One Month Remains
One month remains in my Peace Corps service. I’m just now allowing myself to start thinking about what these last two years mean as a whole and what it will be like going home. Until recently, I’ve refused to let myself acknowledge that Peace Corps service would come to a close. In fact, it was as late as October when I still thought my COS date was mid-July, not mid-June. I had made myself completely oblivious to the light at the end of the tunnel.
February and March were tough months as I tried to deny the reality that was building around me. Teachers were starting to talk more-and-more about my departure, and people back home started talking about my arrival. I was even trying to deny the end during Peace Corps’s “Close of Service Conference.” Time was moving forward, but I was screaming in the back of my head, “No, no, it’s not ending. It’s not ending!”
But it is ending, and after accepting that, it feels right. To help contextualize the end of this time period, I like thinking about my last two months in the United States versus my last two months in Indonesia. They have been so different. I’ve also been thinking about my favorite – or rather, must enduring – memories from the last two years. I get stuck trying to decide whether they are magical or ordinary. Then, I start thinking about the act of leaving itself. It’s actually quite common, and shouldn’t be feared.
Countdowns – the United States and Indonesia
I am amused by how drastically different my final months in the United States were compared to these final months in Java. During my last two months in the U.S., I felt like I was on a shuttle moving at light speed. It was an anxious feeling – knowing I had to be moving that fast but that if I hit even the smallest particle, everything would go flying out of control. I was trying to finish a semester of graduate course-work a month early and scrutinize Peace Corps’s final medical and visa documents. If anything fell through the cracks, my opportunity to join Peace Corps Indonesia would dissolve. On top of this, there was the future’s uncertainty and the hearts of loved ones left behind to cope with. I had taken my nervous habit of plucking my eyebrows to a new level, which led one professor to ask if they had been seared off at some sort of wild party. Around the same time, I made it through an entire day at school before I realized my sweater was on backwards.
The conclusion of Peace Corps Indonesia has been decidedly less stressful. For starters, there are neither courses nor medical documents to complete. Projects at the school and the observatory are wrapped up. It also helps that I will experience a level of continuity between Peace Corps service and the immediate future. I have the opportunity to return to Michigan Tech to finish my thesis. This will allow me to stay in contact with the people I worked with here and the work itself, but it also means that I haven’t had to busy myself with looking for a job or taking standardized tests since I’ve been here. The only thing I want to do now is say good-bye. I’m trying to get pictures with friends around town and stay keenly aware of any “last time I’ll see you” moments. I’m even starting to pack.
Leaving also makes me think about the memories and the things I’ll miss from Java. Last week, observatory staff and I went on a field excursion up Raung’s north flank. On the trip home, I was lounging in the back of a public bus as panels of terraced-rice paddies and coconut trees scolled across the windows. “I think you’ll miss this view,” the staff member posited. He was right – I will miss it. I thought I knew why I would miss it – because there’s something “special” about tropical views – and I tried to communicate this with a story from my first week in Indonesia. Two days after arriving in Surabaya, the drive to Malang was our batch’s first opportunity to see Indonesia’s countryside and agriculture. I tried to explain to the post staff how excited many of us were to see rice paddies and palm trees. “You were excited?” The observatory staff didn’t really get what I had been excited about, and frankly, after telling the story, I wasn’t really sure what I had been excited about either.
I had chosen the story in attempt to illustrate how I would no longer be exposed to something that grabbed my attention. But the landscapes enthralled us on those first days because they were new and different. Now they are normal. I realized it isn’t the exocitism of the scenery that I will miss. It is the homeliness and usuality of it. I realized that I will miss coconut trees the same way I missed Indiana and UP Fall. When you get used to something, it’s inevitable that you will miss it.
The example of Java’s countryside helped me come up with a larger theme that describes Peace Corps memories. Reflecting on memories yields a weird concoction of the magical feelings of a romanticized Peace Corps Volunteer against the dull recognition of everything as ordinary. The feelings are immiscible. That is, they do not combine to form one omnipresent emotion with balanced elements of magic and plainness. Instead, the emotions float amongst one another – in small bits and large bits, one sometimes surrounded by the other but always separate. Sometimes you feel one, and other times you feel the other. It’s like staring at one part of a lava lamp. You can look at a single spot – sometimes it will be green, and other times it will be red.
If I can return to vegetation as an example, I’ll mention that I’ve paused in writing this to look up at the trees above me. I’m sitting on my porch now. There’s one coconut tree across the driveway. I’ve passed this tree hundreds of times before without giving it any attention. It’s a normal part of my environment. But now that I’m looking at it, I can’t help but consider the long application process and endurance that it took to make living next to this tree for two years possible. I also think about a score of other actions and behaviors that I consider normal but probably never would have ever been able to experience if it weren’t for this opportunity. I might not have ever been able to roll my r’s, pronounce Assalamu’alaikum, or known what it’s like to fast for a month.
The truth is, I look at most things from the past two years as having been ordinary. But I also know I can take almost anything from Indonesia and remember it with sentimentality. I think that’s probably true for any part of life if you allow it.
The Routine of Leaving
Leaving has become sort of a normal part of my life. Seven years ago, I left Dallas. Graduating high school and moving on to college was an expected path to follow. Three years ago, I graduated from DePauw University – another scheduled end. Two years ago, I left Michigan Tech and the United States. Peace Corps may not be a usual path to take, but the length of the application process and year-long tenure at the university made the departure anticipated. And now, I conclude Peace Corps service, which can be extended but ultimately has a contractual limit. I’ve been lucky. Each of these endings has been celebrated.
I’m not sure what it will be like when I end up in a position that has no scheduled expiry date. Will I feel restless? It might be a long time before I have to worry about that. In the mean time, realizing that leaving has been the norm makes it easier to leave Java.