Postcard Flashback: Peace Corps Volunteers Can Always Go Home Again

I have written about my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in the Republic of Macedonia (2002-2004) on this blog on quite a few occasions. In particular, I’ve written about departing for service, my own challenges with resiliency, how I initially struggled to learn the Macedonian language, excerpts from letters I sent home, the intense joys of getting a washing machine in my village, and even some things I was later grateful for about working at Peace Corps Headquarters (2010-2014). And of course, Peace Corps’ difficult and historic decision to evacuate all PCVs worldwide and suspend its operations earlier this month.

However, this post isn’t about any of those things. It’s about the heartbreak of losing your home when you finish your service unexpectedly, and the joy of one day getting it back. When a PCV says goodbye to their service, no matter the circumstances, it is a loss. But later you come to realize that the home you created during Peace Corps is never truly gone. It will welcome you with open arms for the rest of your life. So this post is in honor of the 7K+ evacuees tonight.

After my own medical evacuation in July 2004 ended my service three months early, I was devastated. I made my way from Macedonia, to Washington, DC for specialized care and administrative arrangements, and because I could not resolve my illness, uterine fibroids, within the 45-day period of my medical evacuation, eventually back to my home of record in California. I remember sitting at my mom’s house feeling shocked and out of place, ill, and alone.

Just the idea that I would have to go through a lengthy treatment to try and shrink my tumors before even having them operated on totally overwhelmed me. Little did I know that it would eventually take not one, not two, but four surgeries at the UCSF Med Center to remove them all, and that I would stay put for 11 months. Almost a full year of my life, just trying to move on. I would sit on the sunny back patio listening to Macedonian folk music on my headphones, and pretending I was in my old apartment. I missed my colleagues, and in particular N, who I had been dating for several months when I was evacuated and who had been my best friend and counterpart at the environmental association during my service.

At the White House, July 2004

With support from my family, friends, and fellow PCVs, I slowly began to put my life back together in California. I underwent four hospitalizations, each time hoping it was over, and at the post-operative appointment finding out it was not. I got a voicemail from my MAK VII cohort at their COS conference where each person said a few words; I had asked them to hold onto a particularly bureaucratic memo from our Country Director that made me mad and at COS, they photographed themselves setting it alight in my honor. I got a job at the photo lab where I had worked years earlier. I celebrated my Macedonian nameday according to the Orthodox calendar. I applied – and was accepted – to graduate school in Australia to earn my Master of International Relations. I texted with N every day and told him about my life in the U.S. I thought about all the things I love about Macedonia – its hospitality, its mountains, its celebrate-first-and-work-later culture, and I incorporated them into my new reality. And, I planned a trip to Macedonia for five weeks on my way to Australia!

And I did go back. In fact, I’ve been back three times in total, because Macedonia will always be my home. I can’t speak for the evacuated PCVs who have returned to the United States amidst the global pandemic, because my experience was different than theirs. They have their own voices and are telling their own stories. But I can imagine how some of them feel. I have read the outpouring of anguish to my inbox and across social media. For many of them right now, “home” is still their site. Many feel homeless and lost, which is exacerbated by the fact that NO PCVs are left serving anywhere, and 100% of them returned to the U.S. into the crash-landing of self-quarantine and extended uncertainty and joblessness.

A couple of days before I returned to Macedonia – ready to go!

In honor of them and in the hopes it will provide some comfort, this is the story of me going back to Macedonia for the first time after my Close of Service (COS). They too can go back again… hopefully, to continue their important service and not just as tourists as I did.

I spent my training in Demir Kapija (near Negotino) and my service in Pehčevo, near Delčevo

There were a lot of people I wanted to see in Macedonia – my former host family, my former colleagues, my friends, and of course N! (I also wanted to travel, and that summer I ended up visiting not only Macedonia, but also Turkey, Bulgaria, Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Croatia, and Serbia! Some of those places I visited with my former fellow PCVs, and some with N. And I did all of that not being able to lift more than 15 lbs, only being three weeks out of major abdominal surgery. It was quite a summer, and I plan to write a post about my broader travels through the Balkans in 2005 and 2006 in another post.)

I started off my trip in Skopje, Macedonia’s capital. N had relocated there from the village for work in my absence, and when I saw him again the celebration was immediate. We were out drinking and hanging out with his brother and SIL before we even made it back to his building. I had a chance to catch up with a lot of friends too.

I ate the things I liked, I walked in the Turkish quarter, I climbed Mount Vodno, I visited Matka, and I spent lots of time with my dear M – who eight years later stood up for me in my wedding – and her family.

The second place I visited was Pehčevo, in the far east of the country near the Bulgarian border where I spent my PCV service, and nearby Berovo and Smojmirovo. N and I attended a wedding, checked out some of the eco-tourism sites I had worked on while I was there, and just generally walked around the village surprising people with my presence. I think I did more na gosti and coffee-drinking those few days than in the prior months put together! And of course, visits to local turbofolk bars where some dancing on tables may or may not have happened.

With N in Smojmirovo
Nowhere I wanted to be more that night than a smoky Balkan bar blasting vintage Yugoslav turbofolk

At a certain point N and I hit the road around Macedonia to start visiting other places. On some parts of the trip, I triumphantly drove his car, a five-speed Renault; PCVs aren’t allowed to drive in order to minimize risk. Although I honestly always complied with the rule, I love driving so much and the lack of driving had always felt like a loss during my service. It felt good to see Macedonia from behind the wheel rather than from the window of an ancient, slow bus.

In Tetovo, near Macedonia’s western border with Albania

I was happy to spend some time enjoying Lake Ohrid, a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site and Europe’s deepest lake. We met a girl named MV from Norway who was finishing up a yearlong trip around the world. She had just come from the Middle East. Her passport was the thickest I had ever seen at that point. She had harrowing stories about traveling in Iran that blew my hair back. We helped her find a room in a local guest house, and sat eating ice cream together. She laughed that my longest trip was five weeks, and I laughed too; it has been 15 years, and I am still friends with her on Facebook.

N and I also took a boat ride to the Sveti Naum monastery and visited the Samuel Tsar Fortress. At one point walking along the water, I was overcome with emotion to be back in Macedonia and I stripped down to my swim suit and leapt into the water with complete abandon. It ruined my hair and makeup, and I didn’t regret it for a moment.

Seeing my homestay family in Demir Kapija again was definitely a highlight, too. They are very special to me to this day. I lived with them from November 2002 through January 2003, and it was very special to spend some time with my dad T and mom A (who were only several years older than me), their son N, and the neighbor kids. (All of these kids are grown up now, and T and A had another daughter M, the following year.)

Seeing my homestay family again in Demir Kapija
Demir Kapija, with my homestay family’s car

There is no way to fully describe what it meant to me to come back to the country of my Peace Corps service under my own steam. It was a circle that needed to be closed; at the time of my medevac, I had been three days from welcoming a visit from my mom. I was crushed that we didn’t get to take our trips around Macedonia and the Balkans as we had intended. I was sad too that I couldn’t finish all of my projects and say goodbye to everyone. I was disappointed that I couldn’t white-knuckle my way through it somehow.

In truth, I should have probably left months earlier. I was extremely unwell and had been hemorrhaging to the point where I could not leave my apartment for weeks on end – something I tried unsuccessfully to conceal. At the time of my departure, I was about a heartbeat from needing an emergency blood transfusion and was sleeping about 20 hours per day. Someone dropped a dime on me and when that Land Rover showed up at my apartment, I knew it was over.

I had been winding up my service anyway with less than 90 days to go, but when it was ripped away from me, any peace I had made with my eventual departure was just turned into trauma. I knew that until I came back to say goodbye, I would not be able to accept it. It may seem minor, or manageable, but trust me when I say that at that time it was very, very difficult for me.

N and I continued to date through my time in Australia, and we went our separate ways more than a year later, after the summer of 2006. Just six months later in Washington DC, I met V, who would become my husband. Coincidentally, V was born and raised in Macedonia, and so my ties to this country grew yet another wonderful dimension.

Volunteers, you can go home again. And you will. And you will see that your idea of home just continues to multiply with every place you leave your heart behind.

If you would like to know what you can do to help evacuated PCVs, please see the March 24, 2020 letter from National Peace Corps Association President Glenn Blumhorst.

  7 comments for “Postcard Flashback: Peace Corps Volunteers Can Always Go Home Again

  1. March 25, 2020 at 06:55

    Ok can we talk about how amazing you look in all these pictures a month out of major surgeries??? Where is the justice in this world? I don’t even look that good on my best days lollll

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 25, 2020 at 07:56

      You are too kind! It is amazing what being sick for a long time and tanning salons can do. J/K In all seriousness I was pretty fit going into my illness and that helped. This was also a fun fashion phase for me, mid-2000s were so girly! 💕👛💋

      Liked by 1 person

  2. April 1, 2020 at 23:31

    Thank you for sharing your story! This evacuation has been frequently bringing me back to my forced departure in November. Your post reminded me of a question I was asked by four people as I interviewed for a job in my country of service: why did I want to go back. I always answered because it was home. I still think that was the question me getting the job hung on because they didn’t believe me and didn’t offer me the job.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. April 26, 2020 at 09:05

    Having been evacuated against my will, I can imagine the poor PCV who, on top of this, don’t have a job to go to.
    On another note, I was fortunate to be among the few ones who have visited Macedonia – we loved the so romantic Lake Ohrid.

    Liked by 1 person

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Sarah W Gaer

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