Thursday, May 31, 2012

Life Lessons: Reaching Higher

Although the sights in St Lucia were breathtaking and the things we got to experience were absolutely amazing, the best part about spending time there was getting to stay with a fellow PCV friend. 
We had some really amazing discussions about our experiences and how they differ, things we have learned, and shared some insightful tips. The first thing I realized is how similar our situations are, yet how different they really are. Again, it all seems to go back to perspective and how we perceive the challenges and triumphs we are faced with.
One thing that is interesting to note is the various living standards each volunteer has (even within a similar region).  Some volunteers live in very nice houses, with beautiful tile floors, spacious rooms, wash machines, hot water, in nicer neighborhoods, with great views and others live in simple concrete houses with tin roofs, “floor paper” or bare concrete floors, and no “comforts”.  Some volunteers regularly have issues with their water; either it is frequently dirty or cut off, and similar issues. Some volunteers live in communities that are densely populated and have close neighbors, others are kind of floating there by themselves (figuratively and literally). Some volunteers must travel real far to get groceries, pay bills, etc., while others can get mostly everything within a walking distance of their house.
Other noteworthy differences are the level of integration.  Some volunteers have integrated quite well, while still others are dealing with getting accustomed to “life in De Caribbean”, the harassment, making friends, starting meaningful projects, gaining the respect of the community/counterparts, building trust, all for various reasons, some of which fall not on the shoulders of volunteers.  Some of this also rests in the fact that we are sometimes placed in communities that are distrustful of Americans, volunteers, what have you, which makes integrating and gaining people’s trust difficult, subsequently making it nearly impossible to start any meaningful work.  No work can be done with out the community’s involvement and support.
Lastly, our work area greatly affects our service.  Those with positive work experiences (read: supportive counterparts, eager and enthusiastic community members, trusting and trustworthy friends, etc.) seemed to have a more positive overall experience. A serious concern for volunteers is being placed to serve where the requested skills do not match those of the volunteer or showing up to a worksite that does not “want you” or does not “know how to use you”.  How is this even possible? Why is Peace Corps attaching us to a site that has no use or no want for us.
I find it particularly excruciatingly frustrating that we were refereed to as “Generalist Volunteers” during MST.  For one thing, we all have certain specific and specialized skills.  Secondly, it made me think back to when I was interviewing with the PC recruiter and she told me based on my degree and experience I would be a perfect match for serving as a environmental engineer in South/Latin America, but she would not nominate me since I have no Spanish language skills.  I find it hard to believe that a) so many engineers that already speak Spanish are applying, and b) there are no other posts that could use my science/engineering/math skills.  No offense but many more liberal arts majors apply to Peace Corps than those holding a Master’s Degree in Materials Science and Engineering.  I would think it would be easier to attach them to something such as literacy than to attach an engineer to literacy (but maybe its not?).  Perhaps my problem is that I am so specialized that I have essentially and effectively reduced myself to a generalist? Had I known that I would be teaching literacy, I would not have accepted my invitation to serve.  Part of my reasons for wanting to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer was to share what I know.  Of course there are many other things I can share other than math/science/engineering/literacy, but I would have preferred my primary responsibility to be sometime I am qualified to do, or at least have passion for. The fact that I have absolutely no interest in teaching literacy, coupled with the fact that I have no qualifications or knowledge as to how to teach some one to read (note: just because you know how to read does not mean you can teach some one else to read) has been the bane of my existence as a Peace Corps volunteer.  Similar sentiments about volunteer/worksite agreement seem apparent among many other volunteers in my group as well.
 Dealing with the challenges of having little experience or technical skill in a particular area are one thing, and part of being a volunteer is overcoming these, but dealing with a worksite that is unwilling to work with you, cooperate, collaborate, or provide support is another thing.
All of these factors affect whether we view our service as meaningful and positive, or not so much. By the end of all this reflecting, discussing, debating, we determined that your Peace Corps experience is what you make it.  It is NOT, as once previously thought, what you put in is what you get back out.
A noteworthy anecdote (again relating to perspective).  As we were hiking, rather, literally crawling up Petit Piton, as it is in my estimation about a 40degree incline, a very apparent fear of heights took over me.  As a result, I was not able to reach the summit, as the last section of Petit Piton is a sheer rock wall, in which you must climb up using only ropes.  I was utterly embarrassed that I had a panic attack while climbing up the first set of ropes and turned back to wait at the lookout point before the summit. However, a fellow volunteer had raised an interesting question: how am I measuring my successes?  Was I measuring them by challenging myself and tackling fears (or attempting to, I guess. I honestly had no idea my fear of height was this severe), or is it by “climbing to the top of some stupid rock?”  I think this is very insightful and should be extended to the greater sense of my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Using ropes (long before the summit)

holding on for dear life after "crossing the precipice" at the look out.  Unfortunately, this is not exaggerated for effect.

On the first set up ropes ascending the summit of Petit Piton, shortly, if not during my panic attack.

Right after reaching the top of the first set of ropes.  Kind of stuck, paralyzed by fear.

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