A Reflection of a Year Spent in the Land of Endless Summer

As a young boy I remember being awe struck by the wondrous stories and journeys of my Aunt Tracy.

She crossed the globe discovering new languages and experiencing foreign cultures. Once home she would always present me with a little token from her travels. The stories she provided weren’t the only in the family as my father, mother, my grandmothers, and many more had also spent time on distant shores. The passing of their knowledge instilled a deep sense of wonder and curiosity about the world. The older I became my curiosity grew stronger. I knew I had caught the travel bug and it was incurable. Ultimately, this delivered me to the tiny nation of Samoa.

Those close to me know service is a significant passion in my life. What many don’t know is this passion is a trait handed down to each generation in my family. Service to family, to country, and to others runs deep in my veins. It is an understatement to say that my family has varying views on basically every topic, but service has long been the link that bounds us ever so strongly together. My grandfather and father served in the military. Four others in my family served in the Peace Corps. I now signify the 3rd generation from my family to serve in the Peace Corps and the 5th to do so. It seems I was always pre-destined to serve in some capacity abroad.

My background gives some insight on how I made the decision to join the Peace Corps, but the actual story is much wackier than, “I did it because four others in my family did.” I have always had an affinity towards the quote, “Take the path less traveled.” Looking back, I chose my path late into my college career. A single speech from Kyle Thomas about his time volunteering for The Ability Experience changed the course of my life forever. His passion ignited a flame inside me, which led to the changing of my college major, four years of volunteering/raising funds/awareness for people with disabilities, and an early career in the same field. When I graduated I spent a year planning and implementing a cross-country bike ride for The Ability Experience. Before moving to begin my position I spent Christmas in Colorado Springs with my dear friend Zach Hornberger. On Christmas day we decided to see the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Prior to the movie I had thought very little of living abroad. When Zach and I departed the theater we were raving, “What are we doing with our lives?“ ”Let’s go somewhere now!” We seemed to be talking about it all the way home. Once the zealousness wore off I began to ponder deeply about the concept of living/working abroad. I remember waking the next morning and deciding I would fill out an application for the Peace Corps.

Fast-forward several months. At this moment I was sitting at my desk finishing the logistics for the 74-day journey my cyclists and I were about to embark. The thought of, “what am I going to do when this trip ends,” was constantly pressing on my mind. My application for the Peace Corps was completely filled out, but I just couldn’t bring myself to turn it in. Why? I couldn’t decide whether to pursue a job with The Ability Experience or the Peace Corps. Ultimately, I didn’t choose either. Looking back, this decision led me down a side street, but this curvy back road somehow landed me where I found myself today. When my cycling trip ended I took a job in Lexington, Kentucky. A few months passed and I was displeased, as my job always seemed to be in jeopardy. There were issues with funding for the newly founded organization. One day my employer walked in and stated, “Zack you might want to start looking for other possibilities.” The next day I turned in my application for the Peace Corps. Several weeks passed and I was extended an interview. I was ecstatic. The interview went well, but I wasn’t informed if I had acquired the position or not. My initial plan was to stay at my current job and wait to see if I was extended an invitation to join the Peace Corps. My happiness began to decay, so I resigned and moved to Northern California to work on my great aunt’s land in California. Days turned into weeks waiting for the email. My great aunt Carol had served in the Peace Corps and was a source of comfort through the entire process. Finally, one day early in June I received a phone call, “Zack would you like to come to Samoa?”

In a matter of days I was back in Georgia. Time flew in preparation for my departure. It was all just one giant blur of packing, seeing friends/family, and doctor appointments. On October 1st I found myself on a plane headed for Samoa. My first several months in the country still seem fresh in my mind, as they were eye opening. It was a giant crash course of Samoan culture. The initial three months of service, my entire group spent training in a single village. A volunteer from a previous group stated, “Training is the hardest part. Once you get through it, you can certainly make it through the next two years.” I wasn’t sure what to think of it at the time, but for me it certainly rings true to me looking back.

Training was easy and overwhelmingly stressful at the same time. Our schedule during the week was mapped out and all we had to do was show up. Easy right? What was difficult was learning the language, the culture, family dynamics, adapting to the food, our role, teaching, and the list goes on. Everything was so new and different. I had so many questions, and when one was answered I had two more. I remember being nervous around the local guys not knowing if I could join in and play rugby. Eventually, they asked me to play. It took time for me to realize the village would always be welcome to the idea of me trying new things. I just needed to put the effort in and ask. Conversing with my family was extremely difficult as my brother was the only member who spoke English well and he was gone during the day driving the village bus. Furthermore, the heat, oh the heat, was something to get used to. Growing up in the South you know about humidity, but the humidity here is on another level. I found myself taking showers just to cool off. Overtime I became comfortable and training wound down. I became accustomed to the food and what was expected of me. This all changed once I was sworn in.

After training, my comfort zone was again extinguished as I was placed in the village I would be living for the next two years. I moved in just as school ended, so I had the next two months to learn and adapt to my village. I remember being extremely nervous and uncomfortable. I would force myself to walk through the road and talk to people. I immediately became friends with the couple who ran the store close to the school compound. They both speak English so at times I would walk down there just to chat. I struggled mightily with all the free time. With no school going on I wasn’t sure what to do. I would go for long walks, read, and watch shows on my computer, but this would only account for maybe half the day. This time period was also extremely difficult with it being December and January. Christmas and New Years left me aching for more than a phone call from my family. New Years day I remember being homesick, as I lay ill in my bed with ZIKA. Missing friends and family is difficult. You learn to cope but sometimes you can’t help the emotion. Knowing that life is continuing without you back home is hard to comprehend at times. I have missed the birth of my nephew and niece, countless weddings, and a family reunion. Yes, I have missed some moments in my family’s life, but I don’t regret being here in the slightest. The trade off has been difficult but ultimately every second here has been worth it.

When school began I hit my stride. My host mom, who is also the principal, was extremely helpful. She was key in helping me settle in at the school. I was able to quickly establish a good relationships with my family and staff. Teaching kids who speak little English proved to be a challenge, but as time passed it has been a blessing watching them grow. I began playing rugby in the evening with the local boys. This opened the gateway to meeting new people in the village. On Sundays I attended church and found myself with a second family. The pastor took me in as one of his own. I frequent his home and spend time with his sons, who are just a bit older than I. I got involved with our volunteer led GLOW and BUILD camps. I discovered new hobbies such as drawing, ukulele, and boxing. Soon I will be volunteering my time to help with the Special Olympics of Samoa as well. The great thing about your time in Peace Corps is you have the ability to do so much more than your project dictates!

With almost a year under my belt what have I learned? I have learned I am loved beyond measure. The support I receive from friends and family at times is unfathomable. Anytime I am down they are the first to pick me up and say, “You got this!” Furthermore, I look at life differently. Life used to be fast paced and stressful, but now I understand that it is better to slow it down and just go with it. Life is filled with so many unknowns and it’s harmful to worry about it all. I have discovered I am able to accomplish what ever I put my mind to. For many years I would discourage myself from trying new things I interpreted as too difficult. Not anymore! I thought, “If I am able to integrate and be a productive volunteer, I can honestly do anything.” Of course there will be failure, but you just need to push past them until you succeed.

I have come to trust myself more and found a new sense of simple independence. I don’t have to worry much about bills, rent, or other troubles I remember having in the States. My world centers on teaching, my host family, integration, and further service. Living abroad has taught me to live a simpler life, which has led to happiness. Lastly, I have learned to appreciate the small things. This could be a slice of cheese, a card from home, a smile from a student, or a fellow staff member handing me a cup of coffee. Everyday in Samoa is such a gift and I am extremely happy I embarked on this adventure. I know there will be many more ups in downs over the next year, but I am not afraid. I will be able to handle the dips and turns because of the support system that I have built around me. Here’s to another fun year in the sun!

Other bits picked up along the way:

  • Patience: before I had little patience and was constantly on edge to be places on time. Here life runs on island time and I have adapted.
  • Eating meat on the bone: to be honest I always thought this was gross and couldn’t get past the texture of the skin and tendon. Now, I don’t think twice and often stop by the local BBQ place to pick up lunch.
  • Hard feet: often you see people walking around with no shoes on their feet. It is very impressive as there is lava rock, glass, and who knows what else everywhere. I have never been one for wearing shoes, so I joined in. I wouldn’t say my feet are hard yet, but I am getting there.
  • Tea: I have never been big into tea, but now I drink it almost everyday
  • Comfort: I have learned to be comfortable with far less. I sometimes take naps on the cold tile floor on a hot day. I have come to enjoy my bucket showers after a work out. My family often tells me to sit in a chair but I much prefer sitting on the floor when I am at their house.
  • Travel: I have learned the bus schedules like the back of my hand and I am comfortable walking a mile or two to go places.