Joining the US Peace Corps
I first heard about the Peace Corps in college. It sounded like a wild dream. It was too impractical for that 21 year old version of me, but it was stuck in the back of my head. The decision came to start the intense application process 6 years later after I returned from visiting a Peace Corps volunteer in the African bush. What a life-altering experience! Scary, yes, but I learned it was nothing I couldn’t handle. You mean I could be living in every moment right now, constantly faced with new challenges & adventures?! The dependable, excessive and routine life I knew before just wouldn’t cut it for me anymore. So I’m no longer contributing to a 401K, who cares?! I gave up my pet family, and I jumped in the flow. I didn’t have a plan further than 3 weeks in the future. It was frightening. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew I had to do it. I had about $6000 saved up for the time between leaving my former life and starting my envisioned Peace Corps journey, and my family taught me how to stretch a dollar… no worries!
A lesson in Patience & Flexibility
If I had known at the time how long and thorough the application process was, maybe I would have been worried about my budget. With the essay, references and interview, it took me all summer to complete. The arduous part, in my case, was the nomination phase, which includes medical, dental, and legal clearance. It seemed never ending. As I went through it, I kept telling myself that the hangups I faced were just life’s way of giving me time to collect the tools necessary for my journey. And at that point I was already in the flow. There were very few days a smile didn’t stretch across my face. I was living the life of my dreams with my heart family on a daily basis, waking up in majestic places and doing things even I couldn’t believe. Sunshine was pouring out of my face. I was constantly assured that my decision to change course was the best thing I had ever done. Still, all the evaluations, blood work, immunizations, consultations, and personal statements along the way were testing my patience. The appointments were getting in the way of the stuff I’d rather be doing and forcing me to face things I had chosen to ignore. It felt so great to send off that last piece of paperwork. Then, when I finally heard from them, it was only to say they would need more paperwork. So I attended to that and sent it in, to find out there were four more things. Finally, I got the letter saying I was denied for medical reasons, and I would not be allowed to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Having a Choice
Friends and family told me something better would come along, and that everything happens for a reason. I didn’t agree. I was mad, I was hurt, I was devastated. I wasn’t sure if those feelings stemmed from defeat or from a true desire to serve. I decided I’d appeal their decision because I knew it was incorrect. That way, I could be in control of the choice, rather than letting the Peace Corps make that decision for me. I had 60 days to appeal, and had no energy or resources left. Fifty-ish days later I let loose on my father. I complained about the lack of support I had gotten from friends and family when they found out I was rejected but wanted to appeal. He told me he hadn’t known how to respond, and he stepped up to the plate immediately. He had the energy and the resources, and he is the reason I am sitting in the Tokyo airport right now. My case didn’t even have to go before the Board of Appeals once they had the correct information in their hands at the Office of Medical Services. All in all, It took me almost a full year to get cleared.
From that point, I waited to hear about my assignment. My only request was that the weather be tropical, and there was no guarantee that would be honored. When I heard “Thailand” I knew for absolute certain that every hurdle along the way had been divinely placed to line me up for this. When I first started my application 14 months prior, I declared that if I didn’t get into the Peace Corps, I would move to Thailand and find work teaching English. Here I was with an invitation to serve as a Teacher Collaborator and Community Outreach Volunteer with Peace Corps Thailand. It’s hard for me not to believe I am becoming. My visioning record is heading in the direction of impressive. I have no doubt it is because I follow my heart, striving to live in the flow as the core of peace on a daily basis. This is where it’s at!
I accepted right away, but there was still more paperwork, questionnaires, and business that needed attention. My friends helped me swallow the elephant one bite at a time. Respect & gratitude. With three months til Go Time, I had so much life to be present to, that there was little time to anticipate, worry, or think on the coming journey. That’s how I like it, one slice at a time. Let me breathe this in now, and then I’ll focus on that breath when I get there.
I had already seen Peace Corps service first hand, so I thought I had a pretty good idea of what would be expected of me. I knew the importance of patience, flexibility, & an incredibly light heart. Plus, I met a friend who lives as an expat in Thailand, and he gave me a heads up on the few things I would want to bring that are difficult to find there. I must have whittled away at my packing stack five different times, and I still probably have much more than I’ll need. After living on the road for a year, you learn about frivolity and necessity. I got to spend an awesome Christmas with my family in Alabama, since I wasn’t due to leave til the first week of January. Could this have worked out any better?? My last week I spent with loved ones in San Diego and Baja, Mexico. I was surprised with a delightful farewell party on my last night, and the sweetest bon voyage video, which I’ve already re-watched at least 4 times and I’m not even in country yet!
I’m not claiming that saying goodbye to everything and everyone you know is ever painless, but with the promise of Thailand on the other end, it sure makes it easier. I understood that the Staging event in Philadelphia would last 3 days, but it turned out to be only one afternoon–finally, ahead of schedule! I was dreading Philly, coz the Weather Channel doesn’t make it look like a pleasant place to spend a January weekend, but it surprised me. Only 29º and no blizzards. The snow was softly falling when I woke, and it covered the historic neighborhood in a white blanket of beautiful. There were 66 of us that flew in from all over the country to meet and review Peace Corps mission, goals, and expectations. There was so much nervous energy filling the room, the air was tense and the walls were buzzing. It couldn’t be ignored; believe me, I tried. I tried to soak up some of it, to get it out of the air. I tried to breathe peace into the room. It was still abuzz.
A New Family
We have a diverse group in every direction. I watched and listened to these strangers with the understanding that they would be family before long. We will be spending holidays together, we will be intimate with one another, and we will be sharing with each other our deepest, most authentic selves. I’m sure I just watched two people meet that will eventually spend their lives together. How exciting!
My Last Meal in America
Afterwards, I joined a group of about ten people who were walking to dinner. As much as a Philly Cheesesteak sounded like a good idea when I joined them, by the time I got to the diner it was just sounding like a greasy mess of meat. I wandered off alone in search of something with at least a little nutritional value. I ended up off the beaten path (I’d say ‘dark alley’ but that would scare my mama if she ever read this!) at my first Turkish restaurant. The place was packed, so I was seated at a tiny table with one chair that seemed out of place in the absolute center of the room. I was facing the front door and could see the street past the windows. There was a large film reception occurring to my right, and several tables enjoying a nice Saturday evening meal to my left. The service staff was bustling around with their hands full and their minds racing as they tried to remain calm and polite when approaching each table. They spoke to each other in a language I couldn’t understand. The women wore elegant, beaded hijabs. The pictures and wall decorations also helped to reaffirm my burning desire to travel to Turkey. I felt alive and gave thanks as I sat and waited for my meal. I have so much to be grateful for, especially as I am about to be served my last proper meal in America. I was thinking of all the new people I met earlier in the day, and how much our lives are about to change. I ate some delicious organic lamb and baby okra in tomato sauce with garlic and green peppers, packed up what was left, and paid. Just as I stood up to exit, the music got REALLY loud, and out of the kitchen slid a sparkling belly dancer—all the convincing I needed to sit back down for another glass of water.
My last meal could not have been more proper. My seat in the center of the room afforded me absolute presence to the perfect circles buzzing around me the entire evening. I was not even aware at the time that my dear friends in San Diego had been at the mosque for a Muslim holiday and were eating the same thing in the same moment on the opposite coast. What a perfect evening!
After picking up a few last minute supplies, I caught a cab back to the hotel and joined the others for a glass of wine. I took my second glass up to the room where I sipped on it while enjoying a hot bath and listening to Pandora radio… Oh, the luxuries I’m sure to miss!
The next morning we all met in the lobby at 4a.m. to prepare for our flight to our new home. Eight people volunteered to be group leaders for us as we traveled to Bangkok. I am sure they probably would not have been so apt to self-appoint themselves if they had known what was in store for the next three days. It was really nothing out of the ordinary, aside from that fact that you don’t ordinarily travel with 65 people. There were delays, fluctuating itineraries, a lost bag, an extra night in Tokyo, and a policy compromise that stood in the way of a smooth transition. Lucky for the rest of us, all we had to do was sit back & wait for direction. We played frisbee, hackeysack, and Apples to Apples. We made music and practiced yoga. We got to catch up on our Zzz’s and learn about the paths that shaped one another. I think it was a good lesson in embracing uncertainty to break us into this gig we’re signing on for. I learned a long time ago (coincidentally, the morning I submitted my Peace Corps application) in a GMC Jimmy that’s now scrap metal, that your focus, not your circumstances, dictate your experience.
We are in the air, almost to Bangkok. It wasn’t easy nor painless to get to this point. It has been the most rewarding journey already since I quit my job and started that application 20 months ago, and every new thing I learn about Thailand makes me that much more stoked to be in my shoes. Fourteen of us got to fly Thai Air from Tokyo, which has given us a first glimpse into life as we will know it in the coming 27 months. During that time, it is my intention to bring you with me via this blog you’re now reading. Please give me feedback, so I can keep you interested.