The clock ticks on, quietly. It’s always been ticking, stealthily, month by month, but I haven’t heard its song until now. It’s beckoning me home with an inescapable, mechanical persistency. The end begins to resemble the beginning, as a thrill saturates these quiet fears of mine, and conviction reigns amidst a familiar uncertainty. But when will that moment come? When will that calming realization embrace me, as it did before? That recognition that one life has utterly run it’s course, and with no regrets, I can look to the dawn. I still have a purpose here. I’m reminded of it by that never-ending ruddy groove crawling down the road, a little further every day. I am making an impact. I have never questioned that. But in time, will I forget? I will always remember the people I have met here, and the work that was done along this journey. But will I forget to live?
I used to complain that the hardest part of life in my campo was that I had to spend most of these two years apart from almost all of the people that I wanted to spend time with. It took me the greater part of a year to find even one real friend here. Although I still want to be around the people I love more than ever, and almost all of those people are not with me most of the time, I realize that I am no longer lonely. In fact, I have forgotten how to feel lonesome, although I’m alone. I was forced to adapt to the silence of an empty house, night after night. Silence is no longer pain, and a night by myself is no longer wasted life. The two hour silences of candlelit chess games with Octavio are calming rituals. I look forward to them as I used to long for the satisfaction felt after a dizzying night of emotion filled faces, swirling across the dance floor. I know how to spend an hour sitting in a hammock watching my dogs play, without a single conscious thought entering my mind. It’s meditation. I have learned to love reading. Writing, however, is not silent. It’s a conversation overflowing with unspoken words. A person who can not be at peace in silence does not know what peace is. Perhaps I’ve finally learned? But will I forget when this all fades? The world back home moves so fast, will I get lost in the blur?
Almost all of my graduating engineering class will live to become successful professionals, with spacious offices, juicy incomes, with increasing power and responsibility each year, because that is what is expected of privileged people in wealthy areas. I may very well end up the same, because the gravity of our own culture shapes our personalities in a way that binds us to them. We are expected to not squander the gifts we have, gifts that others have been born without. We know that the only responsible thing to do would be to multiply our gifts. I’ve had friends tell me that they couldn’t understand how I could spend two years in the Peace Corps, away from our professional opportunities, because these two years were so critical to our futures. He was right, these two years are critical to our future, but I disagree with the phrase that was used to describe my choice, “a waste”. He’s a good friend, but we saw the world with two completely different lenses.
We must not waste the gifts we are given, but who could deny that our most precious gift is our life, our freedom, our ability to choose our path, our happiness. The beauty is that our happiness calls us all to many very different places, to do many very different things. But few have the courage to even realize what that their own happiness is, for fear of where it will take them. I realize that I have a choice. I could spend the entirety of my life away from conformity, away from the camouflage capable of dissolving our creativity like acid. I don’t have to choose those things that our culture showers upon us, things that get outdated, things that break, things that enslave us as we try to sustain the unsustainable. If I find that I’m not fulfilled in my new life, what will I do? I want to go home, but I don’t need to anymore. I think there is a place for me there, so I will go. Confidence shepherds me today, a confidence that the sun always rises. But tomorrow, will I forget that I am free?
Of the 40 of us who stepped out of the plane on February 29th, 2012- 34 stand together at the end, but all of us are changed. This past week, we joined each other for our Close of Service (COS) conference. This was our last official gathering before we go our separate ways. When I entered the swanky hotel where our COS conference would be held, and saw the ceviche at the free buffet, I realized that this was more than a conference- it was a celebration. It was a heart-felt thank you from the Peace Corps staff, and a congratulation, in an effort to compensate us for our bouts of parasites, and our sad dances with Dengue.
After three days of meetings and reflection, we were loathe to part with our hotel cards- our passports to comfort. On our way back to those ancient cobbled streets in the capital, I was transported back almost two years to the day, to a group of pensive eyes looking away from the airport. It was the same guagua, filled with the same luggage and faces, cruising by the same endless ocean blue. And there were palm trees saluting the sea, just as before. But they weren’t foreign. They weren’t exotic. They were just trees. Then I realized that faces around me were not the same as before. Life had left its signature on our faces, where lines had been forged by hot rays, and laughter, and sometimes tears. Will I remember how those lines were forged? Together.
Our last farewell party was spent at the deputy chief of mission’s mansion in Santo Domingo. His name was Dan, an RPCV from Bolivia, and the second most powerful person at the American embassy. From looking at where he lived, you would never guess that he once lived on a shack on a mountain in Bolivia. His lavish home was serviced by a personal security guard, a chef with a classic, poofy white hat, and a few maids wearing black and white dresses, just like in the movies. His words of wisdom to us were powerful. He spoke of how he often wished he was back on his mountain, but how we shouldn’t worry about what’s next in our lives. Take our time, he said. Don’t worry, everything will be ok. Although his words were simple, the empathy in them made his short speech one giant, verbal hug.
The weekend whisked Kati and I away to our well explored paradise, the Samana Peninsula, to sharpen a few underdeveloped diving skills at the End Of The Road in Las Galeras. New faces had appeared at the Dive Shop, including Aaron, a friendly, relaxed guy with an innate ability for teaching. We were going to focus on buoyancy control with Aaron, off of the La Playita beach. After only half an hour, Kati and I were floating with our fins at the surface and our heads just inches above the sand, using just our lungs to float up and down. We were ready to go down, deeper into the bottomless blue.
There was a shipwreck beneath us, an 80 year old mystery, whose name and story were buried in the sand. Where men once walked upon its deck, thousands of fish had made their eerie home. It was a freighter, 200 feet long- not the dinky little fishing vessel I had envisioned. My eyes followed the rope that was guiding us down into the murkiness, but all I could see was more blue, and we were already very deep. From the moment we were under, we became the only three people who had ever existed in the world: Kati, Aaron, and me. Memory ceased, and the adventure began.
About half way down, I had a sobering experience. The increased water pressure had suctioned my mask uncomfortably to my face. As I began trying to equalize the pressure, water began filling my mask. I’d been trained well, and knew how to take off my mask entirely, put it back on, and empty out all of the salt water just by blowing my nose and tilting my head upwards. This wasn’t a problem, just an inconvenience. I knew that just because your eyes are stinging, and your nose is surrounded by water, that does not mean that you are drowning. You just continue to breath like normal with your regulator, while you fix the problem.
Unfortunately, every time I emptied out the water from my mask, it kept filling with water within a seconds. I cleared out my mask a dozen times before starting to get frustrated, and thinking about the surface. Any questions I had for Aaron would have to be explained via underwater diving sign language. I cleared my mask, and pointed at it as water began seeping in once more. As I held on to the rope with one hand, and blindly tried to empty out my mask with the other, I realized that Aaron had written me a note on his tablet. Tilt your mask down. The bottom of my mask had basically been touching my nostrils. After completing the dive, Aaron later told me that he was sure I was going to give up and swim to the surface. I’m not stubborn, just persistent. Oh, and shipwrecks are really cool.
The wreck was so big that you couldn’t even capture it all in one view. The deck was buried in the sand, and most of the ship’s base was covered in barnacles, swarming with schools of Snapper. The top of a large smoke stack had broken off, and was pointing upwards to the surface, filled with all sorts of unknown tropical fish, exploding with vibrant colors. After looping around the hull, we looked up and saw two massive Barracuda lurking above everything. They must have been the size of me! I was a little on edge when I saw their spooky outlines, but afterwards I was amused to find out that one of them had a name- Eric. The best part of our dive was when we swam through the wreck, passing beneath the deck and the sand. We had a roof over our head for about a minute, and I was sure that I was dreaming. I didn’t linger to peer into the hallways, and cavernous, murky voids around us. I was focused on making it through, and letting Aaron know that I was down to a quarter tank of air, so we must begin our assent soon. After all, we were guests in Eric’s all you can eat buffet, and he had a guest visiting.
Never in my life have I thought that I would actually swim through a shipwreck 60 feet under the waves. It was certainly the most surreal, dare I say, magical experience that I have had in this country. And what would I have to show if confidence was a stranger to me? What would I have gained if the risks intimidated me? That night, I sipped a mojito with Kati and a few other friends, on a cliff face restaurant overlooking the bay. Where others saw a beautiful sunset beyond the mountains, across the rippled bay- I just marveled at how will hidden the other half of heaven was.