Postcard Flashback: Leaving for Peace Corps

It’s a little hard for me to believe, but November 11 marked fifteen years since I left my home in California to become a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in the Republic of Macedonia. Me and 19 other trainees attended a two day Staging workshop in Washington, DC before heading overseas, arriving in Macedonia’s capital, Skopje on November 15, 2002. I had pursued my PCV candidacy at that point for about fourteen months: during my senior year in college, beyond the September 11 attacks, and through a bewilderingly bureaucratic set of recruitment hurdles. Being brave enough to get on the plane and leave for the Peace Corps started a process that forever altered the trajectory of my life.

Most Americans have heard of Peace Corps, but not everyone knows what it really is. Peace Corps is a Congressionally-funded government (but not partisan) organization that sends American volunteers abroad to provide technical assistance and expertise in a variety of spheres. Volunteers generally get three months of in-country training first, followed by two years of service.

The Peace Corps’ mission is to promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:

(1) To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

(2) To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

(3) To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Since President Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961, more than 225,000 Americans have answered the call to service, volunteering in 141 total host countries worldwide. As of a year ago, Peace Corps had more than 7,000 volunteers serving in 65 country programs across various development, education, and health sectors. (Source: PC Fast Facts, November 2016.) A lot of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) continue to serve at home by sharing stories of their service, thus fulfilling Peace Corps’ Third Goal.

Even since the time of my service, relatively recent on the historical continuum, a lot has changed with Peace Corps’ recruitment process. Back then, prospective volunteers were just accepted, put into a large batch, and assigned to a program based on group departure timelines, and without the agency intentionally leveraging candidates’ pre-existing language and professional skills.

Starting in 2014, applicants filled out a shorter, more targeted application, with an option to apply for specific jobs in particular countries, and received greater visibility throughout their candidacy process. This was the culmination of more than a year of work following Peace Corps Headquarters’ (PCHQ) recognition that prospective applicants have other, time-sensitive options on their horizons, like grad school and lucrative job offers. Not only options, but a lot to offer, and expectations – of choice, transparency, rapid follow-through, and the kind of digital candidacy management that was unheard of when I filled out my paper application, dropped it in the mail, and then called the 1-800 number monthly to see if it had made it out of heightened post-9/11 federal mail screening procedures without being too irradiated to read. Life seems to move faster all the time, and people want more information, more control, and to have realistic expectations about when they might be chosen.

I was humbled to play a (very) tiny role in the new recruitment process project, when I later worked at PCHQ as the special assistant to the Associate Director for Volunteer Recruitment and Selection, before I left for the State Department in 2014. I was just two weeks into my A-100 training when Peace Corps publicly announced the rollout, including a video from President Obama asking Americans to consider the importance of Peace Corps Service.

As I have written about previously, I mailed my application to serve in 2001: only one day before the September 11 terror attacks. My desire to serve my country only increased as our nation grappled with changed international security realities we were only beginning to understand. So I made a decision to serve wherever PC assigned me, and that assignment came through snail mail on a hot August day in 2002. After I spun an actual globe to see where I was headed, I tried in that pre-social media, pre-YouTube, pre-Google era to understand where I’d be spending my 27 months.


The Republic of Macedonia is landlocked and borders Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Albania

I spent a lot of time explaining to family and friends that serving as a PCV was a good idea. A lot of my friends had thought it crazy that I left my small northern California town to attend college in San Diego, so this blew their minds. My parents were supportive throughout, although they weren’t thrilled that I was going to be part of a group of PCVs that reopened the Macedonia program after two evacuations.

But I was determined to go. I launched into a frenzy of shedding possessions, partying with friends and family, and learning to vacuum pack sweaters (for the Balkans – in winter!).

Below: In September 2002 with my dad at my going-away party, and literally counting down the days until Peace Corps started!

Below: In October of 2002, I went to Oregon to see my brother, then went down to San Diego State (from where I’d graduated the previous year) for Halloween with my sorority sisters, and finally, sold my beloved 1995 Mustang. I will note in the Oregon picture I am wearing an old Incubus shirt, but you wouldn’t know it…

lisa sac airport 20020001

November 11, 2002 – Getting ready to head to Sacramento International Airport

Staging itself was a pretty cool but also maddening experience in its generalities, at a time that we were all dying for country specifics.

I’d left Sacramento in the wee hours of the morning, and arrived from my first cross-country flight into Reagan National so airsick I thought I might actually die. Since 9/11 (and remaining to this day), there is a federal aviation rule that passengers may not be out of their seats within 30 minutes’ flight time of Washington. Not *only* that I was out of my seat, but I was on my knees in the airplane bathroom vomiting as the wheels hit the tarmac. I had two or three *most genuinely displeased* flight attendants banging on the door throughout, although they looked at me with pity when I opened the door, still barely able to get up and feeling humiliated. They kindly let me wait until everyone had deplaned to come out of the toilet.

Hence I avoided arrest and took a cab to what used to be called the Omni Shoreham in northwest DC, where I ordered some room service (I still remember, a club sandwich with a Heineken), donned earplugs and a sleeping mask, and fell asleep with one foot on the floor because my head wouldn’t stop spinning.

I later awoke at 02:00 to the sound of my roommate and hotel security banging on the door (again, with the banging!).  She had arrived several hours early and, told by hotel registration not to expect her until the following afternoon, I’d drawn the chain and she couldn’t get in.

She was precisely twice my age and so kind about the embarrassing inconvenience. She walked into the room, set down her things, and pulled two sticks out of her blond bun, and her hair unfurled, falling almost all the way to the back of her knees. I was totally dumbstruck. We became friends literally two minutes after she walked in the door, and we remain friends to this day. What’s up SM!

My motion sickness issue for which I am infamous persisted throughout Staging, but I hung in there. We had the Balkans desk officer from PCHQ scare us with tales of departing trainees forced to throw away too-heavy carry-on items at Dulles. (Not cool, DS, not cool. I still remember you, and I have co-facilitated a few Stagings myself so I know really how unkind this was.)

Besides meeting everyone, and freaking out the morning of our departure because my Walkman wouldn’t stop buzzing and I couldn’t find it in my tightly-packed checked baggage, the things I remember most about Staging were TD helping me order Thai food for the first time, and the wonderful staff member from Sri Lanka describing cultural adaptation with a color analogy. He said that pre-PC, we saw blue. In the host country, people saw red. After two years of living in the host country, we would return home, unable to ever again see just red or blue, but only purple. This would be both a blessing, and a curse. He explained it much more elegantly, but it is something I have thought about probably a thousand times since then. I understood in theory what he meant, but upon my re-entry adjustment shock I *truly* understood, and I had the good fortune to meet him again about ten years later and tell him how much his words had helped me and resonated with me.

Below: Getting ready to depart Washington, DC on November 14, 2002 and still feeling airsick from the flight three days before!

When we arrived in Skopje after a several hour layover in Vienna (in which we guarded each other’s carry-ons in a big pile on the floor, and I remember eating a giant pretzel), I was so excited that I sadly left my entire car visor-CD sleeve of CDs in the seatback pocket of the plane. The only CD I had left was the one in my Discman. I did not notice this for about two hours though, so there was nothing that could be done. It has been a mistake I’ve never made again with many dozens and dozens of international flights since. Fortunately but not surprisingly, I had ripped hundreds of CDs to my laptop in the months before departure so I just re-burned off the ones I’d lost. (This probably sounds funny for anyone who grew up always having an iPod; I didn’t get my first one until 2004.)

I walked across the tarmac to Skopje’s international arrivals terminal (the old airport, for those in the know) with my colleague JO. When we walked in, I allegedly said, “Dude, people are smoking indoors!” Oh boy, everyone else in the group laughed at me. What can I say – despite my adventurous spirit, this California girl had never been outside of the U.S. except for dozens of trips to Mexico. And the smoking indoors in Macedonia overall was pretty intense until it was banned in 2006.

We spent our first few days in-country at Hotel Park in Negotino, our hub site, beginning our Pre-Service Training (PST). Initially, it meant getting immunizations, learning the Cyrillic alphabet, and having meetings with our program managers. My program was Environmental Education and Management, and our Program Manager (PM) told us the second day that the government had decided that foreigners were no longer allowed to teach environmental education in the schools (irrespective of what our VAD, or Volunteer Assignment Description, had said) and we just looked at him, blinking. He said, it’ll be OK, you’ll work in municipalities and at NGOs instead.

I can say with no exaggeration that our first Macedonian hotel experience was appalling. I can actually say that it was horrid, and everyone who was there knows all about it. The chemical smells, the curtains filled with insects, the sopping wet carpet, the unpredictable water that would freeze or scald you, and for me, abject homesickness almost immediately. It was a difficult experience for me, and the beginning of deciding every day that I could leave if I wanted to, but not that day. Or the next. Or the next. And I didn’t.

Below is one of the only pictures of all 20 members of MAK VII, taken on November 20, 2002 right before leaving our hub site for our training sites.

On November 20, our homestay families came from four towns surrounding Negotino to get us, and our three months of training began.  I wrote previously about PST and my experience with learning Macedonian during my three months in Demir Kapija (pictured below).

Maybe in a future post, I will write more about my service including some of the very challenging times. Looking back with the hindsight of fifteen years, I do not think that there has been any decision I’ve made that has had more of a profound impact on my personal and professional life. Although being a PCV can differ so much from place to place and even within the same country, RPCVs everywhere have a lot in common. We share a bond with those with whom we’ve served, as well as with the wider RPCV community, of how it feels to challenge all of our truths. To be torn down and built back up. To see the world through others’ eyes. To be humbled by giving everything you have and still receiving more in return. When I came home, I kept in frequent touch with literally all of my cohort, because they were the only ones who really “got it”.

I have thought many times of the moment where someone at PCHQ decided to put me into the Macedonia batch instead of some other program, and I am eternally grateful. I do not think that I would have gone on to study for a master of international relations, nor become a diplomat without having first been a Peace Corps Volunteer. I cannot recommend Peace Corps service enough, and I hope that the agency and the programs globally continue to be strong and well-funded by this and future administrations.

  6 comments for “Postcard Flashback: Leaving for Peace Corps

  1. November 19, 2017 at 00:55

    I think I already told you but I’m going to apply for Peace Corps Macedonia if I don’t make the first round of Fulbright! This just got me even more excited. (I’m also working on a blog post about my trip to Skopje as we speak hahah.) Also, since you travel so much, how do you deal with airsickness? It sounds like you have it really intense, so how do you, you know, function?

    Liked by 3 people

    • November 21, 2017 at 03:47

      I had forgotten that you were going to apply to PC Macedonia! How cool. 🇲🇰 I have mostly grown out of the worst of my motion sickness, but I still keep Dramamine on hand, and try not to schedule too much to do on the date I arrive in a country. Then I hope. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Liz
    November 19, 2017 at 00:58

    Have you thought of writing a book?? I
    always want to keep reading and can’t wait for the next post!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 21, 2017 at 03:50

      That is so kind! I am still sometimes amazed that anyone actually reads this blog. I think if I wrote a book, it would be fiction. Perhaps heavily inspired by non-fiction. LOL. I don’t know. What do you think?


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Sarah W Gaer

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