While still in my undergraduate years at the University of Massachusetts Amherst I decided I wanted to join the Peace Corps. I was young, idealistic with a penchant for traveling and not a clue what I really wanted to do with my life. I finished my undergraduate degrees in History and Spanish after spending an incredible semester abroad in Taxco, Mexico studying a little and mostly exploring as much of Mexico as I could get to on the cheapest buses possible. Oh how I loved Mexico. It is a gorgeous country with an incredibly rich and colorful history. I visited places like Palenque and San Cristobal in Chiapas, Oaxaca City, the Puuc Route on the Yucatan, Guadalajara, Guanajuato, Puebla, the quaint colonial town of San Miguel de Allende and of course pyramids at Teotihuacan just outside of Mexico City. I lived with a Mexican family for part of my semester. I became a part of life in Taxco as opposed to just being a tourist. I knew I wanted more of this type of experience.
Upon my return from Mexico in June 1996 and after literally crying for weeks because I missed it so much I decided I would set the wheels in motion to apply for Peace Corps. The amount of time it takes to get into Peace Corps varies for each volunteer. For me it was an 18 month process including an in person interview in Boston, a complete medical and dental screening, background check, paperwork and more paperwork.
Typically once you are cleared by medical and dental you receive an invitation to serve in a particular country with a program that fits your qualifications. I knew I would be teaching English and could be sent anywhere in the world except the area I most wanted to go, Latin America. The reason being, there are no English teaching programs in Latin America. Despite popular belief that Peace Corps just barrels into third world countries and imposes its authority, the country actually selects the program. I was told that I could be considered for a position in Bolivia if per chance I had bee keeping skills. Um no I don’t! In retrospect that was a blessing in disguise.
My course did not go quite the way it usually goes. I was actually rejected by dental, but was unaware because I never received the envelope they sent me complete with my dental x-rays and instructions of how to proceed. Instead I called to check the status of my application and was told that I was being invited to serve in Armenia. It is almost unheard of to be told of your invitation over the phone, but sure enough the invitation arrived in the mail later that week. In the meantime I had numerous conversations with the dental unit. Turned out I had an old root canal that needed to be repaired because it was done incorrectly years prior.
Peace Corps is very sensitive about sending volunteers to post with any outstanding dental issues because historically dental care in third world countries is either very poor or nonexistent. I quickly set out to have the issue repaired so I could meet the deadline for my service in Armenia. It was March 1998 when I received my invitation for the group leaving in May 1998. After a few trips to my incompetent, money-sucking, smelly dentist (sorry but it’s true) it was determined that I needed periodontal surgery done by a specialist. The periodontal surgery cost a mighty penny considering I had no dental insurance and was making a pittance at my job as an administrative assistant at UMass. In the end I had to back out of the invitation to serve in Armenia because dental refused to clear me until they received word from the periodontist that I was completely healed. About 2 weeks after the group left for Armenia I was cleared by dental.
Truth be told, I was not distraught about missing out on the opportunity to travel to Armenia. Through my research on the country I learned that winters were extremely harsh and people subsisted on cabbage and potatoes. I was in contact with a few Peace Corps Volunteers already in Armenia thanks to the budding internet back in 1998. I am certain I would have been just fine, but it never really felt like the place I was supposed to go.
In my job at UMass I did a lot of work with the Afro-American studies department including coordinating trips for my boss to Durban, South Africa where he was involved with a scholarship organization to help young black South Africans study here in the U.S. One morning I called my recruiter at the Peace Corps headquarters in D.C. His name was Dan. He was very nice to talk to and seemed supportive of my situation. He said he would do his best to get me another invitation as soon as possible, but he couldn’t promise me anything because they had just evacuated 4 countries due to political strife. His priority was to re-assign any volunteers interested in going elsewhere. I understood completely. I would want Peace Corps to do the same for me if I were in that situation. However, Dan made the grave mistake of letting me in on a little secret about a new program Peace Corps was opening in Mozambique in October 1998, just 4 months away. OK it probably wasn’t a huge secret, but I was instantly intrigued. I had heard of Mozambique and knew a little about the country because of my boss’ travels in Southern Africa. I begged Dan to tell me more. I told him I wanted to go, had to go there. He then apologized for getting my hopes up and told me there was no way I would be included in the inaugural group of Peace Corps Volunteers being sent to Mozambique.
Dan didn’t really know me. I hung up and called my boss immediately. We wrote a kick ass letter about why I should indeed be sent to Mozambique and I faxed it almost instantaneously. I waited and heard nothing. So I made a firm decision, if Peace Corps wasn’t going to send me to Mozambique then I wasn’t going to join Peace Corps. I had already done some research on teaching opportunities in Central America. I had applications on hand and I was prepared to act. I wasn’t trying to prove a point. I simply wanted to move on with my life. I needed to get out there and see the world. I was almost 25 years old and I knew the clock was ticking on my student loans.
After waiting long enough I called Dan. I thanked him for all of his help and told him that I understood he had a job to do, but I also had a life to live and at that point I had put my life on hold for almost 15 months. I told him I was incredibly disappointed about not being selected for the Mozambique program and although I would graciously accept an invitation anywhere I had to proceed with other plans at that time. I left the door open by saying that should an invitation arrive before I pack my bags I will most certainly consider it. That afternoon I received a call from Dan inviting me to serve in the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers ever to serve in Mozambique. I was in my office at UMass. I remember jumping up and down with such delight. I celebrated after work with my co-worker/friend/mentor who just so happened to be a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer herself.
A week before I left for Mozambique my mother brought the mail in and handed me a large manila envelope. It looked worn and old. It had the Peace Corps logo and return address. I knew what was inside. It was the package dental had sent to me nearly 10 months early with my X-rays. The package had arrived but got stuck behind mailboxes at my mother’s condo complex. We laughed about it and decided there must be some great reason why I was going to Mozambique. Little did I know.
In October 1998, I left with two big duffle bags and a carry on for what would become one of the greatest adventures of my life as well as my destiny. Why am I telling you this story today? Well it just so happens to be Peace Corps Week and part of the goal of Peace Corps is to bring our stories back home to the U.S. During the month of February I am often invited to speak to local girl scout troops as part of their World Learning Day celebrations. I did only one presentation this year. I’m always happy to share my experience. It’s been 10 years since I returned home to the U.S. and I miss it everyday.