(this post was written in 2 parts, started on 5/10 and finished 6/27)
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”
2 years ago I was preparing to take the first steps on an epic journey. In my usual 11th hour behavior, I did not actually start packing until the last few days I had in Atlanta. Even though I was the first of my cohort to be nominated December 2011, and knew that I was always going to go, it still did not click until the last few days in Atlanta. I did kind of a mad scramble to get all of my things together, random gear and gifts for my host family. I was surprisingly cool and nonchalant about leaving, whereas other people were more on edge about my departure to the other side of the world. When the last few days in Atlanta arrived, I was caught a little but off guard but still had a handle on my emotions and expectations.
Here I am, on the other side of the journey, preparing to take the first steps towards yet another epic journey. I leave my site, Manjacaze, in 3 days, and while I have known since August that this day would come, I am still rattled emotionally and coping with leaving a life and family that took two long and often hard years to form. These two years have been groundbreaking. I have learned so much about myself and humanity in general. I have faced death, despair, sadness, fear, frustration, anxiety, hopelessness, but also love, joy, happiness, hope, confidence, acceptance and compassion. The entire face map of emotions “Today I feel…” I have encountered, sometimes in the span of a day. I have cried for no apparent reason, laughed for no apparent reason (probably due to a couple loose screws) and just taken it all in with a eery sense of calm sometimes. I have learned to live alone, to be in the silence and not be scared (all the time). I have learned to be patient (sort of) and to not push my agenda on others. My time here has given me a wealth of experiences, both good and bad, with which I will use to guide the rest of my life.
Time has been a tricky concept here… I judge it by the fruit seasons, plants growing, and by children mostly. When I met my “host” family here, their son was 4 months old and I feel in love with him. Now over 2 and talking (he recognizes me and says my name), it will be incredibly difficult to leave him, especially knowing that he probably won’t remember his “Tinda” (Tia Linda-Aunt Linda) and his sister will have to tell him tales of the American who was afraid of cats, made strange foods like burritos and sushi, and rode a bicycle with a helmet. I feel like I have lived an entire lifetime here. In accordance with this timeline model, I am now 50 years old, wise and transitioning from semi-retirement to retirement.
…….Not to sound too macabre, but close of service (COS) in a way seems like getting your affairs in order after being told you have a few weeks to live. It’s the end of a life, lived to the fullest and with emotional and physical intensity you may or may not have expected. After all the work you did, you build a life, from preparations to actually living it and one day you are meant to just walk away from it, never to return again (at least not under the same circumstances and not in the foreseeable future). How does one do that even? How CAN one do that? How do you get the people who you have lived amongst to understand that? How do you deal with some who just desire to strip you of your belongings as you leave instead of maybe expressing the sadness in your departure? It is a difficult thing to do but for over 50 years, thousands of Americans before me have done this, said goodbye to a life once lived and returned, reincarnated in some ways as a version 2.0 of themselves. In a way it’s the nature of the beast. But once you get to that day, the day you did not think would come, certainly not in your first year when it seems like an eternity away, and then rapidly approaching during your second year, you are beside yourself in grief. In the weeks leading up to leaving, I was in a sort of denial about it all, despite knowing since August that I would likely be leaving mid may. Again I had not packed or begun to arrange my belongings and was still saying half goodbyes or not even mentioning my impending departure in situations that would likely be my last time…Then as I began to accept it, about 2 weeks before leaving, I got in the zone with regards to packing up. After that I began to realize that I needed to actually start saying goodbyes.
It did not help that my last few weeks of service were some of my busiest in terms of activities and of course the final Peace Corps conference with my cohort. I wrote a grant for and hosted a music workshop held in the secondary school by Positivo Mozambique to write a song about malaria prevention for the community. It was one of the most rewarding activities of my service. I swelled with pride on the final day when the kids performed their song in front of the school on World Malaria Day. The change in the kids demeanor/confidence was one of the few times I saw “change”/ “development” and in the span of a few days. I had also held Sexual Reproductive Health workshops in the same school with a dynamic professor and counterpart who to my shock and great sadness passed away in a car accident a week after the music workshop he helped me organize. I was truly devastated by his passing and for his family; his wife who was a close colleague of mine as she is the Pediatrician at the hospital and for his son who she said loved his dad so much. After the success of these two events and the grief for his passing and the realization that I was leaving this all behind (plus all the questions of sustainability, impact, inadequacy, successes and failures) and leaving all the people I loved and who helped me through 2 years, I was beyond emotionally spent. I spent my last 30 days busy and also sporadically crying, to the shock of many. I had the chance to have a final hoorah with my fellow volunteers and in my last few days had a goodbye party at my house with my sitemate and our closest friends/family. It was a bit of a stressful occasion but also nice to share one last meal with those who opened their homes to us over the years. I rode out of Manjacaze the way I came in with my nun counterpart Alice driving us to the nearest city. My final views of the town that reformed me were through a steady stream of tears….
From there I spent my last few days in Maputo in a bit of a flurry to finish the documentation for closing of service, of grants, of medical. I once again felt it to be very surreal. My final goodbyes to my closest friends had me inconsolable. As I walked through to security the lady behind the counter look at me, tears streaming down my face and me not even bothering to wipe them away because o the rate at which they were falling. She asked me calmly, what’s the matter dear? And I told her I was leaving a land I loved, people I loved, a life I loved, and that I did not know when I was coming back and I was very sad. She looked at me with great sympathy and told me that I WILL come back and see those people again, not to worry, I will come back. Barely able to speak I told her thank you, I will. After I walked passed her and headed towards the gate, she walked up to me and gave me a hug, said she liked me and gave me her contact information and facebook /email and asked me to stay in touch and let her know when I am back. This is what I am leaving. Mozambicans are incredibly caring, generous people who opened their homes, and lives to me. Always there to offer me meals, accompaniment, concerned of my well-being, curious about my habits, life choices and fascinated by my ways and I of theirs. I enjoyed teaching and learning from them, especially through food. Sharing recipes -the shock that Americans make cake from carrots/banana/apples/coconut then the delight when we made it together in a clay pot oven and they loved it and carefully noted the ingredients, or when I learned how to make a traditional dish. The sharing of cultures, ideas, traditions….it’s one of the most beautiful products of Peace Corps for the volunteer and their community. It’s Exposure. It’s what I love about travel and living abroad and why I will continue to do it.
As I have had more distance from the experience to reflect, I am constantly having revelations or conceptualizing parts of my experience and still dealing with a sense of loss and occasional thoughts that I could have done more…a tricky thought because we are not superheroes and as one of my directors said, we are not magicians…just because a volunteer is there, does not mean all kinds of things will just start happening or appearing. This is a process, and volunteers plant seeds, and build foundations in/for the community and for future volunteers to help continue to cultivate. It’s a project that is constantly evolving and involves the coordination of many different facets that are not in one person’s control.
My two years in Mozambique were without a doubt the most profound experience of my life.
If anyone is considering the Peace Corps, I urge you to talk to RPCVs (contact me! Or others). It is a truly unique experience and one that can never leave you. You will return forever changed and the juice is worth the squeeze….