Natalie Garro, 129 TCCS
A few weeks back, another PCV said something to me that’s stuck with me, popping into my head at least a couple times each day: Peace Corps Volunteers have grit.
She chuckled as she observed that volunteers who want to throw in the towel often stay out of pure stubbornness. There’s something within a PCV’s indomitable will that will not surrender to the oppressive silence weeks of inexpressible longing for meaningful conversation brings, the maddening cravings for foods we took for granted when they were a drive or a phone call away, or even the simple yearning for the presence of someone close and familiar, who will not demand an explanation for each one of our behaviors, regardless of how normal – or abnormal- that behavior might be.
This is not every Peace Corps Volunteers’ story, but this is where this story begins.
A little over a month ago, my partner of 9 months and I ended our relationship. We met here in Peace Corps, we are both currently-serving volunteers, and – for the entirety of our relationship – we communicated every day. From the time I moved to site, he has been present for all of my ups and downs. He was a long conversation or a short hello at the end of every day. He knows the names of my students and coworkers, and they ask about him.
His presence staved off the loneliness. Let me clarify, that had nothing to do with our partnership, but it is an irrefutable fact: I was never alone here, because he was always a phone call away, a few weeks and a long bus ride away from my arms. And it was good.
Transitioning from that kind of companionship to Peace Corps level aloneness sucks. It’s terrible. Breakups are difficult enough, but then add in a minimum 2-hour travel to your nearest friend, and boom. The isolation is comparable to a stint in the Trunchbull’s chokey.
It was right before this breakup my lovely friend made her declaration about PCVs and their grit. Look, grit didn’t bring me here, grit isn’t why I want to stay, and grit alone is not enough to keep a person in any situation, particularly one as bizarre as Peace Corps. But she has a point.
A Peace Corps Volunteer can do everything right: we can practice our language every day with the people we’ve formed friendly – even familial – bonds with. We can work our butts off, exercise daily, eat right, visit neighbors, laugh, cry, ask for help, and at the end of the day, there’s still those projects that haven’t gotten off the ground. There’s still the wall that exists between us and anyone who hasn’t known us for at least five years. There’s still that craving for soft serve and tacos. And there are still those days when giving up sounds so much easier than staying.
I’ve fantasized about the plane ride home – how it would be much more comfortable than a 10-hour overnight bus. I’ve spitefully imagined announcing to my coworkers I’ve decided to go home and wondered if they’d realize they’d wasted me as a human resource when they repeatedly shot-down my project ideas. I’ve pondered whether I would leave my kitten with a neighbor or haul her back to the U.S.
The aloneness is curious. It’s not crushing or haunting. It doesn’t make me want to cry… most of the time. It can’t be filled with a trip to the coffee shop, Legend of Zelda, Paper Mario, The Sims, drinks with my girlfriends, a drive through the mountains, or a movie with my dad. These resources simply aren’t available here. Sometimes, there’s nothing to look forward to for months, and I start hallucinating ailments with the faint hope that a medical appointment will take me to Bangkok, where I can go to the movies and eat chocolate croissants and sit in a beautiful bookstore, surrounded by strangers, but not alone.
There is no one my age here. I am a young, unmarried woman without a family. The other teachers go home every weekend, and it’s just me, my young students, the Yais, my neighbors… And I love the people here. But there is a fundamental difference in who we are culturally, ideologically. And neither lifestyle or set of beliefs is superior to the other. But I am foreign, in many ways, and – honestly – I want to stay foreign. I like who I am. But sometimes, it feels lonely.
And this is what’s key – this is the feeling I’m willing to explore, PCVs are willing to explore. This strange plane of straddling two worlds. The grit exists in all the ways we choose to bear it, in the sacrifices – big and small – we make for our service, for this experience, for these relationships; because there is something we see as inherently valuable in the discomfort.
And despite the alone that sometimes feels as intimate as a wedgie shoved WAY up there while we’re trapped on stage in front of hundreds of people with several more hours (months) ahead of us, we believe the show must go on. And the show goes on. And we become EXTREMELY well-read individuals. And we listen to countless podcasts. And we learn abstract skills – like how to cut our own hair or make pizza in a rice cooker. And we survive. We persist. We change. We grow. We thrive.
And we have grit. Damn it, we have grit. But there’s so much more to it… There’s so much more.