The Northern Coast

The Northern Coast
The Northern Coast--photo by Zack Thieman

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Delayed Departure

I'm not leaving in January for the Peace Corps.

In all of my musings of how my future endeavors with the Peace Corps would go, I never practiced these words. I never imagined myself saying them out loud. And now I find myself having to say them repeatedly throughout the day; both for myself, and the many people I informed of my wishes to join the PC.

I imagined saying, "Unless you have a Christmas present that I can take with me, don't buy me anything-- I'm going to [insert Caribbean country] on January [insert date] to teach English to [insert age group] !!!"

I thought ahead of all the little things I would miss from my home country, home state, home town. I snuggled my pillow extra tight with the comforter pulled high around my face. I gave my boyfriend extra long hugs. My family made last minute arrangements to spend a holiday together for what may be out last for a long time.

And now, bureaucracy created a few hurdles I couldn't get over in time. The paperwork shuffle in the Peace Corps headquarters of D.C. didn't happen fast enough. While my medical files were sitting on someone's desk completely looked through and just waiting for the final "OK", all of the other people nominated for a position in the Caribbean who were qualified got invitations. I was medically cleared, and therefore eligible for the position, a week too late.

I was completely aware this might happen. I even warned those around me it might happen. But, it wasn't supposed to happen. I at least thought they would find a new placement for me in February, even March at the latest. However, all of those placements are filled with other hopeful nominees who applied at the same time as me (even sooner). Now I'm waiting for possible openings in April through June, with no promises I will have a region similar to my original nomination. That means Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa are back on the table.

I know nothing was promised to me in the first place, that a placement in April or June doesn't mean the end of my dream, but just a longer time to get ready and enjoy all the things I knew I would miss. But it doesn't make the transition any easier. I was driving down the highway and the car got thrown in reverse. I had my life planned out for leaving sooner rather than later. So many things I didn't start because I thought I couldn't finish them. Hell, I hadn't even completely unpacked my things after moving in the new house because I thought I would only have to repack them within a month. I thought it would be harder to live life as usual only to find I had to pick up my life and go. I guess it's just hard no matter what.

One of the hardest parts is explaining to people that I'm not leaving, and it's not a simple "are you in or are you out?" There are phases to the Peace Corps, and I'm still in the nomination phase. A lot of people have been asking similar questions, so here are the FAQs.

What does this mean? Are you out of the Peace Corps? Do you have to be re-qualified?
I am not out of the Peace Corps, I just have to wait for a new placement. The Peace Corps holds onto applications for a long time for people they feel are qualified applicants. Since I am medically and legally cleared, I just have to keep them updated over the next couple months on any new happenings. I'll probably have to send in a new resume, and I'll have to continue to update them on new volunteer opportunities, etc. I'm unsure, but I think they keep you on file for over a year before telling you it won't work out.

Well this is a bunch of crap! Maybe you shouldn't even join the Peace Corps anymore. Why not join a non-government organization instead?
I'm not giving up on the Peace Corps just because I have to wait. I knew this was a possibility from the start. Some pretty incredible opportunities would have to come my way for me to consider giving up something I've worked so hard for. I chose the Peace Corps over NGO's for specific reasons, and at this point I just want to see this through.

How does this make you feel about the Peace Corps? Are you sure you want to be a part of an organization that doesn't seem to have their stuff together?
I don't think the Peace Corps is a faulty, unorganized program. I've been told once on site, things flow pretty smoothly since I would be working more closely with program directors, etc. Getting through the application process and working through the D.C. office isn't going to be easy because, well, it's a government office. Things take time, there are thousands of applicants, there are policies to be followed, regulations and rules, and papers being passed from one person to another. It's not completely unfamiliar to me. I did work with the Forest Service, after all.

It's a bummer, and a big adjustment. Adventure, postponed. In the mean time, I'll just have to live life. Luckily, I've made some pretty cool friends in Corvallis and now I have more time to get to know them better. I get to spend more time with Justin, more time to visit loved ones. I have more time to do a lot of things. The hope is to train for a half/full marathon. I need a project with an end goal that I can do here and look forward to. I really wanted to run a big race before leaving for the Peace Corps, and that was something I was bummed I didn't do. Now I get the another chance to do that.

Like Mom always said, everything happens for a reason. It will be interesting to see what that reason is. In the meantime, I'll be here, living life.

Monday, November 29, 2010

You say Goodbye, I say Hello

On top of the Duomo overlooking Florence, Italy in January of 2008
My heart is pounding, my legs aching, stomach churning, and my face is sticky with drying tears as I race along the corridor. Justin is in front of me, a backpacking bag on his back, backpack on his front, and two rolling-suitcases bumping along behind him. I, too, have a backpacking bag as well as backpack on the front, one roller-suitcase behind me. My feet pound on concrete and tile, fluorescent lights shine coldly on the sides of the corridor. I feel like I've been running for forever, like this is the hardest race I've ever run. But I can't stop. Not with two terminals to go. Not with my international flight to San Francisco leaving in 45 minutes.

We are in the Heathrow airport, and we have just finished two-weeks traveling through Italy and London. From here, we go our separate ways. He goes on to travel through Austria, Germany, and Switzerland before heading to South Africa for a year of studying engineering. I go back to the U.S. to continue my education in Boise.

We get to the ticket counter and they tell me I'm just in time; in five minutes they were going to start turning people away. However, I still have to get through security and to my gate. No time to waste.

We run around the corner and Justin is stopped by a man; passengers only beyond this point. I look at him with anguish as the dry tears are refreshed with new ones and I am dwindled to a sobbing, sniffling mess. We hug, I shake, we whisper into each others' ears, and we kiss one last time as I smear tears and snot all over both our faces. I was given two minutes to say goodbye to someone who would be gone a year. I had no idea when I would be able to kiss and hold the person I have loved more than anyone again, and it scared me. We let go and he stood and watched as I went through security, and waved with his entire arm as I had no choice but to continue on as fast as I could to find my departing gate.

Fast forward six months.

It is June, but it's hovering around 55 to 60 degrees outside, and the sun sits low in the sky readying to set as it has been at 6:00 P.M.. It is winter in South Africa, after all. I'm sitting in a tiny Volkswagen Rabbit, the car Justin rented for my visit, and I have hardly gotten used to the passenger seat on the left side of the vehicle. We are parked in the parking lot of the Cape Town Airport, and we are sitting in silence holding hands. The half-hour car ride from Stellenbosch was pretty quiet. I try to make a joke or say something light-hearted, and Justin is silent, turned away. "Hello? Are you going to say anything?" He turns and looks at me and tears are running down his face into his beard.

By the grace of my parents, they granted me an early graduation present-- a plane ticket to visit Justin. Before I left on my 36-hour trek to see him, we had spent six-months communicating via Skype, which meant grainy internet video with echoing robotic feedback, and specific hours for talking due to time differences. They were late night chats for me, early morning for him.

While the trip hadn't been all sunshine and roses (Justin was very sick while I was there, and I also invaded his tiny space), it had been two-weeks of adventure. Justin drove me through wine country, taught me how to rock climb, and we hiked through mountains and stood where the Indian Ocean crashed into the Atlantic. We let our hearts soften just enough to get used to the others company again, only to be ripped apart once more.

In the airport we stand once more at the axis that will separate us for an undetermined amount of time. The security is in front of us, only this time I don't have to run to catch the plane, I'm not running out of time for a goodbye. We have a half-hour to sit and stare at eachother, miserably counting down the minutes to our separation. The wait is worse than when we had no time to say goodbye at all.

"Someday, we won't have to do this anymore," I say. "There will be no more goodbyes."

On the airplane I look back at the building I just left Justin in, and I see a figure jumping frantically in the window. It's like a black stick figure, jumping like crazy and waving its arms all over the place. I realize it's my black stick figure, my boyfriend, and I wave out the small airplane window wondering if he can see me waving at all.

We have had more goodbyes since then. We said goodbye in the Boise Airport as I left for Spain for five months, after he'd only been back from South Africa for three weeks. We've spent weeks apart during work and study before living together. For the last year we've been lucky enough to only have to say goodbye for weekends apart or in the morning as we run to our respective duties. For a long time it was strange to say stuff like, "See you later this afternoon."

Some people look at us as this "power couple". To them we have this unbreakable bond of commitment that is so strong it's crossed the Atlantic--twice-- and held steadfast. I have been told how miraculous it is we are still together. Well, it is a miracle, because it was not easy.

A lot went into keeping us together. Stubbornness, mostly. Neither of us was willing to let go until we felt it was the right thing to do, and so far we haven't felt that way. But aside from that, a lot of our relationship could be understood in these goodbyes. We were saying goodbye over and over again for long periods of time, cursing the distance between us, aching for normalcy and the day when it would end. At the same time we knew we had to say goodbye because we were meant to do something else with our lives that the other person couldn't join us for. And that was okay. Because if we didn't separate for these vast amounts of time, we wouldn't have accomplished our personal goals. We wouldn't be who we are today. And honestly, I don't think we would have been able to look at the other person without resenting them for taking that away. We allowed eachother to do what we had to do, and I love Justin even more for it. Each goodbye was punctuated with a promise for a future together, and expressed with only the kind of love that will let you go because it trusts you will return.

This doesn't mean that the upcoming goodbye won't be just as painful-- don't think that for a minute. It is looming over my head, closing its cold grip on my stomach, and haunting my thoughts every spare, silent moment. What we've been through before will be chump change compared to this. A 27 month commitment in another country means a 27 month commitment overseas to the person I love back home. It's 20 more months than the longest time we spent apart. It is also far more likely that I won't have Skype, internet, or reliable mail. It is the scariest goodbye I will have to say to date.

I am so excited about the opportunity to join the Peace Corps, it probably sounds like leaving Justin behind is the last thing on my mind. That couldn't be further from the truth. It is one of the first things on my mind, which is why I don't talk about it. If I discussed it often, I would always be talking about the scariest part of leaving. Justin is so supportive, he is only positive about my steps towards joining the Peace Corps. To openly discuss how afraid I am to say goodbye would only rip the courage out from under my feet. We aren't in a relationship to dash eachothers' dreams, we want to foster and encourage them.

We aren't a super couple with magical commitment powers, and we aren't any stronger than anyone else. We just know goodbye isn't forever, and the power behind letting the person you love do what makes them happy. Sometimes that means going out on a limb and taking a big risk. Sometimes that means doing the scariest thing you could imagine. Isn't that what love is?

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Interview

JFK started the Peace Corps in 1961. Here he shakes the hands of some of the first volunteers.

It is difficult to walk up the stairs to the third floor, because for the first time in a long time I am wearing healed wedges and a pencil skirt. I’m not going to lie, I look great in them, but I’m afraid I’m about to do a face-plant up the stairs. The cute blonde secretary from the front desk is showing me to the room I’m looking for, and makes small talk with me as we walk, which helps take my mind off everything. Once we find the door she turns to me and says, “Good luck,” and walks away.

I open the door to a conference room with a table long enough to fit 15 people without anyone touching elbows. Immediately across the table from the door sits a petite woman in her early thirties with a laptop in front of her. She has a striking beauty with darker hair and complexion that contrasts her light hazel eyes. She is much more intimidating in person than she is on the phone.

“Hello, Amanda. I’m Melissa, nice to meet you,” she stands up to shake my hand, proving that even standing she is a small person. “I told them I didn’t need a room this big, but it will work.”

Maybe she’s not that intimidating. Maybe I’m just intimidated.

I settle into the seat across from her and reach for my pen and pad of paper. I can barely get them out of my purse and on the table before she begins:

“Alright, I’m just going to start and get it out there. Why do you want to join the Peace Corps?”

This is the question I had spent the entire drive to Salem trying to rehearse out loud. It was incredibly difficult to verbalize my answer. How do I explain to someone what I just know to be right? How do I verbalize in a short precise answer all of the events of my past and present that have led me to this moment where this drastic step is not so drastic? Like when I tell family and friends my decision to join the Peace Corps and they say, “That sounds perfect for you,” because this decision is such a natural progression of my life. How do I sum up that when I am older I want to look back and have the Peace Corps as my past?

“Because I believe everyone has a path; a future created by their past and present, and the Peace Corps is part of my path. If I don’t make it into the Peace Corps, I’m going to do something just like it because that’s who I am.”


Of course I said more than that, but I felt like I couldn’t have a cut and dry answer that didn’t involve getting into my deep feelings of destiny.

I met the recruiter in Salem because she is interviewing multiple people in Oregon right now. The regional office is actually in Seattle, so I was lucky to get an in-person interview as opposed to over the phone. The interview was intense, and anything you would expect from a government organization that is considering investing thousands of dollars in training, funding, and supplementing work for an individual for two years. It was over an hour, and there were the stock questions about my leadership skills and ability to work with little supervision, which I'm used to having to discuss in any interview. The other however, were all questions concerning my ability to adapt to different cultures and work situations, as well as my ability to live in impoverished areas. But it was so much more than that. For instance, I was asked how I would handle living in a village where not only am I the only American, but the only white person. I was asked how I would handle gender roles in other countries where maybe I'm required to wear a head covering or long skirts (no pants), or watch the13-year-old girl in my host family being married off. How would I handle always having people peeking in my windows just to see what I'm doing, because I will be the most interesting and odd person/thing in the whole town? Or neighbors who already know what I bought at the market (because news travels fast) and by the way, could they borrow a loaf of bread?

Each answer I gave she furiously typed away at her laptop, making note of everything I said. On occasion she would nod her head in what seemed to be either agreement or an involuntary movement associated with a good answer.

So many aspects of the interview seemed intimidating and beyond anything I’ve ever done before (as my small sample of questions revealed), but I never once felt like I was in over my head. I have felt far more nervous in interviews in the past.

After all of the questions grilling me on how I would handle not having running water, traveling a day to use a phone, or being placed in a country that not only has a different language, but a different alphabet, she asked one last question:

“When can you leave?”

“As soon as possible,” I responded.

After all that I finally got to ask some questions. The one at the forefront of my mind, "Where would I be sent?" couldn't really be asked. So I asked, "What countries are accepting the most volunteers right now?"

Her answer: Eastern Europe, Southeastern Asia, and Asia are in a great demand for English language teachers. Although 40% of volunteers go to Sub-Saharan Africa, the aforementioned regions have a huge demand right now.

And because of my background in English, I will most likely …(drum roll)…teach English.

Part of this answer was relieving. It was nice to finally have an idea of where I would be sent (although an entire continent isn’t exactly narrowing it down). However, part of me felt resigned in knowing I would not likely go to a Latin American region. I was really hoping to go to a Spanish speaking country for many reasons. It did not come as a surprise though, because I have talked to some returning PC volunteers (and friends of volunteers gone right now), and many of them had a background in Spanish and were still sent to locations like Cameroon or Kazakhstan.

I also asked how soon I would leave, and she said not until winter/spring of 2011, which really isn’t too far away. Less than 6 months away, actually. At this point I was excited, but my head started to swim a little bit and I had to focus on my breathing so I wasn’t overcome with anxiety. It’s a lot to take in, your entire life changing in less than 6 months.

I asked other questions concerning time spent on site, what my responsibilities would be, etc. We talked about food, we talked about language, and then it was time to wrap up. She read me some legal documents and talked to me about the next steps. And this is the point where I got really excited because after talking about so many things in a positive future tense she paused and said;

“I mean, I can’t officially tell you this, but I see no reason why I wouldn’t nominate you.”

To be honest, I’m not sure if I clearly heard everything she said after this point. But now the process goes as follows:

  • I’m nominated by my recruiter, Melissa, for a region.
  • I get medical and dental exams and have all of the paperwork sent in.
  • My paperwork and medical exams are all reviewed, along with the nomination by Melissa, and the higher-ups decide whether or not they agree.
  • Melissa waits for a position that needs to be filled in my nominated region.
  • I’m invited to join the Peace Corps in X country on X date doing X, and I have 10 days to respond.
  • I pack up my things, spend time with friends and family, and try to get my fill of American culture before I say goodbye for 27 months.


I stand up and shake Melissa’s hand, thanking her for the in-person interview, and walk out the door. I walk around the corner and head towards the stairs and I notice a girl standing nervously nearby. She looks at me knowingly and with a nervous smile says hi. She looks like she wants to say something else but doesn’t know if she should. I smile at her and keep walking. Although I have a feeling she is next in line for an interview and she would do well to hear some encouraging words, my head is somewhere else. Things will go the way they're meant to go for her, and nothing I say will change that. I walk down the steps, past the secretary, and out the door. My wedges have already given me blisters and each step hurts like hell, but I walk like I don’t notice, because I don’t really.

I get to my car and sit down, not sure what do with myself. I look at my phone and there’s a text from Mackenzie:

“So how did it go? I’m dying over here!”

I texted back, “I nailed it!”