I hope everyone has been doing well and enjoying the fall weather! I just wanted to drop in and keep everyone updated on the most recent, yet upsetting development for me. It has been 3 months now in the Peace Corps and I have just resigned my post in Peru.
I would first like to say that through all of this, I still believe that the Peace Corps is an incredible organization that is contributing a world of promise those that need it and, for those that are right for this experience, providing an incredible opportunity personally and professionally. I wish I was able to articulate the process behind this decision but I guess I’m still figuring it out myself and admitting what the situation has come to. I guess I’ll start from the beginning. For the past three months I had been experiencing what has been and probably will be the most interesting yet difficult experience I’ll see for a while. From eating raw cow heart, rice and potatoes every day, cold bucket baths outside every 4 days, sleeping with the fleas while my “estera” roof trickles in with the rain, all while trying to communicate in a Quechua-influenced Spanish language has been anything but normal!
I think my Water and Sanitation program and I built around 10 latrines over the training time in even poorer communities than I was living in (Yanacoto)... one of the most moving and humbling experiences possible. Some of these communities are thousands of years old but no more than 30 families live up there at about 10,000ft in the Andes Mountains still with no running water or electricity due to a 9 hour walk to the nearest other small community. In my first latrine assignment in another volunteer’s site, the family was made up of about 12 people, all sleeping in one seemed like one room. Between mixing cement, rebar and laying brick we helped them boil 7 kilos of potatoes then peel them with our nails and dry them to last them about 4 months of food (besides the few chickens and guinea pig running around). They had absolutely nothing; just the grass hut and fire wood where the 90 year old great-grandmother cooked bent over after 10 hours in the chakra gathering the food. They had nothing and somehow they were still one of the more wealthy families in the pueblo.
Right before this site visit I was in Bernales, Ica, Peru where I proudly survived my first bacterial infection!! I was in Bernales with my WatSan group building a ecological bathroom when I fell sick around 6am. It hit me within a matter a minutes. I tried to walk down to get help from my advisor and collapsed in the dirt road from the pressure in my stomach and the shaking from my fever of 102. Incredibly, this poor little woman saw this dying gringo in the road and pulled my in to her grass hut with a dirt floor, wrapped me in blankets with the 5 other people living in the one room house where I proceeded to be face down in a latrine vomiting for about an hour while at the same time having what is known as stage 7 diarreah (aka... pooping in your pants). This crazy little witch woman fed me her herbal teas which worked slightly as I vomited shaking on her floor and finally taken to the health post. I got shipped back to my home town where I didn´t get out of bed for about 30 hours. I think I was finally a real Peace Corps trainee with that! I definitely have some street credibility with that :)
A few weeks ago I got my new site that would serve as my home base for work for the two years. I was assigned to a small town of 3,500 (plus another 5k in all the annexes which were about 30-45 min walk out) called Herbay Alto in the district of San Vicente de Canete. It was nestled between a small river and the ocean. But unfortunately, even being so close to the beach the environment couldn’t make me happy enough. My mayor highly resembled Don Quixote with his long mustache, goatee and long hair tucked in to his hat. This is where some of my frustrations with my site began. For a mayor that was supposed to be my counterpart and my main source for work he was noticeable absent on 5 separate occasions all during my week long site visit where he had wanted to present me to the town (which I had to do myself, yikes! although my Spanish wasn’t half bad!) and show me the small annexes where the poorer population was. He was quite the frustrating person who unfortunately even my new host mom admitted was absent from most activities and liked to work mainly by himself.
For Americans, we pride ourselves on being timely when it comes to work and appointments. This is not the case for Peruvians. The first of 3 attendees showed up for my presenting to the town around about 2.45 hours late, and that is normal. I had scheduled about 3 meetings in the town during my first week with the heads of my community but already I could see the frustration in trying to motivate a group that was content in their ways. I guess that’s the challenge – how do you motivate people to change when they have been in their ways for centuries and how to motivate them to take charge instead of put all of the responsibility on the volunteer?
Some of the communities see an American come in and expect them to be the savior that will do all the work themselves and bring all the money possible from the States. I was the first outsider ever in this town. I remember one of my first days in training, one of my WatSan trainers told us that being the first WatSan people in our sites would mean that we would be laying groundwork, not really making huge leaps and bounds. Speaking to other volunteers from groups 12 and 13 it seemed like a consensus for those that are the first “gringos” in their sites, it's more than normal that they will get no work done. They are there to just get the community used to having an outsider in the town and prepare them to have another volunteer that will be able to do real work. I couldn't do that. I guess it was my own lack of being able to change that hindered my involvement. Being brought up as someone that is efficient, hard-working and likes to see results this was so hard for me. I just couldn’t sit around on a stump 14 hours a day, trying to get work done when no one else wanted to put in any effort. It was hard for me to drop my efficiency to then try to motivate others. So how could I ask the people in my town to change to help me when I couldn’t really change myself to work with them?
Thinking about a time frame was very very very difficult for me. It feels like those 11 weeks had gone by so fast but then again it felt like forever that I had been away from the people I miss and love. I never realized until now how important it is to me. I finally saw just exactly how I have always been surrounded by such a tight-knit support group and here I did not have that. I think here is where I felt most exhausted. Not having the close support I have always enjoyed and taken for granted in my family and friends, I guess I never really felt comfortable and never felt like myself. At times it was exhausting in that with a group of 57 type A people it was hard to find your own place. As I was already uncomfortable it seemed to be a struggle to get in a word because every time you add a comment, someone else had quite the experience as a one-up. But again, I will say there is always an exception… I definitely made a few incredible friends that I hope I will never lose, the volunteers there are all incredible people for the commitment they are making and I know they will make an immense difference in the lives of those who need it.
I guess it was just hard to have such a difference experience of the work and people in real life than what I had seen on paper. I had read many times on blogs as well as in the official PC website that one of the most difficult aspects is the isolation and depression that volunteers feel while being so alone in their communities and not being able to speak the language. I was surprised I already left like this in my training community. I think at my site visit is where I hit the point that if I couldn’t even be happy and be myself with a group of 60 Americans, I didn’t see this going positively for myself (my mental health) being alone in a new community where I didn’t necessarily feel the passion for my work. I think it was after the second night of having fleas in my bed on the floor and fourth time someone in my new family had walked in on me in our “bathroom” being sick on our bucket from the un-boiled water when I finally felt like I hit rock bottom. I feel okay with myself that it was not amenities that bothered me. Sure being sick every day from the water and living on 8 soles a day (about $3) was different from being home but I feel like I thrived in that respect. But when I started to feel like I wasn’t myself anymore and didn’t see any positive improvement in my mental wellbeing I had to throw in the towel.
As my family knows, I really wasn’t happy-go-lucky Lexie. I never really felt like a happy person even in the presence of other Americans. Although I gained so many experiences and new perceptions on the world I was losing myself, in retrospect I should have seen it coming as my dad had warned me of the isolation and depression that even those in the Armed Forces feel overseas. It was so shocking and uncomfortable to feel this way. After crying out all of the dirty water I had consumed I couldn’t take anymore of feeling upset.
While sitting in the airport I am already retrospective of things I wish I had done differently to maybe have made it a more successful situation but I know it was the right decision. But it was the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life. Thinking about leaving made me upset; feeling guilty yet happy at the same time. How could I not have really given my new site a chance? How could I just up and leave the PC when I’m already in the country? How can I just turn down the opportunity to help those that truly need it and walk away? How come so many other people could make it through and I couldn’t? There are just so many uncertainties to how I was feeling and my decision which is still making me upset about the situation I had put so much hope in to in showing me who I was and where I was going. It is disappointing to have expected too much of me and this service and not make my goals, but I’m trying to remember all of the experiences I gained in such a small amount of time. My director of the Peru service and I talked for about 2 hours about my site situation and my personal feelings and she helped guide me through my decision. She assured me that it wasn’t failing. I was there in training to do information gathering about the country, culture and the service and after gaining as much information as the training could give me I was able to make an informed decision. It just feels unfortunate that it did not turn out positively after my family and I invested so much in to this.
I’ve certainly seen and been through a lot in what feels like a very small amount of time. For this I might say is where the regret comes in that I could have done so much more in 2 years. It is slightly shameful/embarrassing for my pride to not have reached the goal I set for myself but I will never regret the experience for what I am taking away. I still believe 110% that the Peace Corps is absolutely and incredible agency. They are contributing so much to developing countries and for those that can stick it out, it is a very rewarding experience. But I know it was rewarding to myself as well, even in just a short 3 months. I am proud of myself for learning the language, living in a tiny shack with my incredible training host family and appreciating all of the opportunities I have been given and that are sure to come. I don’t really know at all what is next. I will be heading back to Northern Virginia to be with my family, who through this, I learned how much I missed, rely on and need to value more. After teaching hand washing to tiny little Peruvians I know that working with children is a passion of mine and well as working with those that truly need the help I can give them so hopefully I’ll be looking for something that will be able to give me the same rewarding feeling I felt in my 3 months as a WatSan PCT.
I guess that is all I have for now. I wish I could give more definite answers as to what happened to lead up to this point but I just have to hope this was a gut instinct that will be for the better. I just wanted to thank everyone for being such great support over the last few months, I could not have gotten to where I did without you all. Hope to hear from you all soon, I have missed you all so much and have a great turkey day!