In honor of National Peace Corps week last week, here’s this month’s post.
In 2014, I decided to look into the Peace Corps. Unfamiliar with this organization? Check it out. I told myself if I was still thinking about joining in a year, I’d pursue it. I was, so I did.
At the time, the application process was more extensive than it is now. Overall, the entire process took about a year, between submitting my application, interviews, country placement decisions, and medical clearance. In May of 2016, I packed up my life – well, part of it, as my dog and certain precious possessions remained stateside, and flew to Washington D.C. for orientation. There, I met the other volunteers that would be a part of my group. We were Peru 23, bound for Lima. After one night in D.C., we flew to Miami, where we anxiously waited to board the plane for South America.
I’ll never forget the feeling of arriving in Lima at 1 a.m. Disoriented, incredulous, and shocked are just a few of the things I was feeling. “God,” I thought, “what have I done?” I didn’t regret my decision, mind you, but the reality of my situation was hitting me hard. At the airport, I found my suitcase. Then we were ushered to a bus, and driven to our retreat center.
After three months of training (living with a temporary “training” host family; learning the culture; intense language training; and occasional frivolity) we were assigned our sites for the next two years. I once again packed my things, said good-bye-for-now to the friends I’d made, and took a bus south to Ica.
Ica is a large, busy desert city. While some volunteers were assigned small pueblos where locals get to know them well, I didn’t have that. In a big city (we had a mall!) I had to fight for work and for transportation each day. Ica was so big I never saw the same moto driver twice. Each time I had to use a moto taxi (which was every day), I had to haggle for a fair price to be taken to work, since they all thought I was a tourist going to Huacahina (the very cool oasis/sand boarding hang out). My host mom taught me well, though, and I learned how to handle myself out in the bustling city streets.
The Peace Corps experience is sometimes hard to describe. All of the above is so much of the “before.” Before I learned the language well enough to have conversations that lasted long after dinner with my host family about complex things like Peruvian politics or simply the storyline of the novella we watched. Before I understood the importance of slowing down because, truly, the work will still be there. Before I remembered to throw caution to the wind and just go for it when I was handed a microphone to introduce myself to the entire town square in my then-broken Spanish. Before I learned how loving and generous a second family can be. Before I learned to stop and watch the sunset every single night.
What may be the biggest takeaway, though, is that I learned how to believe in myself; not that I hadn’t before. But Peru taught me to be bold, to go back into that classroom after being laughed at for my language skills, to not give up when things were hard. And they were hard. But Peru strengthened my innate ability to persevere, and I have never been more grateful for that.