After countless hours and tireless research, the following breakdown of time spent in Peace Corps has been derived. Percentages were rounded to the nearest whole integer. Calculations allow for a 1% margin of error, plus and minus:
- 48% of Peace Corps is spent surviving—that is going through the daily necessities of getting-by, preparing food, tending the garden and the field, washing clothes by hand, making sure there is enough water stored for drinking and bathing, extracting parasites from my feet, mending other inexplicable medical ailments, and other such menial activities that I once took for granted back when I had a decent apartment, good plumbing, socially-acceptable hygiene, reliable electricity and the ever present option of ordering food for delivery.
- 18% of Peace Corps is spent traveling—traveling on shitty, overcrowded, lucky-if-you-can-get-a-seat, white-knuckle buses that leave at the most ungodly hours (if at all), stuffed full of assorted goods and live animals and Paraguayans and babies (how can there always be so many fucking babies?), with no AC and broken windows that don't open, all for the sake of accomplishing the most seemingly simple tasks.
- 22% of Peace Corps is spent in conversation—endless conversation with neighbors and friends, trying desperately to understand and respond but realizing slowly that some days, even after almost 2 years, both languages are still unbelievably incomprehensible to me, conversations that are seemingly as unproductive now as they were so many months ago, conversations that invoke personal existentialist crises by rapidly descending the ladder of cultural relativity, challenging the absolute meaning of words and language and my very role in the universe, all of this just because I can't seem to figure out how to convey the message, “No, seriously, we are SERIOUSLY going to have a meeting this weekend at 8:00. Seriously. You better fucking be there this time.”
- 11% of Peace Corps is spent smoking cigars and drinking wine—time for personal reflection on the madness that is life, both within the Peace Corps bubble but also more generally in the world as a whole. This is the time I spend by myself, in a kind of isolation that I had never experienced up until I came to this country, a kind of solitude that cannot ever be adequately described to someone who has never felt it, a loneliness that once terrified me and haunted me and weighed heavily on my waking hours, but has since become a sort of sanctuary for my soul.
- And finally, slightly less than 1% of the time is spent in that kind of cross-cultural bliss when projects finally come together, when people in my community realize what they've been working for, realize what I've been working for, when I see and feel the difference, both big and small, that I've made in this little forgotten community in the middle of nowhere. This is the time for which I have sacrificed 2 years of my life, the time when the children are all giddy and singing (as opposed to stealing shit from my garden or just staring at me), time when I am playing a game of school-yard soccer with a deflated ball and everyone is happy and laughing. This is the time worthy of an infomercial, the time that they are going to want us to talk about (not the other 99%) when we are all disinfected, parasite-free, cleaned-up RCPV's trying to recruit bright-eyed college students to our ranks, asking with thinly-veiled sarcasm “Life is Calling. How far will you go?”
People who join the Peace Corps are not saintly or selfless or anything like that. True, we do give years of our lives, our energy, our effort, our bodily health and personal sanity to this program and to thousands of impoverished communities around the world, but if I have learned anything about Peace Corps volunteers while I have been one it is that we all have our own reasons for being here. Sometimes these reasons are noble, or at least some of them might seem that way, but there are plenty of other motivations as well. Regardless, there is a world of difference between having noble aims and actually being able to act on them. Anyway, in Peace Corps, being a caring person who genuinely wants to make a difference in the world only gets you so far.
I don't mean to sound pessimistic or cynical—I'll admit it right now, I absolutely came into Peace Corps as an idealist with the hopes of making change, and I still am—its just that when reality hits, the reality of what Peace Corps is and the reality of the scope of the problems we are hoping to address as a development organization, the sole and immediate response is a drastic lowering of expectations. Peace Corps volunteers do amazing work, there is no doubt about that (at least, most of us do—there are plenty among us that treat it more like a government-funded study abroad, spending 2 responsibility-free years living off of a monthly stipend). Its a difficult situation: if you try and sell the Peace Corps experience for 100% what it is, few people would likely sign up; if you sell it on that idealized 1%, then you get reasonably good recruitment, but a lot of “what the fuck?” when things get real.
Not to be cliché, and it pains me to say this, but it is true that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Volunteers suffer through a lot of difficult situations—physically, emotionally, and psychologically—and it is incredibly hard and sometimes it hurts on every level but still, I have heard of no one that asserts that their time in the Peace Corps made them a worse person, that it took something away from them and gave them nothing in return.
So many people live such lives of comfort (and there is nothing wrong with being comfortable, its just that it doesn't challenge you, it's too easy) that the very notion of living below the poverty line in an impoverished community is dismissed out-of-hand as so undesirable as to be absurd. But it is through just that kind of experience that your entire perspective changes, that you can truly come to understand what it is like to be isolated, to live without clean water, to lack the basic necessities of life, to be cold when it is cold and hot when it is hot and wet when it is raining and yet still find a reason to smile. I am not saying that everyone should go out and join Peace Corps (but if you want to, then by all means...adelante) but we shouldn't shelter ourselves so much in life as to be terrified of struggle, no matter how hard, or of failure, no matter how complete. Otherwise we are complacent and complacency never changed a goddamn thing.
Peace Corps is not always the idealistic thing that they sell on the recruitment posters at college campuses or that thing all the RPCV's brag about when they get home and wash themselves up a bit. It is such a struggle, such a comprehensive personal challenge, but within that very nature resides all its merits and all its value.
With 6 more months to go in my 27 month service, I am beginning to get mixed feelings about the notion of going home (although I am sure I will be writing more extensively about this in future blogs). In a way, I am happy to have passed through one more incredibly influential stage in my life—I am ready for the next adventure. But at the same time, I feel like I can never fully repay the debt I owe to the community that has cared for me and housed me and the program that has fostered my experience for the past 2 years. They say that you always get more out of Peace Corps than you put in. I like to think that I have given an awful lot of myself over the past 21 months now, but whatever I am has always been and will always be insignificant in comparison to that which has been selflessly given to me, sometimes by the people that have the very least in the world.