The Best Gift a Returning Peace Corps Volunteer Can Give:
Circa late October 2013
I had just worked out at the embassy gym, showered-up, bought some rice-n-beans and sought refuge from the heat in the volunteer lounge at the Peace Corps Headquarters in Santo Domingo.
I looked across the lounge and there was Tristan savoring his final moments as a Peace Corps Volunteer. It was emotional. You could tell that he was ready to carry-on with life in the United States, but it was bitter-sweet. He already missed his friends from the village. He returned his Peace Corps issued phone and there would be no last minute calls; for many of his fellow volunteers had done the same.
He fought back tears and watched the clock as it drew closer to his departure. We made nervous chatter. He would leave the Dominican Republic with the same two bags that he brought and they undoubtedly exposed two years of struggle, periodic loneliness, waterborne illness and battle. In this moment the success, personal growth and determination that comes from two years of service isn’t apparent but it will never leave him.
The clothes that he brought have been long tattered and don’t fit anymore. Change of diet, walking, heat, diarrhea and stress have caused his body to change. He has lived in poverty.
A volunteer might bring a flashlight and end up relying on candles. They arrive prepared for the jungle and leave wearing business casual because going to the market is special. They rejoice at the opportunity to collect rain water. They arrive timid and leave with a certain air of tigüeraje (street smarts, intuition, assurance).
Tristan and I hug it out. He turns back from the door and says, “Here take this,” and is gone.
In my hand is a white plastic bag that appears to have been dropped in the mud.
Behold the contents, a perfect gift to a fellow volunteer who will muster and carry-on:
- 2/3 of a bottle of rum from the night before, Brugal Añejo
- One dirty sock (the other may have served as toilet paper, the beauty is that we are left to speculate, very Peace Corps)
- Various seasoning packets
- 1 bag of potato chips
- 1 scratched, pirated cd with popular Dominican songs
- 1 smashed chocolate candy bar
- 2 used (one broken) thong sandals that could have only come from a street vendor
- 1 water damaged, but readable book
- Basil seeds
- 1 dirty bandana with bleach stains
- 1.5 limes
- 1 Santo Domingo Metro Card (worth RD$50, USD$1.25)
- 3 small candles
- 2.5 bouillon cubes
I look down at my new treasures and silently say a prayer for RPCV Tristan. I am thankful for his service and sad to see him go.
I don my pirated Ray Ban sunglasses, turn towards the sun and step get on a bus that has more people than seats.