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Two years in the Peace Corps, one life changed

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 17, 2009 - I was in the Peace Corps. It's almost too easy, starting conversations or getting to know people by telling them this. It always comes out, though, because it begins to explain me, why my husband has an accent and my son doesn't look that much like me.

Sometimes, I think it says, "I'm brave," especially when people sigh and say, "Oh, I always wish I'd done that."

And while I can usually wrap my two years up in a few funny stories about frogs in my shoes and the rat that ate my underwear, or the work I did, or the Guyanese man I met and married, the story I often don't tell is about my first night, my first real night, in Guyana.

And maybe that's because it's about as far from brave as I've ever felt.

I left this country June 12, 2000, one month after I graduated from University of Missouri at Columbia, a few weeks after drunken good-byes with my friends at the lake, a few days after teary good-byes with my family in Overland.

When we landed in Georgetown, the humidity was thick as gravy, the bathroom at the airport was like something from a scary small town gas station, and the customs agents sat in little wooden booths that looked ramshackle, like everything else we passed on our way into the city.

But the Peace Corps took my group to a nice hotel on the sea wall, and for a few days, I tried new foods and listened to musical accents and started to admire myself for taking on this new adventure.

Then, I was driven down clay-red dirt roads, past skinny cows and houses on stilts, and dropped off. In front of me was the home of my host family for the next 10 weeks of training. The shock of being alone with them, so far from people and food and places I knew, had me choking on tears all through our candlelit dinner. (The power went out that night.)

Later, as it came back on, I tried to be polite and watch TV with everyone. I couldn't. I could barely speak.

That night, I wrote in my journal.

"I am now alone and scared and so so full of tears. Dogs are barking everywhere, people talking, a long mosquito net covers my bed. All of the romance, the excitement, the thrill of this, all of it is now gone and replaced with fear -- the realization that this is not a vacation, this is two years."

That weekend passed quietly. I knew there were other volunteers in my village, but I didn't know where. I think I never left the house. But I also started to get to know my Afro-Guyanese host family: Allison, a single woman and her young daughter, Ameara, who loved hearing stories about snow that made me miss home even more.

The weekend passed, and I found the other volunteers. We exercised every morning on those clay-red dirt roads, sweating through our clothes, taking cold bucket baths, then sweating through them again.

Our training started, the streets of our village became familiar, the people stared less and waved more, and Allison and Ameara taught me card games, let me eat cereal for dinner and felt whatever I felt as if they were my own mother and sister. 

I still wasn't brave, though.

After a week, I wrote this: "I woke up in the middle of the night to some cheesy American pop music and it made me realize just how far away I am from everything and, even harder, just how long I'll be this far away."

A few days after that: "Today, it all sort of hit me hard. I do not want to be here, but I am. I do not wish I'd left all of the comfort I had, but I did."

For most of those 10 weeks, I fell asleep around 7 or 8 at night. It seemed easier to sleep. It made the days pass faster. And eventually, they did pass, and it was the end of August, the end of our training, time to swear in and move out into our own villages and begin our real work.

On Aug. 24, I wrote this: "Two years from now, maybe sooner, I'll be gone from here. Two months have gone by like a flash and like Chinese water torture. I lay in bed this morning fighting awareness, and I thought, I'll never have experiences like this again."

It wasn't bravery surfacing then either.

What surfaced over those 10 weeks was a new view of the world -- trash in the trenches growing beside the lotuses, the beauty of Guyana next to the latest headlines about machete killings, people living in poverty who always had enough food for visitors, illiteracy, injustice, ignorance, a sense of family and community unlike anything I'd known -- and an acute hunger to understand that world.

Despite my overwhelming fear, I never wanted to sigh and regret that I hadn't experienced something like this.

Just two days after landing in country, just two days before my first real night in Guyana, I wrote this Georgia O'Keeffe quote in my journal: "I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do."

Seven years after coming home, I haven't.

I had amazing adventures in the Peace Corps that included frogs hiding in my shoes, rats eating my underwear and falling in love when I very much didn't expect it. And, I discovered, I'm not brave.

But that hasn't stopped me yet.

Kristen Hare is a freelance writer in Lake St. Louis.

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