Friday, January 14, 2011

Two Years in the Making

Sarah and I got our Peace Corps invitation in the mail today. We're going to Romania on April 19 to teach English. This is almost two years to the day since we started the process on President Barack Obama's inauguration day (January 20, 2009). We've decided to sleep on our acceptance decision, but we're so excited that we can hardly contain ourselves. The plan is to e-mail our acceptance on the two year anniversary of the start of this process.

Back in August 2008, Sarah and I started volunteering on Obama's presidential campaign. It was an exciting and inspiring time and I felt a part of something world changing. The hope for a better world was palpable. Once he was elected, there was so much joy at a job well done, but I remember his acceptance speech as a call to continued service and work. In essence, the work was just beginning if we wanted to change the world.

As the emotions of election night cooled over the next few weeks, Sarah and I started to wonder what we could do to play our part. I discovered a Peace Corps info session at the REI store here in Boulder on inauguration night. While much of the country celebrated, Sarah and I decided to investigate the Peace Corps as the way to fill our desire to serve the world's needs. This could be our chance to make a change, not only for the world, but for ourselves. It seemed fitting, symbolic and just... right. Let the rest of world celebrate the start of change, as though it had already come. We wanted to celebrate by doing.

Little did we know that the process would take two years for us to even really begin, but here we are!

We got a phone call from our placement office, Susan, on Monday while we were at my brother, Mike's, house down in Melrose, FL. Since we were so hopeful that we'd be invited soon, we decided to make a point to visit my mom and all of my brothers and sisters this holiday season.

Susan could only tell us that Eastern Europe and Central Asia was our region, but she couldn't tell us the country. Sarah has been following the progress of invitations to all of the countries on the unofficial Peace Corps Wiki and thought that we'd be going to either Romania or Georgia, since we also knew we'd be leaving in April and that we'd be teaching English. Both of those countries had already had people invited for April. Shortly after, Sarah found that Turkmenistan had invitations for late March in 2010 and had not had any invitations for 2011 yet - another possibility.

As we started to do research, I realized that Turkmenistan borders both Iran and Afghanistan. The country is basically all desert. It would have been an extremely difficult assignment emotionally, physically, culturally - you name it.

I began a massive 24 hour freak out session at the prospect of drinking mutton fat dissolved in green tea (do a search for churban churpa), having sand rashes in places you don't want to imagine, becoming best friends with my camel and living in a yurt through the desert winter. By Wednesday I decided to try to find pictures of the country. This calmed me considerably, as the people looked genuinely happy and there was even a glass skyscraper in the capital city (even if it is about 25 miles from the Iranian border: Ashgabat). Sarah got a sick pleasure from the fact that both of our families (and especially her parents) were so relieved that we weren't going to Africa and now we might be right next to one of the most unstable, war torn regions in the world.

For the record, the other countries that were possibilities are Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Macedonia, Moldova and Ukraine. It's a very diverse list. In fact Albania is on the Adriatic Sea. It almost looks like you could swim to Italy from there. On the other side, the Kyrgyz Republic borders China.

There was a point where I was really not certain that we would accept the invitation. In some respects, we're not sure that teaching English will be a good fit. I've never taught anything in my life. I'm an engineer for crying out loud. I wanted something other than technology, so that's good, but this will be a bit of a stretch for me.

In addition, we question the sustainability of coming into a country for two years, teaching a bit of English and then disappearing. How does that really build anyone's capacity in the long run? Initially, Sarah was slotted to be a teacher trainer, but that's in question now.

On the other hand, the job of teaching English is a request from the country itself. What an opportunity for a student to learn English from a native speaker, as well. Even if I screw up the grammer sometimes or I'm not the most proficient teacher, at least I'm a native speaker.

So at some point, the needle flipped from "we're not going" to "screw it, let's just go for it!" even if we are living in a yurt and drinking churban churpa.

Who knows what would have actually happened if we'd opened up our packet tonight and found Turkmenistan. I will say that I was still frankly nervous, if not plain afraid of the prospect. I have no rational reason for that fear, but it's there all the same.

So I got home from work a little early today. It was my first day back after almost a month off for the holidays. I obsessively checked the mail and there's nothing. I was even super hopeful, because the big package mailbox had something in it. I could tell because the key was missing. But no. No invitation. I called Sarah and broke the disappointing news and headed inside.

Our house cleaner, Krista, must have found the packet at our front door, though, because there it was on our kitchen counter. So, I immediately called Sarah back and gave her the maddeningly exciting yet frustrating news. Both times I called I only got voice mail, so here I am at home, alone with this blue elephant on my kitchen counter.

Our friends, Ted and Linna heard about an experiment where they put a four year old in a room with a cookie for 15 minutes. If the kid lasts, he gets two cookies and if not, he only gets the satisfaction of eating the one cookie early. This supposedly has some correlation to success in later life, but it also might be creating a whole new generation of axe murderers because of the stress induced by staring at that cookie. But looking at videos of this you find that the kids that succeed usually have some awesomely hilarious coping mechanism like smelling or licking the cookie, but not actually eating it. Ted and Linna actually performed this cruelty on their son and he sang the CU fight song to himself to prevent going insane.

I'm not four, but I also didn't only have 15 minutes. It was three hours and it's the next two years of my life in that envelope. So, if you know me you can guess what I did. I went into the entertainment room, closed the door and put on a movie. (It was Splice, if you're interested and it was genuinely creepy - plenty distracting for my purposes).

Finally, Sarah's bus arrived and upon getting home we tore into the package. Before we did it, neither one of us was willing to voice our hope aloud that Romania would be our country. Once we saw our wish come true, we both confessed. Even before we called our family we called our friend Luminita, who is a Romanian and worked for the Peace Corps before she moved to the States. Too bad we only got her voice mail, but we can't wait to talk to her in person about it.

Neither Sarah nor I believe in fate, destiny, God's will or whatever you want to call it. But of all the countries in the world that the Peace Corps goes to, it sure is curious that our closest connection to any country is to Romania.

Let the adventure begin!


  1. Hey, I'm the Mom, and I prayed every day for a relatively stable country in Eastern Europe so, of course, it was Romania! We love you guys so much for the courage to leave you cushy life and help kids. T, you'll be great as a teacher. You taught me how they invented computers! Let us know what you need us to help with after we get back from Vegas.

  2. I forgot to say that it is sweet that you chose the picture of when we went camping. Brought tears to my eyes (really?!!)