Thursday, May 23, 2013

After two years it's still hard

I generally try to write positively about my time here in Paraguay. I have never wanted to sugar coat, nor hide tough realities (God knows the food post ruffled some feathers), but I certainly have posted less in tough times than in good. This is partly because Peace Corps doesn't want us writing negatively about the countries that so graciously host us, and partly because I assume you don't want to read the musings of a depressed, boxed-wine-filled twenty-something, but mostly because it hasn't been all bad. This blog is filled with the incredible experiences I've had that I shared with remarkable people. While I will always think fondly of Paraguay, here's the reality: Peace Corps is hard, and it's not hard for any of the reasons people tell you. 

It's easy to think of the bugs, and the bad housing, and the dirt roads as the "tough" part of Peace Corps, but really that stuff is nothing. In a lot of ways the bugs and the dirt roads are a feather in our cap. They are things we can brag about while still complaining. Not that they aren't annoying, but they are more what tips you over the edge after you've been brewing up an existential crisis for two months. The loneliness, the confusion and the long periods of time you have to twist your brain into a knot over that loneliness and confusion are the true ill-defined "conditions of hardship" central to the Peace Corps struggle. 

Peace Corps Volunteers don't nibble at the edges of their host countries' culture. We go all in. Head first. We mostly live in small communities where few other foreigners have reason to visit. We aren't visiting. We are living, trying to  accomplish difficult work. We are trying to build a life, but in a place that operates on a different set of rules. Rules we have to learn along the way, if they are learned at all. There is always the nagging question behind every encounter and misunderstanding. "Did I make a language mistake? Was this a cultural thing? Is this guy just a dick?" It's almost impossible to know. You can't trust yourself. Not every mishap is malicious, not every act of kindness genuine. Living with the constant doubt of foreignness is exhausting. It's an exhaustion most can't relate to, certainly not the new local friends you are so desperately trying to make. Friends who may have never traveled much outside their town let alone to another country. 

The confusion is always amplified by the weight of being a "Development worker," the expectations you imagine your community has for you, and the annoying but inevitable competition between Volunteers. The ideal Peace Corps Volunteer is friends with every person in their community, helps five neighborhood commissions but doesn't lead any of them, teaches English to young kids while playing soccer, and still has time to teach themselves the guitar. I have yet to meet a Volunteer who has done this, but everyone sure as hell is trying to make it seem like they are. (Some more successfully than others.) We try so hard to prove ourselves because the reality is that we don't work a lot of hours each day. We don't have a well defined role or job, just expectations. And no matter how noble our intentions, we know that we're still getting that small but sufficient check even if we spend most the month watching "Game of Thrones." I experience and maybe deserve more guilt of privilege earning the least amount of money I have ever earned, than when I was living the prototypical yuppie lifestyle in the States.

Perhaps most crushing are the hours alone to spend thinking about it all. Free time just appears when living in a culture that doesn't glorify "Busy." Adjusting to all this new found time can drive a person mad. We try to fill the hours with personal projects and books we never cared about, but it's hard to escape your own thoughts. It's no small secret that PCVs worldwide like to drink. I've decided that this habit isn't just the poor choices of the young, but rather a collective effort to give ourselves reprieve from the constant mental acrobats we perform. Peace Corps Volunteers are educated, worldly people, and we've been given a confusing post in life with lots of time to think about it. When we ask ourselves "What am I doing here?" it is an all consuming question.

"What is our place in the global context as Peace Corps Volunteers? What is our place in the world as individuals? As Americans? What does the future hold? What does development mean? What's the lesson plan tomorrow? Am I making the most of this 'Experience' or am I wasting my time? Am I doing more harm than good? Should we even be here? Was my host mom deliberately trying to be mean when she called me fat? Am I making a difference? Is this sustainable? Did you hear about the suffering in _____  or the injustices in _____? Can I ever go back to my old life? Can I stay any longer in this one? How much am I serving my host community? How much am I serving my country?" 

The questions above are just a fraction of the thoughts Peace Corps Volunteers spend what has to amount to months of their service pondering. Tell me you wouldn't drink just to make it stop for a bit.

But there is salvation from the mental prison. The best way to find peace is to find work you love. For the most part, productive Volunteers are happy Volunteers. I think this is why we are able to still get things done despite the lack of structure and limited support. We work, or we go crazy. But even so, work can fail us too. 

When I finished JEP I was exhausted. I had poured myself into building this program. At the end of the camp I wanted to get on stage, shout "Economy developed!", drop the mic, and walk to the airport. This was the cornerstone of my service. It fit my interests, talents, and views on global development. I may have loathed four hour bus rides to Asuncion, but I loved working with a team of incredible Volunteers, and side by side with passionate Paraguayans all to make this program a reality. I joined the Peace Corps to leave Corporate America, and fell in love with Corporate Paraguay. Then it came time to pass the torch to the next group. They are doing a great job, and I am impressed by their improvements. I couldn't have kept up that level of work intensity and frequency of travel, but still, when it ended I didn't know what to do. So I did the obvious thing. I wallowed in self pity. My teammates were able to redirect their energies elsewhere but I stood still, reentering the mind warp rabbit hole, wishing I had taken the blue pill. I seriously considered leaving early and less seriously considered moving in with my friend, Ginsey, without telling my boss. But it seemed the only thing harder than staying was leaving.

A mixture of guilt, wanting to fulfill my commitment, and lots of patient, loving friends have kept me here for my final months. I found other odd job projects, but nothing that has ignited my passions, or merited the same effort as JEP.  In a few weeks I will officially close my service, and move back to America. I'm mostly just hanging out until then.

In writing this I was hoping to excuse myself from the guilt of dissatisfaction. By being honest about the difficulties of Peace Corps, I wouldn't feel so shitty about my own inability to deal with them. But as I write this, I feel that familiar Peace Corps guilt crawling up my spine. There are people who pull water up by a bucket and use outdoor latrines; people with thatched roofs, who cook on the floor. So why do I struggle? Why can't I be smiling and grateful for my relative luxury? Why isn't that enough? How can any of my problems count in the context of poverty?

I don't know. But I do know that I am exhausted by it all. I am tired of caring. I am tired of the guilt, the hardships, and the loneliness. I don't want to feel plagued by not sufficiently interacting with my community. Whatever that means. I don't want to care so much about every move I make and its impact on "this experience." 

Maybe that's what's hard. Everyone is aware that Peace Corps is a once in a lifetime opportunity, so we have to make the most of it. Every time you don't visit a local family, or every failed charla, or all the moments you spend alone are a waste of this experience that we must love no matter how difficult it may be. We will never have this chance again so anything other than loving it is wasting it. But this is so contradictory to who am I am. And nobody told me that before I signed up. I was prepared for bugs and dirt roads. I wasn't ready for this. 

Who I am hasn't always matched up with what I felt was expected of me. I like being alone, but I've felt lonely even when surrounded by people. I'm a crappy teacher, and so my charlas are less than inspiring. Having only a few local friends is normal for me, nonetheless I feel insecure about my relative lack of friends. I didn't build a community center, or a well, or save any lives, but I did work. I think. I've been lost, emotionally, socially and geographically. I've probably insulted people, and I know I've embarrassed myself. Does that add up to a wasted two years? I hope not.

Peace Corps is not for everyone. And just because it's not for you, or you didn't finish your service, or you never joined in the first place, doesn't make you any less tough, adventurous, or passionate about the world and people who inhabit it. Sometimes when I am most honest with myself, I even wonder if it was for me. No, I don't regret my time here. I am better than I was two years ago, and I hope against hope that Paraguay too has benefited from my time here. While lots of good has come out of these past two years, I can't break free of how difficult this has been. It would be dishonest to not include some account of those trials in my Peace Corps story. The failures have been just as important as the achievements.