As I get closer and closer to finishing my service here, these posts will become more and more sentimental. So you must forgive me. Or else switch to a newbie’s blogs – they tend to be funnier and less emotional.
One thing that’s been bugging me is my complete inadequacy at describing these past two years. When I look through my blog – at the selective, quippy descriptions of my life – I feel like what I’ve accomplished is describing a movie based on a Peace Corps volunteer’s experience instead of the reality. But the thing is, this isn’t a movie! Partly I know that because I’m not being played by a naturally beautiful Natalie Portman whose hair is flawlessly smooth despite the humidity, and who meets a perfectly rugged James Franco whose five o’clock shadow is fastidiously groomed. In actuality most male volunteers have unwashed locks and a scraggly neck beard, and there’s a reason everyone says I look “soooo different!” in my photos from home. Certainly I have had my moments where I felt like cameramen must be hiding in the jungle – perfect snapshots of what we could call the typical Peace Corps experience. Barefoot black children chase the Peace Corps truck down a dusty road yelling “Pis Kop, Pis Kop!” and waving madly. A human bridge of strong men braves a rushing river to guide a group of women and children to safety during a hurricane. I stand on the edge of a volcano with a good friend watching red bursts of lava shoot into the air as night falls on the jungle. I join in a cultural dance at a wedding whose ancient song tells the story in the tribal language of how the first boy met the first girl. A shirtless young man hacks a path through the jungle with a machete as he goes to fetch a bucket of spring water. But these snapshots don’t always do life here justice.
Mainly I know this isn’t a movie because solving a problem or implementing a program isn’t simply a matter of a 45 second montage set to an inspirational Coldplay song. You start out with awe at surviving in one of the most primitive places on earth and a personal satisfaction of donating two years of your life to the poor. But pretty soon your idealism slaps you in the face and you realize not everyone is going to greet your efforts with effusive thanks and smiles. You learn that effective development is not a smooth and easy path. You struggle with predictable loneliness, surprising boredom, and many many hits to your overinflated self-image (as the remarkable Paul Farmer puts it: “Serving the poor is more important than soothing your own ego. It’s called eating shit for the poor.”). You might hit the very bottom and think you have no purpose and nothing left to offer. But then an amazing thing happens and you find a bit of strength from somewhere. It might come from a huge accomplishment like successfully running a workshop, or it might come from a small event like laughing through lunch with your favorite “Ambae girls”, but it always comes before your last minute of desperation.
If this were a movie, at the end of two hours the president would bestow an award upon Natalie Portman for incredible service to the poor while staying super hot, she would marry an equally super hot James Franco, adopt a couple local children and turn them into Gap models, and come back to her village 20 years later to find a bustling utopia of fat babies and prospering families. I now know this will not happen for me, but I think my last scene will be even better. I’ve fought a battle for two years and I’ve come out the other side a stronger, more realistic and more tolerant person. And if even one person’s life is changed by me being here, at least I’ll know I didn’t have to pay them to say that to the cameras.