Peace Corps Stories Section:
Main Page (Introduction and Contents)
PCV FAQ, questions about my experience and the Peace Corps in general
I Was (Almost) Tattooed by Headhunters
Quentin, the World Traveler
Stalking Extremely Small Game
The Christians and the Pagans
We Visit the Land Dayaks
Maps of Malaysia and Sarawak
Pictures of Sarawak
Peace Corps Links
Christmas News Letters
This is page 1 of 6. If you came here directly from a search engine, you should read the introduction at the top of the main Peace Corps FAQ Page. This page has just one question; What are the pros and cons of joining the Peace Corps?
You change the world. You don't change much of it, and you don't change it much, but you change the world. Most of us changed it for the better.
You make life-long friends. I started training with 32 people. 24 of us finished and became PCVs. I still exchange Christmas cards with 8 of them. If my travels take me within 250 miles of them, I can count on dinner and a guest room for the night, and vice versa. Some of my students, from 1971-72, write to me via e-mail.
You'll travel. You don't see the world, but the part you do see are not the parts a normal tourist sees, and you see them intensely. It is the adventure of a lifetime. See below for more on that.
You'll have more interesting stories about your scars than most people. I, for instance, was cutting stakes to mark the lanes for a track meet when my machete slipped. (Some machetes in Sarawak have points, instead of rounded tips.) The point dug into my thigh and twisted out, taking a piece of meat just a bit smaller than a chickpea with it.
You'll probably learn a language no one in your high school graduating class has ever heard of, let alone speaks. Many volunteers in Peru learn Quechua, the language of the Incas.
If the people you live with practice ritual tattooing, you may get one for free.
The Peace Corps puts some money aside for you every month. It's called a re-adjustment allowance, and it gives you a bit of a cushion to live on for a few months after you get back.
If you are used to hot showers, electricity that is on 24 hours a day, safe drinking water from the tap and a $4.95 morning cup of coffee from Starbucks, you'll probably have to change.
You'll ride the bus instead of owning a car.
Intestinal parasites and food poisoning. Some volunteers brag about the length of the roundworms they have passed the way fishermen brag about the size of the fish they have caught. My best food poisoning story is in Snippets, under the title "White people".
There will be things you can't change. Many people in the third world see nothing wrong with cockfighting, for instance. Women are definitely second-class citizens in much of the third world. Not every child goes to secondary school. There will be more problems you can't solve than ones you can, and more people you can't help than you can.
You will work for the host country government, in many respects. If that government's main function is to keep 90% of the wealth in 10% of the hands, you won't be able to change it.
(Seeing a small bit of the world intensely.)
When I was in high school, back in the 1960's, I belonged to the AFS club, which was partly a support group for our annual exchange student and partly a club for people who were interested in foreign countries. We met every week at lunch. Usually we had a speaker. Once it was one of our classmates, whose family had gone to Europe on a tour. They saw 7 countries in 6 days or 6 in 7; I've forgotten which. They saw BeNeLux from the bus window in one day, although they stopped in the Netherlands for lunch and in one of the other countries to go to the bathroom. They stayed in Hiltons, and our classmate bragged he'd had a hamburger for dinner three nights out of seven. Even then I knew there were different ways to see a country.
I was in Sarawak for the whole 27 months, except for 5 days in West Malaysia and Singapore at the start of training. I ate what the locals ate, with rare exceptions, and learned to cook Chinese food. I learned to speak Malay and Iban in training, and Hokkien, one of the Chinese languages, afterward.
On my mid-term vacation I flew into the highlands and walked for 8 days through the jungle, usually spending the night in longhouses, then bummed a ride on a longboat for another three. One night in the jungle the fellow who was my guide for that leg of the trip had to make a shelter for the night, because I wasn't a fast walking through the jungle as he was, and we were not going to get to a longhouse by dark. So, he cut saplings as thick as my thumb and his wife, who had come along, made a roof from some kind of huge leaves. It took them about 45 minutes; four uprights, cross-pieces about a foot above the ground, a floor laid on those, and a roof. We slept pretty well, but, since I was 6 feet tall and he 5, and he'd used his dimensions out of habit, my feet stuck out over the edge.
I had leeches every day of the trip; they have faded, but for years when my feet got wet the little round scars would show up in the hollow place between my ankle bone and Achilles tendon.
Somewhere in that trip I saw a creature like a centipede, but nine inches long, glossy black, with bright yellow legs. It was scuttling under some leaves, and I didn't try to touch it; that color combination is nature's way of saying "Mess with me, Jack, and your entire arm will swell like a balloon."
It wasn't a bus tour.