McKenzie Paterson, 129 TESS
In quintessential millennial form, I haven’t sent one letter or postcard during my two years of service.
My Uncle John, who served as an Agriculture Volunteer in Brazil from 1970-1972, sent many. In his Northeast Brazilian town, it was his only form of communication. Like today, landline phones existed, but few people actually had them. Unlike today, the alternative wasn’t texting, FaceTime, or even, God forbid, email. The only Apple that existed were ones that grew on the orchards that surrounded his home. It was good old fashioned snail mail. A fortnight if lucky, but it often took at least a month’s wait to receive a letter, especially if it came from America.
Long the wait, when he did receive a letter it filled him with immense joy. Someone loved him enough to take pause, a moment out of their life, to tell him that they were thinking of him. As a Volunteer, you learn to cope with feelings of isolation and loneliness. So this simple gesture is far more poignant than the words in such a letter could express. Although he was at best hundreds and in many instances thousands of miles away from his friends and family, letters and postcards narrowed that chasm by helping him experience his interpersonal relationships tangibly. Sometimes, he asserted, more tangibly than texting otherwise could have.
As a Volunteer serving in the Peace Corps in the 21st century, you often rely on FaceTime and other technological means of communication to stay in touch with and nourish the friendships you cultivated with fellow PCVs. The limited access to communication during my Uncle John’s service must have crippled his budding friendships, right? Nope. In fact, nearly 50 years later he continues to get together with some of his closest friends every year. That’s a lifelong friendship I aspire to have with my fellow PCVs, one that was cemented in letters and postcards.
Of course, they also visited each other in the provincial city at least once per month when they needed an outlet that required a bit more than a two week turnaround time. Wait –– traveling in a foreign city without Google Maps, let alone a nearby landline? How did they manage to ever find one another? One time I was phoneless at Bangkok’s bus terminal and tried to meet up with a friend. The only reason we found each other is because I borrowed the phone of someone I knew who worked at the terminal and used her Facebook to bombard my friend with a friend request and many, many messages and pokes. I did this until my friend realized it wasn’t just another random Thai person trying to befriend her. All of this required technology. How did my uncle manage to ever successfully meet up with friends? Well, it certainly wasn’t without its hiccups. Sometimes he would travel 3-4 hours to a meeting point and his friends wouldn’t be there, and he wouldn’t know when or even if they’d arrive. Their friendships withstood these obstacles, though, because they always had their letters.
As correspondences took weeks, my uncle didn’t have instant communication like we do today. For all its disadvantages, like not being able to rely on family from home or friends from the Peace Corps during the hard times, there were certainly advantages that also came along. Continual communication can remind you that you’re away –– away from your life in America and away from your friends scattered throughout the country in which you now live –– but my uncle didn’t have that. So he had no choice but to integrate into his community to find meaningful relationships that would ground him during those hard times. He found many of those relationships through music, a universal language for PCVs no matter the country or year of service. He brought his guitar and played for his community members. In his second year, he joined a local band and traveled around the province for different shows. Of course, they played Brazilian music, but they also played a lot of American rock music. As it was the early 70s, the Beatles were a fitting favorite for their fans.
“Playing the guitar was a great in for Brazil since they are so musical and liked American music. Above are two talented local guys at a party and me.”
Between the letter correspondences and band gigs, he carried over his writing and expression habits into a new hobby to occupy his downtime: journalling. Even as simple as recounting his day, it grounded him in mindfulness. Maybe I’m missing the deeper meaning of Riverdale, but that’s not something I often take away from my Netflix hobby. While journaling wasn’t something he did prior to his service, it continues to be a part of his routine nearly 50 years post-service. I don’t think I’ve opened my journal in two months, but I may have finished an entire season of Downton Abbey over the weekend. Oops.
Like an archive of his experience, he still has his letters and journals that he can reminisce over whenever he’s feeling nostalgic. I, on the other hand, lost many of my correspondences when I also lost my phone –– because texting is not only much more convenient than writing letters, it’s also much more fleeting. And the texts I didn’t lose? Those will inevitably evaporate into the iGraveyard. I won’t have the option to recount and reflect upon my thoughts and experiences when I’m 71 years old. I would have to recall by memory the many months I chose another episode of Jane the Virgin over a journal entry (to say I’ve watched a lot of TV during service would be a gross understatement). How am I ever going to publish a memoir now? Juuuust kidding… Seriously, though, with the convenience of instantaneous communication and technology also brings with it the potential loss of meaningful communication, with yourself or others.
The very act of being present, whether it’s through writing letters, journal entries, or interacting with the people around you – free of technological stimulation – has become so contrary to the global culture of impatience and instant gratification. This is ever present in Thailand where rural kids may not know how to write, but they have a phone and umpteen gaming apps to entertain them. And it’s contagious. Who else wildly underestimated not just the access, but the expectation of technology consumption during service? Maybe everyone else is far more self-disciplined than I, but some days seem more about escaping the Peace Corps than it does actually experiencing it.
I want that to stop. I say that with only two months left of service, but these are some of the most important ones, right? As proven by my uncle, relationships, whether local or distant or with yourself or others, aren’t contingent upon means, but rather motivation. He made a choice. During my last two months of Peace Corps service, I choose to take pause and absorb the absolutely unique journey of the Peace Corps rather than coast through whilst being absorbed by technology. I choose to give love to those I love. I will talk to my family and friends on the phone rather than solely rely on texting, I will fill a journal page, and I will interact with community members over a shared, non-technological interest. And, yes, I will even write some letters. Of course, I’ll also watch the new season of Man in the High Castle because like all good things – cheese, bread, and chocolate – technology is best consumed in moderation.
Many years ago, my Uncle John inspired me to join the Peace Corps. Today, he inspires me to be present in the Peace Corps. Though I only have two months left, I’m a big believer in better late than never, which is certainly in stride with Thailand’s ethos in doing just.about.anything.
Signing off because, well, isn’t that the whole point of this piece?