A new reality has begun for us all.  For me, it started on March 16th.  On this day, I left Ecuador, learned that I was relieved of my Peace Corps service (which means they were relieved of responsibility for me), and I was sent back to the United States with two months transitional health insurance and the inability to apply for unemployment insurance (although Congress is now trying to change that).  No purpose.  No official home.  And no end date for this craziness.  No different than many of you, except for one thing, I’m trying to adjust to this reality in a whole new culture.

In February, I attended our Peace Corps “Close of Service” Conference with many sessions regarding our end-of-service reports.  I was feeling so thankful that I could put these off for another year since I was planning on extending my service until 2021.  Several sessions also spoke to the true realities of reverse cultural shock we were all going to experience upon our eventual return to the United States.  Many thousands of previously Returned Peace Corps Volunteers have spoken and written empathetically about this surprise.  After all, we already adjusted to a completely different country with different languages, customs, culture and communication patterns… returning to what we know and grew up in will certainly be easier, right?  Not so, they say.  For some, returning can be just as hard of a jolt and it often takes between six months to a year to cycle through the stages of frustration, adjustment and acceptance.  The proverbial grass is always greener, so they say.

I listened to these presentations with only half an ear.  I longed to return to the US for just a visit, to see beloved family and friends again.  But there has also been a knowing slowly growing in my heart; South America could be my home for awhile.  Peace Corps has been a wonderful security blanket for me, enabling me to gain confidence in speaking Spanish, teach to all grade levels including the university, find a community and support system, prospect for future job opportunities, and dream about the possibilities of living abroad.  I didn’t expect to have to face a US cultural re-entry process for a long time to come.

And yet, here I am.  I’m so lucky to have landed at my brother and sister-in-law’s in Elgin, Illinois, my home town.  But I’ve barely left the neighborhood since I arrived… which suits me fine.  Yes, there’s this dangerous pandemic out there, and I’m following the stay-at-home orders as I should.  But it’s also the first time I’ve returned to Elgin since my parent’s death, so the home quarantine is affording me a softer landing.  There’s much I don’t feel the need to see or experience yet.  Just being in this house, meeting “Alexa”, listening to the news, and watching the over-packaged and processed food arrive after someone’s braved a store (and the prices!), is enough of a culture shock right now.

On the positive side, I’m enjoying many things again in the US:

–There’s a magical machine called a dryer.  You put your clothes in, and they come out 30 minutes later smelling warm and fresh.  That’s amazing.

–Ice cubes and water come out the front of a refrigerator.  I don’t have to buy bottled water and I don’t have to boil it.  And it’s culturally acceptable to put ice cubes in everything.  That’s lovely.

–There is a change in seasons.  I love that I’ve gotten to play in snow again, and I’m experiencing the first blooms of spring.  I’m also paying close attention to the sun as it is setting a little later each day.  That’s such a gift after living in a permanent 6am-6pm cycle.

–Animals are inside.  It’s nice to have the family dog on my lap.

–There’s wide open spaces, parks and wetlands within this neighborhood.  I love walking among the Oaks and listening to the Red-Wing Blackbirds, the Robins and the Morning Doves.

–It’s culturally acceptable to walk around my house and yard barefoot.  I really missed that.

–There’s GOOD pizza- and it can be delivered right to your door!  Amazing!

–There’s a variety of flavors of food.  Just this week, we’ve had Indian, Asian, Mediterranean and Mexican as well as many guilty pleasures such as creamy ice cream, chips and salsa and almond butter.  Yum!

–Speaking aloud doesn’t send me into an anxious panic every time I open my mouth.  Here, I can speak in English.  Movies and news are in English, too.  I understand everything!  It’s such a relief!

–And ofcourse, after so many years of living in a different state and abroad, I’m getting to spend time with my wonderful US family again.

It’s true, my list of modern wonders is short… because I lived in a fairly well-developed country.  I can’t even imagine if I was a returning volunteer from the far reaches of Asia or Africa.  Their lists are undoubtedly much longer.

At the same time, there are things I miss about Ecuador:
Obviously fresh fruit and vegetables, mountains of it, all around.  Here, tropical fruit comes in plastic and I learned that you can buy avocado in frozen chunks.  (That immediately triggered the 4 stages of culture shock as I gaped into the freezer!)

But really, I miss my Ecuadorian family and I miss the people.  Ecuadorians take time in their life to be present in their relationships and enjoy life to the fullest.  They are so kind and generally go out of their way to include you in, share what they have and make everyone in their community better together.  They just live their life laughing.  It’s a way of being that spoke to me deeply.

So here I sit, feeling lucky for what I have and happy to have the time to do some planning… after all, it only took four days before a few people started asking, “What’s next?”

Peace Corps has stated that they would like to re-instate volunteers and send us back to our posts, but conceivably, it will not be until late fall or winter before the green light is given.  And, they haven’t said whether or not they would start the clock fresh to honor my planned third year, or only the few months remaining in my original contract.  So, at this point, I have no idea whether I will be able to return to my service in Ecuador.

Peace Corps has done a very good job setting up webinars and informational briefings for us all to find government jobs and improve our employment chances in the private sector.  And ofcourse, I could be a teacher in the US again.  All of these are options and I’ve spent considerable time thinking about them.  But if I’ve learned anything in my past two years, I’ve learned that the Universe is going to take care of me, so I might as well do what I really want to do… and my gut is clearly telling me to enjoy this time to re-root and re-connect, and then, when it’s over, carry on with my plans.

Over the past year, an idea has been sprouting: After finishing my service, I planned to use my end-of-service payout to backpack and work my way around South America.  Afterwards, I would like to find an international teaching job somewhere to settle down, save money, and live the life of an Expat- at least for awhile.  Covid-19 might be screwing up my timeline, but nothing is telling me that I should change this plan.  Life is short.  I’m still young at heart.  South America offers a good quality life for a much cheaper price.  And, for the foreseeable future, it’s where I want to be.

So, I’m happily spending the stay-in-place order researching visas and teaching opportunities, practicing Spanish, and dreaming for adventures to come.  And when social restraints start loosening – before I fly south – I hope to spread my wings, flit a little around the US, and maybe, if you ask, come visit you!

Dear Readers, 

This will be my last Blog post for awhile… but only for awhile.  I look forward to restarting our conversation when my adventures continue beyond these four walls.  Until then, thank you for joining my journey and giving me an audience for my thoughts.  My Ecuadorian experience was shaped tremendously by the writing of this Blog; the need to dig deeper, understand more and process all that I was living.  You have no idea how much I appreciate you and how, with you at my side, I’m always a little braver to jump into whatever life has to offer.  Your encouragement and support has meant the world to me. 

Until we meet again, be well my friends.  
Qué le vaya bien.