Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Downside

I have talked about some of the unpleasant things that most of us encounter in the Peace Corps—cold homes, the problems of living with poor families, difficulties with language, missing our families—but these are all things that we expected and accept as part of the experience. Some other unpleasant experiences we didn’t expect or didn’t think about much before we came—but they are unpleasanat just the same..

One is that life goes on at home and sometimes it is difficult to miss out. One volunteer discovered in training that two of her children would become parents--her first two grandchilden—eight months after she arrived here. She quit and went home two months before they were born. Some have parents or siblings with health problems. One older volunteer lost two of his siblings in a three-week period. He and his wife went home for a couple of weeks.

Parents of twenty-somethings especially worry and wonder how their children are doing. Sometimes they don’t hear much. Those who have grandchildren try to stay close and miss the grandkids a lot while they are here. Some volunteers have significant others at home that they hope will still be there when they get back.

Then there are problems in the country. While most of us have friends in the Peace Corps, our best and closest friends are at home in the US. A quarter or so of our volunteers live by themselves and are teachers in small villages. As much as they may like their Azerbaijani co-workers and acquaintances, it is difficult to have no one from their culture around on a day-to-day basis. And depending on language skills, no meaningful communication may be going on with most people in the village.

Many volunteers find that once they are with their organizations, there isn’t much work to do or the organization seems to not know what to do with the volunteer. We don’t have to spend all of our time with our assigned organization and can find our own work, but most of us are disappointed when our organizations don’t seem to want to work with us. A few don’t feel that their organization is effective or that the staff are competent. This bothers them because they feel there may be too many obstacles to make an impact with that organization.

Others feel that even when they choose their projects they aren’t having much impact. Sometimes they are disappointed with the culture—for example, having someone request to meet with you and then having them not show up or call. Sometimes it is difficult to work on other projects due to lack of community interest.

Host families can be difficult to live with—if they don’t or can’t pay the utility bills you have no gas, electricity or water for awhile; some families fight a lot; and many times they don’t understand the concept of privacy. Living in one’s own rented home is sometimes no fun either—leases don’t exist and being kicked out with a couple of days notice is common. Some have vermin problems, lighting the furnace and hot water heater can be very dangerous (you only turn on the water heater when you need hot water) and if you run out of water, you can’t be sure when the local water system will send more to the water tank. One volunteer can’t use her fridge because she gets an electric shock when she touches it. The landlord is not interested in getting it fixed.

Then in the winter, it is dark by 6:00. If you live alone, you don’t see anyone in the evenings and it can be lonely. Some volunteers have internet at their homes and others need to travel 45 minutes to an hour to stay in touch with their families at home.

I think these conditions hit the younger volunteers especially hard. They tend to travel more to visit other volunteers and to spend an occasional weekend in Baku where there are ex-pats to meet and bars to visit. We have over a thousand books in the Peace Corps lounge in Baku. Volunteers have read them and donated them for others to use. We also exchange movies and downloaded music. There is a video store in Baku that sells pirated videos—for example I have “Dexter Season 4” and “Mad Men Season 3” (highly recommended) which are not out in the US yet. We can’t buy non-pirated DVD’s in Azerbaijan.

Sometimes we get sick and it is depressing to be sick here on our own. I have been pretty healthy here, but a couple of weeks ago I got a 103 fever and had the chills really bad. Luckily for me, I was traveling and stayed with a married couple from Kansas City. Their apartment was warm, they took good care of me and served me wonderful meals. In a couple of days, I felt much better. Our Peace Corps doctors are great and take wonderful care of us, but of course they can’t be in our communities.

For me, the things that bother me most are missing my family and friends in America and impatience with myself when I do American things while I am here. I really want to experience Azerbaijan and when I get caught up in Mad Men I wonder why I am wasting my time with it here when I can watch it back in the US. Also, I get annoyed when I go several days without a shower and when I get low on clean clothes. Communicating with my family and friends by email gets old and calling is expensive. I would really like to have a real visit. My daughter visited in September and my sister is coming in April.

I want to have more meaningful conversation than my basic day-to-day language skills allow and want to accomplish something lasting and sustainable here. I find that changing attitudes and introducing possibilities is as close as I am coming to doing anything lasting. For example, a lot of Azerbaijanis have a twisted view of America because they watch American movies. Sometimes the only things that I can do with someone is have them realize that American women don’t all act like prostitutes, most Americans are not rich and that life in America is very competitive and challenging. I never thought that providing that information would be a major accomplishment for me in Azerbaijan.


Pam said...

All I can say is that I miss you terribly and can't wait to speak to you in person. You are doing a wonderful thing and I have no doubts that you are making and have made a positive impact on the lives you have touched while there. Keep up the good work!

northwestjeff said...

Hi Linda. I've seen this post linked to in a couple of places now and I wanted to tell you that you've captured the downside of PC AZ perfectly. You also managed to do it without placing blame on anyone, which for me, is exactly right. Sometimes the circumstances that PCVs face can be extremely challenging and no fun for anyone. This is the truth that people either don't admit publicly or embrace too fully and give up as development volunteers. Taking it in stride is the key, and something that I wish I was better at in retrospect.

great post. - jeff bailey