The Gringo Groove: Worlds 3 & 4

Back to another Guatemala chapter… I’ve finally slowed my movement down enough to get mostly caught up with capturing all the stimulation of my current travels to the point where I can turn my attention back to the primary project. I have a few Backpacking Bonuses waiting in the wings, but I’m taking a short break to make sure Guate gets some spotlight, too. WARNING: This ended up being a very lengthy post so get comfortable (it’s been in the works for three years); also, I do not have access to all my Guatemala pictures at the moment so I cannot illustrate everything I am describing, but I was able to dig up a couple good ones…

This chapter is technically the follow up chapter to a post I made three years ago (in June 2012) called “The Gringo Groove: Worlds 1 & 2.” The Gringo Groove is an exploration of the way we as Peace Corps Volunteer gringos, or foreigners, living abroad fit into the worlds in which we find ourselves. These “worlds” are not exclusive to PC Volunteers (PCVs) as many other gringos who have lived, worked, or traveled abroad may be able to relate to them as well. In the section for each “world,” I analyze the roles we have to fill, how we are seen and treated, the emotional/psychological situation that comes with each world, and lastly, how we manage to balance all four worlds as part of our daily lives while we are abroad, and, especially in the case of World 4, when we come home.

To summarize the first chapter, “World 1” entails what life is like as part of the city, town, or village where each PCV is stationed for 2 years. This is where PCVs spend most of their time, create a new home and lifestyle, and integrate into host country families and communities. “World 2” describes what it is like to be a foreigner living or traveling abroad in the general sense. This is the world of short-term relationships as tourists and backpackers are just passing through to see the hotspots in each country; gringos in this world are often targeted by vendors, beggars, and scammers. While living as PCVs, we often found it difficult to relate to the backpackers and tourists we encountered because our mindsets were so different from theirs, and also, we loathed being treated as if we were tourists.

World 3

This world is all about the Peace Corps web, which was the backbone and vessel for how we were all in Guatemala in the first place. Representing the United States of America and the Peace Corps, an organization of the federal government, was our primary responsibility. We had to be “on” 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and we all had very strict rules in place that were mainly for our safety. We were all a part of the same system adhering to the same standards with the purpose of promoting peace in other countries through friendship and meeting the country’s need for trained professionals.

Some of the rules included not traveling to certain regions in Guatemala or not participating in certain “high risk” activities, only spending 3 nights per month away from our sites, having to call a hotline to report our “whereabouts” whenever we did spend a night away from site, not riding on motorcycles, avoiding chicken bus transportation along the Panamerican Highway (and using the PC shuttle system instead), and avoiding travel at night whenever possible. Sometimes these things were not always possible so it was up to us to make the safest choice. For example, occasionally I would accept a motorcycle ride back to my town after working in the village if it meant that I could be home in 10 minutes, dropped off by a friend, instead of walking for an hour at dusk or in the dark along the dirt road in the countryside by myself. Transportation options were not exactly abundant where I lived.

In addition to rules, we also had vacation allotment which was 2 vacation days per month of service (totaling 48 days over a typical 2-year service) and we could save them or use them pretty much however or whenever we liked as long as we planned for it and communicated it to our supervisors. While many of us reserved our vacation days for holidays, trips to visit our families back in the States, and buffer days for when we had visitors from home, we would also plan extended weekend activities or trips that involved only PCVs, because we in essence grew to become a family in Guatemala. Plus, it was easier to plan activities with people who were living the same lifestyle because the interests, budget, responsibilities, and time flexibility were pretty much the same for everyone.

Peace Corps is a volunteer organization, however we were each allotted a monthly living allowance that was sufficient for us to live at the level of the average person in our community; the monthly amount was between $350-$400, depending on the size and location of the town or village, and that money covered rent, transportation, phone credit, internet, food, and other necessities. There was no possible way that any of us could live in one of the busy tourist towns like Antigua or Panajachel on the income we were receiving, but if we planned right, we could afford to spend a weekend “splurging” on a nice restaurant and decent lodging in any of those towns. Some of us, myself included, would stash a little bit of the money away each month so we had a bit of a “savings” that we could tap into when we had visitors from the States. It was kind of a given that I take my visitors to a few of the tourist hotspots but as my friends and brother were all on their own tight budgets, I needed to be able to pay my own way and keep up with them, and even though I knew of most of the money-saving tricks and budget options, I still needed that extra money to be a “tourist.” In my not-so-humble opinion, [most] Peace Corps Volunteers are some of the best savers, bargainers, and financial planners that you may ever meet; when we felt like we were living on pennies, we sure learned how to pinch them fast when necessary, without being cheap, without having to borrow money, and without having to dip into savings. (Of course, there are a handful of PCVs who were notorious for running out of money each month, but they seemed to have endless backup funds streaming in from home so they didn’t starve after all.)

I heard some crazy statistic one time toward the end of my service that something like 50% of Peace Corps Volunteers end up marrying either a PCV whom they met during service, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) who served somewhere else in the world, or a Host Country National (HCN)–in other words, a local the PCV met in their country of service. This statistic is not the least bit surprising and it indicates just how connected the Peace Corps world can be. From my training group alone, a group of 52 people who arrived in Guatemala in April 2011, out of curiosity, I checked up on some of the relationships that started during our service and are still going strong four years later (and two years after we have finished our services). Megan and Aaron, Craig and Juliana, and Cat and Ryan are three couples who started dating early on during service and are still together. Also from our group, there are Brady and Jenny, who are both still with Laura and Joey (respectively), two PCVs from the training group that started just ahead of ours in January 2011. And Jacob is still dating Maggie, a PCV who began her service just as our group was leaving. In addition to that, Emma and Ashley have both since married their Guatemalan boyfriends. That is 11 out of 52 (just under 25%) who fall into that statistic so far, and that is not counting the relationships from all the other groups or even having statistics on everyone from my training group.

Megan and Aaron started dating early on in service and are one of the couple who has stayed together.

Megan and Aaron started dating early on in service and are one of the couple who has stayed together.

On the note of dating the locals, this was a particularly common theme among female PCVs. In our training group, I think there were 38 women and only 14 men, a 3 to 1 female to male ratio. As there were so many more women than men, we joked that the men always had a lot of options so they could stick to dating Peace Corps girls. (Of course, there were more than those 14 male PCVs as we had over 200 PCVs in country when I started service, but the female to male ratio was the same.) Preferring not to get involved with the rather incestuous Peace Corps dating circles, many of the girls either had a Guatemalan boyfriend or a pet (usually a dog) instead. Also, it was difficult for a male PCV to date a local woman because there was a high pressure or expectation that he marry the girl; and if he didn’t marry her and left when his service ended, that would put her in a terrible position in her society, leaving her “marked” as unwanted and making it tough for her to find a husband in the future. I, too, started dating a Guatemalan man toward the end of my service, however, I might write more about that in a different chapter.

I have to give props to three more ladies in my training group who were all involved in long-term relationships when they began service and stayed steady the entire time despite the fact that their significant others were in the United States. Lucy had a boyfriend to whom she recently got married, Jen had a fiancé and they are also now married, and Gina–the beautiful, quietly strong, and big-hearted Gina–was a married woman doing her service solo. Her husband, Kostya, actually had the opportunity to come down and live with her for about 6 months after finishing his studies so that was a special time for them; they are now living in D.C., where Gina is working at PC Headquarters and Kostya is pursuing his passion in his career as well. (They had originally applied to Peace Corps as a couple, but it was taking so long to get clearance, then Kostya received a grant/scholarship to pursue further education, but Gina still couldn’t get her mind off of Peace Corps. He said, “Go for it,” and supported her through every single day.)

Besides the fact that Guatemala is known worldwide for being a dangerous place due to drug trafficking, corruption, merciless violence, and random but frequent bus assaults involving weapons, robbery, and occasional death, it was also a foreign and new place to most of us. The stress, stimulation, and anxiety of just being there without knowing anyone, perhaps speaking but hardly understanding the language, and not really having much of a plan was enough to send us all twisting around on an emotional rollercoaster on a very regular basis. Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and ready to save the world is how many PCVs begin their service, but the honeymoon phase abruptly comes to an end when we are faced with the reality of the poverty, the lack of education, the absence of systems and structure, the distance from home–from our loved ones, their excitement for us waning as our departure becomes a distant memory and we disappear from their daily lives, and the slapped-in-the-face feeling upon discovering that our open, helping hearts are sometimes met with greedy, manipulative people who try to take as much as they can from us because they know that we are in a vulnerable position (or assume we are rich because we are from the USA). While we are feeling so angry and helpless in these moments, we cannot ignore the enlightenment that they are simply trying to get ahead or just get by. And when the curiosity about us from people in our sites has subsided and they have retreated to their own homes and families, we inevitably find ourselves very alone. But there is little room to sulk about it because each and every one of us independently chose to be here–this is what we signed up for. It was a choice, a freedom, a commitment. And most of us were too determined/stubborn/proud (call it what you like) to back down.

At a conference that was held for all the PCVs in Guatemala during service, a Peace Corps psychologist did a presentation on the “cycle of service” of volunteers. He started with explaining the honeymoon phase, which entails pre-service training (3 months) plus the first month or so in site. Just after the excitement-filled honeymoon phase is around the time that “LIMB” syndrome, as he called it, sets in. LIMB is an acronym for Lonely, Isolated, Miserable, and Bored. He said that this was essentially what we all were getting ourselves into, but that none of us knew how intense it would be. By several months in, we had all fairly adapted to the conditions of living and getting around in Guatemala, but we hadn’t yet established steady work or tight relationships in our communities yet. It was during this time that many of us would ask ourselves, “Why am I here? What am I doing? What was I even thinking when I applied to the Peace Corps?”

I distinctly remember when LIMB was at its worst for me in September 2011. I had been in my site for less than 2 months and it was right in the middle of rainy season. With neither insulation nor ventilation in my room, there was a dank feeling lingering in the air and settling into my clothing. My brand-new wooden shelves were holding so much moisture that they were starting to mold, it was raining so hard that the water from outside was seeping under the door into my room, and there was no escape as it was evening. (There wouldn’t have been many escape options anyway because the rain turned our dirt roads to mud making it nearly impossible to leave my town until the roads dried enough for the minibuses to pass through.) I had recently discovered that there were worms living in–and thus blocking–the drain in my sink and that same day, miniature ants had infested both my sugar and my stash of Jolly Ranchers that my step mom had sent me in a care package from home. I’m talking tiny, almost microscopic ants here, not like normal-sized California ants; these little guys could get into the smallest possible hole if there were one…they would find it. I was frustrated, but I either accepted or dealt with most of the problems. I was going crazy, though, feeling trapped in my room with so much happening at once so I decided to try to calm myself down by sprawling across my bed with a book I was reading.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was a spider. A teensy weensy spider. Not even the frightening poker chip-sized jumping spiders that would so often crawl into my room from under the door (there was about a half inch gap between the bottom of my door and the floor) and try to make themselves at home. This spider was hardly bigger than a flea. But it crawled across the page I was reading just as I had settled into my book–at the perfect moment to make me snap. I probably shrieked, more out of frustration than fear, and I think I might’ve thrown the book across the room. Not sure if I squashed the spider or not, but if I didn’t, he probably ran for his life. And then I cried. And cried. And cried some more. I just let it all out sitting on my floor leaning hopelessly against my shelf. I wanted to talk to someone, but what was I going to say? “Waaah! Ants found my candy!!!” “Boo-hoo! There was a pinhead-sized spider on my book!” “I can’t go anywhere cuz it’s raining!!” Yeah, no. So I just wallowed by myself for a few minutes, garnering up as much resolve as possible to push past these little things.

That evening serves as a great example to me still of how useful feeling sorry for oneself actually isn’t. (I did end up talking to my dad after all that night, and we laughed at the silliness of the entire situation which helped get me back on track.) Solutions to each and every issue from that night were also implemented shortly thereafter, some of which included disassembling the pipes in my sink to clear out the worms, treating my wooden shelves with bleach periodically to keep them mold-free, and storing my sugar in empty peanut butter jars. I don’t know if or when I would’ve ever learned these problem-solving tricks had I never left the USA–we just aren’t presented with these basic issues in the USA or, if we are, there is usually someone elses there to fix them for us.

Peanut butter jars were the answer to many food storage issues--sugar, rice, beans, oatmeal, and oregano went into these jars.

Peanut butter jars were the answer to many food storage issues–sugar, rice, beans, oatmeal, and oregano went into these jars.

I remember missing home so much that I couldn’t wait to go back for Christmas (and some friends’ wedding) and I rushed into purchasing a plane ticket at a ridiculously high price; that was a good lesson in patience as tickets were going for half of what I paid a month and a half later. But it was a tricky time of service for all of us as we found ourselves counting down the months we had remaining when we had only been gone for 4, 5, or 6 months so far. Talking to ourselves became a normal thing, and that psychologist reassured us that “having conversations with yourself is totally fine; it’s when you start talking back to yourself that you might want to look into getting some help.”

During his presentation, he encouraged us to develop coping mechanisms in order to counteract the effects of LIMB. We all had SO much alone time that we had to learn to entertain ourselves. Some healthy activities PCVs did to manage their stress and boredom included reading, running, yoga or other exercise, praying, meditation, or hanging out with friends or a significant other. I read around 35 books during my service, and I know of one PCV who read nearly twice as many. I also found that in times when I was feeling particularly down, simply walking out my front door and strolling through the streets was enough to pick me up because there were always people outside to greet, visit, or chat with for just a few minutes at a time. The simple village life always seemed to shake me out of my gloom as people were warm and happy despite their own issues so it always put things in perspective.

Twenty-seven months is a long time to be away by oneself so it is only natural that there often existed an intense longing for companionship in all of us and we each had to find our own ways to cope with that desire. It is no wonder that some PCVs never quite find their niche and suffer from depression; my site mate, Perry, was one of them, and he was medically separated for that exact reason about one year into our service. Vulnerable and exposed, we were all faced with a survival challenge of our own and we had to figure it out pretty much on our own. Psychologically speaking, when people find themselves in highly vulnerable positions, they cling to whatever feels safe and develop a strong emotional connection to it. Can you see now how it makes sense that PCVs go and get themselves a dog or a boyfriend or girlfriend? And how leaning on someone for an extended period of time while experiencing intense physical changes, psychological adjustments, and emotional swings creates such a tight bond between two people? This explains the PCV marriage statistic.

As our service continued, we PCVs became each other’s primary support system. No two Peace Corps services will ever be identical, but we all go through the same cycle and bond through the shared experiences, relating so well to one another. Most of us had finally found a niche for our work within our communities by about one year in, and when we reached a year and a half, we were mostly all very busy and integrated in the local society so by the time we were nearing the two year mark, our work and community lives were thriving but there was a sense that we were running out of time, we still had so much to do, and we weren’t quite ready to leave. Then we all had that same “dénouement” process–wrapping everything up to prepare for the end of service, starting our process of goodbyes to the people to whom we had grown very close, and looking ahead trying to figure out what we were going to do after our services ended.

Through all of this, we PCVs each experienced similar frustrations, discoveries, breakthroughs, and success stories because we were under the same conditions at the same pace. The rate of growth and change was so fast within each of us that it was difficult for our friends and family members at home to keep up with us, let alone understand what we were going through. Also, as close as we had become to some of the locals in our area, they often could not relate to what it was like to be a stranger, alone, in a foreign land–and sometimes local friends we made even betrayed our trust. Ultimately, we PCVs were drawn together through all of this and grew to trust and respect each other at a level beyond what many us had even experienced in our own families or lives before the Peace Corps. We were like soldiers in the same unit in an army–a collective group destined by timing and chance to become a brotherhood/sisterhood with the same mission and similar struggles; no matter what we went through or how much our personalities clashed, we always had each other’s backs. And we still do.

Here, on Lake Atitlán during an infamous Peace Corps Boat Party, are Chelsea, Kim, and Gina--great friends of mine who are also ridiculously tight with each other still.

Here, on Lake Atitlán during an infamous Peace Corps Boat Party, are Chelsea, Kim, and Gina–great friends of mine who are also ridiculously tight with each other still.

Speaking of personalities, the Peace Corps is full of BIG ones! People often commented that I was crazy for doing what I was doing by joining the Peace Corps, but the fact is that there has to be a little crazy in every Peace Corps Volunteer in order to survive. In our training group of 52 people from all over the United States, we had some seriously strong personalities. During training (first 3 months in country), we were pretty much all together all the time and there were some people who really rubbed other people the wrong way. Imagine being in a room where one third to one half of the people in it have type-A dominant personalities, very loud mouths, and strong opinions. It could get very annoying very fast. Each person had his or her own quirks, but some people were just downright weird with very strange habits. (One guy from Pennsylvania didn’t believe in banks so he buried all his money in a hole he dug behind his host family’s house.) I would say that we were mostly all stubborn and independent with minds of our own. I suppose that is what Peace Corps looks for in potential recruits: dynamic, determined, and unconventional crazy people. While we couldn’t wait to get away from each other and be placed in our sites with our own space, over the 2-year span of our service, we came to admire and appreciate the strength and resilience that each of us drew specifically from tapping into our quirks and “craziness.” That is how we survived Peace Corps Guatemala.

At our PC 4th of July Party, Eric, Brian, and Brady competed in a pie-eating contest, with "President Jacob" cheering them on.

At our PC 4th of July Party, Eric, Brian, and Brady competed in a pie-eating contest, with “President Jacob” cheering them on.

At one point, about 8 months into my 27-month service term, Peace Corps Guatemala (as well as several other Peace Corps programs in Central America) came close to being shut down due to a couple recent major security incidents that involved some of the volunteers. Instead of suspending PC Guatemala (like they did in Honduras, pulling out all the volunteers), they chose instead to reduce the number of PCVs in country and consolidate all volunteer sites so everyone was closer to the PC offices. In addition to forcing two groups to end their services several months prior to their scheduled COS (close of service) dates, Peace Corps also pulled other volunteers from their sites in “dangerous” departments, and gave everyone the option to leave the country early with all the benefits of having completed a full service. Within just two months, the volunteer population dropped from ~220 down to 120 PCVs in country. (Peace Corps’ intention was to have a smaller group of volunteers in closer quarters so the security measures could be more manageable.)

All of us who chose to stay knew exactly what risks we were facing and that the rules and security procedures were going to tighten up, but that didn’t matter. In my case, I was hardly bothered because my site was in one of the safer areas of the country so they didn’t move me, plus I was just getting my work going so I had no intention of cutting out before I had done what I had gone there to do. But some of my friends got displaced and had to start from scratch in a new site, and they stayed anyway. Even some of the people who had been involved in the bus assaults–robbed and groped at gunpoint–decided to stay and continue their service. Talk about some tough cookies! The fearlessness and drive to fulfill a commitment was another bonding factor; we respected each other for those qualities.

In addition to that, PCVs develop or express other characteristics as our services progress. In the state we were in, the primary survival skill was open-mindedness. Many PCVs who were not open-minded didn’t make it. Patience, flexibility, and the ability to adapt to any situation are traits that become ingrained in PCVs for a lifetime. When we found ourselves in situations with very little to work with, we had to be resourceful and creative to come up with solutions. Our problem-solving skills and ability to think fast and make quick decisions became sharpened and refined. (More than once I arrived at an event thinking that I was going to be a guest only to discover that I was actually expected to run the thing!) We also develop excellent instinct about people, timing, and situations. Finally, a PCV’s communication skills (with the exception of people whose personalities just don’t entail being communicative) are at their best while living in another country and dealing with a language barrier. We learn to be patient, clear, and creative in our communication techniques–not just with the locals, but with everyone in our lives. And the constant practice of all of this increases our confidence exponentially in regard to embracing what we are capable of learning, doing, and becoming in life.

A little blurry, but a great example of PCV creativity at a Halloween party we had in 2011: Melissa is a Pink Flamingo, Linnea is Pippy Longstocking, and Sara is Rosie the Riveter. Great costumes!

A little blurry, but a great example of PCV creativity at a Halloween party we had in 2011: Melissa is a Pink Flamingo, Linnea is Pippy Longstocking, and Sara is Rosie the Riveter. Great costumes!

While I mentioned that there were a lot of big personalities within our group, surprisingly, in creating a Peace Corps culture of our own, we all became some of the most cooperative people you could ever meet. Please note that I am NOT using the word “cooperative” as a synonym for obedient or submissive–we still very much have minds of our own, but we know how to communicate, compromise, and contribute equally to a shared purpose or goal. A group of PCVs together functions like a well-oiled machine: everyone pitches in to cook a meal or complete a task, there is very little laziness or complaining, and we are usually all open to what we can learn from each other. I still remember little tips and tricks that I learned from my fellow PCVs during service; whether it was a new way to cut a fruit or vegetable or a tip for running a workshop, great recipe ideas or advice for taking visitors around, I learned countless skills and techniques from almost every volunteer there. We were constantly exchanging ideas and resources. I don’t think there has been a time in my life when I was ever so willing to try just about everything, openly accepting of the possibility of failure. Most of us were able to set our egos to the side and instead of saying, “I can do it myself,” we were open to learning from each other and constantly expressing, “Teach me how to do it your way!” As true peers and partners, we also trusted each other with our lives and admired each other for being exactly the person that each of us was. We even came to adore the crazies.

As entrepreneurs designing our own work and being in charge of our schedules, we each took ownership of our service and learned to set and maintain boundaries. Of all people, our fellow Peace Corps companions respected these boundaries the most because they had a similar set of their own. Everyone knew how far away they lived from each place we gathered and which chicken bus or PC shuttle they had to catch at exactly what time. We worked like partners, checking in on each other’s schedules and making sure we did what we could to ensure each other’s success and emotional well-being. We socialized and planned trips together (during our occasional weekends out of site), we took turns visiting each other’s sites and having sleepovers, and we partied together. We hiked volcanoes together, visited Maya ruin sites, spent holidays on beaches or lakes together (when we couldn’t be with our real families), and we shared hundreds or meals together. We mourned each other’s losses, empathized the frustrations, and celebrated the successes. And we shared the same excitement about the little things, for example a good price for our favorite fruit, a seat to ourself on a chicken bus, a favorite Guatemalan beat playing on the radio, and peanut butter. We respected each other and we pulled each other through. It became very important for us to finish together.

Sitting next to these girls in a row arranged alphabetically by our last names--Langston, Lee, Leroux, and Levien--at our swearing in ceremony at the beginning of service, little did I know at the time that these particular 3 women, Kathy, Chelsea, and Janece, would become some of my closest friends in the 2 years to follow.

Sitting next to these girls in a row arranged alphabetically by our last names–Langston, Lee, Leroux, and Levien–at our swearing in ceremony at the beginning of service, little did I know at the time that these particular 3 women, Kathy, Chelsea, and Janece, would become some of my closest friends in the 2 years to follow.

While the Peace Corps community functioned as a collective unit in many regards, it was inevitable that we each had just a handful of PC companions to whom we grew particularly close–our “best friends,” per se. The people I talked to and hung out with the most included Kathy, Lauren, Chelsea, Kelly, Pedro, and Janece. (Pedro and I were tight during pre-service training, and although Pedro chose to do an “early termination” seven months in, we are still pretty close.) Along with the tiny black cell phones that Peace Corps supplied us with–which we called frijolitos, or “little beans”–came the Peace Corps cell service network of 4-digit codes that allowed us to talk to any other PC person for free. (Otherwise, we had to purchase phone credit to make local calls or calls to the States.) In any emergency situation, we would call our PC friends first, usually even before calling PC staff, just to make sure we hadn’t missed any available information, we were taking the correct measures, or we were approaching a situation in a tactful manner. With the free 4-digit calling, it was easy to stay in touch with other volunteers who lived in different parts of the country so were grew closer even when we didn’t see each other often. I can remember countless phone calls where we were either laughing in stitches, doing some serious brainstorming, or balling our eyes out–and just as many calls (with Kathy, Lauren, or Janece) where the phone cut off because we had reached the 1 hour, 59 minute time limit that the poor little frijolito couldn’t go past on a single call. (Hint: maybe it’s time for us to stop talking now!)

Pedro and I were in the same training town during pre-service training. He will always be a dear friend and is like my PC brother :-) Pedro is one of the best friends a person could find--he has your back through thick and thin.

Pedro and I were in the same training town during pre-service training. He will always be a dear friend and is like my PC brother 🙂 Pedro is one of the best friends a person could find–he has your back through thick and thin.

It was nothing short of obvious to everyone who knew Kathy and me how deep our friendship became during service. While we were always cordial with each other from the moment we first met in an elevator and discovered that we had grown up only 30 minutes apart from each other (I was from Roseville, she was from Auburn, CA) at staging in Philadelphia just before flying to Guatemala, we didn’t become instant best friends and we didn’t even really hang out until circumstance (again) brought us together after we had been placed in our sites several months after meeting. Despite the physical distance between us–it usually took us between 4 and 5 hours to get to each other in person via public transportation because our sites were in different parts of the country–we became emotionally inseparable. Kathy was my rock and I was hers. During many evening phone conversations using our headsets to talk so we could both use our hands to cook dinner, clean up, and do other chores in our own homes while we chatted, we shared philosophical discussions during which we analyzed everything, cracked jokes, and came up with solutions to the world’s problems all in under two hours [at a time]. At least once a week, we were each other’s dinner guest via phone.

With our handy-dandy headsets and PC "frijolito" phones, we could catch up with friends as we multitaked around our homes, as Kathy is demonstrating here.

With our handy-dandy headsets and PC “frijolito” phones, we could catch up with friends as we multitaked around our homes, as Kathy is demonstrating here.

We became partners in crime and excitedly supported each other in everything, especially each other’s crazy ideas or schemes to uproot traditional Guatemalan norms that we didn’t like (usually related to nutrition or machismo). We may have bent some Peace Corps rules together, but only when we could counteract the security risk imposed (for example, having a private ride with local friends to and from a particular destination). Despite being two very different people, we complemented each other well, bringing our best selves to our partnership and having no expectations of each other beyond knowing that we were going to have a great time whenever we were together, no matter what we were doing, and knowing that we could depend on each other for anything. We would coordinate schedules so we could see each other about once a month and we would cross-reference vacation or holiday plans. Our brainstorming sessions on anything and everything have yet to subside, and we have even sort of developed our own language–or at least some of our own words–which is still evolving.

As you read this, I wouldn’t be surprised if the thought is crossing your mind right now about how much we behaved like a couple. We totally did. We knew each other’s schedules and work plans, we cooked together, we took trips together, we occasionally slept in the same bed and had conversations in the dark until one of us finally fell asleep, we wore each other’s clothing, and we shared each other’s stuff. While I remained decidedly single for the majority of my service, Kathy usually had a boyfriend. Occasionally when Kathy would make time for me it created problems with [jealous] boyfriends, but that just made for more brainstorming sessions about what characteristics we DON’T want in future mates. We had lots of these conversations, actually, and I realized one day that I had learned more about love through my friendship with Kathy than I had through any romantic relationship I had ever been involved in. Our friendship is based on respect, partnership, trust, patience, communication, and unconditional love. We give each other space, support each other, challenge each other, and let each other shine, embracing and admiring the talents that the other has. We have grown to have such a healthy, positive relationship that we often joke that all we need to do is go find male versions of each other to have as a “life partner.” While this may not exactly be realistic, we do respect that there is a certain standard a significant other has to reach–we have a special word for that, but it mainly entails expressing unconditional love (in all of its forms) toward our best friend. While there may be some big shoes to fill, so far, it looks like Kath has met someone who is up for the challenge…

Kathy and I, sharing a meal...

Kathy and I, sharing a meal…

So more than anything, we became sisters. We saw each other at our best and worst and everything in between. We even bickered like sisters–probably more than each of us has ever bickered with our own sisters! But we felt safe in doing so, knowing that it always came from a place of love and caring (or extreme hunger), and we almost always resolved our issues in a reasonable amount of time using lots of nice words and apologizing for being stubborn, snarky, impatient, etc. We became protective of each other, in a sisterly sort of way, and we attended each other’s events when we could to show support. Kathy even got me a couple singing gigs during service through some connections she had made in her site. I performed a total of three times at her friend’s cafe/restaurant and I seriously couldn’t have done it without Kathy stepping into the position as my “agent,” per se.

The first performance was one of those times I thought I was going to be a guest singer to the main performer; when it started getting closer to showtime, we asked where the main singer was and we were told that he wasn’t coming and that I was the show. Being that I only had five songs prepared, what ensued in the next three hours was a scramble of me writing down any song I had performed in the past (either karaoke or with a live band), another guy downloading all the karaoke background tracks for as many of those songs he could, Kathy finding all the lyrics online and printing them out, and me frantically practicing and finally deciding on a 16-song setlist of [mostly] popular music that urban Guatemalans would hopefully be familiar with. It was a seven-hour adrenaline rush and I had no voice by the end of the night, but we pulled it off. Kathy and I were with each other every step of the way and felt so connected and accomplished by the end of it all because of how well we had worked together and what we were able to achieve with limited time and resources. Luckily for me, I also had a few opportunities to root Kathy on as she performed–one time in her town while she was facilitating an HIV workshop, and another time as she was competing in a dance competition with several partners involved in a choreographed routine. (Dance is one of Kathy’s passions!)

Thanks to Kathy's connections, she lined me up for 3 different shows at D'carlo's Cafe in Huehuetenango and she was always right there with me every time.

Thanks to Kathy’s connections, she lined me up for 3 different gigs at D’carlo’s Cafe in Huehuetenango and she was always right there with me every time.

While I elaborated on mine and Kathy’s friendship here, this is just one example of the strength and depth of the relationships that are formed among Peace Corps Volunteers. I could write an entire separate story on my bond with Lauren or my adventures with Chelsea or Pedro–and so could each and every other PCV tell their story of their Peace Corps “besties.” We are a family and even when we are apart, we know that we’ll pick right back up where we left off once we are reunited. Our Peace Corps network is formatted like concentric circles with our bonds being closer to the inner circles, but still relating to the outer circles if only at a lesser degree. The concentric circles are as follows: 1 – PCV’s closest friends and PC “besties,” 2 – The training program the PCV was in (in my case, “Healthy Homes;” there were 38 of us) — we start and finish together, 3 – PCV’s entire training group (52 in our training group, but some groups can have as few as 10 people) PLUS the PC staff and trainers at the office, 4 – training groups shouldering PCV’s group–usually by about 3 or 4 months in either direction; we experience the phases of the 27-month cycle at around the same time, 5 – All PCVs in country (Guatemala in this case) at any point during PCV’s service, 6 – All RPCVs who served in the same country/region at any time except for when PCV was there, 7 – RPCVs who served in any other country/region around the world. It is a widespread and unique network, and the organization is actually part of the federal government’s defense strategy–but we promote peace through friendship; there are no guns, bombs, or bootcamp in the PC regimen.

Lauren is totally my Peace Corps Bestie. We swapped so many recipes and nutrition course ideas and we would visit each other and cook together whenever we could!!

Lauren is totally my Peace Corps Bestie. We swapped so many recipes and nutrition course ideas and we would visit each other and cook together whenever we could!!

Of the 52 of us who started together, 35 of us made it to our Close of Service (COS); this was consistent with the average attrition rate of about one third in Peace Corps all across the world. We lost a few along the way due to early termination (a PCV choosing to stop), medical separation (stomach issues, depression, and physical medical problems that Guatemala didn’t have the resources to handle; other reasons for a med sep could include pregnancy, rape, assault, and the like), and administrative separation (PC kicking out a PCV). Leaving one’s site or country before finishing their work (esp. in the case of “med seps”) was probably one of the most difficult things for a PCV to deal with. They feel helpless and possibly cheated. But no matter what happens or when a PCV leaves, they are always a part of us. We support each other and honor each “fallen shoulder,” per se. Also, I didn’t elaborate on the Peace Corps staff very much in this chapter, but they are a vital part of our service as well–they make it possible for us to get deep into the country as they provide us with the tools, knowledge, and insider information to make it easier for us to integrate.

There was a silver shop in Antigua that offered a discount to Peace Corps Volunteers and even started designing pendants and rings with a Peace Corps theme. For about $15, we could buy a silver ring cut with the letters “CUERPO DE PAZ” on the outside. (Cuerpo de Paz translates to “Body of Peace” in Spanish; it is how we refer to the Peace Corps in Spanish-speaking countries.) I would guess that somewhere between one-half to three-quarters of the PCVs in country purchased one of these rings for themselves. We could get the ring engraved so many of us put the name of our site and years of service on the insides of our rings as well. Even after we have completed service, we still wear our rings with pride, as a constant reminder of the commitment we made to our service, our communities, our loved ones at home, and ourselves. Every time we look at our rings, we remember the experiences that the Peace Corps has enriched our lives with–the joys, the difficulties, the growth, and especially the level of commitment required to finish strong. The Peace Corps will always live on in all of us.

World 4

Now that you so patiently worked your way through my “Ode to PCVs,” it’s time for a glimpse of the final world that contributed to our experience living abroad. World 4 consists of the family and friends we have at home, back in the States. This is a very complicated world to manage as the relationship we have with our loved ones and the United States in general is constantly shifting throughout our service. This world starts out as a top priority for PCVs, however, as we get deeper into our work and create new lives abroad, we can easily and gradually drift apart from many of our relationships at home.

The families of PCVs are put in an extremely difficult position from the start. Their son or daughter has decided to join the Peace Corps and there is this sort of expectation placed on the family to be the future PCV’s biggest cheerleaders, rooting them on in support of their decision and excitement despite the fact that the family members just might be scared to death of sending their son/daughter/sibling/cousin/etc. away to live in a foreign country for minimum two years. While the family is happy for their loved one’s great opportunity, they are also reluctant to say goodbye and, as I found out later, they may have a feeling of helplessness in regard to lacking the ability to protect their loved one while he or she is so far away.

Taking all of this into consideration, and looking back on my service, I cannot express how grateful I am for the efforts that some of my family members and friends made to share my journey, to be there with me, to support me in everything even when they didn’t even really know what I was doing most of the time. My step mom was probably the most consistent person to buy calling cards and initiate communication with me regularly. She also maintained my mail and sent amazing care packages chock full of notes from my brother, sister, and dad plus peanut butter AND Nutella, chocolate, circus animal cookies, and an assortment of other goodies and knick knacks. The amount of time and money she spent on those packages had to be high because there was so much TLC involved. I also got cards, letters, and care packages from Elease, Linda, Robin & Karl, my mom, Grandma, and a couple other people. They totally spoiled me. And I can speak for all PCVs when I say that those little touches from home can re-energize us in our saddest moments. We would even stash some of the goodies and hang on to them for our desperate “downs” that we knew would inevitably happen.

Krista was my very first visitor and she came bearing gifts of peanut butter and Nutella!!

Krista was my very first visitor and she came bearing gifts of peanut butter and Nutella!!

Anytime a person steps out of their comfort zone and routine for an extended period of time (minimum one month), it seems that there is a giant colander that shakes out all the unimportant stuff that has been crowding his space and taking up his time. In short, a person’s priorities have a chance to re-focus. This happens with all PCVs as well, especially in regard to people “we left behind” in the States. Many relationships disintegrate, not for any negative reason, but simply because that is how nature works. Then we are left with an amazing group of friends and family who shine brightly in our lives like stars or rays from the sun. We learn to value these people more than we ever did and we start making efforts to “show up” in their lives more instead of spending so much time trying to keep up with people who don’t even really care to be a part of our lives.

Sometimes we are surprised by who keeps up with us and who slips away, but there isn’t much use in worrying about it–it’s more like we are just observing the effects of our absence from home with curious minds. It was actually a relief to learn that so many people didn’t really care about what I was doing! I guess this is part of the transition from childhood to adulthood–changing your mentality from thinking that everyone’s lives should and do revolve around you to realizing that you are NOT the center of the universe, accepting it, then embracing the freedom that comes along with it. It is a fabulous enlightenment! It was exhausting trying to keep up with everyone and everything anyway…

During our time in the Peace Corps, we are on a path of accelerated growth and discovery. Spending so much time alone gives us the opportunity to think about a lot of things and identify who we are as individuals and what our nature is. As we “come into our own,” per se, we realize how nice it is to be able to think for ourselves and make our own decisions. You don’t realize how much your family and friends influence your choices in life until they are NOT there to guide you, solicit their opinions, boss you around, etc. All of a sudden, everything is up to us while we are away. Embracing this independence, we begin to take more responsibility and take better care of ourselves, going on high alert for safety precautions, learning how to cook and eat healthy meals, and managing our schedules and boundaries better than we ever had before. As we rapidly transition into full-swing adulthood, we both need and heed our families less and less.

These changes can’t be easy for any family. They must feel like crap sometimes, left out or left behind. Sometimes I could tell that some of my friends or family members were wanting so badly to participate in my Peace Corps life, but they didn’t really know how to relate. And to be fair, we PCVs don’t always let them in, especially as we grow closer to each other and develop a sort of private Peace Corps world. There are mixed feelings and frustrations from both sides, and as I only experienced this from one side, I can only make guesses at how my family and friends truly felt.

One of the biggest frustrations we have is how closed-minded some people at home can be. People who haven’t gotten out of the box they have been raised in often don’t understand how much bigger the world is. In describing an idea or a new experience, they cannot fathom how we could possibly think that way–it is so foreign and uncomfortable to them. Sometimes reactions like these make us pull away from home. Another issue with home comes if we start dating a local. I don’t know what the big deal is, but sometimes it seems as if family members have this idea that “a local” is an uncivilized alien or something. We’re like, “No, it’s ok. He’s a real thinking, feeling human being, just like you and me. Really.” I suppose I can empathize with their fear that we might fall in love and stay gone forever or that there will be a clash in values due to different cultural upbringings, but if two people are connected enough and really love and commit to each other, they will find a way to make it work. Oftentimes, our families were NOT the first ones to know about our relationships with locals…

Here I am with my boyfriend, Sergio, in Antigua. We were together for about 6 months--until I returned to the United States. I think some of my family members still don't know that I ever had a boyfriend in Guatemala. Lol.

Here I am with my boyfriend, Sergio, in Antigua. We were together for about 6 months–until I returned to the United States. I think some of my family members still don’t know that I ever had a boyfriend in Guatemala. Lol.

And so exists this constant dichotomy of emotions toward home. Sometimes we can become resentful of how much we acquiesced to our families’ opinions beforehand, but then we also can see who always had our best interests at heart and we value them even more when we are separated from them. While we savor the freedom, sometimes it can be difficult to make so many decisions alone–we yearn for the guidance and wisdom of those who have come before us and those who know us well.

I spoke with my parents (my mom, my dad, and my step mom) the most regularly while I was away, about once every two weeks–sometimes they would call me and sometimes I would call them, we took turns; I always enjoyed these conversations as they would fill me in on everything happening in the family and also listen to my “enlightened” ranting and raving. I would say that I grew closer to my dad during my time away than I ever had before. However, as my world got turned upside down toward the end of my service, unfortunately the relationships with my parents all shifted as everyone had their own emotional reactions which included freaking out, emotionally shutting down, and “sharing” my [at the time, private] “news” with other family members/friends–each of their own coping mechanisms. In turn, I reacted to their reactions and started keeping everything to myself and seeking emotional support mostly within the Peace Corps circle. It was a difficult time for all of us, but I think I can safely say that these relationships are bouncing back, perhaps even stronger or better understood than before. I’m learning that relationships within families are constantly in a state of flux. Families are like mobiles: when one family member is undergoing great change, it throws the dynamic off balance and there is a push to get that family member to go back in place; while that family member doesn’t usually go “back” into place, everyone typically adjusts over time to reach a new equalized state.

I am so appreciative of the efforts that my family members and friends made to attempt to understand the Peace Corps experience. From occasional phone calls and emails or Facebook messages to reading my lengthy blog “chapters” and even planning trips out to see me, there was a lot of love. I’d like to take a moment to share how important it is to PCVs to have visitors from home. Obviously not everyone from home can make the trip as they all have their own lives and obligations with limited resources such as time or money, but the people who do visit PCVs while they are abroad are remembered and appreciated forever in a special way because we understand the amount of sacrifice that goes into making that trip. We feel so honored that our families and friends want to come learn about and be a part of the lives we are living in a country we have grown to love. It can be so difficult to explain what exactly we do as our Peace Corps “work” and the conditions under which we are operating, so to have our loved ones come see for themselves–riding on chicken busses, taking bucket baths, and observing our classes as we teach them–is such a relief. It is the closest thing to a shared Peace Corps experience that they can get.

I felt absolutely spoiled by the seven visitors I had during service, and I wrote chapters about each of their trips (the “Visitors Galore” series) as a way to honor and thank them for their time and curiosity. The friends who visited were Krista (close friend from when I worked at Macaroni Grill), Russell & Maricela (college and travel friends), and Christina (freshman college roommate) & Aundrea (her partner). The family members who made it out included my brother, Jeffrey, and my mom–both of whom allowed me to be their guide for their first major international traveling. The transition that happened in my brother was amazing to me: he was so scared to leave the United States and thought he was going to have to fend off robbers and giant bugs the whole time. He got to a point where he trusted me enough to buy a ticket and just went for it. In only eight days in Guatemala, I watched his world completely open up. He was relaxed, he was intrigued by cute girls with European accents, he was euphoric when we reached the top of a volcano after several hours of hiking UP, he was inspired by exchanging ideas with people we met along the way, he was bored in my site (although he managed to survive an entire week without going to the gym), and by the end of his trip, he was eager to plan our next adventure together. His reaction made me so happy that I could be a facilitator in opening up his world and proud, as a big sister, of how I could be a source of trust and guidance for him.

Jeffrey and I at the end of his Guatemala trip, right before he headed to the airport. He was so relaxed and energized by the end of his 8-day trip!

Jeffrey and I at the end of his Guatemala trip, right before he headed to the airport. He was so relaxed and energized by the end of his 8-day trip!

On the flip side of having visitors is when we have opportunities to visit home during our service. Most PCVs go home one to three times during the 27 months, however, the rare volunteer never goes home at all. And with each trip back to the States, the dynamic of being home changes. The first time we go home home, we announce it to the world: “Hey everybody! I’m coming HOME!!” And we try to visit everyone and their mother. If a second trip happens, we don’t advertise it publicly as we know we have limited time and prefer to spend quality time with family and some good friends. If a third trip happens, which it did in my case, almost no one knows about it. My last trip home was only four days and it was mainly for a best friend’s wedding, and being that it was so near to end of my service, the rest of the days were all business, dropping stuff off and getting the last few things I would need to close out those next few months. I saw a few family members but pretty much came and went without many people noticing. By this point, our core group from home has become very intimate.

Moments like these in my best friends' lives (here at Bethany and Gordon's wedding) were some that I didn't want to miss so I made a special trip home when I could. I couldn't get to them all, of course, but I am grateful that I could be there sometimes to show my support.

Moments like these in my best friends’ lives (here at Bethany and Gordon’s wedding) were some that I didn’t want to miss so I made special trips home when I could. I couldn’t get to them all, of course, but I am grateful that I could be there sometimes to show my support.

On that note, it is sometimes those very close relationships from home–loyal family members and friends who were with us every step of the way even though many did not have the opportunity to visit us–that are the most important because they are the steady backbone of our support system. They are consistent with communication, whether it be once every 2 weeks or once every 6 months, and they love us through everything and continue rooting us on. Sometimes they don’t really get what we are going through, but they try their best and that’s all that matters. One time, I was on a Skype call with a college friend, and I had only four months left in my service. He commented, “I bet you can’t wait to get out of Guatemala and come back to the States!” And I thought, “Well, actually, I can wait. I don’t want to leave so fast. I care about these people. This is my life now.” But I began to realize how comments like that from home were simply a reflection of how my friends and family were feeling: they missed me and couldn’t wait for me to get back safe and sound, close to home. While these little things made us feel special, what was really cool is that these friends and family members allowed us to continue to be a part of their lives as well, even when we were not there with them in person. This was the greatest gift.

The post-service transition home is not easy for any PCV. Upon completion of service, we officially become Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (“RPCVs”) and enter the “readjustment” phase, which is a form of reverse culture shock and is always harder than dealing with the culture shock of our initial arrival in our country of service. One would think that going back home would be a relief and a positive thing all around, but PCVs feel so out of place. We feel like we are ripped from the lives we had built in our country of service. Granted, we knew it was only going to be a temporary thing anyway, but that didn’t make leaving any easier. Some people prepare fairly well by making a plan to start a job or attend grad school immediately after service; other choose to travel for several months in order to make the transition smoother. The worst plan is to go straight home without one.

Upon arrival, people are so happy to see us and to hear our stories. We are welcomed with open arms and lots of hugs by our families and friends who have been patiently waiting our return. It’s really exciting to be back near our loved ones again and the plans for visits and activities begin instantly, but nobody expects the emotional turmoil that inevitably goes hand in hand with our return home. One issue is that people at home remember us for how we were when we left, but we have grown and changed so much in two years. It is natural that they treat like how they always did when we had fit into a particular role or niche in the family before. But the problem is that we have outgrown that space–we don’t fit anymore and no matter how hard they try, we’re not going to be able to squeeze back in–we would suffocate. It is frustrating for both sides because sometime it can seem like we are complete strangers. Yet after everything we have been through and no matter how conflicted we are or how lost we feel, they love us anyway.

After waiting, waiting, waiting for us to come home, our families continue to have patience with us as we struggle through readjustment, trying to figure out how we fit again in the United States. At first, we are not ready to leave our recent lives behind us–we try to hang on to as much of our Peace Corps lifestyle as we possibly can. I remember taking this almost to the extreme by packing up my cooking utensils and even my tupperware containers that I had used while I was in Guatemala and bringing them back to the States (as if I couldn’t find the same stuff here). My theory was that I knew how to cook and store my food using those particular items so if I had them with me, I could easily cook the same things and eat the same way I had while I was in Guatemala–in essence, I was trying to have some sort of control during the transition when I felt completely lost and helpless. My poor family probably went on thinking I was crazy again and there was nothing they could do about it.

At one point, one of my best friends called me out for my ridiculousness and how it seemed like I was still acting like I lived in Guatemala–nearly a year later! That’s about the time I started to snap out of it. (Thank you, Bethany!) Because it is a challenge for RPCVs to develop our confidence all over again when we are not in our element anymore or we do not have our own space, having loved ones around us to keep things in perspective is a huge advantage in getting acclimated again.

So as the “Peace Corps Experience” comes full circle for PCVs, we realize that this world is really the most important world of all. Our families and friends are the ones who sent us off on our great adventure, and they are the ones we come back to, banged up, battle-scarred, a little rough around the edges, but more mature, grown-up, and open-minded than when we had left. They probably think WE are alien-like when we come home, but they admire us and love us anyway.

My dad and step mom have remained a steady support since the first day my dad and I went together to a job fair in San Jose to start researching Peace Corps in summer 2009. And even though a lot of what I do and how I think may baffle them sometimes, and they cannot relate to so many international travel experiences, they are patient, they listen and try to understand, and they love me through all of my "craziness." I am lucky to have such an amazing family.

My dad and step mom have remained a steady support since the first day my dad and I went together to a job fair in San Jose to start researching Peace Corps in summer 2009. And even though a lot of what I do and how I think may baffle them sometimes, and they cannot relate to so many of my international travel experiences, they are patient, they listen and try to understand, and they love me through all of my “craziness.” I am lucky to have such an amazing family.

Most people have about a 2-minute attention span when they ask us, “So, how did you like the Peace Corps?” Or “How was you trip?” We really want to respond, “It wasn’t just a trip. It was my life for two and a half years, for Goodness’ sake!” But instead we give a short answer and smile. How do you explain two and a half years to someone? I just tell people, “It was the best decision I’ve made and I’ll never do it again.” But our families and friends know that there is so much more to it. We are not the only ones who had a Peace Corps experience: every single family member or friend who kept in contact with a PCV had their own Peace Corps experience as an extension of that volunteer. Our experiences live on in them and with them (especially because they are stuck listening to our story-telling forever, which they are so gracious about!), and as the Peace Corps experience does not end once we come home, it is our family and friends who are pivotal in shaping the next chapters with us.

We really couldn’t have done everything we did and grown so much without our family and friends at home. Gotta have roots before branches! Despite not always being able to adequately express my gratitude in some cases, I hope all my family members and friends (and readers!) will be able to feel my deep appreciation for their constant support. Thank you.

From the bottom of my heart,

Alexandra

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. AaronAdelman
    Sep 27, 2015 @ 21:55:50

    Hello Alexandra,   I certainly have enjoyed reading your posts.  I look forward to seeing you as the marquee writer for a big magazine or perhaps foreign correspondent for a news agency someday.  I happen to believe that you are going to do very well for yourself in the future.   I rejoice in the fact you have certainly made your family proud of what you have accomplished with your life.   Please keep the posts coming!   Aaron Adelman  

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Oct 16, 2015 @ 22:47:58

      Thanks for your comment and encouragement, Aaron! As I continue working through this project, my confidence is surely growing, and I may use this as a launching point for a career move… We’ll see!!

      Reply

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Common Peace Corps Acronyms

PC = Peace Corps (sounds like "peese kor")
PCT = Peace Corps Trainee
PCV = Peace Corps Volunteer
PST = Pre-Service Training
ET = Early Termination
COS = Close of Service
NGO = Non-Governmental Organization
HH = Healthy Homes, the PC program I am in.
YD = Youth Development, the other program in my training group.

Disclaimer

Anything that is written or views expressed on this blog are mine personally and do not represent the Peace Corps or the United States government.
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