So like my Sustainability post, this is one I plan to work on throughout my time in the Peace Corps. I’m writing it primarily with potential volunteers in mind, but of course anyone interested in what my Peace Corps experience is/was like is more than welcome to read it.
One of the blogs I read before coming said that the Peace Corps is the hardest job you’ll ever love. Part of me didn’t believe it (and still doesn’t), while the other part of me was aware it would be a totally new set of challenges and knew I couldn’t know until I experienced it. This is my attempt to share those challenges so those considering joining have a fuller picture than I did.
June 16, 2017 ~ Unexpected Challenges
One of the common challenges that most pcvs talked about was experiencing culture shock. I didn’t really anticipate this being an issue for me. I’ve always endeavored to experience the countries I’ve traveled to as the locals do, and while that was on a much smaller scale, I felt prepared me for any potential culture shock. (Along with having lived in the 6 states within the US, all with their own microcosm of culture variations.) The few pcvs I admitted this too were pretty insistent that it hits everyone at some point. Well, I’ve only been here for less than 5 of my 27 months, so maybe it just hasn’t hit me, or maybe it’s (at least partly) because Guyana mimics some of American culture. From what I’ve read, our pcvs have a lot more access to things from home than most Peace Corps countries. But I think it’s more because we all have different experiences, we are all different people, with different stressors and coping skills. So on one hand, I want to tell you (future/potential pcvs) STOP READING, not just this post but any blog or Peace Corps experience posting. Because your experience will be your own – totally different than mine or anyone else’s. But, if you’re like me, you’ll keep reading (I definitely overdid it before coming) because it helps you to feel prepared,fuels your excitement, and helps you not to lose your mind during the waiting process.
Another struggle I read a lot about and didn’t anticipate really facing was homesickness. I’ve never been homesick and while I knew I’d miss people (my little brother especially) didn’t think this would be a real issue either. I’m still kind of early in my service compared to when most of the volunteers in the previous batches said they really experienced homesickness. But this has been more of an issue for me than I expected. I’ve only had a couple days, thus far, where I really felt homesick, each which was spurred by something that reminded me I wasn’t at home here. We are requited to live with a host family during training and then for our first six months at site. Overall I was/am very fortunate with my placements, but their are bound to be things that are different than it is living on your own or with actual family at home. For most of the volunteers I’ve spoken to, living with a host family has spurred most of our homesickness. Considering homesickness and having to potentially live with a host family 9 months (or your whole 27 months, it varies by country and even location within a country) is definitely something you should weigh when considering joining the Peace Corps. While it wouldn’t have changed my mind about coming, I’m not sure all volunteers feel the same way.
The Peace Corps is government funded, which means a couple things you should consider. 1. Just because there is a certain benefit when you apply or accept your invitation, that does not mean there will be continued funding for that benefit. People who were enrolled in the Master’s International program are dealing with that now. (Update they’re grandfathered in, but other programs haven’t been so lucky.) 2. (This one you should already know because they’re pretty clear about it ahead of time.) You’re not allowed to proselytize. You can practice your faith (although church services and other aspects might be challenging in country, especially during training) but not allowed to proselytize. So what about people who’s faith is a large part of who they are and may feel compelled to share it? Who gets to draw the line of what is practicing and what is proselytizing? It ends up being your Country Director’s decision. I haven’t heard of it being an issue for any volunteer in Guyana (maybe because most people here consider themselves religious whether Christian, Hindu, or Muslim) but my guess is someone in your community (or a fellow pcv) would have to complain.
Something I didn’t consider ahead of time is the definite liberal leaning of the Peace Corps as a whole. While the Peace Corps has had bipartisan support since it’s origin, the vast majority of volunteers as well as staff have a definite liberal leaning and this seeps into various aspects of service – most prominently seen during staging and training. Once you’re actually volunteering you have a lot of control of your projects and it will not confront you as much.
Another aspect I didn’t consider was what my absence would mean for my family and friends. I’m embarrassed to say I only really considered what personal struggles I might have being away for two years. I didn’t factor in what that would look like for my family and friends. You need someone at home who will be able to deal with any unexpected financial or legal issues – I would be up a creek without a paddle without the help my mom has provided me. You’re going to miss a lot- happy and sad – that you would never normally miss. One of my best friend’s has lost the grandma that helped raise her since I’ve been here – and I’m powerless to help or comfort her. Another friend got married and I wasn’t there to celebrate with her. Another friend had to go to the hospital due to an emergency. Another friend had surgery. And I haven’t even been here 6 months yet.
June 18, 2017 ~ Father’s Day
You’re going to miss birthdays and holidays. While you earn 2 vacation days per month of service (beginning when you swear in – so you don’t accumulate days during training), that isn’t enough to travel home for everything – and most volunteers use vacation days to travel to nearby countries or to explore their country of service.
Travel in country may not count against vacation days if it is on a weekend or holiday and you are still reachable- you have to always have whereabouts informed where you are in case of emergency. So for example when volunteers hike to Kaieteur Falls, it takes 5-7 days, but you’re in the rainforest most of the time unreachable by phone, so you end up having to use 5-7 vacation days – even if you sandwich it around a long weekend. But if you go to New Amsterdam for a 4 day weekend, report to whereabouts, you’ll be reachable the whole time so it most likely won’t cause any vacation days. At least that’s the policy for PC Guyana, but it’s constantly being updated and varies per your country of service.
Not to mention you have to be able to pay to go home. A lot of volunteers have family pay for them to visit home and some of us have money saved at home for that purpose. Depending on your country of service the price for a roundtrip ticket home can vary a lot. I’m super fortunate, Florida is one of the most common and cheapest international destinations from Guyana. I’ll most likely be able to visit home twice, for my little brother’s birthdays. Some of the other countries I’d been considering ranged from like 3000-6000 roundtrip, so I wouldn’t have been able to go home. This is something to consider when applying to whichever country. There are a lot if volunteers who don’t go home during service and are fine with that. A lot of volunteers use it to recharge though.
I’m fortunate that I have pretty good connectivity too. So I’m able to use Whatsapp and Facebook messenger to wish my Dad Happy Father’s Day today, and everyone else happy birthday and whatever holiday. A lot of places you may not be able to do that. Since the same holidays aren’t celebrated world wide, that could either make it easier or harder not being home for them.
June 20, 2017 ~ Health
Expect to get sick and/or injured more than you do at home, especially if you’re going to a tropical country. I think most of our group has been sick, injured, or both a couple times already, even those who rarely get sick at home. One of the volunteers going into her third year (she opted to extend passed our 27 months) described Guyana as the fungal jungle, because everything grows here. Between fungi and bacteria growing more easily here, mosquito born illness, poor hygiene standards (one of the main things I’m trying to stress as a health volunteer is the importance of soap), poor food/water safety standards, uneven walking surfaces (related to injuries), and it just being a new environment so we’re being exposed to an onslaught of new pathogens at once, it seems unavoidable. For coastal volunteers it’s relatively easy to get to town for medical care (not compared to the US but for being in a developing nation), but for hinterland volunteers it can be a lot trickier. One of the volunteers from our group is about 4 hours and $100 US from the nearest phone/post office/police station/cottage hospital, they were given a satellite phone, but when you’re that remote even those only work some of the time. For volunteers that remote, the frequency of injury and illness can be especially challenging.
July 6, 2017 ~ Other Volunteers Leaving Early
So, the first volunteer from our batch has ET’d (early termination, what we call it when a volunteer chooses to go home not for medical reasons or a reason PC offered to send someone home – like a safety concern). She had a rough go of it and don’t fault her for leaving. I’ll miss having her here. And this is another challenge I didn’t anticipate, when she left it hurt a little and a small part of me wished I was going home to my family. I think it helps I have a vacation planned soon to visit home, but it brought missing my family and friends to the forefront of my mind. Guyana has a fairly high leave rate from what I understand, a large portion of Guy28 (who just hit the half way point) and an even larger percentage of Guy27 (whose service is ending soon) went home early. Some of which were for medical reasons or other staff approved/suggested reasons, but talking to the ones who were here when I arrived and have left since it seems the most common reason is feeling unfulfilled. We are left to our own devices essentially to find and make sustainable change, and a lot of pcvs haven’t been able to find something they thought would make a lasting difference and because of that feel like they’re wasting their time. The work is vastly different than what I was expecting to do from the description and I think that’s my biggest fear, not being able to make a real difference. But I’ve seen some volunteers that are still here from the previous groups that I can see a huge impact they’ve had on their communities.
July 7, 2017 ~ Impact?
I was in the Peace Corps office today and Guy 27 is preparing to leave. (Most of them fly home in the next 3 days.) It was great to hear about them looking back on their experiences in Guyana. Some of them are unsure of the impact they made, while other worked til the very end because they were so excited about the work they’ve been doing here. At least one person chose to extend for an extra year and continue to work on her projects. Another volunteer will only be home 2 months before she goes to Moldova to volunteer with the Peace Corps in a special needs program. It was interesting hearing the remaining members of Guy27 discuss their last 2 years and what they’ll be doing next. Definitely reaffirmed that everyone’s Peace Corps experience is different.
July 23, 2017 ~ Cultural Incompatibility
Experiencing another culture while traveling is vastly different than living in another culture. For most of us, this is one of the biggest draws to Peace Corps. I really only thought of this as a positive before coming. It’s definitely exciting, offers you a different world viewpoint than your own, can help you grow as a person, etc. But like most things that can inspire personal growth, it is not without challenges or “growing pains” as it were. There are many things I thought were universal values that aren’t or are approached differently. If someone told me ahead of time I wouldn’t have really understood the challenges this presents. Work ethic/productivity/efficiency definitely are definitely valued differently. That is not to say there aren’t hard-working Guyanese – there most definitely are. But the majority of the people I’ve worked with are much more laissez-faire about work than the majority of those I’ve worked with in the US. It is common to see people napping at work (not on a break), arrive late, talk to each other before the customers/patients, etc. When trying to arrange to volunteer even getting arrange meeting time can prove difficult, which initially caused me to think they weren’t interested, but once I finally met with them they were very eager. I think it goes along with the “just now” time that Guyana runs on.
Another cultural difference that I expected, have experienced while traveling, but is totally different living with is all of the attention from males (cat calling, aggressive hitting on, etc). It’s a lot easier to block out when you’re traveling. Also in other countries I’d had some success stopping and talking to the males, and then they’d be more cordial. This isn’t typically the case. It is rare for females and males to be friends here (very strange for me since I’ve typically had mostly male friends) so any communication outside of the the professional arena can be, and often is, misinterpreted as interest.
Cultural differences like this are numerous. And while the positive aspects of experiencing a new culture are all still true, it can be exhausting being on all the time and not having the comfortability of cultural norms dictating behavior.
August 17, 2017 ~ Being Aware (for safety’s sake)
Be aware that you’ll have to be a lot more aware. I’ve never been a cautious traveler, but I’m forced to be here. It’s not that I feel unsafe, I would not have friends visit if that were the case. I just have to be more conscious than I’ve ever had to be, and on a regular basis. This will probably vary by PC country, it even varies somewhat within Guyana. Those of us in or near one of the bigger towns (Georgetown, New Amsterdam, Bartica) have to be more careful. But we all have to factor it in way more than in the US every day.
Being an obvious foreigner increases our risk, being a female partly because of the culture and partly because women are infrequent reporters of crime here increases our risk. I’ve been here 6 months without being a victim of a crime, but at least 7 of our group, that I know of, have had various issues. Really mitigation strategies are helpful but would not have prevented all of those situations. Most of us try avoiding traveling at night, especially by ourselves. There are certain areas of town Peace Corps tells us to avoid, but since other volunteers have had issues walking in the approved areas I have switched to taking public transportation when in town. When in stabroek, the largest market and bus hub, keep your cell phone put away. Keep money in different spots, have the amount you’ll immediately need for like transportation easily accessible and separate from the rest of your money. And the list goes on. While While it’s not a crazy amount of precautions when on vacation, it can be a little taxing living in that environment.
Even at home you need to be more aware. Whether it is locking doors AND windows, pulling curtains to avoid peeping toms, or when you are with a host family being very selective about what you leave outside your locked room. (As far as I know no one has had money stolen. But food (that the volunteer had bought and discussed they couldn’t afford to share as we pay out of our living allowance for them to feed us, so we are usually buying food to have a more balanced diet than they are providing (vegetables) out of our own pocket, whether money brought from home or saved from scrimping somewhere else), sheets off the line, tupperware, etc have all gone missing on numerous occasions.)
September 9, 2017 – Natural Disasters
When thinking about natural disasters prior to joining I only considered what it would be like to live in a developing country that experienced a natural disaster. I didn’t factor being safe in Guyana while my family and friends were were hit back home. Hurricane Irma is expected to hit this weekend and while my loved ones are prepping I can’t help but feel and sense of of unease not being there with them.
September 23, 2017 – Staff
So one of the biggest impacts on our in country service has been staff. Unfortunately there is no way to know ahead of time what kind of staff is in each country. Some of us have friends either currently volunteering in other countries or who are rpcvs and their interaction with staff seems vastly different than ours. Ideally staff should be facilitators for our work. Whether it is keeping us safe, healthy, placing us in communities who both need and want help, providing us with the necessary tools/training/supplies to complete our projects and to live in a new culture, etc.
Some of our staff is great, our Safety & Security Manager for example obviously cares about the volunteers and does his job keeping us safe really well. We have a new Country Director who is working really hard to make PC Guyana as successful as possible and genuinely cares about volunteers (probably at least partly because she was one). Our Director Director of Management and Operations is another former volunteer and really goes goes to goes to bat for volunteers.
PC in Guyana is currently getting a facelift as we have a new CD who is changing policies and improving communication between staff and volunteers. But a lot of the interactions up until this point with staff have been less than stellar.
Most volunteers, especially in the health sector, don’t feel as if they were placed somewhere matching their experience/knowledge/skills/etc. Often times we are placed where there is no work to be done. This results in one of the several things. We waist the first 6-12 months trying to find work to do, go home because they feel like they’re not making a change, or they take the 2 years as a vacation. A lot of us are placed in host family situations where we are not well fed or there are safety concerns and the housing coordinator is known for either not responding or placing the blame on the volunteers.
Our PCMOs (Peace Corps Medical Officers) are in the same line. Although Peace Corps recognizes the need for medical volunteers in Guyana, our staff nurse and doctor are both Guyanese. So medical standards, acceptable bedside manner, even the diagnostic and assessment process falls short. A lot of us thought that we would have US medical care providers, so I think it is good for future volunteers to be aware they will need to be I own medical advocates.
November 21, 2017
I am sure if anyone considering Peace Corps has made it to this point in my post, they are wondering whether I think my service has been worth it, whether if I were to do it again if I would sign up for Peace Corps. Honestly, at this point, I would probably not re-sign up for Peace Corps, as it was not the job I thought I was signing up for and would probably apply for something that would utilize my nurse training more. BUT that is not to say I regret the last 10 months. Submerging yourself into a new culture is such a unique, perspective-broadening experience. I met some really amazing people that have impacted me in countless ways. I hope I was able to leave Guyana a better place than when I arrived, even if my changes were on a more individual basis than a systemic change like I originally planned.