“My desire to slip away from the stories and the choices we make to secure our identity in everyday life has borne fruit again and again. To go on a pilgrimage, I discovered, you do not need to know what you are looking for, only that you are looking for something, and need urgently to find it. It is the urgency that does the work, a readiness to receive that finds the answers.” Jane Pommy Vega, Tracking the Serpent: Journeys to Four Continents
When it hit me that I no longer lived in the land of plenty, it took everything I had not to scream, “What have I done to my life?!” I know it’s the Peace Corps, for God’s sake, but it’s one thing to look at a National Geographic picture of poverty and quite another to know you’re actually going to live there. What was I thinking moving to a foreign country (and not a vacation spot at that) and leaving behind all my comforts—both physical and emotional? It had all sounded so adventurous, so altruistic, so life expanding . . .
But the reality was something else altogether.
When we Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) imagined the challenges facing us, we tended to be most concerned about the day-to-day hardships and lack of comfort—clean water, heat, food, communication, transportation, physical challenges, possibly personal safety and health, etc.—but continued to believe that an open-armed reception would override these. With these thoughts in mind, families sent their recently graduated sons and daughters off with one of their two suitcases full of toilet paper, long underwear, favorite snacks, and mementos of love to support them during their adventure. As for the handful of older volunteers like myself, we were usually sent off with comments such as, “Are you crazy? I’m glad it’s you and not me!” And of course, everyone hears, “We’ll miss you.” Many of these notions and images were indeed true, but as time moved forward the truth would be revealed. It was no cake walk.
At the age of sixty, I decided to store my stuff, close my business (which was going downhill after 9/11 anyway), and head off on the job of a lifetime, one that hopefully would make some kind of a difference in the world. I’d thought about becoming a PCV since the 1960s, when my best friend left me and everything else behind and went for her stint of service. I envied her adventure of living in an entirely new environment, learning things we could simply not even imagine, and coming back home a different person. How could she not?
For me, the time had never been right; I could never step out of my life until that point. Not wanting to have regrets about what I didn’t do, or dreams I didn’t realize, I thought, “OK, if Peace Corps accepts me, I’m going for it.” It took a whole year to slog through all the red tape, health exams, etc., but finally I held in my hand a plane ticket to Macedonia. Not Africa (the place most people think of when they think Peace Corps). I had given Africa some serious thought but the combination of big bugs and no plumbing scared me off. The Caribbean was also an option but I turned it down; I’m past the bikini stage. And yes, they have big bugs too.
You didn’t actually get to choose where you served, but you did get to choose which part of the world you wanted, so I picked Eastern Europe. I figured that when I needed a shot of culture, it would be easy to get there. That notion turned out to be wrong, but if nothing else, I was pretty sure I’d live in some type of building and have a real toilet rather than a Turkish toilet—a hole in the ground. This at least turned out to be true.
I read every book I could get about Peace Corps life and talked with women my age who had served (their experience, however, was always as part of a couple). I was a very savvy volunteer, I thought. Plus I had traveled quite a bit over the years, so how different could it be?
My journey took me to places I’d never imagined. Sure, living in a developing country does that, but besides the different lifestyle, people, culture, language, and experiences, I discovered places in myself that no amount of self-help books or therapy could have revealed. How could they? Every time you get close to puncturing long-cherished layers of gunk, it’s so easy to escape into our material world?
Living in Macedonia, so far removed from the American focus on time, money, family, and future, was bound to have an effect on even the most unconscious person. And I’d thought I was awake. As my journey unfolded I became more and more determined that abandoning my life as I’d known it in the attempt to make some small difference would not only affect the lives of those around me, but would profoundly affect my own life as well.
If it didn’t kill me first.