Someone recently asked me three challenging questions regarding Peace Corps. Responding to them required quite a bit of self-reflection and I think the answers might give you a peek into some of what I’m experiencing out here…
*What are some things you wish you’d thought about before going into the Peace Corps?*
This is a great question and one I had to think about for a while. I guess I wish I’d thought a bit more about the implications of leaving for 2 years at 28 verses my one year trip to China at 23. These two travel experiences have been VERY different and I didn’t realize how much harder Botswana would be due to length of time and the life experiences I’d be missing.
When I was in China I really felt like things stayed the same at home. There were minor changes but, in general, I came back to the same world I left. I remember thinking several times when I was in China that I missed my family but I had so many friends in Hangzhou that I didn’t really miss my friends.
Botswana at 28 is quite the opposite. Since I’ve been away I have missed 3 weddings, my sister’s engagement, the birth of 5 babies, and my grandmother’s death. Also, eight of my friends got pregnant and I’m going to miss 5 of their baby’s births. More Life Events happen when you’re 28 then do when you’re 23 and it’s very hard to be so far away when your world is being re-written in so many ways.
I don’t regret that I left. I don’t regret that I’m here. I love Botswana and this experience is changing and improving me in ways I never thought possible. But there are sacrifices.
My sister’s been engaged for a year and I haven’t seen her ring or hugged her. I’ll never be a part of her wedding planning. I’ll never be able to go to her bridal shower or shopping with her for dresses. I also didn’t get to say goodbye to my grandmother and when I finally do I’ll be talking to a headstone. I wasn’t able to be there for my family when they were grieving her death. I didn’t get to celebrate my 1 year anniversary with Kris. These things are big. Huge. These are things I sacrificed for a career choice and a personal growth experience. And most days they are worth it. And some days they are not. And I wish I’d thought more about that before I left.
*Things you wish you’d known before leaving for Peace Corps*
I wish I’d known how to protect my computer from viruses. And I wish I’d brought more music and movies. Now, in lieu of the last question this answer might seem very superficial but I think it’s something that should be said and I think it’s something that people Don’t Say because they fear the implications of media-escapism. Well, yes, tv, movies and music are fairly mindless ways to spend your time but here’s the thing: you need it. Very few Peace Corps volunteers are placed in urban sites which means the bulk of us find ourselves in small, remote villages where we don’t speak the language and relationships are difficult to make and harder to develop. You are a person like me who craves long, deep conversations and meaningful relationships. So cooking dinner with my colleagues is fun and taking walks with my neighbours is great but at the end of the day it’s me in a quiet room, in tiny house feeling Lonely. And to be honest—loneliness is alright. It’s good in many ways because it slows you down and gives you time for self reflection, creative expression, exercise and sleep. I really believe that this loneliness and boredom has put me in the most healthy psychological/physical/emotional and spiritual state of my life.
It’s still loneliness. There entire days I don’t speak to anyone. Last week I went to bed at 9:00 every night. Today I haven’t left my house and don’t plan to. Some of it is a choice to just escape cultural awkwardness and some of it is not. Either way, at the end of the day when I’m feeling homesick or frustrated with language or in need of a good long chat or just phenomenally bored—it is really nice to put on a movie or some music. And I don’t think it makes my experience any less profound or effective… frankly, I think it keeps me sane. That and running. But I knew that about running before I came. I wish I’d brought an extra pair of running sneakers.
*How do you feel about the experience now that you’re there?*
Hm. This is very broad. I think a lot of my understanding of this experience will come in retrospect but at the moment I feel quite good about being here. I really love Botswana and this has surprised me since a flat dessert with boring cuisine and dry history was not my ideal placement for Peace Corps. I had envisioned war-torn Cambodia or dramatic South Africa or delicious India… Botswana had only come up once in my MPH studies as “a place with a lot of AIDS orphans”. Aside from that I didn’t know the first thing about Botswana and I think that has made it all the more amazing to be here. Someone said it so perfectly to me once… they said:
“You were placed in Botswana because you never would have come here on your own… you’ll visit Kenya and Uganda and Tanzania at some point, those countries are on your ‘to do’ list… but Botswana never would have crossed your mind… and now you get to experience it so fully.”
Whenever I get envious of Peace Corps volunteers serving in West Africa or South East Asia I always think of that and feel better. And so, yeah, I’m happy I’m here. I’m happy I’m learning about grassroots international public health work. I’m glad I’m learning the value of solitude. I’m relieved to learn that my friends and family haven’t forgotten me. I’m proud to see I can survive here and learn a language and handle rats and deal with bucket baths and survive without a buzzing social network.
God, I feel like I could talk about this for ages but I guess to answer your question, yes, I feel good about the experience. It has not come without sacrifices but I think it has been worth it for what I’m learning about my career choice and how I’ve been able to experience a different version of life and of myself.