two years of blogging later. . .

kyiv, ukraine

kyiv, ukraine // february 15th 2013

it’s been two years since i wrote my (rather silly) first blog post amongst the panic of preparing to leave for ukraine.  i began this blog as a chronicle for myself and my family, but i began it not knowing what this blog would become or if i’d even be disciplined enough to keep it up.

writing this blog, sharing my experience has become something i enjoy immensely. when i first started it, i assumed my audience would consist of uhhh….my mom and dad? but i’m surprised time and again by friends that tell me of their friends reading my blog, trying my recipes, learning from this experience along with me. i’m truly honored that people from all over the world have found my blog and read what i write (lowercase letters and all). thank you for reading!!

over the past two years my blog has accumulated:

167 posts
and visitors from at least 86 different countries

as my service comes is quickly coming to an end, i’ve begun to think about what the fate of this blog will be — do i continue writing about after peace corps life? change the domain? start a new blog all together? this might seem lofty, but i do hope that i can piece together a book of stories, the ones told here and the untold ones, and self-publish a book. like the rest of my questions for life after peace corps, i’m just not really sure and can only reassure myself that time will tell.

there’s a lot that i don’t publish on this blog (i can just hear you all thinking “really kristen?? i mean you have 166 posts…”), but i try to keep it humorous and light for the most part. which is what i think my mom meant when she told me that my friend’s blog makes her think, but with mine you don’t have to think. uh….sooooooooo, i’m writing for dummies?? i laughed for a long while about that. i know that’s not what she was really trying to say, i believe she meant that i appeal to a wider audience, but still it was hilarious. (she’s going to kill me for writing that, but it’s such good writing material, how could i not?).

for the most part, my more serious or ‘not for dummies’ writing stays in my journal (either my paper journal or my word doc journal). it’s been interesting to go back through and read some of them — my thoughts, emotions, views. most of the time i felt like i was the only one that felt this way, which is why i thought it wasn’t worth sharing, or that my struggles were too personal to share.

i was so glad to come across the beautiful writing of another peace corps volunteer, dianna argon (posted below). even though this letter was written by a volunteer in cambodia, it just goes to prove that so much of the peace corps experience is the same. we might all live in different countries, cities, villages, but at the core, we face similar intrapersonal struggles. this letter hit home to not only me but my volunteer friends in ukraine. it reasured me (maybe all of us) that i’m not alone in the way i’ve felt about my service.

since i’m almost on my way out of ukraine, the time for serious reflection has begun. well, to be honest i’ve spent the past two years reflecting…but i guess more so now when i meet new volunteers that remind me in every way of how i was when i first arrived and all the final countdown questions i’m often asked of “so? is it everything you expected? ” or “knowing what you know now, would you do it again?”.

two years ago i started this blog and set off expecting to change the world, to do something bigger than myself, to live for something more than my own desires. but really, in the end (okay, so i have 3 more months), it’s ironically been two years mostly about myself — as a person, changing, growing, overcoming. i know for certain that i’ll take back more from this than i think i’ve given. it’s not what i expected in terms of work (i didn’t expect people not wanting my help or struggling with my purpose) but it’s much more than i expected in terms how much i’ve been able to learn, challenge myself, and the great friendships i’ve made with fellow volunteers.

a part of me is worried that because of this personal growth and change, i’ll find it hard to relate to friends and family back home, or that somehow they won’t be the same. and they won’t, really. after two years, both my life and their lives are undoubtably different — friends are married, babies have been born, birthdays and holidays passed. in more ways than one i’m certainly not the same person i was two years ago, so i wonder, will my relationships change because of this? like all my other questions of life after peace corps — only time will tell.

i was worried to write about all of this, worried that i was the only one who felt this, worried that my answers might scare off future pcvs, and worried that not loving every minute would somehow taint my ‘gold sticker’ for completed service. it’s something that should be written about, and something i wish i had read two years ago in preparation for leaving. not that it would have changed my mind to join peace corps, but to help readjust the expectations i had.

even if you aren’t a prospective volunteer, this is a great read. the peace corps experience (good and bad) is so perfectly captured in this open letter that it should be something read by family and friends as well (not to mention put in the peace corps family support packets). i hope you enjoy reading it as much as i did.

“An Open Letter”

Written by Dianna Argon, PCV Cambodia on her tumblr Perusing

Dear Person Contemplating Joining Peace Corps,

I imagine that you’re at a transition point in your life. Perhaps you’ve just graduated, perhaps you’re going through a career change, perhaps you have an itch for something more that can’t be scratched. Whatever the reason, here you are: contemplating joining Peace Corps.

But should you? Is it right for you?

Honestly, you might not know that until you’ve arrived. You can research by reading books and official publications or by talking with current/returned volunteers, but everything you read and hear will probably tell you the same thing: every person’s experience is different. Your Peace Corps life will be uniquely shaped by your country, program, and site. 

I’d like to think, though, that there are a few things that are universal throughout the Peace Corps world, and those things tend all to revolve around how you yourself will change – for the better and for the worse – because of your time in Peace Corps.*

‘Sanitary’ will become an obsolete concept. You will eat on mats that you know are saturated in urine. You will prepare food on counters that also serve as chicken roosts. You will not have consistent/frequent access to soap. You will eat street food that is undoubtedly questionable. You will be dirty, dusty, and sweaty at all times. You will have mind over body battles to force yourself to bucket shower in the winter. Bugs, lizards, chickens, ducks, and mice will crap on everything. These things will be ok. You’ll adjust. The sterile environment of the States will become a distant odd memory or a constant fantasy.

Your body, though, might not adjust as quickly. You will have parasites and infections and illnesses that you had never heard of before training. You will be constantly constipated. Or go the opposite extreme. I hate to say it, but you will probably poop in your pants at least once. You will learn to vomit over a squat toilet and into a plastic bag during a bus ride. You will discuss your bodily functions openly and enthusiastically with other volunteers. No topic will be taboo.

The way you communicate will completely transform. Learning a language from scratch through immersion is a powerful experience. You will learn to have complex communications though expressions, gestures, and basic vocabulary. You will learn to bond with another human being through silence. You will answer the same basic questions over and over and over again. You may never achieve the ability to discuss ideas and concepts. You will develop a new English language which consists of pared down vocabulary and grammatical structures. You will actively think of each word before you speak. Your speech patterns will slow. You will have to define words whose meanings you had always taken for granted. You will learn to listen. 

Your concept of money will entirely alter. Paying more than $1 for anything will cause you to pause and question your purchase. You will understand value in the context of a different economic system. You will learn to barter, even on cheaper items. You will consistently feel as though you have been cheated on the price. You will be enraged by all prices upon returning to the States.

You will embrace the thrilling dichotomies of thrift versus splurge and ration versus binge. No one knows how to budget like a Peace Corps volunteer. And no one can binge like one.

You will be discontented with your work. You will wonder – and scream to the heavens – about the benefit of your presence. You will feel lost in unstructured expectations and crushed by promising ideas fallen to the side. Your expectations will fade into an unexpected reality. You will learn to celebrate small victories. You will look at mountains and see mole hills. You will try to tackle the impossible. Maybe you’ll succeed. Maybe you’ll just pick yourself up and take aim at another impossibility.

You will learn to do all of this through pure self-motivation. You will be the one to drag yourself out of bed and out the door. You won’t have anyone holding your hand or pushing your forward. Just you. You will become a stronger person for yourself, by yourself.

You will be a celebrity in your community. That status comes will hardships and benefits that will ineradicably change you. You will be the exception to the societal rules. You will be the foreigner, the one set apart. You will receive privileges and have special attention/status because of your nationality. You will always have eyes on you. You will have joined as an agent of culture exchange and understanding, but you will still find yourself falling into an ‘us versus them’ mentality. Use it. Consider it. Contemplate the value we place on people because of arbitrary characteristics. You will come away from your experience more attune to your own merits, to those that are deserved and to those that are given.

Your culture of personal space, one that maybe you have always taken for granted, will be challenged. You will wonder why you need an entire room to yourself while no one else even has a bed to himself. You still won’t want to give your room up. Privacy will be a privilege or a rarity, not a right.

You will lose all control of your emotions and be on an unpredictable roller coaster of extreme ups and downs. You will go from happy and confident to sullen and tearful by things as simple as ants in your candy or yet another child saying ‘Hello!’ Your highs will be high, but they will be fragile. Your lows will feel inescapable. Your family and friends in the States probably won’t understand this. Your isolation will force you to become your own support system. You will become aware of yourself in the context of solely being yourself.

Your government-issued friends will be your reprieve. The love and closeness you share with people back in the States won’t change, but it will be your fellow volunteers who understand. They will be friendships forged from necessity, and they will be deep and fervent.

You will witness a whole new way of life, and you will question your notion of necessity. You will consider your personal wealth, and people will constantly remind you of it. You will discover what your ‘needs’ are to live a productive, satisfied life. I hope you will remember that when you return to a culture of plenty.You will be the biggest product of your Peace Corps work. You will change. And you will bring that change back with you.

7 thoughts on “two years of blogging later. . .

  1. This was indeed wonderful as always and the letter was well worth sharing with all. I couldn’t help but think of soldiers who are thrown into very difficult situations and must need support when far away and under fire and they come home changed in so many ways. I think this is such a wonderful experience for all of you and I think you have made the best of it and will be a better person because of your experience. My only thought is that experiences like this are definitely for the young people and thank you for what you have done and what you have sacrificed for this wonderful experience for you and the people of Ukraine.

    • alma — thanks so much for the comment. it is true that the friends i’ve made here are like comrades. we can understand each other in a way that will bond us forever and will always have each other for support!

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