The ultimate volunteer option (for Americans) is the Peace Corp. You get paid, medical coverage, and 3-months of language training, for a 2-year commitment helping others in a far off place. (There is even an option to combine a tour with getting a masters degree.)
I did not serve in the Peace Corp myself but I stayed with many PC volunteers in distant countries while traveling, and have many Peace Corp friends, and they all say the same thing: “I don’t know how much I’ve changed this country, but boy, it sure has changed me.” And it does. I have never met a Peace Corp graduate that did not impress me. More than college or the military, the 2-year tour nurtures an intense global awareness and life-long resourcefulness.
The Peace Corp is really the ultimate education experience for a life in a connected world. This book, now in a second edition, is an extended FAQ compiled by former and current volunteers. You get intelligent, helpful, and honest answers to the most frequent questions of how the program works and what you can expect. It is a useful tool, probably dissuading more folks than it persuades, encouraging the realistic stance needed to get hard things done.
How hard will it be to learn the language? What language(s) will I learn?
The Peace Corps approach to language learning has been hailed as one of the best in the world. Rather than the conventional method of starting with vocabulary drills, verb conjugations, and personal pronoun memorization, trainees engage in direct dialog with native speakers from day one. Before you know it, you’re making connections and picking up vocab tenses just by hearing them used correctly the first time around. The instructors are generally excellent, guiding you and correcting you, encouraging you and lauding your efforts regardless of your accent or speed. Every week or two you are reevaluated and placed in different groups depending on your progress. At the beginning of the day, you’ll go around the room and answer basic questions like “How did you sleep?” and “Tell us something that you did last night with your homestay family.” You’ll get to hear how others answer and figure out ways to communicate your own thought so you are understood, even if you aren’t “textbook” correct.
How will I wash my clothes? Do my dishes? Clean my house?
If you’re into it, do it yourself. If not, hire someone. Peace Corps volunteers routinely hire locals to clean, cook, and wash for them. Don’t gasp–it’s not as paternalistic or colonial as it may sound. It’s offering someone in your village a job with wages that will pay their way through school or afford them the means of purchasing medicine for their children. In fact, when word gets out that you are in search of a house helper, there will be a line outside your door that winds around the village block.
What if I’m vegetarian?
True to the stereotype, many Peace Corps volunteers are vegetarian, and many who are not convert once they arrive overseas. You shouldn’t have a problem preparing nutritious and balanced meals if you are a vegetarian, but you should pay careful attention to your protein intake.
You may be wondering why meat eaters would be inclined to become vegetarian once they join the Peace Corps. In many cases, it’s because they are posted to remote villages where the only meats available are taken from surrounding forests and savannah–animals like monkey, bat, and antelope–and they don’t care for the taste or idea of eating them. In other cases, they visit the market in their villages and see the proverbial cow head and body parts hanging from hooks in the open air, flies and other bugs gorging freely.
Will I get sick?
Yes, you will get sick. As with my response to “Will I be lonely?” irrespective of where you are or what you’re doing in any given two-year period, you are guaranteed to get sick at least a few times. The difference, and the real worry, is whether or not you’ll be sick for the whole two years (or for a good part of it).
I was one of the most anal volunteers around when it came to hygiene and attempts to ward off diseases that commonly afflicted my fellow PCVs. I washed my hands before every meal, I let my clothes dry for three days before wearing them (to kill any mango-fly eggs), I boiled and filtered my water, I took my malaria prophylaxis religiously, I soaked my veggies in iodine before eating them, and so on. Yet, within my two years, I still managed to get giardiasis, bacterial dysentery, amoebas, malaria, chiggers, turbo worms, fevers, diarrhea, and strange bites, marks, scratches, and rashes that came and went with the winds. I’m not trying to scare you; I only wish to convey to you how how common, bearable, and in many ways unavoidable getting sick in the Peace Corps is. In fact, PCVs often perceive illness as more of an inconvenience and a hot topic of conversation than anything else.