My time in the Peace Corps (Haiti; 2001-2003) was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Maybe the best part of all is that I get to tell people “I was in the Peace Corps.” Those six words evoke all types of romantic fantasies in the other 99.5% of folks who never had the opportunity. All of a sudden, my life is that much more fascinating. Fascinating is good during job interviews, at birthday parties, at speaking engagements, while blogging, and in just about every other social interaction imaginable.
Robert L. Strauss recently wrote an op-ed in the NY Times that takes some of the shine off of Peace Corps’ brand. Here’s the link to that article for as long as it’s available… http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/09/opinion/09strauss.html?_r=2&ref=opinion&oref=slogin&oref=slogin
The piece highlighted something that I came to realize about halfway through my 27 months of international citizen service: the vast majority of Peace Corps Volunteers don’t do a whole heck of a lot.
To stay in business, companies satisfy the needs of their customers. Volunteers do this, but no one knows how effectively. They come in, usually do a little harm and a little more good, and leave. I can only speak for my own experience, but I know there are thousands of returned and current Peace Corps folks who agree with me.
When people ask me what I did for 2 years in Haiti, I give them a standard answer, which is completely true. I tell them my main assignment was working with groups of artisans. I found people in Haiti and other countries to buy the crafts they made. I also raised several thousand dollars to build some latrines in an especially poor community that really needed them. I also taught English to a youth group.
But all that do-gooding was a tiny fraction of the way I spent my waking hours. Frankly, Peace Corps was more about the development work I did on myself than what I did to make the island of Hispaniola better.
There was a lot of time to read a lot of books. I easily read 5x more books in those 2 years than I did in 4 years of college.
Living without electricity and hot/running water took a little getting used to, but after a couple of days it didn’t matter. The most refreshing bathing experiences of my life were with a single gallon of cool water standing under an almond tree. See the type of romantic imagery I’m talking about?
Speaking of romantic, the median age for volunteers is 24 or 25. In Haiti, the beaches are breathtaking, the rain is intense, the nights are starry, the rum is smooth, and everyone has time to waste…..
It’s so hot in Haiti that everyone loses weight and gets tanned. Sure, you lose weight because of the diarrhea and intestinal worms that we all suffered through, but you do lose weight.
Since Haiti is pretty close to the U.S., I went home to visit twice in 2 years. My parents came to Haiti to visit twice, my brother and his wife came once, and two other friends came to see me, so I spent all of that time and more on vacation….
I applied to grad school while I was there. Writing all those essays can be tough when you have a full time job or school schedule, but as a volunteer, I had plenty of time to reflect. When I think about it, I did an incredible amount of journal writing back then. In one particularly memorable intersection of inspiration and free time, I wrote a 3000 word poem in couplet form about a 21st-century Job character….and I got accepted into one of the best seminaries in the world hands down.
Maybe it was just in Haiti, but Peace Corps volunteers developed a reputation for being free and easy. I knew some young people from France who were in Haiti on a Peace Corps-like mission and they used to joke about how they worked and we didn’t. It’s not that I never worked (remember the resume points: artisans, latrines, English instruction). I only worked when we really felt like it.
But don’t think it was all sweet. We started off with a group of 25; 13 of those people left before the two years was up. 3 of them left before 2 weeks had passed. It’s not for everyone. I communicated like a toddler for months until I began to really learn the language. I only got malaria once, which is a miracle considering the amount of mosquito bites I suffered. Tarantulas, lizards, and roaches crawled in to the cracks in my house whenever they got ready. I stuck out in society, making me a target for beggars (white people had it much worse in that department, I must admit). 3 hour walks and 12 hour bus rides were common just to get regular business done. At my going away party, I ate the eyes and head of a goat to be polite. The only thing to wash it down with was warm Pepsi, which does not go well with cake on a 100 degree day, for the record.
So I did the development work, and I shared a bit of the U.S.A. with some people in a small town in Haiti. More importantly, I learned about another way of life. I don’t complain, worry, or rush as much as I did before. Like Paul in Philippians chapter 4, I learned the secret of being content in all situations. I didn’t have to slave 60 hours a week in a factory or behind a desk, but it is still no small feat.