After evacuation, a Peace Corps Volunteer asks 'what now?' and finds the answer with AmeriCorps
I still remember silently saying goodbye to the waning moon hanging delicately in the Albanian sky. That was the night I realized that I, along with the rest of my Peace Corps cohort, would be evacuated back to the United States from our post. Four international airports later, I landed on American soil.
Uniformed military personnel took my temperature, asking “where are you traveling from?” as they held the scanning thermometer to my forehead. “Montenegro and Albania, for Peace Corps,” I answered, handing over my passport. As one of the soldiers returned the passport, they told me with a sort of vague-but-sincere optimism, “I’m sure you’ll be back in no time,” though it seemed as if their words were swept away in the roar of 1,000 other American voices in that moment, each calling out the details of their return, each marked by apprehension of the days to come.
I slung my gear over my shoulders and walked on. Much like the pack on my back, the very idea of the evacuation weighed heavy on me. Nevertheless, I was sure the soldier would be right. “Back in no time,” I said to myself, echoing their words.
Yet as weeks turned to months, a simple but gnawing question began to persist. Five weeks into quarantine, it was a mere whisper. Five months into quarantine, however, the crescendo had made this question undeniably audible: “What now?”
I had joined the Peace Corps to serve – to rise to the challenges of building a better world, willing to accept the invitation to live in a place I’d never seen and work alongside people I’d never met, “in conditions of hardship if necessary,” as the slogan goes. Watching as the pandemic intensified hardship across the globe, not least of which in communities across America, I could not deny that my calling to serve was stronger than ever. This much was clear. I decided to search for a way forward, aiming to resume a journey which, for me, had begun in the Balkans.
Eventually, I found that path in AmeriCorps VISTA, accepting an offer to serve in the high desert state of Wyoming. I had never been and knew not a soul there. Just as I had done when I left for the Peace Corps, I packed up my gear and headed out for a place sight unseen, back on the path to service. Not knowing what lie ahead, though, I wondered to what degree this next year in Wyoming could be the sort of unofficial continuation of the Peace Corps journey I longed for. For all my hope, I knew only time would tell.
Nearly six months after being evacuated from Peace Corps, I found myself reporting for service at my site once again, this time in the rugged mountains not of the Balkans, but of our own country.
I still remember Day One – how quickly I began to see the parallels between what my Peace Corps story had been and what my AmeriCorps story would be.
The pickup truck rattled a bit as we drove a length of the state highway with the windows rolled down, the wind soaring up the side of the canyon as we ran along the Shoshone River. My new boss, a strongly mustached Montanan named James, seemed proud to offer a tour of the local geology. Being so close to Yellowstone National Park, the jagged land was strikingly beautiful – though rugged and severe, it possessed an undeniably mystic beauty. Eventually, as we turned back to head towards town, our conversation shifted to how I ended up in Wyoming in the first place.
“So, you were in Montenegro, right?” He asked.
“Yes sir,” I responded, looking out to the endless sagebrush steppe as we cut through it. The Montenegrin word for sage – žalfija – came to mind.
“Funny enough,” I continued, “Montenegro means ‘Black Mountain’ – they have a lot of mountains there, too. I guess you could say I traded those mountains for these.” The hum of the truck’s engine and the singing of the river down below filled a moment’s pause in my speech.
“In that way, it’s a bit like I never left.” I smiled at the thought and gestured to the dusty, high desert peaks of Western Wyoming in view on the horizon. It was noon and the sun hung high in the August sky. Still, I knew that if it was noon here, the sun would have already started setting in the Balkans, many time zones away – many worlds away, perhaps, if I allowed myself to admit it. Did I really believe that the path I had started so far away could continue here?
One year later, as I drove out of Wyoming heading east for graduate school in Washington, D.C., I realized that I had found the answer to this question: yes. Of course, my high desert home out in Wyoming would remain eight time zones away from the village I had fallen in love with back in Montenegro, and it would still be fair to say that the Rocky Mountain West and a former republic of Yugoslavia were in fact worlds apart in countless ways, as one would rightly expect. Despite these evident contrasts, though, my Peace Corps story found its continuation through the vehicle of AmeriCorps all the same, the essence of the former seeming to have reincarnated into the latter.
There were many elements of this jointly woven story that stood out to me both then and now; the nature of the service work itself, the ethic of living at the level of the community at hand, and even the frequent referrals I made to my Peace Corps training and toolkits, such as my trusty PACA guide, made me aware of this continuity.
One element in particular though, the force for good that is the returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) family, really drove the point home. Remarkably, despite only being in a town of a few thousand souls tucked away in the shadow of Yellowstone, I came to meet three other RPCVs.
There was Amy who had served in Togo back in the 1990s; DJ who served in Georgia and Ukraine a decade or so ago; and Betsy who was serving in Mongolia up until the very same COVID-19 evacuation which had brought me back to the states brought her back, too. The fact that four RPCVs had found each other in this little mountain town was remarkable in its own right, especially given that the RPCVs I met were not there as fellow AmeriCorps volunteers but rather on their own separate journeys, converging seemingly by coincidence. What was truly special about this crossing of paths, though, was that through their shared partnership and advocacy of the work I sought to accomplish during my AmeriCorps service, these folks formed a sort of informal Peace Corps cohort that supported the project with time, insight, and when it called for it, sweat equity. So much of what was accomplished during my AmeriCorps service is owed to these RPCVs.
This, in my view, is a testament that the Peace Corps community is a whole greater than the sum of its parts made strong by the people it shapes and those who, in turn, shape it. It demonstrated to me that even when a Volunteer leaves the Peace Corps, the Peace Corps never really leaves the Volunteer.
Ultimately, what I learned from this journey and the people I met along the way is that when we are searching for a path towards building a better world, sometimes we ought simply to take a look around and start where we find ourselves.
If I think back to the soldier who took my temperature upon reentry to the U.S. during the evacuation, if I think back to what they had told me about returning to the path of service, I recall their words: “You’ll be back in no time.” And though the path wound its way through different mountains on a different continent and in a different hemisphere than I had first begun, I realize now that by getting back on the trail where I found myself, back in the high desert West of our own country, those words held true.