10 Things I Learned From Peace Corps
I have learned quite a bit in two and a half years of Peace Corps service. With only half a year left, I have begun contemplating the meaning of this experience. What impact has it had on my life? What decisions might it influence in the future? Will this truly be with me forever, or will I forget about most of it a few years down the line? These are all questions I’ve asked myself. But one question stuck out as most important. What have I learned? I contemplated this for a while, and there are tons of lessons that didn’t make this list, but here are ten things I have learned while serving the people of Fiji.
1. I can endure way more than I thought I could.
It’s been a long ride. I have dealt with bugs invading my bed, roosters and dogs keeping me awake at night, constant ice bucket challenges (a.k.a. my morning shower), and days of 24 hour water outages (I know, I know, PoshCorps). I’m sick and tired, yet I continue to endure.
Before Peace Corps, I didn’t have a single doubt that I could last. Neither did anyone who knew me. But the doubts flooded in after a few months in my village. I never thought about quitting, but I occasionally questioned what the hell I was doing.
I’ve had several visitors while I’ve been in Fiji. Most have said something like, "I don’t know how you’ve done this for two years." Sometimes I’m not sure either. But foregoing luxury voluntarily has a way of lowering one’s standard of living, and mine is certainly lower than I ever imagined it could go.
2. Don’t sweat the small stuff–or the big stuff.
There is so much to worry about in life if I let myself worry. There is so much negative information shared on TV (which I don’t have–it’s not that posh), in newspapers, and through word of mouth. Unexpected hurdles pop up nearly every day. The only thing to do is observe and surpass.
All of this noise doesn’t require my time, nor deserve it. I’ve learned to ignore the small annoyances, like ants swarming over my walls and bus drivers stopping to drink a bowl of kava when I’m in a hurry. I try to brush off the big things, too, such as multiple bouts of strep, a possible encounter with Zika, and fights with stingrays.
Sometimes I complain to myself or others about the lack of electricity, the robbery by cellphone providers, and the hardship of not having a road that goes to my village. But when I catch myself in these moments, I remind myself that the people I came to Fiji to serve, have lived in this village and endured much harsher conditions for years uncountable. It’s never easy, but it’s what I signed up for. The Peace Corps slogan is rightfully, "The toughest job you’ll ever love."
3. What it’s like to stand out.
As a white male, I’ve always blended in with the crowd. This is not always desirable, but now that I’ve gotten a small taste of what it’s like to stand out, I realize how fortunate I am.
There have been days when I’ve wanted nothing to do with anyone. I recall a time in a nearby village where I had gone to speak with a man about the process of building a hydroelectric generator. It had been a long two days, there was little water, and cleanliness was not up to American standards. To top it off, there was no cell coverage, and therefore no internet, and this was when I was still daily vlogging.
I bought a SIM card from another provider that I had heard worked there, but it turned out to only work at the post office, a forty-five minute walk away. On the walk back I was tired and done. Done speaking Fijian, done sleeping in astrange house (with bedbugs), and done being off the grid. I wanted to go home and I didn’t want to talk to anyone.
But, as I walked past the bus stand and saw it was full, I knew I would have to stop and talk to everyone. Because I was different. And not in a way that I may have just been a boy from a neighboring village. I stood out like a white boy in a Melanesian community. So I stopped and talked and introduced myself. I told them where I was from and what I was doing. And then I said I was leaving and I left. It wasn’t so bad. But I was tired of standing out. I am tired of standing out. But it has gotten easier and I appreciate the kindness Fijians show me.
4. How to do laundry by hand.
In the US I always procrastinated when my hamper got full. I didn’t want to deal with doing laundry. It was a pain. I had to bring it all to the machine and put it in with soap. Then I had to remember to take it out, sometimes forgetting despite the buzzer ringing through the house. I would switch it to the dryer and wait another 45 minutes. Then camethe worst part: folding the clothes and putting them away. What a hassle!
Now I know better. I have made a promise to myself that I will never again complain about doing laundry when I go back to the States, or anywhere else with a full washer and dryer.
After more than two years of pounding my clothes against the concrete to get the soap out, wringing them and hanging them to dry, watching them get rained on, and finally folding them and putting them away, machine washing sounds more like fun than a chore.
5. Things that say "Refrigerate After Opening" don’t actually have to be refrigerated. Ever.
I’m glad I learned this. I know people in the States who throw away the ranch dressing after they leave it out overnight. Just one night. As someone who has had a giant bottle of soy sauce sitting on my shelf for over two years that says "Refrigerate After Opening", I can tell you it is not necessary. Almost every condiment demands refrigeration. Almost all of those are full of it.
This also goes for food, including meat. Now, I am not recommending that you eat a steak that has been sitting on a plate under your bed for a week. But, all food, including both fish and meat, is perfectly fine if it sat out overnight. I regularly leave these foods in a pot on my stove, saving them for breakfast. Just be sure to give it a nice germ killing over the heat in the morning and you are good to go. However, parts of the fish, like the eyeballs and whatever that inside skin flap is that looks like a stomach, are best thrown out. Trust me.
6. It’s easy to live without electricity.
This is becoming more and more difficult for me to say with a straight face. It seems like every month my desire for electricity becomes stronger. But it is still easy. Especially because i have a generator that comes on for a couple of hours almost every night. I am able to charge my computer, phone, pocket wi-fi (yeah, I get it, I don’t live in Africa), and any other electronics, and then shut them down so I have some time using them on battery the next day. As long as I am not doing anything super intensive on my computer, it tends to last the entire following day.
However,now that I am doing alot of video editing, this is becoming tiresome. It often takes the entire night to render or export a video, giving me no actual time on my computer while the power is on. But I’m supposed to be in PeaceCorps, and I did not expect to have any electricity, so I’m trying not to complain.
7. Life is difficult without running water.
I have the good fortune to live in a village with nearly 24/7 running water. Most village volunteers in Fiji are not so lucky. They sometimes have to choose between flushing their toilet and filling their water bottle.
However, having constant water means I am never prepared for the times when it does go out. There have been days I was unable to drink water for 24 hours. It was so surprising how many things I could not do without water. I couldn’t wash dishes, cook, shower, do laundry, drink, or rinse the sand off of my feet. It was brutal. Luckily, most of the time the water goes out it’s only for a few hours.
8. Roosters don’t only cock-a-doodle-doo in the morning.
I remember reading, when I was a boy, a children’s book in which two kids went to stay on their grandparents’ farm.They awoke every morning to the sound of a rooster, right as the sun shone on the horizon. How cool it would be, I thought, to be awoken every morning by the call of a rooster.
Little did I know, roosters make that awful noise ALL DAY LONG. It’s terrible. It’s not fun, or cute, or enjoyable. It’s the soundtrack I imagine is playing over the loudspeaker in hell. They start their calls at about 4:30 in the morning, well before the sky shows a hint of the sun’s rays, and continue on until after 5:00 at night.
If I never hear a rooster again after I leave Fiji, I will be eternally grateful.
9. Society and culture are massive influences on humans.
This may sound obvious, but I never realized just how much the people we surround ourselves with can influence us.
Here in Fiji, the health care system is pretty good. It’s not up to the standards of the USA, but it’s free for citizens and they have vaccinations and pharmacies that carry antibiotics and other necessities.
However, many still choose to self-medicate, using "Fijian medicine", plant-based medicine that their ancestors used. If a doctor tells a Fijian that she has mumps and she should apply a cold compress to help relieve the pain, she will often not believe it. Fijians believe mumps comes from the cold and that someone must rub their hands together and place the warm hands against the affected area in order to draw out the cold and oust the virus.
This has made me wonder how many false beliefs we have in the West, simply because we have been told things over the course of generations.
10. Everyone joins Peace Corps for different reasons.
This is not necessarily something I have learned but something which surprised me. Not just that people come here for different reasons, which I obviously anticipated, but how fleeting some of those reasons are and how many ex-pectations they hold.
My Peace Corps group, which includes everyone who came to Fiji the same year I did, is Group 91. From Group 90, the group that came one year before me, more than half of the volunteers went home early. From mine almost a third left early. From the next, one-tenth. These may be surprising numbers. They were for me when I first got here. I wondered how a place like Fiji, often referred to as "paradise", could see a higher dropout rate than every country in Africa.
I have learned that many people are so attached to their expectations, they are unable to see the good in the surprising. They are unable to enjoy the moments that counter their expectations. And in Peace Corps, nearly every moment is unexpectable. (A made up word, but a good one. Let’s work on that, Mr. Webster.)
AmeriCorps prepared me for this. I came to Peace Corps with as few expectations as I could have. I knew I could live in a city, a town, or a village. I knew I could work at the ministry or within a small community. I knew I may have other volunteers around me or I might be completely isolated. I knew I couldn’t know anything. So I just sat back and enjoyed the ride. This helped me immensely.
Life is not full of surprises. Surprises aren’t a surprise if you know they are coming. Life is full of obstacles. They will always pop up at the worst times or the best times, and it is our job to hurdle them and get on with the journey.
So there you have it. If you liked this article, I would love to hear from you. You can also check out my Peace Corps Vlog on Youtube.