The Grand Finale
category: Newspaper Articles

The Grand Finale

by Emily Richardson Fanjoy

Guest Columnist

I was talking to a Peace Corps friend of mine not too long ago. “I just ran into a boy walking home today. His toes were sticking out of holes in the end of his shoes, and I almost started to cry. Isn’t that strange? I mean, I’ve been here so long and suddenly a boy with holes in his shoes makes me want to cry, after all the things we’ve seen?” She responded that she’s been startled to realize how infrequently these sort of things, the poor state of shoes and clothes and even homes, affect her now that she’s used to the way of life here.

“It sort of makes me worry that I’m a bad person,” she told me.

I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s more that these things are symbols of poverty that we learn from the safety of our lives in the states. In commercials asking for donations to the poor, you see children with toes sticking out of their shoes. You see children carrying water. You see dirt and flies. You learn these visual cues of poverty. I think they stop affecting us here because, first of all, we’d never make it through two years if we cried every time we saw this stuff. But it’s also because everything becomes personal.

After I caught myself from crying about the little boy’s toes sticking out of his shoes, I realized this stuff doesn’t bother me because I don’t usually see it anymore. I continued, “I know those toes. They belong to Frankie, and Frankie always greets me with a smile when I walk by. He usually tests my Q’anjob’al, and sometimes when I don’t understand what he’s trying to say, his friend Javi translates it into Spanish for me. I know Frankie and Javi are pretty excited about the carrots in my garden, since I’ve promised them each one when it’s time for picking. I don’t usually see their shoes during our conversations. Today it just got me.”

On that day, the symbols of poverty that I’d learned as a child suddenly connected to everything I’ve learned here as an adult. It’s not the poor state of Frankie’s shoes, it’s what they stand for. I saw intellectual poverty, a lack of life opportunity, restrictive gender roles, poor access to health services, and the plague of alcoholism stretching out before those exposed, dusty toes. It just broke my heart that Frankie is such a good kid who deserves so much more, and all I could promise him was a carrot.

A few weeks from now my government acronym will change from PCV, Peace Corps Volunteer, to RPCV, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. We signed up for twenty-seven months of service which has felt like both an eternity and the blink of an eye. In the case of my husband and I, we have spent more of our married days as PCVs than not. When we arrived, we were told by the outgoing volunteers that “The days are long and the months are short,” and we have found that to be absolutely true. To be sure, the process of leaving is full of mixed emotions, doubts, questions. What did we do here? Could we have done more? Did we cause unintended harm? Then there’s the thrill of going home, so searing sometimes that it’s accompanied by a real physical ache. Yet the same can be said for the thoughts of saying goodbye to the people with whom we’ve grown so close, and to leaving this stunningly beautiful place.

This time next year I might find myself in an apartment full of natural lighting and great windows, but none with the view we get from our tiny, smudged window in Guatemala: a deep green valley filled with Van Gogh-esque swirling clouds as the rain moves in. We will miss our “star status”, the fact that everywhere we go people are excited to see us, but we’re looking forward to a little anonymity. We will miss the kids that come and visit us every day, who work in the garden with us, who we read to on rainy afternoons, but we’re looking forward to spending time with the kids we’ve left in the states, our nieces and nephews. We will miss the pleasant evenings listening to rain on the tin roof of our house, but we’re looking forward to living somewhere that keeps wind, water, and pests out while enjoying modern conveniences such as indoor plumbing, climate control, and refrigeration. Although I’m sure we’ll miss the hilarity of bumping along country roads in antique American school buses, revamped and repainted for Guatemalan public transport and so lovingly dubbed “chicken buses”, we’re looking forward to the freedom of driving our little truck on the wide-open highways of America. They are so well organized and so well maintained in comparison!

From where I sit now, it’s hard to say exactly how this experience has affected me or what it will move me to do in the future. But what I will take with me, as I hope the above story illustrates, is the acute knowledge-through-experience of what poverty is, what it means, what it really affects in the hearts and minds and lives of people. And, ridiculous as it may sound, I count myself as fortunate to know these things. Before Peace Corps, I had never before experienced such a profound sense of gratitude for all the beautiful things in my life: family, friends, community, education, opportunity, convenience, justice, good government, country, home.

I have been challenged these past two years: mentally, emotionally, and physically. For one of the first times in my life, I’ve been able to see the world pragmatically, rather than just through books read in comfortable places. I’ve applied so many of my skills and latent knowledge to my every day work, and it has been immensely rewarding. It has also been a great pleasure to share my work, realizations, and experiences with my hometown of Logansport. I’d like to thank Kelly Hawes at the Pharos-Tribune for this opportunity, and to thank all of you who felt compelled to read my articles. And once more, thank you to all of you who have been a part of my life, as you’re all a little responsible for me being here today. Am I allowed to quote Ozzy Osbourne here? If so, I’d just like to shout, “Mama, I’m coming home!”

Posted by: emily