I’m not sure today’s post is coherent. Mind you, I’m not sure any of the posts that have come before it have been coherent, either, but today’s is more of an introduction to posts that will come later.
During my university days, I took part in a K-State project that put young, fresh minds, and me, into small Kansas towns during the summer to assist with community development. We spent spring semester researching our town and interviewing locals and determining what the local needs were. We then stayed with locals for eight weeks while we worked on the projects we’d developed. In exchange, we got a monthly stipend, so it counted as a summer job which meant it balanced out the selfish and service sides of the equation.
Someone told me it was basically a Kansas version of the Peace Corps.
Therefore, after getting my Master’s degree, because I was sick of being at school and was in the mood to travel and because I felt like I owed the country something for leaving AFROTC (the USAF is much better off because of it, I assure you), I decided to join the U.S. Peace Corps. Before I joined, I asked a couple former volunteers, a husband and wife, for advice. They both said the same thing: bring money, you’re going to want money. Carry as much money as you can. I said “Well, doesn’t the Peace Corps take care of you?” They’re probably still laughing.
So am I, actually.
To understand what the Peace Corps is like you have to start with what Peace Corp Volunteers have in common with Special Forces Soldiers: part of their job is to educate the local population. Now remove the rigorous SF selection process. Then remove the rigorous SF language and survival skills training. Then remove any in-theater support. Then remove the ability to shoot your way out of trouble. Keep the paperwork. Then parachute that person, now a Peace Corps Volunteer, into a town with orders to “make ’em democratic.”
Unlike Special Forces soldiers, though, Peace Corps Volunteers do have some choice about where they are assigned (and can leave when they want). In my case, I chose Albania because I thought it was attached to Europe–it turned out it wasn’t, but that’s another post.
In Albania, my group, or, as the couple that told me to bring money called it, my “batch” were the first Peace Corps volunteers in Albania. We were designated Peace Corps Albania 001 and, because Albania had requested it, we were assigned as Teaching English as a Foreign Language instructors.
Because we were 001, and because TEFL was relatively new for the Peace Corps, we were basically guinea pigs. The staff would give us a green pill and say “how do you feel now?” If we said we were okay they’d go “Huh?” and have a hushed meeting in another room and come back with two green pills and a red pill. They’d keep increasing the doses until we had a reaction that left us unable to respond.
Well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but we did seem to get a lot of “vaccinations”, one of which (Gamma Globulin? Meningococcal Meningitis?) actually made us kind of high which made for a good party afterwards.
It also seemed at times as if the Peace Corps staff and Albania were making things up as they went along. Normally the Peace Corps pays it’s monthly living stipend (part of which is given to the host family or used for rent) via local banks. In Albania, the local banks didn’t work. To get our stipend everyone had to travel to the capital, Tirana, where we would often end up having to travel back and forth many times between the Peace Corps office and the one bank that would handle our money because the bank had declared it didn’t have local currency. If it turned out the bank was serious and not just messing with the Peace Corps, they would advance us some of our stipend.
Once we got paid, since everyone was in town at the same time, we had pretty decent parties and we were actually closer to being a “group” than a “batch” which made life easier. For reasons I still don’t understand, perhaps because we were in Albania as language teachers and not the traditional “let’s dig a well and plant mango trees while holding hands and singing ‘Imagine'” volunteers (yes, they do exist), our group turned out to be well mixed politically and ideologically, which made it a lot more fun, too.
The best part is that “volunteer” had a much different meaning in Albania than in the USA. A great many of the Albanians we met seemed to assume we had done something wrong in the USA and that’s why we were “volunteered” to work in Albania. None of them could believe we actually came there by choice. As you might imagine, “You are being punished” is NOT the first impression you want your hosts to have.
We therefore spent a lot of time explaining the purpose of the Corpse of Peace, as the Albanian’s pronounced it, and trying to convince them that we not there as an alternative to jail.
We had actually done it to ourselves.