Before I left for Samoa, I had a lot of packing to do. I had some luggage to use for my trip, but was offered by my friend, Katy Nykamp, a large backpack which she had used when she traveled to South Africa several years ago as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Before I left I went over to her house to pick up the backpack. She laughed when she saw this old faded purple piece of string attached to the front of the backpack. She explained to me that it was a string that Peace Corps gave to volunteers to help show unity among the group and make the bags stand out at the airport. At the time I was in a daze and wasn’t sure what she meant, so what I heard her say was:"PeaceCorpsgivesvolunteersapieceofstringtohelpshowunityamongthegroupandmakethebagsstandoutattheairport.
Katy had been such a huge help in my preparations before leaving and I have a lot of respect for her, knowing that she completed her full 27 months of service. She encouraged me to do this and realized long before I did, the challenges I would face. She had been were I was going. I ended up taking the luggage and saying my goodbyes to her a couple nights before I left for Samoa. I didn’t give a second thought about that old purple string until a few days later.
During the last hours of our staging event in Los Angles, just before we were about to depart for the airport for our international flight, one of the staff members went to the front of the room and was holding a wad of yellow string. She explained to our group that all Peace Corps Volunteers throughout the world have a tradition of receiving a piece of string to tie to their luggage as a way of forming a symbolic tie with all the other volunteers we would be traveling with, and as a practical measure for retrieving luggage at the baggage claim. I grabbed my three pieces of yellow string and walked over to my luggage to attach them. When I got to Katy’s old backpack, I decided to cut her purple string off and make the bag my own. I was about to throw her string away when I decided to tuck it inside my suitcase.
I let the string sit for the first two weeks I was here in Samoa. On my third week when I was in our training village, I began to become very homesick and was looking for strength and needed encouragement. I remembered that I had kept Katy’s string, so I dug inside my suitcase and sure enough, there it was, hidden at the bottom of my suitcase. I took it out and laid it on the table. I thought to myself about how hard it must have been for Katy during her two years of service, yet she had such a great experience that she had encouraged me to take part in the same challenges and triumphs. I thought about other Peace Corps around the world who had a piece of string tied to their backpacks and suitcases and about the same challenges they must have been facing that very same day. I also thought about the returned Peace Corps Volunteers like Katy, who still had their old luggage packed away in an attic or basement with their stings still attached. I felt a part of something larger and greater than my own individual problems of homesickness. I felt a part of a family who serves through challenges and successes because they want to do something great.
Little did I know the day I received Katy’s luggage, the impact that little piece of string would have on me. I still have that string, and when I get out to my house this week, I plan on putting it someplace safe. I’m keeping it nearby to look at again on those challenging days which I know will come again. It will remind me of her service and the service of thousands of other volunteers throughout the world. It’s something I like to call the string theory.