Awhile ago, I wrote about the drudgery of Peace Corps life and how it does little to improve you. That might have been less than true. Not here, but elsewhere.
The thing is that Mexico has a reputation as a post, a deserved one, as the ‘Posh Corps.’ It has to do with the way the organization set up the program. Mexico began with Tech Transfer, a program that exists only here and owes its conception to the circumstances in which the Peace Corps came to this country.
A particular director of the organization wanted to expand to Mexico. Peace Corps requires that the host country sign a Bilateral Agreement which leaves us more or less free reign to involve ourselves wherever the regional desk and the country office see need. In whichever village or community best suits the methodology defined by the Peace Corps Act and developed by the organization over the last fifty-odd years.
In Mexico, we never signed the Bilateral Agreement. Instead, we formed partnerships with particular organs of the Mexican federal government. The first of which was CONACYT, the National Council for Science and Technology, whose purview is the research and development of technology, whether for academic or corporate application. TT, and by extension the Mexico program, took the well trained and educated, ten years’ worth of volunteer classes of doctors of this or that, middle-aged or older, nothing like what you might imagine of a body of Peace Corps recruits.
By its nature, CONACYT has no centers in the far campo, only in the largest and most technologically developed of Mexico’s cities. The Mexico program is growing now, and has been accepting Natural Resources Management (highly trained, though possessed of fewer degrees than TT) and Environment (down to fresh out of college, like me) volunteers for some years now.
Habits die hard, and the sites into which we have been placed are not the poorest available, which the last OIG report reiterates are those places clearly marked out for action by the Peace Corps Act. This newest batch of volunteers, set to arrive in March, is by all accounts destined for just those sites in Mexico with the greatest economic need, the need for which our training is best calibrated.
The result for those of us here now, though, is that we ended up with sites that looked nothing like our preconceived ideas of Peace Corps service. Jalpan, where I live, is in the far rural reaches of Mexico, but it’s the tourist hub of the area. I’m well placed to minister to be able to visit all the little towns of the Sierra while living in a place that’s categorically unlike the little towns of the sierra. Satellite dishes are the norm, many of my kids have smartphones (I’d never seen an iPhone 6 before my cousin brought one to a meeting) and wear Hollister and delight in decoding whether or not I’m a hipster, which I imagine happens less in the wilds of Namibia.
This placement, this disagreement or dissonance between what we expected and what we got creates a kind of guilt. None of us, as far as I know, has tried to move to a site much harder than then one into which they placed us. But we do respond to the dissonance with a kind of vague and generalized shame. I was reading over the typescript of this post with James Dykstra when he mentioned that for all that we don’t have to, we go out of our way to act as we imagine volunteers in other countries act.
In that same post, I mentioned that I wash my clothes by hand. I don’t have to. When the weather gets too wet for it to be convenient, I don’t. Getting my clothes washed and folded for me costs a few pesos less than a good lunch, and in the cold season, when I only need to wash every two or three weeks, I can forget that laundry is any different than it is when I live at home, except for having to hump it back home in my hiking pack. I mentioned that it’s inconvenient, unproductive to live without Internet. I don’t have to. I understand that if I really wanted, TelMex would run a DSL or dialup line out to the house for what seems like a large but in dollars, modest, fee.
In my Thanksgiving post, I said that Danielle saves all of her dishwater from her crude concrete sink to flush with. She doesn’t have to, because most of the time, her water runs. She could buy a normal sink for centavos on the peso—mine came complimentary with the first month’s rent. Equally, while parts of the Sierra are starved for water, hers is not, and she could run her tap all day and all night without much hurting anyone or the Earth besides.
I know volunteers who cook with solar ovens although it would be faster and nearly as cheap to cook with gas, volunteers who build solar dehydrators and hand-dry their fruit even though they could pick up dried mangoes in their towns for just as little cost and much less effort. James has his brother up here at the moment, and when they were heading up to his place, James proposed a long series of caught rides and combis and hitchhiked stretches instead of a direct bus. His brother asked him what was better about that than the direct bus they’d been planning on and both James and I had to think for a moment, because we’d pick the more convoluted way every time, and it’s because we’re trying to capture whatever it is that makes you feel like a real volunteer.
We playact, and although I know the reason why, I’m not sure what the result is. Because as I’ve written and as far as I’ve polled, none of us find the theater edifying. We do it because it feels right to do it, even if we’re living more down-to-earth than the host country nationals around us. Which is no value judgment. It’s something like rich kids playing at bohemianism with a trust fund waiting in the wings. James left his host family’s house—cable TV to beat the band and internet to boot in the biggest place in town—for a cabin on a hillside with a detached wood-burning kitchen. Not to educate or lord it over; just, I think, for his own peace of mind.
There are many reasons people seek the Peace Corps, and mine was expediency, so it’s not that we necessarily went to it because we had to get back to basics. But there may only be one way anyone anywhere in the world thinks it’s appropriate to live once you’re in, and no matter where you end up, you try to live down to that standard. Most places, I imagine, it’s not a choice, but it some it is, and all of us spend time trying to reach the ideal.
It may be in some sense a search for justification. Two years is a long time to sacrifice to the unknown, and an unwritten clause in the bargain is that you’ll can an ascetic perspective, divorce yourself from the world you knew. Not even because you want to but because that’s the nature of the thing.