13 February 2012

wish you a good journey

If you've been paying close attention to the social networks, the cat has been creeping out of the bag for months now. But even if you are one to Tweet or update a Facebook status with feverish regularity, we've got some catching up to do. Without further adieu...

At last update, I thought that I would be going to Central or South America for an assignment starting some time around, well, now. A little more than two weeks after lamenting my goodbye to baseball, I received a call from a strange number on a Thursday while sitting at my desk (editing content, naturally). Seeing as it's my personal policy not to answer calls from strange numbers, I identified the occurrence as automated telemarketing and moved on. That is until I listened to the message that shortly followed, the content of which confirmed the other part of my personal policy; if it's important enough, they'll leave one. 

The caller was a woman named Stephanie, a Volunteer Placement and Assessment Specialist with the Corps. The nature of the message (which was quite warm and kind), the woman's title, and my general knowledge of the application process all amounted to one resounding inference: I had made it to the final stage. Returning this call would reveal long-awaited details about my near & distant future. The anticipation I feel far pre-dates the application I had submitted some eight months prior; this is seven years and a lifetime in the making.

You might excuse me for not calling back immediately. Instead I made some kind of gesture to Josh, a coworker and incredibly supportive friend, about what was going on. He simply smiled and nodded as I headed for the door in hopes that a walk to grab some Dunkin' Donuts coffee would help calm my nerves. The walk was calming enough for me to come up with a game plan: schedule one of the small rooms at work, take a few deep breaths, and just make the call.

Going as these things do, my call ended with a voice mail message. Fast forward 57 minutes to an email from my phone tag buddy seeking to schedule a call appointment for the following morning. That call would last 53 minutes and lay the foundation for a most impactful heartbreak, courtesy of Chris Carpenter and the would-be World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, a mere thirteen hours and fourteen minutes later, as it confirmed that the 2011 Phils' playoff run might be my last chance to celebrate on Broad Street for a while. Oh, and it also gave me some sense of what the next three years of my life might look like. You know, this whole 27 months volunteering overseas...thing.

While many critical details were still to-be-determined, one certainty rang abundantly clear: After countless hours of paperwork, various degrees of follow-up, and more doctor's visits than I had amassed in the preceding ten years, I had been given the administrative "thumbs up" to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The catch, of course, was that I would not be going to Central or South America, and I would not be leaving January/February 2012. I would still be teaching English somewhere in this great, big, wide world. I was also given the opportunity to restate my continental preferences (given the standard PC caveat of global to near-global flexibility), and to make clear my ideal for maximum pre-departure time to ease with the cornucopia of preparations. 

The hard part was not in finding personal acceptance of the sudden change. I wasn't even mildly bothered by the fact that I had been taking Spanish since June as a means of preparation. By my measure, the Central/South America nomination had given me a picture-perfect excuse to revisit study of a language that first stole my heart in college, and continues to do so to this day. No, I had done enough reading over the better part of the last decade to know that "sudden change in plans" is a common phrase in the Peace Corps vernacular, thus the regular emphasis on flexibility throughout the organization's literature. What was most challenging, and at times downright exhausting, was trying to explain my status upon inquiry from friends and family. "So you don't know where you're going?" they would ask, in varying tones of perplexity. "No," I would respond, "but I know where I'm not going." "Ah. I see. And you don't know when you're leaving?" would accompany comparably confused facial expressions. 

All I knew was that I was in, and that was enough for me. I would frequently tell people that it was like knowing that I had gotten into a particularly large school, one that I had wanted for years to attend, but I simply did not know which campus I would be going to for the first semester. Throughout my application process I had set several "deadline" dates in my head, by which if I had not received an awaited piece of communication from the other end I would send some sort of follow-up. Every single one of my "deadlines" had been met, which was enough to assure me that I could trust that I would learn my fate before complete loss of internal composure.

Sure enough, hours before local trick-or-treaters hit the streets for sweet masquerading, my inbox would behold one of the sweetest "treats" of my 27 years:

Dear Joe,
I hope you’ve been well in recent weeks since we spoke.

I am in the process of identifying a program for you and wanted to verify that the contact information we have on file is still current so that an invitation kit goes to the correct address.

I have in mind program in Sub-Saharan Africa that will depart in May; does that timeline still work for you?  There are some several similar programs but in different geographic areas that depart in April and other programs that depart in June if the proposed departure of May is not ideal.


Um, yes please!?

I even coaxed a clue about my specific destination by sharing my desire to represent my to-be host country at the coming weekend's New York City Marathon; an event in which I was to participate for the first time, fulfilling a dream of near Peace Corps proportions. Here's the clue:
This relatively recent winner finished mere seconds ahead of a 2nd place runner in this "heart-breaking" marathon; she and 2 other country-mates broke away from the pack at Mile 14 but her country-mates finished not even in the top ten.

Do you think my love of running might have been made just a tad clear during my application process?

Anyway, I knew immediately that I was going to either Kenya or Ethiopia, and that the marathon in question was the famed trek from Hopkinton to Boylston Street. Some frantic scaling recent results & accounts of the women's race and an email the following day to clarify the context of this most curious clue had me fairly certain that I had identified where in the world I would be spending 27 months of my life. 

Over a delightful Pho dinner two nights later, there was no question.

Flag of Ethiopia - New York City Marathon finish area (5 Nov. 2011)

I would be packing my bags for a flight to Ethiopia in May 2012 where I would begin training for an assignment to go through August 2014.

Given my flair for "time & place" settings when it comes to delivering news, it didn't take much for a great friend to convince me that I should wait to tell my family until they were all together in New York to see me run the marathon. Having amicably divorced parents leaves few opportunities to have all immediate family members in one place at one time, so what better way to deliver the news to my parents and siblings than on the biggest stage in America, during an unparalleled display of international camaraderie that is the New York City Marathon. 

Running with a sign on my back that read, "Hey Mom and Dad: I just found out I'm going to Ethiopia for the Peace Corps!!!! May 2012!!!," which garnered many moving words from fellow runners throughout the race, I ran up to my family at our pre-determined spot in Brooklyn, around Mile 8 of the course, and proudly proclaimed the news. Apart from my mom and sister thinking that "I'm going to Ethiopia!" meant "to run my next marathon," the plan went off without a hitch.

"Hey Mom and Dad: I'm going to Ethiopia!!!!" - New York City Marathon, post-race (6 Nov. 2011)

The three months between that moment and now have been marked by many occasions of sharing the news and going through early stages of preparation (vaccines, passport, paperwork, etc.). I have received more words of encouragement than I could have possibly anticipated, and at every turn it seems I am uncovering some new resource or connection that will be valuable as I plan for and spend 27 months in what seems a most fascinating and fitting country for a person in my (running) shoes. 

As I sit in a cozy West Philly Ethopian café, sipping on coffee and dining on delicious doro tibs, I can't help but think of all the people I have to thank for getting me to where I am today - there are far too many. So, to each of you, know that I am beyond grateful. And know that you've got a place to stay in Ethiopia for the next couple years.



  1. Congratulations again!! See you in (almost) a month!!

    I can't wait to hear of everything you do in Ethiopia!

  2. Your running a marathon in Ethiopia!!! Woah.
    Just kidding.
    When I catch Jim Thome's World Series Winning home run this October, I'll be sure to give it to you. (or if someone gives me 3.5 million for it then I'll just tell you I dropped it!)

  3. <3 Nice blog post Joe! Maybe you will actually run a marathon over there, who knows? Then my thought would come true! Love you Joe!

  4. You're a great addition to the Peace Corps team Joe. Volunteer work changes one as you know, your remarkable journey starts soon!

  5. Hey Joe! I'm also going to Ethiopia. I initially thought I'd be leaving May (21st to be exact)when I got my invitation back in December and then I found other PCTs on FB/through blogs who were scheduled to leave on June 4th for the same assignment in the same place. I found that a bit weird since it was so close together so I contacted the Staging Coordinator and inquired about it. She told me I was in the same group as the June 4th trainees. Guess it was some minor slip up. I realized that you're slated to leave in May too. Maybe you might want to call them up too? Just in case.

    Either way, I'm excited to find another PCT going to the same place. Congrats!

    1. Hey there - many thanks for the heads up. I am looking into it now, but am guessing you're spot on. Feel free to contact me directly if you'd like to exchange more communication about our upcoming journey: EthiopiaJoe (at) gmail

      Thanks for the good words.