Friday, September 26, 2014

Unsympathetic Radio Gods

I had been awaiting this package for almost eight months, stuck in a state of fear, excitement, and disbelief. Anxiously, I opened the door just in time to see the FedEx driver climb back into his truck. Kneeling down to pick up the package, I yelled, “Thank you!” over the sound of his diesel engine, and stepped back inside!  
I applied to the Peace Corps at the beginning of my last year at university.  Recruiters advised all to apply months in advance since the application process was rather lengthy.  Holding my final correspondence package, I ripped into it to find this letter.
Peace Corps Acceptance Letter
The Volunteer Assignment Description said I was going to The Republic of Kiribati! Where is Kiribati I thought to myself?  Peace Corps correctly assumed I had no knowledge of this country and provided an ample amount of information on the nation in the package.
At the time, Peace Corps assigned volunteers to countries based on three factors; a candidate's health, skills and their availability. I was healthy, had a degree in elementary education, and was available to leave in mid to late 2000.  These factors had qualified me for three regions: Africa, Central Europe, and the Pacific. However, despite stating my severe motion sickness, allergic tendencies towards seafood, and strong dislike for hot and humid weather, I was assigned to this small nation located in the Pacific Islands.  Not wanting to disappoint the Corps, I said nothing.
Kiribati? I thought to myself, where is Kiribati? I searched through the package to find out more information about my assignment to this nation. At the time, I recall Peace Corps assigning volunteers to countries based on three factors: a candidate’s health, skills and availability. I was healthy, had a degree in elementary education, and was available to leave in mid to late 2000.  These factors had qualified me for three regions: Africa, Central Europe, and the Pacific. However, despite stating my severe motion sickness, allergic tendencies towards seafood, and strong dislike for hot and humid weather, I was assigned to this small nation located in the Pacific Islands.  Not wanting to disappoint the Corps, I said nothing.  

Besides my sister’s honeymoon pictures she had taken in Hawai’i the previous year, I knew nothing about the Pacific. So I tore through the rest of the package, and learned that Kiribati was located in the middle of the ocean, had less than 90,000 people, and was composed of 33 islands. Soon, I stumbled upon the government SATO travel documents, and suddenly it all became real.  

I became so distracted thinking about my future paradise on this tropical island that I forgot all about my job. I grabbed my package, and rushed to the restaurant. During breaks, I snuck into unoccupied booths to continue my reading.  When I returned home, I googled the nation.  But I only found a handful of websites that had information about the country, and most were run by world governments.  

However, more challenging than finding information on Kiribati was deciding on what to pack for the next two years of my life.  Peace Corps allowed each volunteer two 70 lb. bags.  Mom suggested I bring a good supply of toilet paper and Pepto Bismol, while dad offered no suggestions.  I suspected he didn't believe I would join Peace Corps, since all of my actions stated otherwise.  

After all, I had several local school districts requesting interviews. To him, surely I would take at least one interview, which could lead to a job and stable future. However, it was not until we were sitting at the Cincinnati airport that my desire for a different kind of life hit home for the both of us.  

In 1997, my maternal grandmother, Mona, daughter of Jose and Cruz, passed away. We attended her funeral in El Paso.  However, instead of flying, my father, sister and I drove. I refused to fly after seeing the movie Alive in high school. It was a true story about a Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed into a mountain range while they were en route to a tournament. Almost all of the passengers died immediately upon impact, and the survivors spent weeks inside the wreckage, warding off starvation by turning into cannibals.  Because of this, I forced us to drive 3,076 miles to El Paso that summer.  

Somewhere between Fort Worth and Odessa, the consequences of my decision became obscene.  We had been traveling non-stop for more than twenty hours before reaching this long stretch of barren dessert.  Tension was high in the car because no one, including myself saw an end to the journey.  A journey, we did not have to take by car.  The straw that broke the camel’s back was the radio.  In our rush to make the funeral, we forgot to pack music for the trip. This left us at the mercy of the desert radio gods. Frequently searching for stations to no avail, we were forced to listen to the stillness of the desert.  Dad fought hard to stay awake.  Internally, I jumped for joy when anything but static came in.  One station, which came in loud and clear for roughly 50 miles, repeatedly played one country song and a Gold Bond medicated itch cream commercial.  Singing along with the song and repeating ‘for almost every kind of itch’ on queue became less entertaining with each rendition. Dad had enough and turned off the radio after about five rounds.  I could only stay silent and feel bad as we continued our journey to El Paso.  

We spent a week in El Paso, traveling from house to church to cemetery and back. In the end, it was good that we drove since we were able to bring back some of my grandma’s treasures. We also made sure to equip our van with a CD player for the trip home.  It was this trip that broke my fear of flying.

***
I was now sitting at gate number twelve with my mother, father, sister, and one-year-old nephew. Each of us would have been happy not to be there as the boarding ramp doors opened.  As I stood up to gather my bags, dad let out a loud cry.  Its echoes still ring clear in my mind when I think about that day. It was as if all of his emotions, which had been building up for months possibly, had finally been released.
Somewhat taken aback by this uncharacteristic display of emotion, and feeling a little embarrassed, I did not want to expose my own insecurities.  I felt the same way inside. I silently repeated to myself just hold it in… just hold it in.  My eyes watered as I handed my ticket to the attendant.  Turning back one last time, I waved and proceeded down the ramp. As soon as I made it past the boarding ramp turn, I let the tears pour out. I heard a girl sobbing behind me. By chance, I asked, are you joining the Peace Corps too? Patting her eyes with a tissue, she nodded.  I asked, where? She said a country called Kiribati.
Unsympathetic Radio Gods
The roads to El Paso/Kiribati

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