The end of the Peace Corps dream

It was our last night together and our last in Africa. In honor of Aparna’s 25th birthday, we dressed up and spent the last of our ariary money on dinner and flavored rum. Nick, Katie and Aparna and I had been together for the last 17 days yet our conversations were still full of life and excitement like they had been when we met in Maseru for our close of service and stayed up past midnight – an extreme rarity for us with 8 p.m. bedtimes – reliving the final moments of our service. On this night, though, we were preparing for our return and trying to grasp the reality that it was over. We pooled together a few notes to buy a terrible bottle of local pink wine and sat outside under the star canopy. Katie led us in semi-therapy session, asking us to really think about what was going to be the hardest part of coming home. All of us had very sincere, very painful answers. We all expected difficulty, just like we did two years prior when we stepped off that plane, but we couldn’t predict in what ways it would be hard, and that was the scariest part.

My mind drifted to two weeks earlier, when I left Lesotho. The morning that I departed Ha Matela, I woke up early to finish packing and soak up as much time with my host family as possible. I watched my ntate gather the animals and then Moroana walk off to church wearing her sparkling white dress. My mme fed me bohobe ba metsi and tea while I sat with her and Maseeng, our eyes fixed on the baby. Thebe needed to go to Nazareth before he took me to Maseru so I drank a Maluti with Edgar, sitting at Makara’s, overlooking the river canyon. Because I was still on Basotho time, I didn’t get to Maseru until several hours later than I expected, but I was OK with that. I wanted the day to be what it was and not forced into my ideal of the perfect final day. There wasn’t the finality that I had anticipated, but I didn’t mind. Still, I always expected that my eyes would fill with tears when I said those goodbyes or traveled down the Ha Matela road for the final, but all I could do was look on and smile.

Those tears came a few days later, while sitting in the country director’s office for my final interview. Wendy, who had only come to Lesotho for the final five months of my service, commended me on my work and my commitment to Peace Corps. When they told me that I wasn’t qualified to be a volunteer, I acquired more experience. When one of my fellow volunteers and dear friends passed away at her site, I promised to serve with the honor and grace that she would have. When I was forced out of my serving country for security reasons, I fought for another assignment. When I had to leave my site for a few days because there was strike at my school, I waited for the security officer to deem the situation safe then returned. When local doctors couldn’t come to a diagnosis for my health aliments, I refused to remove myself from the situation until there were orders to do so. Then, there were the failures, the incompetency, the loneliness, and the doubt that begged me to just do something else but I chose not to indulge those ideas. As Wendy and I discussed my time with Peace Corps, I realized that this dream – the one that started so many years ago when I was nursing a broken heart by searching big ideas on the Internet – was now over. I would no longer be able to write ‘PCV’ behind my name and, for the first time in probably 10 years, Peace Corps was no longer a part of my future. It is now my past.

I understand and respect that not everyone has a pleasant Peace Corps experience and there are many out there who do not see the validity in the program. For me, though, Peace Corps is still that noble program that gives so much to the world. I am freakishly proud of the communities that I belong to, and none more so than Peace Corps (yes, I think I am more proud to be an RPCV than a Jackrabbit). I didn’t just take a trip to Africa for two years. I gave large pieces of myself to Lesotho, to Peace Corps, and to the experience  and got so much more in return.

What you don’t realize about dream chasing, no matter how long you are at it, is that it will some day end. Time doesn’t stop after the wedding day, the medal ceremony, the airing of the movie. We get to accomplish our dreams and then we have to understand that they are over and find a new dream. That’s the terrifying part.

That night, sitting with three incredible people, I was scared to sleep. Although there was so much to look forward to – reuniting with my friends and family, devouring nachos – the next day held an uncertainty. Tomorrow, it’ll be over.  Tomorrow, I’ll need a new dream. Tomorrow, I’ll finally have to admit that I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer.

In the weeks since I’ve been home, I have struggled with what to do next, a feeling likely similar to that of the person who devoted a year to running a marathon or writing a book and now must come up with a filler for the space this accomplishment created. Peace Corps was my focus for so many years, although it was not always a clear focus, that I doubt my ability to pick my true path. What if I aim too high? What if I aim too low? What if I don’t have enough faith to believe in the plan?

This past weekend I reunited with some of my college friends, an event that was two years in the making. Reminiscing can be dangerous because what you remember and what truly happened aren’t always the same. Brookings is not just the place I went to college, but the place, both in college and the year I lived there post-graduation, that founded many of my ambitions. The first time I left was to follow my journalism dreams. The second time, after those dreams were convoluted with what I should do and what I want to do, I left for the Peace Corps. Many times, in Lesotho, I dreamt of Brookings – walking through campus or stopping for coffee on Main Street. Although I was so eager to go back and be with people I consider true friends, I feared that old memories would further aggravate my transitional funk.

Yet, I was able to see who I was and the person I’ve become at the same time and, although I still am unsure of how to connect those two, I realized that maybe I don’t need to, not right away at least. I am not defined by my previous experiences – whether it be managing editor of the college newspaper or the one with a real job so she’ll make dinner or a Peace Corps volunteer. As I spent the weekend visiting familiar hangouts from my past and telling old stories of broken cameras and UPD tickets, I realized that I’ve been privileged enough to live an incredible life and that is not going to stop now. My excitement and adventures don’t just end because I have completed this wild dream, they just allow me to choose something else. The Collegian, The Post, the Peace Corps are not things that fell into my lap but I got to experience them – the wins and the losses – because of who I am.

Sure, the unknown of the future is intimidating and I will forever cherish my Peace Corps experience, but my life doesn’t stop here. This is my beginning, not ending. Yes, that is cheesy but sometimes clichés are the reminders that we need to understand remarkable blessings. Awkward transitions are necessary and instead of grieving for what’s finished and fearing the future, I am going to enjoy this. To live well is to live it all.

 

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