I can’t believe my time in the Bush is so quickly coming to an end. I have about two weeks left before we board the plane to come back to Texas (that is IF we don’t get snowed in). I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting back on my decision to come here, and I remember that less than one month before I got on a series of airplanes that delivered me straight into the middle of nowhere, I’d told at least a dozen people: “I will never fly again.” Along with “never teaching” and “never moving to the Bush,” this has been one heck of an interesting semester–one of facing what’s UNcomfortable for the sake of doing what I felt lead to do.
In those first few days in the Bush when we feasted on peanut butter and had no toilet, I was plain shocked by the way people live here. In my first few weeks of substituting, I was even more surprised by the school system and the kids. It was culture shock. The Alaskan Bush is like a whole different country than the one I knew before–and that is no exaggeration, friends. It’s like another world out here.
As time passed, I learned everybody’s names, and I became a familiar face around the school, so I didn’t feel like a stranger in an odd world anymore. I’ve even adapted to little cultural things, like leaving out prepositions and articles in casual conversation and raising your eyebrows for a “yes” instead of nodding your head. Things that were absurd in the beginning are typical now.
It’s normal to walk a mile to the store and buy a small bag of out-of-date groceries for $60. It’s common now to hike through thigh-deep snowdrifts to the post office to send a letter. It’s ordinary to freeze ALL of our food so that it lasts as long as possible. It feels natural to bundle up and brave the blizzard to go to the school just to use the bathroom, do laundry, or to pack water. Before I came, these things would’ve sounded like exaggerations or impossibilities. Now it’s just life.
There was a period of time a couple months ago when we were really low on food variety, so each night for about a week, Kim and I would stand in the kitchen and have a conversation about what we could do for supper. We were like the two little girls in the movie A Little Princess who, when locked in their room without dinner, daydream about what they’d have for breakfast, imaging the tastes on their tongues and describing which favorite foods would fill their fantasy feast. We stuffed our stomachs with rice as we dreamed about enchiladas. Of course, the food situation has gotten better and better as our parents send us packages and we order things online to be flown in (which gets expensive), but one of the saddest realities about living in the Bush is that fresh foods, and a variety of foods, are extremely hard to come by. We cook our food in different ways to try and fool ourselves into believing that we have choices. Sometimes I rearrange the pantry, pulling the beans to the front and pushing the corn to the back, so it looks like we have a new selection at first glance. Never again will I take for granted the dirt-cheap and delicious fast food options and the massive grocery stores with every food I could ever crave. I’ll never take for granted somebody making my meal for me, and I’ll never take for granted a dishwasher and not having to wash every dish for every meal by hand.
Kim asked me a few days ago what I would take away from this experience (yeah, she’s definitely a teacher now), and I said “I’ll never take things for granted again.” Obviously, we’re not starving people in Africa and we’re not orphans on the street– millions of people have it worse, way way way worse, but even this little taste of a life so simple, plain, and secluded has given me gratitude for the life I’ve been able to live up until now–the life I’m heading back to in two weeks.
A friend asked me a few days ago, “How does this trip compare to your time in Europe?” I thought about it for a minute. First, I told her that I don’t think of this as a “trip” because a trip is like vacation or a mission trip or a road trip. This is a short period of living somewhere new. Then I said about Europe, “I can’t even compare the two.” She said, “You mean it’s that much better?” I said, “No, not at all. They’re just so much different that they’re not even in the same ballpark.” She asked me to explain. In Europe, we were strictly visitors everywhere except in Maastricht, where we went to school. Even though we found home amidst Dutch culture, we were still visiting. All the new cultures we experienced, the new foods and the new languages and people and sights—I was still an outsider looking in. It was so fast-paced, a sensory overload, and I didn’t personally get to know any foreigners like good friends. Here, I am immersed in the Yupik culture; I feel somewhat in-tune with the Eskimo way of life, and it’s become home. It’s been a slow and steady process of learning and experiencing the culture, getting to know the people, and I’m not an outsider looking in.
Obviously, I’m NOT an Eskimo and I’m NOT Yupik, but living among them for five months and being accepted by them makes me less of an outsider than I was in Europe as a visitor. “So, really, I can’t even compare the two,” I said again. “All I know is that that my decision to live with my sister in the Bush for a semester was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my entire life.”
I remember how difficult that decision was, but leaving this little village is much harder.