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13 lessons from 2013

four gringos on a wooden raft paddling down the Amazon

2013 brought me challenges I expected and sometimes, lessons I never saw coming. Here is a handful of the most valuable:

1) The rain provides an extra rinse for your clothes hanging on the line to dry. Between the months of January and June, it rains almost daily in Luya. When you rely on the sun or wind to dry your clothes hanging on the line, the constant rain becomes a challenge. Just let go and let mother nature rinse your clothes another time or two. Your underwear will dry. Hopefully.

2) If you travel with me, be prepared for an adventure. I’ve more or less conquered motion sickness, but landslides and roadside breakdowns tend to follow me wherever I go. Don´t worry, though. I brought snacks and water. We’ll be fine.

3) Find comfort in the uncomfortable. If it scares you, it’s probably something you should do. Getting on the plane to Perú was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It terrified me, yet it was exactly what I wanted. Presenting my community diagnostic to a room full of unfamiliar faces in a language I barely knew made my palms sweat, but we needed to start a conversation. I never, ever thought I would subject myself to building a wooden raft and then – just for kicks – paddling it down the Amazon River. Somehow this happened, I wasn’t eaten alive by piranhas, and my team came in second for our category. With each of these experiences, I went to my limit and learned I could keep going.

4) Always pee downhill. So this might be a no-brainer, but this girl-from-the-suburbs never really thought about that until she almost peed on the backpack laying next to her feet. Even if it is an emergency, make time to aim downhill.

5) Be patient. It takes time to learn a language and understand a culture. Don’t be so hard on yourself when you lack the vocabulary to say what you want to say. Don’t get mad when they didn’t show up for your meeting; it takes even more time for a community to trust you. When you think you are not meeting your definition of success, take a deep breath. Remember this is a process. Be a ray of f-ing sunshine and plant as many seeds as possible. It may not be what you expected, but something will take root and grow. I promise.

6) Shoes matter. For goodness sake, don´t subject yourself to Keen All-Terrain Sandals just because you are a Peace Corps Volunteer. No one in your community has shoes like that, and it makes you look even more like a foreigner (or gasp, a tourist). Dancing with the mayor? Don´t wear your rainboots, even if it is pouring outside. Hiking 13 km uphill? Break in those hiking shoes instead of wearing your Toms. Presentation to the regional health network? Invest in some shoe polish. Every PCV should have a pair of dancing/work shoes, a pair of hiking/tennis shoes, and a pair of flip flops for the late night run to the bathroom or latrine. Bonus points for having shoes made in your host country.

7) Reconnect by disconnecting. Having internet is such a blessing. I can see parents, watch my niece learn to walk, recharge by catching up with friends, and research projects. However, access to internet can also build barriers. I admit, there are absolutely times when I would rather Skype with my best girl instead of going out to dance with my community partners at the diskoteck. Once upon a time, Instagram photos of oven-roasted turkeys, recipes for pumpkin pies on Pinterest, and a hundreds of sparkling Christmas trees on Facebook made me think I wanted to be somewhere else. It sounds incredibly shallow, but sometimes my mind and heart longed for the familiar.  My turning point came when I realized I was concerned with my Klout score. I’m in the Peace Corps, and I wanted to know my influence about things irrelevant to my host community. I knew I had to unplug and disconnect from that world. I couldn’t be a successful Peace Corps Volunteer with one foot in my previous reality and the other in Peru. It’s a work in progress, but my happiness in Peace Corps is directly related to my local participation and engagement.  I’m exactly were I want to be, and I’m growing and connecting.

8) Personality types transcend culture and language. If you come to Luya, I’ll introduce you to the Peruvian version of my Great Aunt Sarah Faye. We’ll have dinner with locals who remind me of former co-workers, neighbors, and ladies from church. Type A, INFJ, dolphin, or whatever the new categorization is, those exist here. Of course, these characteristics are colored by culture and tradition, but fundamentally, people are the same. (I’ll concede that it is possible I’m using my own gringa-lens and completely over-simplifying personality. Nontheless, the process works for me.) Once I get to know someone in my community, I flip through an index of characters and for the most part, understand how to interact and work with someone. Because we are all more similar than different. Yes, our backgrounds and realities look different, but the way we interact in the world is fundamentally the same.

9) The art of bathing doesn’t require 30 minutes in a hot shower. I can now bucket bathe or shower in less time than one Taylor Swift song. My granddad will be so proud. (This being said, my gosh, a bubble bath sounds lovely.)

10) Find time for yourself. I’ve never, ever been good at this. Time for myself used to mean baking cupcakes for other people or maybe drinking a glass (or two) of wine. As it turns out, this is the toughest job I’ve ever loved. In order to stay sane and healthy, I discovered the value in making time for myself. I now crave the few hours each week when I get help Tia Betty (real name) bake bread in her artesnal, wood-burning oven. Her home is one of my favorite spots in Perú. I have no objective other than exactly what she tells me. Hikes to and from nearby annexes (also known as my commute) used to seem like unproductive hours. Now, I enjoy the quiet time to think and reflect. This time to myself recharges my mind and clears my head. I never realized how truly valuable that is until now.

11) Be prepared. When heading out the door each morning, Peace Corps volunteers should carry the following items: a book (in case you find yourself waiting hours upon end for a meeting or transportation), a camera (documentation is important for reports and memories), toilet paper (bathrooms and trees don’t come stocked here), and finally, a safety bag for a variety of equally important reasons. Also, keep a few palabras (a little speech) or an educational session in your back pocket. You’ll need it at the most unexpected times.

12) It’s okay to say no. I’ve also always struggled with this one. As I’ve gotten a little older (and since joining the Peace Corps), I learned that I cannot possibly make everyone happy or be the solution to all of the problems. No human can. I began to get a sense of this in my previous employment, although it’s now that I’m finally learning to practice it. I know that I cannot do all of the projects and teach all of the children while staying healthy and balanced. I would be trying to squeeze in a lifetime of work during my two year commitment. So, I’m prioritizing and saying no when needed. This one is also a work in progress.

13) America the beautiful. Sure, I thought the ol’ U.S. of A. was nifty before the Peace Corps. But, goodness. Distance made my heart grow even fonder. She is far from perfect, but she’s home.


10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Virginia #

    Amanda, I enjoyed your lessons and find they are necessary to live in a Senior Center . Your In-Laws are very proud of you! Love Gma

    January 27, 2014
    • a2e #

      I’m glad they were relevant for you, too! Love you back, Grandma Virginia!

      January 27, 2014
  2. casey #

    This is such an awesome entry! I admire you so incredibly much for pushing yourself past the uncomfortable to achieve your dreams. I am so proud of you and I miss you!!

    January 27, 2014
    • a2e #

      Thank you, sweet friend! I so appreciate your love and support. XO.

      January 29, 2014
  3. Audra Smith #

    Thank you Amanda … wonderful insight. Give your man a hug from us all at Garver!

    January 28, 2014
    • a2e #

      Thank you, Audra! Will do. Hugs and hellos back to you all at Garver.

      January 29, 2014
  4. 25swf #

    Ah I love your posts! And I love this one the most of all I think. #4 is hilarious!

    You are my hero, but you already knew that.

    Missing you, but time flies…memories last!

    January 29, 2014
    • a2e #

      Aww, thank you! Sadly, #4 is so very true. And awkward. Thanks for being a constant friend. Love you!

      January 29, 2014
  5. Excellent post. Insightful and broadly applicable. Your mom shared it with me and it made my morning. Praying for you both. I’m challenged and humbled by your courage and vision. GLC+

    February 8, 2014
    • a2e #

      Thank you for your kind words and prays, Fr. Crosthwait. Your comment made my day.

      March 14, 2014

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