Home for the holidays and advice on the Peace Corps life

I have lived far from my parents for many years. I went to university three hours away from my hometown. I studied abroad in Salzburg, Austria, twice, which included a summer program and a full school-year. My first job after college was on the other side of Ohio, and then I moved across the country to live in Utah. And now I have increased that distance by a few thousand more miles by moving to Swaziland.

I have spent many years of holidays away from the family I am linked to by blood, and I have learned many very important skills during these years away.

Most importantly, I need to think of the place I am living as home and the people I am living with as my family.

If you asked me right now where I am, I would say that I am at home and I would mean it. Everything I need to live I have right here. I have a roof over my head, food to eat, books to read, meaningful work to do, and my own Swazi family. I have a Peace Corps family filled with friends as well, and as I venture more and more out into the world, I am making more Swazi friends, too.

And like my favorite band The Head and the Heart sings in “Lost in my mind,” “Momma once told me / You’re already home where you feel loved.”

Let yourself love and be loved while serving in the Peace Corps. I am confident life will be better for it. Then, as the song continues, “Don’t you worry / Don’t you worry, don’t worry about me.”

 

The sunrise my first morning on my own in training

 
I live in a beautiful place with beautiful people and that is enough for me. A fellow Swaziland volunteer even said she can see how I am thriving here, so do not worry about me. Plus, Peace Corps Swaziland takes real good care of its Volunteers on the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving.

I wish everyone living away from home could feel so at home wherever they are. As I was reading the blogs of current and past Peace Corps Volunteers in Swaziland and around the world as I prepared for my service, there were so many posts about Volunteers who were homesick over any and every holiday.

Unfortunately, I do not have much sympathy for you. I do not know the feeling of homesickness. I do like certain familial traditions, and I recreate those when I can instead. I grew up learning to be independent and to happily live on my own. Being able to do that is very important to successful Peace Corps service.

 

Who doesn’t love skiing with fire at Alta?

 
Sure, I wish I was in Utah skiing the torch parade at Alta, the only sort of New Year’s Eve tradition I have ever had, but I am not because I chose Swaziland and the Peace Corps. 

I also learned that holidays away from your regular routine give you the opportunity to learn and experience how others celebrate holidays that you share and the new holidays that each of you introduce (Krampustag in Austria and Pie and Beer Day in Utah are my favorite holidays I have experienced as I lived away from Ohio, and Swaziland’s two largest celebrations Umhlanga and Incwala have been a great introduction to this country’s traditions). These are moments where you get to see other peoples’ traditions and culture in action and become excellent teaching moments for two of Peace Corps’ three goals (share America with the people you are serving and share the culture of the people you are serving with Americans).

 

A portion of the 98,000 Umhlanga participants in 2016

 
To Swaziland’s incoming G15 and all the other potential PCVs out there, I have a few words of advice:

  • Think about what makes home homey to you. Bring those things or mementoes of those things with you. This could include photos, recipes, books, food, sheets, or your pillow.
  • Ask yourself if you are willing to accept a homestead full of strangers as your family and do everything possible to get them to accept you as part of them.
  • Learn to look inviting. You might look scary to the locals and particularly to their children. Be willing to interact with them, to play silly games or sing silly songs, and especially to laugh at yourself and smile.
  • Go on a trip alone and avoid your phone as your entertainment. There are so many hours here when you cannot escape being alone. Sometimes those hours also do not come with electricity or internet connection.
  • Go camping if it has been a few years since your last outdoor adventure. Not only will this be a good time to practice using any outdoor gear you bought that you are not accustomed to, but it will put into perspective your soon-to-be PCV life. Sometimes you have to walk far distances carrying 40 pounds of groceries, packages, and overnight gear. Sometimes you do not bathe every day. Sometimes the only toilet is the ground behind that shrub next to you, and the rest of the time it could be a potentially foul-smelling latrine. Sometimes your roof leaks everywhere and you have to find a way to protect your most important or difficult-to-replace possessions for weeks and sleep in a wet bed.
  • And finally, want to be here. Know that there will be a disconnect from the world you lived in before joining the Peace Corps. While serving, you will see friends get married, grandparents may die, babies will be born, and you will be on the other side of the planet. How important is it to you to be there for these life events? How important is it to celebrate Christmas with your blood family? (Of course, you can take vacation time to attend these events.) How important is it for you to continue participating in the life you left to join the Peace Corps? And is joining the Peace Corps the direction you want your life to be going or is it a break from the life you want to return to?

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Please consider these points. The Peace Corps will change you. It will likely change your view of the world, what you eat, what you think is necessary to survive, what you can live without, your friends, what you think makes life hard, and how far you can push yourself.

And the Peace Corps is also what you make of it. It can be like a ride on a lazy river if that is all you want to put in to your service, or it can be like Top Thrill Dragster, where you wait for a few seconds while the engines are revving and then you shoot off at 120 mph, sometimes struggle up the hill, coast over the top, and then rush to get everything completed in the downhill and final moments of a 17-second ride that turns into 27 months.

It’s up to you. But if you have come this far, why not make the most of your Peace Corps service? I want as much as possible out of my service, and I hope you do too. Think about all the things you have while being a Volunteer, what makes your life good, what makes you want to get out of bed the next morning, and I hope the Peace Corps life you are living is everything you want it to be and more.

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