At the end of our training, we wrote letters to ourselves that would (hopefully) be returned to us to read at the end of our service. We got our letters back at our Close of Service conference, and while it was fun to read, I also felt it was a little pointless. A letter from the future me telling me what to expect would have been more helpful. That one would have reflections and advice instead of just musings about what might happen and plans that didn’t actually come to fruition (not that that’s a bad thing). Looking at my letter to my future self, though, my past self could have probably used a few lessons from my current self. So here’s what I (now) have to say to me (then) about what happens over the next/past two years.
Yes, that’s right, you are still Natalie. You will fully embrace your identity as Tali when you get to your village, but you’re not quite there yet.
These next two years will be everything and nothing that you expect. You will have those quintessential Peace Corps moments – random power outages, no running water, way too many kids jabbering away at you in a language you can actually understand (for the most part). You will also have plenty of moments that step right out of life in the States – hot water and air conditioning, fancy cell phones, and what will seem like too much English for your time here to qualify as “the Peace Corps experience.” Don’t worry. Just as much as you dislike the familiarity (Peace Corps is supposed to be like nothing I’ve ever known before) you will love it when you are looking for something comforting to remind you of home, or at least give you a break from Samoa.
I do have a few words of advice (and maybe some warnings) for you.
You will be sick. It will be miserable because you are in a foreign country and so far away from familiar facilities or anyone who would baby you and bring you orange juice to take your pills. Remember that time you were so sick on Thanksgiving at Grandma’s? Expect that at least 3 or 4 more times, not to mention everything else that happens. Colds, strep throat, it’s all here waiting for you.
Don’t worry about water. Yes, it will seem like your life is ending every time it goes away, but that doesn’t define your life for the entire time you are here. By the end of your two years here, you will hardly remember what it is like to survive on less than a bucket of water a day and you will miss doing laundry at the waterfall (you can’t be bothered to do it under regular circumstances because why go to all the trouble of hauling everything a mile and a half down the road, washing it, then carrying it back, when you could just let it soak in your shower?).
Go to all the trouble to build all those relationships in your village. The sooner you learn to ask for help and to ask for the things you want, the easier it will be to get the things you need. These relationships are essential to every aspect of your well-being – emotional, physical, and spiritual. You will not survive without your neighbors and the family across the street, and everyone else is just icing on the cake. Love them, appreciate them, and show them at every opportunity how much they mean to you.
Stop comparing yourself to other PCVs. Do whatever it takes so that you don’t measure yourself by their lives. Skip out on training sessions, pass up Peace Corps outings, whatever it takes. You will survive without living your life in their presence or shadow. As you told Mafi the other day, your life isn’t actually lacking, it just seems like it is when you compare it to everyone else (I don’t want to hear your bellyaching, this is true! Even when you don’t have running water, you still have water. It just takes a lot more effort to get it, and you use a lot less of it). At the same time, they are still your peers and your Peace Corps family. They deserve a lot more respect and patience than you sometimes show them.
Otherwise, don’t worry too much. I can’t tell you how much energy you waste worrying about what will happen, what hasn’t happened, or what might happen. It’s worthless. Whatever happens, happens, and you have survived it so far. You will grow so much, do amazing things in your village and at school, and manage to keep learning Samoan throughout your entire time here. Eventually, your life stops shocking you and turns into a daily routine again. This is both good and bad. It is good because it means you are less stressed about every little thing that happens. This is actually really good. It’s bad because you aren’t constantly amazed at how beautiful everything is about Samoa and begin to lose the details of what makes it so wonderful. Occasionally you still lose yourself in the sunset, the sound of the ocean, the technicolor life you find yourself in, but not continuously. If you can, try not to lose sight of that. Both while you are in Samoa and wherever you find yourself in the future. Life, the world, is amazing. Take the time to notice everything about it.
If nothing else, take heart from the fact that you are writing this now at the end of your Peace Corps service. Everything that happens (or from your perspective, might happen) has been surviveable. Ya, there are things you could probably do better if you had a chance to do them over, but don’t dwell on it. Focus on yourself now, and look to the possibilities of the future without forgetting the lessons of the past. Yes, sometimes it seems absolutely impossible to go on, but there will also be about as many times when everything feels so heartbreakingly real, beautiful, and alive. Whenever you doubt yourself, know that you will do amazing things while you are here.