By Conor Sanchez
One year ago, Michaela and I announced that we were leaving our lives in D.C. to join the Peace Corps. A year ago today, I also published my first post on this blog, In Search of Impact, in which I did my best to articulate how we reached our decision to hop on a plane and travel a thousand miles to work in grassroots development abroad.
As I look back on the year that has gone by since writing my first post, I feel a mixture of pride and humility. On the one hand, I’m in it. I’m in the Peace Corps. That’s a pretty cool thing to say and something I’ve dreamed of saying for a long time. Better yet, I’m serving in a beautiful country where the people are warm and I feel like I’m making a positive contribution – maybe not in a grand slam, knock-it-out-of-the-park kind of way, but rather in a plant-a-seed and watch-it-grow kind of way.
We’ve made a handful of good friends who make us feel like family and keep our weekends filled. Although my work is still coming together, for now I’m just enjoying improving my spanish, getting to know my students, and working with my counterparts to reach there goals.
But I can’t sugar coat everything. There have been some challenging times and I’m still a ways off from having it all figured out. An intense feeling of isolation sometimes creeps up out of nowhere and becomes my biggest adversary on my worst days. I feel a widening gap between my life now and my life in America, and I mean that in two very distinct ways. First, geographically, I’m in one of the most remote places in Central America. I’m not only living in rural Nicaragua, but I also happen to be in a rural Nicaragua that most Nicaraguans have never visited, nor even care to visit.
I’ve started to keep a list of all the reactions I get from other Nicaraguans when I tell them where I live. “Lejos,” Lejisimo!” “Largo,” “A la gran puchica!” and, one time, “Are you on PCP?” The reactions have become so predictable that I really can’t help but laugh sometimes. In fact, it’s somewhat of a badge of honor when I say it in touristy cities like Granada or Matagalpa, where I can see locals’ eyes light up with a hint of respect (unless I’m confusing respect with “wow, this gringo is nuts,” which is totally possible).
The other feeling of distance is measured less in miles and more in the amount of luxuries we’ve learned to live without. Believe it or not, but hurling yourself from an urban setting like Washington, D.C., where you ride the metro to work everyday, read your news on an iPad, and spend 90% of your time in an air-conditioned building, to what everyone calls “cattle country” in the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere initially results in some serious cognitive dissonance.
Adjusting took a lot longer than I thought it would. Even now, the feeling comes back pretty strong whenever I look at Facebook or read a travel magazine that quotes a $100 hotel room as a budget option. It becomes apparent when I think about where I was living and what I did for fun less than a year ago. A pesky little voice sometimes chimes in to tell me what I could be doing had I not joined the Peace Corps – I could have gone to that Super Bowl party, I could have been with my niece on her 10th birthday, or I could have gone to see a movie with Michaela last Friday night in an air-conditioned theater.
Such thoughts obviously lead to some wicked spells of homesickness, so much that I’m usually forced to block out the information that triggered the feeling in the first place, but with increased internet access in the developing world that’s easier said than done. Distracting myself by delving deeper into the community definitely alleviates the desire to indulge in Americanness, but something invariably reminds me of life back in the States. I’m sure Peace Corps Volunteers around the world would agree that when your mind adapts to a certain way of understanding things, it doesn’t enjoy being reminded that another way indeed still exists.
The disparities in luxuries aren’t limited to national borders either. Volunteers are placed in communities that span decades in terms of development progress, which was surprisingly hard to accept at first. Some of us get placed in huge cities with movie theaters and gourmet coffee shops, while some of us get placed in cities where the roads are barely paved. Some live in huge houses with WiFi and cable television, while others get a small room in a backyard with a bucket for a shower and a latrine next door. At the beginning, I couldn’t control the urge to constantly compare my conditions to others. I remember thinking, if only I had a nice coffee shop like them or a grocery store that sold leafy-greens; If only I could take a day trip to Granada just to get out and relax; If only traveling to the capital didn’t require a 5-hour bus ride that left at 2:00 am.
If only, if only, if only…
My pity-parties, as you can imagine, were pretty short-lived since there was nothing I could do about it. And for every volunteer who I thought had it easy, another volunteer probably thought the same of Michaela and I. So eventually I realized that instead of focusing on what others had, I needed to focus on the road ahead of me. Besides, I think the primitiveness of my site affords me some bragging rights as this blog so astutely points out. So instead of saying, “if only,” I started saying, “this is where I am today and that’s all that matters.”
The funny thing about adapting is that you don’t actually see it happen. All I really know is that one day something really bothers me, and then, the next day I wake up and it doesn’t. Recently, while Skyping with my brother back home, he said, “you guys look pretty at ease these days, like you’ve adjusted to the changes.”
It was reassuring to hear, because some days we still feel like we just started. But gradually, I think, we’ve come a long way in terms of living with less. This ability to be present and accept things as they are is crucial to service. You accept it because everyone else around you accepts it. My counterpart accepts it, so why can’t I? My neighbors accept it, so why can’t I? My students accept it, so why can’t I? It’s a sense of solidarity I’ve never experienced before and while it sometimes frustrates me to no end, I’m also motivated by it.
One year later, I’m living a much different life. Every now and then it’s nice to look back see how far we’ve come, but if I draw too many comparisons too often, I lose my footing. So instead, I’m content to just keep my feet and mind where they are presently grounded – Nueva Guinea, Nicaragua.