For the past six months, I’ve had nothing but immense support behind my decision to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Sure, my friends have begged me not to go, but these statements are generally a means for them to express their love, rather than actual expressions of desperation. It was only recently that I experienced my first negative Peace Corps encounter. I ran into an old acquaintance at a bar, and when she drunkenly stumbled up to me, this is the conversation that ensued:
“Heyyyyy. I heard you’re moving to Ecuador,” she slurred.
“Yeah, I am! I’m going in less than two months,” I said in my excited yet rehearsed, let’s-talk-about-how-exciting-this-is voice.
“Cooooool, but why?”
“Well, because I want to contribute to a positive image of the United States abroad, I want to travel, and I want do something that will make me kind of uncomfortable,” I said, a little uneasy.
“Umm, ok. I get that… But WHY? Ecuador has Forever 21, Starbucks, and Olive Garden,” she garbled, taking a sip of her gin and tonic.
Before I could reply, her equally drunk friend grabbed her arm and dragged her away, leaving me standing there, dumbfounded.
It finally happened.
I’ve been waiting for this moment for a while, and I’m actually surprised that it took so long: Someone finally mentioned how developed Ecuador is. Normally, Americans associate Peace Corps with clichéd huts and latrines in Sub-Saharan Africa. In their defense, the pictorial representations of Peace Corps that we saw growing up were generally of beautiful hippie women laughing and playing with impoverished-looking children:
À la this:
Yet, global issues are different than they were fifty years ago, which is expected in a rapidly expanding world. Asking Peace Corps Volunteers to live as they did fifty years ago isn’t only illogical, it’s counterproductive.
So, why did this drunk girl’s question bother me so much? Well, her cavalier attitude toward the country where I’ll be serving may have appeared harmless to a bystander–but to me–to someone who decided to become a Peace Corps Volunteer for more than just the bragging rights of saying that “I lived in a hut and pooped in a hole for two years,” it stung. We underwent this long application process so that we could eventually step off a plane, completely overwhelmed and nervous, into this new land, in hopes of ultimately making some kind of difference. It’s actually quite disheartening to hear that your impending service will somehow be easier than someone else’s. I may know next-to-nothing about the struggles of Peace Corps Volunteers, but I do know one thing: The complexity of Peace Corps service cannot be quantified by just one factor.
For fifty-five years, the Peace Corps has sent more than 220,000 Volunteers to more than 100 nations to teach skills and develop important relationships. Over the past half-century, many of these Peace Corps countries have evolved and grown exponentially. In fact, a number of Peace Corps locations have “closed,” because the need for Volunteers was no longer a necessity. This is a good thing–an extremely good thing. We want to see nations become competitive in the modern world. Still, some countries have developed quicker than others. Many South American, Eastern European, North African, and Asian countries where Peace Corps is still a presence have been dubbed “Posh Corps” countries. “Posh Corps” is a term that was coined by Peace Corps Volunteers who serve in more “traditional” sites (i.e no running water, limited electricity, treacherous bike rides), used to describe the lives of Volunteers who may live with more Western amenities. Let me get this straight: Those who do live in more traditional Peace Corps countries definitely have reason to express their irritation, and in some ways, maybe those of us who serve (or who will serve) in more developed countries have easier times physically, but the mental stress is still very real.
I’m six weeks out from taking the graduate school exam that will define my educational future, seven weeks out from graduating from college, and seven-and-a-half weeks out from packing the only life I’ve ever known into two fifty pound suitcases, boarding a one-way flight, and setting foot in a little country where everyone speaks a different language than me. My mind is constantly racing, my armpits are surprisingly always sweaty, and my nerves are becoming exceedingly evident. Something tells me the emotions I’m feeling are similar to those that the 220,000 Peace Corps Volunteers who came before me must have felt, regardless of whether they were on their way to birth babies in grass huts, teach English in ramshackle schoolhouses, or drink Turkish coffee in bustling NGOs.
Because I’m in the midst of doing everything I can to figure out just how this Peace Corps thing works, and because I’ve landed myself in a “Posh Corps” country, I’ve decided to watch the documentary, Posh Corps: A Peace Corps Documentary, directed by Alan Toth, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (South Africa, 2010-2012), in an attempt to demystify the negative connotations that are often associated with modern Peace Corps Volunteers. While I don’t agree with every stance in this film, I do find it heartwarming, witty, and pretty helpful. It’s only 75 minutes long, and I think definitely worth the watch for any current Peace Corps Volunteers, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, or Peace Corps Trainees who are curious about the “Posh Corps” life. It definitely sheds light on the fact that nations with energetic metropolises often have disproportional distributions of wealth and extreme poverty beyond the glitz and glam of Western shops and restaurants.
Through a series of interviews with some of South Africa’s Peace Corps Volunteers, Toth does a great job of encapsulating the emotional rollercoaster that is Peace Corps, or more specifically, “Posh Corps.” The Volunteers explain why they wanted to do Peace Corps, and why they were actually pretty disappointed when they heard they were going to South Africa. They admit they wanted to live the iconic Peace Corps lifestyle of having few Western amenities at their disposal, but they now realize how wrong they were. In fact, they find this “half-and-half” lifestyle somewhat more difficult. One Volunteer mentions the mental stress that accompanies living in a small, more traditional Peace Corps site in South Africa. He says he can wake up in his modest home, take a two-hour bus ride to Pretoria (South Africa’s capital city) for meetings, then be back in his tiny house for dinner. Peace Corps Volunteers spend months acclimating themselves to their new surroundings, and to constantly swap between developing and developed, sometimes within one day, must be extremely overwhelming. However, this particular Volunteer then mentions that “Posh Corps” Volunteers should stay away from larger cities altogether–a statement with which I disagree.
While the film ultimately helped me understand the emotions involved with living in countries comprised of two different worlds, I don’t think we should be condemned for our desire to travel. I believe a large part of the Peace Corps experience is traveling and getting to know one’s host country. Should I feel ashamed if I want to spend occasional weekends with friends in Guayaquil, Quito, or Cuenca? Should I feel guilty for indulging in a beer when it’s not particularly culturally appropriate for a woman? At my site, I may not have many chances to enjoy my favorite, albeit more “Western,” activities. For some Volunteers, perhaps staying at site and refraining from the allure of larger cities is a good decision, but I’m already pretty confident that I’ll be doing plenty of traveling–within reason, because integration is obviously very important.
Another reason to not fear larger cities is that they are generally more progressive. I know Peace Corps Ecuador has quite a few LGBTQ Volunteers, so should they feel obligated to remain closeted for two years, even if they have been out for a long time? They shouldn’t have to feel like their identities are constantly under attack. If they can occasionally escape from their smaller sites to meet up with friends in the city and talk freely about their lives, I think the psychological break is completely justified. The same goes for women, minorities, and other groups generally oppressed by conservative societies. With all of this being said, I do strongly believe that we should do everything in our power to integrate into our communities and do our part as Peace Corps Volunteers. There is simply a lot more to a “Posh Corps” country than meets the eye, and the emotional rollercoaster associated with any Peace Corps experience is just as real, even if you live two hours from a Starbucks.