Tuesday, November 12, 2013

We Made It!

It seems only fitting to title my last blog in country the same as my first: “We made it”. I initially wrote those words to indicate that we had safely landed in Mozambique. At the time, just getting on the plane instead of running in the opposite direction with arms flailing, was a huge accomplishment in itself. Now this title has a new meaning as I can proudly say we’ve made it through 27 months of service as Peace Corps Volunteers. And so comes the time for a reflective end-of-service blog which I’m finding is not so easy to do. How can I sum up everything I’m feeling as I start the process of looking back on this experience as a whole? To be honest, I don’t think I’ll be able to put all of the sadness, excitement, confusion, optimism, worry, and anticipation into words. But perhaps a good way to talk about the end is to start at the beginning. I don’t believe I’ve given much of an explanation as to how we ended up here in the first place.  

Back in 2010 when we applied to Peace Corps, we were at a crossroads. Well really, it started a couple of years even before that. We could feel we were settling into the rest of our lives with steady jobs and a rented place in the suburbs.  The time to cement ourselves down that route seemed to be upon us. All we needed to do was buy a house and start our family, both things we knew we wanted but had a nagging feeling there was something more we needed to do first.  So we looked for jobs in different states and daydreamed about ways of changing course. Ideas and possible opportunities came and went, but nothing seemed to stick. Then Chris took a 2 week trip to Cameroon with Engineers Without Borders, his first visit to Africa since living there as a baby almost 30 years prior. He and a team of engineers went to a small village to construct wells.  He brought up the discussion of applying to Peace Corps within the first week of returning home. The funny thing was, I had this feeling while he was in Cameroon that the trip would spark something for us. Like those years of searching for a different direction would culminate into this. Maybe even lead to Peace Corps.  But fear of jumping into a decision so large wouldn’t let that idea bubble past my subconscious. For as long as I can remember, I admired people who lived in far off places for long periods of time or really anyone who found a way to live successfully off the beaten path most take. I just thought I wasn't adventurous enough to do it myself. I was intrigued by the idea of Peace Corps specifically for several years. Before meeting Chris, I had heard of the organization but didn’t look further into what it was until learning about his family history, but again figured it wasn’t something I could hack. Then a friend returned home from PC service in Swaziland, and talking about her experience prompted us to entertain the idea of going together for the first time.  We looked at the PC website to learn more about it when we discovered that it required a 2 year commitment.  Being only a couple of years out of college and finally feeling comfortable in our first “real” jobs, it wasn’t something we wanted to do at the time. The lure of finding our success in corporate America weighed out.  Then a few years later, we could not shake the feeling that there was an adventure we were missing and no promotion or salary increase could replace it. So Chris brought up Peace Corps again when calling from his cubicle to mine. Actually, I was driving back to work from lunch break and it was a good thing I was alone.  I screamed and I cried and said no way, “we can’t go. WE HAVE CATS FOR GOD’S SAKE!”. Chris calmly explained that if I felt that strongly about not going, then we shouldn’t go because to do something like this, you have to be fully committed and really want to do it. I hung up the phone and asked myself, why did I have such a strong reaction to this proposal? What is it, really, that made me freak out? Looking back now, I think in the instant Chris brought it up, I knew my answer was yes, we should apply to Peace Corps. But the fear of knowing our lives would change completely once we committed, well that’s why my head started to spin. Instead of admitting I wanted to do it too but had some understandable worries about making such a big decision, I masked my worries in defense and anger. Over the next week we talked, and talked and talked some more to each other and to his parents who had already gone through the experience as a married couple.  Finally I said, “well it can’t hurt to talk to a recruiter”. That day we had a 3-hour drive back from visiting Chris’ family in Pittsburgh to our home in Columbus, where we plotted out every detail of our Peace Corps plan from quitting our jobs, to packing up the house, what we’d do when we returned, and of course the cats (shout out to my Mom for adopting them while we’ve been gone!). That same evening in August 2010, we sat down with a latte in Barnes & Noble and started the arduous Peace Corps application process and never looked back. The “submit” button was hit that September and exactly a year later, we were on a plane to Mozambique. And now it's November 2013 and we're coming to the end of our journey.

Sitting in Barnes & Noble that day, I could never have imagined how I’d feel at this moment or the person I’d become over 3 years later. Peace Corps allowed me to do so many things that I wanted to do my whole life, even some far-reaching goals I wasn’t sure I’d ever really attain. From living abroad and learning a new language to becoming a reader and living near a beach. I’m not saying you should do Peace Corps if you’re trying to fulfill life goals or scratch items off a bucket list. Investing in Rosetta Stone or moving closer to the pacific ocean would be a much easier way to go. No, do Peace Corps because you want to be inspired, you want to be tested and during your service you just might find you’ve attained some personal objectives too. But you will miss major life events of loved ones; Engagements and weddings, births and funerals. You will get sick, you will be dirty for days on end even after your bucket bath, you will have to lower your standards on things, and you will ask yourself what the hell you are doing here. But you will find strength and patience you never knew you had and an immense satisfaction and personal growth you never knew was possible. You’ll get to fulfill that desire of stepping off the beaten path and writing a new chapter in your life. And I can tell you all of it, the good and bad, will be worth it or as they say here “Valeu, pah!”.

So here we are at the end. We landed in Maputo on Sunday to start the official COS (close of service) process which involves lots of medical checks and admin paperwork, and gives us one more chance to enjoy the capital with other volunteers. We said goodbye to Mapinhane on Friday after attempting to wrap up our life there in only a couple of weeks. We spent quality time with the students and teachers who meant the most to us, said goodbye to community members, packed up the house, and hosted a PCV goodbye party.  The exiting process here doesn’t feel nearly as dramatic as it did when we left the U.S.  Maybe because we always knew it wasn’t permanent and that we’d be familiar with what we were going back to while when coming to Moz, we had to jump into the complete unknown. Even with this though, the day of departure was still a bit emotional for me as I looked through our house one last time, thinking of memories made and how far we had come. The house seemed like an uncomfortable, unfamiliar basement when we first arrived but was transformed into our cozy little home. So my heart and tear ducts swelled a bit when we locked the door for the last time. I even got choked up when giving a final hug to our school director before getting in the car to leave.  But the transition was soothed by spending one last weekend in our favorite beach town, Vilankulo, our faithful source over the past 2 years for choice food items and a stellar beach. It was a relaxing weekend with dips in the Indian Ocean and time spent with friends before getting on a plane and waving goodbye to Inhambane province. We have only a few more things to do before getting our official “R” status, making us RPCVs (RETURNED Peace Corps Volunteers) from here on out.  From there, we are going on a final celebratory trip to Greece and touching down in the U.S. of A. on November 25th. Thanksgiving and Christmas festivities await us and after that, well…we’re not sure. We’re looking into job possibilities and maybe grad school options too (for Chris) and think we want to make a move towards Washington D.C. but nothing is certain yet. What we are certain of is that although we leave Mozambique this week, it won’t be forever. We talk about returning some day and what it will be like to remember the people and places that made the mosaic of this time. And we talk about taking our children here to show them a country we’ve grown to love and one that became our home. So here’s to seeing you all on the other side of this experience. We may not know exactly what that other side looks like for us yet, but we do know that Mozambique and our time here will be carried along with us. Always.

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