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.
Feeling still in very emotionally close proximity to Mozambique and Peace Corps Service, I want to start this series in the most objective way that I can think of: by addressing a question that has come up a few times already in the ten days since we left Mapinhane, our Peace Corps site for the past two years. It’s only appropriate that this post comes exactly 2 years to the day since we arrived in that little town in southern Moz, sweaty, naive, and maybe even ready to change the world.
The question is: How was leaving?
Pause. Let me first apologize for how melodramatic the short answer will sound. If you take away anything from this blog series, let it be that the short answer is difficult to formulate and sufficient mostly for a moment of small talk, but will probably bring very little understanding. But here it is.
The short answer: The most similar feeling I have had to this was the feeling I have had after someone I knew has passed away.
The next question then becomes: So, why do I say that leaving Mapinhane felt similar to how I have felt after someone I knew had passed away?
The short answer: Because of the realization that I will never ever have that again in any form.
But to contradict that: That statement seems obvious enough, and even similar to how other moments of change might feel:
‘I am moving houses; I realize that I will never have this house, this view, these neighborhood sounds again.’
‘I am changing jobs; I realize I will never have these coworkers, work environment, schedule, students again.’
‘I am moving cities; I realize I will never have these restaurants, views, vibes, friends on the day-to-day again.’
So, this feeling of something never being the same as it was in that exact time in life is starkly universal; everyone has faced big changes.
I had those above-mentioned realizations about leaving the physical house: I will never again wake up to the sound of women raking dirt outside our window pre-dawn. I will never again open my eyes to the early-morning sun shimmering through the little holes of our mosquito net. I may never again feel the near-constant presence of students all around the neighborhood and I will never again see my students 7 days a week, at any time of day, in any dress, for any reason that arises in their life-including but not limited to: charging their phone, asking for water, needing advice, oh, and schoolwork occasionally. I will never again open the front door and say ‘Bom dia’ to our nieghbor Cristovao across the way, watering his garden at 6 a.m. as he blasts the morning news from his TV inside. I will never again deal with bats falling from the ceiling. I WILL NEVER AGAIN visit the dreaded communal bathroom. I will never again find solace in the coolness of the cement floor on a 100+ degree day. I will never again walk out my front door to get mangoes from the tree, and out my back door for limes. I will never again brush my teeth under the stars every night.
I had those realizations about leaving the job: I will never again have the stimulating challenge of working with no more than chalk and a chalkboard. I will never again reside in the place between the blurred lines of teacher/mother/big sister/friend/ counselor to my students. I will never again read books to 3rd graders in Portuguese. I may never again encounter 3rd graders who can’t read, or hold a pencil. I will never again have a class size of 50. I will never again (hopefully) storm out of a classroom in a moment of complete rage about the chaos surrounding me. I may never again work with girls so under-served that speaking quietly to the floor is the norm. I may never again work with girls that have such a unique combo of toughness and lightness in their spirits. I may never again teach English to a uniquely dedicated group of rural adults, or see these people that came to be our closest friends.
I had those realizations about leaving the town: I will never again walk a sandy path between peanut fields to go to my outdoor market. I will never again sit in Marcia’s storefront, sharing stories, seeking advice, peeling the spines off pumpkin leaves. I will never again see the same form constant life, colors, and movement along the side of a two-lane highway. I will never again walk around to shouts of ‘Teacher Cecelia’ from inside tin buildings, the shouter obscured by shadows. I will never again buy beer and soda by the bottle, and be trusted to return the empty the next day. I will never again have a bread lady. I will never again eat really quality grilled chicken at a truck stop/the only restaurant in town. Let me be straightforward, as a Coloradoan, I will never again see so much black skin on a daily basis.
Let’s dig deeper than saying tchau to a house, a town, a job, those things that were the threads of daily life. Let’s talk about saying tchau to the fabric those things were all woven into.
I had realizations about leaving the culture: I will never again be told to ‘help myself’ from any plate a person is eating from. I will never again be asked by someone I don’t know for money, my clothes, that banana they just saw me buy, an egg, water, gum…or anything else. I will never again turn a ten minute grocery shop into a 2-hour-long opportunity to catch up on the news of everyone I know, daily. I will never again receive an extra tomato or handful of peanuts for free, just because. I will never again be considered ‘disappeared’ if I don’t see someone for 1 day. I may never again wear a capulana, wrapped perfectly snug around my waist. I will never again be met with shouts of pure joy and disbelief for greeting someone in their local language. I will never again be referred to as ‘big sister’ Cecelia. I will never again function in at least 2 and up to 3 languages on a daily basis. I will never again (hopefully) be so unable to express anything more than thoughts on the weather as I was in the beginning. I will never again have the strangely wonderful feeling of constantly hearing a local language, and revel in the freedom of not understanding what is being said around me. I will never again pilao peanuts, ralar coconut, or make true Matapa. I will never again be surrounded by women always singing softly, children so wild that if I can only hear them I often mistake them for animals by the sounds they make, and men- the ones that were what I was told to expect, with their relentless harassment, and the ones that, sadly, weren’t what I expected with their unending kind spirits, forward-thinking, and bottomless work ethic. It will never again be appropriate to spend hours chatting under a tree, in the middle of a workday. I may never again have people that knock on the front door just to say hello, or to offer me things from their garden.
Are you still able to draw connections between this move and any other? Are you still able to feel like you’ve experienced these ‘never agains’ as well, albeit with different details? This is a good thing, a way for you as a reader to understand, a way for me as a writer to normalize it for myself and for you. I hope you can draw connections between this change and changes you’ve had; that’s how understanding starts.
But what I want to do now is get into an uncomfortable space, a space where those connections may not reach.
This change is different because of the sheer quantity of individual elements involved; Picture this: if house, town, job, day-to-day stuff, sensory stimulus are the threads and culture is the fabric then leaving is grabbing a frayed edge and pulling until it all unravels, and what’s left are two threads, 2 elements still in place.
I can think of only one other moment of change even close to- but still less- the level of intensity of this change, and where the only things that remained the same were the presence of one person (my lovely husband Alex) and my ability to do things to take care of myself.
That moment of change was when we came to Moz. So why was leaving so different than coming? For the sake of not getting too much into that, let me give you the short answer: in coming to Moz, life in the U.S. was put on hold, in a way. What I mean is that leaving the U.S. came with knowing that we would one day be back and that our life would once again contain some elements of what it contained pre-Moz. Leaving Moz is much more final; life will never again contain tmost of the elements of life in Moz.
This is why leaving Mapinhane was followed by a certain type of grief, an uncomfortable feeling of irreversible finality, the unraveling of a tapestry that can never be recreated to look exactly how it looked, even if some of the threads come back into our lives someday. In this way, there are parallels to how I usually feel right after someone I know has passed away: I feel a huge loss in my life, but at the same time a gratitude for what I had. I feel a flatness, a difficulty in being excited about what’s in front of me without feeling like it’s a strange form of betrayal to what’s just passed. I trust that something will remain, but I don’t know yet what it is.
Whether or not this resonates with other Peace Corps Volunteers, or other readers, I can’t be sure, but for me, this change can’t be processed with only the tools used to process change. It has to be processed with the tools used to process loss too.
Based off of past experiences of change and past experiences of loss, I know that this specific form of discomfort will pass, or will maybe come and go in waves. Lucky for me, Peace Corps taught me how to sit with pretty extreme discomfort, and how to view it as a sign of impending growth.
So, the question now becomes: What remains? When a person changes their hemisphere, time zone, continent, country, town, home, language, diet, routines, habits, job, and friends all at once, what remains?