When you’re in the Peace Corps, you’re always two years late to the popular internet meme du jour. But better late than never, right?
My friend and fellow Zambia PCV Hannah Harrison is doing an awesome blog series interviewing volunteers in Peace Corps posts around the globe. I thought I’d try to
impress her help her out by sharing a link to her blog and seeing if any of my PCV readers from other countries would be interested in being interviewed.
As my service is winding down I know you’ll want to get your Zambia fix somewhere, and Hannah is a great writer and volunteer. Check out her blog at the link below, and if you’re a currently serving PCV or recent RPCV in a different post, Hannah would love to hear from you!
It’s 4am, and you’re laying awake in your old bed in Mom and Dad’s house, too wired to continue sleeping. In just a few hours you will hop on a morning flight out of Fresno-Yosemite International to begin the first leg of your journey to Zambia to start your Peace Corps service; your mind is racing with a thousand different thoughts and feelings as you try to make sense of it all, to know what will happen. For a guy who doesn’t often experience emotional turbulence, it’s a strange sensation.
I know we’re not the biggest fans of unsolicited advice, but since your insomniac ass is trapped in bed for two more hours while my long-winded rambling ass is sitting in my hut with rainclouds looming and a full charge on my solar battery, this is just how it’s going to go. Relax. Don’t worry about it. I’ve seen how it all plays out, and everything is going to be more than fine.
You tear up for the first time since receiving your invitation to Peace Corps as the uptempo bass of Shakira’s Waka Waka pulses through your headphones. You feel ridiculous, a grown man of 24-nearly-25 experiencing a distinctly and embarrassingly emotional reaction to an overplayed commercial pop song. And yet you can’t stop picturing parting ways with Mom and Dad just an hour ago at the security checkpoint, catching your last glimpse of them waving through a glass door as you trudged off toward the boarding gate. It could be the last time you see them for two years. You don’t know then that you aren’t just saying goodbye to your parents, you’re saying goodbye to an entire way of life. With the only way of life you have known up until now. You don’t know then that this will be the last time you will cry for the next two years.
You meet a tiny, vivacious girl from Texas at baggage claim at Philadelphia International who is barely taller than the giant backpack she has somehow managed to wrestle off the revolving carousel. You get to chatting and find that you are instantly bonded by your excitement and anticipation of joining the Peace Corps. You contemplate telling her about the Waka Waka episode. You decide not to, figuring that this is the type of oversharing that is Too Much, Too Soon. You don’t know then that she will eventually become one of your good friends, that you will travel on an international vacation and help produce a volunteer-run newsletter together. You don’t know then that she and several others in your friend circle will eventually come to hear the Waka Waka story anyway, and that although they will find it hilarious and tease you uproariously, they will understand perfectly how you had felt because they had all felt the exact same way.
You bound down the stairs to the hotel lobby early the next morning with a folder under one arm, balancing a cup of coffee as you greet flustered-looking travelers burdened with mountains of luggage. You correctly deduce that they must be fellow Peace Corps invitees and you offer to help them carry their bags up to their rooms after they check in, chatting with them the entire time and trying to find out their entire life stories in five minutes. They are a bit taken aback by this level of energy at 7am, but not as much as you are. Even though you are extremely introverted by nature, your entire decision to join the Peace Corps was fueled by a desire to break out of the mold that you’ve been forming for yourself ever since you realized that getting good grades and keeping your head down were the key to a peaceful prepubescent existence. So with this in mind, you have resolved to channel the stores of projected extroversion you typically reserve for networking at work conferences and ingratiating yourself to a girlfriend’s mother. You don’t know then that this is going to end up being great practice for when you will greet men, women, children, and terrified little babies over and over again during the next two years. You don’t know then that your friends will later chuckle at the recollection, telling you that at first they assumed you were a Peace Corps staff member, and then later that they worried you were going to be one of those people, the ebulliently and annoyingly extroverted camp-counselor types that everyone else wants to bop over the head with a two-by-four.
You walk purposefully along the disheveled line of bleary-eyed fellow invitees sprawled across the floor of the International Departures ticketing plaza of JFK not quite 24 hours later, waving your camera up before you like a peace offering. You are recording video of everybody’s responses to your made-for-Peace-Corps-propaganda query, “What are you most excited for in the Peace Corps?” and you doggedly press forward despite knowing that more than a few of your fellow invitees wouldn’t be opposed to bopping you over the head with a two-by-four right about now. You coax and cajole and wheedle, assuring them that they all know they’ll want to see this video again two years later when they finish their services. Everybody gamely participates, and their answers run the gamut of responses from things like “helping people” to “playing with children” to “discovering more about myself.” You don’t know then that six of the people in this video will no longer be in Peace Corps when you all reconvene for your Close of Service conference two years later. You don’t know then just how much these answers will change over the course of those two years.
You touch down in Lusaka the next day, stiff and jetlagged from 17 hours of flying and a few more hours of waiting in airports. This is the farthest you’ve ever traveled in your life. It’s hot and muggy, but the sky is blue and past the runway everything is verdant and green. As your shuttle leaves the airport, you pass people walking along the side of the road balancing baskets and buckets and branches on their heads and you make a mental note to yourself that you’re not in Kansas anymore. You don’t know then that you’ll spend so much time over the next two years sitting and waiting and sweating and holding in bowel movements in cramped and muggy and noisy buses that you will be immensely looking forward to a nice, air-conditioned, personal-entertainment-system-right-in-front-of-your-face 17-hour flight. (With a bathroom!) You don’t know then that two years later you’ll still look around and marvel at the sky and the trees and the people and the fact that this has been your life.
You lucky bastard, you’re about to embark on the greatest journey you’ve ever had. Yes, you’ll have more ups and downs than a newly hatched butterfly trying out its wings for the first time in the middle of a breezy summer afternoon. But, rather like that butterfly, you’ll also experience an ethereal sensation of a new world opening up before you, a world bright and colorful and intense and real. Being a Peace Corps volunteer truly is the hardest job you’ll ever love. And it starts: now.
Your older, slightly grungier, hopefully wiser, and definitely more charming and handsome self,
Our third (and my final) edition of Zambition, Peace Corps Zambia’s volunteer-run newsletter, is now published. Check it out!
(Gracing the cover is Lenge, the youngest son of my counterpart Sebastian. This kid is so darn photogenic that even when a picture shows only his hands they turn out to be the best looking little-kid hands you’ve ever seen. Some people get all the luck.)
Sometimes my blog posts aren’t entirely representative of the topic or theme I’m trying to write about, and at no time is this more apparent than when something contrives to keep me from properly documenting a vacation. In this case, it was rain, rain, more rain, and a faulty kayak. Jiminy Cricket, I didn’t know it was physically possible for it to rain that much. Me and water, we don’t get along so well. So this is my excuse for why I only have pictures from two separate hours of my 312-hour trip.
In lieu of copious notes and gigabytes of photos, none of which I now have because of inclement weather and technological difficulties, here, have a list instead:
23 – different buses and taxis that I squeezed my wet behind into
28 – times we started to try to speak to someone in Bemba, then got blank stares and asked if they spoke English instead
15 – times they did indeed speak English
16,000 – total elevation gained, lost, skidded, tripped, and fallen over the course of four days on Mt. Mulanje
4 – different distances we received when asking fellow busgoers how far away the next town was
0 – number of fellow busgoers who were right
5 – times that my buddy Sam and I accidentally flipped our kayak
1 – Sea to Summit dry bag that ended up being not quite as dry as advertised
3 – phones lost to water damage
1 – kilograms of rice bought in a futile attempt to remove water from said phones
37 – photos taken of spectacular sunsets at Cape Maclear
11 – samosas bought from street vendors
8 – times I asked street vendors selling memory cards, shoes, yogurt, sodas, and candy if they also sold meatballs
0 – actual meatballs bought from street vendors
113,000 – Malawian kwacha spent on what I can now only surmise must have been mostly street food
1 – place we had to wade through a river because the road that was supposed to be there…wasn’t
43 – people I now know it is possible to cram into the back of a small canter truck with the bedspace of a Toyota Tundra
9 – funny signs I saw and photographed intending to start a “funny signs in Africa” series
1 – picture I have remaining of funny signs
Sorry for the delay in blog updates! By a combination of unfortunate weather and blatant user error (read: I’m dumb), my phone died an ignominious, watery death during my recent clash with Malawi’s relentless rainy season. Since then I’ve had to run around town purchasing a new phone, attempt to recreate various blog post drafts from memory, and gnash my teeth over the unexpected additional expense and inconvenience. But not to worry, Fishing in Zambia is now back in (belated) action.
Random news from my twentieth month of Peace Corps service, in 140 characters or less.
December 15 – Helped dig terraces along pond walls today for planting rice. Promoting integrated aquaculture, or just trying to keep busy between rains?
December 18 – Hobbes’ latest kittens are driving me crazy. I’m badgering Sebastian to come get them before I bike out to the bush and leave them there.
December 23 – Just bought produce from a passing boy and discovered that my usual suppliers have been profiting off my ignorance of current market prices.
December 25 – Today I learned that Christmas in rural Zambia is exactly like every other day, except with more requests for me to give people things.
December 28 – In Mansa to work on my Volunteer Report Form. What does a PCV eat when he can buy whatever he wants? Mostly pineapple juice and sausage.
December 30 – You know it’s been a rough two days of travel when your bus gets stuck in mud for two hours and that’s still not the worst part of the trip.
January 1 – Ringing in the new year in beautiful Tolkienesque southern Malawi. Only took 31.5 hours on transport in nine different vehicles to get here.
January 3 – Mt. Mulanje soars to nearly 10,000 feet above verdant tea plantations. This out-of-shape hiker gained 7,500 feet over the past three days.
January 7 – Traveling from windswept, desolate Mulanje to sunny, placid Lake Malawi at Cape Maclear in one day is an exercise in extreme contrasts.
January 10 – I went to Malawi and all I brought back was three drowned smartphones and this impressively patterned sunburn.
At some point during their service, nearly every Peace Corps volunteer reflects back on the past month or year or two years and asks themselves the million-dollar question (er, well, in my case, the $280/month question):
Is it worth it?
Is the Peace Corps worth it for our host countries? Does the work we do really make a difference? Is bringing Americans to live in underdeveloped communities worth constantly provoking the jarring contrast between privilege and struggle? Is it worth the potential to incite jealousy and resentment, worth the possibility of engendering false hope and unfulfilled dreams?
And is it worth it for us volunteers? Is spending two years of our lives here worth the infinitesimal gains we may make, worth the three steps back for every one step forward? Is it worth the job opportunities passed by and the friends’ weddings and grandparents’ funerals and annual family Christmas feasts that we’re missing back home? Is it worth the loneliness and frustration and restlessness and discomfort and despair?
I pondered this question many times before joining the Peace Corps, because moving halfway across the world to live in a mud hut in sub-Saharan Africa for 27 months was not a decision I wanted to make lightly. Before starting off on the path less traveled, I came to the fork in the road, plopped myself down, and camped out there for a year. Serving as a Peace Corps volunteer meant giving up a good job with great benefits and fun coworkers. It meant bidding farewell to a Subaru-driving, organic-almond-milk-drinking, fixed-gear-bicycle-pedalling, sure-let’s-take-a-day-trip-to-Lake-Tahoe-and-then-come-back-in-time-to-watch-the-sun-set-over-the-Golden-Gate-Bridge-because-we-can yuppie’s wet dream. It meant leaving loyal and hilarious friends, weirdly and lovably simpatico brothers, unwaveringly supportive parents, and doting grandmothers. It meant walking with eyes wide open into a new world where I knew successes would be fleeting and failures would be constant.
But I decided to do it anyway.
And yes, sometimes my life here feels like one long and convoluted detour. I bounce over potholes and swerve around roadblocks on a daily basis. Meetings get postponed and postponed again, then canceled. Every great idea I have for a new project to start in my community is met with an equally great obstacle that is either cultural, social, or bureaucratic. Fish farming programs are delayed for weeks, and when they do finally come together the farmers focus on the most random things to spend two hours arguing about.
Life outside of work is often even more trying. Every time I step outside my hut I get leered at and verbally accosted like a lissome blonde trying to slip quietly past a construction site. The same little kids who act like I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread one day throw rocks through my doorway and demand money the next. My neighbor’s youngest daughter is ill with a disease that is easily curable in America and the clinic and the hospital have both told him that there’s nothing they can do. I spend a lot of time doing nothing. An embarrassingly large, shocking amount of time doing nothing.
When I’m working on projects, I question my motives and wonder if I’m just trying to appease my sense of guilt at not doing enough, at never doing enough. When I’m sitting in my hut reading, that guilt spreads over me like the sticky sheen of sweat that slathers my body each evening.
But evaluating the worth of a Peace Corps service isn’t as simple as jotting down attendance at meetings or counting new fish ponds. Development may be the easiest of our organizational duties to slap onto a job description, but it’s often the most difficult foundation upon which to build lasting results. Perhaps more solid are the lessons that we’re learning and teaching here in our host countries, as well as the insights that we’re bringing back to America. The effects of cultural exchange, though harder to quantify, may very well last longer than wells and libraries and fish ponds. Because thanks to sons and daughters and sisters and college roommates and nephews and ex-girlfriends who live in gray tenement buildings in Algeria and sticky flats in Thailand and parched mud huts in Zambia, there is a growing network of Americans back home who are learning a little bit more about the world around them. And our neighbors in our host countries are receiving similar lessons as they observe and interact with American women and men on a daily basis, many of them young, most of them serving alone, nearly all of them coming from a radically different cultural and ideological background. They study our differences and answer our questions and reflect on our commonalities, as we learn their language and eat their food and share in their lives.
And through it all we ourselves are constantly changing. I think of the transformations we’ve undergone and will undergo, the strengths we’re discovering, the self-esteem we’re building. I think about the friends we’ve made, the tears we’ve fought to hide, the laughter we’ve shared. I think about the certainties that I’m coming to realize aren’t quite as certain as I once thought they were. I think about the humility that I am slowly learning, the compassion and respect for my fellow human that is surging within me. And I ask myself again if it’s worth it.
The answer, at least for me, is a resounding yes. Every single step of this incredible journey is worth it: the triumphs, the setbacks, the elucidation, the confusion, the disillusionment, the clarity. There are so many reasons why joining the Peace Corps has been one of the best decisions of my life. And the number of fish ponds I’ve helped farmers dig is nowhere near the top of the list.