Friday, July 09, 2004

Here we go again: An introduction

In 1998, I was at something of a crossroads. I was just about to graduate with my B.A. in English, and had no job or grad school prospects lined up. On top of this, I had just broken up with my girlfriend at the time, Michelle. I needed a change and bad. At the time, I was in my senior year at Western Washington University. Michelle and I had dated for a couple of years, but it was often rocky and we had split several times. After this third time I was fed up.

But something happened. Walking in front of the Student Union building on day, I noticed a little sandwich board sign that said something to the effect of: "Peace Corps Recruiting NOW. Volunteer positions open in Africa, Asia, South Pacific, InterAmerica, and more!" Et cetera. Mostly what I saw was the South Pacific. Anyone who knows me can attest that I've been in love with Polynesian culture for a long time now, starting during my infamous move to Hawai`i in the early 90s. Particularly Hawaiian, but I've taken an interest in all Pacific cultures. I was excited to volunteer there so in no time I visited the recruiter, and began the painstaking application process. First I had to type -- on a typewriter -- my initial application, then came the long process of securing letters of recommendation and secondary application forms, then came the medical and dental clearance forms. After about four months I had slogged through it all and was done just in time for graduation.

Meanwhile, as luck would have it Michelle and I got back together. She wasn't happy with the idea of me spending two years away from her in some distant country, but we convinced ourselves we would make it through. After all, we were in love, right? When the invitation finally came, I discovered I'd be going to the Eastern Caribbean, to a little island called Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic), to be a "Youth Development Officer." By this time I had abandoned hope of going to the South Pacific, and had braced myself for Africa, since like 60% of all Peace Corps volunteers get sent there. I was thrilled and stunned to be going to somewhere as amazing as the Caribbean (although I admit I was at first disappointed not to be going to Jamaica, but I soon got over that).

My departure date was mid-July. I went through the final stages of preparing with a mixture of dread, eagerness, sorrow, and anxiety. I was going to miss Michelle terribly, and I was terrified that I wouldn't be able to hack it. What is a Youth Development Officer, and am I qualified?!?

THEN, just a week before I was to depart, I did something that would change my future: I proposed to Michelle. I was feeling as though my departure would be forever damaging and I wanted to maintain the relationship, so we talked it out and decided the best way was to become engaged, and that way our bond would be stronger. I bought an engagement ring just a couple of days before stepping onto the plane. The day of departure was one of the hardest of my life, and I wept like a baby, but Michelle seemed very placid and unmoved -- it was strange, but I didn't think much of it at the time.

We spent two days in Miami at Staging, then flew to St. Lucia to begin the first leg of our training. There were nearly 60 of us, if I remember correctly, and we were split among families in the mountainous Babonneau community for the "homestay" part of our training. Days were spent in a blistering-hot elementary school learning everything from local politics to economics to creole language. We did group-building excercises and took tons of notes from lectures. To be honest, I couldn't tell you what most of it involved, because two weeks of intense lectures under brutal heat ended up becoming a blur. I know I had great fun and made instant friends with the other volunteers (a couple of which I still am in contact with!) and had some amazing times at beaches, parties, and clubs. My homestay family was wonderful, even if I was too shy and not ready for such an experience. After two weeks in St. Lucia, they split the huge group up into smaller ones and we all headed to our individual islands to continue training. There, I stayed with 17 others in a renovated church at Rosalie that served as a retreat, and we ran a short summer school for kids in the rural town of La Plaine.

By this time, though, the stress of the busy days and high expectations was beginning to mix with the painful absence of Michelle. One day, almost exactly 4 weeks into training, I realized I had to make a decision -- I could EITHER have Michelle or the Peace Corps, but not both. It might have been a harder decision under other circumstances, but anyone who has been in the Peace Corps can tell you it is not an easy environment, even in the relative sanctity of training. Throw on top of this my unease about my assignment (they switched me to be an Elementary School teacher, when I had no experience with teaching or with kids), where I was going to live (in the Carib territory, the poorest and most desolate in all of the Eastern Caribbean, and across the island from any of my friends), and the conditions I could look forward to (I would have no running water or phone or sometimes electricity, while the others on my island would have cable t.v. and air conditioners!) and you might see how I made the decision to leave. Within a day I was flying home.

Michelle and I got married the next summer and immediately moved to Tallahassee so I could start grad school. One year later we were separated, and in 2002 officially divorced. It has been six years now since I left for the Peace Corps, and my friends can vouch that I've never shut up about it in the entire time. I've toyed with the idea of going for years, and sometimes wanted to and sometimes didn't want to, but always it was on my mind. Then this year, in about May, it occurred to me that I should do it again. Really do it. I didn't have any job prospects and nothing tying me down. It is time to go.

This is the first entry in my new Peace Corps 'blog. I know, I know -- this is practically becoming a cliche. Everyone who enters the Peace Corps these days, it seems, is starting their own blog. You can see a couple of great ones here:

You'll probably hear bits and pieces of the old story as I tell the new one. As of this writing I have no idea where I'm going to go. My recruiter is trying to get me into a Teacher Trainer position in the South Pacific, which departs in November 2004, and the only reason I really stand a chance is because the requirements are a little more stringent than normal (requires an M.A. and post-secondary teaching experience, but most P.C. volunteers only have a B.A./B.S.). However, I don't know if I'll get it. You'll know as soon as I do.

I hope this blog will follow my "adventure" for the entire 27 months in service, plus however many months this admission process takes. I'll try to post every week at least. Since I already quit the Peace Corps once, and regretted it wholeheartedly, I have even higher hopes that I can make it through the whole assignment (two years) this time. The Peace Corps has an average Early Termination rate of ~30%. I won't be one of them again.


No comments: