That’s what I’m telling folks these days as my daughter wraps up a two-year stint with the Peace Corps in Cambodia. Last week she tearfully said goodbye to the dear family she has lived with since the summer of 2016. She has taken her last bus from the place she has known as home: an open-air structure on the side of a road with no running water, an outdoor kitchen, several miles from the nearest tiny village surrounded by rice fields not far from the Mekong River.
We have known that the leaving would be harder than the arrival. There are no kind of emotional, heat-resistant tiles to protect her from re-entering our frenzied American lifestyle and comforts where she will return and plot her future.
A two-year global service commitment is not unusual for Utahns. Families are accustomed to suffering through the absences of their kids. We live in a state where high school graduates customarily sign on with their church to live on the far corners of the map to promote their faith and offer humanitarian help. The same can be said for people who join the military, some making careers out of it. But our family is not Mormon, and Taylor has never been militarily inclined, so when she announced about three years ago that she was thinking about joining the Peace Corps, I simply answered, “Great!” My quiet gut reaction was, “I would never dare to do that. Wow, what an endeavor!” And then I began to learn about the organization.
Founded in Washington, D.C., in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, Sargent Shriver and another guy, the Peace Corps is a branch of our federal government that uses volunteers in hands-on, grass-roots efforts to help people and to make places better. Volunteers work on health campaigns, boost local entrepreneurship, and teach literacy, both digital and conventional. In a word, they “spread the love.”
My husband and I visited Taylor a year ago, and it was a trip I would never have dreamed of had she not been there. But man, am I glad we went. From the minute we stepped off the airplane in Siem Reap, after joyous tears and hugs, we watched Taylor negotiate with tuk-tuk drivers in the native Khmer language, haggling over the fare and the directions for the bike-powered taxis. She guided us through the temples of Angkor Wat, and we saw the length of the country by bus while traveling south past the massive Tonle Sap Lake to the country’s capital, Phnom Penh, known for the terrible killing fields of the 1970s. This is a populace that would like to move past the dark days of the Khmer Rouge that exterminated at least one-fourth of the population. As we visited with people there, those terrible times were not their focus. They live in the moment.
Our trip to Cambodia was a hot, colorful, eye-opening, gut-wrenching, mouth-watering trip, the memories of which I’ll always savor.
Since that time we’ve seen Taylor just once. She traveled west and we traveled east, meeting in Prague for a few days last November. We talked about how the ensuing months would fly by and she would be all finished with her Peace Corps commitment. I’ve heard her say the days drag by but the months fly, if that makes any sense. I think she has found to be true the Peace Corps description as “the hardest job you’ll ever love.”
Taylor has lots of friends and family to visit upon her return: grandmas here and in Florida, parents here and in Washington, a brother going to college in Utah, and cousins, many of them here in Moab. There are little ones who will grin from ear to ear when she sees them, and a cousin’s baby set to arrive in September. But her heart will be torn when she thinks of her Cambodian family, a family whose small space she shared more closely than even her own. “Will she see them again?” she wonders. I hope so.
Taylor is leaving Cambodia a month before the country is slated to hold national elections for its prime minister, a man who has held the office for more than 30 years. He was part of the Khmer Rouge, and some say he has ruled through violence and fear, even though the country’s constitution proclaims to have a liberal, multi-party democracy. Although the streets have mostly been peaceful over the last several decades, the government’s stronghold has steadily quieted opposition efforts and freedom of the press. The social and political climate has gotten so that even a resident who speaks ill of the prime minister on social media will get a quick trip to jail.
Will the U.S. continue sending aid to Cambodia if the country goes the way of its big brother, China? That remains to be seen. This is a pivotal time for that part of the world, and for my daughter’s world, as she comes back to her homeland and tries to feel at home again here.