Bianca Henao, 131 TESS
You heartless bitch. You started as a passing thought, in one ear and out the other. Something I never thought could affect me or the people that I love. How did we get here?
Just four short months ago you made headlines. “Chinese Authorities Treated Dozens of Cases of Pneumonia of Unknown Cause”. You were so close, yet distant enough to have me feeling indifferent upon hearing the news.
I had just wrapped up nearly a week and a half of traveling in Northern Thailand for a holiday getaway with fellow volunteers. A rainy hike in Chiang Rai and a champagne filled New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai. I remember catching my flight as usual to head back home to the rice paddies. Home to the people I call family. Home to my own bed. They took my temperature at the airport before I boarded. Even still. We were acquainted but I paid you no mind.
Fast forward two months, I’m assisting with training sessions. Over seventy new trainees all eager to hear of my experiences from the first year. All eager to know where they would be calling home in a few short weeks. Their training was almost done. Their work would soon commence. It reminded me how proud I am to call myself a Peace Corps Volunteer. How proud I am to be a part of this global Peace Corps family and its incredible mission: “To promote world peace and friendship”. There I was, fulfilling a lifelong calling.
Being at training as a resource volunteer and not as a trainee was surreal. Had a whole year truly passed already? Was my time halfway done? How was I going to say goodbye in just 12 months? What projects did I have left to accomplish? How would I thank the people close to me?
Home again. The smell of alcohol pierces my nostrils. My co-workers frantically disperse hand sanitizer in pocket-sized tubes to prevent the spread of you. I live in the Land of Smiles, which your suffocating masks have smothered. You not only incited hysteria, you robbed us all of the intimacy of touch. I can’t embrace my neighbors or hold my students’ hands.
Rumors. Communicated like the virus you are. A day and age where the media gets to us first. You have brought fear into my home. Travel is discouraged, and isolation prescribed. You invaded daily conversation, replacing the endearing “Have you eaten?” with an urgent “How do you feel?” You propagated xenophobia towards workers from across borders trying to return home. And even after all this, your worst was yet to come.
“Volunteers have the option to return home if desired”, but I wasn’t going anywhere. For a moment, I had control. But you waited until my back was turned and my heart had cooled, then you sucker punched me. You came in the voice of Anderson Cooper reading a headline on national news early Monday morning. “Peace Corps Suspending Global Operations, Evacuating all Volunteers”. Frantic phone calls and several messages later, the words I never wanted to hear were confirmed. I was now living my worst nightmare.
Thieved of goodbyes. You tore my heart out. I packed my life in a few hours and within three days I would be on the first of four planes back to the states. With no time to properly grieve or even thank the people who had opened their lives, homes, and hearts to me, I was gone in the blink of an eye. My students would never have the chance to play one last English game with me or wish me well. My family would no longer have someone to mock at the dinner table for heavy breathing over spicy meals. I could no longer be a part of my co-workers wedding, a day we had spoken of for months.
A quiet return like nothing I could’ve imagined. I was back on home soil. Have you ever felt all emotions at once? I have. Anger, guilt, relief, happiness, and frustration all overwhelmed and engulfed my being. Yet there at the baggage claim was a handful of the people I love. Crying and ready to hold me the same way I had left the family that brought me to a bus station somewhere in the middle of rice paddies in Eastern Thailand.
You may have torn me from a place that had become a sanctuary of mine. However, you have shown me that even the excruciating pain of distance cannot dissolve family. In spite of how much I will always loathe you, you were my ruthless mentor, giving me lessons that would otherwise remain unclaimed by a human heart. Thank you for pulling the rug out from under my feet. Thank you for reminding me all that I have to be grateful for. Thank you for allowing me to love and be loved in return whether it be where my roots had been planted or where my branches had chased the sunlight into other horizons.
You were not the death of a dream, but a trial encompassed in a legacy.