I loved my Peace Corps service mostly because I love the country where I was sent. I had first visited four years before in 1990 and fell immediately smitten first with Prague, then with everywhere else I went in the country. I still think it was something like destiny, but in truth a lot of effort went into making it happen. Just not a lot of effort by me. In my experience the notion that “nothing worthwhile comes easily” is a lot of hoohee. I attest that it’s the exact opposite. The best things that have ever happened to me came as if I were the magnet, not the plow. Those other things I had the impression of working really hard for I found eventually unsatisfying, or lost in the dust, through hurricanes and other mysterious acts of nature. Some of them, by the time I’d achieved them I think I was just too tired to really appreciate them.
I sometimes wonder if I would be such a huge PC fan if I’d been sent to Guinea Bissau or Yemen, the other two options on the table at that time. My then-hubby got friendly with the DC staff at several Country Desks, using his wealth of personality to cajole not only one of the best assignments, but also one of the best volunteer locations once we got there. I wish I could say I had something, anything, to do with that, but all I ever did was say, “Let’s join the Peace Corps!” The universe seemed to take it away from there.
When I think it’s been 15 years since my PC service, and now 50 years since the first PCVs served, it feels like something close to dismay. Was life supposed to happen this fast? And, weren’t we supposed to be further along in our collective (and personal) evolution by now?
While I was teaching in Cheb, a lovely little city very near the German border to the west, the constant change was a palpable quotidian thrill I will never forget. It was customary that you shopped for food every couple days, a market conveniently located right in the “housing block” –those quite unattractive Soviet-style “apartment villages” –and I would marvel on each occasion at all the new goods on the shelves. Because we were right on the border, and the Germans loved to come over on weekends to shop, the development in this city was faster and more easily witnessed than anywhere else I can imagine. Overnight the toilet paper choices tripled, from two to six. Low-fat yogurt and broccoli were a major development in my life that first winter. Pasta sauce choices and packaged foods were to soon follow the path of the toilet paper. Never before or since has the grocery store been such a reliable adventure for me.
This was of course ancient times, pre-cell phone or even hotmail. A young volunteer today wouldn’t be able to imagine a world without several instant communication possibilities. This was a world where two weeks to receive written communication was considered fast, and to make a call home required multiple highly annoying and uncertain steps, including finding a working pay phone without too long a line already waiting, and hoping you have enough credits on your card because the kiosk is closed, and further hoping that if you do get through, and have enough credits, the folks in the line behind you won’t stare holes through your back the entire time you are using them.
Am I really THAT old? I don’t feel so old that life could have gone from that, to this, in such a relatively short time. How quickly we adapt! I left home without my Iphone last week with in-town errands that would keep me busy the entire day. I was lost. I didn’t have my lists, my numbers, my addresses, hubby couldn’t reach me and was getting worried, and as I’m sitting alone in a café eating lunch without the ability to surf, I kept thinking, how has it come to this? It’s been two years this month, the same amount of time as my PC service. What has coming to the country really meant for me? I call it being alone out here in the sticks half the month while hubby works. Imagine! It’s tough to say how very far from the world you would have to go to really be alone. If I wanted to take on a challenge I’d live totally unconnected to the virtual world for a month and see how sane I stay. A decade ago I’d have thought that’s doable, today I’m certain I’d quickly end up like Tom Hank’s character in Cast Away, conversing with a ball. I’ve already started talking to animals, so it’s probably not too far of a stretch.
It is the new truth, the new normal, and for every comfort, convenience, connection, piece of knowledge it offers, there’s an equal list on the other side that takes away. There is something wrong at the very core of this development, for as much as I love it and have become irreversibly dependent on it, there is that inner-voice that says, for all this connection, I seem to spend less time truly connecting.
The contradictions of my daily life fascinate me ceaselessly. In an urge to get back to the land and live much closer to nature, I find myself relying on technology more than ever before. In these remote dirt roads TomTom has become my second best friend. Handy Hubby is of course still first, and when it comes to directions he is nearly as good as TomTom, but while away at work half the month he gets replaced by a little toy-size machine. (Hey, get your mind out of the gutter, this is a PG-rated blog.)
Most recently I have decided I NEED dual monitors, to increase my productivity, so I’ll have more time to spend outside, away from all the machines. As I stare into the guts of another machine trying to make enough sense of it all to follow the Utube video demonstration from my laptop, I am absolutely astounded once again at how damn smart people are. We must surely rival nature in sheer genius.
It’s the machines that make this life here even possible, and pleasant, but the desire to get away from them is far more intense for me here and now. The humming of computer fans and fridge motors is a constant low groan upstaging the bird calls and whispers of wind, which before I would hardly have noticed beyond the ceaseless simultaneous distractions.
It’s astounding both our inner and outer mechanisms to evolve and adapt. Like the destiny of my PC destination, I believe we can stop working so hard. We’ve already got loads of great stuff, I’m thinking it might be a good idea to slow down a little, take some time out for reflection and evaluation. I believe what’s meant to happen will happen with less effort if we let it. Once we stop pushing so hard I think we are likely to find resolutions come more quickly and effortlessly. And I suspect we won’t miss our maniacal competitive drive as much as we currently imagine, once we rediscover how lovely it is to just sit and be quiet sometimes.
Evolution is in our genes, progress is in our minds. We often judge our world on its progress instead of focusing more deeply on the process and the effects of its evolution. The same was true I felt for the Czech Republic and all the rapidly expanding formerly Soviet controlled economies. Were these changes of progress or evolution? What did all these sudden changes change? I see in hindsight my life mirrors our society, because I am starting to realize I also have been too focused on progress. I see that evolution is like a magnet we hold inside us, and progress is the plow we labor to push in front of us. My goal for myself and the world is that we stop pushing the plows so much, and start becoming the magnets.
As RPCVs we might be cheering and promoting the Peace Corps, but I think what really makes us loyal is less the concept and institution of the Peace Corps as we now know it, and more the feelings associated with the country where we worked and the people that we knew.
The Peace Corps for me will always be the Czech Republic first, and then the belief that at the wise old age of 50 it could aspire to be one of the very few new-age, yet traditional, institutions whose focus is evolution over progress.