When the plane descended into the Quad Cities, my first thought was, “Iowa really is flat.” The patchwork quilt of light and dark browns of the once comforting fields offered me no solace as the plane lowered, finally connecting to the ground with a thud, knocking a reality into my heart I was still unwilling to accept. I stared out the window as the restless passengers around the mostly empty plane gathered their things. What was their hurry, I wondered, in this world where everything was standing still? I was not hurried. I had come from a culture where that word is rarely used.
I slung my backpack over my shoulder, avoiding the cord from the headphones still planted in my ears, soothing me with soft and melancholy tunes, the only sort of music I could tolerate after the past five days. I exited the plane onto the bridge, the cold hitting me like a slap in the face, enforcing the nagging thought in my mind that I was no longer welcome here. I was not ready to return to this world I no longer knew, and I wasn’t sure my old world would recognize me or want me either.
I unashamedly let the tears fall on the walk to baggage claim, unable to stop thinking about the last time I was in this airport. I had cried then too, but those tears were happy; tears from the overwhelming excitement and gratitude I felt at finally taking the first steps on the beginning of my new journey into the unknown, a journey that had been my dream for my lifetime. Now my steps carried me toward another unknown, an uncertain future, but one I wanted no part of. At the almost deserted baggage claim mom greeted me, with an elbow bump and a donned face mask, the signs of the apocalyptic movie scenario that had become all of our lives. I numbly grabbed my bright blue suitcase and my backpacking backpack, and we were on our way, out into the cold.
I stared ahead in the car, out at the gray and empty world. It had been dry season in Panama, leaving the grass brown and the trees half-naked, but there was still color and life. Here the world appeared dead to me, a gray gloom that mirrored the feeling of my heart. The I-74 bridge that had been just concrete pillars when I left was now two almost-constructed arches reaching to touch each other, straining over the water to form the connection. This world was so familiar and yet so foreign to me.
I had already spoken Spanish to multiple people, greeting the customs officer with “Buenas” instead of “Hello,” asked for directions in Spanish, and almost broke down when someone called me “lady” instead of “joven.” I didn’t know where to throw the used toilet paper since there weren’t trash cans in the bathroom stalls, and when the woman at the airport convenience shop checkout counter told me it would be $13 for the two items I was buying I stared at her with so much shock she asked if I was feeling okay.
A week ago I had been in the warm, humid climate of Panama, the brown but alive dusty earth surrounding me, the cooling summer winds wrapping me in their embrace like an old friend as I shoveled dirt in the tire park in nothing but shorts, a tank top, and a cute banana tied around my head. I had eaten just my second ripe mango of the season that day, a delightful treasure in a disappointingly quiet day that was supposed to be different.
A voice interrupted my thoughts and brought my back into the cold, dark garage we had pulled into. “…that’s another thing we can do, think of what seeds we need, what we’ll plant in the garden for this summer.” I started. Summer? Months from now? I knew I would likely still be here in June, July … maybe even August, but I wasn’t ready to think about that, much less plan for the months ahead.
“Mom…” I hedged. “I’m going to need some time. I had my life planned out for the next year. I haven’t had time to process. I haven’t had time to change my plans or even think about plans for the future. I’m going to need some time.” She nodded. “Of course, I understand.”
I dragged my things in through the door, feeling the warmth of heat that didn’t come from the sun overhead. I dropped everything in the laundry room and took a step into the house. It felt surreal. I wandered through the rooms, my mind trying to grasp at what was happening. A week ago, I had the next year planned out and was busy in my life in another country and culture. I had a home, a job, a purpose. I had friends, and a Panamanian family. Then, in the matter of less than a week it had all been ripped out from under me.
I had gotten the evacuation notice at 8pm on Sunday night, devastating me with orders to be in the regional capital within 12 hours, packed to return to the U.S. I slept less than two hours that night, wearing my body down on an already empty stomach – using the little time I had to pack everything: the suitcases that would return with me, a suitcase to leave with a family to come back for, boxes of books and craft supplies for the school, toiletries and cleaning supplies to leave with one family, food for another. I threw miscellaneous items in a bag for my host family – things that they could use that I wouldn’t be able fit in my checked bags – and packed up other boxes with craft items and jewelry making supplies for an artsy and talented high school student in my community. At 6am, through the tears, I explained hurriedly to my neighbors that I needed to leave immediately. They helped me load up a farm truck to rush to my host parents house. I had two minutes to say goodbye to the family I had there, two minutes to somehow try and explain to them why I had to leave, how much they meant to me, and promising, one way or another, I would be back. Then we were on our way, hurriedly careening off to Chitré, so I could catch the private bus Peace Corps mandated us to take to the capital city. Other goodbyes were said through text messages – but many none at all, since so many people in my community do not have phones.
When we got to Panama City, we were told we were being COS’ed – or close of serviced, ending my Peace Corps career for now, with a small chance for reinstatement later in the year. I was being let go from my job. From there we waited, crying and comforting each other through our grief at having to say goodbye to the life we set up for ourselves, torn by the inability to say goodbye to our loved ones in the communities we all held so dear to our hearts. Waiting, until flights were obtained for us to remove us from the country that was our home.
Now, just a few days later, I stepped into the blue bedroom that had been my refuge in another traumatic and tumultuous time in my life, the shock of the quickness of it all still paralyzing my mind. In the past five days, I had to pack up my house, leave my community, was laid off from my job, leave my family and friends without the opportunity to say goodbye, and was removed from the country I was living in. The shock and grief, I knew, would last longer than the mandated two-week quarantine.
I stared out the window at the cold and quiet world, trying to wrap my head around it all. This was the third time in my twenties that I was returning to this house, to live with my mom. I had been ready to leave it all behind, ready to say goodbye to Iowa and the life I set up there. I was excited for the adventure, anticipating the whole world of opportunities available to me after Peace Corps. But now I found myself back, where it all started. Back, in the flat, cold, and gray place that no longer felt like home.