My experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Azerbaijan was wonderful, but I know other volunteers whose experiences were less than positive. Before making a commitment to spend over two years of your life away from family and friends in a far off and in many cases unheard of part of the globe, you might want to consider these questions:
1. Are your goals broad enough?
The key to a happy Peace Corps experience is flexibility. Your work assignment may not be clear. The people you live with may speak a different language from the one you expected. Your co-workers or neighbors might not be interested in working with you in the way you would like. What to do about these things? Adapt! Make new plans. If you are joining Peace Corps because you want to become an expert in teaching forest ecology to eighth graders and you want to learn how to live in a hut, great—you may get to do just that. Or, you may be placed in a relatively modern apartment building in a large city surrounded by desert. So make sure your goals are not too specific.
2. Do you like to “rough it?”
Before heading to Peace Corps, I had completed an Outward Bound wilderness course in which I didn’t shower for three weeks. This made showering only every few days during my Peace Corps service more bearable. Azerbaijan is actually pretty cushy as Peace Corps countries go—running water (usually), good electricity (in most areas), normal furniture (besides the mattresses), nearby Internet access (maybe even in your house!), low risk for tropical diseases. However, out of necessity, I wore the same clothes for at least three or four days in a row, bathed in a bucket in winter, survived countless dusty, crammed, long, lurching bus rides, and once, when my tea bag ripped while drinking a cup of tea, I immediately thought of getting out my thread and needle to stitch it back up. If your idea of “roughing it” is leaving behind your hairdryer or changing the temperature of your room’s thermostat by a few degrees, you might have extra difficulty with the Peace Corps lifestyle.
3. Are you an experimenter?
You will eat a lot of food in Peace Corps that you’ve never had, and that you may never want to have again (and some that you will miss dearly when you return to the U.S.). It may be insulting or culturally inappropriate to refuse to eat or drink certain things. If you’re a picky eater in the States, freaking out if there’s a slice of pickle in your burger or using only Splenda-brand sweetener in your favorite blend of fresh roasted coffee, take a reality check. In Azerbaijan, they don’t even have coffee that’s not instant, and most people drink it only occasionally. You will never get ice in your beverages, and you may be reprimanded by people for drinking plain water (tea is life there; cold water is said to make you sick). During my service, I had to get used to eating butter and sugar—a whole lot of it. However, I grew to love fatty, fresh yogurt, lean green stalks of cilantro, stuffed cabbage leaves, and pickled garlic. Who knew?
4. Are you resourceful?
For the most part, in Peace Corps, you are left on your own, with minimal resources and not a lot of direction. You will probably have more free time than you have ever had before. Being creative with limited materials and services and making good use of this free time are essential to a fulfilling two years. Imagine what you would do in the U.S if your flight from California to New York were delayed seven hours. If you’re the kind of person who would take that opportunity to make a new friend in the waiting room or pick up a book from the magazine shop that you’ve always been meaning to read, that’s a good sign for your Peace Corps compatibility. If you wouldn’t be able to do anything but gripe or silently fume about your thrown-off schedule, however, adjusting to Peace Corps life may be as enjoyable as jumping off a cliff and realizing mid-air that you don’t have wings.
5. Are you open to a change in outlook?
Peace Corps forces you to challenge a lot of your values, even ones you weren’t aware you had. In Azerbaijan, seeing the emphasis that people there put on family and family responsibility, for instance, I found myself starting to think differently about things like divorce and gender roles. As a woman, I certainly had to act differently to fit into the culture, for instance, never looking a man in the eye when I walked down the street so as not to be seen as promiscuous, never wearing shorts or tank tops, and not walking alone at night. In order to live harmoniously in the culture, I had to accept the way men demanded that their wives serve them tea all the time as a normal mode of behavior (at least for that country). If you come into Peace Corps with a lot of fixed ideas about the way things should be rather than an openness to the way things are, you may have a tougher time adjusting to and enjoying your time at site.
While in Azerbaijan, I was rewarded by many things: I learned how to roll dough into thin circles using a rod-like rolling pin, I enjoyed scrumptious fresh figs, pears, hazelnuts, cucumbers, beans, and tomatoes, and I gained an appreciation for slow, care-filled food. I learned a completely different language, got to appreciate a new style of music and dance, and received an enormous amount of generous hospitality. I made new friends, became a more patient, easygoing person, and experienced the joys of teaching. I also had my share of frustrations and down times, of course, but these were lessened by my answers of “yes” to the questions above.
Peace Corps provides the opportunity to live in a supported way for an extended period of time on the level of local people from another culture and really make a difference. For more information and to apply, see www.peacecorps.gov. There is no doubt that everyone’s Peace Corps service is different, but with the right attitude and personality, it can be the richest experience around.