Articles

PCVs or Spartans?

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Anna McGillicuddy, 129 YinD

WHO ARE YOU?
I AM A SPARTAN.

WHAT IS YOUR PROFESSION?
AROO, AROO, AROO.

These words were yelled over the loudspeaker and repeated back by everyone standing at the starting line. I looked around at the people surrounding me. Some were standing in teams, some alone, with smiles on their faces, with sheer concentration and some, like me, with confused excitement and instantaneous regret. And it is in that moment, much like the moment I arrived to Peace Corps pre-staging in San Francisco feeling unprepared, out of place, in over my head and downright scared, that I thought to myself, “what the actual f*** was I thinking?”

I’ll try to explain how I got here. I started muay thai training this past winter and it changed everything. Endorphins and team sports have always been life lines for me during tough times so this boxing family and kick-ass workout were more than welcome in what can be a very lonely world. Some people in my community loved that I was trying it out.  They would give me encouragement whenever they saw me running or training but there were some people who felt very differently. I remember being in the car with a few of the highest ranking female officials in the government office in which I work and them telling me that I should lose my fights and that I most definitely should not appear strong. If I did, I would never be able to find a boyfriend because all of the men would be too scared of me.  If you know me at all you know that their advice moved me the exact opposite direction that they wanted. I laughed out loud, said ‘mai bpen rai’ with a big smile on my face and inwardly resolved to not only show them that women can be strong AND beautiful but that a woman’s life will not be dictated by any voice other than her own.

So basically, that’s what I was thinking when I signed up for the Spartan Race. No, I didn’t sign up just because my community thinks it’s unladylike to be strong but I did it as a reminder to myself that I am strong, I am capable and I am a bad-ass woman. Honestly sometimes I need to be reminded of that. The Peace Corps experience can be tough, draining, and downright deflating. My appearance is constantly critiqued: my belly gets squeezed, my crooked nose gets touched and gawked at, if I ever eat anything fattening I’m told to be careful and if I ever eat something healthy word spreads that I’m scared of becoming fat. It’s strange to work a job that requires nonstop emotional and mental energy when the feedback you receive is usually focused on your physical self – as if the body in which you live deserves more attention than the person you are and the reasons you’re here. Of course, I don’t think that’s the intention behind these comments. I think this is just a vast cultural difference and that they sometimes say these things as a way to connect with me and make conversation. And while that may be true, it can be difficult to not only laugh those comments off but to also rationalize the intent behind them (something you feel you shouldn’t have to do) and to remind yourself of your own worth simultaneously.  I have, however, found a deeper appreciation for the body with which I’ve been blessed. This 5 ft 2, squishy in some parts, strong in other parts, always sweaty, farmers-tanned body can survive hours of traditional Thai dancing, muay thai practice, biking in the middle of the day in 100+ degree weather and 5am exercise classes with the elderly. The strength I’ve found in my body and its ability to live in this world has shown me just how emotionally and mentally resilient I really am. Completing a Spartan Race was going to be another reminder of those strengths.

However, this feeling of ‘badass-ness’ disappeared quite quickly on the day of the race and was replaced by ‘please just let me survive’ – another, very real, Peace Corps approach. The last thing I heard from the loudspeaker as myself and my four Peace Corps friends got ready to run was “Look at the faces around you. We are a Spartan family. No man left behind.” Looking back on it now, I realize that this long obstacle-ridden race was incredibly similar to my last 17 months as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Start Line – Kilometer 1, Pre Staging:  We started the race similar to how we began our Peace Corps journey in San Francisco. Pre-staging was a 3-day ‘event’ where they rounded us all up from around the country to give us general information/rules before sending us off to Thailand. Just as in the Spartan race, we were surrounded by strangers, all of whom had signed up for the same thing but none of us really understood what it was that we had signed up for. We all knew we were heading down the same path together and that these people would probably be the ones to help us with the inevitable obstacles headed our way but at that point we were still strangers to one another.

Kilometers 1-2, PreService Training: PreService training is a 10 week cultural, linguistic, and technical in-country training. This is when the obstacles started. We got warmed up with a few low walls that we had to jump over (adjusting to physical changes), a barbed wire crawl (language barrier) and then the sandbag carrying obstacle (cultural confusion/differences). We all started to go at different speeds. There wasn’t so much a sense of competition but instead this want/need to keep up with the others – that they were encountering the same obstacles as you, so why weren’t you able to do them as well or as quickly? We were in training for this, right? How come it wasn’t paying off?

Kilometers 2-4, Arriving at Site: About nine obstacles in, we got hit with the bucket brigade. We had to carry these huge buckets filled with rocks for about 500 meters. These very real rocks represented the little, but many, cultural and linguistic issues we all faced on our own when we first got to site. My teammates and I got split up during this one and had to individually decide how to carry this weight. It was tough but one by one, we all figured it out and our fellow PCVs were waiting at the end (or the nearest city) with high fives (or a beer) and words of encouragement.

Kilometers 4-6, Remaining at Site: At kilometer 5, some of the group split off to the Spartan Sprint (the 8km race which is what people normally sign up for having never done a Spartan race before hehem DJ & Nathan) so the large group we started out with got a bit smaller and the obstacles became more difficult and more frequent. The several months after being placed at site very much felt this way. People were heading home at what seemed like a pretty frequent rate and we had to navigate our way through a foreign work and education style. At about kilometer 6 in the race, we got to a horizontal climbing wall and I just could not do it. I felt helpless, just like I did when I hit my first really big emotional dip at site. I didn’t have the strength, technique or patience to complete it and after attempting it on my own a few times, I realized I just needed to ask for help. Nathan and Danyal very literally helped me finish this one by each holding one of my legs aka my entire body weight as I used my measly upper arms to pull me across and hit the bell signaling my ‘triumph.’ I didn’t want to ask for help in fear of coming across as weak or incompetent but I needed to or I wouldn’t have been able to overcome this obstacle. We may have been going at different paces but we were all in this together. Each obstacle is different for everyone and there’s no shame in learning about your weaknesses. Be vulnerable – ask for help and know that your acknowledgement of that weakness is how you’ll be able to overcome whatever it is your facing. This is a Spartan family. This is a Peace Corps family. You never have to face something alone if don’t want to.

Kilometer 6-8, Midservice: I swear, when I saw that 7km sign indicating we had just passed halfway I let out a big old moan. How in the world were we only halfway? But at the same time, where did the past 7 kilometers go? MidService conference felt the exact same way. Arriving back in the province where our training first began 17 months prior was a bizarre yet comforting experience. It felt like it was only yesterday that we were all there, getting to know one another and preparing for the next 24 months and yet, looking ahead at another 10 whole months at site was really daunting.

Kilometer 8-Finish, Rest of Service: Obviously I can’t speak to the rest of my time in Thailand seeing as I am still 9 months from COS (close of service). I do know that if it’s anything like the last leg of the race it will be exhausting at times but nothing will compare to completing my service with fellow PCVs the same way we crossed that Spartan finish line – hand-in-hand and with full hearts.

WHO ARE YOU?
I AM A PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER.

WHAT IS YOUR PROFESSION?
LEARNING, HELPING, GROWING.

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Read Anna’s previous articles Fight and Flight, Finding Balance, and Mornings in Thailand and listen to her on the My Peace Corps Story podcast.

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