Friday, September 24, 2010

W.O.W. to Group 83

After checking in for our flight in Oct. of 2009.
L to R: Jenny, Cassie, myself, and Elisa

Is W.O.W. an acronym widely used? W.O.W. = Words Of Wisdom! And some of you may be asking who or what is group 83. Group 83 is the next group of Peace Corps volunteers scheduled to arrive in Samoa in early October. Peace Corps has been in Samoa since 1967 and thus there will soon be 83 groups of volunteers who have landed on this tropical island.

Group 83’s arrival coincides with a special time of year for my own group (82). On October 7 we will have been living here in Samoa for one year! So as their arrival nears, my mind wanders back to what life was like for me one year ago at this time. That in turn leads me to this blog and pin points the meaning of the title: Words of Wisdom.
There is so much that I wish I had known last year at this time as I was preparing to live overseas for two years. They are very simple things that I was blinded to in all the bright lights of those last two weeks with friends and family.

Now in offering these suggestions to my future colleagues (and friends), I realize the importance of letting them experience the journey on their own. If I had known the ending to the book before I read the first chapter, the first pages would have read very differently. So with a bit of censoring, I offer the following counsel to any members of Group 83 who may be reading.

As future Peace Corps Volunteers, you are spending the last two weeks of your time in America frequenting every shopping center known to man. You’ve been to Target, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Radio Shack and Barnes & Noble—to name a few! These are places you know like the back of your hand. You’ve accumulated a stack of receipts that could fill a dump truck and know the return policies of every store. It may seem like a bit too much—it did for me. But while you’re there, doing what you have to do, take a moment to look around and say A-M-A-Z-I-N-G, because when you step off the plane here in Samoa it will all be gone. I don’t say that in a negative way, but just a fact of life way. I’ll never forget, about a month into training, Emily (group 82), and I, were going for a walk. I asked her, “You know what I really miss right now...walking through the doors into a Target.” She laughed immediately and said she loved Target and had been thinking the same thing. My longing for Target has lessened as I’ve adapted, but try to enjoy it just a little while you’re there now.

Next, take time to notice something really strange that you think you’ll never miss. I say this because at some point, you’re going to wake up under a mosquito net in the middle of the night and wish you had it with you. I remember one day I was really homesick and kept picturing our kitchen back home. I started thinking about an old pan that belonged to my Great-grandmother in which I had always cooked macaroni and cheese in—despite its loose handle. I was picturing our kitchen in every detail: the crack between the stove and the counter where food always got lodged, the designs on the fronts of the cupboards, and the sounds the dishwasher made. That stuff is just stuff, but it all brings about an image of home that you’ll run on replay over and over. So take time to take a picture of that weird thing you think you’d never miss and tuck it inside your suitcase to look at on those days of homesickness. You’ll be glad you have it.

Don’t wait until the night before staging to pack your bags. I’m an organized person and I tried my best to have my act together those last few days. Nevertheless, time ran out and there I was at 10 p.m. with heaps of stuff waiting to be placed into suitcases that had a wait limit attached to them. My friend Katy who was a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Africa, told me well in advance to get the packing done a few days before my departure so I could enjoy those last days with family. Katy was right! I wish I would have spent my last hours at home just living my normal routine. Plan ahead so you can have that experience I missed.

When you get to the hotel for staging, you’re going to be excited and meeting all the other members from your group. Make plans that evening to eat at In-n-Out near the airport. If you’ve been to an In-n-Out, you know why I suggest this, and if you haven’t been, you can thank me when you arrive here in Samoa. A bunch of us from group 82 went there for dinner together and it was a simple yet memorable thing to do. Be sure to order an ice cream as well!

Ask for an aisle seat on the plane at check in. I don’t think they’ll charge you extra and it will make your flight so much more enjoyable. I’ve always been a window person myself, but this flight is different. It takes off when it’s dark and it lands when it’s dark so you don’t miss anything as far as the view goes. Having access to get up with leisure without trampling over two other people makes 10 hours go by so much more smoothly. An added bonus: you’ll get served first by the flight attendants who normally serve from the aisle and work towards the window.

My final words of wisdom for group 83 are to remember the smells. If you’ve traveled overseas often, as I’m guessing many of you have, you know that you never forget the smells that hit you in those first few hours your in the country. I can remember how Ghana smelled as I rode along the ocean’s edge and the smell of the smog in Beijing as I departed the airport terminal. These may be good and bad, but they create an image in your head more powerful than any photograph ever would. This is often something that happens without thinking, but then again, you're going to be thinking about other things at that point: like how to say “Lau Ava lea le Atua Soifua!”

Best wishes group 83 and safe travels! See you soon!

Packing night for me in 2009. My sister's room had served as a storage area for several weeks leading up to my departure.

The last sunset in the United States, before heading out on our international flight.

Leah, just after boarding our plane in L.A. on October 6, 2009

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