The biggest challenge of coming back is reconnecting with old friends. How do you sum up two years?
How are you? It’s been a while since I heard from you and I need to reconnect. I just got back from my Peace Corps assignment in the Kingdom of Tonga and wanted to see what you were up to. It’s been close to two and a half years since I’ve been able to communicate with anyone in the US, but it feels like a lifetime. I’m really starting my professional and personal life all over again! I had hoped my two years would make my future clearer, but instead I’ve come back a different person with more questions than answers. I’m currently basking in the sweet scent of uncertainty while I recover from the adventures of a lifetime.
For the past two years I taught business and computer classes at a small college while maintaining a network of nearly 150 machines. The computers were all donated by foreign governments or purchased with ridiculous amounts of aid money and while some of them were prehistoric, many were the latest and the greatest. My students were all my age but had the maturity level of post-pubescent teenagers and the desire to be like the street thugs that they saw in terrible gangster movies and poor action flicks from America. My computers were even more unstable than my kids due to electrical problems and humidity that killed any electronic device within a year. The suicidal tendency of geckos to rest overnight in computers for added warmth led to both unpleasant odors and the morning death of many good PCs before their time. My students would only acknowledge the brilliance of email to the other side of the room rather than on a global scale, and while I loved being worshipped as a demigod of technology in the Pacific, I was often disappointed that I seemed to be the only one who remembered that washing keyboards with the laundry and labeling the wrong side of a CD with a machete was a bad idea. The job was very challenging at times, but I loved every minute of it.
My relationship with the setting was a little more tumultuous as I never ever knew what to expect! Sometimes I would wake up in my straw hut to find out that someone important had died and that I would have to wear black for a couple of months, or that the king had just declared another national holiday and that we’d have a parade instead of regular classes. Sometimes I’d wake up to discover that everyone in my community had just gotten cell phones, when the day before we all had to take a bus into town to make a call. I would tell a prospective volunteer that I was in the safest country in the world and within a week I would end up in a hospital bed after being beaten up on a main street. Many days I would have to sit in church for hours listening to services I could not understand, and spend nights sitting cross-legged with a circle of village elders silently drinking kava (a substance that tastes like mud water but has the effect of a general anesthetic from your neighborhood dentist). I never had any privacy, but I would rarely ever feel lonely. When I got hurt playing rugby or working at the plantations, people would laugh at me and when I mispronounced words or used them out of context (very easy to do as a single word in Tongan can have many meanings… the word for organize is the same as the word for diarrhea etc.) they teased me mercilessly! However, the minute I needed help, I could count on the entire village to assist me. The sense of community was incredible!
The relaxed attitude towards work was also very different as almost nothing ever got done. Most people would not have a job and would spend every day just hanging out. No one feared starvation as everyone was related to each other and shared food. When I described the rat-race in America, they couldn’t relate to it at all. Many people thought that I was one of Britney Spear’s cousins and that I could talk to George Bush every day. Many people also believed that dinosaurs roamed the streets of New York, and that I could fight like Walker Texas Ranger! While they listened in wonder to my stories of life in the US, I enjoyed my own breathtaking tours of Tonga’s island groups. I got to explore lush rain forests and climb volcanic mountains. I sunbathed at stunning private beaches and swam in sulfur lakes. I kayaked to amazing little islands and snorkeled through stunning coral reefs. The natural beauty of the islands was untouched by tourists and was unforgettable.
I left Tonga in March and took the long way home through Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, and Germany. I finally returned to the US a couple months ago but I still feel very displaced. While the benefits of cars, TV’s, air conditioning, and high-speed internet are not lost on me now, I miss my life in Tonga. The thrill of having so many things available for purchase is losing its charm, and I’m tired of reality TV shows. While my patience has grown tremendously over the past two years, I’m also getting bored of sitting around. As my cash funds run out, I’ve finally begun the job hunting process. It may be a long time before I start working again but I’m excited about having some new adventures.
I hope this email finds you in good health, and that you will drop me a line. I’m looking forward to hearing from you, and I really want to catch up!