2001.10.27After Amy, who came in special from Washington for the event, broke the string that had been tied around my wrist for the two weeks, it was all over.
The lights have been turned out. The stage is now dark. The audience, however, is waiting for the second act. What started as an eclectic group of bright-eyed Americans landing in the middle of the night in the capital of Bangladesh 251 days ago, has now ended with people dispersing to all parts of the globe.
It really was a surprise to many when we were told that no one would be returning to Bangladesh. The plan had been to wait for things to calm down, to assess the situation, then ease back into the country. During that time, we played on the beach and in the pool. Watched TV and played card games. Visited national parks and co-ops. Some were bored or anxious or nervous or helpless. Some enjoyed it while it lasted while others were waiting for the day it would end.
Peace Corps Thailand was our host and they went though great effort to make our stay comfortable. We wanted to meet the volunteers here, to travel to their sites and see the work they were doing, but that was impossible. Even in Thailand the volunteers were on alert, although much less than the Bangladesh PCVs. But the longer we stayed, the more it became obvious that we would meet at least some of them. The latest group in Thailand had an in-service language and culture training scheduled to be held in the same city. As our return date was pushed past their training date, we began to plan an inter-country get together.
In the end, PC Bangladesh arranged to get together at a bar called the Chicken Coop (which I rather sardonically renamed the Stinky Dog), eat some overpriced bar food, drink up a storm, and sing off-key karaoke tunes. PC Thailand, on the other hand, had a secret planned. After announcing the party at the Stinky Dog, we were all surprised to hear that PC Thailand wanted us to all gather in the hotel a few hours before. We arrived to find white sheets on the floor, trays with flowers and fruit in the center, and all of the Thailand PCVs coming up the street. They presented a ceremony that brought together each person's 32 souls - calling them from wherever they had wandered back into the circle of string that hand been erected around the room and out the door. The Thailand PCVs and staff then tied strings of luck around our wrists, wishing us peace, patience, hope, and a safe return to Bangladesh. We were then given a chance to pour water over the hands of our leaders (Jane, the associate Peace Corps director for Bangladesh, and Rit, the Peace Corps medical officer) while announcing our wishes for their futures. It was a very calming and interesting ceremony, something that many people needed to counteract the stress of uncertainty and loss of control.
Then we went to the Stinky Dog and had some dinner. The Thailand volunteers asked "are you guys always this late?"
"Late? It's only 8:15 p.m. In Bangladesh, if someone tells you 8 p.m. and you come at 8:30 p.m., you're early"
It wasn't too many days later that the word came from Washington - PC Bangladesh was in suspension and all volunteers would be given a COS (close of service or honorable discharge). Some were relieved, some happy, some in shock. And when we all packed up that night and returned to Bangkok the next morning, many people were still in a state of disbelief.
We had come full circle when we arrived at the SD Avenue Hotel in Bangkok. We spent our first night there, and now we would spend our last there as well. It was a strange week in a bubble. Three people flown in from Washington with laptops, forms, presentations, forms, session topics, handbooks, pamphlets, and some forms to fill out. We were instructed to write a description of service (DOS) which would be the only record retained by Peace Corps of our 251 days in Bangladesh. How do you summarize that experience in two pages? How do the people that serve a full two years do it? I didn't even write every week for this journal, yet I exceeded the maximum length for a single page some months ago which forced me to remake the site. Where do I begin?
After beginning, and putting it off several times, many seminars and discussions, and many distracting trips to the hospital, travel agencies, the mall, movie theaters, and the bowling alley, my DOS was finally complete. So many forms, so many things to do, and yet I couldn't do any of it. It just wasn't real. I felt as if a tidal wave was coming at me and each day that passed made it more obvious that there was nothing I could do to stop it. A decision has been made for me and there was nothing I could do to change it, just make the best out of it. I went through several drafts of the DOS to craft the finest statement I could muster. I looked into travel plans, started to complete the forms for re-enrollment, wrote a letter of recommendation for a friend, and finalized my finances.
And then there were no excuses. Nothing else to use as an excuse for procrastinating. I had been to the hospital for a closing physical (and found that in one month in Thailand I had gained back 15 of the 27+ pounds I had lost during my eight months in Bangladesh), blood and stool were tested, all paper work completed, American dollars in lieu of a plane ticket home received, exit interview with the country director held, and good-byes and hugs exchanged with the few volunteers that left the night before.
So on Friday, October 26, 2001, at noon, I took all of my paperwork up to the eighth floor where Amy was holding COS interviews. I handed over my DOS and we discussed the various steps and procedures I had completed. I gave her applications for return Peace Corps volunteer (RPCV) associations, requests for other manuals in the States, and other routine paperwork. I signed a receipt and received a check for about $500 to be used as a readjustment allowance to rejoin life in America. She gave me the check, shook my hand, and said, "Thank you for your service."
"Is that it?" I questioned.
She said it was. I looked at my wrist and thought of all the wishes that were hanging on and were now hopeless dreams.
"Will you perform a small ceremony for me?" I asked. She agreed and I requested that she break one of the strings from my wrist to indicate the my Peace Corps service was complete.
At about 12:30 p.m., she handed me the broken string and said with a smile, "good luck."
I broke the rest that day, packed up my belongings, and left the hotel the next morning as an RPCV, with no job, no responsibilities, no expectations, and no plans. And thus closes this chapter of Myq's Notes from Bangladesh.