Joining the Peace Corps at age 60 was more about letting go than giving up.
The time was right. After a successful career in journalism and the comforts of a home in Chicago, I was ready for change.
As Peace Corps increases the drive to attract more people older than 50. I mused on my decision. Gray hairs helped. Peace Corps ignores birthdates. During my 2-year tour as an English teacher in Albania, I enjoyed the advantages of being older.
Upon meeting the Minister of Education in my city of Gjirokastra, a castle town in southern Albania, he welcomed me with “nice to see an experienced person.” Bus drivers and furgon owners (9-seater vans) offered me the seat upfront, so I wasn’t squished in the rear with 16 others.
In our Albania-bound group of 40 volunteers, 7 were older than 50. Frank, a hardware designer from Boston, and Sonia, a bio-statistics professor from New York City, were on their second Peace Corps tours. Jerome taught finance in Fort Worth. Mike was a sales executive from San Francisco. Criss and Carol, from Raleigh, N.C., left successful careers as consultants in business development and technology.
We were kindred spirits with a lust for travel, the next career and a willingness to go outside our comfort zone for the 27-month tour.
Peace Corps is ageless. What binds together the volunteers is living out the volunteer lifestyle.
I lived in a tiny apartment (rent $150), cooked by Bunsen burner when the power blew and snuggled in my goose-down sleeping bag during the winter. I read voraciously, took advantage of the mountains as my daily stair-climber exercise and lived modestly on a $322 monthly allowance.
Forging friendships with younger volunteers came easily. Interests were glued by mutual travel plans, job projects, recycling books and sharing contents of care packages.
Finances separated us. On vacation, Boomers could easily afford to stay in a funky hotel instead of sharing floor space with sleeping bags.
My younger colleagues shared their technology prowess and dismissed my lack with “Oh, you’re just like my mom.” My ability to text-message is now an accomplishment.
Food tastes divided us, and so did music. My colleagues pined for McDonalds, Starbucks and Taco Bell. I longed for a vodka martini. They downloaded Jack Johnson for me; I introduced them to Chet Baker.
Their language skills, fresh from campus classrooms, soared beyond mine. But my imperfect Albanian served as an ice-breaker, especially with adults who were struggling with English.
The biggest challenge was downshifting. I lived a career in journalism built on deadlines. Adjusting to the local pace of life required enormous patience. But rewards were many, including an appreciation for stillness and solitude that comes from minimal amusements: reading, hiking daily, discovering a local wine and being the recipient of gracious local hospitality.
The weeks dragged but the months in Albania flew. “We’re in it for the long haul’’ was the unspoken mantra of the over-50s. And now I’m back in Chicago.
Would I do it again? Absolutely.