“Don’t Kick the Chair”

We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed – 2 Corinthians 4:8-9

This verse got me through a lot of moments in Ethiopia. Never before have I had such a trying experience. Never before have I been adored or hated, based solely on the colour of my skin. Never before have I craved anonymity. Never before have I felt such a need to make a difference.

My time is up; I’ve said my goodbyes. And now I can’t help but contemplate all the things Ethiopia has put me through. The days I couldn’t bring myself to leave my house because I didn’t want to encounter life outside my walls. I look back, assuming I’ll be full of rage, but I’m not. Odd as it may sound, I’m actually glad I went through this. I was tested and learned just how strong I am.

A while back, another volunteer told me that once I leave Ethiopia, the bad things will start to disappear and I’ll only be able to see the positives. Instead, I’m focusing on the positives that came from the bad things.

Never before have I appreciated my friendships as much as I do now – probably because true friendship has been hard to come by here. It’s difficult to have an open and honest relationship with someone when in the back of your mind, you’re dreading the moment when they ask you for something, reveal their true intentions. And while that happened more times than I can count, I am incredibly grateful for the number of true friends I made here, both Peace Corps Volunteers and Ethiopians.

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Saying Goodbyes

As weird as it was saying goodbye to teachers and students a few weeks ago, saying goodbye to my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers has been even more surreal. Especially knowing that I’ll go back to Hawassa on Thursday and I’ll still have another two months here.

Our Close of Service Conference took place May 25th-29th and about half of us are still in Addis for our Post-Peace Corps medical check-ups. The other half finished up before the conference. It’s hard to believe this is already happening. I’ve had so many trainings and vacations to look forward to and to count down to throughout my service, but this is it. I only have one countdown left: 65 days until I fly out of Ethiopia.

The Close of Service Conference was by far my favourite “training” we’ve done with Peace Corps. We discussed our reintegration fears: Will I find a job? How long will it take before I remember I can flush toilet paper? When will I realize there’s hot water…and it will NEVER run out? What if people think I’m weird? What if I think others are weird?

We also discussed different career paths open to Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs)…and got to hear what others had in mind. It was also comforting to hear how many volunteers didn’t yet have plans. My boyfriend and I plan on spending about 3-4 months backpacking in SE Asia, but my life after I set foot on American soil is still a blank slate.

Instead of spending all our time in Addis, which is common for our PC trainings, our COS Conference included a trip to Lake Langano, and not one, but two resorts – though that was due to a scheduling error. We spent our days in sessions and having our final shay/buna (tea/coffee) breaks, and our evenings down at the lake basking in the glow of bonfires. Some goodbyes were harder than others, knowing this was the last time we’d see some of these people in Ethiopia.

I may have two months left, but one of my closest friends has already left Ethiopia, and another leaves next week. And while this is incredibly sad to me, it also makes leaving all the easier. If I stayed, everyone else would leave me behind. So I definitely feel ready to move on. But even with that in mind, I’ve never been good at goodbyes…

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From there to here

As the holiday season approaches, I’ve thought a lot about my experiences over this last year and the events in my life that have gotten me to where I’m currently at…

Two years ago, in December 2010, I had what I thought was one of the worst days of my life. I came home to find my roommates sitting at our dining room table – they told me we needed to talk. The following hour I was given a myriad of reasons why I was a terrible roommate and why they thought it best we not live together the following year. I remember walking away from that conversation feeling a little dejected, yes, but mostly angry. Who did they think they were? Calling me out on my faults without recognizing that they had plenty of their own. And what fueled the fire was that some of their accusations were downright silly, things that shouldn’t even matter or didn’t make sense. I was too upset to focus on their legitimate complaints.

I spent the night at a friend’s and left for Christmas break the following day, taking great pains to avoid seeing either roommate. It was over that break that I decided to apply to the Peace Corps. It was something I had first heard about at the beginning of college and it sounded like such an interesting concept. Living abroad for two years in a developing nation while serving in whatever capacity they needed.

I had spent the previous summer living and studying in Rome and I can very easily say that I had wanderlust. I didn’t want to graduate college, get stuck in a job, and never get out. And that fight with my roommates is what pushed me over the edge. I remember thinking at the time that I had no idea what I was going to do come August 1st. My lease would officially be over at the house, and while I could always move in with other roommates, I would no longer be going to college, and I didn’t know what I’d be sticking around for. So I thought about what I wanted most, and I realized I needed an escape – a fresh start. I applied to the Peace Corps a few days later.

Over the following months, certain people in my life belittled my decision and told me I didn’t have what it takes to be a Peace Corps Volunteer – that I’d never actually go through with it. Which, of course, only fueled my desire to leave and be the best volunteer ever, if only to prove them wrong.

Well, August 1st came and I still hadn’t heard a definite answer from Peace Corps, so I packed up my stuff and moved in with my grandparents. I told them and everyone else that it was temporary. I was going to find some part-time work, just to keep me busy, until I received the letter informing me where I’d be spending the next two years of my life. Only that letter took longer than I thought to arrive.

Months passed, and I was even put on medical hold for three months following my Lasik eye surgery. All the while I told everyone that what I was doing was merely temporary. I was going to live abroad. I was going to change the world. I was going to join Peace Corps. And I said it to so many people, so many times, that there came a time when I realized I couldn’t take it back.

During the year between graduation and moving to Ethiopia, I found a job I loved in a field that I was incredibly passionate about – publishing. But then April 2012 came around and I got the letter: Ethiopia. And I told everyone that it was a big decision, and I needed to think about it, but deep down I knew my decision had already been made. This is what I had been talking about for the last year and a half. If this wasn’t what I had been waiting for, why was I working three part-time jobs and commuting 45 minutes to work twice a day?

I accepted. And I gave my jobs my two-week notice a few days later. I spent all of May getting prepared. I made dozens of trips to REI – a place I had never even heard of before receiving my Peace Corps nomination, but by the time I left, most of the employees knew me by name. I went to Target day after day, always convinced that if I bought just one more thing I would feel prepared. That somehow buying that one additional item would prove that I could do this, that I could be a Peace Corps Volunteer.

And then the time came to leave, to say goodbye to everyone and everything I had ever known. Some goodbyes were harder than others, there was the unexpected realization that most of my friendships would fall to the periphery, and their lives would move on without me. And at that time, I felt like I was making a huge mistake. But I pushed through those feelings because it was too late, and I had already made my decision. So I got on the flight from Minneapolis to Washington D.C. not knowing what the hell I was thinking.

I got to baggage claim in D.C. and the first thing I saw was my friend Nicole. She was wearing a darling little dress and all I could think was yes, this was all worth it because I got a free flight out to see one of my closest friends. It was only afterward that I realized I could have just paid for the flight myself instead of signing up for 27 months of isolation. But that’s not what I focused on. I focused on having the best 24 hours I could with a friend I was going to have to say goodbye to for over two years.

And I did have the best 24 hours. In fact, those hours were so great that by the time we said goodbye and she got in her car to drive away, I felt utterly alone. But then, something incredible happened. I walked back into the hotel’s lobby and ran into a group of volunteers. They were going to lunch, and just like that, would I like to join them? I instantly felt at ease with this group of strangers – something that is very uncommon for me. I called home that night to tell my family that I had found my people. Others, just like me, who were giving up all they had ever known to seek adventures in Ethiopia.

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