Monday, April 23, 2012

And You May Ask Yourself, Well, How Did I Get Here?

I just returned from the Peace Corps "Close of Service" conference for my volunteer group.  The conference covers topics such as readjusting to life after service, the volumes of paperwork that we need to complete as we finish, a lot of talk about getting a job afterward and other related topics.  The best part, though, was the (probably) last opportunity to get together with what remains of the group with whom I arrived in Armenia almost two years ago. I say “what remains of the group” since some have left for various reasons – medical reasons, personal reasons, jobs, etc.  As of today, our original group of 58 now stands at 47.

One of the conference sessions was to help with ways to describe to people (family, friends, potential employers) what I have actually been doing here.  On a day-to-day basis, people often feel that they are not doing (let alone accomplishing) anything.  And despite the advice to arrive with no expectations, it is natural for people to want to work on specific things when they are here.  This can lead to a lot of frustration because the site where a volunteer is placed may have needs that are much different from what the PCV wanted to or expected to be doing.  While that frustration sticks in your mind, once you sit down and start thinking through how things accumulate, you realize that they really do add up and what you really accomplish creeps up on you and takes forms you never would have expected. As an example, an IT volunteer who only expected to work on IT has helped a women's center become more sustainable when they started making and selling teddy bears.  The bears became characters in environmentally-focused cartoons.  Who'da thunk it?

The same goes for the way we change while we are here.  Another session was about the “reverse culture shock” that people experience after Peace Corps.  It is senseless to predict how that will impact me when I get back to New York, but I can notice how my perspective about Armenia and how I do things has changed.  It is premature to cover all of that since I still have a few months here and I will talk about that closer to my actual departure date. 

But another session that really got me thinking was when we were asked to chart the high points and low points of our time here.  And I can honestly say that my low points were pretty few and mostly not that bad.  There were definitely times that I was not happy, but those didn’t last long and were over pretty minor things (like the time I lost my patience with one of my language teachers).  

The only time that I felt really low was last month.  One night, late into the seemingly endless winter, I was walking home in yet another snowstorm, along an unlit, unpaved, ice-covered road.  Snow was pelting my eyes and as I struggled to keep my footing, I was temporarily blinded by a car coming toward me with high beams on, and I knew that I was expected to yield the right-of-way even though there was not sidewalk and I couldn’t see enough to judge where the best place to move was.  When I did get home, I had piles of paperwork to get through and I knew I would be up past midnight working on it (as I had been all month) and knowing that the project it was related to was doomed. While I had a vacation to look forward to, I didn’t have the time to make the plans and reservations that I needed to.  It was the first time in my service that I thought “This sucks”.  It passed, though, and even at the time I realized that I was very lucky that it took until having been here 22 months for it to happen.  

Now that the winter has really ended, the doomed project is behind me and I am back from my vacation, things are fine again.  I am still busy – too much so at times – but the nice weather alleviates that somewhat and I can go out for long walks again.  And so I am back to life as “normal” as a situation such as Peace Corps can be.  While I have never had a day where I considered leaving early, I do have these moments when I have to laugh at how ridiculous some things are – things that I never would have believed I would be experiencing but (as I have written before) don't seem so strange at the time.  Such as sitting at the edge of my tub, late on a Saturday night, trying to do laundry by the light of a flashlight because the electricity had gone off for the second time within a day for no apparent reason.   

And at times like that, when the oddness breaks through, I do ask myself “how did I get here?”


Yes, this is a short and relatively lazy post because I was on vacation for the two weeks before the conference so I am still getting caught up from being away for three weeks.  Anyone interested in the vacation can see pictures added to my prior vacation album here.