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For Geurtsen, A South Pacific Sojourn

Battling a case of nerves isn’t that unusual on the first day of a new job. However, battling rapid, rain-forest river currents just to make it to the office is.

Such was the harrowing, if exciting, case of 25-year-old Falls Church native Chris Geurtsen when he marched to his new post as newspaper editor in Port Villa on the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. Fording the chest-high waters of the river in his flip-flops was just the start of his commute. Ahead of him lie three similar bodies of water and the storms of the rainy season, which had already spun off cyclones throughout the region, weren’t making things any easier. Suddenly the bumper-to-bumper Beltway doesn’t sound like such a bad commute, no?

But this was the path Geurtsen chose for himself. After graduating William and Mary in 2005 with bachelor degrees in both history and economics, he decided to leave his internship with the World Bank, and a potential full-time position, to join the Peace Corps. Dispatched to Vanuatu, Geurtsen, a former News-Press staffer, now enjoys a simpler life, where communication with friends and family in the United States is a rarity.

Correspondences with close ones are often few and far between, which makes his mother Karin’s anxious moments far more frequent, however to this point the stories he does share are almost always memorable. Such was the aforementioned tale of his first day as editor of the newspaper distributed among local Peace Corps volunteers.

“He had just been given a solar panel and a tele-radio in order to report back to the office at Port Villa and he had called to find out about closings during Easter weekend,” Karin relays the tale. “Somebody else got on the radio and was like ‘Chris, you’ve just been made editor of the paper and the work starts tomorrow so you need to get here.’ Well, that’s not an easy thing.”

So, it was through — not over — the river and off to work he went, encountering obstacles along the way.

“He had thrown his stuff in his backpack and was almost totally soaked as soon as he went out. He walked through the first river and there were no trucks anywhere,” Karin says.

Hitchhiking riverside rides with truckers is the most common way of getting around on what few roads are on the island. With no truckers in sight through the stormy winds, Chris pushed on through three additional rivers, backpack overhead.

“Right after the last river, a truck finally picked him up … he asked the driver to take him to the airport and was told that the bridge to the airport had just been washed out the day before,” said Karin.

The driver agreed to take Chris at least as far as where the bridge had collapsed. On arrival, Chris was greeted by two large bamboo trees that had been laid down side by side across the ravine, which he managed to cross barefoot, and got a ride to the airport with a trucker on the opposite side of the river. He made it to the plane just 10 minutes before its scheduled departure.

“Then it left an hour and a half late, which is typical,” Karin said.

This hard-to-believe nature trek is just one of the most recent narratives Chris’ family members have read about in his handwritten letters. Karin recalled many more, in which she already had in a storytelling layout inside a packed scrapbook of photos and emails. Each glance at a new photo brought another smile across the face of a mother whose maternally instinctive worries had eventually been overshadowed by the admiration for a son who is helping others less fortunate.

Volunteer work had long been a part of Chris’ life growing up, from youth group activities to time spent at local soup kitchens. His mother looks back now at these as tell-tale signs of the Peace Corps connection.

“You know, he’s always had a big heart growing up. He had this quality of kindness towards others. In that way, that factor really did relate to his decision to join; he was a great kid,” said Karin. “I thought it was the perfect time for him to do this.”

Newspaper editor isn’t the only job on Chris’s plate. Volunteering as an Agro-enterprise adviser in Vanuatu, Chris helps local farmers revamp their crops in order to thrive, giving additional marketing advice on how to make their crops more profitable. While working for others can be fulfilling, volunteering is not without its highs and lows. After finding himself discouraged when no one showed up for a scheduled vanilla bean workshop, Chris’s spirits were lifted by a full house of women who came to hear his advice on how to manage and budget their family funds.

“You know one day he’s asking himself ‘Why am I doing this again?’ and then another he’s saying to himself, ‘Ah, now I know,’” said Karin. “So, I think he lives with that contrast.”

One of two sons, Chris is brother to 17-year-old Matt Geurtsen, on the verge of graduating from George Mason High School. Matt recalls being a bit taken aback the first time he heard his older brother would be traveling overseas to assist with Vanuatu’s crop economy, but sees it as an act of selflessness he’s not sure he could make himself.

“I was kind of surprised when I found out Chris was going to join,” said Matt. “He had an internship at the World Bank and he seemed like he was having fun there, so for me, it kind of came out of the blue, but I was pretty proud of him.”

With a three-week delivery time for letters each way, Chris’s mom and brother both agree that the lack of instant communication with Chris is probably the hardest part.

“It’s handwritten letters, it’s not phone. There’s no Instant Messaging, there’s no e-mail, unless he’s on the main island,” said Karin.

Karin gets through the weeks in between by sometimes stocking her purse full of post-it notes scribbled with talking points she wants to cover with her son during their next scheduled phone conversation, yet doesn’t allow this potentially trying measure to keep her from remembering what her son is really giving to the people of Vanuatu.

“Knowing that he’s doing something positive for other people, I mean it’s an experience that will always affect him — to learn a different language and live in a place where the materialism isn’t there — it’s a privilege to experience that, to live it,” said Karin.