I feel as though I’ve done somewhat of a disservice throughout this blog. I’ve painted a picture of my time here that isn’t precisely accurate. I’m an emotional person, romantic, optimistic to a fault. I like extremes and superlatives. I exaggerate in an attempt to draw the reader in, and to make sense of things I can’t make sense of.
I romanticize this experience as a function of my personality but also as a coping mechanism. Peace Corps is really hard.
So I want to write about the real Ethiopia. And the real Peace Corps experience. That way, if a future volunteer reads this, they understand what to expect, and won’t hate me for only showing sunset pictures and kids holding hands.
So what should you expect?
Nothing is the best answer. Expect nothing and you will be pleasantly surprised. Every experience is different. My friend Jon lives 80 miles away. Our lives could not be more different. His house has no floor save for the mud it was built on. He is lucky to have power one day out of the week. My sitemate Dave lives 200 meters from my house and our experiences are entirely different.
So here are some observations, a look into what I do, and an idea of what your potential service will look like.
Peace Corps is defined by a strange dichotomy. Freedom and containment. I wake up every day with a blank slate. I can do anything. I can do nothing. And while the possibilities are only limited by my own imagination, the ability to do as I please is corrupted by a number of social, political, and cultural practices.
Case in point: Most volunteers assume they will run to let off steam in their new country. However, running here is a cause of stress more so than a release. You get stared at as a foreigner here. These are stares that know no shame. Stares that you can feel without seeing. They are honest and curious stares, but can crack even the kindest of spirits. But a foreigner in shorts? Running? That is unheard of. Running here means being followed by hordes of children, the last thing you need when trying to let off steam.
I want to export coffee to benefit local farmers and provide an organic alternative to the Starbucks mess we have back home. The bureaucratic structure here has destroyed those dreams. Disappointment is part of the PC experience.
Doing something like the Peace Corps will be your lowest of lows and your highest of highs. Highs that shatter your previous world views. You will feel refreshed, walk in a forest and quote Thoreau. The lows can last so long that you need a fleeting moment of existentialism just to make it through the rainy season. Well, that, and a ton of movies. You will consider going home. You will count down the days until you leave. You will count up from the day you arrived.
“I can’t believe we’ve been here for a year.”
“I can’t believe we’ll be here another year!”
You will understand yourself, question yourself. Compare where you came from to where you are. I have days when I miss America. I have days when I loathe it. Why do people care about Charlie Sheen and Amy Winehouse? How many marines died last week? How many kids in the horn of Africa died of hunger? I can’t even imagine dying of hunger. When I’m hungry, I eat.
But I eat strange food. Ethiopian food is unlike anything else in the world. Sometimes it is delicious, but most times it is very mediocre. Other times, it is so incredibly bad that I consider burning down every plant that grows whatever the hell is in ‘gunfo’
Don’t try gunfo.
Universally, Peace Corps volunteers crave food. I have dreams about it. Vivid dreams where I belly flop into a bowl of ice cream off of a hot fudge brownie diving board. Sushi. I have a long distance relationship with Sushi and we are not communicating well.
As volunteers, we love to complain. We joke about our poop and our pooping locations. We laugh about smelling bad.
We smell bad.
We yearn for hot showers. But I think it’s just for show. Any volunteer, more so than food or showers, miss people and places. You will miss friends and seasons. During your service, you will be alone on the Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving. You will miss your family, your really hot girlfriend, and the contextual clues you associate with fond memories. I know what the Chesapeake bay feels like on thanksgiving. I can feel the football, and taste the sweet potato pie. I know what Glebe Park looks like, the green asphalt and the smell of cut grass.
You will be stared at 24/7 365. I understand what it’s like to be a good-looking girl at a frat party. Stay strong ladies.
You will develop an eerie sense of calm. I’ve spent 75 hours in the last two weeks on a bus. The DMV will be a breeze now. I’ve found new and embarrassing ways to entertain myself. I could watch paint dry and be perfectly happy.
One of the great things about Peace Corps is you have a massive amount of time to become a better person. The best advice I can give is to try and do something everyday to improve upon yourself. For some people this is writing or reading. For others it is teaching English or working out. Learn an instrument or paint. Do whatever works for you, but know this: You will stare at the wall. I stare at the wall a lot. I’ve had every thought someone can have. Probably twice.
Transportation completely sucks.
I just got out of a bus with 12 seats on it. There were 25 people on it. There were two chickens and probably 20 kilo’s of rancid butter. Here’s a quck letter:
It’s ok to open the windows on the bus. I promise you won’t die from the wind. I promise it’s not that cold. Currently, sweat is running down my lower back and into the danger zone. My sweat is sweating. Fresh air is nothing to be scared of. Tuberculosis is. As much as I like saunas and the smell of chicken feces, can we please crack the window’s for 2 minutes? I will love you forever.
There is no average day.
Last week, my Tuesday was crazy. I had a meeting with the tourism office about making them a website. I taught a man how to make guacemole and tortillas which he will sell in his store. I played basketball, added a layer to a clay oven and worked on the newsletter I am writing for Peace Corps.
The next day? I slept in, watched a silly amount of the show ‘Dexter’ and checked my fantasy baseball team while the internet was up. Yeah, I’m cool.
There will be times when, despite your pictures of you hugging little kids, you just want to tackle one of them and scream, my name is NOT,
“you you you!!!!!, give me money!!!!!!”
In America we ask for the time. Here, we ask for the month. It’s the most obvious difference. The pace of life here is slow, methodical, cyclical. Everything takes a long time. If you aren’t a patient person you will become one.
Life here is completely different. It is another world, lost in space and time. It is hard, and the little annoyances can manifest themselves into a black cloud. They certainly will, but it is important to make note of the small victories and the little moments. When I open my eyes I am reminded of why I am here. Just when I think a kid is running up to me to ask me for money, she tells me that she loves me and blows a kiss. But then I get on a bus and start crying. I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere with a busted engine. It’s getting dark, I have a chicken in my lap and personal space at this point is a distant memory. People are yelling into their cell phones, begging me to speak to them and take them to America. Oh and the only food in the town by the road is Gunfo.
Remember in times like this to take a deep breath. Peace Corps really is a roller coaster. An exhilarating and scary ride that completely sucks and totally kicks ass.
And when you are feeling down, just remember to go outside and let Africa save you.