As the holiday season approaches, I’ve thought a lot about my experiences over this last year and the events in my life that have gotten me to where I’m currently at…
Two years ago, in December 2010, I had what I thought was one of the worst days of my life. I came home to find my roommates sitting at our dining room table – they told me we needed to talk. The following hour I was given a myriad of reasons why I was a terrible roommate and why they thought it best we not live together the following year. I remember walking away from that conversation feeling a little dejected, yes, but mostly angry. Who did they think they were? Calling me out on my faults without recognizing that they had plenty of their own. And what fueled the fire was that some of their accusations were downright silly, things that shouldn’t even matter or didn’t make sense. I was too upset to focus on their legitimate complaints.
I spent the night at a friend’s and left for Christmas break the following day, taking great pains to avoid seeing either roommate. It was over that break that I decided to apply to Peace Corps. It was something I had first heard about at the beginning of college and it sounded like such an interesting concept. Living abroad for two years in a developing nation while serving in whatever capacity they needed.
I had spent the previous summer living and studying in Rome and I can very easily say that I had wanderlust. I didn’t want to graduate college, get stuck in a job, and never get out. And that fight with my roommates is what pushed me over the edge. I remember thinking at the time that I had no idea what I was going to do come August 1st. My lease would officially be over at the house, and while I could always move in with other roommates, I would no longer be going to college, and I didn’t know what I’d be sticking around for. So I thought about what I wanted most, and I realized I needed an escape – a fresh start. I applied to Peace Corps a few days later.
Over the following months, certain people in my life belittled my decision and told me I didn’t have what it takes to be a Peace Corps Volunteer – that I’d never actually go through with it. Which, of course, only fueled my desire to leave and be the best volunteer ever, if only to prove them wrong.
Well, August 1st came and I still hadn’t heard a definite answer from Peace Corps, so I packed up my stuff and moved in with my grandparents. I told them and everyone else that it was temporary. I was going to find some part-time work, just to keep me busy, until I received the letter informing me where I’d be spending the next two years of my life. Only that letter took longer than I thought to arrive.
Months passed, and I was even put on medical hold for three months following my Lasik eye surgery. All the while I told everyone that what I was doing was merely temporary. I was going to live abroad. I was going to change the world. I was going to join Peace Corps. And I said it to so many people, so many times, that there came a time when I realized I couldn’t take it back.
During the year between graduation and moving to Ethiopia, I found a job I loved in a field that I was incredibly passionate about – publishing. But then April 2012 came around and I got the letter: Ethiopia. And I told everyone that it was a big decision, and I needed to think about it, but deep down I knew my decision had already been made. This is what I had been talking about for the last year and a half. If this wasn’t what I had been waiting for, why was I working three part-time jobs and commuting 45 minutes to work twice a day?
I accepted. And I gave my jobs my two-week notice a few days later. I spent all of May getting prepared. I made dozens of trips to REI – a place I had never even heard of before receiving my Peace Corps nomination, but by the time I left, most of the employees knew me by name. I went to Target day after day, always convinced that if I bought just one more thing I would feel prepared. That somehow buying that one additional item would prove that I could do this, that I could be a Peace Corps Volunteer.
And then the time came to leave, to say goodbye to everyone and everything I had ever known. Some goodbyes were harder than others, there was the unexpected realization that most of my friendships would fall to the periphery, and their lives would move on without me. And at that time, I felt like I was making a huge mistake. But I pushed through those feelings because it was too late, and I had already made my decision. So I got on the flight from Minneapolis to Washington D.C. not knowing what the hell I was thinking.
I got to baggage claim in D.C. and the first thing I saw was my friend Nicole. She was wearing a darling little dress and all I could think was yes, this was all worth it because I got a free flight out to see one of my closest friends. It was only afterward that I realized I could have just paid for the flight myself instead of signing up for 27 months of isolation. But that’s not what I focused on. I focused on having the best 24 hours I could with a friend I was going to have to say goodbye to for over two years.
And I did have the best 24 hours. In fact, those hours were so great that by the time we said goodbye and she got in her car to drive away, I felt utterly alone. But then, something incredible happened. I walked back into the hotel’s lobby and ran into a group of volunteers. They were going to lunch, and just like that, would I like to join them? I instantly felt at ease with this group of strangers – something that is very uncommon for me. I called home that night to tell my family that I had found my people. Others, just like me, who were giving up all they had ever known to seek adventures in Ethiopia.
We left D.C. on a Tuesday and arrived in Ethiopia the following day. The next two days were perfect. Then, we went on site demystification and I got sick. And not just aw-shucks I have a cold sick, but what I have now come to think of as Africa sick. I spent most of that weekend in bed, regretting that I had ever even taken a geography class that taught me about Ethiopia’s existence.
Then we left site demystification and headed back to Addis for another week of training. I thought things would get better – they got worse. In the United States, I’m not prone to getting sick. I’ve somehow managed to get salmonella poisoning twice and I’ve lost my voice a few times, but I’ve never had strep throat or pink eye or any of those normal illnesses that everyone else I knew was constantly getting. I was healthy, always had been. But one week into living in Ethiopia and I was sicker than I had ever been in my entire life. It made salmonella poisoning feel like the sniffles and I spent a few days in bed and called my mom every day, telling her I couldn’t do this, I needed to come home. She told me to rest, get better, and think about it. I told her there was no point, I was still going to come home, but I relented and agreed not to make any rash decisions.
In my effort to give Ethiopia what I considered a “reasonable” chance, I found myself moving with everyone else to our training sites. I would be calling Sagure home for the next three months, but deep down I knew I’d only last a few weeks. We were headed back to Addis July 4th, and I figured that would be the day I’d head back to home – it seemed pretty fitting.
Only July 4th came and went, and I found myself packing to visit my site instead. I’d been placed in Hawassa and told it was Ethiopia’s version of a resort town, but I couldn’t quite imagine what that meant. After all, I’d spent the last month living in a small town with a population under 10,000 where the water pump sometimes worked, I bathed in buckets, and shared a “bathroom” with a hen.
At first, it was like reverse culture shock. Everyone joked that moving to Hawassa was like moving back to the states. Well after living here a few months, I can assure you Hawassa is nothing like the US. It does have more amenities than a lot of the other sites, but the level of harassment I receive would be inconceivable to the average American.
Anyway, I spent a week in Hawassa and then returned to Sagure. But everything had shifted. I was no longer planning the day I’d leave Ethiopia; I was planning what I’d be doing there the upcoming weekend. It had taken just over a month for me to realize that my new life was taking place in Ethiopia, and this was exactly where I needed to be.
Five months later, and I’m still here. There are a ton of days when I’m not fully sure why I’m still here. But on those days, I call up a fellow volunteer, only to find they feel the exact same way. So we talk about how absurd our lives are now that we live in Ethiopia, and suddenly everything’s ok. Sometimes, even better than ok. Ethiopia is like nothing I ever imagined, but right now, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
Yes, there are plenty of times when I hope that the next year and a half fly by just as fast as these first six months did, but there are other times when I realize I need to sit back and enjoy my time here. This experience will never happen again, and it’s already made such a huge impact in my life. I’ve been changed irrevocably. I’m just so thankful to everyone who helped get me here and those who’ve supported me during times of difficulty.
I’m glad that you stayed in Ethiopia, friend. And not in some mean sort of “i’m glad you’re not here” way– I think it’s a great place for you right now! I wish I could be out doing something like that, but I”ll have to settle with spending my summer in Italy- maybe that’s the first step.
A summer in Italy was my first step too : ) And I can’t wait to see you there this summer!
Ashley, this is your mom’s cousin Kelli. Your journal is amazing. How proud you must be for sticking it out! This will be an experience you will never forget! I am staying with your grandma and grandpa for a few nights. They could not be prouder. Thank you for sharing your experience with us!