There are very few constants in my life. Since moving to Halifax for school in 2012, it seems that every day has presented a new challenge, taught me new lesson, and forced me to resolve a new problem. Granted, I have gained invaluable skills from living such a dynamic life; paradoxically, however, I find that the more unfamiliar my experiences become the more I seek comfort in the familiar. For me, the familiar is the sport of swimming. Swimming is my constant, it centers me. Ever since I was ten years old I knew that, no matter what life threw at me that day, I could always go to practice and slip away from ‘reality’ for a while. It is as if during every swim practice (no matter how soul-crushing or difficult) there are a few golden minutes where life melts away you are left with nothing but, well… you.
To my luck, I was able to find my constant here in Kampala. On Friday I swam my first practice with the Kampala Seals Swim Club, a team that trains out of a rather swanky private school in an upper-scale neighborhood called Kamowyka (definitely didn’t spell that right). Even though I was thousands of kilometers from Winnipeg and Halifax, the second I dove into the water I was home. All of the stress and anxiety of living in a new place immediately evaporated and I could finally focus on something constant and familiar, putting one arm in front of the other. The swimmers at the Seals grew up in very different places from me and learned very different languages, but the second we hit the water it was as if we had known each other for years. It is amazing how one can find such profound refuge in something as simple as doing a flip turn and seeing someone pop up in the lane next to you. Even though my head knew I was in Kampala, my body acted just as it would at Seven Oaks Pool or Dalplex. Everything just clicked.
A lot has happened since Friday. We attended a fantastic cultural event featuring local cuisine and dancing, explored the shores of Lake Victoria (that’s right, Africa also has great lakes), went to one of the highest points in Kampala, met our bosses, and found an apartment to live in for the long haul. Most importantly, today I woke up. For the past week I have been living in a dream world – first going to Ottawa, and then traveling to Kampala. I’ve been waiting for the ‘numbing cream’ of these few surreal days to wear off and for the gravity of my adventure to hit me, and hit me it did. It all started earlier today when we made the decision to leave our temporary residence at Visitor’s Village and move into our apartment. Until then, it was as if I was on vacation, trapped in the safety of my Canadian bubble. Most of our meals were provided for us, we had a car to take us around town, and we lived in fairly nice dwellings. Today that bubble burst and for the first time since arriving here I’ve started to fully appreciate just how daunting all of this is. Never before has three months seemed like such a long time. Not only do I have to deal with being far away from home and those I love, but I also have to learn how to live in a new place with new people. I am usually not a crier, but the combination of the two aforementioned factors sent me over the edge today.
I think what I’m feeling right now is a mixture of cognitive dissonance and homesickness. Cognitive dissonance is a form of internal dialogue whereby one seeks to reconcile discrepancies between what she or he has come to expect from her or his environment (physical, social, cultural, linguistic, etc.) and what one is actually experiencing. Cognitive dissonance arises when there is a “disequilibrium” or discomfort with of one’s current state. In less abstract terms, I have become accustom to a certain way of life in Canada, and the less that I can associate with that way of life, the more uncomfortable I feel with my life in Kampala. Things are just different; not bad, but different.
It should be noted that although I am feeling cognitive dissonance, I am not dealing with culture shock. Cathleen DiFruscio notes that the term culture shock is flawed because it creates a dichotomous relationship between cultures, where one is superior and the other is inferior. DiFrruscio also notes that the word ‘shock’ implies that one will have a negative experience with an unfamiliar culture. After all, shocks hurt, and hurting is bad. So, just to be clear: I am not ‘shocked’ by life in Kampala; I am simply undergoing an internal negotiation to reconcile my current reality with my life in Canada.
At this moment, home sickness is much harder to overcome than cognitive dissonance. I miss my friends and family, a lot. It has been nearly three years since I moved away from home, so one would think that I would be able to deal with being far apart from my loved ones by now, but for some reason it does not get any easier. At least if I am home sick in Halifax, I know that I have a biological family one facetime call away and a swim team family in my very house. Here, the cellphone reception is spotty at best and the internet connection is less than ideal. Without getting too depressing on you all I will just say that, as of right now, I am feeling the weight of every millimeter that separates me from home.
So, how do I deal with this? I think I need to approach my time in Kampala in the same way I approach a swim practice. Among the more valuable things I have learned from swimming is how to get through the most daunting and seemingly impossible situations. If my coach writes a soul crushing set on the board, you don’t just fake an injury to escape the pain that you know is on its way – you embrace it. For example, at 6:00 AM on a Monday morning right after training camp this past Christmas, my coach wrote 8×400 IM holding under 5:00 HR 180+ on the board. For those non-swimmers, 400 IM is 16 lengths of the pool where you swim 4 lengths of each stroke. Yep, do that 8 times in a row at your aerobic threshold and you have agony only replicated in childbirth. Although I do not know what my mom complains about, when I was born I didn’t feel a thing! Anyway, when I saw that set on the board my first instinct was to get out of the pool and go back to bed – but as a swimmer, you learn to ignore your ‘lazy’ instinct pretty quickly. Quite simply, I realized that completing 8×400 IM, no matter how painful, was a necessary evil to making me a better swimmer. So I did what I do in that soul crusher? I did what I always do in a hard practice: took it one stroke at a time, remained calm, thought positive thoughts, and refused to give up not matter how much it hurt.
Now I am sitting in my apartment in Kampala and I know that I have some hard times ahead, but the more I think about it the more I realize that every practice I have done has prepared me for this adventure. I never look at a big set without trying to break it down into bite sized pieces because by doing so I am able to remain positive while facing adversity. The set on the board today is 94x1day in Uganda. It may be a soul crusher, but I think know just how to approach it.
Well, first day at work tomorrow. More to come soon. If you are reading this, I love you and miss you.
p.s. I have some damn good team mates to get through this set with.