If you ever want to feel every one of your years (I was feeling 57 of them on the night in question), try to sleep in one of those smelly, orange, molded plastic chairs in an airport. Not for a nap, but for the whole night.
My husband and I were among the hundreds trying to contort our bodies into the elusive “comfortable position,” occasionally giving up in favor of the gritty floor, on Christmas night 2002. This was not at all the way we’d envisioned starting the two-month volunteer assignment that was the kickoff to our retirement.
It had been a crispy-cold blue-sky morning, snowing lightly, when we left for the airport.
“We’re doing it, really doing it, Ca!”
(“Ca” meant Geoffrey was very excited.)
“Do you think I packed enough Pepto-Bismol?”
“Stop worrying, it’ll be fine.”
Yes, I thought, it would probably be fine. But that didn’t mean there weren’t gazillions of details to worry about. And, besides, it wouldn’t be fine if we didn’t have enough Pepto-Bismol, which I knew from experience you can’t get in other countries. Certainly not in a village in the north of Senegal.
I knew I wouldn’t get any co-worrying from Geoffrey – “It’ll be fine” was his mantra – so I kept it to myself. Well, mostly.
As we drove, the falling snow accelerated until we felt as if we were inside a snow globe. Still, we had no idea of the night to come. We waited at the gate, then boarded the plane – Hooray! At last! Then we sat. And sat. We were de-iced, we pushed back. Hooray! At last!
Eventually, we had to return to the terminal – airport closed, no cars or planes in or out – to spend the night. Uh, why was I doing this again? Because it would be fine. And fun. Right.
* * *
In a way, kicking off our retirement with a travel adventure made perfect sense, since we loved to travel and had done plenty of it in our 30 years together. Looking at our extra passport pages was almost like looking at our photo album.
It’s just that we hadn’t planned to retire quite so soon.
We’d had satisfying but somewhat untraditional careers as consultants. For the last twenty years, we’d worked together, out of our home. Ten steps from the bedroom to the office, hoping the dog didn’t bark while we were on the phone with a client, leftovers for lunch in the living room. As far as I was concerned, the work – teaching various communication and management skills in a corporate setting – earned me a living, kept me mentally challenged, and allowed for great scheduling flexibility. It didn’t, however, ignite my passions.
When my parents died within two years of each other, I got the message: Mortality is real, life is short. Putting things off can be a mistake. We’d always intended to join the Peace Corps when we retired; maybe now was the time. On reflection, though, we realized two years was too long to be away from Geoffrey’s elderly parents.
Then something amazing happened.
I was leafing through “World Vision,” the magazine for returned Peace Corps volunteers (of which Geoffrey was one). I almost never looked at this magazine but that day I flipped the pages and spotted an ad for “Volunteer Assignments from One Month to One Year.”
We checked out the sponsoring organization, American Jewish World Service (AJWS). It was primarily a funding organization, providing grants to non-profits around the world, but they had a small Volunteer Corps through which they paired mid- or post-career professionals with non-profits who’d requested people with specific skills.
All we had to be was skilled (check, got that) and Jewish (check, got that – sorta). We applied.
Our interviewer asked us about our motivation and our experience with culture shock. He wanted to know about our transferrable skills. Most importantly, to us, he assured us that secular Jews like us met the requirement as well as our more religious counterparts. The idea behind the organization was not to spread Judaiism, but to encourage American Jews to follow the ancient Hebrew imperative, “Tikkun olam” (“Heal the world”).
Tikkun olam: We’d never heard of it before but knew instantly we’d always believed in it. We signed on to work with an organization in Senegal, a predominantly Moslem country, that was introducing irrigated agriculture so villagers no longer had to depend on the sparse rainfall. We’d help them write a Strategic Plan. Cool.
* * *
The morning after our torture-chamber night in the British Airways terminal, the snow stopped and the airport opened. We were glad we’d kept toothbrush and toothpaste in our carry-on luggage. We flew out.
As it turns out, I’d taken enough Pepto-Bismol with us. And aspirins, Tylenol, toothache medicine, canker sore medicine, cold and flu medicine, cough drops, bandaids and lots more, all in hermetically sealed Ziploc bags. And it went fine, as we’d both known it would. Much more than fine.
Have you ever done volunteer work? How did it turn out? And, if not, do you think you ever will?
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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, recently published by Second Wind Publishing. She is working on a travel memoir (I Didn’t Know Squat: Volunteering in the Developing World After Retirement), from which this is an excerpt.