“Ask yourself what is really important then have the wisdom and courage to build your life around that answer.”
Just as nothing can truly prepare you for the Peace Corps experience, nothing can prepare you for leaving either. Having lived in my community for two years, I am at the end of my service. The people here have become my second family. I have close friends, favorite señoras, kids I adore, scenery that makes you go “WOW”. I know which cattle and pigs belong to which families and who to go to when I’m feeling down or need help. I participate in community events and family birthdays as every other member of town. I’ve learned more about myself and created more memories and interesting skill sets than I ever dreamt possible.
The application process to join the Peace Corps and 10 weeks of training incountry are thorough and taxing – to force you to consider how you might react to different situations, to gauge and build your mental flexibility and resilience, to gain skills needed to be a successful Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). But there are some things that no one can prepare you for. Like attending your neighbor’s funeral and witnessing a family’s grief, crying alongside them as if you shared blood. Like the overwhelm of infinite generosity, hospitality and friendliness at every turn from friends and strangers alike. Like doing your last round of family visits, burning their faces, voices and homes into your memory, knowing your days here are quickly coming to a close and wondering if it will all feel like just a dream when you return to the U.S. Like saying goodbye to fellow PCVs… friends you’ve made along the way who, too, have changed you in unforgettable and innumerable ways. Like the indescribable transformation that happens within. Like the robust gratitude you come to know because of all of this and more. You cannot be a PCV and not be changed. Deeply.
And there’s more to leaving than these mental and personal growth pieces. There are the logistics with the office:
Three months before your service ends you have a Close of Service (COS) conference, held with staff to help you prepare for wrapping up your service and returning to life in the U.S. Ours was held in August over three days, an exercise in reflecting on our service, managing the final three months of work and relationships, and looking ahead to the next chapter. We thanked our fellow PCVs in the group with whom we’ve shared deeply over the past 27 months. We talked resumes, job searches, graduate school, travel, dreams. And it was here we learned that there is a long checklist of things to do before you are permitted to leave the country: you must decide on your after-service plans (will Peace Corps handle your flight home or are you traveling a bit and will organize this yourself?); there are final reports to write, outlining and measuring one’s experience and outcomes, evaluating the community and providing lots of information in the event there is another volunteer; you must have exit interview; you must empty your bank account; you must write your job description outlining your experience and skills gained to prove you did this epic thing called Peace Corps; you decide if you want to have a language interview to determine your proficiency in either or both languages we speak here – Spanish or Guarani; you must have your final medical and dental exams; you must decide if you are Swearing Out with your group or leaving early. And more.
And then there are the logistics with my home in site: the details like gauging my food supply for my final eight days without going hungry and without wasting anything. The same for toothpaste, TP, and laundry soap (as important as food!). Paying my final water bill. I’m hoping another volunteer will be assigned to my community when I leave but I don’t yet know. If I do have one, I can leave all of my belongings to him/her (dishes, stove, fridge, work tools, bicycle, books and manuals, laundry buckets, garden seeds, leftover shelf-stable food, etc). But if there is no other volunteer? I must find a home for all of those things in the next week.
And how about what to bring home with me? I have several favorite books, some toiletries and need just enough clothes/shoes for several days and nights of tango dancing in Buenos Aires before heading home. Then there are those things I don’t need for tango but can’t leave behind like my favorite clothes, hiking boots and my machete. I hope these fit in my luggage AND meet weight limits at the airport. We’ll see! Otherwise, I’ve learned that I “NEED” far less than I think I do (lesson 15,649: pack light) and there’s very little from here that I “need” in the U.S. so I decided to have a yard sale to share the extra. This will allow some local girls and ladies to have some super inexpensive, much-needed ‘new’ outfits and shoes and the proceeds will be donated to the school. Today is a rainy day so I’m going to do a pre-pack ‘test’ to see how I’m doing on luggage vs stuff… Stay tuned.
In the midst of those last three months of reports and ‘doing’, you are wrapping up projects, saying goodbye to families, maybe the community throws you a goodbye party (known as a despedida), you are packing up your belongings, preparing your site for a new volunteer (or dismantling your site if you are the last volunteer), maybe planning some after-service travel or setting up job interviews, a place to live, or graduate school applications back home. It’s a busy time with a lot of mixed emotions but after two years as a PCV we’ve learned to roll with this stuff. It’s an exciting, and slightly stressful, time and a part of the journey. I keep telling myself that the most important part is staying present. Soak it up. Everything will fall into place in its own time. And when you ring that bell at the office to Swear Out on your final day, it’ll all have been worth every single moment.