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Regina Ernst is an UNLV MFA student in Fiction currently pursuing the Peace Corps track, fulfilling the international experience emphasis unique to the UNLV MFA program. She spent two years on campus in Las Vegas, and will spend two years abroad as a Peace Corps Volunteer while completing the writing of her MFA thesis. These are some of her musings from abroad.
I’ve been waiting to write something official about my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Colombia until I felt like I had a better idea about what was going on here. I’ve spent the last five months in cities on the North Atlantic coast, I’ve moved permanently to Cartagena, and I’ve realized I may never know what’s going on here. But I do know some things.
Last week, while visiting Barranquilla for official business, I dropped by my old host-mom’s house to say hi. She’s an energetic woman in her sixties who I’d lived with for just over a month during my training. When she saw me through her open door, Sarita jumped from her seat at the dining room table and shuffled to receive me. She stood before me with her arms open absurdly wide. We hugged and kissed and she led me to the table. She didn’t even ask if I wanted lunch before shoving a feast arroz con pollo with avocado in front of me, which I’d learned never to say no to (and also, why would I?). I stayed to chat for a few hours and when I left, she escorted me to the door, lecturing me about how I was welcome at her house any time any day, the same sermon she gives me every time I visit her.
Las Murallas, the walls that surround the “Old City” with Bocagrande’s modern cityscape in the distance.
You’re not a true Cartagenero/a unless you’re carrying around an authentic mochila.
The other day, when I boarded the bus after grocery shopping, my hands filled with tearing bags, I squeezed through a sea of men to stand among them, swaying with the harsh stop-and-go of the bus and gripping onto any bar or shoulder within reach for balance. Within minutes, a seat opened up. These bus rides are lengthy and hot, and these men were here long before I was. Yet, the man closest to the free seat (and therefore entitled to it) reached out to tap my shoulder, and I crowd-surfed to the back of the bus to claim his spot, my bags supported by the hands of strangers until I made it securely into the seat. An hour later, when we were approaching my location, I stood to yell for the driver to stop. He didn’t hear me, so the chorus of men chanted on my behalf and the bus halted abruptly. All of them squished together to make room for me to exit. One took my hand to guide me down the steps.
One of the many plazas that make the Centro the beautiful but confusing labyrinth that it is, la Plaza de San Pedro Claver.
Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje (SENA) in Casa de Marques in la Plaza de la Aduana. I work in this vocational college teaching ESL and ESP to Hospitality and Tourism students. Por eso, I’m a lucky duck.
Last night, when I was walking home from an English Conversation Club that I “co-founded,” I bumped into one of the members of my current host-family on the street. It was my host-uncle, Roberto, a man in his fifties who lives with his sister, his niece, his father, and three other miscellaneous people (myself included). We’ve lived in the same large house together for almost three months. We’ve conversed every day. We’ve worked around each other in the kitchen-space. Yet, when I caught up to him on the street that evening and greeted him, he turned to me surprised. His eyes opened large and he smiled so genuinely. Acting as if he hadn’t seen me in years, he put out his hand to take mine and we kissed cheeks in typical Colombian fashion. Then we shared the rest of the walk home, chatting about our days. My young Spanish only permits me to comment on the basics—where I was, what I was doing, who I was with, my plans for the evening—but every response from him was full of interest and sincere curiosity.
My host-sister, Lilia, and I standing on the shores of Playa Blanca on a nearby Caribbean island.
So, this is what it’s like here. I have new stories everyday about my interactions with people during my time here. Despite the big cultural cities, the heavenly beaches, and the numerous beautiful historical landmarks, the people are what make my time in Colombia feel so right.
Thanks, Regina! Las Vegas misses you. (All photos by the writer)
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
You heard me. Don’t do it. I’m telling you, it’s going to break your heart.
The Core Expectations for Volunteers states you are expected to “serve where the Peace Corps asks you to go, under conditions of hardship, if necessary…” What it doesn’t state however is just what hardship means.
Right now you’re thinking, “Oh. There’ll be no flush toilets or showers. I can handle that. I might have to squash a few spiders, but for the high calling of changing the world, I think I can put up with those things.”
But the truth is, hardship isn’t the quirky and fun hardship you’re expecting, where each new day brings adventure upon crazy adventure, more wonderful than the next. True hardship is much more sobering.
During your service you might have to bury a neighbor. Or watch helplessly as your host family is torn to pieces by corruption. You might show up to school to learn one of your students was killed by a classmate. Your host sister could be kidnapped and forced to marry a man she’s never met. You might witness abuse, violence and mistreatment. You may see your best student lose to a kid from another school because his bribe was the biggest. Your dog might be fed a needle, just to quiet it down, forever.
And if none of that happens, then something else will. There’s just no knowing how hard it will be or it what way. It could be dealing with other volunteers is your biggest challenge. Or that you can never live up to the expectations of your host organization. Or that the Internet is so accessible you spend your entire day trolling Facebook, jealous of all the lives continuing on back home.
And what about all the things you’ll give up? Your boyfriend might not wait two years for you. You’ll put your career on hold. Your familiar support networks probably won’t be around – there’ll be no gym, no fast food joint, no car to drive, no family to visit. The stress and diet could make you lose thirty pounds—or gain thirty—whichever you don’t want.
The Peace Corps uses phrases like, “Life is calling. How far will you go?” and in a breath you’re ready to sign your name on the line. But two years is a long, long time and in the middle you find the world you wanted to change is a confusing and complex puzzle of which you are just one, tiny piece.
So please, if you’re not ready for the heartbreak in the hardship, don’t join the Peace Corps.
Because you might just find that all your blood, sweat and tears are worth it – worth the pain, worth the time and worth the investment in the people for whom your heart breaks. Because you might learn some of the most important lessons of your life – that a broken heart can heal stronger than it was before, that a softened heart has more compassion for the world, and that in between its cracks and fissures is the only place where true beauty and grace can grow.