An Open Letter


Dear Person Contemplating Joining Peace Corps,

I imagine that you’re at a transition point in your life. Perhaps you’ve just graduated, perhaps you’re going through a career change, perhaps you have an itch for something more that can’t be scratched. Whatever the reason, here you are: contemplating joining Peace Corps.

But should you? Is it right for you?

Honestly, you might not know that until you’ve arrived. You can research by reading books and official publications or by talking with current/returned volunteers, but everything you read and hear will probably tell you the same thing: every person’s experience is different. Your Peace Corps life will be uniquely shaped by your country, program, and site. 

I’d like to think, though, that there are a few things that are universal throughout the Peace Corps world, and those things tend all to revolve around how you yourself will change - for the better and for the worse - because of your time in Peace Corps.*

‘Sanitary’ will become an obsolete concept. You will eat on mats that you know are saturated in urine. You will prepare food on counters that also serve as chicken roosts. You will not have consistent/frequent access to soap. You will eat street food that is undoubtedly questionable. You will be dirty, dusty, and sweaty at all times. You will have mind over body battles to force yourself to bucket shower in the winter. Bugs, lizards, chickens, ducks, and mice will crap on everything. These things will be ok. You’ll adjust. The sterile environment of the States will become a distant odd memory or a constant fantasy.

Your body, though, might not adjust as quickly. You will have parasites and infections and illnesses that you had never heard of before training. You will be constantly constipated. Or go the opposite extreme. I hate to say it, but you will probably poop in your pants at least once. You will learn to vomit over a squat toilet and into a plastic bag during a bus ride. You will discuss your bodily functions openly and enthusiastically with other volunteers. No topic will be taboo.

The way you communicate will completely transform. Learning a language from scratch through immersion is a powerful experience. You will learn to have complex communications though expressions, gestures, and basic vocabulary. You will learn to bond with another human being through silence. You will answer the same basic questions over and over and over again. You may never achieve the ability to discuss ideas and concepts. You will develop a new English language which consists of pared down vocabulary and grammatical structures. You will actively think of each word before you speak. Your speech patterns will slow. You will have to define words whose meanings you had always taken for granted. You will learn to listen. 

Your concept of money will entirely alter. Paying more than $1 for anything will cause you to pause and question your purchase. You will understand value in the context of a different economic system. You will learn to barter, even on cheaper items. You will consistently feel as though you have been cheated on the price. You will be enraged by all prices upon returning to the States.

You will embrace the thrilling dichotomies of thrift versus splurge and ration versus binge. No one knows how to budget like a Peace Corps volunteer. And no one can binge like one.

You will be discontented with your work. You will wonder – and scream to the heavens – about the benefit of your presence. You will feel lost in unstructured expectations and crushed by promising ideas fallen to the side. Your expectations will fade into an unexpected reality. You will learn to celebrate small victories. You will look at mountains and see mole hills. You will try to tackle the impossible. Maybe you’ll succeed. Maybe you’ll just pick yourself up and take aim at another impossibility.

You will learn to do all of this through pure self-motivation. You will be the one to drag yourself out of bed and out the door. You won’t have anyone holding your hand or pushing your forward. Just you. You will become a stronger person for yourself, by yourself.

You will be a celebrity in your community. That status comes will hardships and benefits that will ineradicably change you. You will be the exception to the societal rules. You will be the foreigner, the one set apart. You will receive privileges and have special attention/status because of your nationality. You will always have eyes on you. You will have joined as an agent of culture exchange and understanding, but you will still find yourself falling into an ‘us versus them’ mentality. Use it. Consider it. Contemplate the value we place on people because of arbitrary characteristics. You will come away from your experience more attune to your own merits, to those that are deserved and to those that are given.

Your culture of personal space, one that maybe you have always taken for granted, will be challenged. You will wonder why you need an entire room to yourself while no one else even has a bed to himself. You still won’t want to give your room up. Privacy will be a privilege or a rarity, not a right.

You will lose all control of your emotions and be on an unpredictable roller coaster of extreme ups and downs. You will go from happy and confident to sullen and tearful by things as simple as ants in your candy or yet another child saying ‘Hello!’ Your highs will be high, but they will be fragile. Your lows will feel inescapable. Your family and friends in the States probably won’t understand this. Your isolation will force you to become your own support system. You will become aware of yourself in the context of solely being yourself.

Your government-issued friends will be your reprieve. The love and closeness you share with people back in the States won’t change, but it will be your fellow volunteers who understand. They will be friendships forged from necessity, and they will be deep and fervent.

You will witness a whole new way of life, and you will question your notion of necessity. You will consider your personal wealth, and people will constantly remind you of it. You will discover what your ‘needs’ are to live a productive, satisfied life. I hope you will remember that when you return to a culture of plenty.

You will be the biggest product of your Peace Corps work. You will change. And you will bring that change back with you.


*I insert a disclaimer: I believe the above assertions to be true for PC Cambodia, a program in its 6th generation of volunteers; I cannot speak with authority on other countries’ programs.

RPCVs Peace Corps Volunteer advice

Bislama Word of the Week: Tabu


Tabu adj. forbidden, prohibited 2. holy 3. n restriction, prohibition 


I hear “tabu” when:

Sitting on mats under the mango trees when my niece Marinette tries to eat a leaf or a pencil or my brother’s toe. “Tabu” can be used to mean “No”.

I hear “tabu” in church- Papa God, Jesus Son, mo Tabu Spirit. “Tabu” can also mean “Holy”.

I see the “Tabu Tri” the Namele on the Vanuatu national flag- it is a sign of peace, or when seen wrapped on poles and stuck in the water as a sign of “this is a fish sanctuary, keep out”

I hear it when referred to Mr. Ora, the man who drives a truck to the airport. He is my “Tabu Abu” which means that I am not allowed to joke around him, refer to him by his name, or touch him. 

I see “tabu” written on the wall of the school’s workshop, I suppose either it is either a holy workshop or forbidden.

vanuatu language reblogs Peace Corps Volunteer

The Saddlers Herbal Project in St. Kitts  

Twenty-three years ago, Stennett “Kwando” Harvey was a rising athlete star in the small island-nation of St. Kitts. Highly gifted in Tae Kwan Do, he was quickly becoming a regional star in the sport with the potential to take the international stage and represent St. Kitts all around the world. All of this tragically ended with a motorcycle accident that required the amputation of his left leg. Not willing to give up on his potential, Stennett retreated to his family farmland high in the hills of Saddlers in the countryside of St. Kitts, where he spent the following months teaching himself how to do daily activities with his one leg. All on his own, he rehabilitated himself to work on his farmland (another passion of his), continued his Tae Kwan Do training, and discovered within himself a spiritual side that he didn’t know he possessed.

Now, Kwando (as he is known throughout the island), a beekeeper, farmer, and spiritual healer, has teamed up with his significant other, Dr. Elisabeth Karamat, to establish the Saddlers Herbal Project. Dr. Karamat, a former Austrian diplomat who was sent to St. Kitts four years ago by the Vienna Archdiocese to promote agriculture to the youth of St. Kitts. Together, they are striving to work with both youth and local farmers to establish organic and more productive farming practices in the face of a devastating pest in the form of the invasive Green Vervet Monkeys found throughout the island in large numbers.

 The Saddlers Herbal Project has three main goals:

  1. Plant medicinal and aromatic plants in monkey-infested agricultural areas around Saddlers as alternatives to food crops
  2. Work with youth to transmit traditional plant knowledge and offer hands-on agricultural training together with international volunteers and advisors
  3. Gather international university cooperation for joint research to occur on the farm

Currently, with the assistance of Peace Corps Volunteer Andrew Davis, the Saddlers Herbal Project is partnering with local schools and community-based organizations to provide opportunities for both students and at-risk youth who express an interest in agriculture. Through the use of summer camps, extracurricular activities, and mentors in the form of Kwando himself and international specialists, the Saddlers Herbal Project is taking vulnerable youth off the streets and giving them an opportunity to develop real skills and help them achieve something more meaningful.

Learn more about the project on their Facebook page

St. Kitts at-risk youth farming organic farming Tae Kwan Do agriculture students Peace Corps Volunteer inspirational

"I wanted to travel, I wanted to learn skills that would be useful for the rest of my life, I wanted to use my undergraduate degree and improve my chances of getting into graduate school. I also wanted help paying for graduate school. Peace Corps just seemed like the perfect fit for me and it turns out it was the smartest decision I have ever made for myself in my life."

University of Colorado Boulder alumnus and Peace Corps/Swaziland Volunteer Andrew Warren Nute

University of Colorado-Boulder Peace Corps Volunteer Top Colleges education graduate school


Things I’ve Learned in Ecuador: #6 You Can Never Have Too Many Parades

About two months ago were the fiestas de la parroquia in my town of Tonchigüe. There was a rodeo, the election of the reina (more to come about that!), bailes and last but certainly not least were the desfiles. Parades are seriously underrated in the United States. Yes, we have Memorial Day parades, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and the infamous St. Patrick’s Day parade in Scranton… but here in Ecuador they really, really, REALLY love parades. Just a rough estimate but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen about twenty desfiles since arriving here in Ecuador which averages out to about two parades per month.

All the local schools participate in the desfiles and there’s lots of marching, baton twirling, and military-looking outfits, but by far the most important and distinguishing characteristic of the desfiles are the drums. I’ve only ever seen about 4 different instruments in the parades: drums, xylophones, trumpets… and more drums. There are about 15 drums to every one other instrument and they can be heard for miles around. There are big drums, small drums, medium sized drums, any kind of drum you could imagine. Goldilocks would certainly not have a problem finding her dream drum here in Ecuador during fiesta time. The drumming is always accompanied by some dancing with batons, inappropriately short skirts and sometimes berets.

There are also the costume desfiles. The marching of the schools I can somewhat understand but these costume parades still blow my mind. I’ve asked around town and there seems to be no rhyme or reason to how or what they decide to dress up as. I’ve seen children in Scream masks, dressed up as gangsters and Native American Indians. There are always all different sorts of animal costumes, traditional costumes from different regions of Ecuador but there’s also sometimes children wearing huge cardboard boxes painted like aquariums and some dressed as migrant farm workers. My favorite was the high schoolers walking around on huge stilts and dressed up in bright, multi-colored clown-looking costumes. Again, I have no idea why and I don’t think anyone else does either.

The best/worst part of these desfiles is that they last about 1 and a half hours minimum. I waited for about two hours in Atacames during one parade to see the kids from my high school and there were still about 15-20 schools yet to pass after them! And since all the towns in my area only have one major road, it’s always fun to see the buses lined up and stuck behind the desfiles for hours at a time. Luckily, I haven’t been stuck in a bus behind a parade yet!

Please someone come visit me! I can almost guarantee you will see at least one desfile!

Ecuador reblogs Peace Corps Volunteer parades celebrations culture cultural exchange