Today is my last day of Peace Corps. I can't believe it! Tomorrow I will go back to my site (but as a RETURNED Peace Corps Volunteer, not a CURRENT PCV) to collect my cat, close up my house and give away/sell all my belongings, and to say goodbyes. I have a final breakfast planned with my host family. I will be eating patacones (double-fried green bananas) and boiled yucca...2 of my favorite unhealthy foods that I mostly don't eat any more. Then I head to Panama City, spend the night with relatives of my host family (so they are my relatives too, right?) near the airport, and arrive in Albany on Monday. I am pumped, though it is going to be hard to leave.
I thought breaking down the experience and my thoughts into 27 nuggets would be a fun experiment and an easy way for you readers to get an idea of my thoughts as a whole about my time. I have been working on this list for a while, it will never be complete. But you can thank me later for sparing you a loooong winding road through my brain. Why 27? That is the number of months in a standard Peace Corps service. AND I FINISHED IT! Sure I have some regrets, things I wish I’d known from the start, lots more stories, but let’s just leave it at this list, and you can ask me about the other stuff when I get home. And one more thing, if you are going to ask me about my service, the more specific your question, the better I will be able to answer. Could you really answer someone who asked you “so how were the last 27 months of your life”?
1. I will always respect the order and fairness of a well-formed queue leading up to a counter. Very few people leave happy when they are elbowing their way for a bus, food or other service. Waiting is annoying, but undeniably fair and I suggest that more businesses in Panama and Bolivia try this technique (so far only banks, electric companies and some supermarkets really have this established).
2. If I had one thing to impart that would have a great impact on “development” it would be to encourage the governments of every country to teach children that it is okay to dream, to give them tools to be creative and critical thinkers and to AVOID the traps of teaching and learning by rote which stifle growth in the child and thus in a country’s future.
3. You can´t talk sense into insects.
4. How to bathe without water pressure or a bath tub: Fill a bucket of water. Take it to wherever you would normally shower. Use a cup to mete out water over your body. Lather up. Grab the cup by the edge, dip into the bucket WITHOUT letting your soapy hands touch the water. Pour over yourself. If water is limited, use a squeegy motion with your hands to remove excess suds after each rinse with water. For a spa-like experience, boil a small amount of the water with herbs (rosemary, lemongrass, mint, what have you) and add this to your big bucket of cool water, then proceed.
5. If you believe what you are doing is right, then keep on doing it and ignore the critics. You may end up changing minds with your conviction.
6. Good friends and neighbors are essential. They are there to listen, to laugh with, to sit quietly with, to surprise with some goodie from the oven or a hunk of cold watermelon that won´t fit in the fridge, etc. They make hard times bearable and good times better. From now on making and strengthening these relationships will be a priority of mine. This isn´t to say I don´t still see myself as independent, but friends help a lot.
7. Sometimes behavior change is as simple as pushing someone to consider why and what they are doing. There is a polite way to do this, and I think it comes down to treating everyone like human beings by being honest and up front about things. Honesty is respect and creates a space for cross-cultural understanding. So tell people when they are mis-stepping!
8. A big lesson: Sometimes I need to ask for help. I would like to be super woman, but I am not and although it saddens me, I can´t do everything alone. For one, I´m terrible at building fences. Had I asked for help with that in Bolivia, a cow wouldn´t have eaten all my veggies growing in the garden. Clearly, I have a complex about dependency, but I have learned (or, am still learning) that asking for help doesn’t mean I am helpless or not independent.
9. Monitoring and Evaluation are crucial to development, to projects of any kind really. Instead of focusing on a final product, recognize small steps, the successes and failures along the way. It´s more rewarding and leads to a much better end product. In this organization, we like to say ¨process over product.¨
10. It´s easy to get trapped inside your head on a bad day; easier still when you are isolated by culture and geography. The key is to get out and do something, especially if it´s physical. My favorite remedy is digging up soil with a pickaxe.
11. Walk confidently, upright and imagine a forcefield around you. People will mostly leave you alone. In 2+ years in supposedly dangerous countries, I only had one robbery attempt on my person.
12. Cleaning a house in the tropics is not fun, but really important since dust and bugs (and animal hair) seem to accumulate much faster than in temperate zones. Plus, cleaning and organizing can be very therapeutic.
13. I am a terrible liar, so I found that the best way for me to live is to only do things I am proud of or that I can at least explain. I can only lie if my safety is involved.
14. There is always more to learn: It took me until March 2010 to realize that ctrl-S doesn´t mean save on a Spanish computer…
15. My culture generally values creativity and originality, we like to be different and unique in small and often big ways; many cultures are not this way…realizing this was a big ¨aha¨ moment for me, and went a long way explaining why so few people actively seek out the new and different solutions.
16. Some things I will probably have to un-learn: Yelling (common practice, instead of walking over to where someone is. I yell to say “bless you” to my neighbor when she sneezes); constantly talking about the weather; burning trash (fine with me, I hate it!); throwing toilet paper in a trash can next to the toilet; being really really frugal (ask anyone who visited me, I have a very interesting i.e. low price point); keeping a really dense wall up to men who talk to me (give an inch here…and you could be in trouble)
17. Things I can do now that I couldn’t before: sharpen and use a machete; speak Spanish; understand Spanish; handwash clothes; survive on less water than I thought possible; sleep in a hammock (but I have to be really tired); identify intestinal ailments; distinguish types of wind and sun (the quality of light, speed and direction of wind, it all means something); wait around without anything to do (ha! only when forced).
18. I have drunk too many tiny cups of bad coffee for one lifetime. A shame, since Panama is actually the place where some of the most prized coffee in the world is grown.
19. There is always more to do, the work is never done. I have tried to let go of the things that were beyond the realm of my time or control, but it hasn’t been easy to hear in my last few days about projects I could have done, had I the time still.
20. Carry the following: toilet paper, hand sanitizer, a washcloth (for wiping sweat), deodorant, a knife, a spoon and a change of underwear….you will be so happy when you suddenly need one of those things and you have it!
21. Take care of your digestive system and your skin by drinking LOTS of water. (This is also why you should carry TP).
22. Life love and death don’t discriminate between what you consider the real world and an alternative experience. It’s all your real life, so you have to just roll with it.
23. I do NOT like to be stared at or similarly sized up. The best way to combat it is to stare back. Freaks people OUT.
24. Going to miss: really good smelling air in the mornings (orchids and fruit blossoms in the misty air); people, feeling a part of a community; the intensity of my daily life here; feeling tough and strong every time I struggle and achieve something (like drawing water from a well when nothing comes from the tap just so I can have some tea and a rinse off in the evenings)…let´s call this undeniable self-reliance; hilarious English pronuncitions; the chance to see plants and children I know grow; 35 cent ice cream cones; free bananas.
25. Things I´m really excited for: trash disposal and recycling; libraries, used-books stores and netflix; good cheese; ice cream in my freezer; so-called ethnic foods; health food stores; feeling clean for longer than a few minutes after a shower; showers and baths that don´t involve either a bucket or a search for water; coffee in a large size, to-go, in a reusable travel mug; no more plastic bags!; being current with news, culture, my friends´ and family´s lives; a job; a job that I can leave at my doorstep if I want to; cool weather; choosing my clothes based on my mood, being able to wear more clothes or less clothes when I want, not having to choose between physical comfort and emotional comfort when dressing (like, if I wore a breezy sundress here, I would be compromising my emotional comfort because of the attention it draws; if I wear jeans and a button-down shirt, I overheat); drinking the water, no questions asked; a drop in my stress level; customer service; no more mid-afternoon heat stroke headaches; cooking for more people than myself (I love cooking what I want, when I want, but I love to share food and entertain guests); my cookbooks; my sharp chef’s knife; and about a billion other things.
26. Things I am happy to leave behind: biting ants, termites, tiny clustering ants that show up inside things you haven´t used in a while; ¨gringa¨; power outages and current spikes; cat calls in Spanish; cat calls in English; machismo y racismo; awful radio DJ´s and their sound effect buttons; the heat and a concrete house (we could say it´s an oven…I never tried but I suspect you could fry an egg on the walls at mid-day).
27. I used to say ¨give what you can.¨ Now I have realized that sharing is probably more appropriate to my message because it implies equality between ¨giver¨ and ¨receiver.¨ Instead of thinking of having given up 27 months of my life to be a Peace Corps volunteer, I find great comfort in thinking that I have shared 27 months of my life with so many types of people (some who enriched my time with positive experiences, others who did so less directly, though everyone played a part). So my parting lesson for you readers is: share. Share your time, share your food, share work, share your thoughts, your ears, your abilities, your able body, with anyone else who is willing to share. This will make us all better off.
I've started to grow things!
2 years ago