Saying Goodbye

Peace Corps, teaching

The rain came, and it seemed nonstop for an entire month. Streets flooded, water rushed under bridges, and still the rain fell. July 2018 brought floods to areas of the Sichuan province, drenching my final days in China. With mixed emotions, I looked out the window of my 15th floor apartment and sighed. From atop my balcony, with coffee cup in hand, it all seemed unreal–the rain, the past two years, and what might come next.

The view from my apartment in Mianyang on July 2, 2018

Somehow, I had managed to muddle through, and yes, even thrive for the previous two years in southwestern China. Depression–a familiar companion in my life–and frustrations about living in China, mixed with gratitude for teaching and the good I experienced yanked me in circles.

A long to-do list scribbled on scrap paper sat beside me. The rain had dampened my already waning motivation to do anything outside my apartment, but this was a list mostly consisting of the important tasks necessary to close out my time in China and move out of the country.

Grade final exams; turn in final grades; deep clean apartment; close bank account; fill out Peace Corps paperwork; plan and purchase tickets to travel from China; pack and ship boxes to the US; pack suitcases; and downsize unnecessary items. These were among a larger list of tasks I completed in the final days.

I had already said goodbye to my students in class. On our final class days we had posed for photos, quite haphazardly, and I though exhausted, enjoyed the chaos. One class of sophomores had each written me a note on a postcard. “You’re my best teacher,” wrote a student whose spoken English was minimal nonetheless had progressed and shown enthusiasm for learning. Each note was personalized, composed with thought from that student.

Two students in their third year who had both been involved in the English Corner previously asked if they could cook Sichuan hot pot for me. They showed up to my apartment with bags of fresh meat and vegetables and began chopping away as we talked about life. Soon the apartment was filled our chatter met with the aroma of Sichuan spices and the food boiling in the pot.

A larger farewell event had already taken place, in which a hundred students of mine and my Peace Corps sitemate showed up. The evening was a dizzying event that included speeches and so many posed photos I felt like I was at a movie premier. Each goodbye was important, though I much preferred the smaller slower ones.

As I finished my coffee on that rain-drenched day, I savored the memories. From the first day when I felt clueless and terrified as did my students, right up until the last day when we realized how far we had come. I eventually finished my to-do list, the rain stopped, and my students and I moved on taking the memories with us. As Caroline, one of the students who cooked hot pot succinctly wrote in the photo album she gave me, “The photos end, but the memories last forever.”

Night Train to Colombo

story, travel

Our three-wheeler pulls into the dusty lot used as a bus station. Several mini-buses and big red buses similar to school buses idle around, engines humming and doors open, all waiting to depart to various cities in eastern Sri Lanka. I grab my bags and step onto a patch of caked dirt.

My friend Apriliza emerges from the three-wheeler and stares at me. Two men walk by, discussing something in Tamil as another bus pulls out, kicking up dirt around us. Sri Lanka’s majority population are ethnic Sinhala, but here on the east coast are a pocket of Tamil Sri Lankans.

The Tamil Pastor stands next to me and points to a nearby bus. “This is your bus,” he declares in English.

A few days earlier I had traveled to this city called Kalmunai—a tiny dot on a map with no tourism to offer—by repeatedly mispronouncing its name to random strangers. I was in Kandy, a city in the center of the island, with a bus station many times larger than Kalmunai’s, bustling with buses and thousands of travelers. Not deterred by a few confused looks, I said “Kalmunai?” until a man with red betel nut stains between his teeth spat and pointed toward a mini-bus at the end of a long line of larger red buses.