Before I joined the Peace Corps, I knew that I loved to travel with the very limited amount of vacation time my jobs allowed me. Domestic was, of course, easier than international and I had visited only 7 countries (including my homeland) by the time I accepted my invitation to serve in Ethiopia.
I think people imagine Peace Corps as this exotic vacation where you travel all the time and see the world. It’s not. Seriously, don’t join the Peace Corps so you can “travel” in the traditional sense. A PCV spends 94% of their time in their host country. In my case, I’ve spent just over a month outside of Ethiopia’s borders and 24 of those days in a place I’d never been before.
At 12 days/year, that averages out to about the same amount of vacation time I got while working in the US. Whoopie. I also got weekends in the US. Plus, unless you have a lot of savings (or a very generous family… thanks family!) it’s hard to afford a lot of travel.
The real Peace Corps advantage in the travel department is that after you finish your service (called COS in Peace Corps lingo), you are given some cash and nobody really knows when you’re supposed to be back. Thankfully, no one really expects you back and working immediately. That makes post-COS the perfect time for a Big Trip! Before all the responsibilities settle back into your shoulders.
So do you travel in the Peace Corps? Not as much as one might imagine during service but you will likely get to know your host country pretty well and, depending on your location, get some travel in nearby countries. It’s after service that Peace Corps has the travel advantage.
Belaynesh was a camper of mine last year at Camp GLOW in Gondar. She returned this year to the Bahir Dar Camp G-GLOW (Girls and Guys Leading Our World) and was awesome in a pinch when we needed someone to lead a cheer. Here she is leading a call-and-repeat called “I went down to the river.” It’s been great to see her blossom into a strong young woman!
When I joined the Peace Corps, I knew it would be hard. Really hard. I knew I would not change the world. Some days I hate this place and can’t wait to be anywhere else. Other days are better. I know that someday I will appreciate it, embrace it and maybe even love it.
But in the meantime, I think about how this experience, these past two years in a developing country, has made me a better person. It certainly has made me a better American. I think America is the most magical place in the world and have never been more proud to call it my home. It has also made me see the flaws we, as Americans, have. It has made me realize what a privilege it is to grow up a white, American native English-speaker. It made me realize the freedoms we have that so many Americans take for granted: the privilege of an education, of healthcare, of safety. The freedom of holding an American passport.
This experience has also made me a feminist. It has made me grateful for the hundreds of years of women before me, especially my mother and her mother, who believed the world could and would be a better place for their daughters. I believe that women should be educated and that educating women creates a better world for all involved. I believe that woman have the right to choose who they marry. I believe that woman should be allowed input on family planning. I believe that women are not stupid or helpless and we should stop telling them that.
It has made me political. It has shown me how amazing the political freedom we have in America really is, despite all the flaws. It has made me realize how insignificant an individual is and how I really respect those who care about those who cannot care for themselves. I respect those who believe the poor have potential and can rise above it. It has given me respect for those who believe in humanity over money, in humanity over political alliance and in humanity even if it can’t give anything in return.
It has made me give a crap about the world outside my own circle of influence. It made me realize that there is a greater world beyond how many friends “like” your Facebook posts and how many retweets you get on Twitter. That there is so much more to worry about than the fact a Starbucks coffee went up a whole thirty cents. Especially when that Starbucks coffee is the daily wage of a highly paid office worker in Ethiopia. It has made me realize how small and insignificant my life was when there is a whole world
I’ve noticed I talk a lot about myself and what this experience has done for me, but I think that’s important for anyone considering joining the Peace Corps. Peace Corps is not just a job in a foreign land. It’s a job that puts you right into the heart of poverty, in distressed nations where things are different from life back home. It puts you into situations that will break your heart and radically shift your perspective on the world. The Peace Corps experience will change those who choose to accept it.
“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” ― Leo Tolstoy
I hope I always remember how I felt now, living in the midst of it. I hope that pay raises and comfortable living never turn me back into the person I was, comfortable in my apathy. I hope I never forget what Ethiopia has taught me–both good and bad–when I am far beyond it looking back.
This is one of my favorite activities that we do with Ethiopian students. Called “Strong Woman Pinatas” the girls and guys wrote practices that harm women on the pinatas. Then the students read why they are a strong woman or a supporter of strong women before hitting the pinata.