06 June 2008

an open letter to departing PCVs.

Summer is upon us, which means a large number of people are packing their bags for the Peace Corps. If you're anything like me, you've been googling Peace Corps blogs for a while now, so I figured I'd offer my thoughts (and a few packing ideas). Granted, I'm in Ethiopia, so your experience will probably differ drastically, but it's the spirit that counts.

Training sucks. It's hard, it moves excruciatingly slowly, and you'll find yourself wondering why on earth you signed up for this torture. Living with a host family is the hardest part. If you're a recent college grad, you're at least a few years removed from your mother force-feeding you at every meal and imposing an early curfew. If you're older, it's been even longer since you didn't have control of your daily activities. Write yourself a letter about why you joined the Peace Corps and mail it with your favorite candy right before you leave - depending on the quality of your country's postal service, it'll arrive sometime during training and will remind you what you're doing there (and give you a chance to eat some feelings). Push through - it's only three months of a 27-month commitment and it'll be over before you know it. You'll eventually even find yourself nostalgic for the fun you had in training and the relationship you formed with your family.

Prepare yourself for massive amounts of solitude. You'll soon learn (if you haven't already) that being alone is not the same as being lonely. In time, you'll probably come to crave that solitude - you'll be on display every moment of every day you leave your house. Say goodbye to the ability to be invisible. Every move you make will fascinate those around you - buying groceries, speaking the language, riding local transport - it's okay to not always find that quaintly amusing. It is, in fact, annoying sometimes. You're only human. Take time for yourself.

On the topic of solitude, bring hobbies. With that much alone time comes serious introspection - when you have enough time to analyze every word of a letter from home, you better have something with which to distract yourself or you'll go 'round the bend the first month at site. Pick at least one or two that can be done by candlelight - even if you have electricity, it probably won't be that reliable. Knitting is becoming increasingly hip and results in nifty hand-made gifts for everyone you know - I'd highly recommend it.

"Integration" means fitting the person you are into the context of your host country, not becoming that culture. You hold certain values that are probably foreign to your host country - don't feel you have to sacrifice those to fully integrate. You wouldn't change yourself to make someone like you back home, so don't feel you should in order to better "fit in" at your site. Think of it as a blind date - what would you willingly gloss over to make a good impression, and what's a deal-breaker for you? It's okay not to love all the food or to be annoyed by the children sometimes or to just want to spend the day curled up writing letters home. That doesn't make you a bad volunteer - in fact, it probably makes you a more emotionally stable one. I'm sure you could make a list of dozens of things you don't like about America - why would another country suddenly be perfect? On the other hand, some of your thoughts may be better kept silent or at least artfully vague (sex and religion?) until you've formed relationships with people.

In much of the world, it's incredibly difficult to be a woman (especially a young one). Sexual harassment, endless discussions of your marital status, and general fascination at your independence will quickly get old for you, but not for your community. Chance are, in your country, women your age do not live alone, are not accepted in society unless married, and rarely have the kind of independence you take for granted. Male coworkers will probably find you intimidating or have a hard time treating you as an equal. Stand up for yourself, but be patient with them. On the bright side, women with whom you work will find you inspirational.

If you don't already find poop funny or feel comfortable talking about your bowel movements in detail, rent a few toilet comedies now or hang around a preschool and get over it. Poop will dominate much of your conversations with other volunteers (along with sex and foods you're craving). If you can't describe your excrement in vivid detail, how will the medical officer ever know what's wrong with you?

If, like most volunteers, you write letters home, you'll quickly learn some valuable lessons about your friendships. People will surprise you, both with their commitment to write and their lack thereof. It's okay to be angry, but try to focus on the positives and let people go when their silence demands it.

Be patient. The American work ethic is unlike anywhere else in the world. In your eyes, you only have two years to achieve as much as possible, but for the people with whom you work, other issues will often take priority. Keep at it and don't let false starts get you down. Pursue multiple projects so you always have a fallback when one inevitably stagnates for a time. In Africa, at least, nothing starts on time, so carry a book and it'll make the wait more bearable.

Don't be afraid to cry. Peace Corps is emotionally draining - let it out. Talk to other volunteers. Bake cookies together (or just eat the dough). You're all in the same boat, so find comfort in each other. Two years is a long time. It's overwhelming sometimes, but what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right?

People often ask if I'm having "fun" in Ethiopia. Most days, the experience is stressful and frustrating. It's not "fun" in a day-at-Disneyworld sense of the word, but in the "this is the most challenging thing I've ever done and I can see myself growing every day" sense. Life here is more extreme than anything I've known. The mountain is bigger, the rains more dramatic, the colors brighter, the sun hotter, and yes, the bugs are bigger and creepier. The disappointments hurt more, but the good moments take my breath away. Life is rarely neutral or 'okay,' and it can switch from heartbreaking to soaring in a second. I don't think you ever really get used to it, but you do come to enjoy the ride.

And for the practical...

1. Don't eat all the chocolate in your first care package in one sitting. You're going to anyway, but don't say I didn't warn you. Eventually you'll learn to savor.

2. Resist the urge to compare yourself to other volunteers. Someone will always be better at the language or bubblier and more loved by their host family or will be assigned a more motivated counterpart or prettier site. Someone's also jealous of you. Share things - ideas, advice, lessons, care packages. These people will be your strongest support network.

3. The need to refrigerate cheese is a purely Western fantasy. Sealed packages of cheese (like grocery store bricks of cheddar, mozzarella, etc), dried Parmesan, Baby Bell, Laughing Cow, Kraft singles, spray cheese, etc will all survive a trip through the mail. Some look a bit worse for the wear, but I promise, it's still edible.

4. If you don't look like your local community, the novelty will never wear off. Try to keep a sense of humor - it helps a lot.

5. Always carry toilet paper and a book. Duct tape is optional, but often helpful. A mountaineering friend taught me to wrap a foot or so around a pen so you always have a bit without having to carry an entire roll.

6. Give the local food some time to grow on you. It took me nine months to tolerate it, a year and a half to truly like it. I've been back a year and I still crave it now.

7. Two-thirds of your job is sharing cultures. Try to remember that when your projects are stalled or something falls apart.

8. Save the 'Cultural Adjustment Curve' handout you get in training. We all think we're going to be special and different, but no one ever is. Just as the low points are predictable, so are the highs. You'll bounce back.

-Teflon fry pan - you'll probably have one burner to cook on, and it's convenient to be able to cook multiple things without having to stop and soak a crusty pan.
-A good pillow
-Sharp knife and vegetable peeler
-Music (with speakers! Nothing cures a rough day like a karaoke dance party in your living room)
-Measuring cups and spoons - even if you don't bake yet, this is a great time to learn
-Board games/sporting equipment - you'll develop a lot of pent-up energy during training, so it's nice to have a release, something to do on the weekends, and something to eventually teach the neighborhood children
-Headlamp with rechargeable batteries (and rechargeable batteries for everything - local ones will probably be weak, and it's unlikely your community has a safe way to dispose of them)
-DVDs or an external HD of movies and TV shows (with or without a laptop - if you don't have one, someone around you will, and movie sleepovers will bring you much joy)
-Half the clothes you think you'll need. Handwashing is a drag. You're going to wear the same outfit for days on end. Save the luggage space for books.

Survive this, and you're ready for anything. Good luck!


Anonymous said...

Jess, it sounds like you've obtained a very realistic and practical perspective on the life of a peace corps volunteer. I'm thinking very seriously of giving two years of international service to humanity and myself, randomly came across your blog and it's given me some great insight! Thanks and good luck with the remainder of your placement!

Sam said...

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Let me know what you think, from the ground.