Mark Twain

December 2, 2010

There’s a famous Mark Twain quote about the purpose of traveling being not to see the foreign world, but to return home and see your own country as a foreigner would. Now, Mark Twain himself was a pseudonym – a shadow of a real man – and there’s every possibility in the world that this is just a pseudo-quote being mis-attributed to someone famous: perhaps I’m just showing off my own ignorance by leading with the possibly fake words of a fake person. Regardless, in my experience there’s a lot of truth in that sentiment, and so I’d like to write a bit about the strangeness of America from the point of view of one who lived outside her boundaries long enough to notice.

 

It’s a hard subject to broach, because Americans are VERY touchy about our country – it’s as if we feel we must defend her like a kid sister whose honor is at risk. I don’t quite understand that, so I won’t pull many punches, but the ones I’m leaving out are the ones that I know will offend just about everyone without adding much to the discussion.

 

Outside the US, Americans have a near-universal reputation for being fat-assed, fat-headed, boorish, uneducated slobs. Several times out on the road I was complimented in this sort of fashion: “Wow, you sure are smart(well-educated/well-read/polite/in shape/etc) for an American. That little sting at the end lets you know that you’re different, that you’re exceeding expectations or something. It gets under your skin a bit, but not nearly so much as the average American abroad does. They’re just so goddamn blatant, so obvious and in-your-face… It’s like a game of “Where’s Waldo?” except with a 40′ neon sign floating over his head reading “RIGHT HERE MOTHERFUCKER!!!” Once I was out for six months, the average American stuck out in my mental radar only slightly less than the average Israeli, and believe me, that’s not a compliment at all.

 

It got to the point where I avoided Americans out of hand, not just because they didn’t have much worth talking about, but also because I didn’t want that guilt-by-association that comes with hanging out around the loudest, most obvious attention whore in the room. You all know the guy – he’s making a shitshow of himself, doesn’t even realize it, and in the process offending half the people around him while the other half search for a polite exit. I’ve even BEEN that guy once, arguing loudly with an Israeli in a crowded hostel. Ruined family dinner for a dozen people, made a complete ass of myself in front of some friends, and for what? Some pissing contest about Palestinian genocide and the right of all humans to live without a gun barrel down the throat. After that, I learned to keep my opinions under wraps a bit better.

 

Problem was, not many American travelers took the same tack, and I can think of enough instances of American tourists ruining the show for everyone that it makes me uncomfortable to associate myself with group at all. Whether it was racist jokes in English-speaking Belize, mocking half-Spanish in Antigua, or the every American in the entire nation of Costa Rica; the Americans I met who didn’t offend and annoy were so far outnumbered that I – like most adventurers – wrote off the whole damn nation.

 

What’s that they say about stereotypes? I’ve always heard that stereotypes are what they are because they’ve enough gems of truth in them that they become self-reinforcing. You see enough dumb fat Americans throwing money around and it just writes the narrative all by itself. There are some notable exceptions – I mean, I ended up falling in love with an American girl and we’re fast approaching a year together (if living on opposite coasts can be be considered “together”) and there are some truly fantastic Americans I met, befriended, and will forever be indebted to, like S&B out in OK. Still, I digress: my point is that Americans have an absolutely abysmal reputation abroad, and it’s mostly deserved. As a country, we don’t know dick about foreign politics, history, or the effects of our military on the rest of the world; we don’t speak foreign languages very well; we’re richer than anyone, and flaunt material wealth worse than most any other culture; and what particularly irks me is that we have this terrible habit of pushing ourselves – our culture, our language, our customs, values, and worldview – onto the world around us almost unconsciously, and as a result create bubbles – little USAs – in which we live our lives.

 

With all this negative reinforcing, I dreaded returning home. Even with my family suffering, with my friends waiting, with my entire old life calling out to me, I stalled, bobbed, weaved my way home because I knew I wouldn’t like much of what I saw. Colombia ended up saving me in that regard, not only because I found one American who went against every conception I’d been building, but also because that country is pretty damn modern – the difference between Bucaramanga and NYC is one of scale, not type. Sure, I went from mountaintop paragliding school to concrete jungle, but I was flying about a 600,000 person city daily and dancing in the clubes most nights. Certainly the transition from rural Honduras to the USA would have been more jarring. As it was, I’m really lucky to have had those intermediate steps into the country, because without them, without her, without the crazy half-cocked roadtrip across the country, I wouldn’t have seen anything I liked in this place.

 

Here’s what I remember of my first days back in the US – it was freezing cold, I had no worthwhile clothes, and I spent all my time hiding indoors. Coffee shops, mainly, with 25 or 40 other young people, all in nice new clothes, all with brand-new laptops, iWhatever, designer bag. Guys with chic purses infinitely less useful than my ratty old bag casually hitting on girls with designer shades worth more than everything I own, all while sipping $5 lattes. I have lived in entire towns with thousands of people and less overall technology than a cafe with 25 people in it. I remember blowing 2 days living expenses on a single meal for two, knowing it was the best (cheapest) I could get, and feeling guilt for being poor – I never felt that traveling, not once! I befriended taxi drivers, bodega owners, and waiters – anyone who would speak Spanish with me – because my English was strangely accented and halting. It took a few days to find the right words consistently. I remember stepping into Whole Foods for the first time, seeing an entire floor of fruits and vegetables, and almost falling down – I still can’t do supermarkets. The abundance of food is so scary, so viscerally uncomfortable, that I end up running into these places, grabbing whatever I think I need, and fleeing as soon as I can.

 

Abundance in general is unappetizing. I’m unable to make decisions between thirty brands of soda or 200 toothpastes. When I’m with others I manage to force it down, but alone I just stare – how the fuck does anyone decide what to buy? How can there be so much of so little? These things are so trivial, and there are so many people starving in the world… I do not understand what made it OK to stock so much food that it goes bad and must be thrown away, while a thousand miles south there are kids huffing glue living in alleys and stealing to survive. It does not compute, and much as people try – patiently, then exasperatedly – to explain to me how it’s all fair, and how everyone would do it if they had the chance, I simply do not understand. I hope I never do.

 

We all own cars, even those of us who scarcely drive. If not for work being 15 miles away, I would never drive my car, and realistically I could just hitchhike, or take a bus. I’m simply being lazy because I can. There’s shit for mass transit out here, but that’s mostly because there’s no demand – my 16 year old brother bought a car before he even got a license, and he’s not in the minority. If I was a space alien, and I came to California knowing nothing about the culture or the planet at all, I would assume cars are the dominant species and human beings their prisoners. Think about it – from above, the whole place is a grid of roads and giant highways connecting the parking lots of the world. Driving home from LA the very first time after getting back, I remember counting 16 lanes across the freeway – 16 fucking lanes! – Holy hell man… That’s so damn incredible that I cannot believe it just passes for normal among the hundreds of thousands of people who drive it every single day.

 

I guess everything becomes normal once you see it often enough, but it’s just like that bastard arrow in the FedEx logo – once you see it, it can’t be unseen. After seeing the world outside, I can’t unsee the spectacle of America. All this wealth, all this abundance, and yet… what’s missing? Why isn’t anyone smiling? We’re certainly not dying – just looking at all the fat people around, I know that we aren’t starving. There’s nobody forcing guns in our faces, the corruption in our society is manifested by bankers fucking over the entire economy, not politically connected mobsters running over kids in the road and getting off scott free. The problems of our corner of the world, while definitely serious, are so much more subdued than in – for example – Central America. So why aren’t we happy?

 

Is the veneer slipping? Have people started to see the emptiness at the core of this way of life? I wish that was the case, but truly, I think the answer is so much simpler: we have everything we’re taught to want, but can’t pretend we have what we need.

 

Abundance robs us of truly appreciating anything – this is true of the psychological and the emotional just as much as the material. I can’t begin to express how it felt to watch Avatar in 3D in Spanish after not watching a movie in 9 months. It was like being transported into the future and dumped off there for a few hours, and I’ve never before or since been so wrapped up in someone else’s fantasy. I’ve since seen the movie in English, and a hundred other flicks besides, and never come close to that same experience. Right now there’s a movie on in the background – a pretty decent one too – and I can’t give a rat’s ass about it. I’ve watched three movies this week. I have constant Internet access. I see my family every day. I can reach out to my left, pick up my phone, and call damn near anyone I know or have ever known, jump on Facebook, Skype Australia, or take a picture of my goddamn nuts and post it as a landscape of Iraq, and yet I can’t appreciate any of it! It’s always available – food, drink, fun, family, contact, all of it – there’s never a shortage, there’s never a danger of it not being around. Without shortage, there is no way to know what you have.

 

It’s not just me – the difference between me and most Americans is simply that I’ve seen the other side, and I refuse to take all this extravagance for granted. I think that if people could see how rare this abundance is, they might be a hell of a lot happier with their lives. I mean, if you understood just how much effort, how many resources, how much energy and work went into that new laptop or those fancy new shoes, you would love them as I do my 8 year old sneakers or my little netbook here. The lack of what we find most dear is precisely what makes it enjoyable when we do have it. In this land of instant gratification, material overload, and wild consumption, it’s just not possible to love things as you would nearly anywhere else.

 

I don’t mean to preach – I’m not some fucking saint. I can feel all the love being sapped out of me the longer I’m here. I can’t sit and eat 2 eggs and savor the bites like I once could, because a dozen eggs is less than the average table tips me at work. The first night I came home and slept in my bed, I almost died – this is incredibly comfortable! I have sheets with a thread-count, a pile of quilts and pillows that I once felt were necessary. I remember one night in El Salvador sharing this same size bed with three people: right now I’m lying sideways on it and my feet are still off the ground. The thing is, I don’t even think about it at all unless I force myself to. It’s just my bed, you know? Never mind that the Cerrato family sleeps four to this same size mattress every night, never mind that most people on this planet will never ever sleep on anything so nice – it’s always here, and so it’s just my bed.

 

It’s the same for most everything. Earlier today I snapped at my mom because she interrupted my computer game and train of thought. I routinely get irritated because my family members are invading my space, because they dare to force their way into my idle time. What the fuck is that, right? A year ago, right about now, I’m at a little beach hostel in El Salvador, sitting and smoking joints and just wishing I could see my parents, terrified I’m losing their faces. I actually freaked out for a while because I hadn’t spoken to either of my brothers in months. I tracked down Sim cards in ever country I visited, spent precious finite dollars on credits to call them long distance, and drank up every word they said. Skyping home was so rare I only got to do it a handful of times, and several times I was crying after ending the call – not sadness, but just because I was so happy to see that the people I loved were still alive and remembered me. Yet here I am a year later being short with my mother because she dares to come spend time with me. It’s almost like we can’t appreciate anything until it becomes an ordeal to have it.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason I see so much mindless consumption all around me here – people trading out clothes by season, always focused on the new phone, the next gadget or outfit or gizmo. We all are afflicted – unable to truly understand what we have – and when you combine that with the barrage of “YOU AREN’T HAPPY” ads in every possible medium, it’s the recipe for a dissatisfied people constantly searching for the next high. That’s the best metaphor I can write for it – we’re a nation of addicts, chasing that moment of pure satisfaction when we finally have it, with “it” so loosely defined that psychowarfare advertisers are able to bend us to this or that or the other product. Consumption is accomplishment, buying is succeeding, acquisition is the end goal. The problem is that once you have it, there’s no fun any more, and so we drive onward to the next high – that’s addiction at the very core mate, no joke.

 

With all this stuff, all these toys and goodies, Americans are still unhappy – I judge this based off the same index I use everywhere I go – are people smiling? Are strangers laughing or frowning? Take Honduras, for example: while I was there the country had a coup, and the interim government suspended the constitution. Like an idiot I crossed the whole country that day – the people I saw were all frowns, worry-etched brows, inward-turned souls. I managed to hitchhike into Nicaragua that day, slept overnight, and woke up to smiles, shouting, laughter – night and day from the other side of the border. Happy people show it in the same ways everywhere I’ve ever been, and if that holds true, people here aren’t happy. I think it’s safe to say that simply having (goods, close ties to family and friends, a secure life free of want) is not the key to being happy.

 

No; having isn’t enough. Having and appreciating – that’s the ticket. Without perspective, lacking the realization of just how fortunate we are to be in this place, with all these unspeakable luxuries, it all turns to ash. Think about it – how many kings, how many emperors, ever could call across the world? How many noblemen ever had electric lights or refrigeration, enjoyed tropical fruit after their French dinner, then listened to their Aussie friend’s band streaming across the Internet? Goddamn none of them did! Do you think it’s possible to appreciate modern medicine enough? We bitch about healthcare, but a hundred and fifty years ago they would have bled you out to treat that fever, or stuck leeches on your face to cure that nasty cut. And when is the last time someone invaded your home, burnt it to the ground, and claimed the land as their own? We are in the lap of luxury never before seen on this earth, and we’re either too stupid or too complacent to realize it. Perhaps that’s a big part of why so many people here aren’t happy. I hope so, because then the fix is easy – just go somewhere else, volunteer for the unfortunate, then come back home and bam – situation resolved.

 

And yet…

 

And yet…

 

That’s not all of it.

 

There’s another issue here entirely – the issue of what we’ve lost in chasing all this abundance. Community is gone, that’s for starters. One thing I never realized before leaving the US is that community is not a place (or a shitty TV show!) – community is a group of people who know and support each other. Some of the communities I’ve been around, I was lucky enough to become a part of, and that feeling makes up for so much hardship in life. The feeling when you go from the open market to the corner store to the central park and then the bank and meet no fewer than 20 people who know you and want to know about you is indescribable – I haven’t been able to find it here, and trust me: I’m trying. I guess the closest feeling is from my coworkers at the restaurant, but even that is more superficial and detached. Case in point: the other day I realized one of the other waitresses was unhappy and hiding it, and so I tried to get her to open up. The look I got… it was as if I’d slapped her, but all I’d really done is pry past the comfortable surface. In America, we put up barricades between ourselves and the rest of society, and rationalize it a thousand ways. At the end of it all, what we’ve lost is a network of allies and friends and loving relations so deep and wide that nothing we’ve possibly gained could make up for it. That’s a big part of why people feel so unhappy and alone.

 

We’ve also lost an appreciation for the free and open things in life. Think about it – how many people do you know that regularly explore their world? I’m talking long walks, climbing a hill, going into a part of town they have no purpose in being in and just wandering. I count myself among the very few who do, and even with a focus on it, I still rarely manage to get out and ramble – really, deeply ramble – more than once a week if I’m lucky. That’s such a huge loss! We have beautiful parks, wonderful beaches, gorgeous open spaces, but they’re all so unused – the people are gone, stuck to screens and TVs and jesus, it’s 3am and I’m red-eyed staring at a computer screen! We’ve gotten so caught up in the society we’ve built that it’s dangerously close to a prison for the mind. If we don’t get past that, turn off Angry Birds, cut out the TV reruns, and just get outside into this beautiful world, then we’re just going to pass that horrible practice on to our own kids, and then what? This world can’t afford another generation of self-focused in-lookers.

 

Alright, last point, but this one is a doozy – it builds on this last point, about looking outward. My biggest problem with Americans is that they don’t ever look outside their borders to see the effects of their actions on the rest of the world and it’s peoples. Those shiny cell phones and SUVs, those beautiful new clothes and that fantastic meal all came from somewhere, and increasingly that somewhere is far away and dirt-poor. If you’re upgrading your phone every two years, eating meat every meal, driving a block because you don’t want to walk, and then leaving your AC on instead of cracking the window, then I’m sorry to tell you, but your grandkids will grow up to spit every time they say your name. The resource abuse of this nation is sickening, absolutely revolting, and it’s driven by this blindered ignorance of cause and effect.

 

Here’s a quick one – cell phones require rare minerals to function. Those minerals come predominantly from areas like the Democratic Republic of Congo, a war-torn nation where rape is used to control populations, AIDS is endemic, and child soldiers are the norm. These resources, largely taken through companies and organizations controlled by US corporations and the US government, are removed in a manner that leaves almost nothing to the people who rightfully own the minerals being extracted. They are then shipped to China, refined in terribly toxic processes, and shipped to another factory that forms the components, which are themselves assembled by people who work 15 hour days and make less in a month than you would in a couple days at minimum wage. After all this, we ship the phones across the entire planet on container ships that could politely be called the most environmentally damaging vehicles ever created, at which point they’re driven all over the country and sold to you, the consumer, only to be abandoned a year or two down the line. At this point they’re bundled up and sold to India, where 5 and 6 year old children burn them is giant piles to extract the same precious metals that got all those Congolese women raped. Oh, and the kicker? These Indian kids use their family’s cooking ware to burn the phones because they can’t possibly afford another set of pots.

 

All this, so that we in the US can replace our perfectly good phones with the newest, hippest model. Rape, violence, environmental destruction, slave labor, more environmental destruction, off-shoring of US manufacturing, depletion of very rare and precious resources, and the deterioration of unknown numbers of lives, so that you can have the newest phone. Be honest – when you replaced your last phone, was it broken, or did you just want a new one? It’s not like we couldn’t extract US rare earth minerals, manufacture the phones here in-country, and design them to be modular and upgradeable from the ground up. No, it’s simply cheaper to do it abroad, and because we’re all willfully ignorant of the costs of our toys, we aren’t willing to pay more to do things the right (by which I mean humane) way. We’d all benefit! That’s the terrible tragedy of it – we’d all be better off if we simply did all this here in the US and didn’t export the damaging bits to countries that can’t fight back against economic imperialism. Ignorant, uncaring people will be the death of us all.

 

It’s not just phones – where do you think oil comes from? Why do you think gas is cheaper here than nearly anywhere else? Do you think those Arab states are democratically deciding to give us all their resources out of the goodness of their hearts? No – we prop up terrible dictators who oppress their people so that our nation can have their finite resources without the population getting their just share. Why do you think we’re in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen and giving weapons to Israel and selling them to Saudi Arabia and Egypt and bribing Turkey and fighting economic warfare against Iran, anyway? It’s so that American politicians don’t have to raise gas prices or explain to the American people that oil is a finite resources and we’re already past the peak extraction rates – in short, we’re risking world war so that Americans don’t have to conform to reality. We have the military and political power to do that still, so rather than face the bitter truths of this world, we simply steal, cajole, extort more than our fair share of the dwindling pile, and cross our fingers for the future. It’s the problem of the commons, taken global. I’m not saying we’re the only ones doing this, but as citizens of the imperial power, we’re certainly the (current) biggest beneficiaries.

 

Everything has a price, and someone must pay for everything we get in life beyond basic needs. If you’re on top of the pile, as we are right now, then you can make someone else foot the bill for a time. However, our nation is broke, our military is overstretched and losing an unwinnable conflict, and our leadership is bought and paid for by the same people who thought dismantling our entire manufacturing capacity for a quick buck was a great idea. This way of life is completely unsustainable, and one day it will come crashing down on our heads. Or really, on your children’s heads, because we’ve probably enough steam to ensure that we get ours before it all falls down.

 

In the end, I have my own delusion – I like to pretend that the prevalent unhappiness and discontent I see all around me is the start of a mass revolt against the emptiness of modern America. I prefer to hope that we can turn this sinking ship around and still make it back to shore. It’s not true – we should have started in Carter’s era – but you know what? I need this. I need to hope that this country won’t keep fighting in 75 countries, won’t keep consuming 25% of the world’s yearly resources for 4% of the population, won’t keep conforming to all the same terrible stereotypes that the rest of the world mocks us for. It’s not true, but it keeps me from abandoning my family and friends and moving off to New Zealand to be a shepherd for a little longer.

 

I’ll stop here – there’s no real point in going on about the uselessness of our politics, or the echo chamber we call news, because nobody here wants to hear it. If you agreed with what I’ve already written, then you’ll keep agreeing to the other bits too, and if you don’t, then you’ve already gone off to do something else. Just know that you’re being lied to constantly by every channel, by every magazine, by every billboard and sign spinner. You Don’t Need Anything More Than You Need To Survive. The sooner you get that into your head, the better off you’ll be in this life – but then again, that’s just this foreigner’s opinion.

 

An incoming Peace Corps Trainee sent me a message the other day, asking about my story, and what information I could give on the disciplinary process and standards of the Peace Corps – the “dark side” if you will.  Here is my response to him, and to anyone else wondering the same:

Congratulations on the PC acceptance – that application process is an ordeal wrapped around a shit sandwich, and I still remember the immense relief and joy I felt at finally KNOWING that I was going somewhere, anywhere, and that it hadn’t all been in vain.

Yes, to answer your question succinctly – they really will kick people out for bad behavior, as defined by them, by the Peace Corps handbook, and (this is the kicker) for Trainees, “at the discretion of the Country Director.”  What this last one means is that during training, from day 1 until you swear in, you can be removed from the program without warning, without any specific rule violation, and without ANY RECOURSE WHATSOEVER.  This was my situation – I was removed from FBT a week before Swear-in and subsequently given the options of 1) resigning my post, getting what small sum I had earned for my service, and going home immediately, or 2) refusing, getting kicked out, getting nothing, and being forever barred from serving with the PC in the future.  What I wasn’t told was that in order to have any legal or formal grounds to protest my dismissal, you MUST make them expel you from the program, but even that ground is very, very slim.  As the regional director of Central America in 2009 put it to me “we don’t interfere with the discretionary decisions of Country Directors.”  To conclude: as a PCT, you have no rights, you have no standing, you are there are the pleasure of the PC.

That said, the best advice I can give you is simply to not fuck around, at least not before Swearing in!  Really, it’s 90 days, unless you’re a total idiot, you should be able to keep on your best behavior for at least that long!  Granted, it’s degrading, constrictive, and insulting to your basic humanity, but the reward is 2 years of much looser supervision and a much healthier relationship with the administration.  Volunteers have rights again, they are protected by the rulebook, and are infinitely more autonomous and free to act than Trainees.  If you can make it through training, you will probably not get kicked out so long as you aren’t blatant about your rulebreaking.

You will break rules.  Yes, you.  I’m guaranteeing this you, and if you read through your rulebook, you will probably see why.  The rules aren’t written for you, the human being, but instead for you, the idealized model of a Peace Corps Volunteer.  They protect the organization from being liable for things that happen to you, and give them a better means with which to control you.  Yes, some of the rules, if followed, will keep you safer, but no, that isn’t the primary goal.  The organization comes first, in their eyes, and you are a distant, far-off speck of a third or fifth.  If you stay with the PC, you will eventually come to terms with this in your own way – everyone I’ve met has found their own workarounds and coping methods, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who lives inside of all the rules.  You’d self-destruct, most likely, from the sheer insanity of contorting yourself that badly!  Thus, I’m pretty confident that you will break the rules, and often, during your service.  The advice I give you assumes that you will.

Here’s the take-away portion of this ramble: different violations are weighted more or less heavily based on your personal circumstances.  If you are a nurse, teacher, or engineer, you can bend or break a lot more rules than if you are a 23 year old college grad with no experience.  It’s just a fact of life – to the organization you are a tool, and thus your personal usefulness to them and their goals is taken in as a factor in disciplinary action.  If you were a 40 year old pediatric doctor with  perfect Spanish who happened to be having a midlife crisis and doing an amazing job volunteering, I’d give it about 50% that you could have an illegitimate child with a local teenager, and the PC would cover for you.  As a recent college grad with basic language skills and no specialized degree, you are a pity case in many ways, and don’t get nearly the same leeway.  Don’t get angry, just keep this in mind – I’m not trying to discourage you, but giving you the warning that I wish someone had passed to me.

This might help you to keep in mind – here are the Peace Corps’ top priorities as I see them:

1) Liability
2) Their Image
3) Washington DC Politics (Ex: Honduras’ program is rated against the other nations, lets appear better than the others, and get more funding and attention.)
4) Your Safety
5) Your Work and Progress
6) Your needs and wants

Bear in mind, that’s my opinion – I don’t have a magic list of how the admin thinks, but I’ve seen the Peace Corps from a position very few volunteers get to, which is to say living in the same nation, working in the same fields, and from across the Director’s desk as she kicks you to the curb.  You’ll see some of this regardless, like in Safety&Security briefings where you are advised to not resist rapists and possible killers in any way, but much of it is impossible to see without being first inside and later out.  A lot of the Peace Corps’ partners, the local and foreign NGOs you will be interacting with, will express a lot of frustration about the organization, it’s policies, and limitations.  Again, not discouraging, but giving you a view of how some people see the group from the outside.

Anyway, just be forever wary of everything higher than you on that priority list – those things are more important than you, and so you’d be well advised to keep them in mind when deciding what you should and shouldn’t do.  You do have allies – you aren’t alone in this, and I would never want to leave you with the idea that this is some sort of strict, rule-centric environment where nobody has any fun. The volunteers are your allies in this, as they have had to go through the same ordeals, and have a much clearer picture of how things work.  Befriend them, intimidating as things might seem in the first days and weeks, and you’ll find that they have a lot of very good advice and guidance.  Some of them might even teach you what you can do, what is particularly frowned upon, how to jalon, and they’ll give you your best view into how things work – I’ve been out for too long, things have changed, the rules are enforced differently.  Know that they have been in your shoes, have had your doubts and fears, and are stronger for the help of the volunteers above them.  Let them help you.

Lastly, let me give you an idea of the things that I did that would constitute bad behavior, what got me removed from the organization, and a few final thoughts on the matters of behavior, discipline, and rulebreaking.

Here’s what I did that would constitute “bad behavior” by PC standards:
-Left training site without informing administration
-Went to a concert in Tegucigalpa without permission
-hitchhiked, repeatedly
-rode a motorcycle
-didn’t wear a helmet
-Went to bars in my site, smoked cigarettes
-Was drunk in bars in my site
-Smoked weed with volunteers
-Smoked weed with locals
-Left site during my volunteer visit to go to the beach
-Separated from my volunteer during the visit

Here’s what I was removed for:
-Writing in a US college newspaper, without permission, attempting to persuade graduates to consider volunteer work in lieu of immediately entering the workforce or continuing their education.  (Key part: get permission!)
-Using bad language in this writing, painting the organization in a negative fashion.
-Writing unflatteringly of my work and local customs online (Twitter, titles of blog posts which were passworded)
-“Cultural Insensitivity”
-“Subversive attitude”

As you can see from this, I did a lot of things that could have justified my removal from the Peace Corps.  Despite this, what did get me in trouble were not the things that endangered myself, or went against my work.  Instead, the things that got me thrown out were those that threatened to damage priorities 1),2),or 3) – Liability, Image, and politics.  If your goal is stay in the organization, the rules you need to follow are those which protect the highest priorities.

You can get away with a whole lot if you’re careful, and a whole lot more, albeit for a shorter time span, if you’re reckless.  There are “bad” volunteers that don’t spend any time in their sites, travel around to party, smoke, drink, and party their way through service, who never get in trouble for it.  There are dedicated, serious volunteers who get thrown out for stupid, idiotic reasons, or for first time violations of petty rules.  It’s all about how good you are at hiding what you do, and how smart you are about your behavior – don’t get cocky, cover your bases, and you can do anything you want.

Am I advocating rulebreaking?  I guess I am, but that’s consistent with my personal philosophy – I don’t condone following regulations that you don’t personally agree with.  If you like smoking pot, taking vacations, or living with your boyfriend, and are willing to accept the consequences of being caught for this, then by all means do it!  Better to murder a nursing infant than to nurse an unacted desire – the very attempt to hide yourself, to lie to the world and your own soul is so much more deeply damaging!

I am the conundrum I suppose – the guy who got thrown out but chose to stay, the black sheep who somehow has a rather good reputation with the remaining volunteers.  All I can say is be true to yourself, and if that jeopardizes your service, then perhaps you weren’t meant to be in such a restrictive, conservative organization.  Many people are not!  A full 40% of my H14 class has since returned to other lives, mostly in the US, though I know a few have gone on to other locations.  Honduras is not for everyone, the Peace Corps either, so you should feel no shame in leaving if that is your desire.  It will prove better for yourself, and for the organization too, than for you to remain unhappily and help no one!

Just one last piece of advice, and this will apply somewhat to everyone, but mainly to those who get kicked out – you are a human being, a free, intelligent, and interdependent soul.  You are not scum, you are not a tool, you are not the property of the US government, the Peace Corps, or your director.  It is easy to forget this in the training process – subservience is one of their goals in creating successful volunteers.  If you find yourself facing disciplinary action, remember all of this above all else – you don’t owe them anything!  You enter your service freely, willingly, and as a gift to them.  Never let anyone make you feel guilty for what they have given you, for your gift was far more precious.  Never let them intimidate you, make you cry, or feel worthless.  The Peace Corps does not play nice with those it has discarded, and so you should not attempt to “be the bigger person” or act reconciliatory.  Fuck that!  They owe you volunteers everything, but act as if you are their property.  Never surrender to that sort of attitude, and you will have a much healthier time in your service, and especially in leaving it.

Thanks for taking the time to read this ramble – if you found it useful, pass it along, and if you have any more questions, I’ll happily answer what I can, or pass you along to those who will.  You can and probably will have an amazing time in the Corps, my experience was an outlier and an unfortunate one at that, so please – enter this commitment free, open, and ready for anything.  I just can’t let anyone go off without knowing the darker possibilities!  Have the best of times, and keep in touch – I wish you only the best.  Mucha suerte, contestame pronto!

Ciao -k

PS: here is the longer version of how I got kicked out of the Peace Corps

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