30 More Days…
How do you say good-bye to an experience as transformational as the Peace Corps? How do you prepare for living in a new culture, a new city, and a new context that used to be called, “home?” Those are the questions I keep asking myself as we enter our last month as Peace Corps Volunteers.
I remember when I was on the other end – a month away from the start of our Peace Corps adventure. I was stressing out about what clothes and things to pack and how it was all going to fit into two bags. One of our last weeks in Virginia before Staging we were interviewed by a local TV station (see the video here). The interviewer asked us what we think we would miss the most when we were abroad. I said, “loved ones, hot showers, and food variety.” While all answers turned out to be true, I could not even fathom on that morning sitting in my in-laws’ house the more abstract things I would miss so much more about the States.
Things I have missed about living in the States:
Blending in – either I am treated differently because I am a woman or I am treated differently because I am a foreigner. Sometimes that means I am conferred preferential status but other times that means that strangers feel entitled to ask me personal questions, whistle at me, or stare. Blatantly. One day while waiting for a bus a man from my town that I didn’t recognize came up to me as if he knew me and kissed me. Not on the cheek like we were saying hello or being introduced to one another – on the mouth! The worst part was the truckload of men stopped at the corner whistling and egging him on.
My personal space and the luxury of zoning out – whether it is maintaining a distance from my fellow passengers on a bus, listening to music while I walked down the street or closing my eyes on the subway even if I was traveling alone. One of the first things they teach you in the Safety & Security sessions during training is to be vigilant. Awareness is one of the best ways to prevent incidents and thankfully, we have never had any security concerns our whole time in this country.
Being a customer that is always right – here, there are no consumer protections and forget about making returns (even if the item was sold to you broken) or trying to exchange something without it becomming a very awkward or frustrating ordeal. Lack of customer service is a given, unfortunately. Paul recently took his HP mini to be fixed so that one of the members of Mujeres: Cambia could buy it for her family. He left the laptop there three months ago and was assured that it would be ready in two days. After countless phone calls and visits to the store where he was alternately told that his laptop was ready and that it was misplaced, he finally got the machine back untouched. Just a few days ago…in the US there would be some kind of recourse or at the very least an apology from the business but not so here.
Efficiency – while some errands we run go smoothly, there are other times when a big dose of patience is necessary to get things done. Paul applied for the bicycle program here in Quito that would allow him to sign out commuter bikes around the city. He applied two months ago and has never heard back. He had even agreed to pay for the year-long membership that he would only be using for four or five months.
Being sure of my words – as anyone who has ever had to learn a new language and live in that language knows, communication can be exhausting. Sometimes, it feels like a game of charades or guess what word I’m thinking when I don’t have the vocabulary. Other times when I am in front of a crowd or teaching, I expend more mental energy planning my words and saying them in my head first or looking up the correct grammar ahead of time.
Plentiful trash cans and less littering – friends on their first trip to NYC were always surprised at the lack of trash on the streets. While this varied by neighborhood and by context (for instance this isn’t true after street fairs, concerts, and parades) it’s hard to believe but I noticed less trash in NYC on an average day than living in Ecuador. We also lived on a beach but seeing how much plastic washed up on the shore and where those disposable diapers actually ended up has convinced me not to use disposables with our baby.