A Peace Corps social

April 18, 2008

The wind in Reno on Monday threw tree branches to the ground and lifted hats off our heads and into the air. Cars were blown into other lanes without warning, and I walked as if five invisible bouncers were trying to push me out of a bar. The wind was so powerful that a business building window at my university shattered, raining glass four stories down and sending a set of blinds into a nearby tree.

Outside’s tumult was incongruously met with a warm gathering of return Peace Corps volunteers, volunteers soon to be leaving, and applicants inside a restaurant a few blocks away from my apartment. This gathering was a social put on by Peace Corps employees from the San Francisco office. (I already knew one of the employees because she helped conduct my in-person interview in September.)

I climbed the restaurant’s staircase to find two tables of people young and old sipping on beers and telling stories of their travels. I sat down at the end of a table and a girl, Carly, the girlfriend of a volunteer who I believe returned from Ukraine in November, spoke to me.

“So how about you?” she said. “Have you already done the Peace Corps? Are you leaving or what?”

“Oh, well, actually, I’m leaving in June,” I said. Another person further down the table heard me and called out, “You’re leaving in June? Where are you going?” The other guests at the table turned their heads to me with curiosity.

“I’m going to Madagascar.” Everyone then gave a collective gasp of jealousy. They turned to each other and gossiped about how lucky I was.

Accordingly, volunteers throughout the evening told me how they had hoped to be sent to Madagascar. A twenty-something man going to volunteer in Mali in June told me, “I’m a little mad. Apparently my recruiter lied to me. I told her I wanted to go to Madagascar, but she said there was only one group of volunteers going there, and that group was leaving in February. But obviously after talking to you, there’s another group going.” He said this while smiling—he didn’t mind, of course, that he was going to Mali—but I could understand if he had a hint of ire.

Another man in his fifties was preparing to leave for Togo this summer. He said Madagascar was on top of his wish list because he wanted to see and work with the animals, but instead he was assigned to Togo, a country where its inhabitants have eradicated most of its animals by burning its trees. He gave me his e-mail address and told me to write to him of any Aye-aye sightings.

(Madagascar’s Aye-aye is the most horrifying animal I’ve ever seen. When I jokingly wrote my grandpa that I wanted a pet lemur during my term, he wrote back, “Bet you find some strange little animals over there that you’ll want as a pet more that a lemur. Like maybe this little guy!! He’s a Aye-aye.” Not knowing what an Aye-aye was, I researched it online. This Satanic animal is like a wingless bat with huge grass green eyes and long-fingered human-like hands. Malagasy folklore says this beast crawls into homes during the night and kills sleeping humans by puncturing them in the heart with their middle fingers. I wrote back to my grandfather and sheepishly said that I would rather have a friendly lemur for a pet than a monstrous Aye-aye.)

Most of the guests at the social were return volunteers. At one point we took turns standing and introducing ourselves and telling of how we were affiliated with the Peace Corps. The return volunteers said the Peace Corps had changed their lives and was the greatest job they’d ever had. Their words made me even more excited to leave—less than two months to go!

Carly, the girlfriend of a return volunteer, said she was a special education teacher at an elementary school, and I related to her the story of when I visited a class of autistic students at my former high school a few weeks ago. Last month over Spring Break I went to Las Vegas. In between fighting a head cold, writing my honors thesis, and visiting my family and friends, I met with Allie Levine, my high school sweetheart who recently married and now goes by Allie Garcia, a name still awkward for my tongue to pronounce. She is presently a long-term substitute teacher for mentally-challenged students, and I met her while she taught class. The students, about ten or so, occupied themselves with their own pastimes: A boy played with an electronic globe game, a girl wrote of her day in her journal, a third began reading “The Giving Tree” with Mrs. Garcia and so on. One had the ineluctable tendency of touching his ears with his hands, and another wore a helmet and carried herself as if one touch would break her into pieces.

“And there’s nothing you can really do with these students,” I told Carly, “other than babysit them, really. You can’t teach them anything, they don’t have the ability to learn. So all you can do is play with them. Going to that class made me realize that all these students need is love. They need friends and people to care about them. They’re often ignored, you know, and I think they need to have the feeling that there’re people that care about them.”

Mrs. Garcia gave them that feeling. During our relationship and afterwards, I admired her for her ability to love indiscriminately. She was always smiling and her eyes were always sparkling.

“And so I’m trying to incorporate that into my own life. I think there needs to be more love in this world. There’s a whole lot of love going on between family and friends that isn’t really expressed—and why not? Why is it so hard to tell the people you love that you love them? I have friends that I genuinely love, but I don’t know if they know it because I don’t tell them that I do. I didn’t start telling my parents that I loved them until I went off to college, and that’s a shame. I mean, they’re my parents!

“I’m going to try live lovingly when I’m in Madagascar. Along with teaching English, I want to be their friend. I think if there’s more love in this world, then people can start talking to each other and understanding each other easier. If I can help teach the mentality that we should be more open and loving with each other, maybe it’ll spread and spread throughout the world and then people will stop being so violent with each other. It doesn’t hurt to try.”