Posts Tagged ‘PeaceCorps’

What Peace Corps Taught Me – Presence

Written by Kate • June 13, 2012 •
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Peace Corps

Peace Corps

When I arrived in Benin in 1995, I was your typical type A personality. I expected things to happen like a well oiled machine, for traffic to flow, for service people to get things done in an efficient manner, for me to accomplish something quickly and move on to the next accomplishment. I could use my will to move mountains and get other people to move faster, do the right thing.  This is my perspective of my life was before I left.

I arrived in Benin and went through a series of shocks. Of course, being in a African country itself was the first big shock. Benin is peaceful so there is no famine or conflict or mass migrations. Benin was full of people going about their lives in the most trying of circumstances, without access to education, without transportation, electricity, or running water. And it was damn hot. Tropical, a few degrees off the equator hot. So people didn’t stay indoors much so it was a puzzle to me why everyone was outside all the time. Didn’t they have homes? Benin finally yielded many of its mysteries to me and after a year or so, I was able to easily navigate ordinary life in Benin. I learned something new pretty much every day until I left and it became a warm, comfortable, hospitable environment very quickly.

Adaptation

I learned to love the people, the food, the quiet, the night sky without street lights obscuring my view, full moons, and taking outdoor showers.  I got used to 100 degree heat such that I distinctly remember being at my friend Colleen’s place and wondering if some crazy Arctic cold front had moved in to make it freezing in my part of Africa. I put on all my warmest clothes, two layers, and a blanket. Still cold.  So I finally consulted her outdoor thermometer to find out what level of freezing weather we had achieved in Benin to find myself shocked when it said it was 72 degrees.  In short, I was fully adapted.

Expectations versus Reality

One of the most painful changes I had to adapt to is the fact that no one had the sense of time we have in the West and people prefer to be polite and acquiescing rather than truthful. It took me too long a time to put these concepts together and until I realized that, I waited for lots of meeting to start that were never going to happen.

One of the things I took upon myself was to get out into the area I lived in, well off the main road, and speak with people about how they’re doing, what they need, and how I could help. But with only my bike as transport, I would ask people to meet me at a certain time at a certain place that was convenient to us both.  I laugh now at what I was expecting but at the time I didn’t know better. Most people don’t own clocks or watches and they don’t have the time to walk 30 minutes to where I wanted to meet.  And then there was market day, when everyone got together and sold their goods and wares. I didn’t realize that it was a vital day in the lives of EVERYONE.  No one could miss market day. But there I was, let’s meet on Wednesday, the 23rd at 2pm at so and so.

I would ride up on my bike and wait. And wait. And wait. They never showed. But in that hour or the two that I first waited, I went through such a range of emotion. First anger and then rage that they would make me wait like this. Indignation that they would make an appointment with me and not keep it. And I would focus on how badly I was being treated and how things “should” play out. Unfortunately, this had to happen three or four times before I realized something was wrong with the way I was approaching this with my neighbors, people I wanted to help that we’re consistently blowing me off.

Patience and Presence

As I waited for my neighbors and through other experiences in Benin where rushing through anything became simply impossible, I learned that patience is like a muscle. The more I tried to be patient, the better at I became. It helped a lot that in many circumstances, I simply had no choice.  So I could go around getting angry at people or I could step into the flow of life around me. It seemed a no brainer to step into the flow rather than be angry all the time.

As I became better at being patient, I noticed that I was able to use the time to enjoy the moment I was experiencing. I had no other place to be and no phone, TV, or other person to distract me. I sank deeper into the moments I waited and found the ability to experience each moment. Life seemed to expand in these moments and I felt such peace and an increasing sense of wonder at how lovely each moment is. Without knowing its name, I learned to become fully present for long stretches of time each day.

Reintegration

Upon my return to the US, I wasn’t prepared for the cacophony and distractions with which I was presented. All of sudden everyone had cell phones and used the internet 24/7. I got caught up, distracted, and lost my endless patience in the pace of modern life. But after several years of this, the whisper of what I had experienced was starting to get through to me.

I then began to slowly re-implement all of the “advances” I had achieved in Peace Corps. I stopped watching TV, stopped listening to radio. I added in moments of stillness and meditation into my daily life. And life seems to both slow down and to be far more enjoyable now that I’m able to be in the moment.

I created an e-book to help others learn what I had learned in Peace Corps, which can be found on my website called 8 Steps to Living a Tranquil Life.  In case you don’t want to download it, the five main ideas of the book are as follows:

  1. Begin to slow your life down. Find additional time in your life by eliminating as many distractions as you’re able.
  2. Begin to add meditation into your life, in any of its forms.
  3. Find time to pray or use visualization to connect to the Divine.
  4. Add in longer moments of stillness, starting at about 15 minutes per day.
  5. Begin to experience what it is like to be fully present in a moment. And expand from there.

The less you do each day, the more you’re able to live each day. Experience each moment through presence. And witness how truly magical life can be.

 

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What Peace Corps Taught Me About Life- A Series

Written by Kate • June 8, 2012 •
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Peace CorpsI joined the Peace Corps in 1995 after a few years in graduate school. I studied International Development which is a fancy way to say I learned about how to improve the lives of those living in developing nations. We studied economics, the environment, microcultures, etc. Every single person in my class of about 200 had been in the Peace Corps except maybe five others. And four of those other five had spent time in developing nations through other programs. So it was just me and a guy named Josh who had never been to a developing nation. At first that was fine. But then, class after class after,  I saw the sense of community, of shared experiences by all returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCV). They had this deep connection, this bond that was apparent after a few seconds, no matter where they had served.

And so I became very interested in joining and becoming a part of this larger community- and it was a great way to get overseas and pay back the mounting debt I was beginning to feel I owed to the world. I wanted to be overseas again, after having spent my senior year of undergrad in Paris, I wanted to give back to a world that had provided me with so much, and I wanted to be a part of a community.

I realized things were going to have to change. I let my perm grow out, I went camping for the first time in 15 years, and I applied to the Peace Corps. Peace Corps tried to not send me the application saying I wasn’t qualified enough. Please. So I told them to just send me the thing and we’ll see. This was pre-internet- by the way- so I couldn’t just go online.  And then I found out that this is something they do to everyone because hey, if you’re going to fold just because you someone hassled you about your application, you shouldn’t be wasting Peace Corps’ time and money on getting you overseas.

I applied. I jumped through their hoops; medical, dental, references. I got certified by my doctor that my hayfever didn’t pose a risk to me in a place where there is no doctor.  I got my wisdom teeth out- just in case they came in while in country. After 8 months of paperwork, doctor visits, and more, I was invited to go to Benin in West Africa for two years plus 3 months training.  I found out just before Christmas 1994  and decided to wait until January to tell my Mom -so I wouldn’t ruin her Christmas. I was going to leave in May.

I had never heard of Benin so I looked at the map in my office at the time and could not find Benin. Turns out the map was too old. Benin has been Dahomey until 1990.  Remember- no internet! So I found out about Benin through books and was very excited.

I had to tell my Mom and the rest of my family, give notice at work, buy supplies, and get ready to leave. What I didn’t realize about my 2 years of service is that I would get far more out of it than I could ever have given and that it was to change me fundamentally from the person I had been prior to my service.

I will be writing about the biggest lessons I got from my experience and apply them to life here in the US in a series of blog posts.

The other posts in the series:

What Peace Corps Taught Me – Presence

What Peace Corps Taught Me- Connection

What Peace Corps Taught Me – Fame

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