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Our Life: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and “Love” the Peace Corps

I know this is long, but pay attention cause this one is oh so important…

(Just in case you have a short attention span, I’ve laced this article with puppy pictures to hold your attention. Also, don’t just skim it for the puppy pictures. They’re supposed to be a reward for reading that far.)

puppy 01

Serving in the Peace Corps is extremely challenging. Period.

I think it’s easy for most of you to imagine some of those challenges (i.e. no A/C, hot water, cable, lot of bugs, etc). But I’m not sure if you can so easily understand the major challenges we face everyday. It’s different for every Volunteer (even on the same tiny island), but for us, well, we don’t have anything close to an office job. And while we don’t have to go into an office or report to someone everyday, we live at work. I may sit in my living room working on the computer all day, walk up the road and see what’s going on and talk to people, travel to Port Antonio and use the internet, or just clean the house. But I have no work hours so if someone comes by at 7:00am or 10:30pm and wants to talk or ask me something I’m back on the clock. So while ours is hardly the most intensive job on island, it is a 24/7 job. Our house is at work. Every taxi I ride in is at work. Every shop I buy something from, every street I walk down, every group of people I sit around with, every person I talk to… I’m at work. And if for no other purpose I’m simply at work as an ambassador for the United States of America. (You might find this hard to believe, but some people don’t think the US is all that great.) I never blend in. I never go unrecognized. Everyone thinks I’m rich and that money is no object to me. Everyone notices everything I do. I’m a celebrity in the worst ways.

Having said that, this time we’ve been given in Peace Corps is like none other. Remember how “time” was in college? You had things to do and it definitely got stressful, but you still had amazing amounts of time to spend with others and truly develop lasting friendships. It was remarkable. Well, Peace Corps certainly isn’t college, but it’s similar in the amount of time (and money) you’re afforded. So not only do we have the time to sit around and visit with Jamaicans, but we also have ample time to ourselves to think about and evaluate life and things we place importance on and why. And the beautiful part is we get to evaluate these things without the usual complications of life getting in the way and clouding the issues. The biggest one being money. We can’t go buy anything we want whenever we want, but we don’t have to worry about whether we can eat this week or not. There aren’t many things around us to even spend money on (as far as material items are concerned). We could buy lots of expensive food and alcohol, but that’s really not much of thrill. We aren’t tempted by new clothes or electronics or media because none of them are anywhere to be found near us! And we aren’t on the internet enough to find things to spend money on. So we neither worry about money nor dwell on what to use it for. It’s refreshing.

So clearly it’s a unique and temporary situation that most of us aren’t afforded. (Mentally, it’s like a weekend retreat that lasts 2 years (with a few more responsibilities)). However, maybe that’s what we need sometimes to see things clearer. Which brings me to my main idea: Perspective. How do we gain perspective and how to we hold onto it? I think the short answer is suffering. You truly learn things and hold onto them better when you practice and struggle through them. So why would gaining perspective on our life be any different? We’re so fast to complain when someone pulls out in front of us or the internet is too slow or we have to drive too far or cell phone signal is bad, or in other words, when something causes us discomfort or we’re inconvenienced. And rather than embracing that discomfort and stepping back and realizing how easy we’ve had it till now, we just get caught up in it and get angry. And it’s this anger and frustration that I find so peculiar. I mean, on what do we base this frustration? Where do we get the right to complain about a way of life that people in other countries only dream of? Simple. We feel entitled to it. For some reason, over time we develop a sense of entitlement that makes absolutely no sense. You don’t deserve better drivers on the road around you. You don’t deserve a good paying job. You don’t deserve a car, a loving family, a roof over your head, a computer, a government that actually seems to care about your well being. These are all blessings and not promised to anyone.

But again, I can tell you to appreciate what you have till I’m blue in the face, but that doesn’t mean it’ll stick. I really don’t think it can stick unless you’re willing to learn from your discomfort.

Do you get furious when someone cuts you off or drives too close to you? Easy. Go drive in a country that doesn’t even have lines on its roads.

Don’t like your family? I know several that would motivate you to write a letter of apology and thanks to yours after 30min.

Think you should have a better car? Take the bus for a week.

I suppose there’s not really a specific solution for everything, but the common denominator is suffering (to some degree). It’s the only way to truly appreciate things in your life. I remember the first time I realized this I was in Boy Scouts and we’d go camping or hiking for a week and you had to boil and purify all your water. Every time I came home from one of those trips and turned on the sink I was just so thankful and would tell myself, “Don’t forget how much you appreciate water!” But we do forget. It’s only natural.

What’s funny is that when we first arrived at our site I wondered how on earth anyone could live this far out in the middle of nowhere and how do they eat and survive and what do they do in their spare time. But after almost a year of things out here and visiting other volunteers and whatnot, I love our spot and wouldn’t dare trade it. Yes, we’re an hour and a half from the nearest store /internet /convenience. Yes, we get unbelievable amounts of rain and mold grows on anything that sits still long enough. Yes there’s no structure up here whatsoever and it’s all up to us to make things happen. But our community is small enough that we know all our neighbors. We don’t have to worry about someone stealing from us. With that 200in of rain/yr comes an ABUNDANCE of clean drinking water. I know volunteers who have to collect the water they wash dishes with to water their plants. We can actually leave our water running all day and it literally makes no difference (it comes from a pipe in an always running stream and there’s no water storage to waste). We have our own house, a place we can find rest and reprieve from the world. Our electricity is fairly constant (weak, but constant). And with that lack of work structure comes a very flexible schedule that allows us more time for people. We have a refrigerator. One of our good friends does not. It get’s hot here in the day, but the nights are generally quite pleasant. We don’t have hot water, but I’m starting to think it’s overrated anyway.

UPDATE: We got hot water! Seriously. When we went to Treasure Beach on the 4th of July our landlord put it in. He actually tricked us and said he just needed to fix a wire while we were out. Came back and there was a hot water heater in the spare bedroom. Crazy. I don’t use it much now but come winter time… bOOyah.

The bottom line: We’ve got an amazing location and life. Yes, there are plenty of people who have it better, but so many more that have it so much worse. So regardless of how much I complain about things, I know we’re extremely blessed.

(Did I mention how awesome our cat is? He catches and eats the bat-sized moths that terrorize us at night.)

I try and think of the things that people ARE entitled to in this world. Honestly, I’m not sure if there’s anything people are simply entitled to. I think people should have access to clean water and food. But you get into more complications when you talk about what we do deserve since there are in fact things our governments should provide based on the taxes we pay them. So I digress…

But as far as the idea of “perspective” goes it’s not just about appreciating things. It’s also about seeing things differently.

puppy 02

Waste & Recycling

People that buy bottled water in bulk or on a regular basis (Village Chapel I’m looking in your direction!)… What are you doing?? If you haven’t heard yet, bottled water is one of the worst environmental problems to develop in our lifetime. A) It creates a ton of plastic waste, B) the water is always taken from some ecosystem that was already based around that water source, and C) the regulations for bottled water are far less stringent than those placed on our tap water (so the water may taste better but typically it’s no cleaner). Plus we’ve already spent decades perfecting our (the USA’s) piped water system which the best in the world. Why on earth would you spend extra money on (generally) lower quality water in plastic?? Okay let me calm down. I understand getting bottled water here and there. Sometimes I’m out and I run out of water or the water was out that morning and I couldn’t fill my bottle so I’ll get some. However, buying it all the time as your source of water for when you go out or for just around the house is an enormous waste. Tons of companies make tons of long lasting bottles (eg. Nalgene, Platypus, etc) for everyday use. There’s simply no good reason for supporting the bottled water industry.

When I was younger and the idea of “recycling” kind of got big, I can specifically remember thinking, “This is really stupid. How big of a difference can throwing our cans in a separate bin really make?” Well, coming from a person who now must find a new use or means of disposal for every plastic and glass bottle, tin can, and whatever else I’m done with, it makes a huge difference. Huge like, we have the power to change the way our kids see and respect the planet. Before we left for Jamaica, Jess and I went a saw a movie about river pollution on the IMAX. There were tons of kids in there watching and I just remember thinking, “How incredible is it that these kids will never know anything other than ‘Our planet is in danger and it’s worth fighting for?’” They won’t ever have to think, “Well, when I was little we NEVER had to recycle or reuse.” It’ll just be ingrained in them from the start. I think that’s pretty awesome.

Anyway… I know it’s easier to throw it all in a bag, have someone pick it up and never think about it again. But let’s be honest, when it comes to our environment, we’re beyond the “easier” days. Besides recycling nowadays really isn’t that difficult. Before I left I set up paper recycling at my old office. It was as simple as calling someone in town and having them bring over a bin. They came and picked it up every week. All for free. Even if it takes an extra step or two to find a proper place for your plastic and glass, just think, at least that step isn’t having to burn or bury it….

puppy 04

Money

This is a hard one for me… because I really like money. I like buying “things,” but more so I like not worrying about having enough money for food, gifts, fun, etc. So anyway, I like making as much money as I can. I worked as a Civil Engineer for the 3yrs before this. It’s what I went to school for. I made plenty of money at my job and was treated about as well as anyone can ask for. However, I sat all day at a computer and worked on things I wasn’t extremely passionate about. When I get back I’ll probably go back to engineering to get my P.E. simply because I have one year left before I can test for it and I think it’d be a huge waste not to get it. However, nowadays I’m starting to wonder: How much money is enough? (Again, I realize we’re in a special situation, but…) I get about US$400 to live on each month. About US$100 of that goes to rent, probably about US$50 goes to transportation and the remaining US$250 goes towards everything else (food, fun, etc) (and food is not cheap here) (yeah, about US$8/day for food). So, am I less happy than when I made several thousand dollars per month? No. Not at all actually. Do I want to live off $400/mo for the rest of my life? No. But I’m not unhappy in any way due to the amount of money we make. This lifestyle certainly makes me appreciate having an education and a good paying job and it makes me realize how easy we had it before.

Right, so I’m not saying we don’t need money. Hardly. I definitely think the more money you make, the more complicated and worry-filled life can get (mo’ money means mo’ problems). But, NOT having enough money makes life miserable. Have you ever spent much time with people who truly don’t have enough money. Everything is a struggle for them. One day I was at FedEx in Kingston and I watched this older man come in with an envelope of photographs to mail. He came in, got help filling out the forms, and waited an hour in line (like everyone else). It got to his turn, everything was packaged and ready, and the lady at the counter wanted to know how many photos he was mailing. So he took it all back out and counted them. Then when she asked for payment, whichever method he’d chosen (it wasn’t complicated) required a passport or similar paperwork. He had neither, so he couldn’t mail anything. So now half his working day was gone and whatever the bus fair was. Has that ever happened to you? Chances are no. That’s because people in our socio-economic status typically don’t have to put up with that bullshit. So here it is: Poor people get crapped on all the time. They do not have it easy.

Another example… the electric company here accidentally charges someone JM$200,000 instead of JM$2,000. They tell the electric company that’s not right and what’s their response? “Well just pay it and we’ll sort it out next month.” And if the person doesn’t? Easy. The electric company comes out and cuts off their power and the person has to pay JM$5,000 to reconnect. Boom. Crapped on.

Poorer people don’t have the same widespread access to information (i.e. internet) as we do. Therefore they’re subject to corruption and taken advantage of far more than you or I and continually stuck in their economic status. Seeing this day in and day out is infuriating. It’s like, honestly, are you trying to piss off God? Because taking advantage of the poor and/or children will bump you right to the top of His “to-do” list. (See: Jesus in the Temple.)

So yes, having money makes many parts of life less stressful. BUT back to my original question: How much is enough? Is it worth working a job you don’t care about just to make a lot of money? If you could make less, but enough money to take care of you doing something you’re passionate about, would you? What if it meant a major change in lifestyle? How much money do you need??

I’ve still got some thinking to do on this.

puppy 03
(Many dogs here (especially in cities) get this skin disease. Poor guy kept dragging himself across the ground to scratch his stomach.)

Food

Living in this “non-instant” world has really made me appreciate different aspects of food. Like I’ve said before, we live over an hour from a grocery store and there aren’t really fast food places around. So we either eat some random “snack” from the store (chips, cookies, etc) or we fix something ourselves. It’s like this, I think if all smokers had to roll their own cigarettes they’d probably smoke less. Similarly, we can’t eat more than we cook. This is great and annoying all the time. The only frozen things we have are hot dogs and ice. Now, we’re hardly the most “natural” eaters, but compared to before we came to Jamaica we’re “living off the land.” All our produce is grown around us and our main drink is water. Over the last few months we’ve come to some realizations about the foods we used to eat. I think we all know what’s actually healthy for us, but with all the new food products that come out all the time, we’re able to find artificial ways around natural food (i.e. we cheat). Like for me, one of my biggest cheats was artificial sweeteners. Sugar isn’t bad for you. Too much sugar is, so to get around that I would consume artificial sugar thinking it was free from the bad things associated with sugar. This is not the right way to think. The convenience and appearance of “no consequences” of all these new foods has blinded us. I can personally tell you that the Jamaicans I see eating natural foods (what they or their neighbor grew) are in far better health than so many Americans (than me!). I just always thought that newer foods had to be “better.” I mean, new medicines are better, new TVs are better, new cars are better; why wouldn’t our food be better for us than it was 100yrs ago? Well, clearly, it’s not. Jesse’s been reading some books by Michael Pollan that are really really interesting. He talks about food and what’s happened to ours over the last 50-100yrs. He says: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. (Then he proceeds to define “food”). If you get a chance, check it out. I don’t think it’s a very radical thing to say people need to start changing the way they think about their food.

Anyway, we’ve been undergoing a major paradigm shift in the area of food. More on this later.

Volunteerism

We find it amusing to see the social connotation of a “Peace Corps Volunteer” in a film or TV show. It’s always some variation on this free-loving, hippie-esque person out to change the world. I think most people either have that opinion or that they’re this remarkable humanitarian; they look at it as this huge sacrifice being made outside of the normal spectrum of “helping”. I think a lot of people wish they could(‘ve) drop(ped) everything and do something like Peace Corps. I also think a lot of people look at it as radical use of 2yrs and slightly crazy. (A side not here: currently, the mosquitoes in my house don’t seem to be respecting my citronella candle as much as I’d like them to.) Well, I guess the best I can say is that it is and isn’t as crazy as it sounds.

I used to think of volunteering as going to trash pick-up or manning a booth at some event. And that is volunteering, but I think it should be thought of in broader terms. I think people volunteer all the time. When you willingly give of your time/energy/money/self for the benefit of others, that’s volunteering. Before this I separated them out in my mind and figured I never volunteered for anything, but I look at it very differently now. Before we signed up for Peace Corps my parents asked us why we felt we needed to travel somewhere else to help people. At the time it was a combination of wanting to travel and wanting to set my life up specifically for helping others (making that my lifestyle). Those reasons still stand true today, but this time has given me a new perspective on helping people in need. I realize that you don’t have to travel to another country and donate 2+yrs of your life to helping others. You can donate your entire life to helping others regardless of your location. It’s a mindset; it’s a way of life. There’s no reason to separate volunteering from regular life. It’s a lifestyle. Now, how you get yourself into that mindset is up to you. I had to join Peace Corps. I needed this “reset” button after 26yrs. I needed a new perspective and I got it. And what I realized is that, while it’s fun and exciting to go to another country to help others, it’s not necessary. If simply helping those who can’t help themselves is your goal, then “location” is irrelevant. My environment and challenges would have varied from country to country, but I think the struggles people face would be similar; (most) people all over the world are striving for the same thing: for them and their families to be healthy and comfortable.

Anywho, don’t let anyone tell you I’m “serving my country.” That’s not what this is.

———————————————————————————————————-

dbo

I wrote this entry several months ago thinking I would wrap it up and post it on the blog asap. However, I just keep learning more and more on each subject and won’t ever be satisfied with my explanation of each item. It’s been over a year since we arrived in Jamaica and the experience has been a revelation on so many levels. I’m pretty sure I’ll still learning from this whole thing long after I’m back home making money and babies.

I’ll just leave you with this from My Utmost. (I feel pretty terrible at worshipping God lately. At least in the sense of setting time aside for Him. I realize you worship with all your actions and not just those that involve Bible or song. It’s just that the Bible and song actions I feel the worst at right now.) Having said that, this quote really holds a lot of weight with me nowadays. The theme of “loving the unlovely” is a reoccurring one in my life and this just hits it dead center.

“God continually introduces us to people in whom we have no interest, and unless we are worshiping God the natural tendency is to be heartless toward them. We give them a quick verse of Scripture, like jabbing them with a spear, or leave them with a hurried, uncaring word of counsel before we go. A heartless Christian must be a terrible grief to our Lord.”

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12 Responses

  1. 1) What evidence have you evaluated linking artificial sweeteners to negative health effects? (consumed in non-barrel-sized portions, of course…)– my dad would be interested in this in his ongoing debate about why Coke Zero is unhealthy… so far all he’s got is “it just has to be!”

    2) you’ve gotta admit– though you don’t want to be called a Hippie, there are some pretty consistent hippie-ish undertones here- (i think if you re-read this post looking for that you might be surprised…)- or maybe if just seems that way since i DO make too much money, drive a nice car, and have yet to recycle my personal trash in an organized way, at least… perhaps it’s the difference in perspective between someone living there and someone living here that cultivates a stereotype- us for you as a peace corps volunteer and you for us as non-peace corps Americans? It’s all about perspective…

    3) $400 a month? I had kinda thought it was more than that… I can really see how that amount would cause any responsible person to stop and seriously consider just about any expenditure … that’s kinda nuts!

    4) I’ll be there before you know it… so… throw another shrimp on the barbee…or however you say it there… oh wait…

  2. 1) i’ve heard quite often that artificial sugars increase your appetite (and typically find that to be true for me). and it’s not just sweeteners, it’s artificial foods in general. i just don’t seem any of them doing us any real favors.

    2) well, regardless of the label you place on it, these ideas are holding a great deal of value with me nowadays. and what you’re saying, scott, is the exact point of the entry. it’s ALL about perspective. and before this i was not in a place to see these issues in the correct light. i’m not at all saying you make too much money or drive too nice of a car. so please don’t think that. i’m simply saying that i’m personally struggling with this concept of money vs happiness/comfortability/health.

    i think most people in our economic class don’t see these issues “from the ground” so to speak. so i find it valuable to express these “revalations” to others who arent afforded this opportunity.

    3) fortunately there’s not much to spend it on other than consumable items.

    4) the barbee is ready to roll.

  3. P.S. There is no barbee.

  4. Josh,

    Thank you for the post. I feel like I have gained an unfair reminder of how I take everything I have for granted without the usual suffering and poverty to invoke it. The quote at the end really hit home.

    On a lighter note, I feel a bit let down after the last puppy picture (suffering with skin ailment) and the last picture (clearly not a puppy as promised). I will have a hard time reading your next blog post (especially if it is this long) if you continue with the false expectations. :) Miss you guys.

    Sam

    • yes see, that’s how i tricked you. i lead you to believe i was going to give you something to feel good about in the entry, but before you knew it, you were actually getting sadder looking at a suffering puppy.

      checkmate.

  5. Good thoughts all around. Thanks for taking the time to think, and push through the hard stuff.

    I just started reading In Defense of Food.
    Dave and I are trying to move toward non-processed foods. It definitely takes intentionality and thought to go this route. Unlearning what food “is” has a long way my brain to go.

  6. Wow. That was deep man.
    Ryan L.

  7. Thanks for the post it really did help. I feel better now.
    Not so anxious. Maybe I will see you in March.

  8. I so enjoyed your comments. Jerry’s assignment is in March. What does your wife (Jesse) do there. Do you think it will be a problem for me to stay with Jerry since I am not a Peace Corps volunteer. We have been married for 43 years. I am a breast cancer survior, 5 years out. I just got my teaching english to speakers of foreign languages certificate (Tesol). I was thinking that this might be helpful for Patois speakers. I want to do everything to help Jerry have a wonderful assignment there. Thanks

    • hey kathy. are you going to be a PC volunteer too? i mean, if you’re in the program then you’ll automatically be put together. If you aren’t, well, I’m sure you can sneak into the country(?) :)

      I’m sure you’ll be able to help out with language. particularly if you’re in the country. most people out in the country speak thick patois with a touch of English when you need it :)

  9. No, I am not a PC volunteer. However, I would like to stay with Jerry after his home sta/ training is completed. Maybe come to Jamaica in mid-summer and find some sort of volunteer opportunity. I am a retired master’s level social worker. Thanks

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