I remember being warned that Peace Corps service might be physically challenging. At some point, on some form, I checked off a bunch of boxes to verify that I could walk up flights of stairs without passing out, carry fifty pounds, and handle various other demanding tasks. I was naturally more concerned with preparing myself for the psychological and mental challenges of the experience. Now, having been here for two months, I can fully appreciate how closely related the physical and mental challenges actually are. This may seem obvious—in fact, I myself have always been a strong believer in the mind-body connection. Still, my biggest struggle so far has been to stay mentally fit in the midst of so many physical changes.
It’s not that any single part of my new environment has knocked me out—it’s just that almost nothing is the same. I could spend all day listing everything that is different, but that is not what this post is about. Instead I’ll just give you a snapshot the little and large changes that have affected my body: food, weather, daily schedule, medication, and much more. This post is really meant to share some tactics and experiences that have helped me cool off and avert a core meltdown.
Ever since the fall 1987, football has been my number one source of physical therapy. One of the hardest adjustments for me during the last two months has been not being able to play as much as I am used to. You might be scratching your head, thinking, “don’t they love football in Africa?” Yes, they do—unfortunately, my schedule during training only leaves time for me to play on the weekends. I’ve tried to make the most of that window, so every Sunday I make my way down the hill to the plaka in my neighborhood to get in a few games of pick-up bola. The games are 4 v 4 plus goalies (guarda-redi), on a basketball-sized asphalt court—somewhere halfway between the American indoor game and futsal. Over the last year or so I’ve been getting more serious about trying to retrain myself as a goalie, mostly because their careers last longer, but also because I’m starting to love it. Most of the time I start off between the posts, then hassle one of my teammates into switching with me.
Another bola-related activity that normally helps me blow off steam back home is my work as a professional cat-herder*. There is definitely a way for a coach to run a practice without breaking a sweat themselves—it’s just not my way. That being said, I was blessed to finally get a chance to run a clinic when I visited the town of Pedro Badejo in the conselho of Santa Cruz a few weeks back. Thanks to an introduction from a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was invited by the local coach to run a clinic. I was momentarily stuck when I showed up the next morning to find more than thirty kids and no ball. Fortunately, I was able to dig into my bag of tricks, which includes a whole bunch of fun “no-ball” activities designed to develop psycho-motor skills (shout out to Coach Peter at East Bay United Soccer Club!). We were also able to ranja** a ball from one of the Volunteers that was hosting me, so we kept the kriansas occupied for a good hour until their coach showed up with more balls. The session was fixi (pronounced "feeshee"), and the kids were kanpion, and when we wrapped up two hours later, I felt completely diskontra. All I could say was, “damn, I needed that!”
Before moving onto other means of physical therapy, it is only fair that I admit that my relationship with football is a double-edged sword. While playing and coaching helps me blow off steam, the stress associated with watching the game is probably shaving whole weeks off my lifespan. It was particularly bad for my mental state when the power went out in the middle of watching the Super Taza match between Barcelona and Porto. Fortunately, I knew who was going to win before the match started. I might have also done some damage while watching a slightly smaller “big game” in my neighborhood. Two Saturdays back, a team from the capital city, Praia, came to our neighborhood for a “friendly” match at the plaka. With a little luck the city-slickers in fancy uniforms managed to knock off our home side—our boys put up a good fight, but in my opinion we could have done better. I’m not saying that we would have won if I was playing... but that’s more or less what I’m insinuating. I guess part of sustainable development work is knowing when to let people fight their own battles.
Beyond bola, I have found a few more ways to stay active. The least fun example is the infamous bati ropa, otherwise known as doing your laundry by hand every Sunday morning. Good for the triceps, but not fun. At all. Also, I’m a little embarrassed to say that after two months of living in a country where virtually every family grows food, I’ve only pulled a few weeds.
My trip to Serra Malagueta Natural Park was good for the body and mind, and a lot more enjoyable than kicking the sh*t out of a pile a dirty clothes (no joke, doing laundry by hand, Africa-style, could easily be referred to as domestic violence... it’s that physical). I’m not a huge hiker, but I do enjoy granola and shopping at Whole Foods, and nothing could have been better for my psyche than climbing that mountain and checking out what the island of Santiago looks like from above.
This post on the psychological benefits of physical therapy is timely, as my fellow Trainees and I are wrapping up our respective community projects. One of the two projects I worked on was to help organize an exercise / aerobics class (faze trena) with the aim of encouraging healthy living. I would love to say that I had a great workout, but most of the heavy lifting I did involved holding my iPhone camera.
My last thoughts on the subject of physical therapy and mental health are not about exercise, they concern medicine. Those that know me well know that I am not a huge fan of the stuff. I tend to think that the cure for most common ailments consists of hot tea and sleep. Nevertheless, part of my responsibility as a Peace Corps Trainee is to stay healthy, and on the island of Santiago that means taking my malaria prophylaxis (sorry for the big word, but I’ve been trying to work that one into a sentence since I first heard “Bonita Applebum”). You might be asking how popping a Doxycycline pill every night at 9:00pm sharp could improve my mental health. Peace of mind in knowing that I won’t get malaria? Nope, that’s not it. Instead, I realized early on in the process that there was a certain grounding quality in establishing a new routine. After all, the changes in my old routine are what have challenged me “up top” in the first place. As I made my way through the first 10-pack of D-candy during my first week here, I started to feel like an inmate scratching tick marks into his cell wall as a means to keep track of time and stave off complete disorientation. I decided then and there to keep the empty packs and use them as my Official Calendar. Anyone who has had his or her daily routine turned upside down or inside out can appreciate how concepts like “Tuesday” or “today’s date” can lose all relevance or meaning to the actual patterns of life. Now, as I look down at five emptied packs, and a sixth pack containing only one more pill, I can honestly say that I am just one step away from finally becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer. And tonight, that is the source of my peace of mind.
*Youth Soccer Coach
**The Kriolu word “ranja” is startingly similar to the South African use of the word “organize.” Please see my previous post for an explanation.