Two years ago today, 3 October 2012, twenty-two eager Americans landed at the Accra airport in Ghana at dusk to begin a twenty-seven month commitment to service with the United States Peace Corps.
As we disembarked, the hot stifling air smelled burnt as it filled our nostrils; it was explained to me that Africans burn all of their rubbish and their crops as well, thus the burning smell. We were whisked through customs and our yellow fever vaccinations were checked. The customs officer told me I was a beautiful woman with a beautiful smile and I questioned whether I had beautiful yellow fever clearance as well! In DC, we were warned over and over again not to allow anyone to take our luggage or whisk us away unless they were Peace Corps staff members who identified themselves as such. A tall imposing white man met us at the luggage carousel and corralled us all together ensuring we had all of our belongings. I stayed as close to that man as possible as we pushed and shoved our way through the throng of taxi operators, baggage handlers, airport workers and swindlers all trying to grab us for business.
We loaded all of our luggage onto a Peace Corps truck and filed into a bus waiting for us. Plantain chips, peanuts - which we soon learned were actually called groundnuts in this country - and pineapple juice were handed out to us as snacks while a police motorcade led us to a nearby university where we would stay for the first five days before going to live with a home-stay family in the Eastern Region.
At the university, I roomed with Nancy, a girl right out of college from North Carolina. Most everyone in our group of twenty-two were right out of college or graduate school so they were all still in their twenties; one man was sixty-eight; and I was thirty-five years old - stuck in the middle. I was afraid that I would be deemed the “old lady” as jet lag knocked me down right away and I took naps whenever I could catch a few minutes in those first few days. I don’t remember what preconceived notions I had about Ghana or Africa, but I certainly was not expecting to be chilly once the sun completely set nor did I expect to drink hot chocolate before bed and don a sweatshirt in which to sleep that first night. I even covered up and snuggled into the airplane blanket I swiped from the Lufthansa flight!
Now two years later, we are a group of only fourteen as eight people had gone back to America before the end of their tour for various reasons. I am now the oldest in our group; I have risen in the ranks a bit to become a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader and agreed to extend my twenty-seven month commitment an extra six months or so. While at times, I am completely exasperated by the drama of the twenty-somethings, most of the time, I feel much younger than my thirty-seven years because of them. I had always felt like I missed many university experiences because I was suffering from the grief of losing my sister during those years but I have been able to create some of those lost university moments here.
Two years later, I am not afraid and I know how to handle and negotiate the airport, tro tro and bus station vendors grabbing at me. I still drink hot chocolate when it rains or the temperature drops below eighty degrees and don my fleece jacket as well! I still snuggle into my Lufthansa blanket and always travel with it on the overnight buses as the air conditioning is too cold. I’ve become so accustomed to the temperatures of the north which are often in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit that I do not even use the air conditioner which is provided in my bedroom as I find that to be too cold as well!
Peace Corps has been everything I thought it would be. I loved the remoteness of the village in which I was placed and would not have changed locations. Peace Corps was the highest of highs and sometimes the lowest of lows. The time has passed by quickly yet sometimes so slowly. I neither have regrets in joining Peace Corps nor do I feel like I wasted the last two years of my life as some of my other colleagues do. I have learned so much about myself and I have a new perspective on so many things. These are all things, I believe, I could have only learned while living abroad.
Two years ago today, 3 October 2012, I came with a positive attitude, a sense of adventure and a willingness to commit to something wonderful. I was excited to learn to live simply without electricity and running water. I knew that after my time here, I would be a changed person and that I would get so much more out of this than I could ever give back to the very people I had come to serve.
I know what led me here to Peace Corps. I was in a rut; going through the motions of day-to-day life merely because that is what I was supposed to do. I was also still suffering heart ache after a painful break-up with the man whom I still believe to be “the one.” I was miserable, angry, depressed; I hated everything and everyone, including myself, my job and even where I was living. I did a lot of soul searching and self-reflection - asking myself what makes me happy? Why did I want to become a lawyer in the first place? How can I get back to being the me I used to be? I needed to climb my way out of the hole in which I found myself. I don’t know whether I believe in a God but I was at such a low point that I was willing to try anything that would help me. I asked God, the universe, Allah, my sister or whoever watches over me to guide me. I learned to listen to those beings, whoever they are, and came to believe that I was not in charge of my life; trying to dictate my own life’s path had made me miserable. If I were actually in charge of my own destiny, I would have been living in Germany, happily married to my now ex-boyfriend. So I threw up my hands, turned off the “cruise control” my life had been set to follow and let my life go where it was destined. Peace Corps kept popping up and it took many years and several times for it to pop up before I realized I should look into it. As was my personality then, I researched everything I could about Peace Corps and I decided I would apply. If it was meant to be, it would be.
I only truthfully explained my reason for joining Peace Corps to several people while to others I merely laughed and called it a mid-life crisis - though I seemed to have been having a mid-life crisis every few years or so since I turned thirty! (At age thirty, I got a tattoo and went to Las Vegas for my birthday; at age thirty-three, I took six weeks off work to go on “walkabout” in Australia; at age, thirty-five, I applied to Peace Corps and I went on a fifteen-day hiking trip through Patagonia knowing that the day I returned, I would require ankle surgery, etc.) With Peace Corps, I jumped, applied and was accepted into service…though the process was hell, taking more than one and one-half years from the start of the application to arrival in Ghana. I was challenged on every basis: I was being sued at the time so I could not obtain legal clearance; I required a multitude of medical check-ups and clearances for conditions I had not had for years before I could finally be medically cleared as well, including two rounds of physical therapy for my ankle. But in the end, I just trusted that I was supposed to be here - this was my destiny, my “calling.”
I left America with the intention that I would never return to my former job as a lawyer in Buffalo, New York. As noted above, I hated it, the location and everyone there, including mostly myself. I also believed that whatever force brought me to Peace Corps would also lead me out of Ghana to a new job - that I would be “called” into the next chapter of my life as well and I would follow that. Following my recent Close of Service conference, however, and with many of my new Peace Corps family members returning to the United States next month, I haven’t a clue what I will do after my service ends here in May 2015. I am still waiting for a sign or my next “calling.” I want something to fall in my lap with a sign on it that says, “This is it, Cory! This is what is next” because I can sometimes be that obtuse.
I feel lost, anxious and scared. I know I am at a crossroads, but it is not a T-junction where I either choose “this way” or “that way.” It is a crazy, confused, intertwined junction of possibly eight hundred different paths from which to choose. And I am extremely terrified to make the wrong choice.
I am considering extending my service here even longer as a PCVL; there is an opening in Peace Corps Ghana as a paid Volunteer Support Assistant; I’m researching positions in other Peace Corps countries as a paid employee as well as with United States embassies in other foreign countries. Perhaps I will take a Round The World (RTW) trip or go home and travel around the United States with my parents in their camper-van for some time before I take my mother to see Hawaii as I promised her at Christmas! I also dream of one day opening a doggie daycare facility which would also offer holistic veterinary services and sell organic dog food while providing assistance in dealing with food allergies in dogs. I may re-enlist in Peace Corps and choose the country in which I want to serve this time or I could become a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in a country of need for a shorter period of time. I could apply for employment with the United States government given my non-competitive eligibility status due to my Peace Corps service or work for an NGO dealing for foreign aid or working in developing countries. The possibilities are endless - obviously, this is why I want the sign in my face to tell me what to do!
Additionally, the life of a lawyer, returning to my former job in Buffalo, has surprisingly become appealing, much to my own chagrin and shocking to others who knew me when I left. After Peace Corps, I have a new perspective on it. Perhaps, I will never be truly happy with the actual job, but I now appreciate the other benefits which come along with the job which are absolutely priceless:
At this crazy junction of possibilities, it is also not lost on me that I will be leaving Ghana at the age of thirty-eight so that perhaps I have closed off or at least significantly narrowed some possible paths - like marriage and having children. The funny thing is, it took me coming to Ghana to learn not to be frightened of marriage and raising children; it is here that I truly realized that I want those. I was previously turned off from marriage and motherhood because of most of my former co-workers. I recall crying to one of the partners in my law firm that I didn’t want to have children because I thought it meant I would have to own a mini-van, go on trips to Disney World, put my children before the needs my own marriage and my husband and to be miserable and bitchy like they all seemed to be. She helped me understand that I have always been completely different than those women in my law firm and that I would be the same with my children - I would throw my children in a backpack and take them hiking or to some other worldly destination; it wasn’t a requirement that I take them to Disney World or other stupid amusement parks and throw them into dance lessons at the age of two! There are a few good role models for the type of marriage I want and I need not be afraid that I will fall into the trap of “keeping up with the Joneses” as others.
While I am still hopeful that I am not yet too old to “back” my child for a walk in the woods or through the streets of Buenos Aires, I hope in the meantime while I am waiting that I do not become one of those people I despise:
I know that my therapist would tell me that perhaps it is time that I stop running from what I really want because for some reason I fear I don’t deserve to actually get what I want. Ironically enough, time and distance has not changed my belief, my hope that I can still obtain the life I had wanted all along - to be happily married to the “one” in Germany. Maybe. Time will tell. However, no matter which path I choose, I know that I cannot go wrong. What was meant to be, will be. There will be no mistakes but merely life lessons to learn along the way instead. Even if I do choose the wrong path, the right one will plop itself underfoot when the time to do so is right. It is in this I must trust and I shouldn’t be afraid anymore.
Henry David Thoreau
Hub: Second Hand Lions
Text message from fellow PCVs:
"I read what you said in this month’s newsletter…I liked your article about the 100 things you liked most about Ghana. It lifted my outlook about life here right at this point in my service…I’ve had a tough month, so it reminded me of the little things that I forgot to notice. Like the time when my alarm clock was a baby goat that squeezed onto my veranda. I filmed and narrated the ‘rescue mission’."
"Okay…I just got around to reading the October newsletter (don’t judge me) and your article totally made me cry. I even re-read it and highlighted the things that applied to me. So I just wanted to say thank you for that!"