Well, it’s officially been a year since I stepped through those Kathmandu airport doors into the wild world of Peace Corps Nepal! If I’m short on material accomplishments from the last year, I’m long on life lessons. Some of them are things I wish I’d never learned. Nevertheless, here’s my Top Ten Life Realizations from year one of Peace Corps Nepal:
- This isn’t your Mama’s Peace Corps. I originally imagined the struggles of Peace Corps life as a mud hut with no water, no electricity, and the nearest phone call a week’s walk away. Don’t get me wrong, between cold showers, slow wifi, and a corner store with an unreliable cheese supply, I do suffer my fair share, but it’s nothing like it once was.
- Humans are adaptable. A person, when forced, can quickly learn to lose a sense of disgust, get over a crippling fear, or come to love something new. Never in my life did I think I would touch so much poop, grow accustomed to beagle-sized cockroaches in my bedroom, eat my weight in rice on a daily basis, or dance in front of so many strangers.
- Every language opens a new window to yourself. When I speak Nepali, I am rude, punchy, and flirtatious in a way I have never been in English. These days, when a shopkeeper overcharges me I throw out a routine, “but this fabric is terrible! It’ll rip immediately. How about 50 rupees less?” When yet another person asks me when I’ll get married I say, “Find me a pretty one and we’ll see.”
- Global poverty is not like on TV. Week one at my training site I saw a mud floor, open cooking fire, and dishes cleaned with ash and I thought, “Wow.” As the months went by I saw the $200 saris in the closet, the TV hidden under a throw cloth, and the children in Kathmandu with their Facebook accounts, office jobs, and iPhones. Yes, this is poverty. But it’s not how you think it is.
- A weak government is a huge impediment to development. Nepali politics are chock-full of corruption, nepotism, and sloth. A Nepali friend working in the private sector once told me, “Every government employee in this whole country is a thief.” Most of my friends here are government employees, who despite being good people, unabashedly benefit from a system which keeps them on the payroll without demanding much actual work from them. My best defense to my friend’s comment was to say, “Well, 95 percent of them are thieves.”
- Patriarchy is no joke. Living in this deeply unequal society has resulted in new revelations as to gender inequality back home. What makes the average Nepali woman slink quietly into a meeting like she wants to melt into the wall, while the average man stands up and boldly speaks his mind? Why does silence mean “yes” and “no” means “try harder”? Gender politics here are like a fun house mirror, refracting our own image back to us, grossly distorted.
- Freedom is a double-edged sword. Sometimes I remember my former life of 8 hour days behind a computer screen, eating lunch at my desk and never seeing the sunlight, and feel grateful that I now choose to work, or alternately, to lay in bed and binge-watch the new season of Girls on a Tuesday. When I am feeling less centered, I struggle to maintain my sense of purpose in an environment with no structure, no rubric for success, no penalties for failure, and infinite choices. Some days the only thing keeping me going is an overdeveloped guilt complex.
- The Peace Corps development model is only partly insane. Hiring inexperienced college grads, giving them minimal training, dropping them off in an isolated village halfway across the globe and expecting them to make change is ludicrous. However, Peace Corps’ approach to development is participatory and grass-roots. It teaches us that local people are agents of change, not passive recipients of aid. Every PCV knows that we are small fish in a sea of competent, intelligent local people, without whom we would accomplish nothing. These are lessons the international development community would do well to remember.
- Being here is a Privilege (with a capitol “P”.) Despite how hard it is sometimes, I feel unbelievably lucky to be here. I was born in a country that allowed me to get an excellent education, and despite minimal qualifications, there is an organization out there that will pay me to live and work in another country for two years! Many people around the world would give their right arm for a chance like this. (Resolution for year two: stop griping and live it up!)
- PCVs can actually make a difference. Being a cynical east coaster from the development field, I joined Peace Corps for pragmatic reasons. I wanted to gain experience, build my resume, and get out from behind my desk. I didn’t actually have delusions that I would help people. But that started to change once I got here. Despite the odds against us, PCVs do amazing things. I’ve had a first year of big life lessons and little results, but I remain optimistic that in my second year, I might actually make an impact.
Thanks to everyone back home for your love, your packages full of mac n cheese and beef jerky (keep em coming!), and your willingness to travel around the world to come visit me. Here’s to year two! I hope it’s as full of new adventures as the first.