Saturday, May 24, 2008

My Trip To Yemen

My trip to Yemen took twenty-one years, ten months, and fifteen days. The final two days of the trip were by airplane from Miami, (via Charlotte, New York, Frankfurt, and Amman). For most of the trip I didn’t really know that Yemen was the destination. (And, as it turns out, Yemen wasn’t really the destination anyway. It was just another stop on the way to Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maine, Delaware, Montana, Ithaca, and Connecticut.)
The conscious portion of my trip to Yemen started one July night in a bar in Lewisburg, PA in 1986. I was with a few friends enjoying a post-softball pitcher or three on a warm night between junior and senior years of college. Most of my friends were Management majors who knew where they were headed. My roommate Mike asked us all, “Where do you think you will be one year from tonight?” As people in the circle took turns answering with a fair amount of certainty, I scrambled to find anything even remotely plausible.
I had started college as a Biochemistry major but changed to a double in English Literature and Political Science. I had devoted hundreds of hours to both the cafeteria and the school newspaper—The Bucknellian. But still, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up. It came to be my turn before I was able to think of anything, and I was shocked to find myself stating rather calmly and quite certainly, “I am going to join the Peace Corps.”
When I woke up at the crack of noon the following day, I found my words from the night before echoing in my brain. They still felt right and true, in spite of the fact that I had never once before that moment in the bar the night before thought about joining the Peace Corps. I tracked down the phone number and gave the Peace Corps a call. And, to make a long, grueling process short, in September of the following year I was on my way to Yemen.
What got me thinking about this today was a request my daughter made in the car this morning. We had a thirty-minute drive and ten minutes into the trip it became clear to Isabel that I was lost in the radio show called Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. Whenever this happens, she will think hard for a moment and then ask a very specific question designed to get me to tell a story. Today she said, “Daddy, turn off the radio and tell me about a time when you were experiencing something VERY exciting and even while it was happening you KNEW it was special.”
After a quick TiVo scan of my life, I settled on the moment on September 26, 1987 when I arrived at the airport in Sana’a, Yemen Arab Republic. At that point in my life, I had not seen much of the world—and I had not slept for forty hours. I got off the plane, crossed the tarmac, and lined up at Customs with my United States Passport in hand. As the “line” moved at Third World speed and I eventually made my way to the front, it struck me hard that I was as far out of my element as I had ever been in my life. My heart started to pound, my breathing grew shallow and fast, and I began to quickly consider the implications of turning around.
I knew even in the moment that I was starting something hugely difficult and hugely exciting and I really didn’t know if I could do it.

When I finished telling Isabel about that moment, our drive was finished and she said as we got out of the car, “I want to join the Peace Corps when I get older.”

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