It was all but impossible for Amy Bleakney not to notice Curtis Hartenstine during their Peace Corps orientation. “He’s a really tall red head, was one of the only guys there and had his hat pulled down low,” Amy said, recalling the 2001 meet up for volunteers headed to Nepal. “I thought, ‘Wow, he’s really shy.’”
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The next day, determined to strike up a conversation on their flight from San Francisco, Amy made a comment about the book that Curtis was reading: A Violet of Shyness in Their Eyes. “It’s about a Peace Corp experience in Nepal, so I took that opportunity to be like “Hey, I just read that book, too!”
“Meanwhile, I’d been spying on her for thousands of miles,” laughed Curtis, who recalls switching seats with another volunteer so he and Amy could sit together on the next flight. “I found myself next to her playing cards, discussing our hopes and anxieties about what life in Nepal would be like. Time went quickly and then we were approaching the airport. She leaned over my window seat to see the view and we touched casually. I remember hoping that I’d get posted to live in a community near this girl.”
The calm of the aeroplane faded quickly though after they landed in Nepal. “Nothing prepares you for the chaos of Kathmandu,” Curtis said. “You go straight to the Peace Corps compound where they give you all these immunizations and a briefcase of medical supplies, and that’s your ‘Welcome to the country.’”
Amy and Curtis were in separate training groups – hers in youth development and his in forestry – only seeing each other occasionally. “Our relationship evolved slowly,” Curtis said. “It’s very easy when you get in that scenario to quickly jump in and attach to somebody because you’re scared and you’re in a new place. It was 2001, so we didn’t have Skype or mobile phones or an easy connection to people back home. But Amy and I knew each other as friends for many months first.”
They were posted in different parts of the country, with Curtis stationed in the remote village of Taplejung and Amy in the bustling border town of Nepalgunj. To communicate, they wrote letters, which were delivered via the Peace Corp’s courier service and eventually a romance began to take shape on the pages.
“With the Peace Corp, you hopefully mail once a week, but the mail system is so poor and the roads are so bad, and then monsoon season hit Curtis’s town making it inaccessible,” Amy said. “These letters were our ‘dating’, and while the waiting was fun it could also be agonizing if you didn’t get mail that week.”
“These letters were our ‘dating’, and while the waiting was fun it could also be agonizing if you didn’t get mail that week.”
“But when you got the letter, it was great,” added Curtis. “It would often come at the perfect time for a pick-me-up.” Amy even fashioned a backgammon board out of construction paper, and they took turns mailing it back and forth. “We only got about six moves in, in 18-months, and then the game disintegrated in the monsoon,” she said.
When they could get together, they explored the region. “Our first dates were pretty intense and out of the ordinary,” Curtis said. “We went backpacking through the Northeast corner of Nepal and camped at the base of this sacred mountain where there was a religious shrine. That night it poured rain, and our little tent leaked and we were not that prepared. We had a flood that night and everything was soaked, but we were happy – these were the experiences where we cut our teeth.”
“I feel like we’re at our best when we’re travelling,” added Amy. “It’s a great way to get to know somebody and see how well you mesh and if your idiosyncrasies match. Because it all comes out when you’re in situations like that.”
After serving in the Peace Corp for 27 months, Amy returned to the US to attend graduate school. Before leaving, she and Curtis decided they would stay together, even though it would be more than six months until they saw each other again. Since the letter courier service was no longer an option, they had to find other methods of communication.
“I would fax him letters and even faxed him a Valentine. The whole village knew of course.”
“In the town where Curtis was stationed there was a tiny store that had a fax machine run by solar panels, so he could use the fax machine for a couple of hours per day while the sun was out,” Amy said. “I would fax him letters and even faxed him a Valentine. The whole village knew of course.”
“They were walking around making kissy faces and talking about the American love day,” Curtis said.
After backpacking through Southeast Asia, Curtis made the move to Denver to join Amy. “I remember being nervous because we’d never had constant daily contact or lived in the same town, and we’d been dating for two years,” Amy said. “We were really independent, but we fit together so well as soon as he got there.”
They moved in together and, three years later, Curtis proposed during a hiking trip in central Colorado. They were married in 2007, and now have two children: a boy, Sawyer, and a girl, Sophia Maya. “Maya means ‘love’ in Nepalese,” Amy said.
Reminiscing about the Peace Corps, they both agree they would do it again. “When you find someone that you love and that you can travel with, your strengths shine through,” Curtis said. “You wind up getting everything you want out of the experience both individually and collectively, on this fantastic journey together.”
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