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Life didn’t care about my plans and other lessons from the Peace Corps

April 10, 2020

I had such great plans. I was going to serve my country and do something good in the world. I was going to adventure around obscure corners of the globe. I was going to defer the enormous student loans waiting for me after graduation. I was going to put my education degree and linguistic skills to work. But, it turns out, the world didn’t care about my plans.

On a morning just like all the others in my tiny village on the high plateau of Madagascar, I was sitting on my front porch eating my breakfast of mofo gasy (sweet rice cakes). I sat watching young women, many of them my high school students, carrying buckets of water on their heads (a skill I added to my Peace Corps bucket list but failed miserably to complete). Younger girls, barefoot with baby siblings wrapped to their backs, were walking to fetch bread for the day. My neighbor with gray braids tied up on her head was sweeping the red, dirt floor. The men were already out in the fields, sternly steering the water buffalo through rice paddies. These morning routines and rituals gave purpose and structure to days that blurred together and time that seemed to otherwise stand still.

Alex Burns

Time. Such a funny construct. To go from the harried hustle and bustle of my senior year where there was never enough time for anything to living on my own in a village on an island where I had more time than I knew what to do with. Time that stretches and bends like this makes you sit with the wide range and messy soup of human emotions.

In fact, looking back, it was like being on a meditation retreat, but I didn’t yet have any essential tools to thrive. Instead I have a journal somewhere full of entries purging loneliness, longing for home and frustration at so much dysfunction and legitimate boredom (mind you, this was pre-cell phones, pre-Netflix, pre-social media). On a good day, the lack of distractions helped me notice and be touched by some of the most breathtaking sunrises, sit for hours in the quiet company of people in my village, hearing their stories and absorbing an entirely different way of understanding life.

And then one morning wasn’t like all the others. While eating my mofo gasy and heating water for my bucket shower, an official white Land Cruiser pulled up in front of my yard. It was from headquarters in Antananarivo. We were being evacuated, and I had two hours to pack my things and say goodbyes.

I was in shock. I was angry. I was devastated. I was worried.

I packed my essentials and walked around the village, giving away everything I didn’t need and wanted them to have (which was most of what I owned at that point). I tried to explain why I had to leave despite spending the past year growing a life there, investing in relationships and building a home. It was confusing and disheartening to leave all these plans I had at the drop of a hat and at the expense of so much. Little kids chased our Land Cruiser as we drove away, waving, not understanding any of it.

It was not a complete surprise that we had to leave the country. We had suspicions that this might be The Peace Corps’ next move but were hoping that it wouldn’t come to this. Months earlier, there were presidential elections which led to discord and social disturbance. The cities grew more unsettled, violence began to erupt and government systems started to shut down. It had been stressful for months throughout the entire country although it was slow to ripple out to our remote villages, where we would hear rumors of it on the radio.

In retrospect, it was the right move. The Peace Corps could no longer ensure our safety. The country had more pressing issues to address than me having adventures, teaching English and making friends. Madagascar had to stabilize itself. As disappointing as it was, it was time for us to leave.

This remains one of the most stressful experiences of my life—so much upheaval, being so far from my family, the uncertainty around what was next, my heart aching for those left behind. It was one of the most impactful experiences on me as a person and how I continue to understand the true nature of the world.

It was an experience of humility, in which I realized that, despite all my great plans and good intentions, the world did not revolve around me. This may sound harsh, but I am grateful for the lesson. It has softened other suffering for me when life did not unfold as planned or hoped. It taught me about the fragility of the lives that we work so hard to build. And it taught me that we will be okay.

Kate Nicholson is the assistant director of student wellness programs.


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