It is amazing in its own way, as long as you let go of any expectations you may have had coming in.
When you’re a volunteer, you go through these different sort of predictable emotional phases. Like the 5 phases of grief:
- Honeymoon / nervous-energy phase – you’re just arriving and overwhelmed with it all. Some people very giddy. Some people very terrified. Most people have both emotions exploding through them.
- Culture shock – your daily life is so different from the life you left behind – this creates a constant sort of stress. How do I bathe publicly? Why is everybody staring at me? Why are 8-year-olds working instead of going to school? Reality sinks in – two years looks like a long time when you’ve only been there for two months. The “warts-and-all” of your experience are starting to become apparent. Did I sign up for this?
- Normalization – gradually, your daily life is less exotic and more just… normal. You start getting your feet on the cultural ground, kind of impressed with yourself that you can get around and make it fairly independently.
- Integration – at some point, the experience becomes part of who you are. Not this separate phenomenon you can compartmentalize into a photo album, but a permanent part of how you comprehend the world.
So when you first start out in the Peace Corps, you’re going through this emotional roller coaster with a cohort of other volunteers. Not everybody is feeling exactly the same, but everybody is going through these phases (or heading back home if it’s too much). So you develop a bond with your fellow PCV’s – particularly the ones you came in with. When you’re just starting out, your cohort is your support system.
In Nepal, we had a new group arrive every 4-5 months, each group containing as few as 8 or as many as 45 volunteers. When you first arrive, the older generations of Peace Corps volunteers are at a different phase – it’s nice to hear their perspective, but they are in a different place. (If all goes well, after a few months, you’ll all be in a similar place and those generational differences won’t be so relevant.) But your group – you’re going through it all together.
What this creates is a strong sense of loyalty and camaraderie. There may be people in your group who, in any other context, you would NOT hang out with. But in Nepal, they are your close buds. Maybe you’re a punk and the other person is a conservative Christian. But whenever you come to Kathmandu, you stop by the Peace Corps office to see who’s in town.
And whoever is around, you’re happy to see them, go out and grab a meal and catch up on what’s going on at your duty station. I’m not trying to imply there weren’t cliques or friend groups to some extent, but it was very porous – everyone was welcome everywhere.
You want to go dancing? Anyone who wants to go dancing will come along. You want to go shopping for a gift for your grandmother? Anyone who’s in the mood for shopping will join you. Pretty strong taboo against exclusion.
This is one of the things I love about TNOCS and tnocs.com – that we have created this same community dynamic.
Like a big and loving improv scene, where everybody’s down with, “Yes, and…”
This camaraderie extends throughout your Peace Corps experience. If you go to any city or village with a PCV, it’s understood they will let you stay over at their place. (This can be a problem for volunteers who live in larger cities – you have PCV’s coming through all the time and may need to set boundaries.) You look for ways to collaborate, excuses to invite other volunteers to check out your village under the auspices of getting a project done.
When multiple PCV’s live in the same town or village, they will often be very close, like brothers and sisters. Frequently, romantic couples result from these situations.
Once you get through the honeymoon and culture shock phases, the boundaries between different generations dissolve.
And you make friends with earlier – then later – generations of PCV’s.
You all become a big, weird family, where everybody’s got a hint of crazy uncle and loving grandma inside of them.
I’ll give an example: Thanksgiving 1999. Word got around that one of the volunteers in Tansen (the town where my group had our training) was going to host Thanksgiving dinner. No one had cell phones at that time, and even regular phone service was prohibitively expensive (over $1 a minute within country, over $3 a minute overseas). But people travel and gossip. People write letters (like actual snail mail). I was planning to attend, partially because I was helping a volunteer in a nearby village to design a school building. I thought there’d be maybe 8 people in attendance, and I was looking forward to such a large group.
Well, I got there, and 25 people ended up showing up. 21 Nepal PCV’s, two PCV relatives who happened to be visiting, and two returned PCV’s from Peace Corps Senegal who had just ended their tour and were just passing through Nepal and somehow heard about the event. We made it work by EVERYBODY pitching in.
My contribution was purchasing, slaughtering, and feathering a couple of chickens. The couple from Senegal made a key lime pie. Our host was working her ass off, but in pure joy – cranking out mashed potatoes, baked chicken, scones and tea for breakfast in the morning – all delicious!
We put on cassette tapes in the host’s boom box and danced in the front yard until the wee hours of the morning. We all slept in her apartment, filling nearly every square inch of floor space with our sleeping bags. The line for the single bathroom was never ending. It was awesome!
Another example: random night in Kathmandu. Whatever volunteers were in town would come together and decide on where to eat that night. Eight of us may go for Middle Eastern food and drinks afterwards, and we’d talk gossip, or philosophical musings, or unload our own emotional burdens:
- One woman talks about the Dalai Lama and her attraction to this Buddhist monk she met.
- Another woman talks about how annoying it is to get scabies and how hard it is to get rid of it.
- A guy asks if the real “you” is the way you perceive yourself or the way others perceive you.
- Another guy talks about how the mayor in his village was beheaded by the Maoist rebels and he’s getting stationed somewhere else.
The conversation could go in any direction, and nothing was ever shot down – people went along and participated. Obviously some people are more quiet and some people more talkative, but it was always inclusive.
Once a year, Peace Corps would host an all-volunteer meeting (“all-vol”) – a chance to get some joint training, learn about resources, get recruited for foreign service, share experiences, but mostly hang out together. We’d put on a talent show and people would sing or tell jokes or act out little skits on stage (I even sang, God forbid – I did a parody of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” with lyrics specific to Peace Corps and Nepal). People would submit slides of their duty station for a community slide show.
We would all go dance and party together (one person’s memorable quote from one such event: “I’ve never seen so many people desperate to hook up but unable to do anything about it”).
Unlike a high school dance, nobody is a rival or an enemy or a non-entity – everybody there is known and at least kind of important to you.
The other thing to keep in mind is that volunteers are our own community – Peace Corps and VSO (British equivalent) mingle well together. Other types of expats are ok, but are typically living a privileged lifestyle in Kathmandu, so there’s not a whole lot in common. Tourists are a different animal entirely – sometimes you can strike up a nice conversation with one, but they are having a very different experience. In a place where familiarity and comfort are at a premium, you seek out your fellow volunteers, and tourists are just there, part of the background.
I don’t want to rant about tourists, but they can be pretty callous and oblivious to how disrespectful they can be.
A lot of tourists are NOT like this, but the ones who are give “tourists” a bad name. Nepal pulls in a lot of young tourists, mainly from all over Western Europe and Israel – mainly for trekking or other adventure-y types of activities. I had a couple of nice conversations with tourists, but I couldn’t say I became friends with one.
Much more frequent for me were the interactions where a tourist corners you in a conversation and you are looking for an escape route. One guy (who was either a pathological liar or the worst expat ever) was regaling me about how he lives in a small Nepalese village with his Sherpa wife, and he has the only house with electricity in the village, and he gets all the Ohio State football games mailed to him on VHS and he watches them incessantly. The damn guy would not stop going on with his stupidity, and the polite Southerner in me couldn’t just excuse myself and walk away.
I ended up introducing him to a fellow PCV (sorry for throwing you under the bus!!!).
And running away as fast as I could.
Another night I was sitting by the campfire at a bar in Thamel (touristy part of Kathmandu), when this guy came with his mandolin sat down next to me and struck up a conversation. Dude was going on about how he’s a “traveler” not a “tourist” and sang some dumb song he wrote. I was looking for any reason to extricate myself from the conversation. This guy I knew but didn’t particularly like, Dave – an Australian expat who was leading adventure tourism stuff – showed up and I was like, “Dave, so glad to see you!” And I chatted with Dave for like 5 minutes then moved on.
Enough about tourists… thank God they’re supporting the very limited economy of Nepal, and I’ll leave it at that.
Anyway, the community didn’t die after the Peace Corps experience ended. I kept in touch with many volunteers after we returned home – for the first two or three years after I came back, all my leisure time was visiting or hosting my Peace Corps friends – trips to Portland, San Francisco, Miami, Baltimore, Atlanta… you name it.
I even had a few people visit me when I lived in the middle of nowhere in rural Arizona. But over time, I’ve lost touch with everybody. That’s on me – I’m not very sociable from a distance.
The main thing here is that this community of fellow volunteers and I – we got each other through a tough and amazing experience, and we did it with openness and without judgement.
This sort of semi-utopian community led me to believe it could be like this outside of the Peace Corps context. (Again, a big driver of why I feel so protective of tnocs, which is definitely in the same spirit.)
Well, outside of the Peace Corps community that I tried to hold on to, that utopian idea of friendship and community hit a big, fat brick wall when I got back to the United States.
… but that’s a story for another day…
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Thanks for the in-depth look at your volunteer experience and Peace Corps volunteering in general. It seems to me that it takes a certain kind of flexibility and openness to life to consider doing this work, and I’m impressed by anyone who is able to take it on.
On your observations about our community, I agree. We came for the music (and always come back to it), but have branched out to just about anything, which is rare and much appreciated. I hope we’re always able to keep that willingness to hear and include.
Chuck, I think they key term that you were describing is “adaptability”… people who don’t score well in that trait don’t tend to do well in the Peace Corps environment.
I think most people think it’s harder than it is. It’s a big leap of faith, but if you’re willing to take that leap, you’re probably willing to make it work… I tend to believe most people are capable of being much more adaptable than they give themselves credit for.
Another great write-up. My time studying abroad was a bit different–attending an American university campus in Tokyo, taking classes in English, living in a dorm with fellow study abroad students–but there are definitely aspects of your observations that I can relate to.
Among the study abroad students, there seemed to be at least two kinds. One is the “cultural exchange initiate,” someone who takes the idea of cultural education seriously, who tries to learn the language, history, and culture as much as possible, and who takes initiative to make connections among the native residents.
And the other is essentially an extended tourist, someone who just wanted to visit a cool place, see the sights, buy some otaku collectibles, and go home. Obviously everyone had their tourist moments, and probably everyone had at least some efforts at exchange, but people tended to lean heavily one way or the other. And I really had no interest in mingling with the tourists, be they actual or de facto ones.
One thing you mentioned that puzzled me, is the comment: “so many people desperate to hook up but unable to do anything about it.” Can you elaborate on that? In my experience, corralling together a bunch of young adults, all quietly reeling from the shock of being severed from their family, habits, and comforts, and bound together in a strange new environment–that was the perfect recipe for people to hook up. Typically it was just a hook-up, or a sweet fantasy that dissolved once everyone returned home, but it was definitely a helpful coping mechanism! Were there cultural or structural obstacles that prevented this for your group?
I think at that particular party where EVERYBODY was there, it was a combination of a couple of factors. 1. We all have a sort of close friend / borderline sibling relationship so hooking up can be weird in that context. And 2. Everybody’s there and everybody knows everyone and gossip abounds, so everybody will be talking about who’s hooking up with whom.
Its really interesting to read your take on the community aspect both with your fellow volunteers and the tourists you came across. Shows that there’s a lot more to the experience than just the volunteering aspect and coming to terms with the culture you found yourself in.
Couldn’t help thinking how it compared to my own experience. I was in Mexico and eSwatini for 3 months each. Mexico in particular was like a really condensed version of your take. Due to our isolation at the camp, no alcohol rule and the lack of any power meaning that entertainment was limited to whatever we came up with ourselves it was like an intense bonding experience. We had a lot of spare time to fill and not a lot to fill it with other than swimming, reading and talking. We talked for hours each day but I couldn’t tell you what about other than food – the paucity of catering meant that food was always the hot topic. Unlike the Peace Corps though people were constantly coming and going so there were always new faces which meant fresh conversation but also the same conservation resurfacing again and again as new arrivals experienced the same culture shock and acclimatising that you’d already gone through.
Not everyone was someone I’d normally choose to spend time with but I met some great people and am still in touch with some of them now.
I recognize the different phases you list, I just had to go through them a lot quicker. Its amazing what becomes normal – the primitive toilet facilities for one, it was quite surprising that no one actually complained about that, just accepted this is how it is and got on with it. I envy that you had 2 years to get to grips with it all and got that intense community feel on a longer basis.
In eSwatini as the base when not working was a backpacker hostel I came across a lot of ‘tourists’. Some great, some not so but at least where they turned out to be the equivalent of your mandolin guy it was only a few days at most and then they’d be moving on. I definitely recognise some of your interactions. One person I did meet that blew preconceptions away about tourists / travellers was a 70 something Scottish lady travelling alone around the world. She explained that her husband had died a year ago and she decided she could either sit around and wait to die as well or go out and make the most of the rest of her life. An inspiration to all who met her.
That Scottish lady is my hero!
What’s Nepal like now? Is it the same Nepal? Or have they westernized? The appeal of your Nepal series, for me, is escaping from a consumer-driven culture, for awhile. Can I bring my dogs?
I haven’t been back since my tour ended in 2000, but I’ve heard from my friends. Roads have expanded more rapidly than I imagined. Still much closer culturally to India than the West… that isn’t changing anytime soon. But I’m really out of the loop to answer that question accurately.
Don’t take my starry-eyed nostalgia to mean it’s some sort of utopia. The level of privacy you consider normal is nonexistent there. Not sure if you can bring dogs, but there are millions of dogs roaming the streets looking to be adopted.
I felt the same way when I worked at a summer camp in California in college. The camp made it a point to staff half Americans, half International folks, so the campers could have a broader experience (also, the kids camping were International as well). My 2 coworkers in the kitchen were both from England; staff and campers all had the same rustic cabin accommodations, totally unplugged from the outside world. It was fantastic to commiserate with all the foreign staff (we had UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and the Philippines represented), and I was the lone non-Californian American. After the second day, those ancient springs-only cots that sank 2 feet to the floor once you laid down were the most comfortable bed I’d ever been in, I got used to finding my way in the dark to the group bathhouse because I was too lazy to grab my flashlight, I never got tired marveling at how many stars were visible in the night sky, and it was such a relief to be off the grid for awhile.
Alot of the memorable experience obviously comes from the fact that thankfully you are with like minded people in situations like the Peace Corps, who are willing to just roll with whatever come their way. That makes all the difference when y’all are in that situation for the same reason. Just like here in tnocs!!!! 🙂
Please tell me there will be more tales from you Pauly about your adventures abroad; these have been such fun to read!
Thank you Dutch! I’m planning on probably one more Nepal comment at the mothership (possibly two, but doubt I’ll have time) and one more article here. But I’m also remembering lots of odds and ends I forgot to incorporate into this and previous articles. Not sure if I can round them up into a miscellaneous observations column of its own.
Your summer camp experience sounds incredible! I had kind of similar ones for a couple of summers as a counselor at a nerd camp (my favorite kind), specifically Duke University Talent Identification Program (TIP), Appalachian State University campus. I could write an entire article about those experiences as well.