(A quote by the illustrious Louis C.K I keep in mind when I get bored, stressed and need a little perspective.)
“You cannot believe it, until you experience it.”
These were the words almost two years ago Chris Matthews spoke to the City Year Corps Members late at night near Philadelphia’s City. I don’t even remember my own college commencement (besides a female student passing out during a key speech moment), yet I can still clearly remember him saying this. Few of us waited, because even though we were in City Year gear, and an event, we would not attain service hours towards our total 1700 hours, so many left right away. We sat in our red “bombers”, sweaty, sore, and loopy from a full day, but we stayed because Chris Matthews focus was not towards the rich donors themselves, but much rather focused on the individuals actually partaking in the service. It would become the last fuel of idealism or inspiration to spring to the end of the Peace Corps’ marathon esque application process.We sat, tired, burnt out, and weary eyed from the 12+ hour day of prepping, talking, and setting up, as well as the 12-14+ hour days prior we had been undergoing for the better part of a year. Slowly the mood within the small group of red jacketed corps member sparked up.
He spoke directly to us about his time growing up in North East Philadelphia, about catholic school nuns, Philadelphian highlights, but more importantly he deeply elaborated what it was like to serve in the early years of the Peace Corps not soon after JFK had been assasinated. He served in Swaziland which is cut into the north eastern country of South Africa itself. Times were different then during the Peace Corps, many more lions, looser rules, PC’s could drive (or get away with it) and instead of a raw commute filled with traffic in the morning, you would have to worry about the likelihood of a 5 ft Black Mamba galloping (they can do that apparently) into your day.
He highlighted the gains, not just in the doors that open for you from networking be it grad school, work, or politics, but the doors, pathways, and channels that open internally when you view the world, community, or village from a different perspective. Even that alone isn’t enough, because to “experience” you need to actually “do”. By using the framework and perspective of “service” therefore you can no longer become a tourist, vacationer, or social bystander, but someone actively involved and engaged in the world around you be it at home, abroad, or far off culture.
It was very cathartic to hear such a well-known and experienced newscaster focus on the service members, it hit home to what many of us were going through, and had gone through during our service, so much so that many of us left energized rather than the norm of exhausted/broken/mid sleep.
Even now, sitting within the Babonneau Multi-Purpose Center, sweaty, sore, tired, and crammed with information from 100 different angle, perspectives and focuses, those words remain there. It has been just under a month into this service, and it seems each and every day I am experiencing something, viewing, partaking, eating, smelling, hearining and learning something that has challenged the view of the world I had a mere handful of weeks ago.
No I will not grow Rastafarian Hair, by a boat, or begin a local Rum Shop, but I may appreciate a screen-less conversation, an early morning before the jungle wakes up, I will appreciate fresh/clean water that comes from a tap, a hot shower, bedrooms not needing mosquito netting, a consistent hello in the morning from neighbors who aren’t strangers, fresh fruits and produce handpicked (or dropped on), the list will without a doubt continue to grow in the weeks and years ahead.
The more I spend here, with other PCV’s, community members, my host family and students the clearer it becomes that folks are not so different. People still like to celebrate the weekend, eat good food when they can, play when they can, strive to be successful (though the definition may be different), care for their children, and appreciate natural beauty. The language, dialect, and tempo may be different, even the color, creed, and religion, but it all remains utterly and basically, human.
We both also know how to celebrate in big ways. Carnival is right around the corner, and for many of us it will be our first time exposed to this kind of event. It involves 2-3 days of celebration straight, with parades, competitions, twerking, elaborate costumes (some are thousands of dollars), and extremely loud Soca music. For a country and culture that reveres the Church so much, they also seem to revere the bikini clad dancing and celebration akin to a Miley Cirus or Three Six Mafia music video.
That is not even their independence day (sometime in February), but we were able to celebrate in a lively manner here on island. July 4th was this past weekend, and it has been my 3rd one outside of the US ( Cape Town, Amsterdam were prior), it will also be my first of three that I will have during my 27 months of service out here. Though we didn’t have Budweiser, twins, machine guns, 200 lbs of red meat, explosions, or dirt bikes we were able to have a time together as volunteers and with some of our host families. I came upon this quote in a Vice article (great news, articles, and folks) on how foreigners viewed the US on 4th of July:
“America is hot dogs and fireworks and pool parties. America is 50 stars and 13 stripes printed neatly on a pair of bikini briefs. America is a thousand hot bullets shot into the desert sky. America is Pamela Anderson fellating Tommy Lee on a boat. America is pork products. If you asked me to paint one enduring image of America, it would be a dude in a muscle vest smoking a cigar while driving a Mustang full of babes over a row of motorcycles and into a canyon. But it would also be a suburban dad picking the mail up (Why is the post not just delivered to your door? Why is it always left at the bottom of your garden in a box?) before having a heart attack he can’t afford while sprinklers jet water onto his perfect green lawn.”
(From Vice UK office: http://www.vice.com/read/we-asked-foreign-vice-offices-what-they-think-about-america-704)
This is only a snippet, and the writer later highlights that so much of how they get to see the US is through a glossy, Hollywood-esque, machine gun speed, 24 hr news and internets cycles. It is in no way what we are, but it does show you that everyone sees each other through some sort of frame, perception or scope, and it often comes from what is readily available to you be it TV, Movie, Music, internet, newspaper, or even word of mouth. As stated before the dialects, languages, views, and stances may seem different, but that difference and uniqueness if what creates that underlying humanness.
We are halfway through week 4 of 7 training here within St. Lucia, next week we will be our Model School portion which is bringing both excitement, and anxiety. I am confident our time in the classroom will be a assuring rather than torturous, I hope. After that we will be finding out in no time where our islands of service will actually be. It still does not seem “real” yet, but it is slowly getting more and more so as the work and training progress. Luckily there are mountains ahead, both good, bad, and literal (Gros and Petit Piton) ahead of us, and I know the experience will continue to shift the way we see this world around us.
(Sorry for any mused its or spelling, can only type out when wifi is available or on the phone!)