I get to the restaurant around 7:30am. I’m always the first one to arrive; it sets the standard for the other employees. My hands shiver as I fumble for the keys to the backdoor. I’m standing ankle deep in snow, hidden in a dark alley, the catacombs of the food service industry. Frost billows from my mouth. I open the door and turn the lights on. The florescent bulbs flicker, exposing the pale green walls, crusted with grime.
First, I unlock the door to the office and storage room. Next, I focus on everything that is temperature sensitive. I grab the doors to the sushi fridges from the drying rack and bring them up front. It takes about 35 minutes for each fridge to get below 40°F which is required by the USDA. Then I turn on the hot sake machine. There is always some dude who wants to take the edge off with a shot of sake before his 10:00am midterm. Next, I turn on the deep fryer, this is the kitchen chef’s job but he hasn’t arrived yet. He better get here before 8:00am. In my restaurant if you’re on time, you’re late. I notice that the oil in the fryer is getting dark; I’ll tell Ernesto to change it out at the end of his shift. Next, I fill the ice trays. As I bring buckets of ice to the soda machine, I carry bus tubs with my free hand to save trips to the back.
Then, I grab the floor mats that are piled up in some forgotten corner of the restaurant. The mats are so old that they’re ripped into small shreds and they stink of old fish and bleach. My hands are stained black as I carry the grease-drenched mats. When I get to the front of the restaurant, I see Kelsey knocking at the door. She looks hung over. She better not give any customers shit today. I let her in.
Next, I prep my sushi station. I need cutting boards, wash buckets, bar towels and trashcans. Ernesto strolls in at 7:52am, cutting it close buddy. I am very particular with how I set up my station. Even with my eyes closed, I want to know exactly where everything is. My hands operate by reflex not by thought. My knife is always on my left; in front of my knife is a small 6-pan of water to clean my knife after plating each dish. My bar towel is folded and placed on the right side of the cutting board. The trashcan is to my right, behind my foot. In the sushi fridge, the fish is on the left; the veggies are on the right. From left to right the fish are organized: salmon, yellowtail, tuna and shrimp. The veggies are organized: cucumber, carrots, green onions and bean sprouts. The items on the left are used more often. The doors open from the left-hand side so the items on the left are easier to reach.
Being a chef is all about seconds. If something is not in the right place, I will have to turn my focus away from the food to find what I need. God forbid, I would have to run to the back of the house for something. Seconds could easily turn in to minutes, when I’m drowning in tickets every second is precious. I need to send out each order in under 15 minutes no matter how big the ticket is or how far behind I am. I turn the outside lights on, the Sushi Spot sign flickers and the restaurant is officially open.
Living as a Peace Corps volunteer in Swaziland, my daily routine has changed considerably. The roosters wake me up around 6:00am. The sound of the roosters crying one after another, echoes through the valley, deep and droning like meditative ohms. It is soothing. There is no alarm that I nervously wake up to minutes before it rings. The fog slowly rolls up the side of the mountains as the heat of the day falls. I go back to sleep. I wake up around 8:00am.
What do I have to do today?
I have class at 3:00pm. I am discussing condom usage. Condoms are latex coverings that males wear over their penis during sex to prevent from ejaculating inside of a woman’s vagina. I hope that the students will use condoms to keep themselves safe from HIV, STIs and pregnancy. Swaziland has the highest HIV rate in the world. Most likely, very few of the students will actually change their sexual behavior. I still have to prepare my presentation for class.
I reach for my laptop, which is conveniently located next to my bed. I was watching the Showtime series ‘Homeland’ the night before. The show is frustratingly addictive. I watch an episode. Then I watch another episode. Then another. I wish I could be a spy. The dangerous and secretive lifestyle excites me. It’s 11:00am. I should eat something.
I make myself some scrambled eggs and coffee. I drink way too much coffee, about 4 or 5 cups a day. I need to prepare for my lecture. I write down a simple outline of the items that I want to discuss on a pad of paper made from a recycled Cheez-Its box. I miss Cheez-Its.
Next, I prepare a bath. It’s too hot outside so I just bathe in cold water. I’ve been told that I bucket bathe incorrectly. I haven’t taken a bath in a couple of days. I put on my clothes. Everything that I put on is dirty. My shirt has dirt around the collar and white deodorant stains at the pits. It’s a dark shirt so it’s barely noticeable. My pants are wrinkled and there are red dirt marks around the pockets and up the pant legs. They get like this after one wear; I’ve given up trying to wash them every time.
I have an hour till class. I sit on the cold concrete steps in front of my rondoval hut. Make (ma•ge: mother) is sleeping on a woven mat, under the shade of a tree. She holds my young sister in her arms. Babe (ba•bay: father) is standing by the kraal gazing at the mountains; he looks like a lion watching over his pride. I wonder what he is thinking about. I am envious of his serenity. He doesn’t speak any English. I don’t speak enough SiSwati.
I walk to class. It doesn’t take me more than 10 minutes to get there. I have about 60 students and I always get a little nervous before I begin. As I speak, I look around the room at all of the faces looking back at me. Each face is different. Some are bored. Some are confused. But others look back at me with this intensity. As if they understand what I’m trying to convey. My whole day is dedicated to seeing that face, that intensity. My job is not to change the world but to maybe influence one choice.
The two stories above describe my perception of time and how it has changed since I have become a volunteer. The first story took place over one hour, the hour before my restaurant opened. My mind and actions were mechanical and exact. I didn’t move an inch without a purpose; I performed tasks in sequence to increase efficiency and to reduce mistakes. I was productive. The preparation I did during this first hour directly correlated to my performance as a chef when the restaurant was in full-swing. I measured the success in minutes and seconds.
Here in Swaziland, my days have no such organization. On the particular day of the story, I had something to do. Many days, I don’t have anything. Sometimes, I just watch movies all day. I never read as much as I say I do. Sometimes, I spend the whole day, waiting for khumbis (kum•be: mini-bus) to and from town, just to buy groceries. Progress with my mission here as a volunteer is slow and the impact is small. Meetings never accomplish what I hope for and things never happen when they are supposed to. One day, when I was stressed about a project; a friend calmly told me not to worry, “There is always time”.
Coming from my previous life, this was a hard transition to make. I felt like I was wasting my time while not accomplishing enough. Wasting time. What does that even mean? We have, however long on this Earth, as the events in our life allow. We are born into cultures that perceive the pace of life differently. Back home life is fast. And life in many other parts of the world is slower. One is not better than the other. It is difficult however, to switch from one pace to another. I call this the ‘Treadmill Effect’.
When you’re running on a treadmill, you’re burning calories; the endorphins in your brain make your body feel good. You’re tightening up that ass. You’re accomplishing something. When you step off, for the first couple of seconds, there is a phantom feeling in your legs. You feel like you’re still running. It’s uncomfortable for a while but eventually you gain your footing and you adjust to the slower pace of walking. This is what happens to many of us experiencers of foreign cultures. We become accustomed to that pace of life. In both our bodies and minds. We let the pressure of the sexy-fast-paced American lifestyle fade away. It’s quieting.
Stepping back on the treadmill is also a challenge. The treadmill continues to run despite how long we’ve been off it. Imagine having to jump on a quickly moving treadmill. You have to prepare yourself and wait for just the right time to jump. Most likely, it will catch you off guard, you will stumble. You might have to grab on the railings until you’ve adjusted to the speed. This is what it feels like when we go back home. Our ‘world’ hasn’t stopped because you decided to find yourself in Africa. Most likely, it’s gotten faster. We adjust to the speed because we have to, its home. But for many of us, there is this empty feeling, the memory of that slowed pace of life. It’s hard to adequately share this feeling with people who have never experienced it for themselves. This is isolating because we are often in the minority of people who have. So we bury it away in order to re-assimilate. But it will always be a part of who we are.
I believe that, other than being consumed by a foreign culture and the well-intentioned work that we do as volunteers, it is this feeling that bonds us. It is our secret. It is our burden. We cannot blame those who do not understand for it was our privilege. I only hope that more people can experience this for themselves.