But I was otherwise engaged, and besides, I didn’t know how to answer. And they were right; people do ask.
“So, what was Peace Corps like?”
Some expect a two-line answer. Others want to really get into it, to imagine it vicariously through you, sometimes to think on doing it themselves.
Peace Corps… I loved it; even the worst of times was worth it. The insight gained from those times lingers with me still, a million miles away from those moments.
They say Peace Corps is the toughest job you’ll ever love.
They say Peace Corps is different for everyone.
They’re right; which of course means they’re wrong. 🙂 If it’s different for everyone, it stands to reason that for some it’s not the toughest job they’ll ever love.
I never regretted joining Peace Corps. Not for an instant. And it was true for me: it was the toughest job I’ve ever loved, and I credit it with so much, personally.
There were times I wept with frustration. There was even one time when I locked myself into an outhouse to cry, so you can imagine… (!!!) But there were also times I cried with happiness.
Are my tear ducts too willing to gush, you wonder?
Nay, I say. They’re about average.
I remember the winter when I cried in the outhouse. (How could I forget?) I texted my site-mate to ask if it was safe out; if I could escape unseen. (A site-mate is a fellow volunteer placed in the same village/town/city.)
“Yes,” he texted back.
Together we ran from the building down the only main street in town. Well, I exaggerate. We walked. But swiftly. Stumbling, for the ground was cracked and slippery with ice.
My bedroom also, by the way, had ice in it. I look back now and realize that for the first time I was experiencing seasonal stress, which only seemed to be eclipsed by the frustrations of culture shock.
“I’ve had it,” I said.
“With Peace Corps?” Sig asked.
I laughed. “No, I love Peace Corps,” I said, and then a few more frozen tears eked out.
Again he probably wondered why he’d been paired with me. With nowhere to go, we followed our feet down the road, eventually reaching my other workplace there. I was working directly with four NGOs (non-governmental organizations) at the time. With a sigh, I stumbled into the building. He followed me. This place was the only one which had heat… And in that cold, brutal winter, heat was something precious and not to be turned down when available. (Have I mentioned the ice in my bedroom?)
We walked into my large shared office.
There was a spread laid out on the table. Delicious Georgian foods and wine. I looked at my colleague sitting there.
“It’s been forty days since my relative died,” she explained in Russian.
Ah. My face grew hot. That meant it had been 39 days since I’d misunderstood the word “passed away” in Georgian and had told her that her relative would be fine the next day. This is why she was now reminding me in Russian, my stronger language.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She sighed deeply and nodded at the chairs next to her. “Sit down. We must toast her and commemorate her with this meal.”
I wasn’t supposed to drink at work, you know. Peace Corps rules. But I felt this superseded the rules. I opened a spot at the table with a shift of a chair, and sat down heavily.
I think I needed to commemorate life and death that day. And I think I needed a drink.
I toasted loquaciously and many, many times. In the Republic of Georgia, that’s the only way to drink. Actually, that’s literally the case. Whereas in the US you sip your wine throughout your meal, in Georgia that is VERY bad form, and no-one would lift a glass without toasting first. A long toast. Fortunately, I happen to love toasting, and my Georgian friends loved that about me. I knew how to honor a glass of wine and the people around the table (and away from it, and passed on, and future generations,–and everyone that one tends to toast at Georgian parties).
So I toasted and toasted and toasted, and soon we were all toasted.
Which was precisely when Sig’s cell rang. He looked up suddenly.
“Peace Corps is here,” he said.
I lowered my glass. “Huh?” (See what I mean by eloquence?)
“Right outside the building. They’re here to inspect my new place before letting me move.”
I sat up. “Sig, they can’t come in! I’m wearing jeans!”
He looked me flat in the eyes then let his glance travel to my glass. I lowered it slightly.
“Go on, meet them outside, come on!” I pleaded.
“It’s cold outside,” he grumbled, but he dashed out.
And I toasted him next. 🙂
Yeah. Peace Corps isn’t what you expect. Good times, bad times, hard times… Okay, no easy times. But my God, if you put your all into it, and if you’re lucky and get great colleagues… It’s all worth it. One hundred times over. More.
You know the US Army slogan– “Be All You Can Be”?
That’s EXACTLY what Peace Corps is to me. A two year increment of your life where you put yourself to the test and you make sure you pass. Sure, you can do it at home. But many of us don’t. We forget to live life to the full, back home. But make it the whole point of a period of your life, and you can achieve so much. You can begin to achieve being yourself, the way you want to be.
Just not a particularly well-scrubbed self. 🙂