Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Post Evacuation Spin Cycle

Good golly I’m not in Mali, but I’m not home either.

(Sorry, I had to. Mkay, got that out of my system).

“Crazy” doesn’t even begin to describe the past month of my life. At last post, I was leaving Mali for (Spoiler Alert!) GHANA to attend our Transition Conference. It was a helluva week, with sessions, interviews, paperwork, bloodwork, and a lot of emotion. I have to say, PC Washington’s veritable SWAT Team of Transitional Conference staff did a stellar job, all things considered. We (all 180+ of us) had input in how the conference was run, free time, pretty fast internet access, interviewing and resume help, access to free counseling services, and, most excitingly, quite a few options for transferring to other countries of service. They even planned a really beautiful closing ceremony at the end. It gave each stage of volunteers a chance to speak on their experience and thank the people that made it all possible. It also provided good closure. We needed it.

So I suppose that I should tell you (or confirm your suspicions) that I didn’t transfer my service to another country. I have officially closed my Peace Corps service. Sigh. I really wanted to transfer. Or, at least, I thought I did. At the end of the first night of the conference, staff posted a list of all of the potential positions for transfers. According to my sector (Environment) and my specific skill set, I was eligible for programs in Burkina Faso and Senegal. The Burkina Faso position was the best fit- but it was just like my placement in Mali. It would have been in another rural village- which in and of itself would have been wonderful, because I love village life. However there was a strong chance that I would have had to learn another local language. I knew going into this conference that doing that was not an option for me. I was afraid that I’d have two first years, this second one being full of frustration and language gaffs, and not enough time to do good work. Plus, and this may sound counterintuitive, but Burkina is so close to Mali, literally and figuratively. I just knew that had I gone through the pain of a site change, an evacuation, a waiting period (program started in June), and then a transfer to a new post 40 kilometers across the Sikasso border, that it would have made me bitter. And then I’d be a poor volunteer, and that defeats the purpose of me being here. Senegal was a similar set up (no guarantee of working in French, a possible requirement to do the entire two years over again).

view from the old slaving fort over the village
In the end, when I looked at what was offered to me, I knew that I had more and better options if I closed my service and went home. I so desperately wanted the two year Peace Corps experience that I thought I’d have, and I was doing all sorts of mental gymnastics to try to get the job descriptions sound appealing to me. But at the end of the day, I knew I was just trying to make something work that just wasn’t going to. So, I decided to withdraw my name from the pool of transfer applicants, and (begrudgingly) start the journey home.

It wasn’t, and hasn’t, been easy. My mother can attest. I’m pretty sure that I just sobbed over the phone for forty-five minutes on that first night of uncertainty and disappointment at my options (and maybe a few more times in the days following). I didn’t want to admit that my journey would come to such a truncation. I wanted to make it work so badly. I had gone through a crazy, amazing year in Mali, and I was finally ready for a fresh take when the coup happened. And then, to realize that what I needed for my second year wasn’t possible… well, it was sad. And it made me angry. But the more I think about it, the more I know that I have made the right decision.

I am excited to find the opportunity in this sudden change of events. I’m proud of myself for doing what I’ve done, and I’m a better person for having done 14 months of Peace Corps than none at all. And I have options: the PC family/network is huge, there are short term Peace Corps Response positions opening all the time, and my family and friends are great supports. I know I’ll find something, but I’m not in a rush. I’m still grieving over Mali, and I expect to for a long time. The counselors at the conference told us we would feel like we had lost a loved one, or left our first loves. It will always kind of hurt, but the fond memories and learning moments won’t be totally lost, either.

tzatziki and feta 
parethenon with erin
For now, I’m travelling. I had vacations to Spain and Italy planned before the coup (Spain with my best friend from high school, Beth, and her Aunt Mary, Italy to see my family and boyfriend). In the meantime after the conference, I spent some time on the beach in Ghana with my PC friends, and just recently left a friend in Athens after a week chock full of feta cheese and saying UUUPPPAAAAA!! I can’t wait to see my family, though. The traveling sounds lovely and exotic, I know, but I am really looking forward to just hunkering down and being hugged. I don’t feel so strong these days, and I think that being with my family and Matt will help center me.

Ghana, after the conference

Sorry for being so sad, but that’s just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. As my brother would say, sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you. But I still seek the silver lining—I have my health, my safety, and a beautiful life to go home to. But not just yet. For now, I travel and float, travel and float. It’s true, what they say: life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. So here’s to life: may it always be better than you thought it could be. J


  1. Hey Chelsea, this is Alexis. I know it has been about forever since we have last talked but I just want to say I've really enjoyed reading all of these posts. It's been a lovely experience reading about your life now whilst thinking about the sleepovers we used to have in the basement your old New Hartford house. I'm sorry your service had to end this way but I hope you're enjoying traveling, maybe one day you and I will actually cross paths and we can laugh about how crazy life is, and how simple life was when our whole world was E.R. Hughes haha.


  2. I love you and already miss you being here in Athens with me!!! Love the picture of us at the Parthenon. I have already decided on a date to leave. May 18th! I think I'm going to go straight home instead of having to figure out what to do with 2 huge bags (not really great for the whole hostel and traveling thing.) Tonight is THE TALK. Super nervous. Can't wait to talk to you when you are back in the states. I'll definitely be making a trip up to Tennessee. Gotta give you your shirt and get that free dinner from you!! Love you and have a great month traveling.

  3. Hey Chelsea, it's Carolyn. Reading this made me feel better. We are kind of kicking ourselves for not going to Burkina, since adjusting to Guyana is really effing hard. But it was the right decision at the time, and for the reasons that you mentioned--being just across the border would be so heart-wrenching! (Not that it isn't already.) Anyway. Thanks for this. You rock! What are you up to these days?

  4. It’s never too early to think about the Third Goal. Check out Peace Corps Experience: Write & Publish Your Memoir. Oh! If you want a good laugh about what PC service was like in a Spanish-speaking country back in the 1970’s, read South of the Frontera: A Peace Corps Memoir.