Sometimes the food comes in droves. Sometimes it doesn’t.
A really long time ago in our service, strange, seemingly unreal things became our new normal. We adopted things that may cause shock or disgust or confusion on a foreigner’s part. Much of that lies at that heart of adaptation, survival mode. I assure you that you can only kick and scream for so long before you realize that the only way to live is to accept things as they are. Nothing teaches you to accept life’s difficulties and embrace it more than tampering with the essential human needs.
Let’s talk Maslow for a minute. He’s my guy. Go back to sociology class circa high school and recall the pyramid of basic needs. At the bottom were things such as food, water, sleep and the biological basics. Next comes safety and security with essentials such as health, resources, income, employment, and our bodies. On up we have love/belonging, esteem, then self-actualization. Here’s a chart because pictures are fun:
Well, you hit it all here in the Peace Corps, ladies and gentlemen. In the beginning of service it’s like someone created a snow globe of your hierarchy of happy, met needs that you brought from America, gave it to an unruly child who had just eaten lots of sugar, and they shook it all around until they tired themselves out. It gets crazy in here. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing; it’s just a thing.
I don’t talk casually about what it’s really like in the Peace Corps because to be quite honest with you, it’s hard. It’s really f-ing hard and I’m not even in the most remote or difficult country to get by. And, well, we all know what we’re signing up for so when our spirits are feeling a little broken (or a lot), the last thing we want to do is portray any negativity to those outside of our circle of volunteers. We also don’t want to talk about the severely impoverished communities we and our villagers live in because we’re almost always able to see the beauty in the simple way of life. And, even though I said it’s hard, I didn’t say it was horrible. It’s wonderful in so many ways.
However, in my opinion, by not talking about the tough things, we’re missing a part of what the Peace Corps experience offers: a look at what most of the world lives like on a daily basis. Taking a real look at some of those should make us feel grateful for life’s little things. Literally, any. little. thing. Some days I’m faced with so much adversity compared to what an everyday, American life is that I have to look for any good thing that makes me grateful, that makes me happy. It’s usually an old woman’s smile, but sometimes it’s the chance to have hot food instead of cold, a rare occurrence. Sometimes it’s having blankets to cover me in the unseasonably cold nights we’ve had.
These are things I’m grateful for and moments when they weren’t present that made me realize how grateful I am:
1. Hot, sanitary food
I live with a host family and with that I have made innumerable sacrifices. Part of our service is living at the level of your community members. My aunt cooks the food and she is a sweet, simple woman, a farmer with a 7th grade education. She is nice and I love her but she is not clean. Her fingernails are 3-inches long and caked with black dirt and grime.
My favorite story is the time she picked up a dead baby bird, dangled it by its talon then one minute later started shredding vegetables for dinner with her hands. When food is made in the morning it sits out all day baking in the heat, sometimes upwards of 110 degrees, and by evening the table smells like hot garbage. That hot garbage is my dinner. I’m grateful when it’s been reheated because it makes the stench less severe. Tonight it wasn’t hot, so maybe just the garbage part tonight.
2. Food that is good for my body to keep me healthy and strong
Thailand is a very rich, abundant country full of lovely people who are very good at planting and living off the land. Sometimes it’s not abundant. I’ll go weeks with large meals and plenty of meat and food, then, for some reason, something shifts and meals turn into large, scanty bones of meat that you must chew off with precision. I may chew on 3-4 large bones of meat only to eat a scrawny, 2-ounce portion. My aunt makes soup from boiled leaves and tree twigs they call herbs. That’s one way to look at it. These weeks are difficult and you physically start to feel weak. This makes me grateful to have healthy food when it’s available. And for many, it’s not always available.
Most of the time I’m perfectly fine on water, but sometimes I’m not and it can cause very real fear. None of the water is safe to drink from the tap in Thailand (and most developing countries). Not even the Thai people can drink it. In my family we have a large container of water that we all drink from. I was grateful when they bought a cold water dispenser because it meant we didn’t have to use the coolers lined with slimy mold anymore. A few times in the early evening, we have run out of water; the two neighborhood shops are long closed. No water is available and I will have just finished a workout. It’s only 12 hours until sun-up but not having water, ever, is a panic-inducing situation that forever makes me grateful when I do have it.
4. Good sleep
Most the time I have good sleep. I’m immeasurably grateful because my host mother installed a window air conditioner in my room at the beginning of my service. Let’s all take a moment to think of volunteers and those who live in places where they sleep in the heat of 100 degrees night-in and night-out. A moment of silence, if you will…… I was there once; I feel your pain. But other things can mess with your sleep; casualties of Thai life. There are wild dogs in my village where packs of 10 often bark loudly and howl at each other for hours straight, usually between the hours of 2 and 4 a.m.
Other times, large music gatherings happen with concert-sized and concert-volume speakers blaring until 2 a.m. Just the other day, six 5-foot speakers 15 feet from my bedroom window blared at full volume starting at 4:15 a.m. The entire upstairs of our teak house reverberated with every, single bass thump as though one fashioned it into a wooden amplifier . I was grateful when I successfully fell asleep 2 hours later despite the noise . Good sleep is good. It keeps us healthy. It keeps me happy. That’s on the pyramid, right?
5. Friends and family that I love
I won’t get too sentimentally cheesy on you. Just kidding, I absolutely will. Sometimes I literally want to scream from a rooftop how lucky people are to be surrounded by so many people they love and care about in America. What so many of us wouldn’t give to be near a warm body or embraced by a big hug. Sometimes my heart and chest literally ache because I have not seen my sister or my nephews or my wonderful grandfather in two whole years. Tears fill my eyes thinking about it. It’s been practically since 2011 that I stepped foot in the States. In the words of Ozzy Osbourne, “Mama I’m coming home,” but not without enough gratitude to fill an airplane or small town about being near those I love most. 2 months y’all. Mark it on the calendar.
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On social media I see so many people complaining about such trivial things. I’m reminded of the horrific phenomenon of #firstworldproblems and people who may forget about all that there is to be grateful for. I’m not saying that I don’t appreciate those things or crave them because I very much do. I’m just saying let’s have a party with each other about all the things that we do have: we can add toilet paper, big hugs, drinkable tap water, dance parties. You name it, it goes on the list.
A friend of mine, Mark Roberts, made a status update recently. It read:
“I’m sick of people saying the World is getting worse with every single passing day. Let’s make a list of reasons we’re all better off than we’ve ever been:”
People’s replies ranged from penicillin to heat/electricity to indoor plumbing, deodorant, and women’s rights. What would you add?
Like This Post? Check out my other related blog posts:
- What a Bad Day Looks Like
- How Peace Corps and Marriage Aren’t As Different As You Think
- Cyclical: A Poem
- Is It Okay For Teachers to Hit Students?