Telling My Peace Corps Story, Part 1 of 3

It’s going to be plenty complicated for me to make sense of the time I’ve spent in the Peace Corps, let alone help others understand it all. In the next few posts I’ll try to let you in on my process of figuring out what it has meant for me and for the people I’ve met. I’ll try to keep them fairly brief and interesting. I’ll be back in the U.S. in a few hours now, but I’ll post the other parts of this post in the coming week. Thanks for reading!

My Peace Corps experience was…

-Enlightening. It opened my eyes to how most of the world really lives and interacts.

-Humbling. It drove home the realization that I have always had it easy and continue to enjoy myriad advantages just because of where I was born.

-Challenging. Both personally and professionally. Adapting to a different culture was frustrating and exasperating at times, and learning a new profession simultaneously stretched my comfort zone in many ways.

-Reassuring. Every time I engage with people from different backgrounds I am reminded of how much we have in common and how our cultural assumptions about poverty and foreignness are oversimplified.

-Heartwarming. The feeling of being welcomed, respected, and embraced by a community and individuals is always life-changing. No one can view generosity the same way when families with dirt floors serve you the best food they have and sleep two and three to a bed so you can have your own room when you visit.

-Often abstract. Working in international development and training can feel hopelessly vague at times. Change is slow, complex, and context-sensitive. Volunteers spend long stretches of time between the brief flashes of accomplishment and most of what we do cannot be empirically measured at all.

-Lonely, sometimes. There’s no ignoring the distance from loved ones, the sense of being an outsider, the memories and comforts foregone, but by the end most of us believe in the value of the time we spent here and achieve a profound sense of belonging during the 2nd year.

-Cyclical. There were good times and bad, many of which were exacerbated by distance. Feelings of isolation and inclusion provoked swings of depression and elation.

Fulfilling. The mix of personal and professional gains as well as the relationships forged in a challenging and rewarding context made my service an extremely productive and rewarding experience.

-Draining. Maintaining a long-distance relationship, integrating into a new culture and community, and working to change entrenched socio-political institutions has worn on me, but not to the point of jading me.

-Unique. All Peace Corps experiences are different, though some are more different than others. My long distance relationship as well as my site change 3/4 through my service created unique challenges and and opportunities that led sometimes to thriving and sometimes to struggling. I’m sure it will be tempting to compare my service with that of others, but I hope that it never becomes a contest and that we can simply appreciate the commonalities and differences of our experiences.

My Peace Corps experience was NOT…

-About saving the world. I never had illusions that I was off to fix the problems of the world during these two years. I wanted a new, different, and challenging experience during which I could reflect on my place in the world and do something positive for others at the same time.

-Just about me. I actually feel like I dedicated myself to my work and to the community more completely and fruitfully than I had expected. I have done more good for others than I thought I could.

-Business as usual. Many of my assumptions about life, material needs, poverty, and education were upended while I was here and that was exactly the point of joining.

-Vacation. I’ve heard the Peace Corps referred to as the ‘Posh Corps,’ especially for some country posts that are considered less harsh than others. While it’s true that some volunteers treat it as a second (or first) study abroad by drinking and sightseeing, I did not and most of the volunteers I know didn’t either. We worked hard, usually at least six days per week and even when we weren’t in the schools or health centers, were were still speaking Spanish and trying to interact and build relationships in another country.

-Predictable. It would be one thing if we knew with certitude the dimensions of the challenges we were to face, the depths of discomfort, and the days when our best laid plans would slip away like water through fingers, but the reality of service was much messier. We were often swimming in an fog of fragmentary information and vague promises, trying to grasp anything tangible or concrete. It could get maddening, but it does feel like we can handle any situation we’re thrown into back in the U.S. now.

-Comfortable. I learned to adapt to the heat, humidity, rain, mosquitoes, scorpions, dust, cockroaches, latrines, power outages, water outages, parasites and bacteria, but that doesn’t mean that I enjoyed them.

The teachers from my school in Balgue on Ometepe threw me a going-away dinner this week. It was delicious.

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One response to this post.

  1. I absolutely love this. Still trying to get my thoughts together to write my closing blog(s). In the mean time, I read yours to my mom, and she loved it too!

    Reply

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