We knew we’d be able to come home whenever we wanted, theoretically. The Peace Corps does not want volunteers who don’t want to be there. It’s not the army, after all.
In practical terms, though, it would be hard to come home early. The Chincoteague house would be rented to tourists for the duration. If we came home early, where would we go?
Through my morning meditations overlooking the canal, I focused more and more on the grand adventure that lay before us.
For Woody, who didn’t share my sense of loss, this was easy. For me, it was essential. “Things” hung onto me fiercely, pulling me backwards into an overwhelming sense of unexpected grief.
I’d discovered three authors with a Buddhist bent: psychotherapists Mark Epstein, Charlotte Kasl, and John Welwood. And for the next year and a half, I spent an hour every morning reading their books, watching the ducks on our little canal, writing in my journal, and looking inward.
A Buddhist saying from one of these readings resonated for me: “In the end only three things matter. How fully you have lived. How deeply you have loved. How well you have learned to let go of things not meant for you.” It was an important lesson that came at the right time, as important lessons do.
The phone call telling me I’d cleared the medical hurdle came in early February 2004, while I was in Ohio babysitting four-month-old Isabella Louise and visiting four-month-and-two-day-old Elijah Walker. Woody’s call came two weeks later.
In mid-April, while now-six-month-old Elijah and his parents were visiting us in Virginia, another call came, telling us we were assigned to Kazakhstan, we’d both be teaching English at a college or university, and our departure would be June 10, 2004.
They gave us ten days to accept. We took two.
“We’re off to see the wizard,” I’d written everyone in my email address book when we first applied, nearly two years before. Now, I wrote them again, asking if anyone knew anything about this place I’d never heard of. Twenty-five wrote back immediately with surprising stories to tell or contacts to pass along.
We had a month to get our stray Philadelphia street cat and our adopted and adored greyhound to their already identified foster homes and learn what we could about Kazakhstan, a country so long hidden behind the Iron Curtain.
Embedded in that vast area I’d long called (incorrectly) Russia, Kazakhstan had been its own republic within the USSR, something like Ireland being its own country within Great Britain.
But even after the Soviet Union dissolved, Kazakhstan continued to stay hidden as the American press melded the five southernmost former-Soviet Republics into the collective “Stans.” I needed to learn what a distinct country this, the largest of them all, was.
Of initial help was a small booklet, The Peace Corps Welcomes You to Kazakhstan, which the Peace Corps mailed to us. The map in the booklet helped me orient. For the first time, I could see that Kazakhstan lay south of Russia and west of China, with the remaining “Stans” to the south.
I could also see that Kazakhstan was the largest by far of all of them, the ninth largest country in the world, we read. Actually, depending on what we read, Kazakhstan is four times the size of Texas, three times the size of Alaska, or half the size of the United States. Who knew?
We read, “Kazakhstan lies at the heart of the great Eurasian steppe, the band of grasslands stretching from Mongolia to Hungary that has provided for millennia the highway and grazing ground of nomadic horseback people.”
Nomads, by definition, wander. As a result, there would be no ruins or ancient cities to visit, no architecture to admire. But I did expect to ride a few horses. Loving horses since I was tiny, I began to get excited: I was going to be a Peace Corps volunteer.
The booklet explained that, depending upon where we’d be placed within the country, we could expect 100-degree Fahrenheit summers with mild winters or minus 40-degree Fahrenheit winters with mild summers.
And when I read in our little booklet, “People take pride in dressing well,” what mattered most became what to pack. Though I hadn’t worn a dress in years, after reading that Kazakh women “are very fashion conscious . . . Women usually wear skirts with shirts or sweaters or dresses” I hit the clothing catalogues and stocked up on skirts and tights for winter and cotton shifts for summer.
Flying out of D.C., we paid nearly $400 in overweight charges. We’d been so careful to stay within the size limits the Peace Corps gave us but, thanks to those ingenious plastic bags that let you expel the air and therefore fit more into each case, we’d forgotten the weight limits.
Between us, we checked five suitcases and Woody’s guitar. Woody wore his backpack and carried his camera bag and one rolling carry-on. I wore my leather rucksack/purse and carried another rolling carry-on.
We felt proud that we’d heeded the Peace Corps plea to “live as the locals do” and left our laptop at home. Before our two-month training was over, we’d buy a new one.
Next week, Part III of our “Application process.”