Peace Corps is hard. It’s really, really hard. The recruiting posters claim it’s the “toughest job you’ll ever love,” and until I spent a year in it, I thought the posters just sported a cheesy slogan targeting idealists like me. Turns out it’s absolutely true. It’s 27 months of relationship building, growth and challenges most volunteers probably never expect to encounter. Twenty-seven months of questioning your life choices and twenty-seven months of reaffirming them. And then it ends. I recently discovered that with all the challenges volunteers face during those 2 years, the most difficult one may very well be the goodbyes at the end of it all.
I am currently in Thailand Group 125, and last week Group 124 finished their service and returned home to America. I’m a year away from my own close of service (COS), so it was a strange experience watching the volunteers who helped shape my first year leave Thailand. I was fortunate to get to know several of them through social outings and Peace Corps camps and events. I became especially close to one of my now best friends, Julia, and I was able to share a lot of the COS experience with her. Of course, I could only share so much of it—the surreal emotional overload of it all is something I think can only be understood by someone who is leaving. But the conversations we had definitely made me dig deep into my own experience and examine where I am and what I’m doing here.
I traveled to Bangkok to see Jules and many of the other 124s off at the airport, and the time leading up to it seemed nothing short of bizarre. Watching them go through the motions of packing and parting with mementos and repacking for the one-way trip around the world felt peculiarly detached from reality. Surely we’d all be back in Bangkok or at a camp somewhere in a few weeks! As Julia put it, “This doesn’t seem real.” I listened as one volunteer admitted feeling scared and worried about transitioning back to life in the US. She expressed that she was anxious about the uncertainty of life there, after having finally adjusted to life here. I’m beginning to realize there’s a certain predictability in the chaos here after a while, maybe even a comfort in the simplicity. As I listened to her, I thought, “We read about this.” The welcome packet you receive as an invitee has all kinds of brochures and information, and in one brochure for families, it says that for many volunteers returning home is far more difficult than leaving. I didn’t quite understand at the time how that could even be possible. But after living here a year, and after listening to the stories and seeing the emotional exhaustion taking its toll on the group ahead of me, I get it. Leaving isn’t entirely the fireworks-and-kittens-sliding-down-rainbows event we imagine during the slumps in service. Some of those kittens are crying, some of them are going apeshit, and some are utterly confused by what’s happening. But that’s probably because they can’t fully comprehend what’s on the other side of that rainbow. Yet.
I wasn’t able to photograph the full scope of a COS—I’m sure someone has—but here are a few photographs I shot to give a glimpse into what the last few hours in host country look like. (click on any photo to view it larger)
It’s goofing around in a tuk tuk inside your favorite Bangkok hostel:
It’s finding out that as badly as he wants to, the host father who means the world to you won’t be able to come see you at the airport after all:
It’s getting one last massage in a country famous for them:
It’s getting a little bit pampered before getting on the plane because after 27 months, you definitely deserve it:
It’s sharing laughter with family and friends:
It’s the obligatory airport selfies:
And the silly ones because it’s 3 am:
Seriously, the selfies:
It’s sharing smiles with colleagues…
…and tears with family.
During Peace Corps service, other volunteers become an integral and familial part of our lives, and it can be just as difficult saying goodbye to them as is it to the Thais we grow to love. It wrenched my heart watching these goodbyes…and being a part of them.
Watching your friends go up the escalators to the departure area is heartbreaking because even though it’s not really goodbye, it’s still the ending of an extraordinary path you’ve traveled together and supported each other on along the way.
Watching Jules go up was really, really hard. I had done a good job of keeping it together, but I started cracking when we hugged each other and she stepped onto the escalator. While I tried my hardest not to break down into a blubbering mess in front of her counterparts, I also tried to remind myself that she was going home to family and friends she hadn’t seen in 2 years. It’s an exciting new chapter for her that I’ll get to share and follow, and…
…she’ll be able to send me awesome care packages now 🙂
But seriously, goodbyes are never easy for me, being the deeply sensitive and nostalgic soul that I am. Thankfully I was recently gifted the beauty of “Illusions” by Richard Bach, which includes one of my new favorite quotes:
“Don’t be dismayed at good-byes. A farewell is necessary before you can meet again. And meeting again, after moments or lifetimes, is certain for those who are friends.”
Thailand isn’t going to be the same without Julia, and it won’t be the same without the others who have returned home. As difficult as it is to see a service end, it’s a powerful reminder of the deep relationships we build, the friendships that connects us, and the love that becomes a part of us. It’s also a powerful reminder that life continually moves forward, time keeps charging ahead, and there is so much more living and learning and growing to do–no matter where you are. And when it comes time to say goodbyes, I am reminded that there really is no separation between us and the ones we love.
Here are a few more pics from the night:
(click image to view larger)