Every person who joins the Peace Corps or in any other way opts to live abroad, far from the comforts of home, brings their baggage. For better or for worse, you are still you no matter where you are. The faces and places change, but how you see them and react are based on your reality, formed by years of experiences and interactions.
I’m constantly reminded of a line from one of my favorite movies, “Buckaroo Bonzai in the 21st Century,” which says, “no matter where you go, there you are.” Translation: you can’t escape yourself.
Living abroad is not going to suddenly make you something you are not, but it can sure make you think about who and what you are. If you are willing to look, everything becomes a mirror.
I didn’t think I needed any more lessons in “How Much Shit You Can Handle,” but apparently life had other ideas.
I had been in Armenia for less than a week when my stepmother passed away from cancer. I had seen her just the week before. The last thing she said was “I love you, see you in two years.” I knew then she wouldn’t make it two years, but I just hugged her and agreed. I wasn’t able to fly home to help ease her journey, or attend her funeral. That Christmas was my father’s first Christmas without her in 37 years, and only the second one I’d missed. It was also to be my father’s last Christmas.
I felt helpless in late February as my dad’s health declined, while he and the family insisted he was “fine” and there was nothing I could do anyway. But when he fell into a coma, I asked Peace Corps for emergency leave which they quickly granted. I have to say everyone at PC Armenia and in Washington was amazing. Unfortunately, with a 36-hour trip to the west coast, I didn’t make it in time. He passed away while my plane was somewhere over the Midwest, still 12 hours from home. As his jet-lagged executor, it fell to me to write his eulogy, hold the service and wrap up his personal affairs before heading back to Armenia two weeks later.
Armenian dedication to family is huge, and my fellow teachers were keen to express their sympathy. But beyond “apsos” (sorry), there wasn’t a lot to say. It was back to business as usual, never mind the huge hole in my heart. Lesson planning seemed so trivial, teaching pointless.
Two weeks after my return I was told I needed to move out of the house I had moved into three days before I left for my trip home. The owner had changed her mind, she didn’t want anyone in her house after all. Oh, and I needed to be moved out in a week. And that contract – meaningless in Armenia really, I was told by my regional manager. “It’s more of an agreement than a contract,” she said.
Condensed version — after spending four months in an apartment, I ended up transferring to another town in late August, where I am now. I was able to find a great apartment that had been completely renovated by a sweet woman and her daughter. They were thrilled to rent to me. Things seemed to be looking up. But wait, life wasn’t done with that HMSCYH lesson yet.
First night in my new abode, a water pipe burst and flooded the place. I spent two hours trying to find the shut off valve (located behind the broken pipe gushing water) frantically bailing, mopping and rolling up the soaked rug in an effort to forestall further damage to the brand new laminate flooring. I went from being the perfect renter to American spawn of Satan. Surely it was SOMEHOW my fault that the pipe under the sink had broken at 1 a.m. exactly on my first night. How could I explain that I was simply cursed?
The rug dried out, the pipe was repaired and there was minimal damage to the floor, but the damage to the relationship seems to be irreparable. Pretty sure the only reason they don’t evict me is because I’m paying top dollar for their apartment.
And now the people in the apartment below me – two floors down – are sure that their water leak is somehow my fault. No one lives between us, so obviously it’s something I’m doing. This prompts frequent surprise visits from my landlady, trying to find the source of the leak and speaking rapidly in the language I still do not fathom. To be continued.
Well at least school must be going better, right? The students were very excited about having a journalism program at their university, and the sign up of interested students was overwhelming. I was going to need an auditorium to house them all! This was great!
Students signed up as interested: 150. Students who actually showed up: six. Students now attending regularly: zero. I had four good students, but now it’s exam time and they are too busy memorizing things to regurgitate on their exams to bother with an extra club. Plus once they actually had to start – gasp – writing, it stopped being fun. Exam fever will continue through January.
I’m left with a lot of time on my hands to berate myself for all the things I should be doing, could be doing, but somehow just can’t. Facebook is torture, seeing all the happy, smiling younger volunteers clowning with their students like Peace Corps poster children. Look at them opening playgrounds! Building libraries! Traveling to exotic places together! Making hand turkeys!
Peace Corps is supposed to be a time when volunteers bond, becoming one big happy family as they share their challenges and triumphs. Instead, I have never felt more separate from their experience. Being as old or older than their parents is enough of a gap, adding the experience of the death of a parent increases it exponentially. I have one or two friends here that I rely on, but that leaves more than 50 volunteers with whom I have nothing in common.
In two weeks I’m going home for Christmas. I think as the year turns, I have a big decision to make.