No, I will not be announcing here that extraterrestrials have set up camp in my dulap de heine in Stauceni. Nor have I been transported to another world by way of Moldova’s unconventional transportation system. In Peace Corps lingo “ET” stands for ‘early termination,’ which means that a PCV’s service ends – for whatever reason – prior to the standard 27 month commitment we all make. In the last week, three COD PCVs from the M26 group voluntarily ET’d for personal reasons. It happens so quickly that it takes your breath away and has left the collective mouth of our little group of temporarily reunited COD M27s slightly agape.
It is not my intention to name names or describe the specifics of these three PCVs’ circumstances. I was fortunate to have spent extended time with two of them and all three were significantly involved with the M27s as trainers and mentors. Through accidental circumstance, I had the opportunity to talk with all three as they were contemplating their respective decisions; I witnessed the intense, drawn out deliberation in which they each, in their own way, engaged. It was definitely not an impulsive or reactive move for any of them. However, most of the other volunteers in my group did not get that window into their motives and were left shocked and awed when their departure was announced by our program director at the start of a training the other day.
In some ways, I don’t know if it has made it harder for me to have talked with them about what they were thinking and feeling prior to deciding to throw in the towel. They all had very legitimate, substantial issues that fed their ultimate conclusions. Two of them had significant others that were waiting patiently for them at home. One of them had chronic health issues that had plagued her throughout her entire service; one had recently developed a puzzling problem with her heart. One had gone without water in her village for almost three months during the height of the summer heat. (She had to buy water to wash her dishes – needless to say she was NOT getting regular bucket baths or hair washings.) There were issues with partners not participating in partnership, organizations that had drifted without purpose, communities that were disengaged or insular and unwelcoming.
But despite this, these women (they were all female) kept trying. For 15 months they gave it their all. They greeted the M27s with enthusiasm and verve. They put their best foot forward every time they saw us, not wanting to mar our experience or influence our perception of what Peace Corps service can be. They were so successful at accomplishing this that many of the M27s were left a bit bruised by their sudden disappearance from our lives: how could they have fooled us so completely? How did we not see it coming? If it could happen to them, the tenure of anyone of us becomes a legitimate question mark for the future.
The Peace Corps is surprisingly, almost cathartically efficient, with early terminations. Once you announce your intention to quit, you are sent packing within three days. There is little time to say goodbye, to have “closure” with people, to tie up all the loose ends you will be leaving behind. Perhaps they are smart to do it this way. Once you realize that “ETing” is possible, it is suddenly a presence in your day to day life, looming off your shoulder like some doppelganger Grim Reaper, threatening to undermine your determination and snatch you out of the small circle of routines that you have managed to draw around yourself which sustain the illusion of purposeful, progressive action.
Coming together again for PST III has dealt an unplanned, somewhat unwelcome, blow to the burgeoning stoicism of many of us. We were just beginning to tread a groove, incorporating the small tricks of successful integration – greeting the vendors at the piața, learning the names of the children in our apartment block, familiarizing ourselves with the drivers of our local matrushkas, preparing American meals for our host families, recognizing the intonations of our coworkers’ speech patterns. Then – bang – we’re suddenly back at the beginning again, returned to the families and locals where we first landed as naifs in Moldova, faced with the discomfort of knowing we’re not the same people anymore, that time moves on without us, seasons change, relationships stretch and sometimes sour, and even those that remain are tinged with bittersweet. This is transitory. And now three seemingly permanent fixtures of our experience here have evaporated overnight. Nothing can be counted on, really.
One thing I am coming to understand is that – despite over 200,000 people having served in the Peace Corps to date – there is no standard “Peace Corps experience.” Even within the environs of a tiny village, two volunteers will have two very different experiences, comprised of a unique amalgam of program, host family make-up, counterpart investment, health issues, relationship and family circumstances back in the States, purpose in being here, age, emotional proclivities…I could go on and on. There is no way to pick out the qualities of a “successful” volunteer or predict who will make it through 27 months of service and who will decide to leave prematurely.
It used to drive us crazy when we would ask our mentors for specific advice during PST for integrating successfully or making it through the winters or motivating our partners or learning the language or adapting to the different foods, or coping with the lack of adequate sanitation and the inevitable response was ALWAYS prefaced by “It depends….” Everything depends here.
One of the ET’ing PCVs sent all of the M27s an email just before she departed from the Peace Corps offices to board her plane back home. It was very long and heartfelt; one sentiment stood out for me:
“You each will likely face challenges and moments when you want to scream, laugh, cry, dance, give up, sing, and push like you’ve never pushed before. When you feel those emotions, follow them. The most important part about my Peace Corps experience was getting to know myself better and learning my limits, despite how well I thought I already knew them. I encourage you all to be open to all the adventures you will face and not to be discouraged by anyone else’s Peace Corps experience, including my own. At the same time, knowing yourself is also knowing when it’s time to walk away so if and when you ever feel like you’re time as a volunteer is done, I encourage you to see past the guilt and appreciate your experience for what it was.”
I had never contemplated, before now, the idea that my service could be successful if I did not make it the entire two years. That is part of the challenge that I posed for myself in joining. And I still fully intend to see it through. But it is unnerving to realize that very strong, dedicated, and capable people have chosen otherwise. Many of them, in fact – the statistics are about 30% of any given group does not make it to the end of service. I had read this before I came to Moldova, but I didn’t understand the full impact of what it meant when you actually know the people leaving and understand their reasons, when you can feel their reasons beginning to take hold within your very bones some days.
Peace Corps service is hard, but it’s hard for each person for a different reason. So while we serve together, we are also alone on our own separate journeys, testing our own limits, stretching to surmount our own barriers, defining our successes in a very personal way. Somewhat like running a marathon with a team, each person’s ability to go the distance is his or hers alone. I cannot lend strength, or fortitude, or persistence, or happiness, or the ability to ignore a crushing pain to someone else, no matter how hard I wish for them to succeed.
So being together again in Stauceni and knowing that these one or more of these eight people that have shared this absolutely unforgettable and unrepeatable experience with me may not be here next year is a sobering reality check. And they may be looking at me and wondering the same thing.