During my pre-service training, one of the hardest and seemingly most necessary things I wanted to communicate to my host family was that I missed home. I missed my friends. I missed pizza and beer as dark as the nights in my new, lightless neighborhood. But the best that I could do after two months of Peace Corps’ astounding language training was tell them, Ma yad garchhu (I remember).
And what do I remember now? Had I changed after two years in that most wonderful and flawed organization? Am I better? Did I climb Mt. Everest? Did I build a bridge with cave-dwelling, sun-fearing villagers? Wasn’t I supposed to be sick all the time? And what about the States? Wasn’t I supposed to realize that, at heart, I too had become a cave-dwelling, sun-fearing villager and could never live like I had before?
I spent my last couple months as a Peace Corps volunteer wondering exactly how correct the Peace Corps’ shrinks would be at forecasting hard times. They told me I’d be sick, which I really hadn’t. I mean, not any more than I would have been if I’d stayed in the States, or if I’d moved to Canada. Yes, I did have diarrhea, but it wasn’t like I’d never experienced that before the Peace Corps. I didn’t need Nepal to get indigestion. As much talk as there was about this, I never got ill enough to really complain about it. Except that one time during the monsoon when it was well over 110°F and the power went out for a couple days.
Which was awful.
I’m still having a hard time looking back at my Peace Corps experience and the very, very strange culture that surrounds it. For me, it was completely unlike anything that I had preconceived. In a country of mud huts with thatch roofs, I never lived in one. In a country of sprawling rice fields, I never spent much time around them. In a country of poverty, I never really experienced it.
Sure I saw it. I passed chilly corpses dead from the night’s freeze. I watched one morning as tractors demolished the shanties I used to pass on my way. I fingered bullet holes in the waiting room of the airport. I heard bombs. I saw the flashes from rifle muzzles in the distance before going to bed. I taught shoeless children and paid half-naked rickshaw drivers. I was mugged and robbed.
But I never really experienced the things that gave the city where I lived, Birganj, its edge. I was always safe, far from the things that really change people. Even when I rode in the backseat of an army captain’s car, his Browning 9mm shoved down the front of his pants, and explaining how not a month ago the Maoists had attack him at this very spot and killed several of his men, even then I was safe.
And I can’t explain why that was.
I was in Dharan, in the hills and far from the flat, dusty life in my city. I was finishing the training that the Maoist-affiliated student union said I couldn’t finish, because they were trying to keep Eastern Nepal closed for some reason, to prove some point, to someone, somewhere. I was in Dharan and I’m thinking about where I’m going to be, what I’m going to do, after Peace Corps.
I was thinking about April, when I would be finishing my service. I was thinking about what it’s going to be like the day after I finish, when I’m done and I go to sleep, and when I'd wake up, I’d still be in Nepal but no longer affiliated with the government. I was thinking about two years ahead. All I was seeing was “Future looks hazy. Check back later.”
The one thing that I wanted to do, though, was to have one last breathe of what I loved about Nepal, outside of what I can get in Birganj. I want to see Birtamode, another flat, dusty city, and remember all the crazy people that flocked to Andrew, a PCV who lived there. I wanted to walk the quiet, almost urban and slowly dying streets of Rajbiraj and remember the street dogs and the Christmases I spent there. During an early morning, I wanted to ride a bus along the quieter parts of the East-West Highway, remembering that not all the trees have been cut. I want to jump off the bus as it pulls into a buspark with rickshaws swarming about, remembering that in such a place, I can be happy.
I remember the first walk through the Birganj bazaar after arriving at post, not sure if I was in an Indiana Jones or a Mad Max movie, but knowing I was going to be OK. I remember my first night in Birganj, staying in such a bad hotel that I even surprised myself. I remember being woken numerous times in a shady hotel in Thailand by roaches crawling over my body. And that had been a vacation.
I need to go to Jhappa and see the green, lowland tea fields one more time. I need to stay a night in Rajbiraj one last time, because I didn’t know that my last visit there was going to be my last visit there. I need one more cold coke on a hot, sticky day. I want more foggy mornings spent over coffee and newspapers. I have to see more smiling faces of eager students—and teachers. I have to experience everything again, so I can remember.
And yet there was no time.
And everything ended with a whimper. I said my farewells to the teachers and administrators at the District Education Office. I have to be honest: they were too thankful. Every month for the last year I was in Nepal, the calendar was filled with blacked-out days due to strikes called by both the Maoists and the political parties. Schools were a top target. I knew the system I had worked to assist was doomed. Still, everyone smiled and wished me luck in the future.
I went to Kathmandu and started the paperwork that would end my Peace Corps service. Then I realized why my whole experience had such a weird feeling to it: the people. Two years it'd taken me to figure out that I living in very strange social and professional circumstances. I had walked into my office and proclaimed with great pride that I was a Peace Corps volunteer, and had immediately gone to work. I had met a couple dozen people one day, and within a week had been holding some girl's hair as she vomited into a toilet, and then laughing as the story was recounted to entire groups of people.
This was not normal. It was, however, one of the best parts of this experience.
I had met my wife in the Peace Corps. She was making a documentary for USAID on development programs in Nepal. A focus of this documentary had been about the Peace Corps. She had been collecting still photographs to use in the footage and was confronted by something she thought was strange. The photos were either of volunteers working in schools, helping farmers, holding trainings, etc., or the photos were of volunteers having parties, guzzling booze, posing in Nepali drag, etc.
I had a hard time sorting all this out to her.
Perhaps I wasn't the best volunteer. I still have strong ties to the country, yes, and I did accomplish some nice things while I was there. But there are just too many memories to sort through, and making a nicely packaged anecdote about my experience has been next to impossible. It was positive. It was wonderful. And I wouldn't have been as successful if I hadn't done it. But what it's like to be a Peace Corps volunteer? I don't have a great answer to that, and I really wish I did.
Because I remember it a lot.