As a foreigner, I get asked about every week ‘what are you doing here?’ This leads into the ‘Peace Corps elevator speech’ that we practiced over and over again in Pre-Service Training. This vague description usually pleases most people – but every now and then you encounter someone who is genuinely shocked or seriously confused why you would want to work in their country for free and helping people in need while ALSO living in their small impoverished rural community?
I encountered one of these people yesterday. After I described that yes, I do live in the community and not in the city, and with a host family, and do not receive a salary he responded ‘Que fea….’ (how ugly). I was rather shocked and a bit pissed off by his response, but it got me thinking quite the opposite…
To be a Peace Corps volunteer is so intricately tragically beautiful, the list can go on forever. So here is my rambling synopsis.
To be a Peace Corps volunteer means… I am a bit different than your average human. We are the ones that thought about joining, and actually are living what we signed up for. We will never have to say ‘Oh, I always wished I joined the Peace Corps,”… because there have been days quitting has crossed our minds, but we realize this experience is so much more than any desk job. We are the ones who packed our lives into two bags for two years, and said teary farewells to our loved ones to go on unknown journeys with the common goal to serve others.
To be a Peace Corps volunteer means… we see harsh realities everyday. These alarming situations become apart of our work and life, and we must become the ‘agent-of-change’, yet still be relatable as a member of the community. We are the motor of motivation for ourselves and the community. And sometimes that motor stalls out from time to time, but never fails to sputter on!
To be a Peace Corps volunteer means… We do not have a desk, or a city view. Let alone running water, a shower, a flushing toilet, a sink or floor. Public spaces become our desks, and our voice becomes our marketing agency over the town’s loud speaker. We learn how to work in the most dynamic situations with various groups of people while speaking a second language. We get massive headaches from using parts of our brains that may have never been touched. We open our eyes to a new culture, way of life, opinions, politics, religion, language, and much much more. Then we must find how we can work in it and most importantly better it for the community.
To be a Peace Corps volunteer means…. We become a daughter, granddaughter, sister and cousin to a family we’ve only known for a day. We learn the cultural customs from this family than fall asleep watching novelas with them on the static TV. And soon, our love for them grows abundant it is indescribable.
To be a Peace Corps volunteer means… We eat too much rice, and sometimes find ourselves falling asleep after our lunch hour. Once foreign cuisines now become our favorite indulgences such as anticuchos or ceviche. We have new pets we never thought we would own; from horses, cows, pigs, ducks, chickens, goats and more. We learn how to make foreign alcohol beverages made only out of corn and water over an open fire. And learn how simple markers separate the farmlands and how to identify fruit plants.
To be a Peace Corps volunteer means… We become a respected authority, a health promoter, a colleague, a youth mentor, a friend, an English teacher, a yoga instructor, the touch of diversity and much more within our communities. We have multiple roles and faces within our ever-changing societies all while trying to figure out who we truly are. We are challenged everyday within each role; rather from being asked to help with an emergency in the health-post (AH!) to teaching teenagers sexual education; to telling a mother she needs to change her child’s diet so he isn’t permanently malnourished; and to opening ourselves up to our community.
To be a Peace Corps volunteer means…. We find ourselves experiencing discrimination whether it be positive or negative based on our race, gender and age. Then we find ourselves trying to explain the concept of ‘discrimination’ to the community, and empowering women to stand up against machismo. We experience backlash from random people who may not agree with our ‘new ideas’, such as the importance of not burning your trash or washing your hands. Some people idolize our efforts, while other people scrutinize our efforts. All while, we are becoming apart of the community’s definition of the United States.
To be a Peace Corps volunteer means…meeting a whole new group of strangers that soon become your government issued family. The volunteer connection gets us through our darkest moments, and praises us in our smallest successes. We find love when not looking for it, and forge friendships that will go far beyond these two short years. The free volunteer-to-volunteer phone-calls save our sanity, and we all love hearing a good ‘I shit my pants’ story.
To be a Peace Corps volunteer means…opening letters and packages to get a taste of home we so desperately miss at moments. We look back at old pictures, and wish teleportation was real so we could bring our favorite people from that world to this world. We love phone calls and FaceTimes from home, but sometimes feel so far away it is hard to connect. We have moments of homesickness and our eagerly awaiting our loved ones visits to show them our new foreign lives.
To be a Peace Corps volunteer means… We wake up not knowing what the day will bring. We try to follow a schedule, but usually it is quickly erased and we try to make the most out of our day. We find ourselves explaining ourselves whether it be what we are doing in the community, why we do not have kids, why we are not married, why do we get offended at cat-calls, and why we prefer eating with a fork rather than a spoon (now I actually prefer eating with a spoon). We find ourselves stressed out of things that would never cross our minds back home: A herd of sheep stopping your commute to a meeting making you an hour late. A mistake made in the announcement you made over the loud speaker. Will I ever be able to convince people how bad wood-cooking is for their babies lungs? Am I being a good role model? Do they even like me? Can they understand me? Do I smell? Will that give me diarrhea? Will I even make a difference?
But what does that cliché ‘to make a difference’ really entail? Personally, it means changing at least one life for the better, opening people’s minds on how to better their situation and teaching them how to do so. I never thought I would be a teacher, and my job description is actually ‘health promoter’. But my main job really is training the community so they can continue on with the changed behavior after I am gone. Rather it be explaining how to recover malnourished children and prevent illnesses, sharing my opinions over gender roles and how to empower woman, showing people how to make sinks out of water bottles, teaching an english class or practicing yoga with neighborhood kids, training teens to be sex-ed promoters, coordinating a town trash pick-up and being a role-model to many children who are asked to become an adult at 10 years old. All these little things add up to what I hope will make somewhat of a positive difference for the community.
To be a Peace Corps volunteer means…some days we do a whole lot, and other days we do a whole lot of nothing. But what we do in the long run will shape our own lives, and without a doubt at least a handful of others lives in our communities. Some of us came not knowing what we were looking for; and we may leave just as lost as we came. But the most important thing is that we tried. And hopefully those tried efforts will make a dent in the communities we are very fortunate enough to live and learn in.
And that my friend, is what it means to be a Peace Corps volunteer to me. Intricately and tragically beautiful. Emotionally complex, and personally defining.