It’s 4am, and you’re laying awake in your old bed in Mom and Dad’s house, too wired to continue sleeping. In just a few hours you will hop on a morning flight out of Fresno-Yosemite International to begin the first leg of your journey to Zambia to start your Peace Corps service; your mind is racing with a thousand different thoughts and feelings as you try to make sense of it all, to know what will happen. For a guy who doesn’t often experience emotional turbulence, it’s a strange sensation.
I know we’re not the biggest fans of unsolicited advice, but since your insomniac ass is trapped in bed for two more hours while my long-winded rambling ass is sitting in my hut with rainclouds looming and a full charge on my solar battery, this is just how it’s going to go. Relax. Don’t worry about it. I’ve seen how it all plays out, and everything is going to be more than fine.
You tear up for the first time since receiving your invitation to Peace Corps as the uptempo bass of Shakira’s Waka Waka pulses through your headphones. You feel ridiculous, a grown man of 24-nearly-25 experiencing a distinctly and embarrassingly emotional reaction to an overplayed commercial pop song. And yet you can’t stop picturing parting ways with Mom and Dad just an hour ago at the security checkpoint, catching your last glimpse of them waving through a glass door as you trudged off toward the boarding gate. It could be the last time you see them for two years. You don’t know then that you aren’t just saying goodbye to your parents, you’re saying goodbye to an entire way of life. With the only way of life you have known up until now. You don’t know then that this will be the last time you will cry for the next two years.
You meet a tiny, vivacious girl from Texas at baggage claim at Philadelphia International who is barely taller than the giant backpack she has somehow managed to wrestle off the revolving carousel. You get to chatting and find that you are instantly bonded by your excitement and anticipation of joining the Peace Corps. You contemplate telling her about the Waka Waka episode. You decide not to, figuring that this is the type of oversharing that is Too Much, Too Soon. You don’t know then that she will eventually become one of your good friends, that you will travel on an international vacation and help produce a volunteer-run newsletter together. You don’t know then that she and several others in your friend circle will eventually come to hear the Waka Waka story anyway, and that although they will find it hilarious and tease you uproariously, they will understand perfectly how you had felt because they had all felt the exact same way.
You bound down the stairs to the hotel lobby early the next morning with a folder under one arm, balancing a cup of coffee as you greet flustered-looking travelers burdened with mountains of luggage. You correctly deduce that they must be fellow Peace Corps invitees and you offer to help them carry their bags up to their rooms after they check in, chatting with them the entire time and trying to find out their entire life stories in five minutes. They are a bit taken aback by this level of energy at 7am, but not as much as you are. Even though you are extremely introverted by nature, your entire decision to join the Peace Corps was fueled by a desire to break out of the mold that you’ve been forming for yourself ever since you realized that getting good grades and keeping your head down were the key to a peaceful prepubescent existence. So with this in mind, you have resolved to channel the stores of projected extroversion you typically reserve for networking at work conferences and ingratiating yourself to a girlfriend’s mother. You don’t know then that this is going to end up being great practice for when you will greet men, women, children, and terrified little babies over and over again during the next two years. You don’t know then that your friends will later chuckle at the recollection, telling you that at first they assumed you were a Peace Corps staff member, and then later that they worried you were going to be one of those people, the ebulliently and annoyingly extroverted camp-counselor types that everyone else wants to bop over the head with a two-by-four.
You walk purposefully along the disheveled line of bleary-eyed fellow invitees sprawled across the floor of the International Departures ticketing plaza of JFK not quite 24 hours later, waving your camera up before you like a peace offering. You are recording video of everybody’s responses to your made-for-Peace-Corps-propaganda query, “What are you most excited for in the Peace Corps?” and you doggedly press forward despite knowing that more than a few of your fellow invitees wouldn’t be opposed to bopping you over the head with a two-by-four right about now. You coax and cajole and wheedle, assuring them that they all know they’ll want to see this video again two years later when they finish their services. Everybody gamely participates, and their answers run the gamut of responses from things like “helping people” to “playing with children” to “discovering more about myself.” You don’t know then that six of the people in this video will no longer be in Peace Corps when you all reconvene for your Close of Service conference two years later. You don’t know then just how much these answers will change over the course of those two years.
You touch down in Lusaka the next day, stiff and jetlagged from 17 hours of flying and a few more hours of waiting in airports. This is the farthest you’ve ever traveled in your life. It’s hot and muggy, but the sky is blue and past the runway everything is verdant and green. As your shuttle leaves the airport, you pass people walking along the side of the road balancing baskets and buckets and branches on their heads and you make a mental note to yourself that you’re not in Kansas anymore. You don’t know then that you’ll spend so much time over the next two years sitting and waiting and sweating and holding in bowel movements in cramped and muggy and noisy buses that you will be immensely looking forward to a nice, air-conditioned, personal-entertainment-system-right-in-front-of-your-face 17-hour flight. (With a bathroom!) You don’t know then that two years later you’ll still look around and marvel at the sky and the trees and the people and the fact that this has been your life.
You lucky bastard, you’re about to embark on the greatest journey you’ve ever had. Yes, you’ll have more ups and downs than a newly hatched butterfly trying out its wings for the first time in the middle of a breezy summer afternoon. But, rather like that butterfly, you’ll also experience an ethereal sensation of a new world opening up before you, a world bright and colorful and intense and real. Being a Peace Corps volunteer truly is the hardest job you’ll ever love. And it starts: now.
Your older, slightly grungier, hopefully wiser, and definitely more charming and handsome self,