A few weeks ago, I assisted with the antenatal care visit for a teenager. This is her third pregnancy, but I was assured it was all above board, because she married the father — a man more than twice her age, a “friend of the family.”

A week before that, my neighbors lost their ten-year-old to malaria. They had a mosquito net from a government clinic, but it was outside the house, keeping the goats off their sukuma plants. The funeral music played nonstop for days, keeping the whole neighborhood awake and aware.

When I went to do a check-in with one of my schools, I couldn’t speak with the students – they were in an exam – but I was able to poke my head into one of the classrooms. I noticed several boys who always sat together were missing. They might have all, serendipitously, been sick on the same day, during an exam. Or, they might have entered into the same shadow world that consumes a striking number of youths: that of the “beach boys,” who roam the sandy shores peddling everything from overpriced souvenirs to illegal drugs and sexual favors to foreign tourists. It’s seen as easy money and requires no formal schooling, so it wasn’t uncommon for a student to confess laughingly that he wanted to join this profession – as one of these students once had. Boys as young as 13 could end up muling heroin or becoming the pleasure toys of older European women. Virtually every school in the district loses children this way each year. My co-facilitator could provide no answers. I had no proof, but a sinking heart full of experience and suspicion.

A 14 year old girl collapsed about ten feet from my workspace at the clinic. She was 38 weeks pregnant and here for an antenatal exam. From the violent seizures that racked her body for the better part of five minutes, our nurse-in-charge suspected preeclampsia. Our facility is filled with compassionate, dedicated staff, but it is pretty much only equipped to deal with vaginal births and runny noses. Clinic workers were afraid even to move her in her condition, so there was little to do for the girl but put a blanket under her head and wait for her to regain consciousness. Or … you know. Not.

Also, this happened.

I’m not telling you these things because I want to ruin your day. I’m telling you because my job is hard. Not “pounding railroad ties” hard or “cardiovascular surgeon” hard, but emotionally taxing nonetheless. So is yours! Perhaps. Probably? We live in a world that is simultaneously infinitely beautiful and infinitely dark. Peace Corps, and experiences like it, have a way of rubbing your nose firmly against both. It should come as no surprise, then, that as I rush to finish packing up my house, I have discovered that the following are the sorts of items most likely to result in a Mortal Kombat-style brawl between two or more volunteers:

– Books with “sex” in the title (Middlesex, “Emergency Sex, Sex at Dawn)

– Sudoku puzzle collections

– Similarly: anything edited by Will Shortz (crosswords, etc)

– The collected works of Chelsea Handler

– Nail polish

– Insanely campy novels by that master of slapstick police procedurals, Janet Evanovich (why NOT bring your sassy grandmother to a drug stakeout?)

– Back issues of “People” and “Vogue”

– Anything trashy, light-hearted, undignified, and/or escapist

Now, I’m not saying that PCVs (or development folks in general) are shallow, or stupid, or anything other than deeply committed, thoughtful adventurers seeking to make a change in some small corner of the world. Far from it. Many of us are awesome. Nor do I want to make it seem as though we corner the market on Our Lives Are Difficult. We certainly do not; just ask the people in the stories I used to open this entry. But even when you’re fully submersed in the kind of incredibly moving experiences we deal with on a near-daily basis, you sometimes have to look a little harder to find the lightness of things. A sense of humor (often irreverent, sometimes dark) is vitally important, of course, but so too can be the ability to escape the world’s harshest realities for 200 well-thumbed pages. So when I say, for example, that I just finished a novel that made 50 Shades of Gray look like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, it should come as no shock to me that eleven people immediately ask me a) what’s it called and b) is it available on Kindle?

And after two years, I suppose it doesn’t. (Shock me, that is. That book totally comes on Kindle.)

So supporters at home, don’t be surprised if your keenly intellectual volunteer develops a sudden taste for grocery store mystery novels. They don’t have a parasite eating away their smart, and this affliction is probably temporary. Their brains will probably not turn to uji [local porridge]. I can say with hopeful optimism enormous scientific certainty they will leave their copies of “Us! Weekly” in the Peace Corps resource room for the rest of us to read before they return to American soil. (I sometimes suspect that my own brain has turned to uji and while I’m fairly certain this has nothing to do with crap novels – rather less certain it has nothing to do with reading supermodel Janice Dickinson’s autobiography in roughly two sittings – and I have every intention of whipping myself back into academic shape before I arrive at grad school and discover my only bastion of usefulness is sitting in the library making paperclip jewelry. Picture a Rocky-stle montage! But with empirical lit review instead of punching. Still, don’t worry, this will not happen to you or your beloved volunteer! Probably.)

To new volunteers, don’t put so much pressure on yourselves to be “on” all the time; you’re allowed to have moments where you’re not thinking Very Deep Thoughts About Sustainability ™. It doesn’t make you ungrateful or less-than. Not every positive experience is life-changingly blog-worthy, and not every bad day is a profound lesson in gratitude. An occasional guilty pleasure – be it “Vogue” magazine, a cocktail at a beach bar, or eating Flaming Hot Cheetos for dinner – will go an enormously long way towards keeping you sane, focused, and productive.

And for those volunteers who are currently serving, or preparing to leave …

Kim Kardashian and Kate Middleton wore the same outfit. Not on the same day, but still. OMG. RIGHT?! Kate wore it better. LIKE ALWAYS.

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