Peace Corps Affected Me
a letter to a friend
Peace Corps definitely changed my perceptions. It's hard to
explain... and we knew it would be hard to explain... People
ask about Peace Corps and, like, what do you say? How can
you sum it up in a few sentences, without being too trite,
or going on too long and boring people. Because, all the time,
people ask "Peace Corps? How was that?"
usually say something along the lines of, "it was like
spending a year to climb a mountain, and then being rewarded
by the view of the valley and landscape below."
by that I mean not just that I could see where I came from,
but where I stood. Before I traveled I was in a forest, not
really seeing beyond where I was. Then I got this view...
like how you're so hemmed in among the buildings in NYC and
you crave to get out on a roof and see, just see, look around
you. Now I can see around me. It's like a vision you can never
I'm rambling a bit, and being vague. Let me start at the beginning.
around the US taught me quite a bit. I was trying to get in
touch with something inside me at that point, living ascetically
and renouncing material posessions. I spent most of my money
on gas for my car, which seemed terribly appropriate. I ate
spaghetti and cream of wheat. I ate in a soup kitchen for
a while. Tried panhandling but it was hard, I didn't enjoy
it. I spent a lot of time in small towns, because those were
the gateways to the national forests with free campgrounds.
I found, over and over, that it was OK to trust people. People's
reactions to a young woman travelling alone was generally
to take care of me. I looked weird -- nosering and short hair
-- but never had any trouble. There were a few instances in
which I felt I had to be careful, and I got a bit scared,
but it always worked out OK.
still remember a lot of people I met on that trip - the artist
in Boone, NC, who took me to his sculpture studio; Larry,
the 45 year old who lived with his mom and brought me firewood
in Virginia; this shaggy-haired guy who tried to pick me up
at a campground near Savannah, Georgia; an old friend of my
grandmother who's 80-something and lives in a Baptist home
in Georgia and talked to me about religion and answered some
of my questions, and told me that I worshipped the Creation
(the world) instead of the Creator (God) (she's right, by
I grew up in an all-white college town. Traveling these other
small towns taught me quite a bit about what the Average Joe
voter is. I find it hard to get upset like some people do
about how people vote and the way that this country goes.
I think about those sorts of people and what I think they
want and how their situation is... it makes a bit more sense
to me. It's easy to forget how most people think, and how
they are just as immersed in their everyday environment as
we are. Of course they distrust scientists, of course they
get annoyed when we change our minds about whether global
warming is happening, of course they want a tax cut. Makes
sense to me.
then when I went into Peace Corps it taught me even more about
America. I mean, here were these people who saw Arnold Schwartzenegger
in all these movies and thought that we just went around killing
people all the time. And I'd look at this movie, that we just
take for granted, and think, my god, we MADE this movie, we
ENJOY watching people get slaughtered, this made a lot of
MONEY. It's really weird when you stop for a moment, time
freezes, and you suddenly see your own culture for how utterly
BIZARRE it is. I enjoy Schwartzenegger as much as anyone...
but still. Step outside. And it's like, wait a minute.
how we worship science. I'd start to give a scientific explanation
of why something worked and their eyes would glaze over. At
first I thought, dumb peasants. And then I thought, you know,
it just doesn't matter to them! It's not what matters. Why
should they care about this system of thought, this logical
way of looking at things? There are things that are much more
important to them. Family, relationships, their place in their
community, what they will eat tomorrow, whether their kid
needs to go to the doctor.
taught me, too, a lot about why Americans aren't that interested
so, why is science important? I think it's only important
in so far as it helps us make decisions that help us get what
we want in life. As a world-view... it's something I enjoy,
but not everybody has to. I'd love to communicate my excitement
about it to people who are interested. Otherwise, it's a habit
of mind which can be useful in making decisions and living
my view of science as a world view was really affected by
Guinea. Have you read Thomas Kuhn, the structure of scientific
revolutions? You should...
also I learned about how many resources Americans use, and
waste. It's amazing. It's really really amazing. I was an
environmentalist before, but now even more so. I mean, they
would re-use a plastic bag over and over and over until you
couldn't anymore. We just throw all this stuff away. It's
so over-packaged. It looks so wealthy.
we also have so many things that save us so much time. It
doesn't take us all day to prepare a meal for 8 children.
We have all this good health care. We have so much opportunity.
We can really choose a lot of what we do and what happens
to us. I realized that as a white upper class educated person,
I'm in the top 0.1% or something of the world in terms of
opportunity, education, and wealth. Now, sure, I knew that
statistic before. But when you're looking at the people who
are the rest of the world... boy, it really hits home.
one of the most important things I realized...
was there in my village one day, feeling groovy, sitting and
eating tea, trying to tell the Guineans how great Guinea was.
They were always so down on it, and saying that as Africans
they're so poor. I'd say, but hey, we have no community anymore
in America, just because we have money we're not happy, we
don't talk to our neighbors, we just work all the time, we
don't sit with our families for hours like you do.
then I realized how hollow that all was.
I had a choice.
could be there in Guinea, or I could leave. They couldn't
leave. Not really. They could travel around West Africa, if
they found the money, but they were always stuck in that eschelon
of the world. And it's an eschelon of the world that sometimes
made it difficult for me to breathe, I wanted to get out of
could travel and look in and experience and leave. They, on
the other hand, were stuck down among the buildings of New
York just as I had been before going to Guinea, unable to
see the sky, unable to see the view or where they stood. But
I had the power to go and see other places, and choose where
to stay. They didn't.
choice is about power. I realized how much power I have.
power is kind of scary. I don't think people realize how much
power they have, and how that translates to having power over
other people. Because if you have power, someone else doesn't.
And we make these decisions that affect other people -- free
trade is one example.
partially why I feel so frozen in making decisions about my
life. I have this huge opportunity, such privilege, so what
do I DO with it? I want to do something good.
does that answer your question of how Peace Corps and travel
affected me? It's so hard to explain. It's one of those things
that it's nothing like what you expect until you get there,
and then all the gaps fill in and you're like, oh, of course,
this is what it is. And since the gaps filled in, you can't
remember how you thought of it before you went. And even if
you could, you couldn't explain the difference because you
just have to be there. Like you can't explain the taste of
chocolate, or really prepare someone for what it's going to
be like to go to high school, or know what it's like to have
an orgasm until you actually have one.