Friday, May 22, 2009

I'm So Out Of My Element I'm In It.

Skin fungus. Parasites. Flies that hatch from your body. Relentless harassment. Language barriers. Children chasing after you. Rocks flung as you ride your bike. Faces peeping through doors and windows to glimpse the Toubab. Latrines and bucket baths. The same conversation over and over and OVER. Hiding in the hut because you are so overwhelmed and just wish for one second, just ONE second, that you could be in a world with McDonalds and Chinese buffets and supermarkets and hot showers.

All that in mind, does one have to be absolutely crazy, absolutely mad to choose this lifestyle? Of course every one wants to know (at times, myself included), why do I do Peace Corps? How could I have transferred knowing what it’s like? How do I get by and continue on and most of all, how could I love it?

Really, this is a very difficult question to answer. You know when a friend tells you about something funny that happened and you don’t really laugh, and they finish lamely with a “Guess you just had to be there?” Sometimes I feel that’s what Peace Corps is like. It’s not something that can necessarily be explained, it’s something that must be lived and felt. However, because I do want to impart to you why I continue to do what I do, I will describe it the best I can.

My journey with Peace Corps actually started back in second semester of my junior year in college. At that time I decided that in order to land my dream job with P&G, I really needed to have some international experience on my resume. The quickest and easiest route was to do a trip over spring break, and so that’s what I did. I heard about the Timmy Foundation through a friend and learned that there would be a building brigade going to Honduras. I signed up and went. I had always heard that these trips could be “life-changing experiences.” I wasn’t really interested in all that. I just wanted to go abroad in the most painless way possible.

Too bad I met one of the most beautiful souls on earth during that trip. Too bad he inspired me to the point that I hastily changed school plans in order to study abroad first semester the following year. Too bad I went back to Honduras that next year with near-fluent Spanish and realized just what an impact I had made on Walter, and Walter had made on me, and how that one relationship could be generalized across so many other relationships with the children I met at this all-boys school/farm/orphanage.

It’s hard to put in words what happened there, but the best that I can describe it, at the risk of sounding insanely cheesy, is that it was an experience that made my heart and soul sing. Honduras was the first time I felt it; Peace Corps Bolivia was the first time I lived it.

Peace Corps is not only about providing technical assistance, it also focuses on cultural exchange. That is one thing that differentiates this organization from other aid organizations and NGO’s. Aside from the fact that volunteers are paid only what the average host country national earns (meaning that we often rely on hand-me-down clothing from exiting volunteers, regularly wear shirts dotted with holes and pants that have obviously seen better days, bargain with anyone and everyone, and count each and every penny- dalasi actually- before stepping foot into a “regular” restaurant), volunteers can easily be distinguished from other Toubabs by their level of cultural integration.

In other words, we speak local languages and observe the traditions and customs of the people around us. We don’t get to live in the nicest areas of town, drive around in air-conditioned cars, or hang out exclusively with other ex-pats. We do, however, sit in overcrowded vehicles with crying babies placed into our laps whether we know the child or not. We hitchhike. We live in small communities and rural villages where we have to try as best we can to communicate with those around us.

It’s that cultural exchange that keeps me coming back for more. One week in Honduras, one month in Vietnam, one semester in Costa Rica, one year in Bolivia. Each time I go abroad and immerse myself in the life and language of people so different from myself I walk away with a greater understanding of not just who they are, but who I am. It provides a higher level of awareness and insight that I would struggle to achieve while in the U.S. And it would take ten times longer, if it happened at all.

Once I discovered how much joy I gained from going and out and seeing what the world has to offer, and what I can offer to the world, I just didn’t want to miss out. Extreme hunger pains aside, despite hot weather and crowded, unpredictable, sweaty transport, I must admit that when my little host brother walks in my hut each morning grinning his little smile with the missing two front teeth, I can’t help but smile right back.

Ultimately, Peace Corps reminds me that life should be lived. It should make you laugh. It can make you cry. It should make you learn and grow. It surprises you. It frustrates, it puzzles, it delights. It shows that even with the different languages and cultures, customs and religions, the different levels of wealth and education, there are common threads that link us all and at the end of the day we really can sit down and brew a cup of attaya tea and chat. We have so much to share and to gain from one another.

Whether it be with random strangers or with the host family, I think that on both sides, the impressions made will last a lifetime. I took the dive into Peace Corps and day in and day out, I find myself in situations where I’m so out of my element, I’m in it. And though sometimes I would die for a Big-Mac, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.


Lora Hu said...

Wonderful blog entry. Inspiring. I'm leaving for Peace Corps Armenia in a few days.

nadieska said...

this makes me smile :)

knucklewalking said...

Thank you for being here to remind me of what it's all about. Pink coconuts and purple herons and everything.