Why I joined the Peace Corps (Part 3 of 5): Me, Cletus, & Michael

2 Comments

17 July 2011

Why I joined the Peace Corps (Part 3 of 5):

Me, Cletus, & Michael

 

My personal road to the Peace Corps began in May 2008, when I began having severe headaches and dizziness. I had been feeling pretty awful for some months, but the prior week had been hell: I’d only been able to sleep 3 – 4 hours a night, I had no appetite, and despite taking 6-8 Excedrin Migraines a day I still had the worst headaches you can possibly imagine. I wasn’t sure what was going wrong, but I was damn sure that it was more than just the standard migraines that my doctor had diagnosed when I went to see him the December prior[1].  So after work on a particularly problematic Wednesday, I drove myself to the emergency room at UNC Hospital and checked myself in.

As I suspected, I was in fact seriously unwell. After an initial misdiagnosis of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a CT scan determined that I had a hemangioblastoma causing aqueductal stenosis, leading to internal hydrocephalus. That translates in English to a benign pencil eraser-sized brain tumor (affectionately named Cletus) that was unfortunately sited in such a way as to block the flow of cerebrospinal fluid between my brain and spinal cord, thus causing a large cyst to form.

Actually, it turns out that I had probably had this tumor-and-cyst for 10-12 years prior to presenting[2], but in the absence of overt symptoms like elevated blood pressure or ophthalmological evidence, I had been repeatedly misdiagnosed as having migraines. This understandable error was compounded by the fact that, since our delightful health care system[3] had left me with either no or marginal insurance depending on my current employment situation, I couldn’t and the hospital wouldn’t pay for the CT scan or MRI that would have identified the tumor immediately. So instead I soldiered on, blissfully and dangerously unaware of the time bomb in my brain.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, for much of the period between 2000 & 2008, I was experiencing any number of complications from my tumor. Because it was exerting extreme pressure on all areas of my brain simultaneously, I had problems as varied as elevated blood pressure, worsening vision, massive headaches, personality changes, loss of coordination, general deterioration in motor skills, apathy, sleeplessness, an inability to focus, and a gradual increase in body weight.

It all seems so screamingly obvious in hindsight, but at the time it didn’t seem like anything major. I had trouble sleeping and some headaches, as well as some trouble focusing in class and at work, but I just thought it was the typical apathy and depression experienced by unmotivated college students everywhere. Yes, I had been a bright, active teenager, but many a bright, active teenager has hit a rough patch in their 20’s, and I figured I was just going through the same sort of thing. I wasn’t sick, I was immature; I wasn’t unable to sleep or concentrate, I was just burning the midnight oil like everyone else.

This misapprehension was aided by the fact that everyone else thought the same thing as well. I wasn’t moody because I had a giant cyst in my brain; I was just a shitty boyfriend[4]. I didn’t sleep through class repeatedly because I could barely get to sleep; I was just lazy[5]. I didn’t forget little normal things repeatedly because I was unable to focus; I was just absentminded. I didn’t suck at every sporting activity on Earth because I had a tumor in the part of my brain that regulates motor function; I was just clumsy[6]. And so on, and so forth. For a decade.

At any rate, my troubles (mostly) ended in May of 08, when I was (finally) diagnosed and treated. I spent 3 weeks in the Neurosurgery ICU at UNC, undergoing 3 craniotomies, discovering the never-ending thrills of the ventriculostomy (or brain drain), learning that oh, by the way, certain drugs make me have insane hallucinations, and generally having less than the time of my life. When I went home in July, I was 30 lbs lighter, weak as a day-old kitten, tumor-free, and $215,000 in debt[7]. But I was alive, and as likely to stay that way as anyone else of my age, gender, race, and socio-economic background, and that’s all that matter.

Rehab was…less than fun. Not as unfun as surgery had been, but still a pretty monumental hassle. To begin with, 3 weeks in a bed leave your legs incredibly weak and it took a month or two before I was really able to walk again. I also had to learn to deal with a permanently damaged sense of equilibrium, a massive numb spot on the back of my head[8], a weird chunk missing from the back of my skull[9], several fun scars that are both sensitive and prone to catching combs, as well as a lot of little internal differences that are hard to explain. Some things taste differently now. Some types of motion do weird things to me[10]. Bodily motion…feels…different. It’s a very real phenomenon, but very hard to articulate.

However, despite the challenges I persevered, and today I’m fully recovered – or as fully recovered as I’m ever likely to be. In that, I am incredibly lucky. My tumor was non-cancerous, so I didn’t have to deal with chemo, radiation, or the terror and uncertainty of a life-threatening illness. I was young and healthy, so I don’t have to deal with years of grinding physical recovery. My tumor wasn’t in my brainstem or spinal cord, so I didn’t die and I don’t have to deal with permanent paralysis below the point of surgery. I didn’t come out with an IQ of 90, an inability to remember anything before 2008, or constantly tasting colors with my left foot. Also, thanks to UNC’s amazing social programs, I was able to escape bankruptcy, ruined credit, AND that $215,000 bill. When they saw how much I didn’t make, they picked up every penny on my bill. I didn’t pay so much as a $5 co-pay[11].  So now I’m healthy, debt-free, and fully intent on getting on with life.

It sounds odd, but I’m actually incredibly thankful that things happened the way they did. Yes, it was bad, but when you get right down to it, all I have to deal with is a large scar on the back of my head, a slight problem with sit-ups and other activities involving rapid positional changes of my head, and very mild ataxia, dysmetria, and dysdiadokinesia. Even that sounds more dramatic than it is: basically, I’m a little clumsy, I’ll never be a drummer, I dance worse than ever, and there is a small range of bodily motions that I should avoid making when possible. Otherwise, I’m good to go.

But that’s me. Others aren’t so lucky.

Let me give you at least one example that I know of.

***

While I was in the neurosurgery ICU, I was more or less immobilized. I had a line going into my heart in my left arm, I had an arterial line in the wrist of my right arm, I had the brain drain coming out of my skull, I had a catheter downstairs, and I was lying on my craniotomy incision (which was on the back of my neck at the base of my skull). Additionally, I didn’t have contacts or glasses, so I couldn’t read or watch TV. All I could do was lie very still on my back and try not to move at all, so as to avoid pain.

As you might imagine, this left me with a lot of free time to think and listen. Most of the former was along the lines of “wow, I hurt”, “wow, I’m cold”, “wow, I’m bored”, and “wow, I could totally puke right now if it wouldn’t hurt more than I could possibly describe”. Most of the latter was spent listening to the doctors, nurses, and other patients.

Especially the other patients.

I’m sure my visitors didn’t think so, but from my perspective the neurosurgery ICU was a surprisingly noisy place. Doctors and nurses were always coming and going, as well as family, food carts, patients, and all the other day-to-day traffic that any major hospital has. One night, they went on lockdown for a child abduction drill. Another night, they brought in a couple of accident victims in an urgent flurry of nurses, surgeons, and rolling IV stands. And then there was the never ending song of the monitors: a dissonant threnody of chirps, beeps, rings, bongs, dongs, and blatts that signaled everything from perfect health (a quiet beep every few seconds or so) to rising ICP (an insistent dong-dong-dong that continued until turned off) to death (a truly alarming blaaaatt, followed by a Code Blue announcement on the intercom). It was terrifying, annoying, and enlightening. I was sick as a dog and frequently unconscious, I couldn’t move from my bed, and I couldn’t see a thing, but I still knew every nook and cranny of the place.

There was Allen[12], the nurse who commuted 150 miles from Hampstead and was training to be a Nurse Anesthetist. There was Maitri, the Hindi nurse who had 7 children and volunteered for Friday nights so the other nurses could have a night to socialize. There was Mr. Anderson, the octogenarian in the room around the corner who kept having surgeries and kept not wanting to wake up from them[13]. There was Mark, who had been in a severe motorcycle accident and had a broken spine, a crushed pelvis, two shattered legs, third degree burns, and was likely to lose one eye for good. He had been told he would never walk again, but he loved to sing him some blues, and he was determined not just to walk, but to ride again.

And then there was Michael.

Michael was rushed into the room next to mine the morning prior to my second craniotomy. At the time, I was lying there in something of a funk, brooding on the coming ordeal and trying not to let my blood pressure or ICP spike so high that they set off the monitors. I wasn’t thinking about any of the other patients, and to be honest I hurt so bad that I didn’t even notice his arrival. In fact, if he hadn’t been placed in the room next to mine, I never would have known he existed. And that would have been a shame, because he changed my life.

I never saw Michael, but from what I could hear he was about 16. He had a central North Carolina accent that was so heavy that anyone who heard him would know instantly that he was from somewhere in the Sandhills. He only ever said one word, but he managed to give it two syllables: “OW” (ay-yow).

Ow.

For 17 hours, from the time they brought him in until the time they knocked me out for my own surgery, he laid in the room next to mine saying nothing but “ow”. The range of expression that he gave that one word was astounding. Sometimes he said it casually, like you might if a fly bit you. Sometimes he said it intensely, as though he were being burned. Once, he yelled in a pitch so high it was almost at the edge of my hearing.

It came in ones (Ow!), threes (ow-ow-OOOOW!), and thirty-second bellows (oooooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!). It came in staccato hisses (ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-OW!), abrupt yells (OW!), and muttered rejoinders (ow.). In fact, he said ow in every way, shape, and form that I imagined possible, and even a few I didn’t. But the one thing he never did was stop saying it.

And the reason he never stopped saying it was simple: earlier that morning, he’d had an aneurysm in his brain that had flooded one hemisphere with blood and more or less short circuited everything it came in contact with. As a result, his brain was translating all sensory input as pain. Sight = pain. Taste = pain. Hearing = pain. It was as if he were being lightly burned, and there wasn’t a thing the surgeons could do to help him.

Think about that for a minute. Really let it sink in.

Imagine: your brain is broken. For no reason. Just one day, you’re sitting there playing your PlayStation or mowing the lawn, or reading, when out of the blue, you suddenly feel…weird…not so good…kind of headachy, maybe?…and then the pain starts. It doesn’t come from anywhere, and you can’t do anything to ease it. Standing, lying, sitting, eyes open, eyes closed – nothing helps. All you feel is searing, unending pain. And then, when you finally get to the doctor, to one of the best hospitals in the world, all they can do is give you morphine. Which you will eventually become tolerant to. Oh, and they can’t knock you out, because your brain is so damaged they’re not sure they’ll be able to wake you up again. They won’t even let you sleep more than an hour or two at a time, because they have to check to make sure you’re not slipping into a coma[14].

What do you do in a situation like that? How do you choose? Do you just try to turn the pain off? Do you beg for death? Do you even really care what happens to you, when all options are bad? It’s a grim scenario: sure…maybe there’s an experimental surgery, or maybe they can just remove enough of your brain that the pain will dull, but what a price. You won’t be you anymore. You’ll be you, but with an IQ of 80, or in a permanent coma, or with a frontal lobotomy; the you that you know, the you that you want to be, is gone forever. All that is left is a husk, a shadow, a mortal shell; and that’s in pain. Forever.

Maybe I’m over exaggerating his condition. I’m sure I don’t know all of the details of his case, and it is my devout prayer that his situation improved. Maybe he grew accustomed to the pain, or maybe it wasn’t that bad, or maybe there was a surgery that actually helped; I certainly hope so. But as it was explained to me the night before my second surgery, my woes were as nothing compared to his. And never would be.

And then I got to thinking: what if I had been born in a developing nation? What if home wasn’t 7 miles from two of the best hospitals in the world, but 1500 miles away from any hospital at all? What if I had been born in the Amazon basin, or the highlands of Papua New Guinea? Or even just southern Mexico or central Chad? I surely would have died, or at best faced Michael’s choices. I was so incredibly lucky in my brain tumor, and I hadn’t even had the decency to realize it.

That’s when I knew: if I were ever so fortunate as to get out of that hospital with my intellect and my faculties intact, I had to do something with them. Something that mattered. Something bigger than myself, bigger than the daily 9-5 grind, bigger than the American Dream of a house, a car, a wife, a dog and 2.5 kids. I needed to do something entirely unselfish, something entirely beyond the boundaries of the world that had previously hemmed me in. And I couldn’t do it for glory, or my career, or self-promotion, either; I had to do it for Michael.

Because he couldn’t.

I had to do something for Michael, and for that African kid who has the same tumor that I do, but will never get the treatment he needs. I had to do something for Mr. Anderson, who would probably never leave that bed again, and for all the other people who had known suffering far in excess of mine, but had only received a fraction of the treatment. I owed a debt, far beyond a paltry $215,000; a debt I could never default on and never repay. But I had to try.

After that, my second and third surgeries were much easier. Yes, they hurt. A lot. But it was just pain. It would eventually heal, and unless something went really, drastically, unfortunately wrong, I would get better. I would be able to walk, to run, to work, to laugh, to love, and travel far, far away to help people I had never even dreamed of meeting. And not only would I be able to do those things, I had to do them.

And I will. In the Peace Corps.

For Michael.

Whom I have never even met.

 


[1] In fairness to my doctor, he wanted to run an MRI or CT scan, but I simply didn’t have the $1500 required. But remember, kiddies: a single-payer system is socialism, and we can’t have that. That would be bad.

[2] Tumors don’t come stamped with a “born on” date so it’s hard to say for sure, but my neurosurgeon assures me that the type and location of my tumor is consistent with a type that common forms during late puberty. I had gross symptoms since at least 23, so this would be consistent. We’ll call it 20 – 22 at the youngest.

[3] I’m not politically inclined, but my experiences have definitely made me a proponent of a single-payer system. Deal.

[4] Which doesn’t absolve me of my then-assholery; it just provides some mitigation. I probably was a shitty boyfriend…I was just shittier than normal because of my tumor.

[5] Ditto. A tumor doesn’t stop you from being young. It just exacerbates the negative parts. Or it did in me.

[6] Apparently, a “classic” symptom of the type of tumor I had.

[7] No insurance + 3 weeks in a neurosurgical ICU = one very fat hospital bill.

[8] Around the surgery scar. It has gradually shrunk over time, but may never fully go away.

[9] When your skull is shaped differently, lying on your back has to be relearned. It’s been 3 years, and my head still doesn’t feel quite right when it’s resting on a pillow.

[10] Sit ups make me pass out, for example.

[11] Which is awesome for me, but sucks for everyone else. That money has to come from somewhere, and it damn sure didn’t come from me. I can’t complain, but we need serious healthcare reform in this country. I know a lot of folks don’t like the current health care reforms, but I can’t help  but think they would like a $215,000 bill even less…

[12] All names are changed to protect their privacy.

[13] I can still clearly hear his nurse yelling in a very heavy Chinese accent: “MR. ANDERSON!! SHOW ME TWO FINGERS, MR. ANDERSON!! SHOW ME TWO FINGERS!!”. Her name was Li Li Hong, she was from Beijing, and she had a heart of gold. But boy, could she yell. I know, because she woke me up once as well.

[14] They do this to everyone. Because neurosurgery can do unpredictable things to your brain, they are forever waking you up just to ask you if you were asleep!!! I know why they do it, but holy crap was it irritating.

Advertisements

“Developing” nations vs “3rd World” nations

Leave a comment

12 July 2011

“Developing” nations vs “3rd World” nations

I often get asked what I think about moving to live in a 3rd world country. I always respond “but I’m not…I’m moving to a developing nation”. To which people invariably respond along the lines of “whatever, you know what I mean, they’re the same thing.”

To which I always want to reply, “hmm…well, actually, they aren’t.”

The idea of a “Third World” dates from the Cold War, when the developed world was neatly divided by two competing superpowers and their corresponding economic blocs. Since the idea was a Western one[1],  the 1st world nations were the US & its allies (NATO, Japan & South Korea, Australia & New Zealand) and the 2nd world nations were the USSR & its own allies (the Warsaw Pact, China, North Korea, Vietnam & Cuba). Since everyone else was either a colony, undeveloped, or too small to matter, they got lumped together as the 3rd world. To today’s eyes, this classification is blatantly racist, rude, and uselessly vague, but it worked for the time. In fact, it was something of a runaway success. And so we’re still stuck with it today, more than 20 years after the Cold War ended.

Why we persist in doing so despite the manifest problems inherent to the system is a mystery to me. The 2nd world no longer exists (only North Korea even remotely qualifies as Cold War Communist these days). Much of the Warsaw Pact are now members of the EU. China is a clear rival to the US. India, Brazil, Indonesia, and Mexico all have some of the world’s largest economies, and if you take military technology out of the equation they are surely equal to Russia in terms of most meaningful economic indicators.  In short, the world is a very different place than it was in 1970, and it can’t benefit us to keep seeing it through an outdated lens. We’re like parents who insist on seeing (and treating) their teenagers as tweens, despite the evidence. So it’s unsurprising that those nations which have grown the most are the ones which frequently give us the most grief.

Obviously, I’m neither the first nor the last person to make this observation. In fact, sociologists, political scientists, and economists have all come up with varying systems. All have ultimately failed because they don’t have the appealing simplicity of the 1st/2nd/3rd world setup, but they are out there. I think the best is the viewpoint that divides the world into two parts: developed nations, and developing nations. Yes, it’s a bit simplistic, but at least it’s accurate insofar as it goes, and it’s built on factual economic indicators rather than an entirely subjective perception of a nation’s political affiliation.

At any rate, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I personally eschew the term “3rd World”, and will not use it in this blog. If you use the term, I encourage you not to for the reasons stated above.

Thanks for your understanding.

 

 


[1] Originally conceived of by a French scholar, then popularized in the US.

We WON!

1 Comment

10 July 2011

We wuz robbed WON! WE WON!

As I write this, I’m sitting in Chapel Hill watching the US get shafted right out the Women’s World Cup by poor officiating. I normally loathe people who complain about the refs, but in this instance I think we have a case. Those of us sitting here think it. The announcers think it. Hell, even the CROWD thinks it (and they’re mostly German!). That was a bad call, plain and simple.

Even worse, Brazil has been playing dirty. Smart, but dirty. Trying to burn time. Faking an injury to the point of getting carried off the field on a stretcher, only to get up and sprint to the sideline once she’s off the field. This is just low. And depressing, because we’re likely–

HOLY SHIT!!! WE SCORED!!! IN STOPPAGE TIME!!! IT’S THE LATEST GOAL EVER, AND ONLY CAME BECAUSE OF THAT LAME ASS FAKE BRAZILIAN INJURY!!! GOD I LOVE SOCCER THAT WAS EFFING AMAZING!!! HOT DAMN!!! BRING ON THE SHOOTOUT NOW!!!!

*ahem*

Sorry about that.

Here comes the shootout. I suddenly feel good about our chances. Our keeper is named Solo. Hope Solo. A more badass name I cannot think of. Here’s *hope*ing.

Ok…that was bad.

A clean save! We’re up!

AND WE WIN!! WE WIN!! USA WINS!!! IT’S UNBELIEVABLE!!!

Holy crap…I’m exhausted. I had some major points to make, but that game was just too good. That was amazing.

Suffice to say, I’m going to miss US soccer while I’m in Africa. At least I won’t miss the next men’s World Cup, which isn’t until 2014.

Whew.

In praise of barbecue

4 Comments

09 July 2011

In praise of barbecue

I’m from Eastern North Carolina, otherwise known as God’s Country, heaven on Earth, and the only place on this big blue marble where barbecue is a noun, a verb, AND a way of life. And here in God’s Country, barbecue means “pulled slow-cooked pork, sauced with vinegar and peppers, then served with vast quantities of slaw, hushpuppies and/or cornbread, potato salad, and fries.”

In case you’re not clear on the concept, let me be explicit: that is the only acceptable definition. Those poseurs in Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, St. Louis, and Western North Carolina who insist on using sweet tomato sauce make a yummy product, but it’s not barbecue as the Lord intended. Lexington style comes close, but it’s really just adulterated perfection. As for those benighted heathens in Lesser Carolina who insist on spoiling perfectly yummy pig with that mustard-based vileness, well…let’s just say the only reason that the good citizens of Greater Carolina haven’t marched south and wiped their abomination unto all things culinary from the map is that we would actually have to enter their hellhole of a “state” top do it. And who wants to do that? Yuck.

I don’t say this to point out the obvious inferiority of certain “states” and cooking styles (although they are, and it should be pointed out as often as possible), but to convey my absolute, unequivocal, devout, and enduring love of all things involving Eastern NC and barbecue. It is in my life blood. I love it. And I will miss it, something awful.

Which has me wondering…surely they have pigs in Africa? Or warthog? And surely I can get some salt, pepper, vinegar, hot peppers, and other assorted secret spices? And maybe some suitably sweet smelling wood to burn? Do I dare to dream?

Surely not.

Surely, the risk of trichinosis is too high?

Surely pig is a rare delicacy that the locals, in their unenlightened condition, will mistakenly refuse to drown in vinegar?

Or I won’t be able to make the slaw? Or the hushpuppies? Or even I can, I won’t be able to do it for one reason or another?

Surely.

Here’s hoping I’m wrong. And in the meantime, I’m going to eat all of this delicious yumminess that I can:

It was nice knowing you

Leave a comment

06 July 2011

It was nice knowing you

I would just like to take this opportunity to tell you all that I love you, and that I hope to see you all in heaven soon. You are beautiful, amazing people, and it has been a privilege of the highest order to know you. I’m so sad that we’ll all be dead soon…I was really looking forward to the coming years. I’m so sad right now, I could cry.

By the way, in case you’re wondering what in the HELL I’m talking about, it’s simple: the Pittsburgh Pirates are 4 games over .500 and in 2nd place in the NL Central. Yes, those Pittsburgh Pirates. No, I haven’t been drinking. I know, I know…right now, you’re thinking “…but A,  it’s been 20 years! The Pirates haven’t been competitive since they had Andy van Slyke, Bobby Bonilla, and Barry Bonds! For God’s sake, Tim Freaking Wakefield was a rookie on that team!!” But believe it or not, my favorite NL team and second favorite baseball team overall finally seems to have gotten bored with playing farm team to the rest of the league, and has decided to be serious about getting into that whole “Pennant Race” thing this year.

Which can only mean one thing: the end times are upon, and the world will end shortly.

I only have one regret: I never got to see Africa. It would have been fun.

 

A brief hiatus

Leave a comment

05 July 2011

A brief hiatus

Lately, you will note that my posts have been bigger, longer, and more “meaningful”. Apparently, this is a good thing: pageviews have been way up, emails and other reader responses have increased, and all in all this little blog is seeing a LOT more traffic.

Unfortunately, those bigger posts take a lot more time and effort as well. This post will take me something like 15 minutes to compose, format, and post. But when I have to include footnotes, links, citations, and do homework, it takes a LOT longer. Especially when you consider that these posts are still being written on an iPhone (my poor computer is completely recovered from its recent rain exposure…except for the ‘e, a, r, u, y, x, and Shift keys, which appear to be doomed. I will be experimenting with a Bluetooth keyboard soon).

So for the next few days, I will keep posting as regularly as possible, but there’s going to be a slight break between the “big” posts. Hopefully, this will be a win-win for both of us: I’ll be able to produce a better product, and you’ll have something more worthwhile to read. Besides, as this is a blog about my Peace Corps experience in Africa and I don’t actually leave for Africa for three more months, it’s all kind of academic anyways. C’est la vie.

Why I joined the Peace Corps (part two of five)

Leave a comment

02 July 2011

Why I joined the Peace Corps (Part Two of Five):

It’s not a job, it’s an adventure! (explosive diarrhea counts as “an adventure”, right…?)

Note: As the title implies, this is post two in a five post series on why I joined the Peace Corps. If you haven’t read the earlier post, click here to go to it.

Adventure.

It’s an odd word.

To modern Americans weaned on action films, sword-and-sorcery novels, and “reality” TV shows like Survivor or The Amazing Race, adventure is an exciting word. In our culture today, it implies just enough danger to be stimulating, just enough travel to be fun, just enough deprivation to be ennobling, and lots and lots of passionate sex between folks who are definitely in good enough to shape to properly appreciate it. In our eyes, an adventure is something to be sought, not avoided: we go on adventure hikes and adventure trips, we brace ourselves to do something dirty and unpleasant by saying “come on…it will be an adventure!”, and organizations like the Navy trick us into signing up for 4-8 years of boring manual labor and unpleasantly regulated lifestyles by telling us “it’s not just a job…it’s an adventure!”. It is, in short, like war, and love, a loaded term.

But that wasn’t always the case.

Adventure comes to English via the Old French auenture, which is itself descended from the Latin adventūra. In Latin, adventūra is a combination of advent, meaning “to approach or come near”[1] and res, meaning “thing”. It’s actually from the future participle advenī-re, and so it literally means “a thing about to happen”[2].

That’s it. It’s just another Latin word, with no special or loaded meaning. It certainly has none of the special romance and drama associated with it in modern English. Indeed, even in pre-modern English, it had the far different (and less romantic) connotation of “that which comes to us, or happens without design; chance, happenstance, fortune, or luck.[3]” When Sir Philip Sidney wrote “as for adventure or chance, it is nothing else but disorder and confusion”, he wasn’t saying “it sure would make for interesting and exciting sexy times if I could suddenly be exposed to some danger and deprivation right now”, he was saying “shit happens”.

But for good or ill, that’s not how we see adventure today. Instead, when people ask you if you’re going on an adventure, they say it with a certain wistful longing and transparent envy. They want to go suffer with you, and they secretly long to be in a little danger, because that would break up the more or less regular monotony and tedium that is daily modern life in the US.

In my opinion, that’s really where our obsession with adventure comes from: the utter banality and safety of our day-to-day lives. For all that we definitely love and cling fiercely to the blessings of liberty that our society has secured for ourselves and our posterity (What do you mean the AC is OUT?? Don’t you know it’s JULY?!?), we also eschew them (You can’t fix it until Monday, huh? Oh well…I guess we’ll rough it. Hey kids, we get to camp in the backyard!). On the surface, we want life to be safe, but deep down inside the part of us that has evolved to be the baddest, meanest, most cunning predator on the block secretly doesn’t want life to be safe at all[4]. Or so I have come to believe.

In fact, that belief is the only thing that I can think of to explain most people’s reactions when I tell them I joined the Peace Corps: total revulsion at the idea of “living in a hut” for two years, admixed thoroughly with deep admiration and envy for the “adventure” that I will have.

So far as I can tell, when most Americans think about the Peace Corps, they think about latent stereotypes from the 1960’s: small villages in remote countries, volunteers “going native” for years at a time, squalid living conditions, no electricity, health care, or telephone, no indoor plumbing. They think improbable and unappetizing food choices (“I heard all Peace Corps volunteers have to eat a raw cow’s eye. How do you think you’ll handle that?”), bizarre local customs (“do you really have to convert to Islam?”) , and really unpleasant parasites and diseases questions (“will you just have to put up with the malaria, or will you get shots? [5]”). To hear their questions and their assumptions, most people seem to think the Peace Corps is just one step away from dying of starvation and dysentery in the hellholes of Calcutta, circa 1870. And instead of being terrible, it’s romantic. It’s an adventure.

No.

The Peace Corps is not an adventure in that sense. Yes, many of those stereotypical conditions do still exist in host countries today. Yes, it is possible that I will encounter some or all of them during the course of my own service. But it’s also very likely that I will have a cell phone with at least some internet access, and I will certainly have a laptop, all the movies, games, and ebooks that my hard drive will hold, and many other modern conveniences besides. This is not your father’s or grandfather’s Peace Corps.

Frankly, I think 95% of the stereotypes mentioned above smack of racism in the most 19th-century of ways. I am going to help people develop a skill set that hopefully will make it easier for them to improve their daily lives in small but meaningful ways; I’m NOT going to bounce around the set of an Indiana Jones movie. And I certainly have a 0% chance of being chased by stereotypical unwashed natives who are so hidebound in their ignorance and barbarianism that they utterly lack the ability to appreciate the culture treasures of the distant past that can easily be found lying all around them. That mindset was racist when Champollion first deciphered the hieroglyphics, it was racist when Schliemann discovered archaeological Troy, and it’s racist today. It smacks of the white man’s burden, and it automatically assumes that we are better and they are worse, and that’s a completely flawed and subjective way of describing the experience.

Yes, there are adventurous aspects to Peace Corps service, but they’re less in the “going to pull the benighted heathens out of the mud” vein and more in the “learning to adapt to a completely different but still perfectly valid way of life” vein. In the next year, I fully expect to humorously encounter things like

bush taxis:

 and squat toilets:

and to have many “adventures” involving obnoxious local weather conditions, livestock, bucket baths, and latent cultural assumptions[6].  I may even have “adventures” involving extraordinarily spicy food, sizeable insects/spiders/lizards/rats in my living quarters, or having to haul all of my drinking/cooking/bathing/wash water by bicycle from a distant well. What I don’t anticipate is having to eat live eels and chilled monkey brains before watching some poor soul have his heart ripped out and then having to drag Kate Capshaw through a bug-infested funhouse while being pursued by sword-swinging death worshippers. That’s not an adventure, it’s a movie, and while I love the movies, let’s leave the racial stereotypes behind, thanks.

Besides, real adventures are soooo much cooler. Living in an African village isn’t an adventure. It’s just life, rendered somewhat more challenging by a lack of labor-saving technology and comforts. An adventure is trying to solo climb all the mountains in the Cordillera Sarmiento. Running across the Sahara Desert is an adventure. Circumnavigating the globe in a sailboat, despite being blind, is an adventure. Helping people who are the same as you, save that they have fewer resources and educational opportunities, isn’t an adventure it’s just a great volunteer opportunity. And to imply otherwise is a profound insult to them and to the work the Peace Corps does.

Which brings me around to the first reason why I joined the Peace Corps: because it isn’t an adventure, it’s a job. And a badly needed one, at that. If you want to travel the world, meet interesting people, and get short at, join the Army; I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to have you in Kandahar by year’s end. If you want to go lead by example in tough living conditions in order to help others make those conditions slightly less tough, join the Peace Corps.

I did.


[1] This is where we get the name “Advent” from in the Christian liturgical calendar. It is literally a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ.

[2] “adventure, n.”. OED Online. June 2011. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/2923?rskey=qpcOD6&result=1&isAdvanced=false (accessed July 02, 2011).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Why else would anyone who isn’t a farmer or a highway contractor need a Ford F-350? Or anyone not living in a remote location need anything more than a single gun for hunting/home protection? Or anyone at all need a fully stocked doomsday bunker in their backyard? We grossly overprepare for disaster on a daily basis, almost as though we yearn for one…

[5] Yes, I have been asked all of these things. Obviously, they’re extreme examples, but I have been continually amazed at the sheer amount of ignorance, gullibility, and even downright stupidity displayed by even highly educated people with regards to the Peace Corps. It really is shocking.

[6] You don’t need to be in a developing country to encounter the pitfalls of cultural assumptions. Try asking someone in Britain if it’s cool enough to need pants or not, and see what sort of reaction you get.

Older Entries