Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Hey sunshine!

One of the great things about Peace Corps is that eventually you get a sense of something like but not necessarily lowered expectations. That sounds negative but it’s really not: what it really implies is simply the difference between a controlled, predictable world and one that is rather uncoordinated, rough around the edges, and never quite on time.

From my experience (I realize that is an unnecessary disclaimer by now, but inevitably a volunteer in Romania will read this and, index finger aloft, proclaim that his or her service is not like that), Peace Corps is not a place for perfectionists or the tightly-wound. It may well help alleviate these conditions – nothing is a better cure for extreme punctuality than living in a place where one of the most ubiquitous English phrases is “wait for a while” – but by the six-month mark, you’d better have a clear understanding that understanding will never be quite clear, and a firm plan to never expect plans to be firm.

Certain things will probably always be stressful. I’ve spent the past three months or so working with other volunteers on a weeklong girls’ leadership camp involving four centers, and up until its completion two days ago, I could never assume that things would go smoothly at all. Trying to confirm the participants from my center was the most frustrating: girls kept dropping out after our confirmation deadline, so it was a constant scramble to find substitutes to meet our quota. One house mother neglected to inform me until a month after our camp roster was “finalized” that – surprise – one of her girls couldn’t attend because she was taking a summer class. Another girl showed up on the roster for a different camp planned for the same time; I found this out less than a week before our camp started.

But by now I expect complications, even if frequently I can’t predict exactly what the complications will be. Once you accept the fundamental differences between a shifting, relative society – one in which many people can’t count on anything, like having a job or eating regularly – and one that is laid down and squared off smartly with rulers and clocks, the merits of each tend to stand independently.

I’m sure a common comment by volunteers is that, by living without many of the comforts of home, one tends to appreciate better the comforts that are available. Taking stuff for granted, you know – the scourge of the west.

What I’ve been thinking about recently is how much more it took, in the States, to bestow satisfaction. Every day I ate food I liked, and so “good food” was my benchmark. Sometimes I had to choke down okra or even seafood, but those were the exceptions; and on the other hand, only really good food was special. Well, now I eat slimy okra and lukewarm fried fish (and it’s only lukewarm because the air temperature keeps it from getting cold) most days, and that has become my benchmark. Now a soup with tiny bits of pork, a single piece of chicken adobo, or a cold glass of Coke has become special. And when I get these things, it makes me very happy indeed: they’re small blips above the trend line.

Another disclaimer: I eat in Iloilo City a lot. More than I should. Most of my money goes towards tasty city food (whereas if I only ate in my own town, I’d have a big budget surplus every month). I'm not yet at the point where I can eat food I dislike without feeling some sense, however slight, of resignation.
But without a doubt I appreciate food more than I ever have before. Many things I tried to avoid eating in the States – oatmeal, onions, raisins – are frequent parts of my diet now. I’m still picky by Filipino standards, and I’m infamous at my center for flatly refusing to eat bananas, but many things don’t seem so yucky to me anymore.

And meryenda, the twice-daily snacks that are in their own way as important as the full meals themselves: I usually ignore the compulsion to eat a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack when I’m on my own, but when I’m with Filipinos I secretly hope someone will produce ibos or tinapay or some plastic-wrapped fat-infused concoction. In Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson explains what he sees as the ability of the English to be charmingly delighted by something as simple as a cup of tea and a biscuit. That’s how I often feel about meryenda: delighted.

And food is far from the only source of small pleasures. From a more professional (or volunteeral, if you will) standpoint, plans that run their course smoothly – or even just one bit of a bigger plan that runs smoothly – are catalysts for this delight. In preparation for the aforementioned girls’ camp, I left instructions with a coworker, my counterpart for the camp, to bring along a few items when she accompanied the girls to our venue. (I had to leave the previous day to set up tents, meet with the other volunteers, and generally try to ensure that no major disasters would derail the occasion.) When she showed up with all the items intact, I had that stab of delight: within this very small snippet of a much larger blueprint, things fit together as planned.

There are hundreds of these little happinesses: the daily greetings from my friendly neighbors, a decent internet connection, coffee that isn’t instant or sugar-heavy 3-in-1, a new tropical fruit to try. Sometimes all it takes is a small concession on the part of a daily burden – securing a seat on the shady side of a jeepney or a little downpour that dissipates the worst of the day’s heat. Even waking up drowsily with sunshine, before the world has had time to start baking, can be wonderful.

The real test will be when my service is over and I return to all those comforts I’ve done without or had only sporadically. It’s probably inevitable that, to some extent, my old benchmarks will be restored and little comforts become again the status quo. I hope that will not be the case. Regardless, that time still seems a long way off, and for now I’ll enjoy these little things as they come.

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