The Less Often Touted Mires of Peace Corps Service
I’m wedged in the back seat of a small buseta traveling south toward my pueblo. I’m already in a bitter mood after the cobrador from the previous bus tried to gringo charge me an additional thousand pesos. There’s no AC, making the small, wedged open windows the only salvation in this coastal Caribbean sweatbox. An elderly woman to my right is sitting with her son and a small kitten. The kitten squirms free from the child’s lap to the floor below. After he recovers it, the woman bats the kitten’s face with the palm of her hand. She shoots me an arrogant grin, as if to say pets am I right? I refuse to give her the satisfaction of returning the same smirk, as if my defiance has somehow made the world a better place. The child sitting in front of me is unabashedly glaring at me, a deep and unwavering glare. He persists even as I stare back. I confront him, saying Te ayudo and Háblame to force his embarrassment and end his shameless gawking, but every time I avert my gaze I feel his eyes on me once again. When we arrive to my house, I yell AGUANTA, but the driver squarely ignores me. It’s only after I yell eyyyy qué estás haciendo estamos pasando mi casa!!! that he finally yields and lets me off.
My good childhood friend is an ex-marine and one tough bastard. When I chose to leave the US for Peace Corps, many didn’t quite understand what I was doing. Giving up “normalcy” for no money and hard days seemed irrational to them. To the more open-minded, my decision seemed like just another thing young people do, an “adventure” to be undertaken before settling into the routine of 9–5 absurdism. The marine, however, was alone in his assessment, in his tone. He would say things like “this is a good thing you’re doing,” and always speak with a sense of mutual respect. He would eventually tell me that he knew people with both experience in the Peace Corps and the military, and that he understood that, while the Peace Corps does not put one’s life directly in danger, it still yields the heavy burden of service.
The excerpt with which I’ve opened is a small window into the life of a Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia, a life of fighting. That is not to say that there are not happy and fulfilling moments of Peace Corps service. Such moments are well-documented by the Peace Corps social media team. This fighting, however, is the part of service that people don’t share as a part of Peace Corps’ well-known third goal. The PCV is not on the front lines of battle, no, but the PCV is at the mercy of fighting small battles throughout their service to complete any menial task, professional or otherwise.
The PCV fights for their job. Often, the work of the PCV is not well-understood by the local community or institutions. The PCV must fight to prove their worth, their added value. The PCV must break stereotypes that foreigners often bring money. The volunteer will instead be providing instruction and perspective, things that don’t tend to turn a lot of heads.
The PCV fights for progress. Even after convincing local institutions of the PCV’s role, the PCV must then convince the people. The PCV must convince students to come to class, counterparts to help them, and parents to trust them. The PCV must fight to prove that the tools that they have brought are worth the contributions of the local community, that the opportunities the PCV brings are worth effort and commitment, that the PCV’s work matters. Sometimes, the PCV must fight to convince themselves of these same basic facts.
Outside of work, the PCV fights for everything. The PCV fights through anxiety while in line at the local tienda, where it seems that whoever yells the loudest is the one who gets served. The PCV fights the catcalls of callejeros, deciding whether or not to ignore their comments or turn around and take up the fight. The PCV fights every taxi driver, bicitaxi peddler, motocarro chauffeur, and bus cobrador not to charge an exorbitant amount of money due solely to the PCV’s otherness. The PCV fights the urge to retaliate when locals tell them that Spanish is much more difficult than English or when they are yelled at with English gibberish like a monkey at the zoo.
And perhaps most of all, the PCV fights with their own disappointment. The PCV practices a regular routine of analyzing what they’re doing, whether they’re actually making a difference, and whether their two years are being whisked away by an unproductive use of time. The PCV stands alone in a classroom after students and counterparts alike fail to arrive to a scheduled meeting. The PCV looks inward, fighting the perception of uselessness and rejection, telling themselves tomorrow will be a better day. This fight is the hardest.