A Protracted Expanse of Ocean

Sometimes I feel that being a Peace Corps Volunteer feels as if I am hand-delivering piles of bricks across a muddy riverbed to provide a community with the means to build. It’s as if I am carrying the weight on my shoulders through a thick mud. To me, this mud I must trod through everyday represents the all-encompassing and foreign culture of the Philippines. As a Peace Corps Volunteer working at the community-level, I carry my load brick by brick. Over time I can see the buildings getting taller and taller, though there will never be enough bricks with which to work.

Having a sitemate, another volunteer so close in location, not only makes that burden feel less light, but it provides one with another understanding ear to vent to when being here gets so tough. It feels as if we are carrying that load of bricks together, mutually dragging our feet through the mud, reciprocally complaining about the ache we feel in our backs. Only we can know that ache, and only we can feel the gluey profoundness of the mud we trod through daily. The bonds that we form here are strong. When no one around you can understand the mud you walk through every day, the ones that can, become almost like a necessity to you. At times, their presence feels much the same way that the radiating warmth of simple sunshine on one’s skin feels after an enduring depression.

Suddenly, there is one less body with which to share the load and the weight drops down heavier on our backs in the dense lethargy of the long path ahead of us.

Molly fumbles for words, “Uh…I’ve been dong a lot of thinking…I’ve been feeling very sad. I’m having a hard time getting myself out of bed lately…and I think… I’m going to go home…” She trails off, waiting for response.

There is a long pause as Sammy and I struggle to understand what she means. In my head, my initial reaction is, ‘Well, ok…so you can go home for a vacation and then come back after summer when school starts up again.’ But something stops me from saying it. I look at Sammy and I can see that we both are struggling to strip down the layers of denial immediately forming. We both know what she means. Early termination- a word that all PCV’s dread.

“I miss Baker….and I’m think I’m going to get married…” she trails off.

Silent until now, Sammy shrieks, “But Baker is coming in June!” Angry tears burst from her piercing Chinese eyes. When she cries, all of her great intelligent strength, all of her great affirmative energy comes drip, drip, dripping down her face. She cries with such a deep ache; her intimation is fierce.

She stares long and wide-eyed at Molly, and says, “But you’re giving up?!”

Molly is speechless, no match for the fire in Sammy’s dark eyes. Molly has lost much of her conviction, though she struggles to get it back both with the resolution of her words and with her encouraging smiles. She struggles to convince us that she has made the right decision.

In the head of every Peace Corps Volunteer, there is a little voice in the back of our minds that rings like a distant bell. It is the one that says, ‘Maybe you can’t do this.’ It is the one that we learn to tune out. During the first few difficult months overseas, its ring is a statement, a troublesome resolution. As the months wear on, the bell becomes more like a question, ‘Maybe you can do this?’ It is a faint doubt that begins to quiet and vanquish itself over time. But for some, the process is reversed. Over time, that voice in their head, that ringing bell, just becomes louder and louder as they realize how much it really takes to sustain oneself here.

We all came here with illusions. Our illusions were grand dreams of humanitarian aid; our illusions were strong gestures of love to strangers largely unaffected by our cultural boundaries. Now that we can feel the heaviness of the bricks that we carry and know the density of the mud we trod through, we accept the load we must carry, the setbacks, the toughness of it all. Our illusions become goals, and the new illusion which replaces it becomes an illusion of failing, of going home.

For Molly, the dominos were stacking up day by day. Everyday, she continued to fight, but the dominoes of her growing unhappiness continued to build until the initial investment she had in her service her was but a faint memory. With every conversation with her boyfriend, her attachments grew closer to home; her longing grew stronger for a place thousands of miles away.

After so many months spent here, the journey back to the United States lies across a protracted expanse of ocean. That ‘home’ is a place that is still conflicted, a place now much more altered by the perceptions we have gained here. For Molly, the dominoes finally fell, she put down her bricks, and she once again packed her bags to begin again, a new life.

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.