In Honor of Peace Corps Service

September 2, 2015, I become an RPCV
September 2, 2015, I become an RPCV

By the time you read this, I will have about 90 days remaining in my Peace Corps Service, a period of my life that will amount to 1186 days when I finally board my last plane out of Moldova this coming September. Because, no – unlike those volunteers who wax rhapsodic about the attachment they have to their country of service and make passionate promises about returning again someday – I can honestly say I do not intend to ever come back here. I have too few years left and too many other destinations piling up on the bucket list. And 39 months has given me sufficient time to feel as if I’ve truly plumbed what life is like here.

Now that social media, blogs, and other online forums like Medium and Quora have provided the platform, it has become increasingly de rigueur for volunteers, as they near the golden threshold represented by that most hallowed of Peace Corps acronyms, “COS,” to reflect back on the ups and downs of their service to distill the essential wisdom hard won from the experience. Akin to making every graduate a valedictorian, the internet allows us to pontificate our particular distillations without concern for their interest or relevance to our readers’ lives.

I had not intended to fall victim to this particular pomposity; in many ways, I have been concerned over the past year that my blog attempts had devolved into navel-focused meanderings through my own emotional landscapes. I quit writing so much and tried to pay better attention to living in the moment, to accepting that there would be ups and downs, sometimes many within one day, and that taking the time necessary to record any particular episode only anchored me in the perpetual-passed.

I am breaking with this intent, however, because I want to ask you – you – to do something for me. Or not for me, exactly, but perhaps in recognition of the price I paid – that all international volunteers pay, whatever program may sponsor them – by spending a significant chunk of time serving in a foreign land, away from family, life-long friends, and other emotional support systems. I ceded a great deal of control by becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer – control over my living conditions, my work environment, and my social context, while simultaneously relinquishing basic freedoms and amenities that I had taken for granted since leaving my parents’ home and becoming an adult so many years ago. In ways too numerous to count, living as a dependent alien in a host country has been a bit like returning to the roller coaster of one’s teenage years. Angst-filled, existential concerns are suddenly teeming like slippery silver-fish again within your brain:

Am I good enough, smart enough? Do I have the requisite persistence, drive, ambition, self-esteem? Will I fit in? Does that person like me? What did I do to make her mad? Why won’t they talk to me? Why is everything so hard to understand? Why can’t I seem to do anything right? Where is my meaningful impact? My noteworthy project? My sustainable program? My definitive success?

And while no single explanation can encapsulate why some volunteers make it through their service while so many don’t, I suspect that it is the psychological, not the physical, challenges that take the highest toll. Peace Corps is not so forthcoming in their recruitment efforts about the astounding rates of early termination (ET) from some countries. One of the biggest accomplishments that many of us celebrate is actually making it to our Close-Of-Service date. (For example, Moldova has roughly a 42% ET rate: two of every five volunteers leave here before completing their service.) I probably spend more time talking with other volunteers about emotional health issues than any other single topic, and all of us must contend with the sadness and regret, tinged more often than we’ll admit with a bit of envy, which accompanies the disclosure that yet another volunteer is throwing in the towel.

As I begin to pack up my life again, I happened upon the journal that that I kept from 2012-13 and thumbed through the entries comprising my first few months in country. It was unsettling to recall how displaced I felt, how much stress and anxiety I channeled onto the page, how many references I made to missing home, how deeply I questioned my ability to make it for another month, much less to the distant horizon of a second year. My first winter in Moldova was one of the most challenging experiences in my life: I felt exiled, depressed, in physical pain almost all the time (my back! my knee!) and was failing to find any source of comfort in my surroundings.

So the fact that I made it – not only through the requisite 27 months, but for an additional 12 after that – attests to a special element of my experience here, one that made a significant difference in my mental health and the way I have experienced my Peace Corps service since that bleak time. And that element is a vibrant oasis called Rasarit – Sunrise – for which I will make my plea.

Please stay with me here while I present my case…

Sunrise Center, my home since March 2013
Sunrise Center, my home since March 2013

Through a series of fortuitous failures and serendipitous connections, I was transferred from my original site in spring of 2013 to Straseni, a district seat 25 km northwest of Chisinau. I was granted temporary residence in a spacious apartment at the Rasarit Center of the Neoumanist Association, a non-profit that provides residential and home-care services to impoverished and socially vulnerable seniors in the town of Straseni and its surrounding villages. While the tacit agreement was for me to find an alternate residence within a matter of months, rentals within my stipend amount were either non-existent or (in the case of the only one I did locate) so incredibly dilapidated and unsafe Peace Corps would not approve my living there. And I must confess: having spent the entire winter dwelling amongst all my earthly possessions piled within the musty confines of a 10’x12′ spare bedroom that had mold growing up the walls, I was basking in the luxury of having my own kitchen, bathroom, and capacious bedroom, complete with cathedral ceilings and six foot windows. I was loathe to give them up.

But more than the physical issues of space and comfort, I began to thrive in the unprecedented atmosphere of joy and infectious positivity that permeates the environment at Rasarit and its companion program Spectru (Rainbow.) Here, I was being hugged multiple times a day, emerging into a sea of smiling faces whenever I opened my front door, wading through respectful caresses and cheek kisses each time I navigated the corridor. The employees went out of their way to assist me, finding me blankets and cooking implements, relocating furniture and supplying extension cords, inquiring after my mood and health, and (oh Tania!) occasionally presenting me with a piping hot, homemade donut on a Sunday morning. The beneficiaries of the day-care programs, seniors who primarily live alone on a grossly inadequate pension (around $50/mo) have created a strong and abiding community within Rasarit. They sing and dance together, play cards, knit and crotchet, do handicrafts, garden, and watch television. The most obvious quality every visitor notices, however, is the happiness, the laughter, all the brilliant smiles made shinier by golden teeth!

My Rasarit family
Some of my Neoumanist family

I emphatically believe that the beneficiaries and employees of Neoumanist are the reason why I am still in Moldova, two-plus years after that horrifically depressing winter. They brought me into their community, gifting me with a “host” family of more than a hundred members, each one of whom greets me merrily each day and demonstrates genuine concern over my well-being. I can’t possibly convey through words, to them or you, how grateful I am for having had the opportunity to live among them. What I have vowed to do, instead, is make an impassioned request to my friends and family, and to those readers who have followed my journey through all its tumultuous twists and turns to make a contribution to the center in my name, in recognition of both my service and the challenges that accompany international volunteerism in general.

Many of you have expressed to me your support, respect, and admiration for my courage in coming to Moldova and for my stamina in fulfilling my commitment despite numerous setbacks and disappointments. I am fully aware, also, that the particular circumstances that afforded me the opportunity to do this – having no debt or familial obligations or health issues – are definitely blessings that not many people have fortuitously coincide. But to those of you who could imagine yourself doing this sort of thing, given different life circumstances; or to those of you who volunteer less dramatically, but certainly no less effectively, within your own communities; or even to those of you who may have served in Peace Corps or are thinking seriously about doing so in the future, I ask this:

Please consider making a donation to the seniors and employees of the Rasarit Center so that they can repair the roof of the building that is so essential to their thriving, nurturing, life-affirming community. This is the place where many of them receive the only hot, nutritious meal of their day, where they can wash their clothes, take a shower, or receive therapeutic massage, where they feel warm in the winter, stay dry when it rains, and – most important of all – come together in laughter and love, supporting one another in the absence of family members who mostly work in other countries. The current roof is not only leaking, it was built with asbestos-laden materials and now that it is breaking down those materials pose a serious hazard to people who already suffer fragile and uncertain health. It also puts at risk more than 30 employees who provide daily care and treatment for them. (Not to mention any future volunteers who may serve this community.)

This Global Giving campaign was put online at my insistence: the Neoumanist staff responsible for finding funds for projects such as these were not convinced that people in the United States, who have never visited here nor heard about the center and its work, could possibly care about their roof. However, I have faith that there are people out there who care about me and who would be willing to celebrate my successful service by making a donation – in whatever amount they deem appropriate – to the community that was largely responsible for that success. This would mean so much to me. Even a small amount – five or ten dollars – will make an impact, as Neoumanist has been granted a limited trial period on the Global Giving site in which to recruit a minimum 40 one-time donors to its campaign. Having a permanent presence on Global Giving would expand their access to potential donors exponentially and make it significantly easier for the handful of regular donors that currently support their work to make payment (currently these are received by bank transfer.)

For those of you who want to know more, this is an 8-minute video made by a former PCV which shows how the center looked when it was founded and what it looks like today. You will see many of the elderly who attend my English class every Thursday. You will hear from them how much Rasarit means to their happiness, health and well-being. This is the place where I have lived since March 2013 and these are the folks who have been my family. The last line in the video reminds us that “The best medicine for aging people is attention, and love.” I would add that it is also the best medicine for despondent and lonely Peace Corps Volunteers who are desperately missing home….

I know it is common to ask for donations to be made to designated charities in memory of a person who has died. Fortunately, I am not dead! I am happy, healthy, and tremendously thankful to have been given the chance to serve as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer, representing all that is best about my country while living for three years in another nation that has never enjoyed anything close to the same freedom, opportunity, and privilege with which we have been so blessed. So I am asking you, from the bottom of my heart, please show these incredibly generous and warm-hearted people that you are, too, by going to the Global Giving “A New Roof for the Elderly” campaign, pressing the “gift or in-honor of” button on the right, and gift whatever amount you can in appreciation of your country, your grandparents, volunteers who have made a difference in your life, or my Peace Corps service specifically.

You would honor me in the best way possible; I – and they – appreciate so much, whatever you can afford.

***

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/neohumanist?fref=ts

Website: http://www.neohumanist.org/projects.php

Blog: https://neoumanisteng.wordpress.com/

Global Giving campaign: https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/a-new-roof-for-elderly-center/

Leaving Home to Find It, Once Again

Tatiana, one of cooks at the senior center where I live, stops me as I emerge from the laundry room. Her shy smile gleams in the dim corridor, her hands drift up out of the darkness, cradling a piping hot donut. The smell of them has been driving me crazy all morning as it wafts through the weekend-empty center, wreathing my apartment in the smell of yeasty goodness. My refrigerator is bare, victim of a busy workweek and a lazy proprietor; I haven’t had the motivation to get dressed yet, much less trudge to the market. Manna from heaven seals the deal: I am glad to be back home in Moldova.

For a few days, I’ll admit now, it was touch and go.

***

Back in July, the United States had welcomed me back with abundance, diversity, energy and climactic beauty. From the moment my plane touched down, the infusion began: a smorgasbord of food and ethnic restaurants; the physical presence of family and friends with the cornucopia of attendant emotions that reconnecting brings; late-model vehicles that at times, unbelievably, held me, alone; store aisles and city streets and national parks (national parks!) teeming with a vast display of the world’s heterogeneity; background noise that was comprehensible, be it radio, TV, elevator music, or the couple at the next table; and always, everywhere, people smiling, eyes connecting, greetings freely tossed between passersby, laughter shared in lines. I traveled to California, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Ohio, touching down briefly in Chicago and DC; every single place felt like home.

Leaving was rough. Around the second week of September, when the end was in sight, a little pit of discontent nestled down behind my heart. I immediately began to stuff it full of trivial, idiosyncratic goodbyes – so long sidewalks; later labels written in English; bye-bye blasting shower heads; be seeing you housecats, ice cubes, parking lots, landscaping, yummy Greek yogurt – leaving as little room as possible for the murky, seeping melancholia of separation from the meaningful: husband, daughter, grandmother, parents, brothers, nieces and nephews, former colleagues and schoolmates and best friends forever: all the faces who hold my history, reflect my truths and anchor my memories.

When I had first landed in Orange County, my husband called me, his excitement pulsing through the telephone pinholes, raining down like little candy hearts onto my eardrums: “You’re on the same continent!” he raved. “I could walk to where you are!” Understand that at the time he was still 1,800 miles away in Cincinnati, Ohio. But they were land miles. In the event of a cataclysmic, world-altering event, theoretically, we could find each other. It was, in some deeply comforting, inexplicable way, exciting. But now, here I was about to put an ocean and the breadth of another continent between us.

I was casting off again…

***

Arriving back in Chișinău after 15 hours of flying, 7 time zone changes and no sleep wasn’t conducive to a good mood at the outset. But I am lucky to have friends outside of the PC community by this time, so thankfully I didn’t have to wrestle two suitcases and a backpack onto the airport rutiera or pay the exhorbitant taxi fee that is standard fare for foreigners, regardless if you speak the language. A wonderful couple attached to the US Embassy picked me up and we had a great dinner at one of the nicer restaurants catering to ex-pats, ennabling me to delay full re-entry for a couple more hours. After enduring the 30 minute bumper car traffic out of Chisinău into my village, then the cratered dusty road leading to my center, only to find the entry gate locked, however, all vestiges of America had sailed away. Despite three emails and a text notification sent during the preceding 24 hours, I had to initiate a series of relayed phone calls as we stood outside the gate in order to evoke a keyholder from the residential center to let me in.

Since moving to Moldova, I have made exactly seven trips outside its borders. This was the first time I didn’t feel welcomed home. Due to an agreement I made when I first moved in, periodically I must move out of my apartment in order to accommodate specific volunteers who have been friends of the center since its inception. During the nine weeks I was in the US these volunteers visited, so I had had to pack up all my belongings in bags and boxes prior to my departure. Upon my return this time, I was greeted by a bare mattress, gaping refrigerator and larder, empty hangers, and a thin film of dust on the counters. And, in a huge departure from the usual, Buddy and Little Sheba (the center’s dogs) had not bounded out to greet me when I came through the gate. I learned the next morning that they had been summarily eliminated, along with many of the village dogs, during a mysterious night of gunshots for which no has claimed responsibilty or been held accountable. It was all decidely depressing.

And to top it off, I had to hit the ground running. It takes a lot longer than 36 hours to recover from jet lag and seven time zone changes; unfortunately that was all that I had prior to having to embark on a whirlwind schedule of trainings, appoinments, meetings, and my new partnership with Novateca (more about that in another post.) I continued to want to fall asleep at 2:30 or 6:30 (PM) and awaken at 12:30 or 2:30 (AM.) It took eight days to fully unpack and at least ten days for a semblance of diurnal normalcy to find me again. I felt disoriented and uncharacteristically disconsolate, set adrift in a manner I’ve only experienced two or three times in this lifetime. There had been too much warmth and acceptance, conections and laughter, comfort and familiarity, control and convenience, to have it so quickly snatched away. This time there was not the excitement of the unknown to bouy me; the adventure had already been had. My fellow M27s have, for the most part, moved on – to graduate school, extended travel, career track jobs, marriage and babies. My footsteps echo in a hollow space.

***

But let’s not end on such a somber note. Today was the first day since I’ve returned that has been totally mine. I had nowhere to be and nothing I had to accomplish. I got some laundry done and cooked up a pot of beans. I am writing on the awesome new laptop which my generous husband paid DHL a dear amount to deliver safely to me; I’ve spent the greater part of the day poking around her menus, caressing her touch screen, and courting her thinly veiled charms. The cool of autumn is gilding the leaves red and gold outside my window. It is 46 degrees and I’m beginning to don the layers (93 degrees in Huntington Beach today – are you kidding me???) And a sweet angel gifted me a homemade donut when I was hungry.  Already, again, this foreign life is settling in around me, becoming home once more.

Year three and counting….