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Read an excerpt from "First Comes Love, Then Comes Malaria" by Ecuador RPCV Eve Brown-Waite
I had long imagined that joining the Peace Corps would be like being ushered into a fraternity of like-minded peaceniks. I was sure that my history as a college radical and my present do-gooder job would grant me automatic entry into their club. I figured as soon as they heard about me, we'd all be holding hands and singing "Kumbaya." But there was no hand-holding when John had called and insisted I come to New York City for an interview. It had taken me nearly a month to fill out the Peace Corps application. I was surprised by how thoroughly they investigate their applicants. I was volunteering to go to some god-awful country, live in a shack, and dig latrines for world peace. Obviously, I was insane. Wasn't that what they were looking for? But apparently they wanted their recruits to be insane and well qualified at the same time! We were required to have a college degree or be highly skilled, be in excellent health, have no potentially troublesome wisdom teeth, nor any romantic or financial entanglements.
Read an excerpt from "First Comes Love, Then Comes Malaria" by Ecuador RPCV Eve Brown-Waite
"So tell me why you want to join the Peace Corps." John looked across the table at me with his emerald eyes, and my heart danced a jig although my boobs stayed firm in their minimizing bra. I was moved by how earnestly he seemed to want to know. Okay, he was the recruiter and it was his job to ask. But, still, I was flattered by his attention. I was glad I had chosen to dress in safari chic for my interview. I thought my flowing bias-cut skirt, green canvas boots, and waist-hugging floral blouse had a certain I-may-be-going-off-to-thejungle-but-I-still-look-damn-cute quality to them. That, and I knew the blouse showed off my breasts.
"I honestly can't tell you why I want to join the Peace Corps," I answered. "Just that I have always wanted to." I looked around the conference room at the University at Albany that had been set up as a Peace Corps recruiting office for the day. Smiling down at me were posters of Peace Corps volunteers in quaint fishing boats, dilapidated schoolrooms, and mud and thatch villages. The volunteers exuded a sheen of sweat and satisfaction, and they were all surrounded by happy, grateful villagers. Them, I wanted to say. I want to be like them. Well, maybe not so much the sweaty part.
"Well, I can understand that. Growing up, my family had me pegged to become a priest. I'm the middle of five Catholic boys. One of us had to be a priest." John laughed. "But helping others was never a religious thing for me. It's just what I think we were put here to do. Y'know?" He smiled and I couldn't help but notice his straight white teeth and sweetly freckled face. Cute, I thought, if you go for that clean-cut look, which I didn't. I'd always had a hazy but persistent notion that I'd end up with a man who'd be tall, Irish, and look a bit scruffy in his red beard. My mother added her own notion that I'd probably meet him in the Peace Corps.
But this definitely wasn't the guy. When we first spoke on the phone to arrange the interview, I hadn't cared for John at all. I was expecting someone more hippielike than businesslike, and this guy was all business. My first look at him confirmed my earlier impression. John seemed far more prep school than Peace Corps.
I crossed my legs underneath the table, accidentally kicking the wicker hamper that I'd stashed there.
"Can I ask about the picnic basket? It's just a bit unusual for March," John said.
"It's actually my sewing basket. I'm making a quilt. I usually bring it along wherever I go. That way I can keep busy in case I have to wait."
"Oh, sewing is the kind of skill that would be great in the Peace Corps," he said enthusiastically.
"Great," I said, less enthusiastically. I was definitely not the Suzy Homemaker type the quilt made me out to be. I had only recently taken up quilting to pass the time on the nights I volunteered to stay home and take calls for the Rape Crisis Hotline. Fortunately, we didn't get many calls. Unfortunately, my roommate and I couldn't afford a television, and I was bored stiff on my volunteer nights. I got some fabric and a book on how to make a quilt, which recommended starting out small, by making a pot holder. But I didn't need a pot holder, and I didn't believe in doing anything small.
"So, what other skills do you have that would be useful to people in developing countries?" he asked, the pen in his left hand poised over a yellow legal pad with "Candidate #14–Eve Brown" scrawled across the top.
"That's a good question. Let's see. I was a political science major in college. With a women's studies minor," I added quickly. "Uh-huh." John looked at me expectantly, pen not moving. "And I was president of the Student Association." He didn't write that down either, so I didn't bother to add that I had championed such causes as free transportation to antinuke rallies and keeping the legal drinking age from being raised to twenty-one. "I guess there's not a lot of transferable skills there." Nor in the fact that I can make a mean banana daiquiri, I thought.
"Well, tell me about what you do now," he prompted.
"Like I said on the phone, I teach sexual assault prevention in elementary schools."
"Teaching, that's a great skill. Host countries are always requesting teachers," he said, writing. Having spent the last two years in the company of every snot-nosed kindergartener through sixth grader in a five-county area, I was hoping to get away from teaching. I was thinking more along the lines of organizing the oppressed. Helping them to rise up, claim their due, and perhaps win myself a Nobel Peace Prize along the way. But I didn't quite know how to communicate this to my recruiter.
"What did you do in the Peace Corps?" I asked John, hoping it was more exciting than teaching English.
"Economic development," he replied.
"So you exported capitalism to the Third World?" I could practically hear my socialist great-grandparents heave a collective "oy vey" from beyond the grave.
"Well, I worked with farmers to build an irrigation system so their crops wouldn't fail and their families wouldn't starve when there was a drought." He stood up. Quite tall, I noticed. He took off his sports coat and hung it over the back of his chair. "I helped families put fences around their farms so animals wouldn't eat their livelihood." He sat back down. "I helped plant a grove of mango trees so there'd be fruit in my village in ten years. And I helped women set up businesses as seamstresses so they would have money to buy medicine for their children. I don't know," he said, rolling up the sleeves of his somewhat faded blue button-down shirt. "Does that count as exporting capitalism?"
"No, that sounds wonderful, actually." He had the most adorable red fuzz on his arms that matched the glints of red in his slightly wavy brown hair. "Tell me more about your experiences." I wondered if batting my eyelashes was a skill that would be useful to people in developing countries. At the moment, I was proving to be a master at it. "I lived in a village called Bomboré in Burkina Faso, which is one of the poorest countries in the world. Every volunteer is assigned to a community, a host country partner, and a primary project. But you can find your own secondary projects to work on. You get settled in your village, make friends, and then you look for opportunities to do other stuff. For me, that was the best part."
As John talked, I could almost see the dusty, brown village he loved. I could smell the smoke from the clay stoves he built to help women conserve wood. I could hear the delighted squeals of the barefoot children as they played soccer with the tall, friendly stranger. And I could see John a little tousled and scruffy around the edges. I was beginning to find the whole thing-the Peace Corps and its poster boy-more and more attractive. I could just imagine John and me together on some tropical island. Granted, it was all probably more Club Med than Third-World slum, but this whole Peace Corps thing was looking more appealing by the minute.
So I told John about my political awakening in the student senate of the State University of New York College at Oneonta. How I had discovered that I had a passion for politics and a natural ease as a public speaker and had gradually begun to take on more and more serious issues. I told him how, as Student Association president, I had won a class action suit that gave students the right to vote in their college towns all across the state. I told him of my involvement in local politics and my growing concern about America's involvement in the guerrilla wars of Latin America. I told of getting arrested the summer before for participating in a sit-in at my congressman's office, and of the ten days I spent in jail for that. And I told him that I hoped to go on to do something that would meaningfully impact people in the rest of the world.
"Thank you, Eve," John said, rising and shaking my hand at the end of our two-hour interview. "Thank you for being different from the other thirteen candidates I interviewed today. I think you'd make an excellent Peace Corps volunteer. I'll forward your application, along with my letter of support, to the placement office in D.C." Then he said something about medical clearance and forms, but I just kept thinking how nice my little hand felt in his big, strong hand. "The process can take a while, so be patient," he said. "In the meantime, call me if you have any questions."
"Um . . . I am a little worried that my jail time might be a problem." A criminal record, I was pretty sure, can keep you out of the Peace Corps.
"I think between what you wrote in your application and what I've learned about you," he said, tapping his pen on the yellow legal pad, now quite full, "we can adequately explain your time in jail. Spending ten days in jail for a civil disobedience charge shows that you are committed to your beliefs." He smiled. I didn't try to disabuse him of his noble image of me by informing him that I could have gotten out of jail by paying the $50 fine, but that the ten days in jail got me a lot of publicity, and like I said, I didn't like to do anything in a small way.
"Well, maybe I could call you in a week or so, just to check?" He said to call if I had any questions, and I was going to have lots of them. "That'd be fine," he said. "And call me if you ever come down to the city. We could meet for lunch or something."
Yeah, or maybe we could pick out names for our children, I thought. Driving home that evening, I wondered if I really would go through with this. Joining the Peace Corps someday had always been part of my plan. As in "I hope to join the Peace Corps someday," which is what I said when I won an all-expense-paid trip to Israel as a high school exchange student. And "I'm thinking of joining the Peace Corps someday," I said ever so coolly the fall I came back to college after spending the summer picking apples and scraping up chicken shit on an Israeli kibbutz. And "I'll be joining the Peace Corps in a couple of years," I answered when asked my long-term plans when I interviewed for the job I had now at the Rape Crisis Center. So I had long been about the Peace Corps-in concept. After all, it never failed to get an approving smile and an admiring "oh, isn't that wonderful" when I said it. But the reality of the Peace Corps-the sweating in a bug-infested jungle and being deprived of creature comforts-well, that I wasn't so sure about. But I knew that eventually I'd have to poop or get out of the latrine. The I'll-be-joining-the-PeaceCorps-someday line was just going to seem pathetic if I was still muttering it while pregnant with my third child and toting the other two around in my Chevy Suburban.
But now it was two years since my college graduation. I was still living in Oneonta and still dating the sweetheart who was supposed to be my last college fling. He and I had a wonderful relationship, but as much as I loved him, for a reason I just couldn't put my finger on, I knew he wasn't THE ONE. Just as I knew that I had to get out of Oneonta in order to get on with my life. It was join the Peace Corps or go to law school. And when faced with two equal options-one being what would be expected of a nice Jewish girl and the other being somewhat outrageous-well, for some reason, I always choose the one that would make my Orthodox Jewish grandmother roll over in her grave.
It had taken me nearly a month to fill out the Peace Corps application. I was surprised by how thoroughly they investigate their applicants. I was volunteering to go to some god-awful country, live in a shack, and dig latrines for world peace. Obviously, I was insane. Wasn't that what they were looking for? But apparently they wanted their recruits to be insane and well qualified at the same time! We were required to have a college degree or be highly skilled, be in excellent health, have no potentially troublesome wisdom teeth, nor any romantic or financial entanglements.
I was asked to list all the courses I'd taken and what grades I'd received. I hoped to make up for my barely B average with my interest in all things international, as documented by my three consecutive semesters banging on coconut husk bongos in Javanese Gamelan class. I assumed that I was healthy enough to live in less developed countries, because at that time, I had not yet ruined my health by years of living in less developed countries. Since my wisdom teeth had never even come in, I figured that would pose no problem.
It was only the question about romantic entanglements that worried me, since The Oneonta Sweetheart and I were still entangled at the time. The fact that I had a boyfriend was not something I wanted to lie about, since it clearly stated that lying would lead to immediate disqualification and possible prosecution. Besides, I had listed the Sweetheart as one of my half-dozen references. He told them nice things about me and I told them I'd break up with him to go into the Peace Corps. Good enough, I guess, because I was invited for an interview.
I had long imagined that joining the Peace Corps would be like being ushered into a fraternity of like-minded peaceniks. I was sure that my history as a college radical and my present do-gooder job would grant me automatic entry into their club. I figured as soon as they heard about me, we'd all be holding hands and singing "Kumbaya." But there was no hand-holding when John had called and insisted I come to New York City for an interview.
"I can't possibly come to New York City. I work for a rape crisis center, traveling around upstate New York teaching elementary school kids about sexual assault prevention." Hadn't this guy read my résumé? "You know, ‘good touch–bad touch,' ‘say no, then go, then tell'?" The silence on the other end was not encouraging.
"Anyway, it's a really tight schedule. I have to cover forty different schools and we are scheduled right through the end of the year. So if I miss one or two days, the whole schedule is thrown off." I didn't bother to add the part about my having to waitress at night so I could afford to keep my low-paying, do-gooder day job.
"Well, then, I'll assume you are not all that interested in joining the Peace Corps," said John, in his clipped Boston accent. Did this guy even know "Kumbaya"?
We reached a compromise when John offered to give me the last interview on an upcoming recruitment day at the University at Albany. For the entire ninety-minute drive there, I kept reminding myself that I didn't need to like my recruiter. I simply needed to get past him in order to get into the Peace Corps. But now, driving home, remembering the excitement in his voice as he talked about his little village in Burkina Faso and recalling how good my hand felt in his, I realized that I liked him very much. Now I wondered if I would have to actually go into the Peace Corps in order to get the recruiter.
Answering machine, beep:
Hi, Mom. I'm calling to fill you in on my Peace Corps interview. It lasted for two hours, and, well, I'm still not sure about going off to live in the jungle. But I am definitely going to marry my recruiter!
Links to Related Topics (Tags):
Headlines: April, 2009; Peace Corps Ecuador; Directory of Ecuador RPCVs; Messages and Announcements for Ecuador RPCVs; Writing - Ecuador
When this story was posted in April 2009, this was on the front page of PCOL:
Peace Corps Online The Independent News Forum serving Returned Peace Corps Volunteers
March 22, 2009: Special Envoy
Holbrooke is Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan 26 Feb
Peace Corps Madagascar Program Suspended 16 Mar
Peace Corps Volunteer Murdered in Benin 12 Mar
Joseph Acaba Makes First Spacewalk 21 Mar
Michael O'Hanlon: Can Obama win in Afghanistan? 20 Mar
Dodd faces Rebellion in Connecticut 19 Mar
Mike Honda writes: Request for Internet Ideas 19 Mar
Laurence Leamer writes: Tragedy of the Peace Corps 16 Mar
Gaddi Vasquez at Annenberg Foundation Trust 16 Mar
White House defends appointment of Chris Hill 14 Mar
Ted Kennedy promotes national service bill 10 Mar
John Dunlop helps Iraq recover 8 Mar
Want a better safer world? Volunteer. 6 Mar
Guy Consolmagno writes: The Search for Earth-like Planets 5 Mar
Charles Murray to receive AEI Award 5 Mar
Sam Goldman started D.light to replace kerosene lamps 4 Mar
RPCVs apply Ideas To Hometown In Need 3 Mar
Senator Bond: Peace Corps and Smart Power 26 Feb
Bob Shacochis writes: Rebuild the Peace Corps 24 Feb
Stephen Andersen promotes Kenyan artisans 24 Feb
Francis Koster writes: A shard of glass 24 Feb
Read more stories from February 2009 and March.
PCOL's Candidate for Peace Corps Director
Honduras RPCV Jon Carson, 33, presided over thousands of workers as national field director for the Obama campaign and said the biggest challenge -- and surprise -- was the volume of volunteer help, including more than 15,000 "super volunteers," who were a big part of what made Obama's campaign so successful. PCOL endorses Jon Carson as the man who can revitalize the Peace Corps, bring it into the internet age, and meet Obama's goal of doubling the size of the Peace Corps by 2011.
Director Ron Tschetter: The PCOL Interview
Peace Corps Director Ron Tschetter sat down for an in-depth interview to discuss the evacuation from Bolivia, political appointees at Peace Corps headquarters, the five year rule, the Peace Corps Foundation, the internet and the Peace Corps, how the transition is going, and what the prospects are for doubling the size of the Peace Corps by 2011. Read the interview and you are sure to learn something new about the Peace Corps. PCOL previously did an interview with Director Gaddi Vasquez.
Read the stories and leave your comments.