Within the last few days of a 9-week trip around Southeast Asia, on our last long journey on public transportation for a good long while, I wrote the bulk of this post as I reflected on how far we had come-geographically, emotionally, and mentally- since finishing Peace Corps service and leaving Mozambique at the end of November. Alex and I made the choice to take a long trip between the end of service and returning home, and I’d like to share with you a few Smiles and Struggles of travelling as part of our transition.
Re-energizing: When we left Mozambique I truly felt exhausted to my core. Mentally, emotionally, and even physically. Our last two weeks in-country were a blur of grading, packing, goodbyes, paperwork, medical tests…and who knows what else. Oh yeah, and Alex’s bout with malaria ten days before leaving our site. I remember saying at the beginning of our trip that I was glad we chose to travel before going home because I felt like I had nothing to give, emotionally, to people back home right after we left Moz. Although traveling can be tiring, my reserves of energy got refilled during our trip, and I got on the plane home feeling much more ready mentally and emotionally.
Re-connecting: One of the challenges of Peace Corps as a married couple is that, after a while, there is no news. Every day we saw the same students as each other, the same colleagues as each other, and functioned on almost the exact same schedule as each other. In short, by the end of service there were very few experiences that were noteworthy to share with each other. Needless to say, sometimes things like ‘I cut my nails while you were at the market’ constituted as news. Taking a trip was a great way for Alex and I to reconnect over some still shared but new experiences, see a new part of the world together, and ultimately remember how much we love adventuring together.
Gaining mental and emotional distance: This has to be one of the biggest benefits of a long trip right after service, and over a quick chat in Ho Chi Minh City with a couple other volunteers from our Peace Corps group, we discovered the same to be true for them. Comparisons to Peace Corps life and post-Peace Corps life are inevitable as things change in a huge way. Now, we have something in between, a kind of pause, between our Peace Corps chapter of life and our U.S., post-Peace Corps chapter While the comparisons still seem inevitable, things aren’t so stark: Mozambique vs. the U.S ; Peace Corps vs. post Peace Corps. Having gained a whole lot of new experiences during our pause reminds us of the broader perspective that life is a flow, not a ladder, and that our lives and our world are extremely dynamic things. In addition, having some time away from Moz before having to explain the experience to people at home allows for better clarity; two months out, while still a short time, I can ask ‘what’s sticking the most from Moz for me at this point?’ And then I can move from that place when chatting with friends and family at home. Right after service I felt much more overwhelmed at the thought of trying to sift through the details of Moz life in conversations back home. While Mozambique is just as dear to my heart-if not more- as it was 2 months ago, I know that I am speaking from a less emotionally cloudy and confused place after having some time to sift through some of my own feelings on my experience before trying to articulate it to others.
The Culture Cup: One of the things that felt like a challenge during the first couple weeks of our trip was feeling unready to embrace a new culture. This may sound insensitive, and I didn’t expect it to be a challenge. Even though Moz came to feel like home and we had become comfortable with it’s oddities and challenges and joys, I realized when we arrived in Vietnam that my capacity to be excited about a culture I didn’t understand was very low. I kept thinking ‘I just spent 2 years trying to understand a culture that isn’t my own. I just don’t have it in me to try to do it in another place right now. My culture cup is full to the brim and there’s no space for more.’ After time, after I became more generally re-energized, this feeling faded and I became more excited about experiencing more of the culture where we were travelling. Another thing that happened over time was that I let go of the idea that because this culture was foreign it was on the same plane as Moz in terms of what I should know and understand. It took me a while to realize that I wasn’t here to get to know a culture deeply and that that was not even possible in the amount of time we had. The kind of sad truth is that I will probably never do that again. Travel provides us with the chance to catch glimpses of a culture, but it only takes us so far. Once I adjusted my expectation and accepted this fact, I was able to be receptive to any bits of culture that we found along the way.
Staying away from home for longer: While I strongly believe that we made the right choice by traveling for a couple of months post-service, it meant that we were away from most of our family for 2 months longer, that we missed a third holiday season, and a host of other events. While we were lucky to meet up with some family for portions of the trip, the anxious feeling to see others and the somewhat guilty feeling for choosing to stay away longer was a challenge at points during our trip. The fact that everybody in our family was supportive of our decision even if it was challenging for them to wait longer to see us was a huge factor in helping me work through my own hesitations about being away for longer.
Self-care and feeling okay: I knew that this would probably be a struggle going into the trip, because a big part of me feeling ‘okay’ has to do with feeling stable. So, it goes without saying that living out of a backpack for 2 months, at a time that already felt emotionally tumultuous, had its challenges. Again, working through this struggle came mostly with adjusting my expectations. When we left Moz I was holding onto my self-care routine tightly, afraid to let any of it go for fear of feeling totally out of control through this change. After some time, I loosened my grip a little and realized that we were, after all, on vacation and that no matter my routine on the trip, it wouldn’t be the same afterwards as it was beforehand because we weren’t going back into the same day-to-day routines as it was. I was able to find a balance that mostly worked, that included the most vital parts of my self-care practice and still allowed me to enjoy the freedom and flexibility of travel.
Now, after 868 days abroad, we’re back home in Colorado, working through this change one step at a time, realizing that 50 degrees no longer means what it once did, and starting to catch up with all the people we’ve missed.
Until next time!
Meant to fill a void I have observed in the Peace Corps blogosphere, this series will address personal elements of life after earning my ‘R,’ a designation that changes a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) to a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), after 27 months of service. Look for posts that answer common questions, address elements of transitioning back to life in the U.S., and reflect on Peace Corps service.