The Walk Home (an essay for the Peace Corps Peru magazine)
Two years ago, I was packing up my one backpack and purple suitcase with enough
socks and underwear to last me for two years, when a package arrived from a good friend
and past traveling partner. She wished me good luck in my service and included a quote
from the Sufi poet Rumi that goes: “Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone
for others. Unfold your own myth, without complicated explanation, so everyone will
understand the passage…” It was a tender time when I couldn’t predict the future, and
these words gave me faith that I was going to create something uniquely my own. Now
as my service comes to an end, I’m sharing my own particular myth, because I believe
shared experience is one of the most powerful forms of comfort in times of both joy and
pain. So here is my myth, my uncomplicated version of a very complicated two years of
Peace Corps service.
To simplify a bit, I want to use two analogies. The first one is in the shape of a path.
After four months of living in the bigger city where I was placed, I decided that I wanted
to live in a smaller town while continuing to work with my original counterpart. I moved
out to a casario and surprisingly, found that what excited me most about the change
was my thirty-minute hike up and down the mountain each day. From the city, the path
goes through a small housing division, crosses a bridge, and up a steep hill. From the top
of this hill you can see all of the eucalyptus trees filling the quebrada and the random
dotting of my neighbors’ cows out to graze. I walked this path in rain, sunshine, slopping
through fresh mud, flirting with shy kids, yelling at territorial dogs, and racing the
encroaching dusk to arrive home before complete darkness fell. It gave me a chance to
walk and converse with my neighbors, and also to reflect on my experience.
Things change in this life, sometimes slowly and sometimes quite suddenly. In my two
years here a lot has happened. I stopped working with my counterpart, found strings of
other opportunities, forged new friendships. I abandoned some friendships, fell in love,
had my heart broken. I missed home, felt disconnected from home. I was alone, people
visited. I was a failure; I was a smashing success. The emotion was different each time I
walked home, but the path never changed. It was humble when I was proud. It was solid
when I was shaky. In fact, I could leave the city in tears and just the action of walking
home could soothe me back to myself.
As Peace Corps Volunteers, you are rarely going to have the same mixture of emotions
twice. You are going to have to accept failure even though we were all raised to
constantly succeed. It’s going to be hard at times. My advice is to find a path that is
sturdy and constant and to walk it often. Find whatever it is that gives you comfort,
because we should never forget that being here is just as difficult as the job slogan
Take comfort from the fact that I have never known a bad PCV. Everyone does it her
own way and everyone has changed his community for the better in some way. Take
comfort from there being no food so bad that aji, limon, and canchita cannot make it
better. Take comfort in playing volleyball with the kids and in people laughing at your
jokes. Take comfort in the natural beauty that surrounds your home. Take comfort from
people in your community who are grateful for your presence, but know that at times
there are no words to say thank you, no matter what language you are speaking.
The second analogy is an earthquake. For the past two years I have lived on top of one
of the biggest fault lines in the world. The first fact I ever heard about my site was that it
was rebuilt after being buried under a torrential mudslide caused by the 1970 earthquake.
So, naturally, I spent some quiet nights in bed thinking about what it would be like when
the ground started shaking again and what it might sound like to hear it echoing through
the valley. I thought about where I would run and if I would have time to put on shoes. I
waited for that rumble that meant something huge and unchangeable was rushing toward
me. Of course, nothing came.
I think I can relate this back to my own growth as well. Before I left the States, maybe
even as I was reading my friend’s letter, I was planning on coming back a changed
person. I was ready to have a defining experience that would give my service meaning
and prove that I had metamorphsized into a better, more selfless person. Two years later
I am still here and shivering to stay warm at night and very definitely still the person that
I was when came here, only a bit stronger and with a larger world view. Right now, I see
that I never needed to change. I just needed to see myself for who I really was, outside of
my culture and my comfort zones.
I realize now that grand experiences and revelations rarely announce themselves so
dramatically. Instead life and learning and growth happen slowly and it’s only after a
period of time that they add up enough to be noticed. All of these sweet exchanges and
small triumphs, the stuff you can’t find a place for on your quarterly report yet know are
important somehow, form together and give your service meaning. I now see life to be
more of a system of cycles dotted through with funny occurrences, rather than a life that I
am building from the bottom up.
It seems to me that the wider my eyes are open to the realities of this world, the less
sure I am of everything. I think that is okay. The ones who are quick to answer usually
don’t know that much. I’m satisfied to take a curiosity in it all and notice all the beauty
that I can. It’s been two years living in the mountains through happy and sad times and
great friendships and lots of time to think about things. Yet I can’t separate out very
much. All I can say is that it has been a lot of experience. As the poet Rilke writes, “Oh
not because happiness exists, that too-hasty profit snatched from approaching loss, but
because truly being here is so much, because everything here apparently needs us, this
feeling world, which in some strange way keeps calling us.”
Life called, I answered, or so that old Peace Corps myth goes. And now it’s calling again.
Although I’ve spent many days wondering what it would feel like to really leave, I never
thought this time would actually come. I’m walking home and the path is swallowing
itself up behind me and the earth is quietly rumbling all around. I am changed and I am
myself and all I can say is thank you for everything.