I spent that dinner conversing with the island girlfriends and wives in French and local language- I could understand them.
The next several days were a blur of activity. My teammates and I went shopping, marveling at the cheese, ice cream, cookies and bacon that were available. We ate at nice restaurants where the Americans could satiate our hamburger cravings and the Brazilians could revel in the steak options. We went on a hike around a crater lake. We spent time on an isolated beach and once again swam with sea turtles. We took an all-day boat trip where we swam with manta rays, followed a pod of dolphins and lounged on tiny island beaches.
On the surface it was bliss. I found myself thinking, I could live here. There are so many amenities here. There is infrastructure; it functions. I could always go to good restaurants. I imagined myself taking a dip in the crystal clear water whenever I wanted. I could buy a scooter to get around. Maybe I could buy a boat! I would be happy here, right?
Then the cracks started to appear. While sitting at dinner one night I witnessed a group of about 50 adolescent boys beat up one unfortunate boy. They also caught a puppy and started torturing it. The police were called. They came armed to the teeth. The French and islanders repeatedly told me that I should not walk around alone, especially after dark. It is very dangerous.
On our last full day, two of my teammates and I hired a taxi to take us to a hotel/restaurant in the south. The driver agreed to pick us up at 8am and drive us there and back for 20 euros. He picked us up at 9:30am and when he dropped us off at the hotel in the middle of nowhere, he demanded the whole price but said he would not be picking us up. Surely, he said, we could find a taxi on the road easily. Uh, no. We had to hitchhike back. There were no taxis anywhere near. That night at the supermarket, I waited for 45 minutes for a taxi and those that came refused to take me. By the end of the day, I was incredibly tired and frustrated.
I started to do some reflecting. When I arrived on my island in November I was so impressed by everything it offered. Compared to Guinea, it was paradise. I lived in a house versus a hut. I had running water versus having to go to a village pump. I had cell phone reception and 3G versus being completely cut off from the outside world. They even have some cheese here- only Swiss cheese- but hey, it’s cheese. But in the last four months my perspective has changed. I have begun taking the amenities for granted and I focus on what I lack.
Going to the French island, I saw another paradise. Once again my perspective was skewed. I didn’t focus on the danger, the inequality, and the extreme prices of everything. My vision was clouded by blue seas, dolphins, white sand, swimming pools, cheeseburgers and air conditioning. But even with only five short days on the island, that was starting to wear off. If I lived on that island, I would have just as many hardships and trials as I would living anywhere else.
We are all searching for perfection. Fill in the blank in your own life. If only I had __________, then I would be happy. It’s a lie and a dangerous one. Once you get that one thing and discover it does not bring you the lasting happiness you expected, what then? In this life, there are no circumstances that could meet every need- no amount of money or human love, no air conditioning or good food. This, I believe, is the longing of our hearts for heaven. Until that time, I must learn to be thankful for what I have no matter where I am.
I arrived back on my island last night. Immediately there were difficulties with getting our luggage- island politics. Power went out again in the middle of the night. It’s still hot. Despite all of that, I am praying for a new perspective. I am thankful for my island friends. I am thankful for my neighbor who cared for my kitten; I came home and he is fat! I am thankful to have my bed back. I will never find perfection in this life but happiness is a choice not dictated by my circumstances. I can find happiness living the life that God has given me in the place He has chosen.