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Peace Corps Reality Check (or “Jeeves, where’s my bathrobe?”)

In the "Cult of Escapism": Peace Corps Reality Check (or “Jeeves, where’s my bathrobe?”)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Peace Corps Reality Check (or “Jeeves, where’s my bathrobe?”)

My parents and sister, Stella, visited me here in Panama from May 12 - May 21. We toured Panama City a little, spent time at some nice beaches and beach resorts (yes, multiple), went to an Eco-lodge in a cloud forest, and finished off the trip in my site. It felt great to be in air conditioning and eat good, diverse, healthy food. It was also nice, of course, to see my family (I hadn't seen my parents in a year). Below is a guest blog post, written by my dad:

"Mo, Stella and I just spent ten days with Jack in Panama, touring the country and spending some time at his site, which was a great experience that allowed us to learn a lot about his daily life in the Peace Corps.  Mostly what I learned is that these Peace Corps volunteers are tough hombres and hombrettes (since my trip to Panama I try to use as much Espanol as possible).  We are talking about mas macho volunteeros, who are way grittier than you or me.  Their daily life consists mainly of extreme heat, humidity, varieties of bugs you’ve never heard of, intestinal stuff that we don’t even want to think about, tasteless foods, lots of mud, outhouses, bats, bat poop, big cultural challenges, communicating solely in another language etc. etc.  These are the good parts of the job – I can’t bring myself to write about the hard stuff. 

This trip was especially useful for me, because as I get closer to retirement from the Foreign Service, I have often thought that a perfect next step in my international career would be to join the Peace Corps. You know, live in a grass hut in an isolated location, and make a real difference by helping those who need help most.  An idyllic, sylvan existence full of simple charms.  Somehow in my mind’s eye, when I pictured the grass hut in which I would be living, I just kind of assumed that inside my hut I would find a nice soft queen size bed, fluffy pillows, a hot shower, refrigerator (maybe even a wine cooler with two zones for reds and whites), soft lighting, and of course, a nice clean bathroom well stocked with fragrant soaps and other bathroom products.  Muy incorrecto mi amigos and amigas!  Having now been at a real Peace Corps site, I can report that the grass huts DO NOT have these sorts of amenities.  There are no beds, and there are definitely no bathrooms overflowing with luxurious personal care products (because there aren’t any bathrooms).  There is however, the very soft lighting I hoped for, because without the electricity that we all take for granted, all you have is either a candle or a kerosene lantern to illuminate your reading - at least my fantasy hasn’t been completely shattered.

What is a typical day like in the Peace Corps?  From what I can tell from my short visit it goes something like this.  Wake up with the sun, feeling un poco sweaty and a bit dirty because you can never really get completely clean from your evening bucket shower.  Crawl out from under your  mosquito netting and take a quick inventory of the evening’s insect bites (hopefully they’re only insect bites), make a trip to the outhouse (which I can assure you is NOT one of life’s simple pleasures, although to be honest, I’m only guessing about this because I did my best to avoid outhouses while in Panama), prepare a basic breakfast that most definitely does not include things that require refrigeration, such as milk, butter, yogurt etc. and also does not include anything that requires electricity, like toast, waffles or that nice hot cup of coffee from your Mr. Coffee machine.  Get dressed in your hand washed clothes, or just wear the same clothes you’ve been wearing for the past few days, check shoes for scorpions and tarantulas (really), and then head out to do some good.  This of course is why you are here.  Since there are no cars or any kind of public transportation in your little village, you will of course be walking to your meeting, which is probably about two hours away, straight up hill on a bucolic dirt path (hope that it’s not raining).  Upon reaching your destination, wait around a few hours for everyone to show up, and then conduct your meeting in a foreign language that you’re still learning.  On a good day, people are actually interested in what you’re saying - on a bad day you’re greeted with blank stares.  Wrap up the meeting, walk home, prepare a simple meal before it gets too dark to see what you’re doing, read by candle light and go to bed.  Next day – get up and do it again - for the next two years.

Yup, this is not your typical day job, and I now know that you have to be a special person to be a Peace Corps volunteer (and to be honest, I don’t think I’m that kind of special person).  I of course, am already mucho impressed with my son Jack, but having seen how he’s now living and what he’s doing, I’m even more impressed.  This could be dismissed as fatherly pride, but I also met two of Jack’s colleagues (also Peace Corps volunteers), and I was equally inspired by their dedication and great attitudes.  Laura, who is also affectionately known as Coffee Lady because she graciously made us coffee each morning by boiling the water, and then patiently pouring it through a tiny filter that could handle about a thimbleful of water at a time, is also living at Jack’s site.  She’s a lovely young woman who is teaching English and advising on tourism.  We also met Scott, affectionately known as Toilet Boy (though now that I’ve thought about it, since he’s 6 ft. 4 inches tall, he should probably be known as Toilet Man), who has a two-hour hike just to get to his site.  This is a guy who is really getting his hands dirty, because his day job is building outhouses.  Now that’s dedication!  

These volunteers are living pretty rough, but I believe they are comforted by the sure knowledge that they are helping people that few others care to help.  From my perspective as a career diplomat, it is clear to me that these admirable young Americans exemplify diplomacy at its best.  So, my hat is off to PCVs all over the world.  From what I saw in Panama, the Peace Corps really is, “the toughest job you’ll ever love”. "

Here are some pictures of the trip:

Inside the Panama Canal

Enjoying some gin on the beach

An inter-cultural exchange

At the fireplace at the Eco-lodge (it's cold up there!)

The family in front of my house


At June 29, 2011 at 11:33 AM , Blogger Scott Mortensen said...

Jacko, I just got around to reading your dad´s post. It is nice to get praise from a real black belt (or career diplomat, if you prefer) like your pops. It was also hilarious to hear an outsiders perspective. Great to to meet and spend time with your fam. ¡Poco Pollo Puedo! (I hope I got that right).


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