End of service thoughts on my personal journey, Peace Corps the organization, and my reintegration into US life…
On April 28th I signed the requisite paperwork and officially ended my time as Peace Corps Panama Volunteer. Which still isn’t real for me. Saying goodbye to the people of El Cedro was incredibly difficult. It’s impossible to describe the whirlwind of emotions I felt and still feel. Something unexpectedly profound was the way in which the sadness brought on by my departure highlighted the depth of friendship and connection I ultimately found in this small community in the cultural heartland of Panama. It was impossible, especially for me, to not constantly question myself and my impact in El Cedro. But having to say goodbye brought out the best in me and the best in my Panamanian family and friends. We acknowledged, like we never had before, the impact we had on each other. We often struggled to express ourselves, to eloquently say goodbye. But even in silence we acknowledged the mutual gratitude and sadness inherent in a friend’s goodbye, even if we both hoped: que no sea un adios, pero un hasta luego. I am still struggling to put some final thoughts together about my experience. But I guess it should be…there is no finality to my experience—it will continue to affect me for years to come. This wasn’t some finite adventure, some break from ‘the real life.’ The lessons I learned here won’t be bottled up and saved for a rainy day. On the contrary, the past two years of my life have felt more real, more genuine, and the personal change brought on by the incredible challenge of this experience couldn’t feel more relevant. I feel as if I have been inspired to adopt a new, or perhaps evolved, lifestyle. I feel ready to accept and engage my ignorance, I feel genuinely able to listen to someone I disagree with and be open to the possibility of being proven wrong—or at the very least to let nuance enter the equation. And at the same time I feel more confident in myself and my beliefs than I ever have before. I don’t know what my future holds, but whatever it does I want to let this feeling take root and grow. I feel humbled and I feel empowered, and when I recognize these traits coexisting in my lifestyle, I feel grateful.
In the Peace Corps I was looking for connection. I wanted to immerse myself in something new, to feel deeply connected to a new perspective and feel it change me. But being open to that idea is different from committing to making it reality. Which is to say that it has been extremely difficult. For me. The people in Panama keep their doors open, they wanted to let me into their community, their circle. They were, for the most part, ready. But it’s hard to walk into a new life when you’re not ready to be absolutely open with yourself. Which I often wasn’t. I was so ready to experience a connection that transcended cultural borders, but I was naïve to the extent to which doing so requires a self-assuredness that can withstand frequent if not constant testing. Sticking out, being an outsider…being a gringo. For a surprisingly long time, conversation topics circle around your race, your country, your climate, and how you fit into their conception of gringo. And when you develop confianza and conversations get deeper, it’s remains difficult to shake the feeling that you’re performing, being judged as a general and faithful representative of the other. At which point I think most non-white males will probably be like, ‘welcome to the fucking club.’ Or not even, because Peace Corps service is 27 months and I can at any time go back to the land of ultimate freedom (for white dudes). Or because I was a diplomat with mad privileges. (Question: is it horribly ironic that I can never spell the word privilege?). So yeah, not trying enter my struggle into any competition here but shit, it was a struggle.
In almost every interaction, I could overthink how my words and my actions were contributing to their idea of an American, of the Peace Corps, of an environmentalist—of any part of my identity. What am I proud about, what do I want to share? What would cause friction? Which begs the question how do I actually fit in these categories, what is my identity? I certainly don’t have concrete answers to these questions, but I’ve learned that I don’t need to. I shouldn’t. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I’m going to put this experience into words when caring and curious friends or family ask. And I keep coming back to this: I feel open to the ambiguity of life. On my good days, I embrace it. I feel a patience in my soul that wasn’t there before. Clarity doesn’t come from avoiding the unknown or from forcing through a shallow sense of understanding. Clarity requires embracing of the lack of clarity. Which for me personally has been a profound realization—to have learned this lesson through experience, through genuine human connection. It was so hard to identify and overcome cultural gaps when I felt I needed absolute clarity, or some sense of ‘full’ understanding, before taking action. But I found the most empowering kind of common ground is that which comes from mutual humility. We should accept and embrace our differences, but ultimately accept that we will have blind spots, misunderstandings that come from a certain degree of ignorance towards the successes and struggles of the other. To accept, and embrace this reality is to be truly willing to change, to forge connections through differences, rather than despite them.
It seems to me that Peace Corps is having an identity crisis. Is it a cultural exchange organization forging friendships across the world, or is it a development organization helping poor communities grow? Peace Corps tries to be both, with the logical connection being that to help communities grow in a sustainable fashion we have to focus on capacity building and behavioral change, which naturally requires a degree of friendship and trust. But I think PC can often come up short in forging this connection between friendship and productivity. Because if you focus on developmental projects, you run the risk of becoming too focused on quantifying your impact, and you can lose sight of the lesson I talked about in the last paragraph. There is a humility, a patience required when developing a relationship with locals. You need to listen and try to understand the gaps in understanding—only then can you work towards sustainable development. Peace Corps the organization, we the volunteers, and the people of the host country all have goals. And while ideally they all match up, it is not always the case. Site development is the process the PC office takes in identifying communities where volunteers serve—working with locals to define expectations and identify projects/roles for the volunteer to undertake with the community. But there are two variables I want to mention that make this process very difficult: 1) An underfunded and understaffed PC office and 2) Power dynamics between poor communities and outside institutions—which make it very hard for rural Panamanians to feel comfortable expressing their true feelings rather than just trying to impress the outsider who has resources. Expectations are a powerful thing, and I think because of these two variables/problems expectations can become twisted. Annnnnyway…
In Peace Corps, and perhaps in development work in general, there exists a bubble—a limited community of peers who via their similar experiences, can understand each other’s successes/challenges/failures with a sufficient degree of nuance. Which is not to promote an idea of insiders and outsiders, but sometimes it is the reality. I’ve gone through my share of tough times here in Panama, questioning how or why to go forward with a project, or even a friendship. And in these times I’ve called a fellow PCV friend rather than a family member or a life-long friend from home. I know we didn’t have to devote time to jump cultural gaps, differentiating our separate environments as we compare and contrast experiences. In my Peace Corps family, there has always been a deep sense of solidarity among us. We were alone in our communities but together in the struggle to forge connections with, and hopefully empower, Panamanians. We got it…and can’t help but think that our loved ones at home maybe didn’t get it, at least not to the same extent. So when we needed to talk something out, or share ideas, or just rant, we find wisdom in each other. Which is to 1) give a semi bull shit excuse for not updating my blog more and 2) Express my uneasiness about getting back home and trying to explain my experience. Because in reality these two years have been a non-stop roller coaster of many, many experiences. And when I get hit with the predictable questions that we as PCVs often view as cliché (Do you feel different? What was your favorite moment? How is Panama different from the USA?), I really don’t know how I will respond. I look forward to figuring out how to answer these questions; practice expressing myself will hopefully help me better understand how I have indeed changed.
I am especially looking forward to reconnecting with friends I haven’t seen in over two years. No matter the context, I think people change a lot in their mid-twenties and I can’t wait to see how my friends have grown and how are relationship can reach new (perhaps adult!?) levels. Before heading back stateside though, I’m going to wander in Colombia (and maybe Peru and beyond?) to explore a connection with new parts of Latin America. I’m super excited to use my Spanish to hopefully transcend the typical tourist experience, and I absolutely can’t wait to meet up with my brother and some friends and travel together! I’ll be back home at some point and can’t wait to catch up with you all in person!
En paz y amor