The application to join the Peace Corps is no joke. Medical tests, letters of recommendation, a security check, resume, and other items, make up the application packet and it took me months to fulfill everything. Already in my 60s, I worried that I would be fit enough to carry a 50lb bag – one of the questions they asked. I imagined myself walking down a rural road in the mountains with a heavy pack. I mean, even the subway stairs in NYC get me exhausted. But I climb them daily.
There was one rather large hiccup in my months-long process. I had serious dental work a few days before my online Peace Corps interview. The dental work led to an infection and I caught a terrible cold and sinus flare-up at the same time. I was miserable about the cold but excited about the interview. On the afternoon of the interview, I chose my clothes carefully and set up the camera angle to show the nicest area of my room. I remember suddenly feeling elated… The next thing I remember is standing in my room, feeling wobbly. I walked downstairs and my son-in-law asked me how the interview had gone. I slowly stuttered, “I, I, I don’t remember.” He stared at me and told me to sit down. The next thing I knew, my daughter was whisking me to the hospital. She and the doctors, feared that I had suffered a stroke. What? NO! They began with questions like, “What day is it? What date is it?” questions that even on a good day, I have a hard time remembering because my schedule is so free floating. They asked, “Who is the President?” “Obama,” I answered easily. My daughter said that I said things or asked questions and then I’d repeat them again. She stared at me which made me uncomfortable. Even in my dizzy state, I worried about the Peace Corps. Had I missed my online interview??
After a series of medical tests and a night in the hospital, I was given the green light to return home. I looked in my computer and found emails that I had sent to a couple of friends, telling them about my Peace Corps interview. So I did have the interview! And a week later I received a letter from the Peace Corps offering me an official invitation to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala!
My “medical incident” entailed losing about five hours of memory which I never regained. I was sent to a neurologist who continued to observe me over the next six months. At the end of that time frame, my brain glitch was considered a non-recurring incident. The primary doctor and the neurologist gave me a clean bill of health and signed me off to go to Guatemala. The Peace Corps’ medical team also okay’d me and with that, I was ready to leave the U.S.!
I was excited to leave but sad to say goodbye to my young grandchildren. I had lived with them since their homebirths. I had cradled them in my arms while their mom, my daughter, finished her acupuncture training and opened a new community acupuncture clinic. They were still so young, innocent and beautiful. My heart was nearly broken and so were theirs, as I said goodbye. I promised to write and call. We had high hopes of staying close.
I lived in NYC and my mother, on the west coast, felt just as sad about my leaving the U.S. She worried about my well-being and whether we could stay in touch from such a long distance. I reassured her over and over again. But at age 93, she was prone to worry. I worried too, because of her age. But I didn’t live near her anyway and I knew that if I enter the Peace Corps now, I might lose the opportunity forever. After all, I wasn’t getting any younger.
I used to think that being in Guatemala would feel like being a hop, skip and a jump away from the U.S. After all, it would be easy to pick up a phone, send a text, or face chat, wouldn’t it? Once I arrived in my assigned site, I wrote group emails to family and friends. Only a couple of friends wrote back, short notes to say hi. Everyone seemed a million miles away.
So I had to, at least initially, focus on my new surroundings and my new cohort of trainees. We were housed in small villages surrounding the beautiful town of Antigua. Our cohort of twenty-eight Peace Corps trainees was named: Baktun 8.
“A baktun is 20 katun cycles of the ancient Maya Long Count Calendar. It contains 144,000 days, equal to 394.26 tropical years. The Classic period of Maya civilization occurred during the 8th and 9th baktuns of the current calendrical cycle.”
We were then divided into two training groups: Healthy Schools and Youth in Development. Sometimes we trained within our select groups and other times we met altogether, to learn about Guatemalan culture, Peace Corps safety regulations, and international development. We also frequently met in small group to practice Spanish. Each training session began with a game (dinamica). The dinamicas were always fun but as an older person in a group of primarily young folks, I was challenged to keep up! In our entire group, six of us were in our sixties and one was in her fifties. But age became less and less important over time.
A curious thing happened in my first few weeks. I felt lonely. I was surrounded by people but my Spanish was weak and my self-confidence plummeted. I maintained a stiff upper lip and smiled my way through most things, but I felt shaky inside. I suddenly realized that I had not said hello to the land. It was a startling realization, I had not grounded myself in my new surroundings. So, returning to the innocence of my inner child, I walked around outdoors, saying hello to the ground and flora, and energetically rooted myself in the embrace of mother earth. After that, I was good – I was more than good; I was home.
A psychic friend told me, before I left the U.S., that I would be happier than I could imagine, in Guatemala. It’s true, it really is. I feel myself expanding in joy. Once again, I feel connected to my family and friends, even with the simultaneous feeling of distance. I’m not waiting for anyone or anything. Everything feels soft.