RPCV

Oh hey guys, remember me? That intrepid Peace Corps Volunteer narrating her various experiences with charm and wit? Ha, me neither!

WELL. I’m now what is officially called a RETURNED Peace Corps Volunteer. You see, you’re never “former” or “ex.” Once a PCV, always a PCV. Although sometimes, I think the “R” means “Recovering,” but that’s neither here nor there.

There’s a pretty well documented cycle of vulnerability that all PCVs go through in country. In addition, many experience reverse culture shock upon returning home. I have to say, my transition back to American, first-world life cannot have gone better. My best PCV friend Julie and I took a bit of our readjustment allowance and made some of our dreams come true:

That's right folks. We spent a week in Orlando and went to Harry Potter World and Disney World.

That’s right folks. We spent a week in Orlando and went to Harry Potter World and Disney World.

We stuffed our faces with all the good food and beer we’d been denied for more than two years (and probably put on 5 lbs in the process). We had a grand time buying wands, butterbeer, eating at the Hog’s Head and Florean Fortescue’s and drinking our way through EPCOT. It was marvelous and exactly what we needed to transition into the “real world.”

After our Close of Service (COS) conference in January, most of Group 84 began touching up resumes and applying for jobs. I applied for a job at Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C. and I’m thrilled to say that I got it! It’s unpaid but it’s an excellent way to get my foot in the door at PC HQ and other federal agencies. I’m working in the Office of Programming and Training Support (OPATS), specifically with the Overseas Staff Training (OST) conference, which is a month long. It’s a lot of administrative and logistical work, making sure the conference runs smoothly but I’m learning a lot.

As you might have gathered from my previous blog posts, I had a love/hate relationship with Jamaica and my assignment with St. Ann 4-H. A lot of PCVs have a similar relationship with their countries of service, and that’s been gratifying to find out. My fellow interns and a large portion of the staff at PC are RPCVs, so they all understand what I’m going through and know not to ask certain questions (“How was it?” “Oh, you’re so lucky to have served in Jamaica, that must have been *sooo* tough!” etc etc etc.). I can’t say I miss much about Jamaica, and the folks I’m surrounded by can empathize with that. The way RPCVs feel about their countries of service are a wide spectrum but we all have something in common: we’re changed by our two years in the field, in ways large and small. It feels a bit like a secret club, being an RPCV.

The OST conference has been eye opening so far. Overseas staff (both Americans and host country nationals) come from all over the world to complete this training. My Peace Corps experience has just expanded from Jamaica to over 20 different countries (PS. Those PC/Mongolia folks have it ROUGH. I’ll never complain about the heat and humidity again. Although I get a lot of sympathy for being a chikungunya survivor, so I’ve still got some PC cred.). I’ve learned about posts in different regions that are in conflict and have rich histories and cultures. If I get the chance to serve again, I’ve got my eye on you, Kosovo. Or Armenia. So many choices!

This is all to say, hey! I’m still alive. And I’m still in the Peace Corps. But then again, you can never leave.

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Top 10 Books I Read in the Peace Corps

If you know me even a little bit, you know that I love to read. I always have. I credit my parents and few awesome teachers for instilling this love of stories and books in me, it has made me a better human being. I love all genres, but the Harry Potter and Narnia series will always have a special place in my heart (and on my skin! Fun fact: I have a Harry Potter tattoo), and fantasy is particular fun for me as a result.

As you may have gathered from previous blog posts, serving in the Peace Corps can give you a lot of free time. Things just move slower down here. So I’ve read A LOT of books. As of this post, I’ve gotten through well over 100 books in my 2 years on the island. Having a Kindle has allowed me to really plow through them, but I also read physical books and listen to some on audio.

As I wrote in my Star Trek post, I tend to draw a lot parallels between my life and whatever book or TV show or movie I’ve been reading or watching. I think this makes my life all the richer. Each of the following books has shaped me, entertained me, made me think, informed me, and made me pause in some way, however small.

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1. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. I’ve practically become an evangelist for this series. It’s kind of Ocean’s 11 and Robin Hood and Pirates of the Caribbean all in one. Full of intrigue and hijinks, an incredibly charismatic lead character, and some kickass female characters. It’s incredibly atmospheric and wickedly funny to boot. This series really deserves a TV show, but I know they’ll screw it up somehow.

2. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. This scratches of several of my readerly itches- lady scientists, multi-generational family sagas, and 19th century manners. Alma Whittaker is one of the most compelling protagonists I’ve read in a while. This will cause you to think about women’s role in science and make you want travel the world at the same time.

3. White Teeth by Zadie Smith. This is the incredible debut from one of the greatest living novelists, who happens to be half Jamaican. She came to Calabash Festival last year and I got the opportunity to meet her, which was an exercise in self restraint. I wanted to kiss her feet and hug her and be her all at the same time. ANYWAY. White Teeth is hilarious and tragic and a great insight into the immigrant experience, with a little bit of the Jamaican diaspora thrown in.

4. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Another one about culture, identity and the immigrant experience. If you haven’t read a book recently by a person from a different race or nationality as you…well, you should. It’s important to not be an echo chamber in your media choices. This is a great place to start if you’re curious about the African diaspora and the issues surrounding culture and trying to cultivate a community of peers.

5. Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor. I hadn’t read many short story collections prior to Peace Corps, but for whatever reason I’ve read several since being here. O’Connor is famous for her Southern Gothic style, which I just love. These stories center on the grotesque in society, particularly in the Southern US. Themes like racism, religion, and morality are the most prevalent. They’re all beautiful in a grimy sort of way, if that makes sense.

6. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This is not an easy book to get through, but so so worth it. Incredible and lush prose detail the life of a small mythical town of Macondo in Latin America and it’s inhabitants. The plot is famously incoherent, but it’s pure poetry in the end. It contains one of my all time favorite lines in literature: “A short time later, when the carpenter was taking measurements for the coffin, through the window they saw a light rain of tiny yellow flowers falling. They fell on the town all through the night in a silent storm, and they covered the roofs and blocked the doors and smothered the animals who slept outdoors. So many flowers fell from the sky that in the morning the streets were carpeted with a compact cushion and they had to clear them away with shovels and rakes so that the funeral procession could pass by.”

7. Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. If you haven’t seen Brene Brown’s TED Talk, watch it now. The “self-help” genre doesn’t appeal to me in the least and I’m not certain that this book really counts, but dang. This book is about confronting vulnerability and ultimately embracing it. It can change your life if you let it!

8. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The post-apocalyptic genre is way way over played, but this stands hands and shoulder above the rest (almost as good as The Passage, another wonderful book). After a deadly strain of the flu wipes out most of the population, a crew of Shakespearean actors and musicians travels from settlement to settlement, struggling to find meaning in a mostly hopeless situation. Makes you think REAL hard about the value of art.

9. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. This book is getting a WHOLE HEAP of buzz back home, but I honestly don’t know how people are able to read it. It’s written almost entirely in Jamaican patwa, and I had a somewhat hard time getting through some of it. It hit pretty darn close to home sometimes. It’s a somewhat fictionalized account of the assassination attempt of Bob Marley and the chaos and repercussions from the Peace Concert and related political maneuverings. It paints a pretty darn bleak picture of Jamaica in the 1970s, but I think it was ultimately hopeful. (This is a great piece about the author, who is Jamaican but lives in America)

10. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I think this is considered a modern masterpiece and rightfully so. I think I highlighted the whole book. The main character is an aging preacher in Iowa and is writing letters to his young son. The book contains so much rich language and wisdom and is very spiritual in nature. Even if you’re not very religious, you will be a better human being for having read it.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Redshirts by John Scalzi, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, How To Tell Toledo From the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer

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Advice for Group 86!

Last year, I wrote a post giving advice for Group 85 before they arrived on the island. That advice still definitely applies. Believe it or not, Group 86 arrives NEXT WEEK. Once again, it feels a little surreal to be in the position, as the “seniors” on the island. I have a multitude of thoughts on having lived two years on the JamRock…sometime I’ll compile them into a book. In the meantime, group 86, you have this to get you through. First, (a repeat from last year) the best advice I received from an RPCV in Moldova.

As true now as it was then. Embracing the small wins and widening someone’s perspective even a LITTLE bit is huge. PC likes the numbers on the VRFs, but don’t get caught up in those. In the same vein, PC and “the media” (what does that even mean?) like to publish stories about PCVs that show them getting piped water to their village or creating a zillion new jobs or teaching their community members how to do yoga or appreciate the finer qualities of French film. It’s easy to call these people “super-volunteers” and idolize them. Don’t compare yourself to them because you don’t know how much TV they binge watch, or how their community members are 2 hours late for meetings all the time. They’re human, so adjust your expectations accordingly.

Bloom where you’re planted. We don’t get any choice in our country of service (well we didn’t USED TO *ahem*) or site, so we have to make do with what we’re given. PC/Jamaica tries really hard to place you in sites with projects that suit your interests and skills. But no site is perfect. “You signed up for this hardship” is a phrase often thrown around in PC, and it sounds a bit callous, but it’s true. That is one of the best skills you can develop as a PCV- making the best of a not great situation.

Head’s up– Jamaica is, in fact, a foreign country. Yes, the official language is English and yes, we’re only a 1.5 hour flight from America but this is NOT home! This fact took me a looong time to realize. Just like a swear word in Spanish lacks the same meaning and punch that it does in our native English, an unkind or rude comment said in passing here has twice as much sting. Which explains why street harassment is such a huge problem for young women. It’s extremely hard for me to ignore SH (which is what they’ll tell you to do in training), but I have to externalize it. If I let it become personal, I’d have gone crazy a while ago.

Cultivate that mind. It’s easy to let your brain rot in the Peace Corps. Perhaps it’s just my personality type, but I’ve always consumed knowledge (in various formats) like it’s going out of style. You’re likely to have a lot of free time on your hands, so watch good TV shows, (Star Trek!), read good books, and spread the good word of learning where ever you go. One of my proudest moments as a PCV is when my computer was broken and my host family borrowed my external hard drive and freely, willingly watched BBC Life with no prompting from me. That isn’t a success story I’m going to put on my VRF, but it’s a win in my book.

You’re going to get a lot of judgement from people back home and RPCVs who should really know better. Why? Because you’re serving in Jamaica. “Beach corps” or “posh corps.” Take a deep breath and try not get rude. It’s hard. “Oh that must be a hard assignment!” “Oh, what is Peace Corps even doing there? It seems like such a peaceful country” (I kid you not, I have gotten that. She clearly didn’t have an understanding of what PC even is, but we’re not NATO Peacekeepers.) The best way to combat this is doing third goal stuff– telling people about Jamaica, better yet, having them visit and see the real thing.

This is how we travel in Jamaica. Not actually much of an exaggeration.

See this island! Host visitors! This is a popular vacation destination, but tourists see such a tiny percentage of what Jamaica has to offer.

I couldn’t find a good gif for this piece of advice, so you’re getting a bit of my favorite SNL sketch.

Understand that you’re going to change during this experience. Not all of those are suitable for a resume, but you’re going to be a different person when you go home. This will define you from now on. Your friends at home, however, won’t have undergone this transformation. It’ll be hard to relate to them.

In conclusion, just remember:

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Five Ways Peace Corps is just like Star Trek

“Space… The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. It’s continuing mission, to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.”

As any Peace Corps Volunteer (especially in Jamaica), there can be a lot of downtime during your service. Meetings are late, people don’t show up to events they said they would, no one comes to school on a rainy day, time is just…slower here. Which means, for many of us, reading A LOT of books and binge watching A LOT of television. God bless the internet and external hard drives. My sitemate, Stacey, and I have watched Star Trek. Nearly all of it and the various spinoffs. The Original Series, The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine. I doubt we’ll venture into Enterprise or Voyager in what remains of our service, but don’t count it out. I love Kirk, Picard and Sisko, all for different reasons. I have a huge crush on Dr. Julian Bashir and still wonder why they killed off the excellent Tasha Yar. I’ve spent a lot of hours with the characters on the shows and stuck with it even through some pretty terrible storylines (tribbles, anyone?).

There are some goofy science-fiction-y plot devices, but the heart and soul of the various series are the themes of exploration, humanity (and what exactly that means), and a demonstration of the greatness of Patrick Stewart. (just kidding on that last one. Sort of).

When I read a book, watch a movie or TV show, I tend to relate it to my life. When I read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (about the Vietnam War), I even found parallels to my life in Peace Corps Jamaica. That sounds a bit grim, but it’s true. Throughout my viewing of Star Trek, I have drawn on it’s core themes and plot lines and related them to my life in Peace Corps.

1. The Prime Directive

This is the overall governing policy of the United Federation of Planets. Basically, Starfleet officers are not supposed to get involved in the natural progression of a civilization or culture. Things get weird when we involve time travel, so there is, of course, a Temporal Prime Directive: don’t interfere in the natural progression of a timeline. There are a host of episodes that deal with characters struggling to implement the Prime Directive. And it is hard! Introducing warp or time travel technology to civilizations that aren’t there is a serious offense. Watching a culture get conquered by a vicious dictator isn’t easy. But imagine the implications if the Federation got involved in every single dispute or introduced advanced technology to the human equivalent of cave men. If a group or civilization asks for help, on the other hand, it is typically given. The problem is, the Prime Directive isn’t applied equally or consistently. But it’s fiction, so I can deal with some internal inconsistency. Here’s a great clip from TNG debating the Prime Directive (with the much-maligned Dr. Pulaski who was only there for a season).

Of course, Peace Corps is kind of the opposite of the Prime Directive. We are supposed to get involved in the local culture. We’re supposed to integrate and make friends and ultimately, “change behaviors.” The trouble comes when we (and there is a long list of aid agencies that are bad at this) roll in, have a workshop about a particular issue or project, dump supplies or food or aid, and roll back out. That’s what I like about Peace Corps, we live in a community, involve community members, identify needs and use a community’s strengths to solve a problem. We are not, however, to get involved in politics (which makes sense. We wouldn’t want an international incident on our hands.).

Man, if only it were that easy.

2. Cultivating family

Star Trek takes place in the 24th century (we dabble in time travel, but largely stay in the same time period). At this point, we’ve developed warp technology and are exploring different planets, sectors, and galaxies. Different species and civilizations (they’re all humanoid, though. I guess it’s hard to find non-humanoid actors…) can join the Federation and become Starfleet officers, leading to a rich diversity of officers and citizens. Naturally, some of these species have historical conflicts and not everyone gets along. Especially on Deep Space Nine (which takes place on a space station, rather than on a traveling ship), we see very different people (I use the term loosely) thrown together on a space station post-major conflict. There is an underlying humanity that allows people to connect to each other, but it’s often difficult to overcome cultural barriers.

The definition of family comes up quite often throughout each iteration of the series. The ones we choose and the ones we don’t. Lt. Worf (a Klingon) is a particularly good example through TNG and DS9. He was raised by humans and struggles to come to terms with his identity as a Klingon warrior. Even though he is a total stick in the mud, Worf beautifully illustrates the meaning of family. He cultivates friendships with fellow officers and romances a variety of women (Betazoid, Klingon, and Trill at last count).

My happiness during my Peace Corps service is so inextricably linked with the family I have cultivated here. Like Deep Space Nine, we are a rag-tag bunch of volunteers from all over the place, having a huge variety of experiences and backgrounds. But now we share this one thing, Peace Corps service in Jamaica, and now it feels like we’ll be in this secret little club that no one else really understands. The family that we choose and the one that we cultivate are often different, but both are essential to our (well, at least mine) happiness.

3. The Federation is bureaucratic

The United Federation of Planets is the huge governing organization that oversees all of the goings-on (well, most of them) throughout the universe. If that sounds like a big job, it is. All officers are trained at Starfleet Academy, as well as the enormous amount of scientists, anthropologists, engineers, political scientists, linguists, and doctors. Of the series I’ve watched, the Federation is usually presented as a benevolent, if sometimes bureaucratic organization. Those employed by the Federation are held to high standards. There are a few episodes when we go into a mirror universe where the Federation is eeeeevil, and we’re left thanking St. Roddenberry that we don’t have to deal with that. DS9 gets into some of the nitty gritty details of life in the Federation, which is why I really love it; DS9 shows a darker side of this far-distant future. They occasionally make things harder for our heroes, leaving them frustrated and hung out to dry.

Hey guess what? Peace Corps is a government organization. There are going to be rules. There is going to be waiting for reimbursement. There is going to be PAPERWORK. Endless forms to fill out. Rules that (at least on the surface) don’t make a grain of sense. Peace Corps is never sinister, in my experience anyway, but it can be a hassle.

4. What does culture mean?

At it’s core, Star Trek is about the exchange of cultures. During the 24th century, Earth has one unified government and is a member of the United Federation of Planets. Individuals still maintain their respective cultural identities, but borders, hunger, and poverty have been “solved”, which is why the Federation explores new planets and invites new species to join in the fun (and what fun it is!). This was an astonishingly progressive show for the time (still is, really). In the show, we encounter cultures that are agrarian based, matriarchal (I loved that one. The women were broad shouldered and strong, the men were thin and wispy.), have weird mind reading powers, are telekinetic, are basically Time Lords (it’s my working theory to explain the Q), and have slug implants (sounds weird, but is fascinating! Trills are cool.). And even within these species, the individuals are different (of course). During TNG, Ferengis are presented as this ultra-capitalist, greedy, regressive, and scheming race. They also look really stupid. Hard to take them seriously as villains. DS9 gives us Quark and Rom, brothers that run the bar on DS9. Both of their character arcs are ultimately redemptive, proving that Ferengis maybe also have a heart.

Before Peace Corps, I had a very rudimentary understanding of what culture is. I thought it extended to language, food, greetings, music, and architecture. Now I realize it is SO MUCH more than that. It encompasses everything from the way people walk on the street, to the etiquette they use in a business setting, to how people clean their homes. Being cognizant of these differences and not getting frustrated when they impede our work is incredibly important to our mental health as PCVs.

5. Being an outsider

In each series (TOS, TNG and DS9, the ones I’ve seen) there is usually one or more “outsider” characters. Spock, Worf, Data, and Odo all serve this role in a variety of ways. They each have several episodes that focuses on this status and how they wrestle with their identity. How can they really fit in with the Federation? In Data’s case, how can he relate to anyone with a pulse? (Data is an android) Sometimes this is just a matter of overcoming cultural barriers, but sometimes it’s larger. They have to appeal to a common humanity that unites all of the members of the Federation and the crews of the Enterprise and Deep Space 9. Each of these outsider characters have to wrestle with their identities, relate to their fellow crew members and still do their job.

Obviously, being an outsider is a fundamental part of the Peace Corps experience. We are dispatched to foreign countries to perform a job. We are by definition outsiders. Never really fitting in is part of the job description. No matter how much we integrate, how many dead yards we attend, or how much the pickney love us, a little part of us will still be an outsider. That’s not really about skin color, but definitely relates to the cultural identity mentioned above. I’ve been told by RPCVs that during service, it’s hard to relate to Jamaicans, who don’t have the same set of pop culture references and perhaps values that we do. But going back home, it’s hard to relate to the friends we left behind. We’ve just been through this huge experience, this huge ordeal that they can’t begin to fathom. Try as I might, it’s hard to put words to this (which is why I’ve not written on the blog much), so it’s insanely difficult for family and friends back home to understand. This will define me from now on.

Well. I just wrote 2,000 words about Star Trek. I’ll show myself out.

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I’m Still Alive!

A few updates, just to remind you that I’m still alive, even though I haven’t blogged in a good long while (the reasons for that are many, all of which are uninteresting).

*I got the dread virus chikungunya (not at all like The Dread Pirate Roberts), but I am fully recovered! Only one day did I feel TRULY miserable. Chik V ain’t no picnic, but I can’t get it again, thank you God.

*FCC Hoptown made a trip down to the JamRock and did a week-long mission trip with American Caribbean Experience (ACE). It was quite a week and I’m so glad I got to spend it with them. I am so thrilled to have shown them part of Jamaica and they got to see some of the culture and how people live down here. An eye opening experience for all! Check out their blog (which I maintained throughout the week).

*My host organization, St. Ann 4-H, now has a facebook page! Go ahead and like us!

*Most importantly…St. Ann 4-H is fundraising for a printer! Jamaica 4-H is many things, but flush with cash is not one of them. For the past year and a half, we’ve been using my supervisor’s personal printer and ink. Jamaica 4-H has been unable (or unwilling, I’m not really sure which) to provide a decent scanner/printer, so we took matters into our own hands and are crowdfunding for one! Every little bit helps, believe me! Go here to donate to the cause. Hopefully we’ll have the funds by when I go home at Christmas so I can buy it in American and bring it down.

That’s all the news that’s fit to print, at least right now.

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Photo Friday: The Gang

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This is the gang of young ram goats I see every morning on my walk. You can kinda see the ocean from here!

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Photo Friday: Cleaning Fish

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Traveling to visit my friend Kristy in northern Clarendon and saw these ladies cleaning fish on the side of the road.

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Photo Friday: Turtles!

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It’s turtle releasing season! We helped release about 170 baby Hawksbill turtles a few weeks ago. Definitely one of my favorite things to do in Jamaica!

In other news, I recently wrote a blog post for National 4-H. Here it is: http://www.4-h.org/4-H-Today/4-H-and-My-Wildly-Unanticipated-Life/

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Help some PCV projects here in Jamaica!

One of the really important skills that I’m learning as a Peace Corps Volunteer is the art of grant writing. I’ve secured a few grants for St. Ann 4-H and I’m now serving on the Small Grants Program (SGP) Committee for PCJ. We get our funding from USAID (US Agency for International Development) and we support programs for environment or literacy. One of the programs we support is called Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP) and it sources funding from donations from people around the world, much like Kickstarter. Once we approve the project, it’s posted online and anyone can donate to projects of their choosing. I was lucky enough to be the “champion” of my two good friends, Chantal and Jennie, and their projects were recently posted on the PC website. They reflect the breadth of what PC does here in Jamaica and I encourage you to donate!

Improving Adult Literacy With Technology – Jennie Franks

Multi-Purpose Court Fencing Project – Chantal Woodard

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Photo Friday: Reach Falls

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Definitely one of the best falls in Jamaica, Reach Falls in Portland. I had the chance to visit over the weekend with some friends and it was lovely! Highly recommended.

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