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Peace Corps Volunteer FAQ

What was it like?

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

Related Sections:
Pictures of Sarawak
Peace Corps Links
Sarawak Links

Other Sections:
Christmas News Letters
Misc. Essays
Web Design

This is page 2 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 these questions:

Q: What was it like?

It was the most exhausting, exhilarating and educational period of my life. I taught English and Literature in an upcountry boarding school in Malaysia, on the island of Borneo for two years, 1971 and 1972. We had running water 24 hours a day, electricity for 12, and 500 students. I had a 3-room shack all to myself (5-room if you count the tiny kitchen and tinier bath); two 8x8 bedrooms, an 8x10 living room, a 4x8 kitchen, 4x6 bathroom. It was a frame hut with plank siding, no sheetrock, no ceiling and a tin roof.

At night, four miles from the town, the tropic sky was a broad swath of warm black velvet, littered with a bucketful of diamonds.

Indoors, I would watch geckos wait, upside down, next to my light bulb. They'd eat the flying insects until their little bellies were distended. One of them laid eggs in my paperclip box. I put it to one side, in the windowsill so the eggs would keep warm.

One learns to live with gecko poop; each little black dropping was a couple of dozen mosquitoes who wouldn't be biting you. It doesn't smell and it is dry enough, if you wait, you can brush it aside. If one lets fly above you when you are correcting papers, you wipe it off as best you can and tell the student you are sorry.

Several of my former students now write to me via e-mail.

The PC has problems; any organization that size does. Once in a while a PCV comes to grief. Not often; there have been 160,000+ volunteers over the years. Murder, rape or robbery happens, but it is rarer than in some places. I once walked through the jungle for eight days, carrying a month's pay, trusting that people in longhouses along the way would offer me a place to sleep and dinner, out of the goodness of their hearts. I would not want to carry that much money for eight hours through some parts of New York or Chicago.

I did not pay people for their hospitality, but I gave them "hostess gifts" of pressure lantern mantles. When I planned my trek I figured those were things most people would need, that were sort of expensive and easy to carry.

My administrators got annoyed at me because early on I resolved to answer all vague questions with as specific answers as I could. They asked what I "expected in terms of support", for instance. I answered they should make sure my living allowance got into my checking account on time and they sent out the fluoride every month. (We had a mouth guard like athletes wear; we were supposed to put a fluoride solution in it every day and soak our teeth for five minutes.) I think they wanted me to say they could "be there for me", or to hold my hand if I got the vapors.

One month I got a thick packet from PC Headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, with
  1. News of West Malaysian PCVs, who I didn't know
  2. Details of a savings bond plan I wasn't eligible for
  3. A catalog of films I could not check out
It was only printed on one side, so it was handy.

With its minor flaws, no other organization will put you in an interesting place, pay you to work your tail off and provide medical and dental care while you do it. The language and cultural training is first-rate. I can still remember how to say
"You are flabbergasted that I speak Hokkien, are you not?" in Hokkien, one of the Chinese languages,
"My grandfather and grandmother live upriver, in a longhouse" in Iban, and
"I prefer food that isn't so hot the roof of your mouth burns" in Malay.

Q: Once you are recruited, what happens next?

You apply. They take one applicant out of four. Once they decide you would be a good PCV, they look for a match between the requests they have from the developing countries and your skills. If you are, for instance, a math teacher who speaks Spanish, and Peru has asked for a dozen math teachers they ask you if you'd like to go to Peru. If you decline they look again. (You get to pick regions, but not countries.)

If you decline too often they drop you. The key is the skill match. People with noble aspirations won't get an invitation if their skills are not in demand.

Once you accept an invitation you get half a dozen shots and head to your country for three months of training in language, culture, history and your job. Up to a third of your training group may drop out before they complete their training. (Our group had a person who didn't get off the plane that took us to Kuala Lumpur.)

Once you complete your training you take the oath and become a Peace Corps Volunteer. Before that you are a Peace Corps Trainee. This is the proudest moment in many PCV's lives. You get a short break and head out to your job. There you work harder than you will the rest of your life, make life-long friends, learn about an entirely different culture and change the world. You won't change much of it, and you won't change it much, but you will change the world. Most PCVs change it for the better.

If the people in your area practice ritual tattooing, you may get one. There is a good chance you will learn a language that no one else in your county back home has heard of. Quechua, for instance, or Iban.

When you get home you'll spend the rest of your life either starting sentences with or biting your tongue to avoid start sentences with "When I was in the Peace Corps . . .". In my day, I spent a goodly amount of time looking for audiences willing to sit through my slides. Today it is Power Point presentations.

You may put up a web site.

Q: Was the Peace Corps Experience worthwhile?

I was a PCV during the Viet Nam war. I cost the US Government as much as two 500-pound bombs, delivered. I wrote and asked.

Several of my former students and a lady whose family I visited while on vacation liked me enough to look me up on the Internet and write, 30 years later. Two of the students and the lady have PhD's now. No one who had a 500-pound bomb delivered to his village wrote to the pilot 30 years later to thank him.

I wrote about how much it meant to me elsewhere on this page.

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This page updated: June 20, 2014