As a rule, you come to the Peace Corps with illusions. Bad ones, some of them, the White Man’s Burden type. Harmless ones, others, about what country they might send you to, the kind of place you might end up, wild and exotic dreams. And a third kind, the necessary.
Joining Peace Corps is a leap of faith. The application’s been changed now, but for decades, you accepted placement with a minimum of information and put two years of your life into hands you’d never met. Two years is a long time, longer for the younger volunteers like me, to check out of the world. Years otherwise filled by budding careers and romances and the first steps of real adulthood. To sign them over is no small thing even if, like me, there weren’t many other positions waiting for you.
The illusions, the preconceptions, they’re what let you do it, what convince you the trade might be worth making. Once you’re here there are a thousand reasons to stay, most of them different from what you’d imagined back in the States. Before you get here, though, all you’ve got is your imagination, ideas about how service will make you better, how you’ll help people. Whether or not you end up completing substantive work is entirely up to you, and that might not strike you beforehand—you come to think of your upcoming training as somehow transformative, that it’ll teach you, all of a sudden, how to Ghandi, to Florence Nightingale, take you from a college layabout to a God-given savior in the space of ten weeks. They give you the tools, sure, but if you were worthless before, you’ll be worthless after.
Hoping that the experience of service will somehow change you for the better is an even longer shot. What’s hard to conceptualize, to internalize is that for all that your job is working with kids, community organizing, improving wells or agriculture, it’s still a job and you’re still living somewhere. Getting through your day-to-day, cooking food, cleaning your house, pursuing hobbies. There’s no state-change, no epiphany on being sworn in. Peace Corps has that demimythical cachet, right from Kennedy through Sargent Shriver to you, another fresh faced young hero on the cusp of grand adventure. You don’t see yourself renting apartments or paying bills or swabbing out a toilet after your sixth or seventh bout of diarrhea.
When you do manage to envision the more mundane aspects of service life, that’s where those necessary illusions come in. Hand-washing your clothes in a concrete basin will teach your patience, serenity. Making your way to work through jungle trees will give you back the appreciation for nature that you thought you’d lost since Boy Scouts. A home without internet or electricity will let you read all the stuff you were too busy for, the Yeats and Keats and Spinoza you eyeballed in college. It’s the stuff that passes through your mind in the week they give you to decide, the mountain of little things that you lean on as you pick up the phone to call your recruiter.
It’s a good thing that there are a thousand other reasons to stick it out once you arrive, because all of the simpler times stuff is hokum.
It’s malarkey because you don’t change immediately, radically once you’ve raised your hand and taken the oath, let the Country Director or the Ambassador pin the crossed flags on your lapel. If you hated laundry at home, stretching the chore into sweaty, physical hours teaches you not Zen but the same simple boredom and frustration you’d get if you tried it at home.
We started using machines to do our work in the house because doing it all by hand just sucks. I stain here. Mud, mangoes, oil, it’s manchas week in and out along with the tripled sweating I get during every month but December. That means a little stain remover with the soap which means an extra five minutes of rinsing and wringing for each of my shirts and socks and shorts, minutes that build to hours I could be doing anything else. Sun-dried clothes don’t smell better or wear softer, but they do bleach, tropical heat sapping color and burning in wrinkles that a drier would take care of. In the wet season, from June to October or longer, you can forget clothes drying in a day, and the thick scent of mildew slowly inhabits every piece of fabric you own.
My thirty minute trip into work isn’t bad, and I like walking for my health. But I can’t lie and say that ankle-twisting my way over uneven cobbles twice a day is pleasant in itself, less so when it’s 95 out and I can feel hard-won hydration coursing out of me down to my waistband and into my socks. They aren’t hardships by any stretch, just aspects of my life, the way long commutes or broken bus air-conditioning were, and they’re just as neutral as to improving either my human condition or rich inner life.
Other things are just worse. I read as much as I used to, which is to say a lot, but I’ve got just as little ability to appreciate poetry now as I did when I freely admitted I needed a professor’s guidance to enjoy it. And the idea of living with the sun is romantic, but it loses its luster in the darker half of the year, when evening steals on you from behind the mountains and rolling blackouts leave you blind every time a thunderstorm plunges into your valley from the ridge across the way.
We fetishize, too, the act of unplugging. Journos put up opinion pieces about the glorious two days they spent at the cabin, iPhone and email free. But the truth is that I’m more productive when I can look things up from home, read news and essays on my own time, post blogs and pitch articles from outside of work. Being in second-to-second touch with the whole of the internet might be unhealthy, but ready access to the web facilitates a social life like no amount of faux-Luddite face-to-facing ever could.
This sounds like a down kind of post, but it’s not. I love Mexico, and truth be told, if my folks hadn’t been in Florida when I visited over Christmas, there would have been nothing stopping me from turning around as soon as I’d claimed my bags and hopping the next plane back here.
What I’m saying is that I’ve lost the illusions, the dreams that I’d be different or better here, somehow, than I was in DC. I’m still me. I’m writing more than I ever have, but I wouldn’t be if I hadn’t started this blog before I left, out on my porch in Washington, and all signs point to that if I’d stayed there, I’d be putting as much pen to paper as I am here.
I’ve come—maybe late, maybe early—to the obvious truth that even if I can’t say that everyone or everywhere is more or less the same, I am more or less the same everywhere and with everyone.
I did start reading Yeats, though.