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Staying Happy and Productive

In the "Cult of Escapism": Staying Happy and Productive

Monday, August 8, 2011

Staying Happy and Productive

I first considered the title “Staying Sane” but realized that Peace Corps volunteers don’t really risk losing their minds completely. Except Doug, who now refers to himself, in the third person, as “Quailman” and wears underpants on his head at all times. No wait, that’s from the cartoon show Doug. I’m imagining things now…maybe I should reconsider the title…
Seriously though, if you don’t take care of yourself in the Peace Corps, you become unhappy and lose your motivation, which affects your work, which means you have less to do so you lose more motivation and…spiral. Bad. So what do you do if you’re the only white person for 60 miles or more and no one else speaks English or can possibly imagine your previous life and you eat rice and root vegetables every meal and it rains every day and you can’t even watch one Yankees-Red Sox series the whole season? Here are some bullets of advice:  
Go out and talk to people 
Peace Corps makes a big point of recommending this during training and trainees unanimously seem to think, “Uh, screw that.” If you’re down, you want to talk to people who you can relate to right? And how can anyone in town possibly relate to what you’re going through? Well, they can’t relate perfectly, but humans all have the same emotional spectrum and if you tell someone you’re down cause you miss home, they’ll almost certainly understand. (They already think you’re bizarre for ditching your family and home and travelling hundreds of miles to live with them so they won’t be offended if you confess to being lonely or homesick.)
I’m not a big emotional conversation type of person so I just generally locate someone I like and hang with them for a few hours. For me, story tellers, jokesters, and activity people are the best. If I don’t feel like talking, the story tellers take my mind elsewhere. Jokesters make me laugh. With activity people, I’m forced to concentrate on something else.
My third host dad, Roberto, is a good example of a story teller and activity person combined. A typical visit with him usually features several stories about “the old days” (i.e. tribal Ngäbes) and a trip to his farm. He also typically feeds me. So after three hours of thinking about old Ng be rituals and planting rice, I’m generally feeling better, or at least different.
Not everyone helps as much as Roberto but it’s surprising how many people can make you feel better if you visit them. Touché Peace Corps.
Stay Busy
Ok, this isn’t always within your control professionally – some sites are real small and demand one main project that you can’t work on every day. But, in most sites, you can throw yourself at any opportunity, even if it isn’t a strong area for you.

For example, I work with two cooperatives, a tourism group, 11 small store owners, an environmental and community development organization and will soon (hopefully) be teaching computer and environmental classes in the school. Will I be working on all of these things for the next year and a half? No. Do I work with one of these organizations every day? No. but these myriad options give me something to do most days of the month until one or several main projects begin to dominate more time (right now tourism seems to be the looming frontrunner). So if I spend a day visiting houses or reading in my hammock, I feel like I’ve earned it, because I’m working most days. If you don’t earn the hammock, you feel useless – the most dangerous emotion in the Peace Corps.


Exercise releases endorphins – the chemical that makes you feel good (and which is artificially released by many recreational drugs). I play volleyball and soccer whenever I can and exercise at home every day. Not every community has sports, or even a good place to jog, but every home has a floor (for push-ups or sit ups) and most have a farm nearby – and that’s some serious exercise.

Some say it’s awkward when community members see you jogging or doing yoga. Excuses. You look like an alien anyway, plus you’ll be setting a good example. I once finished a set of sit ups at home while a visiting kid colored in a coloring book three feet away. Awkward? He didn’t care one bit. People will get used to it, the same way they get used to understanding your shitty gringo Spanish.

Call if you can

I’m lucky enough to have cell service in site. Not everyone does, but all at least have a pay phone or can hike up to a spot with service. Other Peace Corps volunteers are great for venting. My parents call about every week (though they often somehow get connected to a confused latina:
Quien habla?
Is Jack there??

Occasionally, I even call friends in the States. Calling home can be depressing – you hear about your friends having fun without you, sports you can’t watch and food you can’t eat. But you also realize that those same friends will still be there in two years. So will the Red Sox and so will Buffalo wings (how I miss thee). When you call, you hear a familiar voice, which is comforting and you also often realize, “Nothing’s changing back home – I should put my head down and enjoy Panama while I’m here.”

Treat yourself

As a human, I get an inordinate amount of pleasure from food and music. Friends and family often send me packages from the states with food (thank you thank you); I store it. That crucial bag of Jelly Beans or peanut butter crackers sits tight in Tupperware until the depression hits me and I feel like crap. Then I open the bag and slowly eat the contents. Ooohhh yeah.

Certain music also works like medicine. During host family living, when babies screamed and dogs howled and roosters would not shut up, Radiohead’s In Rainbows saved me (and probably the roosters) multiple times. Now, the nostalgia and comedy combination of Blink-182’s music makes me smile. Bands with a complete sound like Led Zeppelin or the Red Hot Chili Peppers distract me as I focus on listening to each instrument.

Reading is a popular but dangerous remedy, because it’s such a solitary activity, but it can work. Site-mate Laura reserves magazines for tough days. I read Dave Barry and think about how funny his Peace Corps book would be. The common mistake though, is reading at home alone when visiting some community members is actually a better option.

Be Dave

You might remember Dave from Run Through the Jungle. Dave has an activity specific to each day of the week: Monday he takes his malaria pill and crazy dreams ensue; Tuesday he plays soccer; Wednesday he checks off 1% of service completed; Thursday is Snickers day (the highlight) and so on. He also, in an effort to save money, lives off of $1.50 a day (btw $2 a day or less is considered extreme poverty anywhere in the world). This type of rigid discipline makes each day distinct and ensures that yes, time is passing. Then again, Dave’s such a nerd, he actually enjoys studying for the LSAT. I prefer to stuff my face with beef jerky.

Like everything else in Peace Corps, you deal with being down in your own way. The important thing is to find in site remedies, rather than relying on escaping to the nearest city. Unless the Sox play the Yankees in the playoffs – then I’m off to find a TV.


At August 9, 2011 at 10:54 AM , OpenID marieinthepc said...

Hello there,
I am a PC Applicant and I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed this post. I appreciate the candor and humor. Keep up the great writing.


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