1 year, 2 months, and 14 days ago, I ate a tomato and onion pizza for lunch at the Coast Guard Headquarters along the Potomac River, where my dad had spent the past decade working. I had spent most of the morning’s boring hours just feeling anxious. I passed the time by meeting my dad’s coworkers, drinking very strong coffee, and exterminating the poorly hidden muffins from the lounge. Afterwards, my dad drove me across D.C to Georgetown, where he dropped me off at my Peace Corps staging event, held in the same conference hall where, four years beforehand, I had won a garter toss, and given the best man speech for my older brother’s wedding. As I was arriving to the hotel, I could feel my stomach churning, the pizza tried to pry my mouth open to redecorate the car’s interior. I remember every little inane detail about that Tuesday morning, because it was the first day of a new life.
In my first hour with my training class, I believe I had memorized close to 30 out of the 40 volunteers’ names and faces. The first new face I met was Kati’s, standing in the sign-in line- damn her teeth were white. The staging event was a long, vain attempt to give us an idea of what to expect in the DR. It was an exhausting day, and our alarm clocks were buzzing at 2 in the morning, so early that we weren’t actually tired. The tiredness overtook us as we waited for hours in the airport, and as we fought to stay awake on the plane so we could stare out the windows. My first thoughts after arriving were how beautiful the palm trees looked along the waterfront, and how I would barely notice their beauty upon my return trip to the airport.
In these 15 months, I have bathed in a shallow creek bed several hundred times, actively ignoring how many chickens and pigs were upstream of me. I have had to Skype with friends back home by candlelight on numerous occasions. I have eaten over 150 pounds of rice, and passionately despised each and every grain. I estimate that I have carried over 400 gallons of water to my house up a 40 foot vertical climb between the creek and my house. I have fallen down that slope at least seven or eight times. I have killed a tarantula with a machete, but only chopped my foot once. I pretended I knew what I was doing when I was making the design for the village water system, and feigned confidence giving orders during its construction. To date, we have around 4 kilometers of pipes in the ground, two pipe bridges constructed, an intake structure, and a sedimentation tank. I don’t think I have ever accumulated so many unique, valuable experiences and wisdom in such a short period of time.
Alternatively, I could have spent those 15 months in a more traditional way. I estimate that I have successfully avoided 12 hours a week of rush hour commutes on DC’s infamously clogged roads. 12 hours of driving each week for 60 weeks is 720 hours of my life, a full MONTH of life, that I did not spend in a car, cursing the red tail lights in front of me. I escaped 60 full, 40-hour work weeks that I avoided, a full 2400 hours not spent in an office, three months of life, not trying to force myself to stay positive about my work. Three full months of life not wondering when I could quit my job and do something I really wanted to do with my life. Instead of earning $60,000 selling my soul and happiness to an engineering cubicle for 15 months, I earned and spent $4,500 of my volunteer stipend. Maybe if I earned a little bit more I would buy a couch, nice beer (oh wait, they don’t have that here), a monthly internet plan, paint my house, or learn to scuba dive. I can’t think of anything else I would want if I had the extra cash. In my mind, the $60,000 I could have earned would not have been worth 720 hours in rush hour traffic, 2400 hours in a cubicle, and sacrificing a dream. I believe most of us would agree that the things that make us the happiest in life cost very little or are free: friends, family, a night out once a week, a nice beer, running water, TV, gas money… What we don’t spend immediately, we invest for retirement, money to support kids, money for a nice vacation, or a nice house. None of that is what we actually want- it’s an illusion. We don’t need friends, we need time with friends. We don’t need money for retirement, we need time to reflect on life, we don’t need money for kids, we need time with kids. Time is all that we need, and sometimes we have less of it than we think, but we work away, dreaming of those moments when we will have time to do what we want.
I have no regrets with my life thus far, especially in the last 15 months, because I have had a surplus of free time. In that time I have perfected my Spanish, seen beautiful beaches at no cost, wooed a lassie, and tried to help some forgotten villages. With that said, I am dying to come home. I miss time with family and I miss time with friends. I can’t lie, I’m planning on taking three hot showers on my first day back, and telling the server at the fancy restaurant that I want the most expensive thing on the menu. I miss spending time with people my age, so badly. I won’t mind a break from the awkward silences in conversations with ancient, toothless farmers who grew up using torches instead of flashlights. Can you imagine me watching Game of Thrones with them with a few brewskies? I am positively ecstatic to go home. Rather than spending a full paragraph explaining how excited I am, I’ll just show you in person on Thursday.
I have been in a little bit of a psychological slump the past few weeks, that coincided with one-year in country mark. I guess I realized how long I’d been here and become aware how much more time is left. I miss socializing with the people I want to socialize with. For the first time in my service, I have actually admitted that this is indeed a sacrifice. I am happy to admit however, that I am out of my slump. The realization came to me on a particularly fantastic day.
The day started with a meeting that I had coordinated with all the foreign aid workers in the Cotui area, so that we could spend more time together as friends, and work contacts. After all, we are all working towards the same broad goal- development. In attendance were four Peace Corps volunteers, three Korean KOIKA volunteers (Korea’s Peace Corps), and two Japanese JAIKA (Japanese Peace Corps Volunteers). All of us have similarly structured programs, and are at various points in a 27 month adventure in the Caribbean. We had lunch in a Peruvian restaurant with two Dominicans, while the Peruvian owner who I played soccer with once, cooked us filet mignon. Two new arrivals (one from Korea and one from Japan) could barely speak Spanish, and didn’t speak any English. My heart felt for them because I know exactly what they were feeling, even though we couldn’t communicate beyond smiles and the occasional translated questions. I had called the meeting so that we would not feel like a disconnected group of foreigners working on individual projects, but realize that our scattered lives have been running parallel for months, and it was time they collided. Aside from making new friends, I received promises from all of them to help me out with the UVA students when they arrive in June, in case I need to be in two places at once.
It was a rather inspiring, and annoyingly productive start to my day. In the afternoon, I participated in one of Dos Palmas daily, heated volleyball games, which have been the new rage for the past 2 months. Afterwards, several muchachos came to my house to play chess. They have been coming off and on for the past two or three weeks, and now can play full chess games while I cook, and I only need to come in to resolve minor disputes every now and then. The day ended with two long chess games with Octavio, while we sipped on the leftover whiskey that the Canadians had left me, along with a bag of dried squid. We joked around, got overly philosophical, discussed questions of the heart, and each won a game of chess. By the end of the night, I felt extraordinary. I had spent an entire day surrounded by people that made me happy, and they were all part of my community in Cotui and Dos Palmas.