As my Peace Corps service is coming to an end, I thought it would be fitting to reflect on the past 27 months. Twenty-seven months of living and working in a completely unfamiliar land, witnessing and participating in events and ceremonies completely foreign and at times enigmatic. After 27 months, I have acquired a new home, a second family, and memories and experiences to last a lifetime. Here are ten things I learned during my Peace Corps service.
- Two years really isn’t that long, kind of
When deciding to apply to become a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), one of the most daunting facts – aside from the isolation, learning a new language and not really understanding what you will be doing – is the two-year commitment. I remember thinking to myself, two years? That is half of my undergraduate career, I could obtain my masters in that amount of time – I could do many things in that amount of time. But when it comes down to it, two years really isn’t that long, especially in grassroots development.
Peace Corps is a time warp – days may drag on but weeks and months fly by with lighting speed. When completing large or even minuscule tasks, arranging meetings, obtaining supplies and actually implementing project can take weeks if not months. Yes, time did drag on at some points; however, at the end of service I found myself asking “where did all the time go.” Two years really isn’t as long as it may seem.
- No matter where you go, you will always meet amazing people
When transplanted to an unfamiliar territory where English is the foreign language and rudimentary tasks such as using the toilet are seen as complicated, it may appear that loneliness is inevitable. While I did have bouts of feeling alone and desolate, I spent more time meeting some of the most amazing people on planet earth. Whether it was my host mom of two-years who provided me with laughter, a full heart and always ensured I was fed or whether it was the village president who spent endless energy to help ensure a project came to fruition, I can honestly say I have met some of the most kindhearted people during my time in Nepal.
And it is not just the locals. The 19 fellow volunteers who started this journey with me soon became family. I can say that it is unlikely any of us would have befriended one another in the U.S., but I would not trade a single one of them for the world. Without them, this experience would have been close to impossible.
- You really can live without wifi, a refrigerator, and running water
The luxuries of America are what many believe will be the hardest to let go of when embarking on an experience such as Peace Corps. When toilet paper becomes a thing of the past and boiled goat blood is the hot dish at the neighborhood cookout, one quickly realizes living without first-world amenities – or the lack-there-of – are one of the easiest things to grow accustom to. Being able to check e-mail once a week, if that, was invigorating. The act of fetching water provided me with a sense of what many people around the world go through in order to survive on a daily basis, but also made me realize how grateful I am for proper sewage and pipelines in the United States.
Not having a refrigerator may have resulted in more gastrointestinal problems as whole, but also allowed me to learn that the majority of items Americans place in the refrigerator can almost always be left out in the open. Bottom line: it can be rejuvenating and informative to let go of some of those amenities we think are essential for survival.
- How to fail, and fail miserably, but pick back up and go at it again
If there is one thing that grassroots community-led development does well, it is to show how to fail, but pick back up and go at it again. I cannot count the number of times a project did not come to fruition or a program transpired but in a way that was unexpected or unfitting. Before coming to Peace Corps, I thought I had failed at several stages in life. But Peace Corps demonstrates firsthand the true definition of failure and makes sure you understand it over and over again. Failure only made those small – and large – victories that much more meaningful.
- The meaning of friends and family
Leaving behind practically everything and moving halfway around the world, with only a few suitcases in tow, one quickly realizes the meaning of family and friends. I can honestly say this experience could not have been accomplished without support and encouragement from those back home. Whether it was texts, e-mails, care packages, or thoughtful donations for projects – or a combination of all – you have no idea how much it meant.
Distance only makes friendships that much closer, and I can honestly say that being gone for so long, I truly value and honor those that kept in touch and support me along the way. This experience has shown me how important my family and friends mean to me and that I could not have done it without them.
- The importance of culture, traditions and language
Never will I travel to a foreign destination again without learning at least a smidgen of culture and language prior to arrival. Being immersed in a new culture and seeing the impacts – both positive and negative – it has on villages, towns, and the country as a whole, has given me a sense of how important it is to learn and respect cultures around the globe. Nepal is one of the most culturally vibrant countries I have experienced. Almost everything and anything someone does is ingrained in cultural values and traditions. While some customs cannot be explained and are simply repeated based upon past generations, I have found it fascinating and enlightening to see and experience this culturally rich country.
Learning a language, even if it is only a few words, gains the respect of the locals almost as quickly as wearing their traditional clothing. Being that this is the first foreign language I have become conversational in and must utilize on a daily basis, I have seen the happiness it brings to the locals when they see a foreigner speak to them in their own dialect. Learning a new language has been exciting and daunting, but it has encouraged me to learn more languages and taught me how a little bit of language can go a long way.
- My love and admiration for the United States
Before I left the U.S. to embark on this adventure of a lifetime, I considered myself patriotic and proud to be an American. However, spending over two years in a different country, far removed from American values, traditions and customs, I developed a true sense of nationalism that can only be acquired from time spent outside the United States of America. I think it is safe to say that my love and admiration for the U.S. grew exponentially with time served in the Peace Corps. While I do love a good adventure, I will always find my way back home to the United States.
- Small changes can make large impacts
Though I did not directly save lives or pull a village out of poverty, I did initiate small meaningful projects that have potential to make large impacts over time. Being in a rural village with limited resources taught me how important it is to keep sight of the larger problem while implementing small doable actions that can sustainably tackle the overarching goal. Almost nothing can be done overnight to solve a complex issue – especially in grassroots development. Once I learned that, it made the implementation of the smaller, more doable projects that much more meaningful.
- “Sanitary” has a new definition
Showering bi-monthly and gorging off of the same plates as goats and chickens, and being okay with it, truly redefines the definition of “sanitary.” With each passing day, my tolerance of disgusting and repulsive situations steadily rose. Finding a hair in my food is a daily occurrence and wearing the same clothes for a week straight is anything but unusual. Not only can I eat any food prepared void of utensils, I can also use the bathroom without the use of toilet paper – using different hands for each act, of course. Having the shower and the designated area for animal sacrifice and dissection occupy the same space took time to grow accustom to. In the end, my definition of sanitary, cleanliness, and repulsive have been altered.
One re-occurring theme throughout my 27 months was experiencing the thrill of exploring new and unfamiliar land. Whether it was exploring my village and finding various temples and vantage points or trying buffalo brain for the first time – and last – or standing in front of an entire primary school and giving a speech in Nepali, I learned and grew from each experience. Being outside of my comfort zone for the past two-years has been both exciting and terrifying, thrilling and dull. But no matter how low the lows go, the highs always prevail. One of the many take away messages from this experience is to explore, and do so often. Pushing myself out of my comfort zone and living life on the edge has opened new and exciting opportunities and perspectives that would not have been known if I had not explored.
My Peace Corps experience has been everything but what I thought it would have been. I have learned more than I have taught, I have grown more than I have given, and I have changed more than I have been able to influence healthy behavior changes in others. I would not trade this experience for anything and am excited to see where the next adventure will take me.