On the “Great Peace Corps Evacuation of 2020” (Named by Khun Michelle)

Natalie Garro, TESS 129

I’d cried. I’d cried regularly for months, for weeks. I’d cried nearly all day every day for three days before we got the email. I’d cried so much, by the time the email came, I was so tired of crying, I couldn’t do it anymore. The tears had dried up. I hadn’t cried this much for 10 years. I hadn’t felt this much for the same.

I think the crying – and then the absence of tears – is why I didn’t realize how much pain I’ve been carrying for the last 31 days.

I am lucky. I’m about as lucky as one could possibly get in this scenario. I’ve told myself this every day since I arrived home. When the evacuation email came, giving us 3 days to pack everything and get to Bangkok, I was 11 days away from my original Close of Service date. I was at the end of my 3rd year as an Education Volunteer with Peace Corps Thailand. I had not only made it the full 27 months of service, I’d ridden another revolution around the sun in a country that had slowly become as much home as the mountains of Colorado will always be. I was 11 days away from ending my service with the Peace Corps, but I was 2 months away from returning home. I’d anticipated more time with my loved ones. I’d anticipated more time to pack up and clean the house I’d lived in for 3 years – the longest duration I’d ever spent in a single place since moving out of my parents house 11 years ago. I’d anticipated more bike rides with Pii Chat and Pii Toey. More banter with Pii Yai. More planning with Kru Ket. More dinners with Pii Jijy and Pii Boy. More hugs from my students. More pad-sii-eew from Pii Geeo. More conversations with Mee Noi and Mee Bua. I’d expected more time.

3.25 years. 3 years and 3 months. 39 months. 167 weeks. 1,171 days. I had time. Each moment in Thailand – in my village, with my friends – sent my roots a bit deeper into the same soil my neighbors plowed, and sowed, and reaped with dedicated consistency every day. I had so much time in my village, but I thought I had a bit more. In the minute it took me to read that email, 3.25 years was reduced to 3 days.

The email came mid-Wednesday afternoon, during my impromptu going-away party (moved up due to the impending threat of COVID-19 sending me home early). By 2PM I was packing. By 10PM, everything was ready to go… everything except for me. I was supposed to leave the next morning, but I couldn’t do it. I hadn’t said goodbye. I put off my departure for 24 more hours. My best friend and counterpart, Ket, drove me to the post office to mail some boxes home. We stopped all through Lad Yao – my shopping town, about 40 minutes away from my village – so I could say goodbye to the people I’d seen every week for the last 2 years: my vegetable people, my salad wrap lady, my khao neow muu bping guy, my popcorn lady, my coffee lady. When we arrived home, I walked to my neighbors’ houses, sat and talked with them for a while, brought them presents, told them how much I’d miss them. I didn’t cry.

My next door neighbors – the village headman’s parents – told me they loved listening to me sing in my outdoor kitchen every day. They told me they knew it meant I was happy. They told me they’d miss my singing. They asked me to come back to visit. I told them, of course I would. 

I took one last bike ride through the farmland: a route as familiar to me now as the trails through the Garden of the Gods by my dad’s house in Colorado Springs. It’d been maybe a year since I’d taken my bike on the dirt path that was my first adventure in my village. There were new potholes and crops. One of the houses had been rebuilt and looked beautiful. My students’ voices echoed, “Teacher Natalie!” as I rode by, nostalgia coursing through my veins as my legs pumped me up the last hill.

I stopped at my host mom’s house and sat until it was dark, again recalling the first time I’d visited – they’d made me sing karaoke all night.

I biked over to the school and spent one last evening with my friends. Pii Jijy’s house was now familiar, the routine of people coming and going familiar, the laughter easy, the jokes quick and frequent. The knowledge of my imminent departure was softened by promises of next year’s visit. Ket drove me home. We lingered, two strangers turned life-long friends, who’d spent the majority of the last 3 years working and teaching and laughing together. My confidant. My support. My partner. Neither of us were prepared for the goodbye, but I think that would’ve been true, even if circumstances hadn’t shifted so suddenly.

The next morning – Friday – my host parents picked me up at 8AM. I was on the bus by 8:30. Even then, it was nearly empty: folks already staying home, avoiding travel. Everyone was wearing masks. People moved to sit away from me, the only foreigner on the bus.

I arrived in Bangkok at 2PM. My end-of-service paperwork was done by 5. I closed my service amid a melee of commotion – volunteers both numb and emotional coming and going, exhausted Peace Corps Staff alert and strong and smiling for us, a steady stream of confirmed flight reservations pouring from the printer. I rang the gong to end my service, not with the 3 other 3rd year volunteers I’d completed this journey with, but with one of my best friends from the cohort that arrived the year after mine – Halli – my project Manager – Khun Chadchaya – and Khun Susan from the American office staff. There was no ceremony. No celebration. It wasn’t how I’d pictured the end of  my 3 years there. By midnight, I was on a plane. I arrived in Colorado at 4PM on Saturday after 3 mostly-empty plane rides and nearly 44 straight hours of travel. Unable to see my family, I caught an Uber from the airport.

For 2 weeks, I stayed at an AirBnb in government-mandated isolation. A friend came to spend the first week with me. My dad and brother popped in and out, bringing me movies and video games and paperwork they’d printed for me, while we waited to see if I’d develop symptoms. We chatted briefly through the window, unable to touch until we knew it was safe. After 2 weeks in good health, I finally made it home.

It’s been 31 days since I departed Thailand. 33 days since I received the evacuation email. I’ve cried twice since being home, until this morning. While on the phone with a dear friend, it hit me: after three years, I was ripped away from my community in a matter of 3 days. And I am so lucky to have had so much time with them. To have had the time to say the goodbyes I did say. To have a safe place to come home to. To have the cushion of my reintegration stipend to utilize until my next job starts (theoretically) in August. Before that email, I’d spent months and weeks and days grieving my impending departure. But when my evacuation began, I was already emotionally exhausted. I was hyper-focused on packing and saying goodbye and leaving. I was moving non-stop; and then I was recovering from jet-lag; and then I was alone. And then I was home. I never took the time to process the evacuation, but now, after a month, the sadness of leaving has finally come: the grief for the nature of my departure – the emotions I never experienced in the moment have arrived. I knew this story would eventually pour out of me. I knew I’d write it down when the time came.

I’ve told it a few times since being home, and the one thing I always come back to are the goodbyes I didn’t say: to neighbors, the 7-11 staff, my friends from the farmer’s market, my bike team. I thought I had more time. We always think we have more time. And now I’m wishing them good health – more time – so, next year, when I return, we can say a brand new hello, but also, a proper goodbye. 

Read Natalie’s previous articles and contributions. 

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