Maya Sadagopal is a Community Economic Development (CED) volunteer serving in a pueblo in Sucre, Colombia.
It should be easy. You just get on a plane and take off. You leave.
But wait—first you have to take one last bus ride from your site up to Barranquilla. One last bus ride where it’s up to el favor de dios whether you’ll arrive at your destination in 4 or 6 hours, which ridiculous action movie will be playing on the TV, and whether you’ll be shivering from the AC or drowning in your own sweat, but after two years you’ve grown comfortable with this uncertainty. Or rather, you’ve learned to cógela suave and always be prepared with extra snacks and downloaded podcasts.
Before you get to Barranquilla, you’ll have to stop and say goodbye to your training host family. Their doors, arms, and hearts have been open to you since you arrived in Colombia two years ago, and you’ve never gone more than a couple months without paying them a visit. Every time you text your host mom to ask if you can stop by on your way to Barranquilla or stay with them when giving a session to the newest group of trainees, she reminds you that “esta es tu casa.” Within moments of arriving, you feel at home, letting her feed you a freshly fried empanada and a glass of sugary jugo. You might as well let abuela wash your clothes one last time, since you know how much it stresses her out when you leave the house with a bag full of dirty clothes.
The last few weeks in your adoptive town will be filled with lasts, though some will be more sentimental than others. When the power goes out, you’ll hope it’s the last time, though the feeling of joy at your fan turning back on after a long outage will stay indefinitely lodged in your mind. During your final evening run, you’ll find yourself waving to the familiar strangers that you usually ignore and smiling at the kids who somehow still think “Good Morning!” is the proper greeting at 7pm. As you wring out your final load of laundry, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief knowing a washer and dryer await you at home.
The last meeting of your GLOW club is sure to be emotional, but you’ll assure the girls that you’ll all reunite someday. When they ask what will happen to the club after you leave, it will stir up a stew of emotions. Constantly echoing in one corner of your brain is the Peace Corps mantra of sustainability, and you’ll remind the girls (and yourself) that your projects were designed to continue long after you leave. Meanwhile, a small part of you will feel validated by these comments, as if they are indicators of the success of your work over the past two years. As feelings of pride, guilt, relief, doubt, and anxiety fight against each other, you’ll force yourself to smile and give each of the girls a big hug.
You won’t be able to leave your pueblo without bidding a proper farewell everyone, so you’ll have to throw yourself a despedida. You might as well lean into it, passing out gaseosa and deditos to your guests and blasting the vallenato songs that, over the course of two years, you reluctantly grew to love.
When people ask you whether you’re happy to be going home, you won’t be sure what to say. With a smile, you’ll tell them you will miss everything but the heat, since that’s easier than saying you’re excited to no longer be objectified by strange men hissing at you as you walk down the street. You’re thrilled to be heading back to a land where piropos and blatantly sexist comments are on the fringe of socially acceptable behavior, but know that in reality that being a gringa has shielded you from most aspects of machismo.
Leaving requires you to reckon with your privilege. For two years, you’ve felt helpless and frustrated trying to work within a broken education system, trying to solve systemic problems in 100 degree heat. You’ve doubted your work, yourself, the Peace Corps, and even international developmental as a whole, but you have done your best to channel your anger into something productive. There have been times you have wanted to leave, and times you’ve felt guilty that the thought even crossed your mind. When friends and family from home have commended you for doing something “difficult” and “brave,” you’ve felt uncomfortable, knowing that the privileges you bear as an American have minimized your struggles. Yes, parts of your service have been difficult, but with respect to the small and big problems your community faces on a daily basis, you’ve always had “leaving” as an option.
The time has come for you to leave, and you’re going to want to prepare yourself. Leaving is only half of the equation—you’ll also be arriving home. You’ve heard from returned volunteers that readjusting to life in the United States isn’t easy, and you start to rehearse your answer to the dreaded question: “How was Colombia?”
You feel anxious just thinking about attempting to summarize two years into a few sentences that portray you as interesting but not self-absorbed, that convey the difficulty of service without making Colombia look bad, that adequately reflect the immense gratitude you have for this experience.
Leaving is supposed to be easy, but now that you think about it you’re not so sure. As you get ready to leave, you might even wonder whether staying would be simpler.
They say Peace Corps is “the toughest job you’ll ever love,” but I think it is also the toughest job I’ll ever leave.