My alarm rings at 4:38 a.m. The rain’s pace quickens and slows down within the span of 10 minutes and I have an internal battle. If I get up now, I can squeeze in a short run and meet my fellow PCVs for breakfast before they return to their respective villages. Or, I could keep this cocoon position, safe and warm. Maybe 20 more minutes, I decide.
The rain halts at 5:52 a.m. I decide on a shorter run and quickly put on my shoes. My iPod is dead and the rain, now falling again, has kept most in their homes. It is just me, the cool rain and Lesotho’s rolling hills.
I’ve always loved running in the rain, but it is not as feasible in Lesotho where the roads are mostly dirt and a warm bucket bath is not nearly as effective as a hot shower at warming the bones. Today, though, I can run on pavement and shower after. It occurs to me, as both the rain and my heart are beating at rapid paces, my soul needed this exception.
We’ve known for a few months that our mid-service conference would be in the middle of January. It seemed so far off in November, but it snuck up between the holidays and vacations. A monument of one year gone, I was eager to see the rest of my group and officially start the next year. Around a small table, it is painfully obvious how small our group is now – 17 down from the original 23, losing two in the last month. Some faces I saw only a week prior, some it has been seven months. At the end of the two-day conference, we joke that the next time we will all be together is for our close of service conference. August feels like tomorrow.
To emotionally process the last year and the upcoming one, a third-year volunteer asks us to think about the day our invitations came in the mail and we decided to accept them.
“What did you say yes to?” Delia asks.
Living and working abroad. Pausing life for two years. Challenge. Travel. Adventure. Entering the unknown. Giving up comforts.
“What did you say no to?” she follows up.
A stable job, marriage and children in my 20s. An income. A lifetime of “I wish I would have …” Expectations others had for me. The misery of wondering each day what else is out there.
I am handed a letter addressed to Heather M. Mangan written in March 2012.
You are a PCV because you wanted to do something big with your life. You have one shot in this world and you were not content in just sitting at home. You wanted to contribute, to be more. You want to leave life tired and knowing you gave your all. Keep with it. Never stop working and giving. Engage in the world and always show your best side. You can do it.
The conference is over and we have one night left together. Dinner is not ready so we head to the back bar. Some fill up glasses of red wine while others take large gulps of beer. Normally I take an opportunity to enjoy a cold drink with my friends, but I have pledge three months of sobriety in preparation for my ultra marathon so I chug warm water instead.
The heat has faded and the sun is high, so we decided to sit outside on plastic white chairs. In a circle, I stare at each face. We like to declare that we are the most beautiful group in Peace Corps and I have a hard time arguing with that statement.
In the United States, this odd group of people would have never come together but here we are, a second family. Our lives at home are starkly different than the ones we lead in Lesotho and not entirely known by each other, but we are still a piece of each other. It’s not always harmonious but, like many families, we eventually let go of conflicts and are thankful for each other at the end of the day. It’s hard to imagine that these people were not a part of my life 15 months ago, but I don’t want to.
Our first session of the conference is to reflect on the last year. Because this is Peace Corps, we are handed flip chart paper and a marker to record our success, lessons learned and wishes for the second year. We then present them, learning so much more about each other than what happened at last week’s party or where we will go for the next vacation.
It seemed like another tedious session, but I realized my first year was better, and more productive, than I claim.
Success: Relationships with teachers, students and community members. Improved scores. Small behavior changes. Able to move around Lesotho. Acceptance (community and host family). Personal growth. Recording these experiences with my blog and newspaper column. Motivating students. PCV friendships. Girls’ club. Incorporating grading programs. Writing a novel.
Lessons: Knowing the different between failing and succeeding the wrong way. How to get through the tough moments and to the next good one. Not judging the situation until I know all the facts. A smile is always the best option. I can do this. It’s better to try. Peace and friendship is better than peace and development.
Wishes: Teach an external class. Help Mohau build her blog. Resume English club. Run an ultra marathon. Visit Qacha’s Nek. Continue and build girls’ club. Host HIV workshop. Kill an animal/work in the fields. Start a reading program.
Around the room are phrases printed on white computer paper and taped to orange construction paper.
I am receiving from this experience what I am putting into it.
I am dreading the next year.
I got what I came here for.
I made a commitment and I am going to stick to it.
I am ready to go home.
I feel that my presence is making a difference.
I am looking forward to the next year and feel like I can handle whatever happens.
Our instructions are to honestly access how we feel at this point in our service and stand next to the one we feel is most appropriate to those feelings.
I am alone at my sign. There are others I could have stood next to, but I am being honest. We go around the room, read our phrases and explain why we are there.
“I would be better if …” I say and, with a slight tremble in my voice, explain the nagging voice that haunts me.
Sure, I knew I couldn’t change the world, but I still wanted to do something significant. Each day I wonder what else I could be doing, if there is more of myself I need to give. Do I just let projects fall because I am lazy and it is hard? Or am I really giving all that I can? The revolving thoughts add layers of guilt and I fear a wasted service and regret.
After, a staff member pulls me aside and later another PCV. You need to give yourself more credit, Heather. You are doing more than you think.
Heather Mangan has always been hard on herself and two years of personal reflection may soften the blows but they will likely not decease. Instead of fighting that voice, I accept it and try to turn it down. Maybe that is a wish for the next year.
Our country director ends the conference with a few housekeeping notes. She reminds us that when we meet again she will have ended her tenure in Lesotho and there will be a new face to end our service.
A PCV herself, she understands the trials and tribulations that come with this job. She knows how hard it can be and how broken one can feel.
But she also understands the beauty and why this experience will always be one of the best in our life.
She chokes back tears as she says, “Up until I got married (just three years prior), the three years in the Peace Corps were the best of my life.”
It’s not always easy to carry the lessons learned throughout the rest of your life, but she hopes that we do. She tells to do all that we can and enjoy the last year without regrets.
As I see this woman, someone I highly respect, speak about her own experiences and internally reflect that her days in Lesotho are also numbered, I am reminded that there is no place on Earth that I should be and that I am one of the luckiest people in the world to have this experience. It’s one that changes you, and for the better.
The morning’s rain rolls off the foothills like thick gray smoke, creating rings around the peaks. The bushes, aloe plants and grass are brighter than I’ve noticed before and the village smells fresh and new. I feel that way too, after a hearty breakfast and inappropriately long hot shower. The rain is gone but the village is relatively quiet for 10 a.m. An older woman leads me home on an obscure path to avoid the new mud. When I reach my little rondaval, I take off my filthy shoes and step barefoot on to the concrete floor. I put on the teakettle and light a scented candle. I look around this circular room and feel more at home than most apartments I’ve had. It all feels right. And, for that, I am blessed.