We took our seats on the charter bus in silence. Seventeen hours of travel in, across one ocean and half a continent, our bodies were haggard and our countenance unsure. At the start of the journey we were exhilarated — we’d just left our lives behind, quit jobs, packed everything we owned into a duffel bag, and bid Western Civilization goodbye for the next 2 years.

It had all felt so freeing, so enlightened. Until the plane landed.

Looking out the window at the dilapidated airport and polluted skies, the instant regret among these soon-to-be Peace Corps volunteers, these naïve do-gooders, was palpable. I’m certain in that moment just one thought was sweeping all of our minds — WTF did we just do?

We were escorted to a large bus to take us to our final destination. The interior screamed Eastern Europe — cheap, crimson velvet covered the seats and ceilings, and a small disco ball hung from the center. When the driver turned the ignition, the ignition refused. He tried again, and then again. The bus filled with fumes of petrol, as it turns out a very proper welcome to Bulgaria. On the 4th try, the engine complied, met with feint cheering.

I watched the driver in the rearview mirror as we exited the airport, and made our way to a faraway village. His eyes nervously darted between the bumpy road and the group of deflated Americans. Then he reached down, pushed a cassette into the slot, and cranked the volume.

Look into my eyes / you will see / what you mean to me /
Search into your heart / Search your soul /
And when you find me there, you’ll search no more…

Heads that were drooped against windows straightened. Bodies contorted, turning toward one another. Eyes met. Smiles spread from row to row, like “the wave” at a baseball game.

All at once, with no prompt, everyone sang in unison at full volume:

Ya, I would fight for you / I lie for you /
Walk the wire for you / Yeah, I’d die for you
You know it’s true / Everything I do, oooooooh, I do it for you.

Laughter erupted. In hindsight, it was the first time we understood the principal survival technique of our new land, of this mission that would live up to its motto: “the toughest job you’ll ever love”.

For the next hour, together we sang Bryan Adam’s entire album, one of the very last bridges between the world we left and the one we were about to enter.

Knowing what I know now, that bus ride was the most important moment of our Peace Corps journey. Simply because it was our first real moment, one that was steeped in togetherness and camaraderie. Simply because the months ahead would be lonelier, grittier, grayer than the brochures conveyed.

Was it beautiful, meaningful, joyous? Yes, at times. Times that were few and far between, but deeply craved. For only a fool believes that moving to a desperately poor country, living alone as the town foreigner, and struggling to be effective in an ineffective system is going to be “freeing”.

Fools like us.

In the end, leaving our lives behind to help those less fortunate was more freeing than we could have imagined. We learned to redefine the word “freedom” as most Americans never will. We learned how to be alone and isolated and intimidated, yet wake up the next morning determined. We learned that more often than not, we were the ones who needed the change.

And most important, we learned that the very best survival skill when shit gets hard is laughter. Simultaneously, laughter elevates us above mental quicksand and reminds us that no matter how bad things are, life is still fun if you just look in the right places.

Armed with Bryan Adams and crimson velvet and disco balls, we stepped off that bus and made our way into the great, unknown abyss.

Life would never be the same.

It would be way harder, way less predictable, and way more lonely. But so damn funny too.