I've never been good at saying goodbye. As a child I was the kid who would complain endlessly about the family car, then bawl uncontrollably when it was sold. During my cocky, brash teenage years I was constantly ridiculing my closest friends while hoping they would never leave. In my somewhat more mature 20s, as break-ups were more frequent and moving was the norm, I started to adjust to saying "so long" to people. It's good to have some practice before joining the Peace Corps and leaving the country for over two years.
The Peace Corps experience forces a lot of goodbyes, but it's also balanced by meeting new friends and family.
The process from the time I filled out the first part of the application until the day I was leaving took a year and a half. The average time is one year. Depending on the age of a volunteer there can be a lot of decisions to make. Younger volunteers are concerned about student loans, saying goodbye to family and leaving friends they have known in college or their whole lives. Middle age volunteers have to plan on leaving a job, possibly renting their house, storing everything they own, as well as what to do with cars and loans. Many friends are quick to remind this age group how many weddings and newborn babies they will be missing. Retired volunteers have the same concerns as middle age people, and often deal with how to stay in touch with kids and grandkids. One of the hardest decisions is how to pack everything you will need for 27 months into two, not so large 45 pound bags.
I guess I am closer to middle age than young. I was a director at a non-profit organization for 8 years when I left. It took about 6 months to figure out how to transition our programs and make sure the work would be continued. My wife and I lived in Los Angeles, but our families live on the east coast. We had to figure out how to get everything across the country, as the cheapest place to store our belongings was with our relatives. We decided to ship all of our stuff in one truck and then drive across country in our car. We thought the best way to do that would be a two month, 23 states, 25 cities farewell tour. We got to experience living out of the aforementioned bags and I was almost an expert at goodbyes by the end of that.
Eventually the departure day came. My wife and I stood outside my parents' house as my dad cried hard enough to make me wonder if he could drive and my mom refused to get in the car. Are you seeing a pattern? My parents and aunt drove us from southern New Jersey to Philadelphia for what the Peace Corps calls staging. This process involves filling out paperwork about your financial and other vital information, then going through about a four hour session just to introduce everyone and check to make sure people really want to leave. It's kind of like speed dating as you very quickly and nervously greet the other volunteers you will be serving with and try to remember their names. During the session my emotions were torn between the things I would miss in America and the excitement of everything I would do in Botswana. Around 3:00 a.m. we took a bus to the airport.
After landing in Botswana, Peace Corps gave us four days to adjust before we moved to meet our new families. We spent the days in a nice hotel in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. The hotel had a pool, bar, internet, hot water and great food, which would be the last time we would see all of those luxuries in one place for a long time. The days were filled with medical shots, educational sessions, introductions to the language and some lighter moments where I again tried to learn more names. I attempted to adjust to the differences in time, climate and having a structured training that, for the first time in years, I wasn't in charge of. The four days flew by, and then we were moved to a village called Molepolole, where we lived for the next two months in what the Peace Corps calls Pre-Service Training. Training can also be three months long depending on the country. Peace Corps service officially begins after Pre-Service Training when all trainees, are sworn in as volunteers.
The first event in my new village was meeting my family. All of the Peace Corps volunteers sat on one side of a large auditorium as families from Botswana sat on the other side. There was a lot of waving and wonder in everyone's eyes as we looked across the aisle having no way of knowing whom we would be matched with. The ceremony starts beautifully with the singing of both national anthems. The words "land of the free and home of the brave" were a lot more emotional for me as I realized how far away I was from home. Next some distinguished members from the community and Peace Corps spoke. Then, much like an elementary school kickball game, our names were called one by one to meet our family. My wife and I were close to the end of the list and I really did get that fat kid feeling, like maybe I wasn't wanted.
When our names were finally called we walked across the front of the auditorium to Botswana screams and into the arms of a beautiful 79-year-old woman. The years of wisdom in her eyes were comforting. We spoke the limited Setswana we knew and she gave us our new names we have used during our service. We eagerly anticipated getting to the house to see our accommodations. We arrived at a fairly large three-bedroom ranch type home. She showed us to our bedroom, and then told us we would have running water inside and electricity, but no hot water. We would also have to hand wash our clothes. The first night we sat in a semi-awkward silence as we ate fried eggs with lettuce and tomato covered in salt. She had a television and the one channel she received was showing some generic version of the X-Games and bad music videos. The cross-cultural exchange began.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. To honor this occasion, I will be writing blogs about my experiences as a currently-serving volunteer. It would be impossible to capture the unique experiences of all 200,000-plus volunteers that have served since the Peace Corps started in 1961. However, I am hoping to provide more insight into what a volunteer goes through from the time they decide to apply until they get to the country they are serving and all the funny, somber and moving stories until the day they leave.