Monday, September 15, 2008

A 2-year Vacation? Part 1

So after a number of grueling inquiries about what it is like to be on a two year vacation, I have no other choice but to write a response in retaliation. Despite the appearance of the beautiful pictures and knowing that I am in the Caribbean, there are many things that are not accounted for in my letters, emails, and blogs about what it is truly like to be in the Peace Corps, let alone one in St. Lucia. People may ask, "what is there to do, it's not like you are in Africa". The truth of the matter is that regardless of location, there are many challenges to being a Peace Corps volunteer. Not to mention to be an effective Peace Corps volunteer.

The Caribbean is known as the "melting pot" or the "potpourri" of cultures. There are many different aspects to the culture that exists in the islands. Whether it may be the food, the language, the dress, or the behavior, the Carib has a lot to offer to both locals and visitors. Being a "honorary" local can be difficult at times for various reasons that many may not think about. Moving to a new town can be hard enough, let alone moving to a new culture. Though, many a times moving to a new town may entail moving to a new culture as well.

Being a minority is certainly different compared to the states. For the first time in my life, I am challenged with how others may perceive my ethnicity. Never having lived outside of the US, I have rarely stopped to think about my race as an obstacle. Certainly being a woman will sometimes come into play, but never has being caucasian made so much of an impact on going about my daily life. It is in the way people look at me on the bus, it is everytime that I am stopped in town to be asked if I need a taxi (because I am white and automatically deemed as a tourist), it is in the way I am perceived in the workplace and particularly at the schools that I notice my skin color. In the states, I rarely thought about the skin color of others around me. I was raised very well in terms of acceptance : whether it was to race, gender, sexuality, social class, education level, or the like. I never thought to think of the person in terms of what they look like, but who they are inside. This is why I had to stop and think for a second, wow, I am actually a minority here. To me, however, even though I am obviously from the US, I have stepped outside of the box and feel like I belong here... like I am a St. Lucian while I live here regardless of my race. It may take longer for other people to see that, but for now, I believe it. It is in the person that someone

comes to be, and this is how I am going to build my relationships while in St. Lucia...just as I would in the states.

So one has asked... "what exactly is your work, Haley? Are you on vacation, or what? I thought you were joining the Peace Corps, has something changed?" I was recently put off by an email that was sent to me in this manner. To my shock, it came from someone extremely close to me, that knows me very well. It was difficult for me to read this, because to me, it was almost belittling my purpose of being here. My immediate reaction was to get angry and lash out in return. However, the more and more I thought about it, the more I realized that I just wasn't conveying my messages adequately. This person did have a point. My blogs have focused on the great scenery and exciting outings that I have had since being here, so I do not blame them for saying this. St. Lucia is a very beautiful and lush location to be serving term in the Peace Corps. I did get lucky in the fact that my stay is in somewhere that has scenery that I will never get tired of. It is still amazing to me that I am lucky enough to see the Caribbean through working with the Peace Corps. Not only do I get to see things from the outside, but working with the communities I get to see what really lies beneath all of the physical beauty of this island.

So what is work? Work is a ton of OBSERVATION. To some people this may not sound like a job, this may sound like heaven. However, please take a moment to think of what observation in the strictest sense actually entails. For the first 7 weeks, PCVs are in training. Training is much like school. There is a lot of work to be done attending the facilitated sessions, taking part in internships with multiple organizations and schools, shadowing prominent people in the community in addition to integrating into the community. Our schedules are not just open to "sight-seeing" nor does it allow us the freedom that everyone assumes. We do not stay on the beach all day long drinking Pina Coladas, reading romance novels, dancing to music while maintaining hourly schedules taking dips in the water in between slathering up on the Spf 500.

So what is work then? Work is observing a new culture. It is expanding myself beyond the boundaries that I am used to and constantly find myself in awkward and uncomfortable situations that only challenge me to become a better person and collegue. It is putting in the time and effort to get to know my community and the members within. It is choosing to give up most of my free time for myself so that I may attempt to integrate within the community. It is doing things that I have never done before, working in ways that I have never worked before, and thinking in ways that I have never thought before. It is constantly trying to educate myself on what it is to be St. Lucian. It is spending time with the community so that I may earn their trust enough to be shown what their needs and wants are for improvement. Without finding out what their true needs and wants are, the work will only be shallow, and not improve anything! It is being the only person in the room that is nervous and has no idea what is going on, while at the same time wanting to be heard. It is being a facilitator to meetings and using the resources here that we have...which are limited. Work is different than in the states, for sure, but it is still work. This is what I love about the Peace Corps and St. Lucia. There are no distinct lines between work and play. The lines are blurred... work and play are integrated into one. Work is play, and play is work. So while being able to spend time on the beach or go hiking in the rainforest may sound strictly like play, in actuality, it is part of my job...learning this new culture so that I may facilitate improvement in the future. Work does not have to be a 9-5 job sitting at a desk every day being miserable! Work is, and can be so much more. I just chose to take the opportunity to make it so.

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