I was truly lucky to grow up in a household of travelers, a household where our parents encouraged me and my sister to push our boundaries by exploring the world. My mother often said that she wanted not only to give us wings, but give us roots as well. As a teenager and a young woman, I absolutely understood the concept of wings, but it took me much longer to appreciate the idea of strong roots that would always bring me home. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to stay home when there was so much of the world to explore.
My family’s annual trips to places near and far were not the only inspiration for my wanderlust; I also had several uncles and aunts who served in the Peace Corps. Letters written on yellow lined paper and exotic picture postcards with colorful stamps arrived steadily during their time overseas. The messages described hair-raising adventures and the experience – often exciting, sometimes terrifying, and always eye-opening – of living in a foreign country. As I read each new story, the pull of volunteering and living in a foreign country steadily grew. The Peace Corps became a personal dream, hovering in the back of my mind, the way I would stretch my wings as soon as I was able.
In college, I spent 6 months studying abroad in Australia, an experience which was worthwhile but left me itching to start another adventure far from home. This time, I wanted to fully commit to life in a developing country. With this goal in mind, I turned to the Peace Corps, and was accepted for a position in the Philippines. I was finally going to spread my wings as my uncles and aunts had done before me, and as I’d always dreamed.
“I have learned a secret about spreading my wings: it is not only the act of flying away to a foreign location, but also mentally and emotionally allowing oneself to open up to new things.”
Summing up my two years living and working in the Philippines is next to impossible. On paper, I was a coastal resource management volunteer living in a small, rural community on the little island of Biliran. In reality, it is difficult to describe my work except to categorize it simply as a frustrating experience. However, when I reflect back on my time in the Philippines, I don’t think about the difficulties of the work but rather about taking students snorkeling in the oceans that served as their backyards. I think about the relationships I built within my community and my travels throughout the country. I think about my host mother, a rock-solid woman who fought tooth-and-nail to keep her family fed and healthy. I think about her granddaughter, who I watched grow into a precocious little three-year-old who called me “Auntie,” and the 15-year old student who thanked me profusely for taking her snorkeling because, since she didn’t know how to swim, she would otherwise never have seen what lives under the water.
The Peace Corps was one of the most difficult experiences of my life, a two-year rollercoaster journey of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. When leaving for the Philippines, I had set out not to change the world but simply to make a small difference in someone’s life. In the end, the Philippines changed me far more than anything I accomplished – any changes I made for others – during my service. The experience was eye-opening in a way that only living in another country can be. Both physically and mentally, I had flown farther from home than I ever had before, and discovered more about the world and myself than I had ever dreamt I would. Now, after returning, I can truly appreciate the challenges faced by people across the world every day – and, finally, I can appreciate how it feels to be home.
I never knew how much I value home. I enjoy the comforts we take for granted, like a hot shower and a soft bed, but it is being close to my family and friends, settling back into my own culture and being completely at ease in my own skin again that brings the simplest of joys. As strange as it may seem, by living in a foreign country, I discovered my roots. This isn’t to say that I am done traveling or that I don’t miss things about my life in the Philippines. I miss drinking coffee with my host mother and playing with her granddaughter. I miss the blue skies, the acres of green rice fields and the warm, tropical waters. I miss the close-knit community and their love of celebrating events big and small. I miss the sense of adventure and trying new things. By taking the opportunity to volunteer through Peace Corps and live in a foreign country, I established valuable relationships with people who made me a better person; I discovered a world I had only ever read about in books or seen in movies and now was able to experience firsthand. By allowing myself to “fly,” I gained a new perspective on my own life and made irreplaceable relationships.
I am reminded daily of my experience in the Philippines through “remember when” conversations with my boyfriend, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer. I find that all of the small differences that distinguish my life at home from the one I lived in the Philippines spark vivid memories and feelings of life abroad. For the time being, though, I look to build on my “roots”, nurturing my relationships here at home, establishing a fulfilling career, and exploring the magnificent and beautiful places in my own backyard. And, I have learned a secret about spreading my wings: it is not only the act of flying away to a foreign location, but also mentally and emotionally allowing oneself to open up to new things. I find that I can “fly,” and be home simultaneously, by taking chances, jumping on opportunities and facing challenges in my everyday life. The list of places around the world that I would like to visit grows longer by the day, and I look forward to the next time I step off an airplane in a foreign land where I can reach beyond my comfort zone and open my eyes to a new place. I am comforted to know that, even as I wander, I have someplace equally wonderful, if in a different way, to come home to.