One of the hardest preparations before leaving for Peace Corps service is figuring out how to fit most of the things you will need for two years into two 45-pound bags. I spent days trying to fill every possible crevice. Weighed the bags. Repacked. Drank a few beers out of frustration. Then started the whole process over again. The requirement of two bags seemed impossible to achieve.
The reality was that all of my fears, anxiety, excitement and uncertainty about the future weren't as tangible as the items I was packing. Most of the stress about leaving the country for two years was projected into questions like should I pack a cooking knife? Where will I fit a sleeping bag? Or how long can I go with two pairs of dress pants? The answer to that last question was the whole service!
When I got to Botswana, the items in those bags started to lose their importance. Being a Peace Corps Volunteer was a series of constant adjustments.
Volunteers experience extreme emotions from the time they get an invitation to serve until they finish. It starts with anticipation and curiosity as the journey begins. During training I felt eager to learn as much as I could and eventually a little constrained, as I just wanted to get to work. Once I was at my site I went through the range of emotions that can happen anywhere over a two-year period. I desperately missed my family and friends. I tried to stay patient during the first couple months. Felt major frustration when trying to identify projects. Eventually some level of pride set in as things started to come together. Then nervousness as I moved quickly toward my departure date.
I experienced days or weeks where it seemed like nothing mattered. Times where I no longer wanted to try. Those days would flip into moments where every single thing had significant purpose and the smallest act brought tears to my eyes. All of the emotions were often fueled by changes in the environment. Times when it's too hot, too cold, not enough rain or too much rain to go to work. Volunteers tend to complain a lot about weather.
Towards the end of service I was sad to be leaving, thankful for my time and to my own surprise I felt a bit relieved that I had made it through all of the ups and downs. When people ask me what it was like, I realize that it's almost impossible to sum up in one conversation or blog. Peace Corps service was definitely the most strengthening two years of my life. I am one million times more patient. My time in Botswana taught me a lot about being resourceful. I never imagined I would clean a toilet with a pocket knife, rush around my house for the 20 minutes I had water or learn to not be fazed by power outages. By the end I really wasn't fazed by most changes! However, that's what Peace Corps service does. It helps you address what is really important in your life and makes you a significantly better person in the process.
When I look back at my service I think it's easy to list the bigger achievements. The projects that went well. The friendships that were made. The quintessential volunteer experiences that capture what people think of when they hear about Peace Corps. But for me I hope to hold on to the smaller moments. The days spent in 120-degree heat staring at dirt in my yard. The knowledge gained from the failures. Or the endless hours lost in conversation with people surrounded by the most serene and peaceful environment I will ever know. I hope to be able to take those priceless moments and keep them as a part of me forever.
After my going away party and the gut wrenching goodbyes, I sat in my house staring at the two bags I came with. By the end of service most of the items I had were either already gone or useless. The clothes I stressed out about were so destroyed from hand-washing and line drying that they weren't worth saving, but the process of packing to go home is much harder. I realized that there are an inestimable amount of things I couldn't pack.
The memories, friendships, laughter, work and totally unique experiences could never be quantified. As I zipped up my bags one last time in Botswana I realized how ridiculous it was to worry about what to pack. Peace Corps service is obviously much more than anything you can fit into luggage.