I’ve had a lot of friends and family ask me lately about the Peace Corps; how I enjoyed it/how I’m enjoying it, (“are you still in it?”) what exactly my experiences entail, why it is that I seem to be all over the place… literally. I realized that in many ways I hadn’t done a good enough job of making it clear what it is I’m really doing. I thought that maybe now was as good a time as ever to make things as transparent as I can, as I’ve come to reminiscing on what is almost the one-year anniversary of evacuating Sierra Leone.
When I said goodbye to Sierra Leone, I said goodbye to my Peace Corps experience. None of us, the 54 in my group, the hundred or so in Sierra Leone, or the 300+ in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia wanted to face the reality that our experiences were ending, but they were. We were all dropped off back in America, many of us into the place that we had just spent a year working to leave, having said our goodbyes less than two months prior.
It was hard for all involved. A personal, independent culture clash with the lives we had come to peace with leaving for 27 months, suddenly absorbed back into, and in the process realizing how much we had all changed in just seven weeks time. Many of us didn’t like the prospect and found ways to distract ourselves. I did. I hiked the John Muir Trail from Yosemite to Kings Canyon National Park with several other Sierra Leone evacuees. Then I packed a van with nine other Peace Corps friends and road tripped over 8,000 miles through fourteen states for the entirety of September.
During that month we all received word from Peace Corps that we were to receive our “Close of Service”. In Peace Corps terminology that’s an honorable discharge. In my case, along with those 54 other people, that meant being discharged and formally released from all duties without ever doing a thing, much less even having the chance to. Words like frustration and disappointment were meaningless to express the sensation we felt. But who were we to blame our losses on? The greatest public health epidemic of the 21st century? It was not a time for selfish sentiments. There were no villains in the saga, only victims, and we were unfortunately, although rightfully the most insignificant victims given what was, and still is happening in West Africa. So on September 12 of last year, my obligations to, and time with the Peace Corps, were already completely finished.
Moving to Iraq at the end of the following month with Amanda was for both of us a personal decision and a way to scratch the burning itch to get abroad again, immediately. The plan was to stay in Iraq until May, leaving then to take a new assignment in the Peace Corps. For different reasons we both turned down the opportunity to return to the Peace Corps, and made new plans to stay in Iraq until June. As is now obvious, that didn’t happen.
On April 17, a normal enough Friday in Erbil, we were at our favorite coffee shop when a car bomb exploded 25 yards down the road and the next hour turned into bedlam. Within a week we had left, this time for India. And after a month in India, to Thailand, and then Myanmar. I’m sitting here now in a coffee shop in Yangon, Myanmar, typing away.
I spent the last month traveling through and considering the possibility of working in Vietnam before ultimately turning it down, and then traveling through Laos and Thailand on my way back to Myanmar. Yangon is the closest thing I’ve had to normalcy in months, and even then my short term tourist visa predicates my departure in little more than a week’s time.
This last year I’ve seen just about every major decision or move I’ve made completely fall apart for one reason or another. I’m about 7,000 miles, a continent and an ocean away from where I thought I’d be a year ago. To tell you the truth, I still don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing with the next year of my life. Or much less where I’ll be a year from now. I’ve done something I promised myself I wouldn’t do after a reckless trip in Europe years ago- I’ve courted and befriended instability again much too well- and am still working to fit the pieces of everything into order.
And in some weird way, taking all of that into account, I don’t think I could be any happier. I’m a little frustrated and anxious, but everything that I’ve gained and learned in this last year is on a plane that I can’t equate with any other period of my life. Frustration and anxiety are there, yes, but both are trumped by new confidence, sharpened instincts, and a handful of stories that are more insane than anything I could’ve ever fabricated. And I love telling stories.
This time a year ago I thought I had my home for the next 27 months of my life. Instead in the last year I’ve been to four continents, fifteen countries, and called three of them home. One I reluctantly left, one I couldn’t wait to leave, and one I came to regret leaving, but the lessons and experiences that have been shaped because of each choice are ones that I could never trade, never regret, and never imagine not having had some different course of events taken place.
How could I trade away meeting a side of my family I’ve never known? Or waking before sunrise in campsites above 10,000ft for two weeks straight? How many people get the excuse to pack a van full of their friends and road trip for a month straight? Or live in a country whose name alone scares people? Or having the repeated chance to get a glimpse into the most beautiful corners of humanity and people that I never would have imagined existed.
I’ve paid a steep price for some of these moments. Falling in love with amazing places only for circumstances beyond my control and events far bigger than me shape my path without my slightest whimper of consent. And yet I can’t help but realize all it’s done is help shape and sharpen my desires and goals.
Like I said, I don’t know where I’ll be this next year, or just as a single moment a year from now. But I’ve got a rough plan in my head and location is mostly independent from that. I can’t always pick the place, but I can pick what I do, and I know what I want to do. So the ‘where’ of it… I’ve learned that’s flexible. And things will happen that I can’t control. That’s just how it is. As the old adage goes, it’s not what happens to you that matters, but how you respond to it. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Some highlights of the past year…