I arrived in Zambia exactly one year ago yesterday. In the 365 days that have passed since, I’ve waxed poetic on this blog about everything from poop to big-ass spiders. I’ve even talked about my feelings occasionally, and I’m not the kind of guy who freely talks about his feelings. I’ve tried to be honest, forthright, and sincere. I’ve attempted to share my host country of Zambia with you — its tradition-steeped culture and diverse peoples, its rich and brilliantly verdant landscapes, its remarkable propensity to make you sweat while not moving a muscle. But there’s one big part of my life that I haven’t discussed at length here:
The person I think about most in the world lives 10,326* miles away.
I’ve referred to my girlfriend Sydney several times throughout this past year, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned that it’s not very common to be in a long-distance relationship in the Peace Corps. In fact, it’s rarer than a smile at the DMV on a Tuesday morning after a holiday. The statistics are dire: 90% of long-distance relationships in the Peace Corps will ultimately fail. Only one volunteer out of every ten who fly into country in some form of a romantic entanglement will still be in that same relationship by the time their service is completed.
I’ve seen it borne out in my own cohort: a dozen or so trainees in my intake were in relationships when we first met last February, but by the time we swore in as Peace Corps volunteers three months later most were no longer romantically involved (or were involved with somebody else). There was no rhyme or reason — some of these folks had been in relationships for five years, others had just started dating a few months before we left for Zambia. Two had been engaged. One guy I know deliberately chose not to visit his long-term girlfriend in the States for the holidays because, he confessed, “If I left now, I don’t think I’d come back.”
Peace Corps is well aware of the failure rate of long-distance relationships. The organization takes a serious approach to educating volunteers about the difficulty of balancing a successful Peace Corps service and a romantic relationship, starting with a multiple-page romantic involvement survey in the initial application and continuing with an emotional preparedness assessment during training. During my group’s interview sessions, our deputy director asked every trainee explicitly about his or her relationship status and several of my friends broke down into tears in her office.
I have a love/hate relationship with airports
And the outlook isn’t much brighter even on a more local scale. Though Peace Corps volunteers often date host country nationals and other volunteers — and the marriage rate among returned Peace Corps volunteers is famously high — this belies the fact that most of these relationships ultimately dissolve for the same reasons that long-distance relationships don’t work out: communication challenges, differences in expectations, or two people simply growing apart with the passage of time. Whether your partner is on a different continent or in a different province, it’s not very common for a volunteer to be in any kind of monogamous, exclusive romantic relationship through the duration of their service.
So the general consensus seems to be that serving in the Peace Corps isn’t great for your love life, period. Yet here I am, in a relationship that stretches halfway across the world.
My girlfriend Syd is funny, sweet, incandescently compelling, and way out of my league. I’m the greatest thing the world’s seen since sliced bread (he’s modest, too). But this doesn’t change the fact that we’re facing odds so long federal law requires them to carry oversize flags when traveling on major highways. Each of us has experienced enough of life and love and love lost to not treat casually the potential for heartbreak, and we both walked into this thing with eyes wide open. We each knew that it would be hard in the beginning and get harder as time went on. So what made us decide to take this leap of faith? What’s helped us grow even closer together in the year that we’ve been apart?
Well, we both work on our communication like fiends. It’s a huge cliche that communication is important in relationships, but as with all cliches there’s an element of truth in it (that’s a cliche, too). The parameters of a relationship shift when you’re not able to come home to a sympathetic ear at the end of a long day, when you can’t express how much somebody means to you with a smile or a touch or a glance. So we’ve become masters of the art of verbal affirmation. Misunderstandings occur constantly when you can’t read body language or pick up on subtle physical cues, so we’ve pledged to be open, honest, and direct with how we feel at all times. We’re mutually agreed to be patient, kind, and understanding, and we resolve to approach any issues or challenges that may crop up as a team. We have a tacit agreement to always make sure that Matt thinks he’s funny.
My current live-in partner eats my food, leaves hair all over my house, and never stops complaining
It helps that Syd and I are both at similar stages of our personal and professional development right now. She finished grad school and moved across the country to begin her career at the same time that I was sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteer, so we can each prioritize our individual paths while still commiserating with each other about many of the same things, like being away from family and friends, extreme shifts in climate and culture, and having existential crises in your mid-twenties. We provide each other with a great support system: I’m incredibly lucky to have her unequivocal support and encouragement when my resolve falters, when fish farming meetings fall through and when the kids in my village have been leaving their sticky footprints all over my last nerve. She’s incredibly lucky to be subjected to my running commentary on a litany of probably infected bug bites and questionably unspoiled leftovers.
I worried when I first left for the Peace Corps that having a girlfriend back home would distract or detract from my service, and I was determined to not let this happen. However, I’ve realized since arriving in Zambia that a volunteer’s service doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In this age of global connectivity, life in the Peace Corps is not confined merely to your community at site but is also increasingly intertwined with other volunteers, with nearby expatriates, with that girl you sat next to in lecture fall semester of your junior year who you haven’t seen in six years but whose pictures of what she ate for dessert still pop up on your News Feed. It’s unavoidable. So personal choice comes not in whether or not to have distractions, but in how to manage and prioritize the ones that you will have. Judging from the amount of time my single volunteer friends here spend thinking about and pursuing their love lives, I’m pretty sure that I’m less distracted on a daily basis than they are.
And my life here is fuller than I could have ever imagined. Syd is unbelievably intuitive, uncannily perceptive, and ridiculously empathetic — she inspires me to see my service through a different lens. Her passion and curiosity heighten my senses and inform the way I perceive my own surroundings. Painting a picture of my life for the person in it who means the most to me helps me to notice things I otherwise wouldn’t, to highlight details that would otherwise fall through the cracks of my memory. And these brushstrokes simultaneously shrink and expand the boundaries of the world we share together.
Showing my kids pictures of my umutemwiko ku Amelika
*Why yes, I actually did look it up. According to Google, it’s 619 miles by road from Nchelenge to Lusaka, 9,646 miles by air from Lusaka to Seattle, and 61 miles on I-5 from Seattle to Olympia.