My invitation

February 29, 2008

After a dreadful week of anticipation—one in which Monday felt like March, Tuesday felt like April and so on—July was here and I had the feeling that my country invitation would finally be in my mailbox.

At 10 o’clock on today’s abnormally warm Reno morning, I walked into my post office, checked my mailbox and—a key! I snatched the key, closed my mailbox, and walked to the large mailboxes where customers’ large letters and packages are kept. My heart was beating. I clumsily put the key in the hole, turned it, and a large white envelope with “Peace Corps” on the top was inside.

You know that clear plastic window on envelopes where a recipient’s address is listed? I was so impatient to look at my invitation that instead of opening the envelope and taking out the letter, I pulled the envelope from its contents, peeked through the plastic and haphazardly read portions of my letter: “Dear Jordan,” “Congratulations!” “great pleasure,” “thousands,” “stronger communities,” “Corps service,” “Madagascar.”

Madagascar. Was it true? Madagascar! That gargantuan tropical island off the coast of mainland Africa, known as the “Big Red Island” or the “Eighth Continent” for its size, was my new home! I really did win the lottery!

So I did what all Mega Millions winners do: I called my friends and family and told them of my luck. They were as impressed as I was for my good fortune. Former girlfriends were jealous and proud of me. Friends promised they would come to visit. My father said, “I can’t think of a better place, maybe except the Galapagos Islands, that you could’ve gotten.”

Even my initially-dissenting mother said, “Yes! I’m happy and relieved!” Because The Crocodile Hunter once went to Madagascar, my mother preferred Madagascar over most other African countries. Heck, if The Crocodile Hunter didn’t die by stampeding elephants or murderous Tarzans, neither would I. (I will, however, be particularly on the lookout for renegade stingrays.)

In my hands I’m holding my invitation packet that has information on my departure dates, job sector, passport and visa applications, and other forms. There’s also a signed letter from President George W. Bush who wrote me on July 18, 2001 to congratulate me for representing the United States, developing long-lasting friendships, and helping others pursue a better life for themselves. I also found it ironic that he told me to “Take this opportunity to build goodwill and to help lay the foundation for a more peaceful world.”

I’m off to read my packet and learn of my future life. From what I’ve read so far, I’ll most likely be living in a city or large village and regularly speaking French and Malagasy, the native language of the country’s 20 million residents. I will be teaching junior high and high school students English as well as improving the English of my peer Malagasy teachers. My home, which will either be with a Malagasy family or my own, will probably not have running water or electricity—but don’t fret, my friends, because chances are high that I will have an outdoor pit latrine. Cozy!


The guessing game

February 23, 2008

Exciting news! Yesterday I received a phone call from Jolie, a friendly placement officer for Africa. She was about to select my country for my 27 month Peace Corps term, but she was reviewing my application and had two concerns to talk with me about.

The first concern was that on my application, I wrote that I only wanted to volunteer in a community where its people spoke a world language like French, Spanish, or Arabic. “If learning French is the driving factor behind you doing the Peace Corps,” Jolie said, “I would suggest that the Peace Corps is not for you.” I immediately retorted that volunteering and community service was the driving factor for my joining the Peace Corps and that speaking and learning French was just a side benefit for my service. She said, “The reality is that you may only be speaking French sometimes, like in the capital of your host country, and you may be speaking tribal or local languages on a more regular basis.”

To this I said that was alright, and she said, “You’re being considered for a country where French may be spoken in the capital, but outside the capital, you’ll be speaking a language that is growing in use and becoming more widespread.” Again, I said OK.

Second, Jolie was concerned about my family’s support in my ambition to join the Peace Corps. I said except for my mother and grandfather, my family supported my endeavor. These two dissenters believe in the inevitability of my dying by coup d’états, diseases, popular revolt—and, because it’s Africa, ferocious zebras, stampeding elephants, and murderous Tarzans. I appreciate their concern, though, because their worrying shows that they love me and want me to be safe. I am, after all, their son and grandson.

On a scale from 0 to 10, I told Jolie that I ranked my family’s overall support as a 9. She seemed relieved at my 9 because she said family support for volunteers is very important, and a lack of it could easily make volunteers prematurely quit their terms and return to the United States.

Now onto the juicy parts of my placement. To torment the souls of potential Peace Corps volunteers nationwide, Satan devised the bureaucratic policy that Peace Corps placement officers aren’t allowed to disclose the volunteer’s country over the phone. Jolie could only give me hints of my future home.

Here’s what Jolie the Reluctant Clairvoyant revealed about my life for June 2008 to September 2010:

  • I leave June 9, 2008.
  • I will be teaching English and HIV/AIDS education to secondary education students.
  • My country is “exciting.” (Note: When I asked Jolie if she said all countries were exciting to all her potential volunteers, she said, “No, this country is really exciting. We just sent a group of agriculture volunteers there, and the general consensus among them was that they had won the Peace Corps lottery with their country.”)
  • My country is not Morocco.

The answer to this frustrating game of “20 Questions” is now in the mail and will arrive in Reno in little less than a week. Considering that I thought my invitation letter would arrive in April, this is happy news.

Until then, gumshoes, where is this Carmen Sandiego going? What country is like winning the Peace Corps lottery? I excitedly looked through the Peace Corps web site with Jolie’s clues and have four guesses for my country: Lesotho (prized perhaps for its remarkable landscapes), Cape Verde (prized perhaps for its tropical islands), Madagascar (prized perhaps for its exoticism and tropical climate), and Morocco (prized perhaps for “Casablanca” and hashish).

Of these four, I think the most likely is Madagascar. French is a growing language there while in the outskirts, people speak Malagasy and other local languages. Volunteers in Madagascar teach English and HIV/AIDS education (and agriculture, too, which plays into Jolie’s lottery anecdote).

Cape Verde is a close second in my guessing. While French is not spoken in the capital, its main language is Portuguese, a somewhat widespread language. Volunteers there also teach English and HIV/AIDS education, and it is probably like winning the lottery because of its tropical climate and not-horrible economic conditions.

Arabic, a widespread language, is spoken alongside French in Morocco. This prediction comes with the assumption that Jolie’s a world champion leg puller. As for Lesotho, some French is spoken there, but its outskirts host regional languages like Zulu and Xhosa, languages I doubt the Rosetta Stone will be soon offering for their growing popularity.

For the fact that I’ve “won the Peace Corps lottery,” I’m no longer ambivalent about my impending invitation letter. Now I’m more giddy than a child on Christmas morning. What present will Santa drop into my mailbox next week?


Waiting for my invitation

February 17, 2008

When I tell people of my plans to join the Peace Corps, the first question they usually ask me is, “Do you know where you’re going?”

To some extent, yes, I do know where I’m going. I will be leaving the United States in June for a Francophone country in Africa to teach English. I don’t know which country I’ll be headed to—I’m hoping for Morocco or Madagascar—but I believe I’ll learn of my country in April.

In April the Peace Corps will send me an invitation letter with a date of departure and my country. This is the last step of the application game: I’ll have 10 days to mull over the letter and respond with my decision whether or not to join. Ten days to decide my fate for 27 months.

Of course, I can leave the Peace Corps at any time during those 27 months. At the moment I’m forced to shovel elephant dung for an African shaman or sever an arm for an obscure Togolese sacrificial ritual, I can snap my fingers and return via plane to the United States. Permitting, however, that I don’t develop suicidal tendencies from being in such a miserable state of affairs, I plan to stay in the Peace Corps for the full 27 month term.

Indeed, 10 days to decide my fate for 27 months. Perhaps I don’t value my arm as much as I should.

I’m very ambivalent about my impending invitation letter. One part of me is excited to rip the envelope open, swing open the letter and discover my new home; the other part is nervous that when I swing open the letter, I’ll find that the Peace Corps bureaucrats in Washington D.C. mistakenly assigned me for Iraq or the South Atlantic Ocean. After seeing an op-ed in The New York Times in January 2008 from a former Peace Corps director of Cameroon, I’m also dreading to read “Cameroon” on my invitation letter. (The director painted a bleak picture of the Peace Corps’ ineffectiveness in the country for recent college graduate volunteers like me.)

Then again, as crazy as it sounds, I don’t think I’d decline the invitation if the Peace Corps does want to drop me into a war zone, ocean, or eternally ill-fated country. I’ve banked on joining the Peace Corps for six months. I’ve ignored other possible plans like graduate school, Teach for America and exciting international employment opportunities so that I could volunteer in God-knows-where enduring God-knows-what. For years I’ve wanted to do the Peace Corps for its humanity and adventure. When the invitation letter arrives on an April mid morning, is there really within me the possibility of declining?

In the meantime, I’ll continue my last semester at the university. I have other occupations in my classes and honors thesis to distract me from my ambivalence. What is very certain, however, is that when I do receive the letter and the 10 day consideration period begins, it’ll be the most self-reflective 10 days I’ve ever had.