The Peace Corps has asked me to write to you and tell you all about my country and my experience. I've filled several journals with what I think of this place and what's happened to me here, so you're not going to get very much in a two-page letter.
As you'll see soon enough, being here is such a rich experience, it's hard to stop talking about it--and harder still to know where to start.
I guess I could start at the beginning, when we got off the plane in the capital and it was so hot I thought there must be some sort of humidity alert, that everybody except for emergency workers had probably been told to stay indoors until this weather passed. I was wrong, of course; it was actually unseasonably cool that day, as I now realize, but that just shows you how far I've come. I don't even notice the humidity anymore, much less reflect on it.
Those were the days, though, when we couldn't get enough of this place. The people were the friendliest people on earth, and nothing we did seemed to faze them. After a while that changed, of course, and it began to dawn on us that one or two things about our culture appeared to be different from theirs, and that probably we shouldn't be quite so sure we weren't fazing the locals, since maybe they didn't "faze" the same way we did! It was all uphill from there.
Training is a kind of blur now, though I swore at the time that I would never forget anything that happened during those early weeks. I remember it was very intense-everything was intense in those days-that we were incredibly busy all the time, that we couldn't wait for it to get over. And that we were scared to death that one day it would be over, and we would have to say goodbye and go out and become Peace Corps Volunteers.
But it did end, we did go out, and we did become PCVs--kicking and screaming in my case. I say that because my early days at my site and at my job were not my happiest moments. Even though I knew better, I made all the mistakes I had promised myself I would never make. I won't bore you with details, but suffice it to say that I thought I knew how to do things better than the local people, that if they would just listen, they would see the light and come around.
Once I realized I wasn't getting through, that they really did see things differently, I'm sorry to say I got a bit negative. If that's the way they wanted to do things, then to hell with them. This wasn't my finest hour. Somehow I had to climb out of this mood and get back on track. My first attempts were a bit clumsy. I told myself: "Okay, so these people aren't like you. Get over it!"
So I went back into the fray-and got bloodied all over again. This was starting to get annoying. I realize now that while I had accepted that the local culture was somewhat different from my own, I still thought that deep down inside we were all alike. While I might have to adjust my style, I didn't need to worry about my basic assumptions and life beliefs.
That was the biggest lesson I learned here: that cultural differences are not just on the surface, that people really do see the world in fundamentally different ways.
I don't want to say that everything you know about life and people goes out the window when you come here-that wouldn't be true, either-but culture does run deep, and so, therefore, do cultural differences. Anyway, I finally got wisdom, accepted that different people can see the same things very differently, and tried to be more understanding. Now I can laugh at those same behaviors that used to bother me-I've even adopted a few of them myself-and some of the things that bothered me I don't even see anymore.
Well, I didn't expect to get so philosophic about all this, but I guess it's unavoidable whenever you start to look back. And I haven't told you anything about the country yet! I'll have to let others do that. After all, anybody can tell you about the markets and the busses, and the bugs and the food. But true insight-now that's harder to come by!
I want to say in closing that you'll notice I've addressed this letter to "Dear Friends." We've never met, of course, and probably never will, but I still feel that I know you--not your name or your face or any of the facts of your life-but your heart, or whatever you call that place where your values and your feelings reside. I know this much because I know myself, and I know that you must be something like me or it would never have occurred to you to join the Peace Corps and undertake this adventure.
We must hope for some of the same things, you and I, perhaps even for the same kind of world, where people understand each other better--where their first impulse upon meeting a stranger is to be curious rather than afraid. When I'm being sentimental (this is such a time, in case you haven't noticed), I like to think I have done my small part in making that happen. I sincerely hope you enjoy doing yours.
All the best,