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"The · darkest · thing · about · Africa · has · always · been · our · ignorance · of · it"

Your Peace Corps Volunteer may be closer than she appears

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Typed Saturday, April 12, 2009:

As I type this, I am sitting in an undisclosed location, currently in hiding from most of the people I know in the US.

By the time you read this post, the surprise will be out, so let's call this a play-by-play of how it happened.

You know how my Peace Corps service was officially supposed to end next week?  Well....  I got official permission from Peace Corps to let me be home for Easter on "religious grounds."

I just elected not to share the news. :)

And so, the plan was set to surprise my family (and most of you reading this) on Easter Sunday!  Please pardon the little white lies and trickery of the last several months, but with any luck, it'll be worth it to see the looks on their faces!

I arrived in the US on Wednesday the 8th, almost a week sooner than most people expected.  Stephen's fiancee Chelsea met me at the airport and then whisked me to her apartment for the next couple days.  A few hours after she picked me up, Stephen and Chelsea went to a movie in her car.  Stephen actually looked at the gas gauge and asked, "WHERE did you DRIVE today?!?!  Your gas has half emptied since we were in this car a few days ago!"  Chelsea feigned shock, and the issue was dropped.  We later rolled our eyes together at Stephen's near-thwart of our surprise.

To pass the time, I watched movies while Chelsea was at class, had a pedicure (needed the residual dirt and calluses of Africa off my feet!), and we did some shopping.  Fortunately, my body was still on Africa time, so I'd wake up between 1 and 3 am each morning (7 or 9 am Gambia time) and email my parents at the time they would expect to see stamped on my emails, since I habitually checked my email first thing each morning in Kombo.

I called Mom & Dad's pastor to finalize our plans.  (The first time I called, I had to hang up shortly thereafter as Chelsea had an incoming call which turned out to be an offer to interview for a job.  This comes up later.)  He'd asked them to do things in the service, which would ensure they were there, and he would ask them to the front of the sanctuary to announce he had a surprise for them.  The hard part was sneaking me into the church without anyone seeing.  Too early and they'd have no place to hide me.  Too late after the service started and I'd miss my cue.

Chelsea told me Mom had made brunch reservations for the four of them.  Luckily, Mom's on Facebook now and happened to mention it there.  I posted a surprised note wondering why and where they were going for brunch.  Ka-ching.  Pappy's Corner Pub.  Promptly called Pappy's and changed the reservation from 4 people to 5, while also finding out what time the reservation is.

Emailed my cousin Wendy to tell her that, despite what my parents had said, we might be dropping in on the extended Hoffman family Easter dinner after all, following brunch, if only to see people.

On Friday, it was time to give Chelsea a break from covering up for me, so she drove me to meet Karen halfway.  Karen then drove me to Fort Collins, where I stayed crouched low in the seat once within 3 miles of my house, lest we coincidentally pull up next to my parents.  We arrived at Claire's house, not a mile from mine, which became my new hiding spot.

Woke up again at 1 am and was able to do my email and blog post at the correct time, but then had to be back up in time for an 8 am video chat with my parents.  We'd had several video chats before, when I was in Kombo and could get to the one decent internet cafe, so I needed to set things up to resemble the cafe.  Internet service in Claire's house is limited to the kitchen, which severely limited my location options, but I found that if I sat on the floor and put the laptop up on a chair in front of me (so that you couldn't tell I was sitting on the floor), the dark green wood paneling that goes up to waist height would sufficiently resemble the dark walls of the internet cafe.  Fortunately, her internet had issues and froze up occasionally, just like they would have expected African internet to do.  I made sure the room was dimly lit and that Claire had a heads-up not to shout anything at me.  The unexpected problem, however, was that, since I was last here a year ago, Claire and her roommate have acquired a big black lab with a bark that shakes the foundation.  I could not a) have Xander walk in front of the camera or b) have Xander let out a bark.  So we put Xander in his crate in anticipation of the chat, covered the door with a blanket (to minimize the stimuli he might see), and opened the front door so that I could see if someone showed up and catch them before they rang the doorbell.  My back-up plan, if Xander barked or the doorbell rang, was to shut the chat down suddenly and feign technical issues.  Who knows whether it would've been convincing, but fortunately it never came to that.

The chat was funny, making plans for my flight and what food I wanted brought to the airport.  But I had to smile when Mom and Dad gave me the exciting news of Chelsea's job interview...  The call that came while I was holding the phone! :-D

Later on Saturday, I called Chelsea to let her know that, while I knew she'd been planning to wear the earrings and necklace I gave her from Gambia to church, she'd need to put the necklace in her purse and not put it on until after the surprise.  Why?  Because I remembered that a few of the necklace beads are made of fish vertebrae, a distinctly Gambian touch that my family would have recognized.  The rest of the jewelry looks African, but could easily be faked.  The fish vertebrae would have blown our cover.  Another crisis averted.

Next up was to let Chelsea and Pastor Dan know which number to reach me on in the morning, to perfectly time when I walked into church and avoid accidental run-ins.  Karen came over to Claire's and brought me Subway (I'd already done Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Noodles & Company, and Pizza Hut) and we caught up.


Typed Monday, April 13, 2009:

Sunday morning, after breakfast burritos and fruit salad (courtesy of Anna, Claire’s roommate), I put on my fanciest Gambian outfit, and Claire drove me to Mountain Range Church.  We timed our arrival in the parking lot for just after the service would have started at 10 am.  I hid low in the passenger seat and we awaited the call saying it was safe to come in.

Just then, we got a text message from Chelsea—she and Stephen were running late and hadn’t yet pulled into the parking lot.  We were in trouble—Stephen would have recognized Claire!  We quickly pulled out of the parking lot, barely missing them.  (Chelsea said she saw us leave.)  We pulled onto a nearby neighborhood street until Chelsea texted that they were parking.  Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait too long, or we might have missed our cue.

We pulled back up at the church just in time to see Stephen and Chelsea walk in the door.  Claire parked and I resumed my hidden position slouched down in the passenger seat.  We were just in time—not five minutes later, we got the call that it was safe for me to come in.  The church secretary, DJ, and Pastor Dan’s wife, Linda, were a coordinated team to rush me in the door and straight to the women’s restroom to hide out for a few more seconds.

Then, it was time, and DJ ushered me to the side door of the sanctuary, and I walked in.

Pastor Dan was standing facing the congregation, with Mom and Dad on his left and Stephen and Chelsea on his right.  As it turned out, Stephen and Chelsea were positioned slightly facing me, so Stephen’s eyes bugged out almost immediately, but he stayed silent.  As I walked toward Mom and Dad, who had their backs to me, Pastor Dan talked about how Easter is a time for surprises and answered prayers, and that something they were looking forward was going to happen a little sooner than they thought.

Mom & Dad were so focused on the pastor that they didn’t notice I’d walked up and was standing just behind them.  After Pastor Dan finally motioned for them to look behind them, Mom turned around.

“OH MY GOSH!!!!!!!!!!”  She started crying and grabbed me, and hugged me so long I began to feel bad for Dad, who was standing there waiting his turn.  Dad was teary and, while Mom was quite vocal, he was speechless.  They immediately harassed Stephen for helping me, and were quite surprised to learn that my co-conspirator was NOT my brother, but his fiancée!  I went to high-five Chelsea, but apparently got a little too enthusiastic and almost fell over.  Mildly embarrassing.

Once things calmed down a bit, I was given a chance to thank the church for their support and help, both with Peace Corps and this surprise, and Dad was given a chance to respond, but it took him a while to say anything.

The rest of the morning (especially at brunch) was spent straightening out things I’d told them.  Things like no, my phone wasn’t stolen—just couldn’t have you call after I left Gambia last Tuesday! :)

So, with Julie checking my email and Facebook (to delete messages from PCVs blurting things like “HEY HOW’S AMERICA??” *ahem that’s you Croc Kate :)*); Mike T setting up a secret email account that I could plan surprises through (since my Mom has checked my normal email account for me for two years); Chelsea, Karen, Claire & Anna providing rides and lodging, and Pastor Dan coordinating the surprise, we pulled it off!

Thanks for all the help!

Current Location:
Current Mood:
mischievous mischievous
Current Music:
mp3s on my new AMERICAN cell phone
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