Very Lengthy Distance Relationship: Peace Corps Volunteers Marry

Very Long Distance Dating: Peace Corps Volunteers Marry

On a few days in 2017 and 2018, when the humidity was low and the sky was clear of smoke from burning sugar cane, Benjamin Hampton Ewing was able to look out and see something special from a ridge line on Viti Levu, the main island in Fiji.

At 6 a.m., Mr. Ewing boarded a bus in the mountains of Viti Levu, where he lived. The bus would head towards Suva, Fiji’s capital, zigzagging through serpentines woven into the mountains. About 15 minutes into the ride, the drivers came to a ridge line that looked over peaks and valleys and into the ocean beyond. Most of the time, Mr. Ewing couldn’t see anything behind the water. But from time to time, when it was very clear, he could see a piece of land on the horizon, so faint it looked like a mirage.

“When I saw the smaller landmass,” he said, “I knew that was Thea.”

Moments later, Thea Louise Mink, who lived on Koro Island, dozens of miles over the sea, noticed that her phone was buzzing. She would open it to find an excited text from Mr. Ewing informing Ms. Mink that he could “see” her.

It was a romantic gesture. But neither Ms. Mink, now 28, nor Mr. Ewing, 33, had gone to Fiji to seek romance. You were there by the Peace Corps; both joined in 2016.

Ms. Mink, who grew up in Washington DC, had long been curious about volunteering for the Peace Corps. Her father had worked for the organization in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in the 1970s and she had heard his stories grow up. By 2016, Ms. Mink was a few years away from Tufts University and had a bit of wanderlust. “It felt like the right moment to mess things up,” she said.

Mr. Ewing, who grew up in Atlanta, was at a different stage: he’d graduated from Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC, in 2010, spent five years at a boarding school in North Carolina, and then gone to Columbia University for a Masters in Private school management. When his time in Columbia came to an end, a roommate suggested they apply to the Peace Corps.

The corps was their balance. When they met, Mr. Ewing and Ms. Mink were fresh faced volunteers embarking on a two-year outreach to Fiji. They met during their training weeks, where they met with their volunteers before going on missions across the country. This attitude could have been an advantage.

“We first met in a group,” said Ms. Mink. “So we could observe each other and see how we were with other people.”

Ms. Mink noted that Mr. Ewing had a laid-back, unwavering personality. She was drawn to his dry sense of humor – which, as she affectionately pointed out, “didn’t always end up the way he intended”. Mr. Ewing admired Ms. Mink for the way she added ballast to the group. “When someone is having a tough day, of course they go to her,” he said.

For weeks they kept their mutual admiration to one another. The night before they were supposed to split up on different islands for their individual tasks, Ms. Mink and Mr. Ewing went to celebrate with their volunteer colleagues in Suva. It was a typical late night bar scene – lights, music, sticky floors – with a noticeable group of intruders.

“It was all of us newly minted Peace Corps volunteers and then the regular crowd in that Irish pub in downtown Suva,” said Ms. Mink.

She asked Mr. Ewing to dance. They went to the ground.

That could have been the beginning and the end of their romance. Mr. Ewing went to his assignment the next morning; Mrs. Mink left for her shortly afterwards. But in the days that followed, when Mr. Ewing was standing in the kitchen of his new house in a village in the mountains of Viti Levu, he pondered how to keep the conversation going. Ms. Mink once mentioned a tip for making fried rice in passing: Use one-day rice. Mr. Ewing decided to try Ms. Mink’s method and then call her to tell her about it. After growing up on fried Mediterranean cuisine, Mr Ewing had a slight misunderstanding about how to cook this dish.

“I put a bunch of oil in a pan, made it hot, and then poured a bunch of one-day rice in it,” he said.

While this was not a culinary success (“Let me tell you it wasn’t good”), the fiasco gave him a good reason to seek advice from Ms. Mink. Their conversation quickly went beyond cooking: they discussed the new experiences they had made and the challenges they faced in their early days in the field. At the end of their conversation, Mr. Ewing asked Ms. Mink if he could call her that Sunday. She said yes.

The two started talking every Sunday at 8 p.m. The allotted time allowed them to develop their relationship steadily, but it also allowed them to narrow down what they each recognized as an affair of the heart that could overshadow their work in the Peace Corps if they did not set boundaries.

“We both showed up to meet people in Fiji and to work with people in Fiji,” said Ewing. “We made sure that our time is not wasted on the phone.”

For months, phone calls were the main method of communication. Ms. Mink sat on her bed, cocooned under a mosquito net, and put her phone in a solar-powered lamp that also served as a charger. At the other end of the line, Mr. Ewing would do his best to keep moving around his little house – all the better to keep warm on cold mountain nights. The two of them didn’t have to worry about dates or introducing themselves to friends and family or a host of other things to think about when they were home. You could focus on getting to know each other’s “brains and backgrounds” in ways that they hadn’t experienced before, Mink said.

They occasionally spent time together in person. From time to time Ms. Mink found a reason to take the weekly night ferry to Viti Levu, where any extra time she had was spent with Mr. Ewing. She once traveled to Mr. Ewing’s village to hold a workshop on sustainable chicken farming.

During their second year in Fiji, they used the vacation time they had saved to fly to New Zealand, where they spent three weeks together in a motorhome. However, for most of their first years together, they had to communicate remotely.

“The Peace Corps made sure we were both comfortable before we were comfortable being together,” Ewing said. “This enabled us to complement each other and build from this place of independence.”

They each returned to the United States in 2018. The distance between them, once covered by miles of oceans, was shrinking; They moved into an apartment in Atlanta together. And they got used to life in America too.

“This adjustment phase is really difficult for any Peace Corps volunteer,” said Caitlin Barrow, a friend the couple met at the Peace Corps. “It was really nice to see how they support each other.”

The couple’s wanderlust remained. Mr. Ewing proposed on December 31, 2018, and at some point he and Ms. Mink discussed their wedding in the summer of 2020. They even ordered a pair of books: “A Practical Wedding: Creative Ideas for Planning a Beautiful, Affordable, and Meaningful Celebration” and “A practical wedding planner”, both by Meg Keene, as inspiration. However, when it was time to sit down and plan the wedding, Mrs. Mink and Mr. Ewing were distracted as they looked at street maps. Instead, they ended up in Montana that summer when the wedding books gathered dust at home.

They eventually decided to have a small outdoor ceremony in a park near their home this year in Atlanta. And so Ms. Mink, now a PhD student at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta, married Mr. Ewing on January 17, now a teacher at Pace Academy in Atlanta. Ms. Barrow, the friend who was one of the couple’s Peace Corps volunteers, became a Secretary of Universal Life in office when a dozen guests watched in person.

Defining the relationship in such a tangible way is a big change for the couple, especially when compared to their Fijian years. In retrospect, one of the things Ms. Mink and Mr. Ewing appreciated about dating abroad was that they felt no pressure to mark their relationship. For the longest time, they didn’t have to think much about whether or not they were officially a couple because no one was home to ask them.

“It was never an issue because it was never forced,” said Mr Ewing.

The relationship “was allowed to be what it was,” he added. “Until it got more.”

When January 17, 2021

Where Atlanta, GA.

The setting A public park near the couple’s home. “We go in with our dog every day,” said Ms. Mink. “It just feels like home.”

The cameo Mr. Ewing’s high school English teacher stopped by during the ceremony. (After all, it was a public space.) She congratulated her.

The food “We called a Thai restaurant around the corner,” said Ewing. The reception was on the roof terrace of the couple’s apartment overlooking the park where they had married. They distribute patio heaters on the patio.

The car Mr. Ewing owns a Ford Model 48 Coupé that his grandfather and great-uncle bought new in 1935. When Mr. Ewing’s father inherited it, Mr. Ewing said, “You could see right through the floorboards and if you touched it it would tear your clothes. “Over time, Mr. Ewing’s father had it restored. Ms. Mink and Mr. Ewing ceremoniously spun in the car after their ceremony. But first, while the newlyweds were posing for photos, Ms. Mink’s father secretly strolled to the rear of the car and stayed away from their eyes. Then he tied cans to his back.

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