I live with a very humble family. They do not have much to share, and yet they share it all. They live in a small and modest house. I have my own room, and in the other three rooms of the house sleep all of the members of my extended family. The house itself is entirely composed of grey cement that has not been painted or covered, and slowly crumbles away. The floor is also exposed cement, picking up dust any time someone walks past. My room has wall paper on the floor to mask the dull color, but the paper sticks to my feet and has the odd effect of amplifying even the smallest sounds. We don’t have electricity, but there’s always enough liveliness around for everyone’s entertainment. We do not live in the best neighborhood, and I have to close and lock my windows every night before I go to sleep. Because of this, my room turns into a sauna every night. Some nights I wake up in a torrid sweat. Some nights I wake up because mice and cockroaches are scurrying across the paper floor, or rats are scrambling on the warped tin roof.
I love my family. They are very accommodating, very caring. They are overjoyed to see me everyday that I return from my training classes. I always have someone to talk to, and every time I do talk, there are a dozen eager ears listening carefully to what I have to say. I have yet to accurately count how many people there are in my family. The lines between family member and close friend are very blurred, with both spending the night, or accepted as a member of the household. My family, as far as I can tell, has at least twenty extended members, possibly close to thirty. We have two dogs, Supacop and Scorpion, which like all other Salone families we keep as security, to bark at night when unwanted people get too close to the house. I have to have my own room, as it is Peace Corps policy, and the rest of my family makes whatever spare floor space is free at the end of the day their bed. Some nights I come home late when the sun is long gone and everyone is readying for sleep, yet I’m still greeted with ten or fifteen excited faces. Some nights I stay up late on the veranda and talk with my uncles Jojo and Samuel about anything.
It was maybe my fourth night in Bo, and I was doing just that; staying up on the veranda, talking with Jojo and Samuel. Our conversation had turned towards the neighborhood that we live in, Coronation Field. They told me about the origin of the neighborhood name, how long the family Barthalomew had lived here, and about all of the different people they knew within the wide social web they maintained. My family seemed to know everyone. They told me what Coronation Field had been like and what it was like now. It used to be a haven for thieves, waiting in the poorly lit fields for those foolish enough to walk late enough, by themselves, or without any lighting. And burglars were rampant. Clever ones that would sometimes break into your house without setting a foot inside; cutting holes in windows covered in mesh, fishing things out with long metal rods. Sometimes the burglars were brazen and confident, breaking into someone’s house even if they were there because they knew of something they wanted. They told me how this was no longer the case, how Coronation Field was now much safer, that thieves and burglars did still exist but stayed in the shadows of the unlit UCC middle school and athletic fields near our house. Still around, but often too timid to foray into the neighborhood. I realized we’d been talking for two hours and I was more than ready for sleep at 11pm. Days in Salone begin and end much earlier than in California, as I was in the habit already of waking around 545 or 6am. I said goodnight to my uncles and went to bed.
It was a noisier night than usual. Dogs; some pets, some feral, were roaming the dirt streets of the neighborhood more than they had in the first few days I’d been in town. Barking madly and clearly disturbed by something. Rain quickly came and went around midnight, and for a peaceful fifteen minutes rain was the only thing I heard. Once the rain stopped the dogs came out again, barking just as ferociously. And then the rats started to crawl on the roof. Many more than I had heard yet, and with heavier steps. Sleep became impossible as the noise on the roof became too loud to be just a few rats, and too patterned in its rapping to be rats. I occasionally glanced out my black window, and could sometimes make out a passing shadow in the dark. A few dogs were just outside my window, growling ferociously and peppering their growls with a few barks. Whatever it was, it was all too close to me. The rapping would stop just long enough for the dogs to lose interest and chase the sound of something nearby, at which point the rapping would continue, and the growling dogs would return. The noise was incessant, persistent. Shadows continued to pass by my window. Something was determined to come into my room. I focused myself on relaxing, closing my eyes and ignoring everything around me so I could sleep.
And then something rustled the papers beneath my bed. It sounded far too large to be just the mice and cockroaches. The paper floor was being upturned and moved. Slowly, I opened my eyes and looked towards my left. A man in a white tank top leaned over my bed and mosquito net, staring into my face. Behind him, sitting on my table were two shirtless teenage boys, arms crossed, legs dangling. For a second I lied there, unmoving, staring straight back at the man. Then I sprung out of my bed and lunged at him. Charging right through my mosquito net yelling “WHERE ARE YOU FROM” at the man, I went for his face and neck. The mosquito net was in my face, but there was no way I could miss someone right in front of me. I stumbled right through him, unable to connect any part of my rage with his body. I charged at the teenage boys, my hands open and rigid, my body flexed, ready to lock on their throats and close with all of my strength. I grabbed at them both simultaneously and my hands fell through the air unable to get anything. I grabbed and grabbed again, still yelling, but I could not reach them.
And then I snapped out of it. I looked around, and although the room was a deep shade of dark, I was the only one in there. My fists were still clenched with all my strength, but where two young boys had just been there was nothing at all. On the other side of the door my infant brother was sobbing and my relatives were all stirring and waking. There was no man in a white tank top behind me, or anywhere in the room. I opened my door and my family was all awake. Bombarded with questions about what happened, I could only respond, “…I had a bad dream”. The dogs of Coronation Field were quickly closing in on the house, chasing my yells that had woken up half of the neighborhood. I assured my family that I was fine and retreated back into my room, still wondering what the hell had just happened in my head if not in real life.
I put my chair in the corner of my room and sat with my back against the corner, facing outward so the rest of the room was in front of me. I pointed my light in the opposite corner to illuminate as much of the room as possible. The dogs were now all outside my window, howling and yapping away, maybe a dozen of them. I looked at my watch. 145 AM. I had no intention of going back to bed, fearing that I would wake up with another intense experience bridging the gap between imagination and reality. My body had no intention of sleeping either, my heart rate never dipping below a strong constant beat, and my body, although completely fatigued, was alert and unwilling to tire. I woke up in my chair at 615 with the sunlight creeping through my window.
Those strange fifteen seconds were so real. And until I had that instant of clarity, when my fists clenched around air with intent to kill, I was not in control of myself. I was aware of what was around me, what I was doing, I was aware that I was about to try to kill the people in my room before they killed me, but I felt I had no control of my body. I had no control of my reaction, and I don’t know how awake I really was save the fact that it was so vividly acted out in the physical world. It was just as real as any other moment of my life. Sometimes you stand four feet away from someone engaged in a conversation, sometimes you lie in bed while someone four feet away leans over your bed with evil intent in their eyes.
Those of us on Mefloquine had been warned, albeit briefly, that such a thing could happen. Vivid dreams and hallucinations are the most pronounced side affects of the anti-malarial drug, taken only once a week because of its incredible potency. I met a Volunteer only a few weeks away from completing her service who suffers from constant vertigo because of the affects of Mefloquine. Some have even been reported to suffer from PTSD. Some people experience side affects nearly immediately, some none at all until eighteen months into use, and some never do. In fact most never do, which is why it is still accepted and used by Peace Corp. It’s inexpensive, and for the majority of the populous the most effective. People are warned not to take it or are switched off immediately if they have any history of depression or anxiety, two things that I have self diagnosed myself with in the past at various points to varying degrees. Needless to say, I’ve switched to a different Malaria prophylaxis, Doxycycline, taken once a day, and far less potent. And I’ve slept like a rock ever since.