Thursday, March 15, 2012

9 Months In and Focusing on the "Other 2/3"


 
Steve and Stacy rocking out to some Kaskade in the front seat :-)

It’s hard to believe that it has been a whole year since Steve and I set out at 11 PM for North Carolina to meet up with Stacy. Of course I got pulled over about 5 minutes into the trip, and about 5 hours in we were trying to be upbeat, listening to Glee, while GPS led us basically into a horror film not dissimilar from “Wrong Turn”. Good Times. That weekend I got a call from home that my blue envelope arrived containing the word “Swaziland”. Back then, I spent all of my free time Googling volunteer blogs and comparing backpacks on REI. It was an exciting time, albeit very uncertain, and very stressful.
Originally, I was going to do a blog on the best things I brought to Swaziland for any Group 10’s who are stressing over the packing list, but I decided to do something different. In the official “adjustment cycle”, 8-9 months is the bottom of the barrel. This low point has led me to do a lot of thinking in the darkness of my hut about my reasons for being here. It seems like everything is more annoying than usual ("You must marry me”… F&*^ OFF) and I require many more venting sessions (i.e Pearl Jam sessions) than before. Why is that? If I love it here, why am I being a little bitch about it?
I recently came across a blog from a volunteer in a different region titled “The Real Peace Corps”. More eloquent and concise than I could ever be, it sums up neatly the various internal dilemmas volunteers face. I started a blog so people could see what I was doing, but how to provide an accurate account of that has been nearly impossible. Too optimistic and it becomes all rainbows, sepia photographs of children and me Bono-ing around, handing out condoms, whilst riding an elephant into an African sunset. Too pessimistic and I risk depicting myself as fighting off Black Mambas and Scar amidst stifling heat and corporal punishment. It’s very hard to find a balance, and only about 5% of your experience ends up on your blog in a family-friendly, non-controversial format. 95% ends up in your personal journal, which ends up being a roller coaster ride of emotions, highs and lows depicted in stunning detail.
The oscillation between high and low is disturbingly fast. It is remarkable how fast the swarm of children following you on your run go from being a maddening shadow you cannot escape to giving you high fives and smiles as you complete your workout. As my friend Busi told me, “We see things not as they are, but as we are”. Having control over your circumstances is freeing but its not always easy to hold yourself responsible.
The best advice I can give applicants, invitees and people waiting for phone calls from Headquarters that never seem to come, keep your expectations low. They tell you during your interview how important it is to be “flexible and patient”, but they don’t tell you that you will have no choice to adopt those qualities or frustration will consume you. Don’t expect electricity, even if almost everyone at your post has electricity. Don’t expect to have a community that is brimming with motivation to work with you on a sustainable development project. Everyone has reasons for why they apply, lots of them. As a student of public health and someone who wants a future in the field, yes, I strive to complete culturally appropriate, sustainable projects (the first 1/3 of PC's mission). But I don’t expect it. It will come in time, with patience, and after a lot of groundwork has been laid. My main reason for doing this is to learn: to be a humble observer of life in a different culture I was graciously welcomed into: drinking tea with people, attending traditional events, having conversations on the bus (“I don’t think Rihanna and Lil Wayne are in the Illuminati…”), at the sitolo, on many walks.
When I was struggling during integration (the first 3 months at site) to get my community assessment done and to get people to care that I arrived and want to work with me, my [300 pound Samoan attorney] friend gave me some good advice: “remember why you chose to do this, if you can remember that all the time, you will never feel lost”. That has helped me immensely, and helps when I begin talking to other volunteers who seem to have everything figured out and 100 projects going and a sound bill of health. How do they do it? I have resolved that it’s not my concern. I listen to people talk and learn things from them and when people in my community ask me “why are you here?” I simply tell them, as I heard from a Group 8 volunteer, “to learn”.
Last week, I encountered a drunken European man who went on a tirade about how “us Americans are just here to impose our beliefs on others and think we are saving the world”. This couldn’t be further from the truth. “Our beliefs”? America is big. And diverse. Yes, insider-trading, Toddlers in Tiaras, an archaic self-image of exceptionalism hidden within a country song or a U.S History book, these things define some people, but not most of us. Plus, I have learned more than I could ever hope to teach, let alone, "impose”. For me, at this point, the “cultural exchange” aspect of Peace Corps has taken center stage. After all, according to the “core goals”, 2/3 is cultural exchange, only the first goal deals with training men and women of interested countries.
Just as we come here to be non-judgmental of different cultures, we also must learn to not be judgmental of ourselves. One of the best pieces of advice from the Ethiopian volunteer’s blog is that you will have all the time in the world, spend part of that time improving yourself. 
This explains why my U2 obsession is resurfacing from 7th grade
Random Swazi Thing: I charged up my laptop and played The Lion King for my host family. It was cool because we watched it outside on a cool night with a full moon. Only one of the kids understands English so he understood the movie, but the rest enjoyed the cartoon talking animals just the same. It was strangely relevant and I enjoyed spreading Disney. Next up is probably Pocahontas :)

1 comment:

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    Greetings from Santa Marta, Colombia

    ReplyDelete