Explaining my life here is hard. I have three weeks left in my community, I am crazy busy, and packing is stressful. In short, I am a mess.
I revisited the blog post that best sums up my Peace Corps experience this past week to attempt to explain Peace Corps to a friend. I couldn’t get more than a few lines without crying.
I did not write this post; an RPCV from Ethiopia did. Rather than write more words trying to explain how I feel, just read Michael’s post.
The Real Peace Corps
I feel as though I have done somewhat of a disservice throughout this blog, painting a picture that is not precisely accurate. I am an emotional person, romantic, optimistic to a fault. I like extremes and superlatives, exaggerating in an attempt to draw my audience in, and to make sense of things that I can’t make sense of.
I romanticize this experience as a function of my personality but also as a coping mechanism. Simply put, life in the Peace Corps is hard.
I want to write about the real Ethiopia, and the real Peace Corps experience. It is a defensive approach, protection for when a future volunteer reads about my experiences. Hopefully as a result, he or she will understand what to expect, and will not mock me for only showing pictures of sunsets and kids holding hands.
So what should you expect?
Nothing is the best answer. Expect nothing and you will be pleasantly surprised because every experience is different. My friend Jon lives 80 miles away. His house has no floor save for the mud it was built on, and he may go weeks without any source of electricity. My site mate Dave lives 200 meters from my house and our experiences are similar only in the cultural and physical climate that we share. Peace Corps volunteers live in rural places, in cities, on the beach and in the mountains. We live in peaceful towns and difficult towns besieged by alcoholism. Some live in nice houses with bad toilets and others in bad houses with nice toilets. Our homes, failures, successes and environments differ, and yet a few common themes unite us. We are lonely yet connected as a fraternity of like minded people. We are frustrated and enthralled. We are celebrated and studied and gossiped about. We are discouraged and resilient and everywhere in between.
Peace Corps is defined by a strange dichotomy. Freedom and containment. I wake up every day with a blank slate. I can do anything. I can do nothing. And while the possibilities are only limited by my own imagination, the ability to do as I please is corrupted by a number of social, political, and cultural practices.
Case in point: Most volunteers assume they will run to let off steam in their new country. However, running here is a cause of stress more so than a release. You are stared at as a foreigner here, stares that know no shame. Stares that you can not only see, but also feel. They are honest and curious stares, but can crack even the kindest of spirits. A foreigner in shorts – Running? That is, to their credit, quite hilarious. Running here means being followed by hordes of children, the last thing you need when trying to let off steam.
I want to export coffee to benefit local farmers and provide an organic alternative to the Starbucks mess we have back home. The bureaucratic structure and corruption here has destroyed those dreams. Disappointment — and the inability to enact change in your community is part of the PC experience.
Doing something like the Peace Corps will be your lowest of lows and your highest of highs. Highs that shatter your previous world views. You will feel refreshed, walk in a forest and quote Thoreau. The lows can last so long that you need a fleeting moment of existentialism just to make it through the rainy season. That, and a ton of books. You will consider going home. You will count down the days until you leave. You will count up from the day you arrived.
“I can’t believe we have been here for a year!”
“I can’t believe we’ll be here another year!”
You will understand yourself, question yourself and compare where you came from to where you are. I have days when I miss America. I have days when I loathe it. Why do people care about Charlie Sheen? How many kids in the horn of Africa died of hunger yesterday and does anyone care? I can’t even imagine dying of hunger. When I’m hungry, I eat.
But I eat strange food. Ethiopian food is unlike anything else in the world, and I have come to absolutely love it. I consider myself extremely lucky to be in a country with such diverse and delicious food. However at times the food is quite mediocre and will often lead to three days of stomach cramps. Other times, the food is so incredibly bad that I consider burning down every plant that grows whatever the hell is in ‘Gunfo’
Don’t try Gunfo.
Universally, Peace Corps volunteers crave food. I have dreams about it, vivid dreams where I belly flop into a bowl of ice cream off of a hot-fudge brownie diving board. I have a long distance relationship with Sushi and we are not communicating well. We miss the diversity and develop a strange passion for nostalgic food.
As volunteers, we love to complain. We joke about our poop and our pooping locations. We laugh about smelling bad.
We smell bad.
We yearn for hot showers, however I think it is just for show. Any volunteer, more so than food or showers, miss people and places. You will miss friends and seasons. During your service, you will be alone on the Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving. You will miss your family, your really hot girlfriend, and the contextual clues you associate with fond memories. I know what the Chesapeake bay feels like on thanksgiving. I can feel the football, and taste the sweet potato pie.
You will be stared at 24/7 365. I understand what it’s like to be a good-looking girl at a fraternity party. Stay strong ladies. I also have so much respect and admiration for the women across Peace Corps, who tolerate a level of staring and harassment, that I can barely fathom.
One of the great things about Peace Corps is you have a massive amount of time to become a better person. The best advice I can give is to try and do something everyday to improve upon yourself. For some people this is writing or reading. For others it is teaching English or working out. Learn an instrument or paint — do whatever works for you, but know this: You will stare at the wall. I stare at the wall a lot. I’ve had every thought someone can have. Probably twice.
You will develop an eerie sense of calm. I’ve spent 75 hours in the last two weeks on a bus. The DMV will be a breeze now. I’ve found new and embarrassing ways to entertain myself. I could watch paint dry and be perfectly happy.
Transportation completely sucks.
I just got out of a bus with 12 seats on it. There were 25 people on it. There were two chickens and probably 20 kilograms of rancid butter. Here is a letter:
It’s ok to open the windows on the bus. I promise you won’t die from the wind. I promise it’s not that cold. Currently, sweat is running down my lower back and into the danger zone. My sweat is sweating. Fresh air is nothing to be scared of but tuberculosis is. As much as I like saunas and the smell of chicken feces, can we please crack the window’s for 2 minutes? I will love you forever.
There is no average day.
Last week, my Tuesday was perfect. I had a meeting with the tourism office about making them a website. I taught a man how to make guacemole and tortillas which he will sell in his store. I played basketball, added a layer to a clay oven and worked on the newsletter I am writing for Peace Corps.
The next day? I slept in, watched a silly amount of the show ‘Dexter’ and checked in on my fantasy baseball team. Yeah, I’m cool.
There will be times when, despite your pictures of you hugging little kids, you just want to tackle one of them and scream, my name is NOT,
“you you you!!!!!, give me money!!!!!!”
In America we ask for the time. Here, we ask for the month. It’s the most obvious difference. The pace of life here is slow, methodical, cyclical. Everything takes a long time. If you aren’t a patient person you will become one.
Life here is completely different. It is another world, lost in space and time. It is hard, and the little annoyances can manifest themselves into a black cloud. They certainly will, but it is important to make note of the small victories and the little moments. When I open my eyes I am reminded of why I am here. Just when I think a kid is running up to me to ask me for money, she tells me that she loves me and blows a kiss. Then I remember that I am on a bus and I start crying. I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere with a busted engine. It is getting dark, I have a chicken in my lap and personal space at this point is a distant memory. People are yelling into their cell phones, begging me to speak to them and take them to America. The only food in the town by the road is Gunfo.
Remember in times like this to take a deep breath. Peace Corps really is a roller coaster. An exhilarating and scary ride that completely sucks and totally kicks ass.
And when you are feeling down, just remember to go outside and let Africa save you.
Gratitude takes you a long way! And don’t cry
very powerful writing. the highs and lows that a PCV experiences.
Wow — Michael said it so well. Thank you for reposting it. 37 years later, it still resonates.