Reflections on Peace Corps-lite

24 08 2011

I recently picked up the book, Power Lines, from a friend.  It’s a book written by Jason Carter, grandson of Jimmy Carter, about his experience in Peace Corps South Africa 1998-2000.  I almost didn’t grab it because it felt corny for some reason, in the same way as it seemed cheesy to me that a bunch of volunteers sought out the book, Love in the Time of Cholera, right after the outbreak in Haiti.  It just seemed like a lame attempt to romanticize our ‘Cuerpo de Playa’ services- we are in the Caribbean for Christ’s sake!

Regardless, I picked it up because I have always been interested in South Africa and I figured the book would have some interesting insight on the culture and history.  It definitely did, but I what struck me the most was the level to which the book resonated with my experience here.

Jason talks about Africa-lite and his initial disappointment for not getting the idealized Peace Corps post of extreme isolation.  (Beach Corps anyone?) Then he talks about how in the end this made the experience possibly more challenging because he was always one short bus from American comforts- también.  He talks about going in with the mentality that he will live those 2 years in his village and a sort of disgust of those ‘Americanized’ places as over-priced centers of lost cultures.  After not much time those people living at the sort of level he lives in America make him uncomfortable.

I remember the first time the rich family who owns a vacation home my host-family takes care of came.  My host mom was so excited to introduce me to her friends, for whom she is also basically a servant.  She cooks and cleans and makes sure their stay is comfortable, and the family in turns financially supports my host family to a great extent.  They genuinely enjoy one another’s company, and the fact that one side is always paying and one side always serving seems not to matter in the slightest. I, treated as another member of my host family, am invited over to drink, eat, and basically mooch off the comforts of this beautiful home.   The first time I went there I was sure I was breaking some sort of rule- this isn’t Peace Corps!

Then things stop being uncomfortable- I am fluent, people come over and hang at my house, I can go to theirs, the town’s youth are wrapped around my finger and I am going to give them the capacity to take over the world.  And when that rich family comes, I happily snack on expensive snacks and drink beers without concern.  I stopped trying to make my lifestyle fit my pre-conceived notions of Peace Corps service and my American perceptions of poverty, and I am much happier here for it.

Integration is a high, but it wears off.  Last year I lived for the community.  In the morning I coached or taught computer lab management, in the afternoons we went to the river and played volleyball until 10pm sometimes.  I made friends with whom I feel a genuine connection, and I have a host family that I love as I had known them my whole life.  Still, this year is different. I travel more, work more out of my computer, and the fact is that sometimes I choose to hang out by myself instead of going over to someone’s house.

What happened?  Did I just become jaded and a bitch?  Probably  a little bit. However, I think successful integration naturally brings about the recognition that I am still very much an American.  It may be nice bonding, but if I am going to actually live somewhere I cannot watch bad telenovelas every night!   I live in one of the worst houses in my town and live a very local lifestyle.  However, I escape to the capital at least monthly and just the transport round trip costs more than my rent.  More and more often, I buy myself wine, apples, and good cheese.  Peace Corps salary is modest, but I am still making the same as a teacher and I don’t have a family to support.  Are we anything more than delusional tourists?

What’s more, I am ditching my campo to work out of the Peace Corps office in the capital.  We have been gaining momentum for a greater focus on Marine Conservation within the Environment Sector.  Before Peace Corps I was interested in Eco-tourism and Economic Development as well as scuba diving.  I was so jealous of the Environment Sector and considered asking for a sector change from education to their sector.  Now, I am going to be a leader of the sector in Marine Conservation to work on development of training content and sites for new volunteers as well as other marine education and monitoring programs. I get to work on something interesting and tangible that plays to my future career interests.  Dream come true, right?

Oh, but the guilt!  Leaving my old site early?  As if my peace corps experience wasn’t cheating enough, I am ditching my site to go to an office job in the capital- who am I? I worked hard over my year and a half here, I completed my project as outlined by Peace Corps, and there is no project here for which I feel the same passion.  However, when I signed up for Peace Corps I didn’t sign up to work on something important at an institutional level, how American of me to give up easy-going campo life for tangible work based out of an office.

With these final six months in my site I am giving one last hoorah- trying a new strategy for teacher integration in the computer lab and organizing my community to finish the project and actually improve their water system.  However, the guilt sticks and my work with marine conservation is a dangerous mental escape.  For example, when teachers don’t show up to a meeting I have announced for over 2 months I can just tell myself “That is why I am leaving- this is a waste of my time!”

Reading about Jason Carter’s struggles with similar feelings of guilt and inner battles of what his Peace Corps service should entail has been a surprising comfort.  In the end, it is all part of the experience- for every unforeseen struggle there has certainly been at least as many amazing opportunities and treats.

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One response

24 08 2011
Berry Forde

jenn-bug … this is wonderful! you never cease to amaze us!

we love you. berry and randy

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