Shut it down.
It’s been nearly six months since I landed back in the U.S. with 80 pounds of my nearest and dearest worn-out clothing and cultural memorabilia, and I’ve been feeling like writing, despite my lack of appropriate medium. So this is my turning out the lights at Cheers, my “Yeah, Buffy, what are we going to do now?” slow grin, my sudden cut to black in the middle of “Don’t Stop Believin’” moment. Indulge me. Or not.
I guess that brings me to my first point about not being in the Peace Corps anymore. Not being in the Peace Corps anymore takes away your obvious interestingness, and interestingness is the main reason to keep a blog. That’s more of a personal requirement (clearly, people find a way around it), but the thing you don’t necessarily realize when you’re doing it is that being in the Peace Corps is interesting. All the time. Just going about your daily life is interesting. ESPECIALLY going about your daily life is interesting. You’re keenly aware that you’re interesting to your host country nationals; countless stories of children staring in Volunteer’s windows have proven that. But I took it for granted that whenever I felt like updating my blog, if a month or a few weeks or even a single week had gone by, I would have amassed enough interesting (to my family and friends, to people who read PC blogs habitually, to America at large) life experience to blog about it. That’s not really the case in post-Peace Corps American living. I may find my water cooler interactions totally fascinating, but you probably don’t, and I’m comfortable with that. But it’s an adjustment.
Before I get into the litany of other post-Peace Corps adjustments and whining about reverse culture shock (I’m not even sure if that’s where this is going, but it feels inevitable), a word on this blog. This blog was unwittingly kind of a big deal. I feel creepy and self-aggrandizing even saying that, but it was true in several ways, not all of which are completely self-serving. First, I got occasional messages from people, some I knew, some I didn’t, telling me that this blog had impacted their decision to join the Peace Corps. Since these were all from people who joined the Peace Corps, I can only assume they meant in a good way. This is huge to me, because I never set out to write touchy-feely vignettes about how beautiful living in another culture is and oh how these people go about their lives so happy despite having so little and I feel that just by being here I’m really doing good in the world, which one would assume would be the obvious kind of essays that would serve that purpose. It makes me profoundly happy that some people saw meaning that I didn’t in my musings on peeing in buckets and eating cheese and getting bitten by fleas.
Second, this blog got me my dream job. I am not kidding. The back story: two months ago I got a job in Annapolis, Maryland in land conservation. This job continually blows my mind with its awesomeness. When I got the job, the first thing my now-boss told me was, “Alyssa, I have to be honest with you about how we picked you.” This could have gone a lot of unsatisfying ways, but what he told me was that, during the applicant screening process, he couldn’t sleep one night, and thought, “I just want to know more about who these people are!” Some Googling transpired, and I have a weird name and some online traffic, so this blog came up, and, quote, “…It was hilarious!” He then breathlessly recounted this entry http://alyssaenpaz.blogspot.com/2008/05/answer-was-animals.html and closed with “...it was funny stuff.” This was also totally self-serving, because if I want two things in life, it’s to be considered funny and to have awesome jobs.
Third, this blog got me a date with an interesting dude one time. Two weeks after I got back, I was bringing in 2009 in an appropriately inebriated fashion on a dance floor in Adams Morgan where both really good and really bad nights both begin and end, dancing with a dude who was ostensibly interesting enough for me to invite out to do karaoke on my birthday (two days later). He deemed me ostensibly interesting enough to concede that he was totally about some karaoke, and when he showed up two nights later, I thought little of the fact that he had probably internally debated whether or not I was as cool as I seemed while screaming my basic life facts over the pop music I didn’t recognize due to my two-year absence, falling over in my heels, and ultimately vomiting outside the Jumbo Slice. This is starting to read like my college livejournal, so I’ll cut to the chase and note that he had done his own Googling in those first days of 2009, found this blog, and decided that I was indeed as worthwhile a date as I seemed. (I can’t tell this story without noting that, after the Googling and blog-reading, he simply responded, “Oh, really?” when I mentioned that I’d kept a blog in Peru. To be fair, I would have done the same thing.) So there you go. Join the Peace Corps, keep a blog, influence people’s lives, get a sweet job, go on good dates. It worked for me.
This brings me to my first point about culture shock, etc.: living the dream, or not. I was a totally manageable amount of homesick during my two years in Peru. It never got so bad that I considered quitting, but I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about my mom when I was sick, about the joys of indoor plumbing when I fell in the mud getting to (or worse, from) the shower, about black bean burritos all the freaking time. I’ve realized since then that, more than being homesick, my friends and I were forward-thinking. We thought about and planned our lives post-Peace Corps all the time. We planned a reality that, while being totally feasible in theory, would have been vaguely mid-‘90s sitcom-y in practice. We were all going to live in the big city (DC, for obvious enough reasons), share apartments with each other, work at federal jobs obtained with our post-Peace Corps eligibility, maybe have some pets, and moreover, eat burritos together all the time.
I realized I’m speaking for “we” when I think I’m more speaking of the plan I had for myself and the friends I had cast in this fantasy life. I think these plans were borne of a multitude of factors. An undeniably huge one for me was that I was in a relationship that wasn’t going to withstand the inception of our post-PC lives, and needed to imagine a life I could get excited about. But the fantasy was also the result of general life-transition anxiety, the desire to establish permanence with the people who had just accompanied me on this huge life milestone, and the feeling of total autonomy that being in the Peace Corps gives you.
A word on that sense of autonomy: when you’re actually in the Peace Corps, you feel pretty constrained. And in some senses, you are. You have to project a certain image knowing that you and therefore Peace Corps and America are constantly being judged; having the same conversations over and over with the same people can feel totally mind-numbing; and Peace Corps as an institution of course has its culture of rules and regulations that can feel pretty irrationally oppressive. But take a moment to appreciate the freedoms you DO have as a Peace Corps Volunteer, because they’re pretty amazing. The quote that always pops in my head when I think about this is from MGMT’s “Time To Pretend”: “I miss the boredom and the freedom and the time spent alone.” So you want to make starting a vegetable garden your work for which you get paid? You can do it! Of course, you’ll have to judge whether that’s a good use of your time, if your town actually wants a garden, and all those smart-people theoretical exercises, but the point is, you get paid for doing whatever work you want to get paid for. That is truly incredible. Also, issues with Peace Corps vacation policy notwithstanding, you get a full MONTH of vacation per year. And in Peru, you can up and get on a bus any day and go anywhere in the country that you could ever want to go. And you can afford to do so, because there is no expectation that you’ll spend your $300 a month in a sensible fashion, because there IS no insensible way to spend such a laughably small amount of money! Truly. Incredible.
The point is, being in the Peace Corps makes you feel like you can do anything when you get back. I’m speaking unconsciously from an immediately post-undergrad view, keep in mind. But when you look at your options going back, nothing seems impossible because they’re all so silly and out-of-context and equally inconvenient. My thoughts were basically that I had to move SOMEWHERE, and when you’re in your adobe house without indoor plumbing in rural northern Peru, the difference between suburban Detroit and Washington, DC seems pretty minimal. And after you’ve stretched your limits so ridiculously far outside your comfort zone, does moving from one metropolis in your first-world native land to another seem at all daunting? Of course not.
(Side note, I have no idea why this is all coming out in the second person, but I don’t feel like fighting it. Loren Sanders, who suggested I give this blog some closure, I guess this is for you.)
But the thing is, it IS hard. Peace Corps doesn’t turn you into a superhuman, impervious to transitional difficulties. Sure, it makes you more adaptable within a certain, ridiculous set of circumstances (i.e., “Oh, this meeting is starting 3 hours late? Whatevs, more time to discuss the upcoming corn harvest for the 82374th time), but life is hard! Being a post-college 20-something and moving and starting your first Job and finding a place to live and making friends: HARD. (Suddenly, it’s like you were speaking to my soul, the Rembrandts.) And that’s saying nothing of the initial process of finding a job, which in case you haven’t heard, is INSANELY HARD these days. Peace Corps is of course hard too, so please don’t read this as total hindsight revisionist bullshit. But in the Peace Corps, you’re kind of operating with a safety net. So many things are up in the air (i.e., what kind of work am I going to do this month? Am I about to systematically expel all the calories in my body?), but so many things aren’t. You know where you live (except when you don’t, but that gets resolved), how much you get paid, where you will acquire your next meal, your general schedule for the next month or so. I think writing about 20-something malaise in the general sense is the tritest move I could make, so I’ll move on.
Back to my friends and our Big Plans. My friend Casey in particular and I would spend hours on her straw mattress in Peru, making Big Plans for DC. And now we’re here (well, she’s there, I’m in what is often referred to as DC’s bedroom community, but we’ll get to that later), living the dream. And now Casey is leaving. Because, as it turns out, Casey hates DC. And I’m sad, because she’s my friend and I won’t be able to see her every weekend and I’ll miss her company, but a part of me is deeply disappointed, because this was NOT the plan. And how creepy of me is that? But it hits at something bigger: our lives post-Peace Corps were initially a logistical checklist. We needed acceptable clothing, to see everyone in our social circle that we dearly missed, to get a job/car/apartment/health insurance/LIFE. Slowly, we got all those things, and each step was a huge victory that made us so inwardly happy and so proud of each other. And then we realized that, well, we had caught up with the rest of America, and like the rest of America, that didn’t necessarily mean we were happy. That’s not to say that we’re not happy, of course, just that we’re working on it. And it’s a process, like everything else.
Of course I set out thinking this would be a list of organized thoughts on life post-Peace Corps, with living the dream being the first point, and something about reverse culture shock would be the second point, and so on, but I don’t think I have much to say about anything else. America: it’s not Peru. Sometimes I eavesdrop on people speaking Spanish on the street and get bummed out that it would be completely inappropriate for me to join their conversation. Sometimes I get sad when people ask dumb questions about Peru, but I usually don’t. Sometimes I tell people I was in the Peace Corps and they say something weird and judgmental and I can’t always figure out what set of stereotypes they’re operating from (British people, I’m mostly looking at you). Sometimes, I feel like having to get in my own car and drive to go most places is its own form of imprisonment, but sometimes I like it. A lot of times, I tell somebody I was in the Peace Corps and they say sad things about how they always wish they’d done something like that when they were younger, and I just don’t know what to say, because though anyone can do it, Peace Corps’s not for everyone. It was a specific confluence of factors, youth quite admittedly top among them, that made it work for me. And it DID work, in a less than spectacular but still meaningful to me way. And that’s about it.