Peace Corps Part Deux!

Dear Guinea,

Is it too soon to say, “I love you?”  Because I kind of think I …might.  How’s that for commitment? 

But can you really blame me?  Don’t play the fool, Guinea, you know you’ve been doing your letter best this whole time to persuade me of your affection.  Strutting your bright colors and vivid smiles; greeting me on the streets with genuine affection shining in your eyes.  Don’t tell me you do that for all the new guests, it just might break my heart, but that’s just your kind nature.  All the more to admire.  Tell me you really mean it -that your languages will soon be gliding off my tongue and your people will accept me as Sister.  I sort of liked you from the moment I awoke.  The night I arrived I was pummeled by your humid, dripping, heat; the two days of intermittent sleep made me wobbily and dizzy, but perhaps I really was swooning.  Yours is a rough and rugged beauty of someone who knows how to work and who’s nature shines through.  No, but that morning, that morning when I was greeted with a bean sandwich–a delicacy I knew, but somehow you made it your own.  Well, I kind of felt at home.

So here’s to us!  Here’s to you and me and nine beautiful months of projects, accomplishments, and friendship.

Yours,

Elizabeth

You know when you plan something for the future, part of you kind of thinks it won’t actually happen?  I do.  Every time.  I somehow convince myself that time will sort of bend and keep me perpetually preparing.  When I was 12, I heard of the Peace Corps.  I told myself I was going to do Peace Corps.  I told everyone I knew I was going to do Peace Corps.  And then last year…I did Peace Corps.  Not only did the time come, but, more surprisingly, it went!

I never really figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up.  When I was really little, I was going to be a singer.  Like, a really famous singer.  I was going to do duets with Eric Clapton–that kind of singer, okay?  Well, one problem with that:  My biggest fear of all is singing in front of other people.  My throat closes up, and the throat plays a pretty big role in singing, for all of you non-singers.  So, okay, not so much a professional singer, but a doctor.  Yes, a doctor.  The problem?  I faint.  I faint a lot.  The sight of something that belongs in the body outside of the body; or the sight of anything that should never be in a body, in a body, well, I collapse on the ground.  As far as I know, doctors need to be conscious to be truly effective.  So that’s out.  Lawyer?  There we go!  Non-profit lawyer.  But, man, the bureaucracy!  The burn out.  The student debt!  Yeah, that’s out.

I always just assumed, took for granted really, that the next step would reveal itself to me “in the Peace Corps.”  Like it was some kind of magical realm where I would discover myself, or to be honest, I would be transformed into the person I wish I was.  And that didn’t really happen.  Not in Cameroon.  Don’t get me wrong, I grew so much.  I’m so much more the person I want to be because of my life in Cameroon, but I still felt rather directionless, as if so many possibilities felt so tangible, so desirable.  If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you may remember my Tell All post right before my Close of Service, Liz: Full Frontal.  It was a very honest self-evaluation of my service.  I admitted to not measuring up to my ideal, of making mistakes, of not risking enough, while at the same time being everything I could at that time.  Well, on Friday, this Friday, I’m moving to Guinea.   I’m doing Peace Corps, again, as a Response Volunteer for 9 months.  I know that this experience is completely different from my first two years with Peace Corps; my expectations are realistic, and yet, my hopes, well, they’re limitless.

Perhaps part of me is seeing this as my second chance.  My second chance to be and do something amazing, but older, wiser, learned, to hit the ground running and fully allow myself to integrate.  I commit, this time, to hand over myself to my new culture completely.  I feel so ready this time in a way that I couldn’t have been before to let down the walls that I have cemented around myself for so long.

I’m also sort of freaking out.  But that’s okay.

I have a friend who is moving to China today.  I’m reading her blog posts and her Facebook statuses and I’m so happy to know I’m not really alone in these feelings.  Our experiences are different, but I bet our anxieties are rather similar.  It’s nice to have a sense of companionship, even if it’s just in your head, to get you on that plane.

I met a new friend last week.  I really opened up to him, and he said, “You know, Liz, seeing you online with your adventures and the things you’ve done gives you an image of fearlessness, but talking with you in person shows a more vulnerable side.”  I was really opening myself up and showing my fears, my anxieties, that are constant, believe me.  Pretty much anyone who has spent time with me in person knows that I have really bad vertigo, but like to hike–even if it means having three panic attacks on my way down a mountain and yet will jump out of an airplane with hardly a second thought.  You can ask my friends, I was cool as a cucumber.  It’s very paradoxical, or maybe I’m just crazy.

I get so scared of doing things.  It’s not as bad as it was when I was younger and felt nauseated about going to school every morning, afraid of making a fool of myself, afraid of getting in trouble, afraid of…being noticed.  But inside there’s this really intense need to see what else is out there.  Need to know what I don’t know.  Need to feel, touch, smell, taste it, live it.  I’m not entirely sure if it’s a healthy need, but it’s my need, and it’s stronger than any amount of fear or any Vagus nerve reaction, so this is my life.  Right now.

I listened to a really great story this morning from The Moth called “A Crushing Connection”.  In it, the guy, this adventurous guy who hikes and climbs mountains and roughs it in the woods all over the world to fulfill this need to connect with life, gets trapped beneath a gigantic boulder.  His legs are crushed and he can’t move.  His hiking partner goes for a search party, leaving him alone for over 24 hours to contemplate his lot.  He describes feeling angry at himself, asking himself why?  Why isn’t life at home enough?  Sitting at home and playing Xbox, watching the game with his mates, why isn’t that enough for him?  Oh yeah, that connection, the need to connect.  And, trapped under a rock in a river bed, he found himself pretty connected.  He didn’t lose his conviction and goes on to be very adventurous.  I loved listening to this story because I ask myself those questions all the time.  When I’m about to leave my home and family and friends to move to a country I’ve never been, with people I’ve never met, over and over again, I ask myself, why?  When I’m having a panic attack at the top of a mountain in Cameroon because the fog has set in and we’re not exactly following the path we came up, and my guy friend has to hold my shaking hand the entire way down, I ask myself, why?  When I’m face to face with hippos, wondering if this is how it ends, I ask myself, why, Liz, why?  Why did you put yourself in this situation, why isn’t the option of not doing these things enough?  Can’t you just get a job and sit still for awhile?  Well, it’s that need.  Seems like after a few months, that little, tiny whisper of a new adventure tickles my mind, then becomes more concrete, more colorful, with time, becomes real, becomes a plan, becomes a plane ticket to leave on Friday.

I’m going back into the Peace Corps on Friday.  My 12 year-old self is ecstatic, again.  I’m going back to Africa.  I’m one step closer to my future, my life.  And that woman I always wanted to be?  I’m already her.

Liz Gets Schooled

Hello, my lovelies.  How I’ve missed you!

I come with, what seems on the surface to be “bad”news.  A couple weeks ago I sealed my beloved Peace Corps Passport, a long with two copies of an application for a visa to Guinea, and four passport photos of yours truly into a UPS 2nd day air mail envelope and shipped off to DC in good faith.  On August 24, I did a routine search through my Spam folder just to see if anything important got sucked into there by mistake, and I see two emails from “UPS” with the headings “Your package cannot be delivered” and the like.  I panic, but when I open the email it becomes obvious to me that these emails are spam using my recent search history to bait me into opening them.  Still, worried, I went to the official UPS site and tracked my package and saw that all was well, and it would be delivered the next day.

I logged off and thought nothing more of it.  Until..

Last Thursday I was sitting in the waiting room of the travel clinic to get my Typhoid “booster” when I get a call from my Response Recruiter, Jill.  She is wondering if I’ve sent my Visa application.  My stomach drops.  Turns out my package was in fact lost.  Remember, my package was not lost when I received those bogus emails, but afterward, and yet here I was calling (harassing) UPS customer service centers all over kingdom-come.  I tracked it’s last known whereabouts in Davenport, Ia.  Kathy, the service rep, was simply heavenly.  I could hear her searching through their “overhead,” but for not.  She does assure me that she’ll do everything she can to find it.

I called Jill worrying that this was going to affect my chances of being a Response volunteer.  She assures me that I will still go, but may have to postpone my departure to the end of October.  I admit, I was very sad for two reasons.  I was so emotionally ready to be off again, and I loved that passport.  This was the passport that I backpacked across Africa.   All those lovely stamps!  I wanted to keep it as a souvenir.  I loved to proudly flip through those pages and look at all my visitor’s visas.  That was an accomplishment I hoped to share with my future children to plant that wanderlust seed in their hearts.  So please, if you are reading this, pray, wish on a star, think positive vibes, cast a spell, whatever that the passport is found and returned to me. Even if I don’t get it back in time to get the visa for Guinea to leave in September, I do hope to have it back.

Now I have begun to make peace with staying State-side for another month, however reluctantly.  I’m trying very hard to change my perspective on this, to be more positive and hopeful that this is all for the best.

Remember in my last post how I was trying to figure out how much to spill in this blog?  (If not, then scroll down).  Basically, I’ve begun to realize that as a writer, you have to make a conscious decision on how much you are willing to give away.  Personally, I would write my entire story, all thoughts, sins, and snarky comments for you to judge, but when your life includes other people you have to be discrete.  My words can hurt them.  That being said, I’m going to try to write simply from my perspective, without crossing any boundaries or embarrassing anybody I care about.  Here goes.

This summer shall forever remain ingrained in my memory as “the Ex Files 2012.”  No, we’re not talking about science fiction, as much as I love the genre.  All I will say that any guy from my past with whom I have held any sort of residual feeling came back into my life and then very promptly became completely unavailable to me.  I tried to maintain active friendships with them, but lines were blurred and feelings were confused.  And now geographically as well as emotionally, they are completely out, for the time being.  It literally happened in such a methodical way that it cannot be a coincidence.  While emotionally exhausting for me to have to say my final goodbyes, it has also been very cleansing.  It is like Life/the Universe/Whom-or-What-Ever has been cleaning house in my heart, making room for something (or someone) truly wonderful so that I can dedicate my whole self, free of baggage.  When I look on this transition in this way, I feel hopeful and…excited.  Possibilities.  Freedom.

Being in Cameroon on my own (which included replacing my shower and the pipes in my bathroom sink, taking care of rodents the cat brought in, and burying beloved kittens) showed me how strong I was.  I could live in a gigantic four-bedroom house in the middle of a foreign country alone, and thrive, even when I would wake up at 3am because of scary noises.  I could do it.  I also survived a dangerous encounter with three hippopotami, went sky diving, and continued to accomplish what I set out to do.  I can look back on these past few years with so much pride, and truly begin to believe in myself, as a person–not someone’s girlfriend or daughter or student, but as an adult.  This is huge.

I am determined to continue to work on myself.  I would love to try to eliminate jealousy, to love freely, to fight and argue in a loving way–without drudging up old resentments.  I’m not sure how, but I think Guinea is a part of this journey.  Also, as much as I was hoping to get out of Iowa and move on with this new, exciting adventure, I’m being given an opportunity to spend more time with my family (even if we’ve been getting on each other’s nerves), to work on my art, to prepare for applications that I am taking with me to Guinea for jobs/opportunities after this nine-month commitment.  The truth is, I don’t think I’ll “come home” again.  My parents are very welcoming when it comes to housing me during my “in between” times, but it’s time I find my own apartment in a new city and really start my life and shed these old dynamics.

So here I am given two gifts: the gift of a cleansed heart and the gift of time with my family.  I will not take these for granted.

People look for signs all the time.  My signs have been so obvious lately that even I can’t miss them.  Every single person I’ve talked to about my experiences have relished in my stories and insisted that I continue on this path.  I’ve been told by so many that I should put off settling down for having more adventures and that “all of that will come on its own time.”  I have to listen to them, these wise men and women.  Deep down inside, I have a slight gnawing fear that I am putting off settling down, have pushed away relationships to pursue a dream.  I’m scared that I will one day wake up and find myself alone, without family, too old to start one.  I think this fear comes from the conditioning we receive in this society to be coupled up.  While I am perfectly open to being in love and being a partner again, for now, at least, I’m content with what I have.  I just read a book called Singled Out by Bella DePaulo.  It was delightful and empowering, and really made me conscious to a lot of my own prejudices.  I highly recommend it.  I will think about doing a full review of it in another post.  But something I took away from it is that women have been taught to have this deep fear of “having it all,” and deep down believe it’s not possible.  It’s time we let go of that fear of future regret and just live as fully and lovely as possible.  I mean, how can you go wrong if you do this?  So, okay Universe, I trust you completely.

All in all, lessons learned:  Trust that the decisions you carefully made were the right ones.  Learn to let go–of resentments, jealousies, people, and yes, sometimes love.  You have to make room for good things to come into your life, and while this is painful, it will be entirely worthwhile.  And, finally, the UPS has way too many passports sitting around in their overhead that they evidently do not return to their owners.

Much love.

Yours, Liz

Liz Does Relationships (and the world-traveling modern female)

Alright you all, I’m about to go down on the dirty.  No, I’m not going to give explicit details from my own personal life (uh, yeah right), but I am going to try to collect and present my observations on love (and lust) for the world traveler in some sort of coherent and meaningful way (if I fail, which is probable, let’s call it well-intentioned ramblings from the Road).

Doesn't it kind of look like she wants to get away?

As far as personal stories go, I will admit to this, that I ended up sacrificing a five year relationship with a great guy to satisfy my own wanderlust.  And I also can say that I believe I made the right decision.  Follow your dreams, or you’ll live to regret it, right?  That’s the adage, and if current pop culture has anything to say (and they’re always saying something), then eventually you’ll end up with both the dream career with the dream partner.   Boy as hopeful as I would like to be, the cynic in me says “not always the case.”

Let’s take the world traveling female, for example (sorry, boys, I’m not going to attempt to write your experiences, and sorry, ladies, because I will attempt to write–perhaps generalize–yours).  At this juncture in my life (I love the word ‘juncture’), I do not foresee “settling down” anywhere in the near future.  And YET! I hold on to the assumption that I will find a partner and be able to have a family–One Day.  But, biologically speaking, I should probably be at least considering that “one day” might come too late and I may find myself ready for the whole family-caboodle, but sterile and ALONE.  After all, as this article from ABC News states,

By the time a woman hits 30, nearly all of her ovarian eggs are gone for good, according to a new study that says women who put off childbearing for too long could have difficulty ever conceiving.

The study published by the University of St. Andrews and Edinburgh University in Scotland found that women have lost 90 percent of their eggs by the time they are 30 years old, and only have about 3 percent remaining by the time they are 40.

And as I am about to turn 26, and wasn’t even planning on beginning to think about having a baby until I was well into my 30s, it looks like I just may be fucked (or maybe I should be getting fucked that is).  I recently had a conversation with a friend, a fellow world traveler but male, who expressed many of my own beliefs about this whole “settling down and having a family” thing.  He said that, basically, he doesn’t feel that marriage is necessary if two people love and are committed to each other, and he’s all for traveling and living the “ex-pat” life.  Men, however, can have children so long as they’re cranking the stuff out (which can be well into their seventies and beyond), do not have to physically carry the baby to term (or breast feed, or feel bloated and fat), and for some reason women tend to go for the older man (even I have been known to have a few hopeless crushes on the balding, bespectacled 40+-somethings), meaning they have it easier if they want to “have it all.”

Even if we are to put the whole fertility issue aside (because seriously what better way to get into a guy’s pants than to harp on and on about your biological clock?) there’s the whole logistics of it all.  My current short-term plans (let’s say five years) involve me moving around A LOT, and we’re talking a series of trans-continental moves.  What are the odds of finding someone who would be willing to drop everything and come along for the ride?  Even a fellow wanderer, who lives for travel, may have a different location in mind.  And, from personal experience, long-distance relationships are straining, and sometimes unsatisfying (if the distance and time apart are significant).  One of the reasons why my long-distance relationship ended was simply that neither of us were getting enough of the benefits of being in a relationship to stay in it (and both of us too poor for visits to be an option).  There is only so much intimacy one can transmit through the satellite projections of two cellular phones (that is how they work, right?) and the unfeeling Times New Roman, black letters on a white screen, achievable through email.   We physically need touch.  So, that leaves us with only one answer…

PROMISCUITY!  (Just kidding, take a breath, Mom.)  But seriously, let’s consider this for a moment.  Now, I consider myself a modern feminist.  I would like to fancy myself capable of throwing out the old, tired, traditional image of “Boy meets Girl; Boy dates Girl; Boy marries Girl; and Boy and Girl live happily ever after with 2.1 kids, white picket fence, and a mortgage,” for a newer, hipper image!  An image that screams, “I don’t need anybody!”  Picture it, a young woman moving around, independent but not alone, lovers all over the world, not ONE BIG LOVE, but many, passionate love affairs.  This lady is cool, in every sense of the word.  If she decides she wants to be a parent, she makes it happen (hello sperm bank/willing participant)–no strings attached!  She can do it all, and all on her own.  The elusive, ‘uncatchable’ female.  Do I want to be this woman?  HELL, yes!  I would LOVE to be that independent and strong, but if I’m to be brutally honest with myself (and you poor readers who made the mistake of clicking on this link), it’s not what I really want.

I’d like to “One Day” find a guy willing to be my partner, one who wants the same things in life, and willing to shoulder some of the burden.  I believe a healthy relationship is when two people join together and commit to be honest with each other, have fun together, support each other, whose mere presence inspires each to be their best possible self, and who are moving in the same direction.  I also believe, that if the time comes that they must go separate ways, they should be able to say “I love the person that you are, and I will cherish our memories together forever; however, it’s not working out anymore, and I wish you the best.”  There doesn’t have to be drama or jealousy because love isn’t about ownership; two people can be together while maintaining their identity and freedom.

Okay, so I’ve talked myself into a mess.  I have no more answers than when I started this post, and in fact, feel a bit more confused.  I do know because of a recent experience, that as much as I love being independent and on my own (and the pride of knowing that I can thrive by myself), I actually miss having someone to hold me, talk to me, and that fun that comes from slowly opening yourself up to someone and they to you.  As my girl Tracy Chapman says, “I don’t want no one to squeeze me; they might take away my life; I just want someone to hold me and rock me through the night.”  For now, anyway, and maybe One Day just might come…

And Thus It Begins….Phone Interview with Peace Corps Placement Officer

Well, I’ve been in the Peace Corps application process for over a year now, and finally things are moving forward.  I’m including a summary of my phone call with my PO and a general summary of my application timeline up until this point for anyone interested in the Peace Corps as well as any current applicants wondering what to expect.  I hope my experiences will help anyone out there as all the many blog posts I’ve been reading has helped me.  I know that personally I couldn’t get enough of what other people’s application process was like just to feel that my experience was “normal” or to help learn of what might come next to better prepare myself.  Here’s my story. 

Summer of 2007-Began my Peace Corps application online.  Wanted to get a feel of what was expected, gathered materials, etc.  Took my time going through these.  At this point, I filled out any “quick information” I could.  What I mean by this is filling out name, contact information, questionaires etc. that I could fill out without much leg work.  Left off writing my personal statement, essays, resume, financial obligations, etc.

Dec/Jan 2008-Wrote out resume.  My senior year of college I also did A LOT of volunteer work (300 hr Americorps program in 12 months, officer of college’s Volunteer Center, you get the idea.  This volunteer work was enjoyable and truly soul-feeding for me personally, and also in hindsight really helped my candidacy as a prospective Peace Corps volunteer i.e. showing a volunteering spirit, gaining varied experiences, making connections who could later serve as mentors as well as references).  Emailed 3 people asking if they would be my reference explaining to them that the form is pretty comprehensive and time consuming and made sure they were willing and able to complete these for me in a timely manner.

Feb 14th 2008-Officially submitted application and completed medical questionaire.  My wonderful references had also completed their forms and sent them in by (or very close anyway) to this time.

Two weeks later-Call from recruiter!  In luck.  Recruiter will be in Iowa City next week for interview.  This will save me a much longer trip.

Following week-Interview.  The interview went well.  I was very nervous but also very excited.  It was slightly intimidating because my recruiter had to type out my responses verbatim and it lasted two hours!  But overall, what got me through was knowing how much I wanted to join Peace Corps and knowing that my sincerity and excitement would show.  Left interview feeling very good.  Of course I probably stumbled, may have had some awkward moments, but overall it went well.  My recruiter was also very nice and allowed me the opportunity to ask her questions about her experience abroad.  Overall it was not difficult having a conversation with her because we had the common interest not only in Peace Corps, but in travel, respecting other cultures, helping people, service.  Keep that in mind when you go to your interview.  Take it seriously as you would any other job interview, look and be professional, but also do not let yourself be too intimidated and you might actually have some fun.

March 2008-Officially nominated for Sub-Saharan Francophone Africa in Agroforestry to leave in Sept 08.  Around this time I received a packet of forms needing filled out as well as having to be fingerprinted at the local police station.  That was a first!  haha!  However, it was a lot of fun.  My boyfriend went along with me and the police officer was very friendly and asked a lot of questions about Peace Corps.

April 2008-Received request for further medical information.  This was not the actual evaluation but more information they needed regarding a prior medical condition.  I had suffered through an eating disorder when I was in high school and they needed to have a specialist evaluate me to make sure I was healthy to serve.  This is where it got sticky and my application process sloooowwweeed down.  Both my parents the beginning of the year changed jobs and we lost our insurance.  I wasn’t really sure how to handle this because I knew that I would be paying for this out of pocket.  I contacted a therapist I had seen before and discussed the issue of the eating disorder.  This therapist had not treated me for the eating disorder as I was already over it when I visited her, we merely talked about it and it was put down in my file.  After explaining the situation to her, I saw the therapist and she filled out the form. 

May-June 2008-I later received another form from Peace Corps stating they needed a more comprehensive review of my ED from an eating disorder specialist.  Long story short, I found a wonderful specialist in Iowa City who sat down with me, went through my history of body image and ran some tests that would help support my claim of being eating disorder free and healthy.  All went well, passed with flying colors.  Then I got the bill…more than $900….ahhh.  That took awhile to pay off and made me gun-shy of going through the rest of the medical evaluation uninsured.

Fall of 2008-Eye exam completed and form mailed in to PC.  Call to arrange doctor’s appointment, but regular doctor is out of town.  Scheduled soonest available opening.  At the appointment the doctor looks over the charts and tests needed and tells me to go home and try to make an appointment with the county nurse to cut costs otherwise I would have a HUGE bill.  A few days later I talk to county nurse and discover that they do not give boosters to adults and they do not run blood tests. 

Winter 2008/2009-By a stroke of luck and providence the HR director where my mother works informs her that she recently discovered that there is legilsation which states that adult children under 24 who still live with their parents are elligible to be covered under their parents insurance, and since my mother had been at her job long enough for her benefits to kick in we were golden.  Reschedule doctor’s appointment with regular doctor.  Also at this time I have dental appointment with a wonderful dentist who gives exams and x-rays for Peace Corps applicants absolutely free of charge!  You will obtain a list of these dentists when you receive your medical kit.

Winter 2009-At doctor’s appointment, my doctor expresses doubt at my insurance paying for the costs of the tests since I wasn’t technically sick.  At this point I tell her I want them anyway and if I had to I would pay for everything just to get the medical evaluation completed and turned in.  Receive partial exam but have to reschedule to have pap test and blood work done a month later (I really don’t know why, but that’s what happened.)

Month later-Rest of medical exam completed.  Had to wait for results to come through.  Alls healthy and mailed in to Office of Medical services.

March 2009-Receive form needing filled out about another prior condition!  I had had mono January of 2008 and needed doctor that treated me to show how sick I was and say whether or not I was healthy now.  It took a lot of phone calls because I had been treated at a free clinic at my college town, but I tracked him down and got everything turned in.

April 2009-Medically cleared but with a restriction!

June 8, 2009-Receive email from Placement Officer requesting an appointment to discuss things with me over the phone.

TODAY-At three o’clock, my Placement Officer called me and we chatted for about twenty minutes.  Basically this phone call was to discuss my current interest in serving, my current relationship status, how my parents feel about me leaving, coping strategies for stress, and any new volunteer experience relevant.  I felt very nervous and excited.  I kind of felt like a rambling idiot, but all in all the conversation went well.  I was told that there was a position open to leave this September (a year exactly from my original departure date which I think is just too funny) to serve in agriculture in Sub-saharan Africa.  She could not tell me the exact placement but I will be receiving my invitation in the mail in 7-10 business days.  I’m so excited!  I can’t wait to learn what country I’m going to so I can begin reading up on it as well as learn more about my project so I can brainstorm into oblivion!  It feels so good to know right now that things are moving forward, that my patience and perseverence is paying off.  All the people in my life who’ve asked for updates will finally have something worth hearing!  I’m quite happy right now.  🙂