As we celebrate the last hours of 2011 and look forward to what awaits us in 2012, I’ve been reflecting about what leaving Honduras really means to me. The news about our eminent departure is finally sinking in and we’ve had time to get over the original emotional shock. We’ve spent the last two weeks dividing our household items into keep, donate and throw out piles, and at this point have emptied the place of pretty much everything except the bed, fridge and few cooking utensils. It’s more than a little sad to see the bare walls in our living room, and the echo of the emptiness is almost haunting. Plus, the donating and selling seems to have brought out the worst in our neighbors and friends who’s affection for us seems only directly correlated to how much of our valuable personal property we agree to give them. We also finally found out that our vacation to Nicaragua would be officially approved and we’ll be back just in time to have a few days before we have to head out to an exit conference and then back to the States. Several thoughts are constantly filling my head.
First, I can’t say that I disagree with the decision that Peace Corps made in this situation. After getting feedback from all the current volunteers, they discovered that while people felt very safe in their sites, travel presented more dangers and problems. Given the geographic spread of volunteers and the need to travel to places like San Pedro and Teguz for flights or medical appointments, it is hard to keep volunteers safe while travelling without a new set-up. Plus, PC can’t afford the bad publicity that might arise from more incidents occurring with volunteers that they knowingly keep in an unsafe country. They probably did make the right decision to evacuate us, it’s just that it all occurring over the holidays seems to have been an unlucky coincidence that is making the process more sensitive. That being said, we still do feel safe in our site and have never felt unsafe. All our Honduran counterparts and friends have expressed similar sentiments. They weren’t particularly distressed by recent bus assaults or murders any more than normal and also felt towns like ours were more than secure for volunteers. So in these last days, security is actually not high on my list of worries.
Unfortunately, the PC decision affects a lot of Hondurans that truly need our help. Pulling us out doesn’t really affect the staff here or in Washington, or the government of Honduras as a whole, or the U.S. government. Whom it directly affects are the people and communities that we have been working with on the ground that have no resources and to a certain extent rely on Peace Corps to stimulate meaningful change. A friend of ours said it perfectly “It is the poor people of Intibucá (our department) that are losing out from this decision.” Verdad. PC leaving also sets an example for other international aid workers and organizations here. We have already heard that Amigos de Las Americas (a mini PC summer program for high schoolers) will not be coming back this year due to security fears and several medical brigade members also expressed concerns. Who knows what other organizations might follow suit and pull out or reduce their presence, causing a further vacancy of international support? While I don’t know that my exact counterpart would be a good fit for another volunteer, I do know that there is still a great deal of work to be done in our department that PC could help with, and it’s a shame that the hard working people of our poor department have to be punished because of things they have no control over. But I guess that’s almost always the case…
We also feel lucky, almost guiltily so, that we are already at the near end of our service. To be honest, we have been filling out heads with tantalizing plans of post-PC life for a few months now, and were already beginning to mentally pull ourselves away from Honduras. We were wrapping up projects and not starting any new ones. For us, leaving early will be hard, but not impossible. We still feel like we had a full and rewarding experience, that we accomplished many things, that we built good relationship, and had the opportunity to get all the travelling in we wanted. We don’t have any regrets. This is not true for other volunteers who are just now completing either their 6th or 11th months here and may not feel like they want their experience to end. For them it will be a tough decision to re-enroll for another 27 months of service or end it here.
What I mostly feel is something akin to fear at returning to the U.S. It’s not that I don’t know what it’s like, or that I’m afraid I won’t understand the language (although my English has become pretty bad here). It’s more like I’ve become accustomed to the sort of exotic yet simple lifestyle that we live here, where when I walk the five blocks I might run into drunks stumbling toward me, dirty kids running around shoeless, a woman with a baby strapped to her back and a basket on her head, a river of rainwater blocking my passage or reggaeton blaring from the grocery store. Not that any of this is really exotic in any sense, especially to me now after living here for two years, but it’s certainly more entertaining than the mundane cul-de-sacs or suburban America, which is right where we are headed when we fly back. I don’t know if I’m prepared to re-enter the excessive and ridiculous culture of the U.S. quite yet, or ever…
The thought of sitting around at my in-laws house for an indeterminate amount of time, waiting in limbo before Nolan and I can start the next phase of life sounds particularly boring, and ironically exactly similar to the January before we left for Peace Corps, making me feel like I will be regressing in some sense. That I’ll go back to where I was and it will be as if nothing has changed, as if no time has passed; only I will feel so different inside that it will be almost unbearable to pretend like things are the same, or ever will be again.
I recently read two things about readjustment from Peace Corps that particularly echoed my sentiments. First, that although I call the U.S. home, it hasn’t really been my home in two years and so it’s practically as if I’m leaving home in Honduras and moving somewhere new, which is a challenging and emotionally strenuous life event. I feel exactly this, that my home-of-record to which I will arrive will be nothing more than a strangely familiar place that I’ve forgotten how to be a part of. Secondly, that returned volunteers (RPCV’s) feel sometimes like readjusting back into life in the U.S. means forgetting or diminishing the experience they have had abroad, something I very keenly feel. It’s as if by leaving Honduras, I relinquish it to just another sweet memory of my past that will be lost almost as quickly as my Spanish. Compounding this is how difficult it is to share the true meaning of this experience with family and friends who want the happy 5 minute summary.
So I’ve been dealing with all these thoughts and emotions the best way I know how, baking. As soon as I found out the news, I went to the market and bought a ton of zucchini, then proceeded to whip out 6 loaves of zucchini bread and some chocolate chip zucchini brownies. I followed up with peanut butter cookies, pumpkin rice krispie treats, devil’s food cupcakes, banana bread and tequila caramel corn. It was both an effort to use up the last of our valuable ingredients and to give our friends one last sweet treat to express our affection. I’ve also been trying to transfer as much knowledge to my work counterparts as time will permit. But it’s tempting to just retreat into the house to arrange and rearrange what trinkets we will take home.
Luckily, we will still have our time in Nicaragua to relax before heading back and our early end of service will now give us a few months to come back and travel through South America as we had originally wanted, the silver lining to this very dark cloud over Honduras.