What to Expect When You’re Expecting

By Kendra Stapleton

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When I first heard about the blog posts we would be writing for the IYIP program, I was seated with the Spring intern cohort in a conference room in downtown Vancouver. We were comfortably air conditioned, generously fed, and had access to as much caffeine as we could want. We hammered out a schedule of posts, and I was eager to start producing the kind of travel related content I often enjoyed reading.

And, I already had a pretty clear mental image of the articles I would deliver. Witty, informative, and at times humbling and inspiring. I would write about the great things I would be doing in Senegal, relate anecdotes about charming elements of Senegalese culture, and accompany all this with photos I’d carefully arranged to compliment the subject. Sounds like I had it all figured out, right?

At this point, you might be tempted to ask:

“Why Kendra, have you ever been to Dakar?”

– “Well, no”

“How about traveled to Senegal?”

– “Not exactly..”

“Africa?”

– “Nope..”

“Okay, well have you travel blogged before?”

– “Ahh…”

Before I’d even left home, or had ever written a blog post on any topic, I already had an expectation of what I would write, and a clear view of the end product. And big surprise to no one (but me), what I expected is not how things are turning out. And so, my first post is all about expectations

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Sunsetting on Dakar

I have found that life is generally a reflection of our expectations, and that the happiest people are often those who do not constantly measure outcomes against expectations. However, often our expectations can be so subconscious—so implicit that we might not even notice they exist. If life is like the proverbial box of chocolates, and we never know which flavour to expect, why is it that we expect for there to be chocolates in the box at all?

The current (aka: my) working theory advances the radical and groundbreaking notion that expectations are largely linked to culture, and geography.

In Canada we expect taps to run water, for stores to close around 9 PM, and for the party to start no later than midnight. We want apples to be crunchy, and pears to be soft. When we speak to someone, we expect to be understood, and to understand them. If we buy a prepackaged fruit salad, we expect some sad mix of underripe pineapple, cantaloupe, and honeydew melon. Maybe a squishy grape or two.

There are, as with anything, exceptions to the rule, but I think the majority of Canadians could agree on these expectations. And the choices we make everyday reflect our understanding of this system of collective expectations. For example, restaurants in Canada no longer advertise air conditioning as a service because we expect to be welcomed by a cool blast of air upon entering a building on a balmy summer day.

And so, I signed up for this internship with the explicit desire to leave my daily comforts at home, and understand a new way of thinking. I boarded my flight to Dakar fully expecting that I had no idea what to expect – or so I thought. Expectations can shift slowly over time, or can shift instantly after a hard, squealing slam on the breaks. And I ran into two of the latter changes less than 12 hours off the plane.

The first of these was bucket showers.

As anyone who has taken a long international flight will tell you, there few more pressing priorities after arriving than taking a nice hot shower. Even a cold shower, in a pinch. A bucket shower though? Up for debate.

As I arrived at my host families house, I was shown around and then left to unpack my bags and settle in. First thing on my mind was washing off 22 hours of travel, and as I turned the sink tap in the bathroom, I was more than a little confused why nothing came out. I went to politely inquire the French equivalent of ‘what the heck’, and was handed a 750ml empty yogurt container, and 10 litre plastic jug of water. 18 years of formal education, 4 spent studying international development, and I feel like I learned more about the world in that one moment.

The second expectation I ran into involved something a lot closer to my heart: coffee

In the global divide of coffee lovers and haters, not only do I belong to the former, but if the Holy Coffee Bible is ever written I’ll stand on street corners and hand it out. I would go through a lot of trouble (and money) to get a big mug of rich black coffee. I’m smiling now just thinking about it.

When I learned I would be coming to Senegal, I was immediately curious what the coffee would be like. I’m not sure what lead me to have such high hopes for Senegalese coffee, maybe its proximity to coffee producing West African countries, maybe just my own foolish wishes. But whatever it was, I had it, and I had it bad. Perhaps then, you could imagine my surprise when I awoke the next morning, bucket showered, and headed down for breakfast to find a large thermos of hot water, and individually packaged servings of instant coffee.

My jaw dropped. I stuttered “but..but..I thought..”.

And then I realized: why had I thought that there would be (delicious) brewed coffee?

Sitting there at the table, I realized that I had carried my expectations with me across the Atlantic, I’d tried to import them with me. Once again, what I’d accepted as ‘normal’, and even best, was challenged and forcing me to reexamine my expectations. Everyday since then I’ve had to gently remind myself that I’m here to learn, and the best way to do that is with an open mind.

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Attaya tea pouring

And I had been doing a bang-up job for the last few weeks, until last night when my computer ‘crashed’.

I spent a couple fruitless hours trying to get it back up and running again, before going to bed and hoping the situation would look brighter in the morning. As I laid in bed, looking up at the mosquito net veiled ceiling, I questioned why I had signed up for this internship. Gone was the optimism I had felt upon arriving. I remember wanting the hardships, the challenges, the ‘I feel out of place’ moments, but suddenly I saw that I had sought them out from the comfort of my parent’s living room couch, where I sent in my application. I had wanted a bit of suffering, but had agreed to come on the thought that home was never more than a video call away. I belatedly realized that my laptop is not only my workstation, but also my lifeline home, my social planner, and my source of entertainment, all in one 13’ rectangular device. While I’m not one to always be connected, abroad is a totally different story. Having all of these services endangered, I suddenly felt isolated in Senegal for the first time. I realized that I had been holding onto the expectation that whenever I was feeling overwhelmed, home would never be more than a phone call away. This feeling of unease presented me with two ways to react, and rather than wallowing in the temporary loss of my virtual connection, I was suddenly quite free to say “Yes!” to a Senegalese friend inviting me out for a beer. And it gave me the chance to talk with my host family about my computer woes and pick to up some new French vocabulary.

When living abroad, you never know what the world will throw you, but you can expect that I’ll be handling it with a smile, and a mouth full of Thieboudienne.

 

 

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