At 55, Peace Corps is still badass

When I applied to Peace Corps, I naively imagined it would be like the stories from the 1960s. Peace Corps would drop me in some small town in Africa and I’d never hear from them again. It sounded real badass.

My Peace Corps service was not like that. The Peace Corps staff were more present in my life than amoebas, which is saying a lot. We had a family cell phone plan, regular trainings and visits, and countless no bullshit rules. Breaking those rules meant that you were kicked out of Peace Corps with nothing but shame in your backpack.

I am not complaining about Peace Corps. I get it. When I served in El Salvador, it had the second highest homicide rate outside of a war zone. We’re talking 6,000 homicides a year in a country the size and population of Massachusetts. Naturally, Peace Corps responded with a number of new rules aimed at keeping volunteers safe.

One of my favorites: do not cross department lines on public transportation. Cross-departmental buses, at the time, were statistically the most dangerous. This rule meant that you had to use Peace Corps provided transportation or expensive taxi rides way out of budget.

Here’s a map of El Salvador that shows the departments:

Department Map provided by Wikipedia

I lived in northern La Unión way up near the border of Honduras on the right hand side. I was the only volunteer in La Unión, which meant that seeing fellow volunteers became logistically challenging. We get two days out of our communities a month, so seeing other volunteers is expected, normal, and often critical to one’s mental health.

Towards the end of my service, my best friend and fellow volunteer Tricia and I were desperate for a fun weekend together. Meanwhile, Peace Corps had forbidden the bus routes from her site to mine and didn’t run their shuttles on the weekend.

Peace Corps never said we couldn’t cross departments on foot.

Here’s the route:

Route provided by Google Maps

We had done this a few times before both by car and on foot in a group. This particular trip took eight hours. Typically, one or two cars pass and offer a ride. This time, not a single car passed. It was a long day.

On a Sunday, at 7 am in our respective communities, with no map, no iPhone, and a limited working knowledge of the route, we both set out to meet up halfway. Few people knew what we were doing. While this wasn’t breaking the rules per se, Peace Corps wouldn’t love this type of activity.

Leaving Upire

Yet, this feels safe. I have already been on a number of buses that were robbed. I have seen a man shot in the head while driving back from a Peace Corps training. Every time I visit San Salvador or San Miguel, the vibe is palpable. These cities are plagued by murder, extortion, kidnappings, and armed robbery. Whereas the mountains of El Salvador are a refuge, a place comparatively free of crime. The violence feels far away, like in another country. Walking around is normal and peaceful.

The first hour is easy, familiar, and downhill through my community. It’s still cool and I feel light. The second hour is a bit less familiar. The road becomes less of a road. It’s just dirt that blows everywhere. The trees that cover my community are gone and the landscape is overwhelmingly brown now.

By the third hour, I am ready to find Tricia. The communities are starting to blur together. I haven’t seen another human in over an hour. And I am starting to question whether or not I made a wrong turn.

Whose bright idea was this?

Just as I am about to hold my phone in the air and search for a sliver of cell phone reception, I see her. Tricia is a hugger. This one is unforgettable.

We celebrate with a lunch break. After a sandwich and some fruit, we start walking again. We head towards my house. It should feel easier. I just came from that direction. But, it’s all uphill from here. Luckily, Tricia is here to distract me.

We invent silly games in the vain of “would you rather?” and sing songs from the 90s. After two hours or so, singing feels too draining. The sun is strong and unforgiving. The water is heavy yet feels scarce. We walk in silence for a bit.

Just when it feels like all we can think about is cold water at my house, we run into four men with guns dressed in camouflage asking for our passports. We don’t have them. I would not admit it even if we did. I consider my passport one of my most valuable possessions and handing it over to anyone outside the airport freaks me out. Our hearts pound as we tell them our story. They ask reasonable questions. Where do you live? Why are you here? Why would you walk this far? At this point, I am definitely asking myself that last one.

We take the time to explain Peace Corps and they let us go. We keep looking back thinking that they might follow us home, but they don’t. At my house devouring fresh tortillas and homemade cheese, after the adrenaline subsides, we remember the story another volunteer once told us about the road between our two communities. It is the route often taken by cheese smugglers. Folks from El Salvador frequently smuggle cheese across the border to sell in Honduras. In retrospect, those men were likely patrolling the El Salvador — Honduras border looking for cheese.

After an English movie night filled with lots of candy from a recent care package, Tricia leaves in the morning. We don’t walk since Tricia needs to head to San Salvador. She takes one of the four Peace Corps approved buses down to the edge of my department. It’s Monday, so Peace Corps will pick her up there and take her the rest of the way.

Nowadays, back stateside, we laugh at how this strict Peace Corps rule ironically gave us such an adventure. Happy Birthday, Peace Corps. 55 years later and you’re still badass.