When joining the Peace Corps, I hoped to do my part to lift up humanity, pile unique and diverse experience into my theoretical personal bio, and most likely endure groundbreaking self-revelations along the way. In one way I got it right, but in another, what the flug did I know? (‘flug’ ™ by Nompunvi) The following is a list accompanied by some anecdotes of what I really didn’t know I would learn and experience. My goal in sharing these reflections is to perhaps preserve some of these life lessons for myself, but also share them with anyone interested in the kind of personal growth that is endured during an adventure such as this one. After all, every one of us has so many inimitable life lessons, imagine how much we all learn by sharing them. After reading, please post any stories, words of wisdom, jokes, whatever in the comments. This is just a sampling from my Peace Corps experience, but it’s better than nothing. I have learned that: And… As time passes and I continue to reflect, these lists will likely come to look incredibly quaint. Nevertheless, never underestimate the importance of looking back on your life, seeing the good and the bad, and making the greatest effort to appreciate every moment of what you achieve, of what you learn, and everything else. All of our ambitions, accomplishments, and challenges are unique in so many ways. Take the time to remember it. And share it, so we can all learn from each other. That said, don’t forget to share a story or two in the comments! “There are some things that you can’t know Unless you’ve been there But oh how far we could go If we started to share” -Ani DiFranco
This may have been posted before, I seriously cannot remember. It is an article I wrote for my fellow volunteers a few months back on the topic of maintaining their optimism. I think it should be noted, that writing this helped ME maintain my motivation through to the end. I hope you enjoy.
So here you are. You have made it to the end of the beginning. A long obstacle course of self selection, medical exams and forms, loan deferments, next of kin notifications, bank statements and so on. What have you gotten yourself into? Well, now that it is too late to turn back, I will tell you. If you are here chances are you are a bleeding heart liberal-do-gooder that like a superhero wants to make the world a better place. Now you can point a finger at Ghandi (Be the change you want to see in the world), JFK (Ask not what your country blah blah blah), or even Obama’s Hopey-Changey thing (Yes We Can); but those were just inspirations. Somewhere inside you, you committed to this service with the loftiest of goals and expectations. How can we protect and defend this waif of a feeling that got you into this in the first place? How can we sustain our original optimism in the trenches of PC service?
Before getting on the plane we all had a very general picture of what our service would be like. My picture had rainbows and carebears and conversations of deep political, social and philosophical importance. That’s me. Jen Green I imagine had a picture of zombie slaying, french toast making and creative writing workshops. As Tom Petty says, ‘the future is wide open’- its very common to have hopes of a general nature about your service. Then you get to site, and all the myriad possibilities coalesce into concrete specifics. Before we had theoretical knowledge of Peace Corps service. And now slowly that theoretical knowledge shifts into empirical knowledge. This can be a fascinating time of wondrous discovery- but most experience it as some kind of disappointment. You may look back at your original idea of service and think it was the work of a naive and misguided mind. There is truth in that- but don’t disparage it. Everyone gets a reality check in the first few months. Because we were so filled with optimism and a personal dream in deciding to come- pessimism can be a real threat to our service. So let’s talk about optimism and pessimism and realist viewpoints. I think these ideas get tossed around and many people have strange ideas about them.
What is optimism? Merely a hope for the future. If you have optimism about your service in the PC then you believe your service can make a difference. It is a positive attitude about the future. But it is by nature abstract and undetermined. Once specifics start becoming a part of your hopes for the future- they become expectations. And this is natural and normal- in all cases in all times, we move from abstract and general ideas of the future to actual events of the present, and then on to mere images of the past that we recall and reflect on to inform likely outcomes for our future endeavors.
What is realism? Realism or pragmatism is the view of things as they are now, informed with wisdom of what has worked or failed to work in the past. This view seeks to limit as much as possible the wasted effort between past mistakes or inefficiencies and what we hope to achieve in the future. And this is good. This is the principle of induction. Past outcomes should help us make good decisions in planning and preparation for striving for our hopes and dreams. This is how we learn- we test, evaluate and revise and try again.
Often when people disagree, they are merely not understanding the others views. Pragmatic views are important for deciding how to go about doing something; what to change to try something bakegan. They can also help us see if our goals can be achieved within a certain timeframe. Here is a spoiler for you. Your goals, your hopes will not be visible in the way you want them to be, before you go home (caveat- unless you pull a Matt Hardwick or Sarah Lightner).
And so disappointment is natural; Because we are used, oh so used to seeing the impact of our work. Accept and remember this, it will save you headaches. You may want to say- “But I can see raintanks and toilets!” or “I can see a library or dispensary etc..” You would be wise not to pin your aspirations on a project that may not finish or come to fruition before you leave. And this is NOT A FAILURE. If your project is completed, great! But our primary task should be sustainable development. So while you can see and (eww) touch a toilet, it is not sustainable. A community that knows how to organize, plan, fundraise and build its own resources however- THAT is sustainable. This is near impossible to see while you are at site, and even harder after you leave.
What is pessimism? The absence or privation of hope. It is an attitude brought about from disappointment, from expectations that were not met, from a lack of beer, ice cream, cheese and other delicious necessities- this pain is real, but it should not inform our outlook on the future. As an attitude, it leads to self-fulfilling prophecies and thoughts. This is depression. You cannot reason yourself out of despair- other than to realize it is not useful, not pragmatic. So, adjust your expectations, maintain your hopes and good attitude, reflect and adjust your actions with realistic and practical experience.
I want to try and share a point that Nietzsche tried to make. He was a great student of the Greek classics, especially the tragedies. Which is strange because most people find tragic stories depressing and hardly helpful. But, Nietzsche points out that life is full of disappointments and suffering; it is also full of joy and pleasure, but never just the one. He thought that the lesson the Greeks could teach us, was that we should try and harness our suffering and make something beautiful out of it. It may be that all volunteers suffer for the extent of their service; but even if we do, we are still making a beautiful project out of it. Reaching out to our fellow human beings, strangers and trying to help them often in ways they cannot understand- this could be the definition of a meaningful life.
You will feel frustrated, isolated, lonely, depressed, ineffective. Ignore it. The big picture isn’t about our feelings, our viewpoint. The feelings will become manageable and pass, if you focus on the goal- the gift of your knowledge and labor and the sharing of our culture. Persevere towards your goal with the right attitude- and that stret attitude is optimistic. We are moving a sand beach one grain of sand at a time.
They tell us in PST-lower you expectations. Don’t. Lower your expectations of seeing the change you want to make. We are rolling snowballs down mountains. We are a swarm of butterflies on the far side of the world. Have faith in the value of your work. Have faith in the community of humanity. People can let you down, especially if you have unrealistic expectations of them. Instead, attach yourself to effort and your service. That is the sacrifice you must make to survive your service.
You are part of a grand adventure. Peace Corps is a team working towards reducing the amount of global life suck, and increasing the amount of human awesomenicity. Adventures are never predictable. This is the sport of the long shot, the long game. Ours is the work of an Epic- a story of heroic deeds long in the telling; Dragon-sized mosquitoes slain, the Sith Lords of illiteracy and unhygienic practices defeated and sent running, of magical swords of empowerment and education being pulled from the stone anvil, the bad behaviors of domestic abuse and corporal punishment being tossed into the volcano of Mount Doom.
Since I opened with the inspiring quotes that helped motivate us to come, I thought I would finish with two quotes that can help us finish.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead
“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” –Albert Camus
That big blob is the island we live on, Erromango. It is only about 20 miles wide, and not much taller. To someone from the giant continental USA, it’s minuscule. But do you see the tiny little dot on the upper right corner? That’s Goat Island, as we affectionately call it (Vete Manung Island on this map). And we’ve wanted to visit it since we laid eyes on it.
Our Erromangan family and neighbors refer to this speck as Goat Island because someone used to keep their goats there. Given how difficult it is to get on and off this rock, they were more or less left alone. Their population grew and grew until they pretty much decimated all vegetation on the island. Then they were moved back to Erro. Since then, this place rarely gets any visitors.
When we said we wanted to stay the night sometime, our host papa’s eyes grew big and he paused in silence…then he recovered and said “No problem. I’ll go with you.” That was some time last year. Since then, we learned that our island neighbor is thought to be haunted, and that no one has spent the night there in anyone’s memory. Naturally, we were even more intrigued. Besides, Pappa Joe assured us that it was just superstition and silliness. Pffft.
So finally it came to pass that we made the journey. We did not end up staying the night (children were with us for goodness sake!), but had an incredible time anyway. Below is the visual evidence. Enjoy.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get pictures of getting off the boat and onto the island. Imagine standing on the front of the boat, waiting for the water, the boat, and the slippery wet lava rock to all line up just right so you can make your jump. Good times.
So that was our adventure to Goat Island. It was totally worth the incredible sunburn and even the infected foot wounds (in my opinion…hopefully Peter agrees with me. They were his feet…). I hope you enjoyed joining us on the adventure via these photographs.
A very small sampling, for anyone curious. Most gardens here include a minimum of: several kinds of bananas (usually harvested while still green, flavorless, and nutrition-less), taro, manioc/cassava, several types of yam, sometimes kumala (sweet potato), papaya, and usually plenty of island cabbage. Less common but still around are things like garlic, local curry, spring onion, tomatoes, grapefruit, mango, passionfruit, etc. Much out of the latter list is very seasonal.
I don’t have many pictures, but here’s what I have for a visual:
Journal entry 4 June 2014 (Cont’d from 3 June)
“The hives still haven’t gone away–does this expose my complete lack of faith? Faith as my faith healers would understand it, anyway.
“So this guy may not have been Jesus himself or even a saint conducting miracles, but I appreciated the sentiment, the cultural experience, and the opportunity to share it with people I love.
“Not long after that spectacle was concluded, it was time for Peter and I to go back to the school for study hour with combined classes 3+4. Peter started with some genuine English exercises, but eventually they started asking about their health homework. Since we’ve been talking about teeth and eyes, etc. (we had done preliminary eye screening for that class the day before), eventually we were talking about Peter’s and my glasses and how the lens relates to the microscope they looked through the day before, etc. Before long, my glasses were being passed around, each student trying them on for a fraction of a second before everyone would disintegrate into giggles. Over and over again we laughed and laughed. Then I dared them to try to walk around the room wearing them. Moses (the tallest, oldest, and shyest in the class) was the first to take up the dare–and we all laughed harder than ever when he only made it a few steps before swiping the glasses off his face and rubbing his eyes. This went on almost until the study hour was over.
That was one of the best moments I’ve ever had with those kids.
Then it was time to walk home. It was dark so our little brother Nesi and a friend (Lina) kept running ahead, hiding, and trying to jump out to scare us. By the end of the walk I was chasing them down the road, both of them screaming and laughing their heads off.
“Then we ate dinner with Nesi and Alisia (ages 9 and 11) and they told us stories of visions people have had, and how kids were being led around the village praying to scare away the devils. Much like when my American brothers and I were kids, they could hardly get their stories out because they kept getting so excited and talking over each other. Peter and I just did our best to keep up and remain enthusiastic listeners.
“Much of it was hard to follow as they told us about a devil that was wandering through the village that night–he wore a hood with horns coming out and huge teeth stuck out of his face. Nesi recalled for us the path that was taken as the pray-ers chased him out fo the village–also something about digging up a yam, someone’s hand in the ground swelling up because of this devil, then running away–another story about being in church with ‘the Healer’ from the day before, and how as everyone had their eyes close he described a vision to them–something about Jesus or the Holy Ghost pouring a cup of water on him to clean him–maybe he was the one whose hand swelled?–and when everyone opened their eyes, he was all wet.
“Then seamlessly these two kids went into telling us about a movie they saw where someone was decapitated and someone else washed his blood. Then a girl was tied down to a table, her arms and legs tied down and a ball gag put in her mouth…..
“‘That’s enough of that! I’m too scared to hear more~’ Thank you Peter for not letting that go on. Alisia admitted she had run away when they watched this movie.
“Movies are rarely a one or two person event here. When there’s a movie playing, half the village is watching. Kids and all.
“Of all the events of the day, from the faith healing onward, playing and connecting with the kids was by far the most touching part that filled me full of love for everyone there. Two kids telling us about their devout community–men, women, and children alike–watching a movie such as that described above was by far the most frightening.
“Feeling integrated, all in a day’s work, after 1.5 years of trying.”
Journal entry, 3 June 2014
“If today wasn’t evidence of being integrated, I don’t know what would be (apart from maybe participating in a serious kastom ceremony–which no one in my village does anymore).
“I have had chronic hives since I was 12 or 13 years old. Sometimes they’re small itchy bumps, maybe one or two here and there, and sometimes they cover me crown to toe, leaving welts all over my skin so I look like someone beat me with a 2×4 until their arms fell off.
“This morning I woke up somewhere in the middle. Enough hives to not want to go sing and dance at a kindy with forty <6 year olds, but not enough to take steroids. So because I didn’t go to the pre-school, Uyo Rachel (and the rest of the planet Port Narvin and its visitors) knew I was some sort of sick.
“The Presbyterian youth group from the other side of the island has been here for nearly a week now, singing each night away in the church and around the village. Accompanying them is the infamous (on Erromango, in the Presbyterian church) Healer. He is known for his gift of faith healing. Uyo summoned him as soon as she was able, thus doing everything she knows how to do to help me.
“Eventually he arrived in our kitchen with Uyo, Peter’s counterpart Don, and another young woman I don’t know. The healer sat on one of our wooden chairs while the rest of us settled on a mat on the floor.
“Our healer began by quoting a few verses from the bible about faith and resting in the care of Jesus. Then he asked me about my ailment–how long/often I have it, if it causes pain, what other irritations it causes, etc. This part was fairly conversational between he and I.
“Then he returned to Bible references, speaking fast enough that I could just keep up. He talked about the church being important, but more important is our personal relationship with Jesus and the Father (I think Uyo must have tipped him off for this part since this is nearly word for word what I had said about why I don’t attend church–all except specifically referencing ‘Jesus’ and ‘the Father’).
“Next he announced that together we would all say individual prayers of forgiveness. I hadn’t thought it was Presbyterian, but I remembered one of the churches here doing the we-all-pray-out-loud-simultaneously thing, making it sound and feel like a seance. He said this prayer was to call down the ‘tabu spirit’ or holy ghost to come join us.
“As we all began to pray, I had no idea what to say. I felt so disingenuous and stupid–but to call it off would have not only been more awkward, but very rude and relationship-destroying.
“As far as I could tell, they were all praying in Bislama, whispered ‘Jesus’es here and there. I began to mumble awkwardly in English, not knowing what to say. I mostly commented aloud about how lucky I was to have such a unique experience and that I’d likely never experience something like it again. I tried to throw in a few phrases in there of asking–someone–for forgiveness for–stuff. It was a ‘forgiveness’ prayer after all.
“The prayer finally came to an end and the healer continued with the Bible references. Lay your ills at Jesus’ feet and with faith he will take care of us, etc. etc. And our ailments are mountains for us to climb, challenges for us to face–and hives have been my trouble since I was a teenager, so now He sent this guy to relieve me (I’m glad I didn’t tell him about the GI troubles and resulting discomforts I was also dealing with). He told me that the Holy Ghost and Jesus had the power to clean my blood (they’re all about dirty in the blood causing ailments) and cleanse my skin of my ailment. Then it was time to pray again.
“The young woman placed a beat-up Bible in my hands and they all gathered around me, each with a hand on me–one hand on my knee, one on my shoulder, and one on my arm–and the praying began again. At first I had pray-ers’ block…but finally I began muttering with them. This time the words came easier. I talked about gratitude for these people who were doing so much for me in these two years of my life-changing experience; that I wish for them the same positive opportunities to expand their perpective and understanding; that as awkward as I felt, I was glad to be experiencing something so exceptional and that I have so much gratitude for the effort they are making for my benefit…then finally the prayer came to an end.
“For the first time (outside of prayer) someone other than the healer spoke up, but in the local language (which had to be translated for me). She said she had a vision of a beam of light shining down on me. I smiled and otherwise left that alone–she has a right to her own experiences without questioning or even comment from me. But the healer was not to be outdone (that’s how it felt to me anyway) and he told of his vision of the holy ghost, like he was washing dishes, wiping my skin clean. This time it did take an effort not to raise an eyebrow at him. Uyo even let out a small giggle.
“He then went on to tell us that God has a supply of blood in heaven, and if you come to him with your troubles and have faith in him, he will relieve you of your diseased blood and replace it with this blood supply. There’s a similar supply of skin for the same purpose. There’s a supply of every body part that could ever ail. Through all of this I didn’t know what else to do but look up at him as he talked and smile.
“Finally we came to the final prayer. The words came relatively easily this time, saying much of the same things, hoping the people surrounding me couldn’t’ feel how disingenuous and stupid I felt–guilty even.
“Afterward we all smiled. The Healer said if I get a hive again, I can put my hand on it and focus my faith on asking Jesus for relief and he will wash me clean. We all shook hands, saying ‘God bless’ and they left.
“Afterward, I felt anxious, awkward, and even a little shaky. It made my hives start to itch.”
To be continued….
A quick story from my journal:
“The last night I have to myself before Peter comes back–well I think so far I’ve handled it quite well.
“A month or so ago I experienced the passing of my first cyclone. It was intense, but we never got within about 100 kilometers of the eye, so we managed. I was too caught up in preparing for potentially being hit by Cyclone Lusi and taking care of Peter who had a high fever (dengue?) at the time to keep a journaled record of the experience [but you can read the account I wrote later here]. But seeing as how I’m sitting here along with nothing to do tonight, I may as well record tonight’s experiences.
“It’s been raining for a solid week now. Ok fine, it has taken short breaks, at times was nothing more than a mist, and even took a full day’s break to allow us to do laundry–but it has been wetter than wet. Especially considering we’re supposed to be firmly in dry season now.
“It’s Friday, so it’s my last evening to cook dinner for myself before Peter comes back from Vila. [We cook for ourselves Friday night-Sunday. The rest of the time we eat with our host family.] Friday is also the day for ‘go long bot’–for drinking, whether it’s alcohol or kava. [I usually bring a light alcoholic beverage to enjoy while everyone else drinks kava, which my body has officially and firmly rejected.]
“I announced this fact earlier to the few people still in the village–most are on holiday somewhere else on the island for the school spel. So it’s mostly just been Mama Sonia, Daddy Bob, Uyo, Fabian (pregnant) and Auntie Yam (with newborn)–and only them I had to invite to join me. It was only raining lightly at the time, but still I wondered about the likelihood of them joining me in my kitchen without kava to entice them. And as the sun disappeared behind the mountain and the time approached to start a fire to begin cooking, the rain started coming down in buckets.
“I already knew that this meant no one would be venturing out to join me, but I also learned (in this order):
- That our kitchen AND swim house can flood.
- That Peter’s “rain coat” is a wind breaker at best, and not at all water proof.
- That we need to replace our solar lights–they don’t work anymore.
- That we need a bigger shovel.
“Number 3 actually probably came first, since it was already dark when our kitchen flooded.
“If all that alone does not tell you tonight’s story, I’ll also tell you the aftermath:
“There are now random holes in the ground between our sleeping house and the kitchen, but there’s a decent barrier that is keeping more water from getting into the kitchen, at least for now. The swim house too is no longer flooded.
“I enjoyed my drink and my meal of already-cold cheesy quinoa while every inch of me dripped onto the kitchen floor. Then I took a hurried, luke-warm (from previously boiled water) bucket bath, taking more time than I wanted to scrub the mud off my legs, feet, and flip-flops. Then I got into dry clothes, and crawled into bed.
“Here I am now. The rain is still pouring. I left the kitchen open so that Nalla would have somewhere (relatively) dry to sleep. I hope the dirt barriers and trenches that I made in the dark keep the water out of the kitchen for the night. We shall see.
“All this on the one night that I fill myself with alcoholic fluids. And, I’ll remind anyone who reads this, we do NOT have indoor plumbing.”
I read about this program Grassroot Soccer (GRS) in a Peace Corps publication called WorldView. GRS uses soccer to teach youth about HIV, life skills, and general sexual health. Given my host country’s incredibly high STI and early pregnancy rates as well as their adoration for soccer, I naturally found it quite intriguing. Knowing how much she loves soccer, I called my fellow PCV, Syd, to see what she thought of it. She said she’d let me know when she had a chance to read about it. That was at the end of last year. Time passed.
Then one day I get a message from her saying “Let’s join our Community Health powers and do this thing!” Since the program has not yet come into the South Pacific, we decided to pilot it here in Port Vila and just see how it went. We both came into town and, in three days, had it planned and were ready to begin (and whew what a few days that was).
Long story short, IT WAS AWESOME! So much fun, such awesome people, great venue (Wan Smolbag soccer field), and support from random places, such as Vanuatu Football Federation. Oh, and hundreds of pictures. Here’s a taste. More to come.
Behold the two bags full of hundreds of condoms that lived by my hotel bed, reminding me each morning before the event started of what was coming. :)
Signing the contract. The very first practice begins with establishing the rules. This allows for us to build a safe environment to discuss taboo topics in a conservative culture.
Meet Frank. We met him two days before the whole thing kicked off. We told him what we were doing and he committed himself to co-facilitate the whole thing with us at the drop of a hat. This man doesn’t sit still. He coaches just about every sport Wan Smolbag has to offer and is anxious to get more life-skills for youth activities into the Wan Smolbag basket. He blew us away, always there before us and always stayed late. Any glitch (and with only three days of planning, there were plenty), he was on it. Couldn’t have done it without this new insta-friend.
Syd is brilliant. She came up with the most awesometastic soccer-related icebreaker during a break between “practices”. I hope I get to work with the girl plenty–in any way. She plain and simply kicks butt in every way possible.
Cheer: FIFA WORLD CUP!”
Keep an eye out for more! So many pictures and so much fun! I intend to pilot the program yet again in the rural setting of my village on Erromango. Stay posted for stories from all these great experiences!
With less than 6 months of service to go, both Peter and I are feeling the pressure of trying to wrap up our involvement in things, not take a single minute for granted, and preparing for starting life in the States again. For this town visit, I should be here two full weeks. I’ll try to make up for lost time with interesting posts and updates. I’m a bit pooped for anything too in-depth now though, so I’ll simply throw a bunch of pictures at you for now, then get serious later. Enjoy. :)
Then there’s that time the French Navy came to film the donation of rain tanks to villages surrounding ours (ours was the port, but not the recipient. I may have giggled like the child that I am at their tiny shorts.
The full 3 Stooges trio. I need to get video of these goofuses playing together uploaded (uploaded! click here!). I’ll figure out how to do that…someday.
Rennovation of the tippy-tap! This time the whole school got involved. Here are a bunch of kids carrying rocks/coral/sand in their shirts for the soak away (after they popped the tire on the school wheel barrow).
Testing, testing. Yes! Even the smallest student can use it! Success!
We stole the microscope from a dusty corner in the clinic, got it cleaned up, and BAM! The kids get to see an ant’s teeth for the first time. Now if only we can find a lens that can see bacteria or something…