Culture Absorption

So this is the process of adopting a culture not your own. So my culture is German-American. We went to a church that had services in German, and I learned a lot of Christmas songs in German as a child. We bake these terrible little cookies that taste like licorice because that is tradition. My family cooks traditionally German dishes fairly often. My mom speaks German. I have German features. In fact, to my amusement, several people have guessed that I am German not American until they hear me speak. I think it’s my soft mannerisms and German features, or I don’t know, but it amuses me since both sides of my family are German. I also have a small town American culture. I have mid-western manners. I love watching my dad coach high school football games. I grew up around sports, and trucks and the idea that good ole hard work pays off. You know all the things you pick up from rural Indiana. And then I have adopted a few things from different cultures I’ve been around.

 

I picked up a few words from Haitan Creole, Spanish, Patios, Creolese and Burmese. I have headbands and clothes from different places. I have an all-straw outfit made for me in Guyana, a traditional Indian outfit from my host family in Guyana and a Karen shirt from my friends at Exodus. You get little pieces from the people you’re around and that’s a good thing. I’ve learned from people who grew up differently than I did. Understanding even small pieces of different countries starts to build understanding and multi-cultural friendships. And this goes beyond travelling abroad. I’ve traveled the states a bit and the more people you run into the more you know. I have never lived in a city of more than 10,000 for more than 3 months—so I learn a lot from people who grew up in cities. I learn a lot from people with different culture than me. I am very happy to have had the privilege to acquire pieces of other cultures.

 

And while there is immeasurable value to cross-cultural experience, there exist many pitfalls. For example when you are learning to speak Spanish and you go to a busy Mexican restaurant and try to order in your 7th grade Spanish and the waiter clearly speak English, it’s a little offensive—okay maybe a lot offensive or at the very least it’s pretty annoying. On the other hand if you have a Spanish speaking friend and you practice your Spanish with that person, even if it’s terrible at first, that’s admirable. The same thing with Jamaican Patois—at school when people speak English to me, it would be nearly mocking to speak Patios back, but then telling stories and jokes with my neighbors and friends we all laugh and laugh. Miss Bobs told me and Lindy that it’s cute when we speak Patois. It’s very difficult to be funny in formal English in countries where Creolese or Patois are spoken. Learning even if the accent never comes shows that you want to be local, and are actively seeking a way to blend in. And in some cases small children do not communicate well in formal English, so by speaking the local dialect you are able to communicate. So the point is that there is a time and place to go local and a time and place to use your own language and stick to your upbringing.

 

The same thing with dress and appearance—you can wear cultural items in a respectful way. For example I have that outfit made for me for Arawak heritage celebration in Santa Mission. I wore it on heritage celebration day. I won’t wear it in any other Arawak village. I won’t wear it as a costume to a Halloween party. I will only wear it in the capacity for which it was made for me. Otherwise you take something inclusive and special and make spectacle out of it. Likewise I had friends in Afro-Guyanese places who had African wear like head scarves and bandana dresses (as they are called in Jamaica). They wore them to cultural events at school to show that you can show Guyanese culture no matter your skin color. That being Guyanese means you get all 6 people groups of culture. But to wear those clothes out of context could lead to cultural misappropriations. In Jamaica you will get mixed feelings about white dreadlocks. Some people wear locks for style, and some for religious/spiritual reasons. For me, even though I think locks are freaking sweet, I wouldn’t get them because at times it sends the wrong message: as a white person, we get to take on and off different cultures to suite our mood, but we lock out people of color from enjoying the same transience. And unlike clothing, language and so on, you can’ take on and off dreads. Once you have them, you have them for a long while.

So all of this is to say: Enjoy the cross-cultural interactions. Soak up all that there is to learn. Celebrate each other’s cultural contributions and differences. Ask your questions, dance the dances, eat the foods, drink the drinks, pray the prayers, seek out all that is good, but be mindful about the context in which you emulate all you have learned.

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Peace Corps Moments

Every volunteer has these moments where they think, “I will never forget this as long as I live.” And when the going gets tough these moments kind of carry you through. And as I’m nearing the end of my service, the moments kind of play on a loop in my head and make me all nostalgic. So here are my greatest moments in roughly chronological order.

  1. Way Back in Training Sitting Around while PC10397836_10204140434894820_5535809666953741815_nVs Played Guitar. So we all sat on the steps of our hotel passing arou
    nd guitars, singing and just being so Peace Corps I can’t take it.

 

  1. The first time my host mom in Laluni told me she loved me. Momma as I call her was a reluctant host. We had a higher than average number of hinterland people and so PC went begging for good host families with nice rooms for us. Momma barely let Julie in the gate and by the end of the day Momma had signed the papers and very hesitantly accepted me. Fast forward a few months and we said tear filled goodbyes. The next few months were filled with phone calls and vegetables from the farm. It is an incredible gift to be welcomed into someone’s home like that.

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3. The first trip to Santa Mission. The boat ride to and from Santa was always special to me. Yes, there were transportation issues (not enough boats, not on my time schedule, waiting for hours and hours), but the rides were breezy and always a little different. The first one I was totally in awe! We saw giant river otters—water dogs—and sloths. I grew up reading about the rainforests in South America and it was just entirely surreal to see it for the first time. Also Simeon (our safety and security manager at the time) told us to watch out for snakes that sometimes fall into boats so it was slightly terrifying.

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  1. Miss Jackie bringing me dinner before I had anything set up. I got to Santa and assumed I’d have a place to buy food, and a stove to cook it. Turns out neither were in place. The stove and bottle were there but the adapter wasn’t working, and there were shops, but nothing fresh. Anyways Miss Jackie brought delicious rice, chicken and pumpkin to me. I was still scared and painfully unknowing of all things Santa, and it was the first time I felt at home.
  1. The first time I went to Miss June’s house. I was still so out of place and didn’t know anyone and Miss June invited me to come sit on her couch. I only had a hard chair in my house and so sitting on a couch felt like home, and I think I had to ask her to repeat herself a million times, but she did. She introduced me to Sammy and made me feel a little more normal.
  1. The first time I played football (soccer) in my community. I love soccer because it’s nearly universal. It’s something I’m good at and enjoy. It’s the same in every country. You have different styles and fields and everything, but it’s still the same.
  1. The first girls’ night I hosted at my house. A few friends came over and we baked cookies watched TV shows and listened to music and it felt just like home.
  1. Kaieteur Falls. The trip to the falls was amazing! It was a short but amazing plane ride and then a little hike to the falls. It’s this amazing falls! The guides are locals. The place isn’t overly done-up for tourists and there’s something amazing about standing there.

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9. The first time I grew my own food. So I didn’t grow much, but after much work and time I had my first vegetables. I am so proud of those stupid tomatoes, but it made me really very happy.

10. The Brazil Trip. So I took a few vacations during my time in Guyana, but the trip to the Brazil was pretty amazing. I went to Manaus which is a super underrated city. It’s not easy to get to (36+ hours on buses from Georgetown), but it’s really a cool place. There’s markets and docks. The Gorgeous Opera House with short free music events—we saw a ballet with an all guitar orchestra. We floated around the Amazon and stayed at a sweet eco lodge on the river. We ate steak and drank good beer. And that’s where Jeremy and I started our adventure. What a weird and awesome first date—okay, neither of us planned it, and we didn’t kiss or anything the whole trip, but it’s the first time we hung out together and it was great!

 

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11.Sitting in my hammock with Monster. I had this great hammock from Brazil and I sat in it, drank some pywari, read a book and cuddled with Monster Cat. It’s short and simple and just kind of purrfect!

  1. When Ester made me an Amerindian outfit. It’s something I will always love. So there are major issues with people dressing up like Indigenous people for Halloween. I totally get that, but this was something else. 1. She made it specifically for me. 2. It’s an outfit made as a costume. It’s not a cheap mass produced outfit from Party Plus Superstore that completely disrespects the heritage of Indigenous people. It’s from the same Arawak community I lived in. And it’s not actually an outfit of cultural significance that is I am not wearing something reserved for people of position or honor. It is similar to an outfit she would make for someone in the Amerindian Queen Pageant in Guyana or someone participating in Indigenious Heritage month celebrations. 3. I wore it for a heritage celebration and will not wear it in the states. But, when I see it, it reminds me of some of my last moments in Santa.

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13. Saying goodbye to my community in Santa. This is a tough one. It’s a heart breaking one. I have never felt so devastatingly loved in my whole life. Saying goodbye to Miss June and Aunty Natalie and Miss Jackie and all the students and Chrysanthi and Uncle Porter and Auntie Joylene and everyone. It was sooooo hard, and sooooo wrong how it happened, but there was real genuine love. I think a lot PCVs have local friends that they make solely because they are in a PC and want local friends. Then there are friends that you know you would have no matter where you met them and no matter when you met them. I have that with people in Santa. It’s amazing and saying goodbye I could feel it.

  1. The last big hug from all the students. I was about to get on the boat and we had said some goodbyes. Our students and teachers sang. The tears were flowing and then Miss June said, “Well go get her” and all the kids came and gave me one last big group hug even the boys who liked to give me trouble.
  1. The first time Miss Bob’s made me soup. I was sick and not feeling very well and Miss Bob’s made soup for me to help me feel better. When I was in Guyana I lived alone and Miss June would send food over from time to time and Auntie Natalie would check in with me if she hadn’t seen me for a day or two, but it’s a whole other thing to have someone in your house actively try to take care of you when you’re sick. I will forever be grateful for her help.
  1. Hiking Blue Mountain. So I went with Jeremy up to the peak. We were told it’s about 3 miles, but it’s actually about 8 miles each way. It was long, but it was fun. Of course the clouds set in, but there’s something about climbing up a mountain that gives you renewed resolve and makes you happy.

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17. Jamaican Snow Day. We made snow in my classes and it was really fun. The kids got to do snowball fights and play and they did some of the best creative writings I’ve read.

  1. Sitting on the Beach. So I don’t really have a group here, but I have a few friends. We all met up on the beach and the guys played guitar and ukulele. I swam and it’s just kind of a great relaxing Peace Corps Moment.

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19. Lindy Arrived. It’s the beginning of the end when a new volunteer arrives in your site. But it’s been really fun to walk around and enjoy my time with Lindy here. We can hang out and go for long walks and just enjoy the beautiful place we are lucky to live in.

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20. Leaving Jamaica…. It hasn’t happened yet, and while I’m excited to move on, I’m really sad that this part of my life is closing.

The Next Volunteer in Valley

 

13315580_10156994039820080_4102767179158550297_nSo as I prepare to leave, a new volunteer named Lindell or Lindy for short, coming to work in Cedar Valley. She’s in the Environmental Program and will be working a few days each week with the school and a few days each week with various farmers’ groups. She’s pretty awesome!! So as fate would have it, Lindy is from Indy!! It’s really a strange and wonderful thing to meet a fellow Indy girl all the way down here in Jamaica. Something I’ve realized about the states is that you definitely have regional cultures (if not state or city or part of a city culture) and it’s great to have someone from home. We’ve talked about all our favorite things like Mass Ave and Bakersfield tacos and margs, and Bru Burger and Scotty’s and 3 Wisemen and Broadripple and Downtown and all the parts of Indianapolis and Indiana that we miss. I’ve met her family via video chat and they’re a lot like my family. It’s just a crazy comforting thing to have.

It’s also been great to be reminded what it’s like to be a shiny new volunteer. New Volunteers have so much energy and I know I came in that way too. They are open and excited and inspired while there’s a temptation to say, “just you wait…” the better reaction is to be renewed in your efforts and energy. It’s a great reminder how rare and extraordinary this experience is and of all the hard work I put in getting here. How lucky I am that 2 other countries asked me to come and work, and 2 different communities have welcomed me with open arms. It’s really refreshing and inspiring… a great note to go out on.

Also I have an awesome new friend to hang out with. My site doesn’t allow for me to go and come easily. You might wait for hours for a bus, which means meeting up for dinner or a drink with other volunteers is a no-go. There’s no easy way to go do fun things when everyone is busy and transportation so finicky. So with Lindy here we’ve come up with some exciting day trips! We’ll be going to Bath Fountains (the natural hot springs), Reggae Falls (a little waterfall nearby), we’re going to hike over to another volunteer’s place, and we’re going to climb Blue Mountain with our host family. Then maybe I can finally eat the burger at the Long Boarder and I’ll be headed out of here. Those things are only fun when you have friends to do them with and I’m happy to have Lindy to do them. It’s also a great way to start your service—getting to know some of the cute little spots here and there near your site. And I mean I can’t think of a better way to close my service than standing on the highest point of the island—fingers-crossed for clear weather.

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So I am so excited to welcome PCV Lindy to Cedar Valley. She’s already getting involved and doing great things!! There’s something cool about passing on all my accumulated PCV knowledge and seeing that Cedar Valley will be someone else’s home!

15 Things to Contemplate About Peace Corps as an Organization

So Peace Corps as an organization is many many things. Some are good and some are bad. And so here’s something of an unfiltered investigation into where the organization stands. I’ve taken some popular criticisms and some of my own observations and tried to give it all a fair shake, and in some cases a defence of Peace Corps via information sharing. Ultimately I would not trade my service for anything, but there are definitely flaws in the system. Peace Corps has been revamping to address some of these flaws, but there is still room to grow. This list isn’t a personal list of grudges, but a series of thoughtful topics requiring attention. Also please read the whole paragraph on a topic because the topic sentences are the criticism I’ve heard not necessarily the whole story.

  1. Peace Corps is an invasive institution. I’ve heard this from people who are generally not well acquainted with Peace Corps specifically, but have a rightful distrust of organizations doing work abroad. I 100% know that there are TERRIBLE Organizations who force their own thinking and way of life onto others, and sometimes even pillage underserved communities abroad in the name of development, but Peace Corps isn’t that. Peace Corps only goes into countries where they are invited by that country’s government. And each community who gets a volunteer must submit a volunteer request—that is no volunteer goes into a community that has not actively recruited a volunteer for a position.
  1. Peace Corps cares more about getting more volunteers on the ground than about the impact of the volunteers. This one is true and not true. As an organization based in D.C. Peace Corps cares about getting volunteers on the ground in good roles. There’s about 7,000 PCVs worldwide. Despite increases in applications, this number is down from previous years. This decrease may be an effect of volunteer complaints and Peace Corps wanting to take care of the volunteers first before expanding. It may also be a result of country closures as more countries become entangled in violent unrest. Country Directors sometimes over recruit volunteers for their specific post. For example in Guyana at one point our Country Director said something to the effect of we thought more of you would have gone home by now. Guyana is a growing post when I think it should really be focusing on better supporting the volunteers it has as well as developing sites where real collaborative work can be done. Jamaica on the other hand has well supported volunteers in more or less great sites. Jamaica is also a smaller country with more people and more infrastructure so perhaps it is easier to support volunteers here.
  1. Kids fresh out of college can’t offer adults with experience much assistance. So most volunteers are in their 20s with less than 10 years experience, but almost all have college degrees and at least some experience in what they will be doing. For example, I have a degree in Journalism and English, taught adult ESL classes and tutored kids as part of a mentor program all through college. I’m qualified to work in literacy programs despite being young. I am not qualified to be someone’s supervisor, but as part of a team I work well. A lot of what PCVs do is network, and create collaborative situations like connecting person A in Region X of a country with person B in Y part of country—the Peace Corps Network can make a big difference. And while many PCVs are fresh out of college, there are recently retired volunteers with 30+ years of experience and mid career volunteers. The oldest currently serving volunteer is 87 years old. And Response Volunteers are hired to do a specific project and must of very specific education and experience. Your fresh out of college volunteers are not usually placed in positions of authority rather they are in positions of support where they gain valuable work experience while working on projects conceived by the community.
  1. Peace Corps plays into racist paradigms. There’s so much to say on this topic and I don’t have the right words so I’ll give you a few things to think about. 1. The experience of a white volunteer in a black country is not the same as a black volunteer in a black country (as an example). Peace Corps operates in European, African, Asian, North American and, South American countries—meaning that PC serves countries of all races. I can learn all the language and dress appropriately and be well integrated into my community and the minute I leave my community to go buy groceries or see the doctor, etc I will be an outsider. There are advantages to blending in and there are disadvantages. The reality is it’s a different experience and PC could do a lot more to support volunteers of color and understand the differences race makes in a volunteer’s service. You’re navigating not only the constructions of race from the U.S. but those of your host country as well, which can be jarring, and very difficult to cope with. About 28% of PCVs are minorities (well below the demographics of the general population –excluded those who chose not to answer). In some country groups you might have many volunteers of color experiencing the same kind of frustrations that differ from their white counterparts, in other country groups you may only have a few volunteers or even just 1 volunteer of color experiencing a lot on his or her own. To my knowledge there are not PC sponsored support networks for volunteers of color. Additionally, preservice training might be a great place to hold sensitivity training. There’s a lot of emphasis on integrations and not much on how race impacts service, and how to support volunteers of color. 2. Anytime you have a large number of white people going into non-white communities (not always the case) there’s something icky and colonial about it. PC combats this with emphasizing and testing their volunteers on culture, language and by making integration a requirement. Likewise as previously mentioned communities have to request volunteers. But the bottom line is that you’re depending on individuals to come in humbly and thoughtfully navigate a very complex social situation. 3. PC should continue to reframe itself as a cross-cultural, collaborative exchange program to stem off any kind of white-knight syndrome that many volunteers come in with. Almost all volunteers genuinely want to “help” their community, but it should be more than that. Volunteers should view this as an opportunity to learn and to acquire new skills as well as contribute to the goals of their host communities. There’s a way to do it right, but it relies on the individual to get it right. 4. As of 2016 45% of volunteers serve in Africa. Perhaps this is because African countries invited Peace Corps. Possibly it is because Africa has the most countries of all the continents at 54 (only UN recognized countries counted). In any case this plays into the racist paradigm that Africa is poor and needs help. It’s not all on PC, and many of the PCVs stationed in Africa can actually help dispel this myth by sharing their experiences in host countries and even just becoming educated themselves. It’s definitely something to look at… It’s also another reason PC should present itself a culture exchange program promoting countries as places to learn from instead of presenting them as weak in need of assistance.
  1. Volunteers cause more harm than good. There’s countless examples of aid workers doing projects that end up damaging the communities they work in or increasing dependency. Things that sound great, like donating a bunch of school supplies to school children, actually might hurt the local vendors who sell school supplies and contribute to the creation of a handout-dependent community as an example. Volunteers are expected to define community goals with leaders of their village and then together start working on the goals. As in the example above perhaps the PCV could connect the school to local vendors to give school children a discount or come up with a points system so that students can earn supplies (a student gets straight As and earns points toward a calculator, or has perfect attendance and gets a free pack of pencils). Children still get supplies, vendors get a boost to their store because chances are that people will appreciate the support and shop more frequently at participating shops, and when the PCV leaves, the program will continue seamlessly. Now this is another instance when PC relies on volunteers to have some knowledge of international development and operate in thoughtful, sustainable, capacity-building ways—a bit of a gamble. Since this varies volunteer to volunteer I can’t say for sure what the overall impact is. PC has tons of manuals on this, and there’s dozens of books out there for your budding volunteers, but having reading material is not always enough. PCVs are also not allowed to handle money. This keeps volunteers out of any sort of corruption or financial scandal. People are funny about money the whole world over. This also means that if I get books donated, I send them to the school to hand out. Or if I have any kind of donation I give it to the council or to a church or the school to hand out in a way that makes sense to the community instead of from me. All of this is to say that there are guidelines to make only positive impacts, but in practice that may not be true. Furthermore, all volunteers are held to both local and federal of their host countries and the states, so in terms of the very rare occasion when PCVs have physically harmed a local they are held responsible.
  1. Peace Corps the Organization occasionally messes up people’s lives. Peace Corps Service can have drastic effects on your life. There’s been about 220,000 volunteers and 301 were killed during their service. Some lost their lives to disease, freak accidents and even a few were murdered. It’s a lower death rate than the general population, but it happens. Also PCVs are occasionally injured in life altering ways or contract life altering diseases. Some volunteers end up with devastating, harmful coping mechanisms like alcoholism or suffer depression during and after their service. Not to mention the people making life altering choices may have never met you, never been to your country of service and have no idea what their choices mean for you. That is Peace Corps HQ in D.C. ultimately has control of your service and makes tough calls that could harm you or help you.
  1. Peace Corps Volunteers fill would-be-paid positions in their host countries. Peace Corps actively fights against this, but it’s not as black and white as it seems. During my time in Santa I taught grades 3 and 4 as a full-time teacher. Arguably the ministry of Education should have sent more teachers to Santa, but since Santa Mission is a tiny community with limited transportation, limited electricity,  and few housing and entertainment options, they have a hard time getting full time teachers to come. I was a bandaid on a bullet wound so to speak. It would have been irresponsible to make 2 teachers take on 4 or 5 classes each while I did literacy pull outs and developed the library. So while they applied for more teachers and administrators and recruited new teachers, I taught the classes. In Jamaica, that would never happen, but in Jamaica there’s far less isolated sites with far greater transportation, so if I were teaching a class on my own I would be taking a Ministry-paid position. Each country specifically sets their own rules on what volunteers do and don’t do. For the most part PCVs end up being support staff that their host organizations would not be able to hire—teacher’s aids, after school program staff, etc.
  1. One-sided Evaluation. One problematic issue is that only PCVs report what they are doing. Yes your counterpart and supervisor sign off on reports and can be called to clarify, but by and large PCVs are the ones doing all reporting. It’s not an easy report to make because it attempts to quantify things that are hard to quantify. For example confidence building. A student may be confident one day and not the next. Or doing a teacher training. You might observe teachers using your technique, but did they do that before? Did they do it because you are there watching them? Will they continue afterward? What if they just take one piece of your idea?—does that still count as adopting the technique? And what if you don’t observe them, but they assure you they found your talk useful, can you report that? And so on. I don’t put much stock in the stats reported by PC because they aren’t really efficient and only tell what PCVs self report.
  1. Sustainability. Sometimes PCVs find themselves doing projects for the community instead of with the community. There’s a million things that can make a project unsustainable, and there’s only a few ways to make sure they are sustainable. And it’s hard to tell sometimes. For example if you do life skills talks with kids maybe that’s huge for a few kids, but maybe not all of them. Then there are projects you can see and feel and touch like libraries, but maybe someone continues it, maybe they don’t. Maybe they do for awhile and then internal conflict shuts it down. I can’t tell you how many run down libraries or broken down roads exist that are tangible ruins of best laid plans by volunteers of the past. It’s really hard to make something sustainable, and sometimes it happens, sometimes it happens for a bit before breaking down and sometimes projects die with the PCV’s departure.
  1. The Role of Country Staff. PC hires 3 American staff members. They are Country Director, Director of Management Operations and Director of Programming and Training. The rest of staff come from your Host Country, which might include ex-pats living in country. I disliked our American Staff members in Guyana, and I love the American Staff members of Jamaica. The big difference is that the country staff of Jamaica listens to the local staff members, and also listens to the PCVs. There’s constant feedback and praise going to those going above and beyond. Channels of communication are always open. I know that if I can logically talk through why I want to do what I want to do and provide valid reasoning, chances are, I’ll get approval, or staff will help me amend my proposal to fit the criteria. There’s a lot of turnover with American Staff members. Max an American Staff member can stay 5 years, but it’s more likely to be 2 or 3 years aka the length of 1 volunteer’s service. This turnover leads to people coming in who don’t know the country, volunteers or much about how PC fits in that country and are immediately stepping into positions of power with real life effects for PCVs, local staff and project partners. It’s tough to make the calls for volunteers, and it’s frustrating. Old policies are replaced and volunteers neck deep in policy just quit trying to keep up with the changes because likely the PCVs will outlast the new policy and the person making it. There are organizations of PCVs like VAC (Volunteer Advocacy Committee) to help PCVs have a voice at quarterly meetings, but often times VAC has no real power or platform. Additionally PC American Staff stay in big houses in nice neighborhoods behind locked gates. They don’t live much like the PCVs and sometimes they might as well be living in a different country. Some staff members try to get out and see PCV sites, or ask PCVs questions about what it’s like outside of the capital, which is very helpful and builds trust. In short it’s hard for some American Staff members to really understand or relate to PCVs in a certain country, but that does not stop them from impacting PCV daily life. Some CDs are awesome!! They truly advocate for volunteers and the post, others are not and it’s just luck of the draw.
  1. Distrust of Peace Corps. I don’t trust Peace Corps as an organization. They’ve proven time and time again they don’t care about the damage they do to the individual as long as it supports the whole. They also sometimes fall in the “cover your ass” category. I operate with the “live and let live” mantra. I don’t trust PC so I don’t tell them my problems in official capacities. I turn in my report and love the staff individually, but am very wary about communicating with PC about anything negative. That said I will have in person conversations with trusted staff members as appropriate, and needed.
  1. Confidentiality. Confidentiality in Peace Corps doesn’t really exist. I know other PCVs medical issues, safety issues, etc. I had an ENT specialist (non PC employee) refer to another volunteer’s ear problems during my consultation. I know a PCV who called Victim Advocacy after being stalked and was refused a site transfer. Victim Advocacy then turned around and called the PC country staff to address the issue, which of course could easily be traced back to the volunteer reporting. There’s so many leaks and inappropriate comments, and very few are reported because Country staff can ruin your service. For example one staff member told me about a situation with another volunteer in which she questioned his integrity. It made me very angry because this PCV has more integrity than most people and it was entirely inappropriate, but it wasn’t a battle worth giving up my site and work to fight. Also many times PCVs report staff issues to trusted staff members instead of going up the chain of command because of the lack of confidentiality and trouble they may face, so while some situations are dealt with in house, many do not get officially reported. This, of course, changes country by country, and staff by staff. There are steps and policy in place to protect PCVs, but policy does not always translate into practice.
  1. Starting Over Every 2 Years Is Stupid. It seems stupid to start over every 2 years. PC pays a lot of money to bring new volunteers in, train them and send them to new sites. Meanwhile, PCVs compete for VERY limited grant money and other resources. Every 2 years PCVs go home and new ones come up. It might be better development wise to offer a 3-5 year program where volunteers really get the chance to do something. It takes about a year to get fully integrated and understand what needs to address in which ways so then you work on the project for a year and then the next group comes in. It’s not the most efficient.
  1. LGBTQ Volunteers. Volunteers may experience discrimination, hatred, slurs and violence based on sexual orientation. For example gay sex is illegal in Jamaica. Men who express feminine qualities are ridiculed and women who are too masculine might be shunned. There are groups working against discrimination toward removing stigma and creating an open-minded society, but it’s a long way away from acceptance. Some LGBTQ volunteers may have to hide their identity from select persons or communities at large to successfully integrate, do their work and be safe. To offer a counter point, several volunteers in Guyana worked with SASOD (Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination). In Guyana there’s still a lot of stigma, but there’s an emerging scene and space. Peace Corps offers support to volunteers who need it, but it is difficult to hear and see the discrimination–not to mention personally experiencing it.

15. Female PCVs are abused. Again there’s a million things I could say about this. So as with ethnicity, race, and sexual orientation, PCVs must navigate difficult social constructions of gender from both the states and their host countries. Female PCVs almost always face street harassment and usually have to deal with varying degrees of stalking. Some PCVs are raped or assaulted. Volunteers of different appearances are often fetishized. Not to mention different cultures have different rules about violence against women. It’s tough. Peace Corps is actively trying to support its female volunteers, but can’t offer protection 100% of the time. And while this is not a good thing, we have rape culture in America too. The statistics on the prevalence of rape and assault for PCVs are really about the same as those of the general U.S. population. Sexism expresses itself in different ways in different cultures. For example Jamaica has a lot of street harassment, but has more women in powerful positions than men (one of only 2 countries worldwide).  So yes, women have a harder time than men in many countries, women have a harder time than men at home too. So all of this is to say that it sucks, but it’s the world we live in and if you can navigate it at home, you can navigate it abroad.

The Top 10 Emotions of Leaving Peace Corps

As we prepare to leave our sites we go through more than just the expected emotions. It’s really a major lifestyle change and it’s a tough one to communicate because there’s about a trillion emotions happening at once. Here are the 10 I’ve noticed the most.

  1. Loneliness: Being lonely is one of the weird things end of service brings. You are going through the end of things and the beginning of new things. Leaving is devastating and severing your daily contact from people you love is really hard… Starting over is also lonely. For me this will be a move from friends and family to a new and unknown place. There will probably be people I know there and I suspect Jeremy and I will stick together, but starting over in a new place is lonely. You get 2 loneliness inducing actions at the same time and it hurts.
  1. Excited: I am freaking EXCITED for the future. I have 2 years of hard and happy service finished and I’m moving on to grad school and have an amazing guy to travel with and amazing friends to get back to. There’s so many new and exciting things to come.
  1. Bored: The last month of service is all about finishing up projects and checking items off a bucket list. There’s not a lot of new and exciting things happening and so as my projects finish or are entirely passed on to whoever will continue them, I have less and less to do on the daily.
  1. Disbelief: Part of me cannot fathom a world back in the states. So with roughly one month left of service it still feels a million miles away. Peace Corps has taught me to deal with life one step at a time, to see the big picture, but never fixate on it. I really can’t imagine a life in the states so it doesn’t feel like it’s coming at all.
  1. Never wanting to leave: I have bad days and then I go walk in the hills and think to myself, “I’m going to miss this.” I have never once regretted going out of my house in my time at PC. I have been in two somewhat remote sites where untouched and unfamiliar nature exist right outside my door. I’m a small town girl—I have more in common with rural Jamaica and Hinterland Guyana than I do with big cities in the states and so these little corners of the world feel very much like home.
  1. Ready for it to be over: Sometimes I am ready to go back to the states where I know how things work. I am ready to not always have eyes on me. I am ready to go through the streets relatively unnoticed. I am ready to build more of a foundation for my future. I have Peace Corps and about a year at a resettlement agency as well as my undergrad. I have a clearer sense of what I want to do (get a Masters in Social Work and possibly Immigration Law after that—one step at a time). It will be nice to have some of my most important relationships be near me instead of a million miles away.
  1. Confusion: I made a 47 item to do list before Close of Service because there’s so much to do. I think every volunteer wonders if they should have extended. You feel happy and sad at the same time. You don’t want big parties, but you have them anyways. You feel torn between 2 worlds. And it’s confusing as to what comes next and what to do with yourself. You’re half checked out and half desperately clinging to what you have. It’s just confounding
  1. Stress: The closing of service is stressful. You have to figure out your post peace corps plans even though they feel like a lifetime away. There’s the packing and the medical screenings complete with blood, urine and feces tests. There’s making preparations to get pets home, and to travel. There’s the stress of finding a job and getting health insurance. There’s the added stress of not knowing where you’ll live or even having an address. It’s just a lot of checking off boxes and paperwork. There’s the close of service documents and interviews. It gets overwhelming.
  1. Fear: There are so many things I’m afraid of now. I am afraid that all future jobs are ruined for me… I have 2 communities I love and have lived in some really great places. I’m afraid that I won’t fit back into America. Re-integration is a real thing. There are stories of Peace Corps crying in grocery stores, or when I went home for my sister’s wedding wandering around REI for hours touching everything. You can’t make jokes about having parasites and no one really understands someone else’s volunteer experience. We often talk about integrating into a new culture in our host countries, but, to be honest, reintegrating into America sounds a little scarier. Small communities in XYZ country asked for you to be there. They had parties for your arrival and told you who in the community you could ask your questions—Americans rarely do that. I mean seriously do you know your neighbors, and if you do would they go out of their way to help you understand seemingly obvious things? I’m afraid of never getting to live abroad again. I’m afraid of not getting a job and running out of money. There are so many things that carry anxiety and fear in these last months that it’s a lot to carry.
  1. Love: There’s an outpouring of love at the end of service. Your family and friends are so ready to see you and it seems everyone offers up couches and guest rooms. You get welcome home parties and hugs from people you haven’t seen in years—it’s amazing! You also get big love from your community… I left last minute from Guyana and the school put together time for me to say goodbye to every single student and I had tear-filled hugs from so many neighbors and friends. People made me handmade gifts to take home and even now it makes me tear up thinking about it. I will forever be grateful for my time in Santa and the words we don’t say most days all came out and meant the world to me. I know I will have a few tear-filled goodbyes pon di rock too. When someone opens up their home and allows you to stay with them. When someone volunteers to show you around and teach you about a new culture it’s an incredible gift and I have that here. I also have a few new PCVs to say goodbye to.

Travel Writing Troubles

I’ve been reading a book my mom sent me (who knows which discount bin she dug it out of, but I love it) called The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2008: True Stories from Around the World. I think my mom got it for me because it combines 2 aspects of my core feminism and travel, and in reality I’d love to see something I write appear in one such anthology.

The book is great for 3 primary reasons. 1. Women need more voices and platforms. In America we don’t value female voices as we do male voices—that’s why we get paid 77 cents on the dollar. 2. I love to hear about women living life all over the world. Often times when women want to travel we get questions like: “Is it safe to travel as a single female?” “What does your family think about your traveling?” “Wouldn’t you like to settle down?” and other questions that imply that we need protection and permission. So any voices that decry that line of thinking I’m all for. And 3. The book isn’t all about resort traveling or backpacking or international travel or romance. There are stories about people returning home to their hometowns after being away, stories about missing home (one particularly moving piece about Pakistan), stories about women newly on their own, or women searching out something missing in their lives. There are women presumably of all ethnicities. There are women all along the Sexual Orientation spectrum. There mother and daughter stories as well as stories about boyfriend’s mothers and families and dating and so on. It’s nice to see all kinds of stories, and really combats many of the flaws of travel writing.

Travel writing is tricky. For so many reasons travel writing is incomplete and walks a fine line. On one side you have people with real life changing trips and legitimate voices on legitimate topics who have witness something that moved them or have gone on a personally transformative trip, and on the other you have the people named in the travel writing who are being written about without consent usually, or you have people primarily from Europe, America or Australia (primarily wealthy and white)  going into other countries seeking to explore and discover which can be very Colonial Columbus for my liking.

Travel writing is about place, which is far more complicated than it sounds. Places hold meaning and memory. You can objectively describe a place and eliminate the human elements of it, which will probably lead to boring stories or fails to really and truly describe a place. Or you can attempt to include the human elements, which can lead to much misinformation. We rely on assumptions and shallow observations and often indulge in stereotyping or other harmful devices. Assuming you’ve been in a place long enough and have talked to enough locals to form an informed opinion or you are revisiting where you or your ancestors came from you might have something important and thoughtful to say. You may be able to avoid saying things like the “exotic lost world”(Here’s the fucked up ABC’s of Travel Writing to get you thinking)  which is really a way of saying something that’s different from your Western Suburbs, and other pitfalls of the genre, but you can’t really be too much of an expert on a place you’ve only visited. That said, I’m a total hypocrite because I’ve written over 300 spages in over 150 posts about my time abroad.

And if  you can avoid the things harming and further marginalizing  groups,   All the words in the world can’t accurately portray what it’s like to stand in the water at the top of Kaieteur Falls. It’s impossible. Those truly awe-inspiring moments of travel and experience are immoveable. They only exist in the time and place when your feet are planted on the rock, the sun clouded by the mist and the ancient river capturing you for seconds or minutes or hours. Time passes as it only passes in truly awesome places. We assign meaning and pieces of our own culture onto the water and rock and air and fire that really do exist. There’s just no way to package that experience in a way that is meaningful to someone else.

Travel writing largely relies on relating our assumptions and first impressions. Nothing in this world is stagnant. A country at war and embarked in genocide might one day be a world leader accepting fleeing migrants in the span of one lifetime—case and point Germany (pending your definition of accepting). A country at rest might erupt into terrible violence like the case of Afghanistan. That is places change—sometimes rapidly. Picture pre 9/11 and post 9/11 America or even December 6th, 1941 America versus December 8th, 1941 America. So while what you might have seen or experienced is absolutely true in those moments, chances are the things will become less true as time moves on. You have your individualized truths and experiences, but to speak on a place with clarity and give your account may be too simple to stand.

Places are infinitely complex. Spending time with refugees and former refugees I’ve come to one conclusion—a place can simultaneously be the place of your greatest joys and comforts and also be the site of your ultimate fears realized and a place that causes devastating grief. Or to put in my life, I loved growing up bare-foot running around the neighborhood in small town Indiana, and I also hate many of the closed-minded, sexist, racist paradigms I grew up with. I love my roots, and I also understand the damage and difficulties they cause me today. It’s something I have a hard time putting into words. In any case I’ve had 25 years of reckoning and I still struggle so what can an outsider say about my place that in any way does it justice? Of course we need to hear from people with alternative perspectives to really understand… For example I understand more about America from being abroad than I ever could within the states.

There is great value in sharing experiences. The experience is valuable even if it is little more than a series of wonderments and snapshots. I love photo series like flip books that start with a stone-serious face and slowly smiles or starts to laugh. I love comparing the first and last moment—just that quickly. It is the same person in the same place only moments different. And while the smile and the frown exist in the same face—how is a person so temporarily involved to know the smile will come or what will come after the smile? A picture is a powerful thing. A picture moves people and so many elements and choices go into each frame. The same is true of travel writing. You’re giving moments and glimpses into a far greater story.

Even more there’s something voyeuristic about traveling in and of it’s self. I know that there’s tremendous value in getting out of your comfort zone. There’s value in being a minority, of learning a new language, of immersing yourself in different cultures (and I mean cultures from German to Thai to U.S. city culture to the country life). You get to take the best parts and skills, and learn incredible lessons. There’s value in attempting to understand what you do not understand. There’s value in talking to people. There is value in finding your commonality–for example the new volunteer in Cedar Valley and I (we’re both from rural Indiana) agree that Cedar Valley and Bethel remind of us of our small farming towns. There’s value in learning from your differences with others. You are there and see and feel all kinds of life and that’s really important. You learn lessons about things you can’t if you never leave your bubble, but in the end when does travel become invasion? If you go to the unknown corners of the world and make them known you’re more or less following Christopher Columbus. If you go and spend your dollars at the Sandals of the world you’re not exactly supporting local economy and in many ways you might be stunting the local economy, and you might not even be interested in learning about the culture.

To get back to the top, travel writing is complicated as is any writing about people. In the world of blogging where everyone with a computer and wifi can say whatever they want with or without permission of their subjects. We have a new world that requires quite a bit of thought before posting–thought that is not always given to very important topics. So enjoy the trip and travel but take time to understand the implications of what you post.

Don’t Wish it Away

My mom told me when she found out she was pregnant with my sister she vowed she would never wish away a second of having kids—even the terrible and uncomfortable parts to which I responded “Eww, vom Mom!” because it sounded cheesy and lovey dovey. But, you know, I kind of get what she was saying. She valued having us so much that even when we were mean, spiteful and ridiculous and she was sleep deprived, baffled by our behavior and frustrated she would never wish for the moments to pass. She would never say I can’t wait til they grow out of… whatever we were doing… because she knew that at some point we would leave the house and she would wish for those moments back. And let me tell you we tested her resolve from time to time, but she never gave in and always found some facet of our stage to celebrate. Even if it was a bit of a stretch that only a mother could see. For example at one point she said I was going through my “fierce” stage. She saw conviction, confidence and expression when most people probably saw horrible ungrateful bitch. But hey! That’s my mom, and it was awesome to have her on my side.

Now going through Peace Corps. I’ve made the same resolve to be present in every second of my service and never to wish it over. WAY easier said than done, but I know that one day I’ll sit at my desk in whatever office I work and think, “damn I’d do anything to be in Jamaica or Guyana again.” Peace Corps is hard and while I never wished away my service in Guyana. There have been times here when I’ve tried to put my head down, tune and out and just exist through the hard parts until they pass. As I near the end of my time in Jamaica, I have a constant struggle not to wish the time away.

Coming here was really bloody difficult. I had options when I got transferred: I could have demanded a placement in Guyana which would have likely never been approved or approved with serious stipulations and been sent home for reasons outside of my control, I could have opted for Interrupted Service which is an umbrella term that means you go home after serving at least 12 months with full PC benefits for circumstances outside your control like finding out your daughter has MS or your mother has cancer, or your wife is pregnant or you no longer feel safe in country or you get an opportunity too good to pass up, or I could have gone home on medical leave and possibly come back or been denied reinstatement or I could have taken the transfer to Jamaica.

I chose Jamaica because I wanted to get back to good. I wanted to feel like I made my whole 2 years. I wanted to go out feeling accomplished not broken. Let me tell you, leaving Guyana broke my heart, it still breaks my heart and I think it will forever break my heart. So coming to Jamaica was tough. But I needed to fix the hurt. I needed to prove to myself that I could get through even complete heartbreak. I needed to have the potential of something better than being 25 years old still living at my parents house without a job or plan. I needed to somehow improve to be tougher, stronger, better than the shitty situation. I needed to find something and be restored. And I had to do it on my own. I didn’t want to answer why I came home early 10 million times. I didn’t want to be bitter about how I came to be back home. I needed to find some system of understanding that would allow me peace and I knew it wasn’t going to happen back where I started at my parents’ house (as much as I love them).

It’s taken more of me than I’d like to admit to get through it. I don’t often complain on my blog because 1. negativity doesn’t really help anything and 2. no one wants to sit around and listen to me whine about stuff. And I say this not to indulge in self-pity, but to relay what it actually has been like. I don’t have many friends here. I have a few and they stay busy just like me. I know I could call any volunteer and they’d show up or even PC for that matter, that’s how it works, but I just don’t have that kind of relationship with anyone on the island. I live too far away from anyone to grab a friendly dinner or drink. I’m not someone who feels sorry for myself or often lets the bad stuff get to me. I don’t particularly enjoy talking about my personal feelings or burdening others with my problems. I don’t really think that I have all that many problems. It’s how I’m wired. It works for me, and I’m good. Pinky swear I’m doing well, but I’m just kind of here.

Nine months is just long enough to really want to invest without being able to invest in anything sustainable or enduring. Yes my students might learn something, but 2 half-hour lessons each week really doesn’t add up to much. I’ve been here long enough to let the shiny newness wear off, but not enough to start feeling the rewards of being completely integrated. So I struggle with being half invested here. I try to pick up little projects here and there that add to my overall sense of accomplishment. I enjoy talking to people and picking up little bits and pieces of their stories. I really am invested in my students. I love my host mom. The problem is I only really have about 16 hours of work each week tops. I can’t burry myself in meaningful work. I don’t have enough months to get a secondary project up and running. I’ve been here just long enough to see potential projects and investments, but not long enough to get them going. I’ve tried to help build the capacity of both my community and PCJ as a post (networking and getting an environmental volunteer here). I can’t run here because the elevation is killing my knees (the downhill is brutal). And more than anything my time is spent willing myself to be present. I don’t let myself dwell on Guyana or how I left. I don’t let myself think about the things I’ve missed in exchange for this opportunity. I just keep going.

And it works. When we feel down we tend to want to curl up in a ball, turn off the lights and binge movies and TV shows while drinking—believe me, I’ve done that. But all my effort has been in fighting this instinct. I am constantly forcing myself out the door to walk in the hills or walk in the town square or even just go buy a pepsi cola or some ice cream. It’s a really hard choice sometimes if I’m being honest. But I have never regretted getting out and finding something to embrace. I spent a whole week waking up, going to school, coming home, cooking and sleeping, and I just couldn’t do that. I need more. And I have found that every time I force myself out into the sunshine I come home thinking well at least it’s gorgeous. Or miss Blossom gives me hugs. Or Murleen gives me tomatoes. Or the shop keeper laughed at my joke. Or the neighbor dogs run up all waggly and adorable. Or I find little tiny kittens. I never regret getting out. I find that the restoration I’ve been fighting for is not in any major success, but in simply being present. And for all the hardships of mentally engaging when I all I wanted was to be in my home in the jungle with Monster and Prudy and Blakey Boy watching Friday Night Lights and eating cookies, or running in the jungle, or swimming in the creek, or chatting with the other teachers or playing football or volleyball with Santa people or looking through Sir Jeffrey’s avon products and drinking pywari or spending a weekend doing nothing with Jeremy or adventuring with Lauren, I’ve found that it is a tremendous gift to have that life as well as this one in Jamaica. Digging in and choosing to put on a bra each day is a success. Small talk, smiles and waves are meaningful. Being out in the world is worth the effort. Celebrating the moment is the only redemption there is. And it would be a great offence to let yesterday’s happiness stifle today’s.