peace corps volunteer life

Go out light and come back heavy

Makal Monday!

“Makal” in the Kyrgyz language means “proverb.” Kyrgyz is full of wonderful and puzzling little proverbs – some that match common proverbs often heard in English and some that are real head scratchers. Most Mondays I’ll post one of the more fun ones for you. Let’s see if we can’t make some of these commonplace in America by the time I get back!

Jengil bar — Oor kel

Жеңил бар — Оор кел

“Go out light and come back heavy”

Part I

Thin tendrils of ice fractured the surface of the puddles in the street. My breath broke the morning air as I clomped along in faux-fur lined boots to the bank.

“How much would you like to take out?” she yelled through the glass.

“63,000.” (About $1,300, or the price of a small horse.) I answered back, trying not to sound too conspicuous.

“Huh?”

“63,000.”

“How many thousand?”

“Sixty. Three.”

I punctured the glass with my words. The two other people in the room had stopped moving and were now staring.

“Do you have enough on your card?”

“Yes.”

“Here—write your pin number on this paper.”

She slid a scrap of a post-it note and a pen under the window. I wrote it small and passed it back. She punched it in, and the money was there. Her coworker came out of the vault with the top of an old cardboard box filled with cash. She began counting it out.

“Where are you from?”

“Here, in Kochkor.”

“No, where are you from, from?” The daily question came early today.

“The US.”

“What’s your name?”

“Luther.”

“Huh?”

“Lu-ter.”

She asked me to scratch my name down for her and passed me back the same slip of paper with my pin code on it. I ripped it off, wrote down my name and passed it back.

Her name, it turned out was Akjol, or “Goodluck.”

“Goodbye, Goodluck,” I said, a hand in the air and 63,000 som in my pocket. “And hope you can hang onto some,” I thought. It seemed like the bank needed it.

Don’t join the Peace Corps

You heard me. Don’t do it. I’m telling you, it’s going to break your heart.

The Core Expectations for Volunteers states you are expected to “serve where the Peace Corps asks you to go, under conditions of hardship, if necessary…” What it doesn’t state however is just what hardship means.

Right now you’re thinking, “Oh. There’ll be no flush toilets or showers. I can handle that. I might have to squash a few spiders, but for the high calling of changing the world, I think I can put up with those things.”

But the truth is, hardship isn’t the quirky and fun hardship you’re expecting, where each new day brings adventure upon crazy adventure, more wonderful than the next. True hardship is much more sobering.

During your service you might have to bury a neighbor. Or watch helplessly as your host family is torn to pieces by corruption. You might show up to school to learn one of your students was killed by a classmate. Your host sister could be kidnapped and forced to marry a man she’s never met. You might witness abuse, violence and mistreatment. You may see your best student lose to a kid from another school because his bribe was the biggest. Your dog might be fed a needle, just to quiet it down, forever.

And if none of that happens, then something else will. There’s just no knowing how hard it will be or it what way. It could be dealing with other volunteers is your biggest challenge. Or that you can never live up to the expectations of your host organization. Or that the Internet is so accessible you spend your entire day trolling Facebook, jealous of all the lives continuing on back home.

And what about all the things you’ll give up? Your boyfriend might not wait two years for you. You’ll put your career on hold. Your familiar support networks probably won’t be around – there’ll be no gym, no fast food joint, no car to drive, no family to visit. The stress and diet could make you lose thirty pounds—or gain thirty—whichever you don’t want.

The Peace Corps uses phrases like, “Life is calling. How far will you go?” and in a breath you’re ready to sign your name on the line. But two years is a long, long time and in the middle you find the world you wanted to change is a confusing and complex puzzle of which you are just one, tiny piece.

So please, if you’re not ready for the heartbreak in the hardship, don’t join the Peace Corps.

Or do.

Because you might just find that all your blood, sweat and tears are worth it – worth the pain, worth the time and worth the investment in the people for whom your heart breaks. Because you might learn some of the most important lessons of your life – that a broken heart can heal stronger than it was before, that a softened heart has more compassion for the world, and that in between its cracks and fissures is the only place where true beauty and grace can grow.

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