You Have Arrived, Now It’s Time To Go

9 02 2011

I only have 2 1/2 months left in Guyana.

That means that I have been here for almost 2 whole years. When I started this journey in 2009, 2 years seems like an awful long time, now that I am at the end, I don’t feel like it is enough. Let me explain exactly what I mean by that.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer we have “responsibilities” beyond just our “jobs”. There are three main goals to Peace Corp (I’m paraphrasing here):

1) Provide technical assistance

2) Helping people outside the US understand US culture

3) Helping people in the US understand the culture of people that don’t live in the US

Due to these three goals a lot of emphasis is put on integration into our communities, meeting community members, participating in community and cultural events, etc. This is the biggest focus in the beginning. Our first three months are spent on integrating in the community and less on jumping into projects. The idea is that the more you understand your community and the more they trust you the better equipped you will be to design a sustainable project with community buy-in. This experience differs greatly for every volunteer in Guyana due mainly to the diversity of sites here, there are volunteers in very urban locations and volunteers in the “bush” that requires either an airplane ride, boat ride, or both to reach. Integration is an ongoing process and success is measured in different ways depending on the volunteer. I know for me I really knew I was integrating when the conductors would give me correct change or wouldn’t try to overcharge me on mini-bus rides, when the market ladies started giving me extra veggies in addition to what I bought, or when Colin would worry if I forgot to tell him I was going out of town for a weekend. Successful integration is also measured in the small things you take for granted until you leave for a visit back to the States or you have out of town visitors to point them out to you. For instance, you begin to ignore the animal noises at all hours of the night, the hilariously random things that used to make you laugh out loud aren’t as odd anymore, or you understand the lyrics to the latest dancehall song and wonder why no one else is offended by the offensive and innappropriate lyrics. This type of integration is a constant ongoing thing that never stops, even in your house as you learn to deal with the bugs, mosquitoes, blackouts, and water issues.

I think it takes most volunteers a good 6 months to a year to think that they feel at least moderately integrated into their sites (this is just an estimation). Some volunteers never feel fully integrated and decide to leave, some feel integrated within a few weeks. Once you feel integrated into your community it is MUCH easier to start to develop projects. This whole process worked a bit differently for me. I stepped into a JOB! There had already been not one, but two VSOs who had served in the position I was getting ready to take over, and the second person was on her way out. I spent my first two months in the shadow of this volunteer being completely ignored and watched as teachers, head teachers, and people within the department cried tears of sadness at seeing her go. It took another 3 months to win over the trust of teachers and head teachers to prove that not only was I competent and knew what I was talking about when it came to teaching Literacy, but that I was there to help them in just about anyway possible. Things within the office were a bit easier, but it still took me 1-2 months to understand the politics and policies (Guyana may be one of the most “formal” places I have ever been when it comes to following protocol and policy). I could not understand why workshops had to be approved first, then the proposals written (as opposed to the other way around), I still don’t understand, but I now know how the process works and how to get it done. Over the past two years I have made a complete fool of myself, been utterly frustrated, questioned why I was here, and wondered if I was truly making any kind of difference.

Sometimes you need to climb all the way to the top of the mountain, then look down to see how far you have really climbed. Last week I had my final workshop with the head teachers. I have been working with them for the last year training them on different components of teaching Literacy in order to help them improve staff development sessions and to provide them with helpful resources. It has been a challenging, hilarious, and rewarding experience needless to say. At the end of the workshops we had an impromptu presentation where they sang traditional folk songs with new lyrics written in my honor, speeches, and gifts (and quite a few tears were shed, including my own). It was so overwhelming to me how much gratitude these teachers showed me, when really I feel like it should be the other way around. It took me awhile to win them over, but once I did they embraced me full force. They were honest and trusted me and because of that I was able to learn so much about the education system and culture of this country, and from there I was able to REALLY get some things done.

It took almost two years of hard work, but I finally feel like I have a handle on life here. There is so much that we take for granted living in a culture that we are born and raised in, but once you move to a new place where things are done slightly to significantly differently it really makes you have a new appreciation for adaptation skills. Now that I  feel comfortable and competent with how to get things done at my job, who to go to at the market for the best tasting and cheapest fruits and veggies, how to get around using public transportation, etc it is time to pack up and leave. Last night as I was buying bread at the bakery, one of the Grade 2 teachers from the Primary School down the street who also happens to be my neighbor, stopped me to ask me about phonics and the appropriate way to use it during Literacy Hour. I had a 10-15 minute conversation with her on the street at 7:00 pm while buying bread. The fact that she felt comfortable enough to stop me on the street to ask a work related question shows you how far we have come. It is a quite a proud button-bursting moment and I’m sure I will continue to have more of these over the next two months. All I can say is that now it is time to leave I’m not really ready to leave. I have grown to love and cherish this place and these people. It has been home for the past two years, but now it actually really feels like home. As excited as I am for all the wonderful things that the US has to offer I am also terrified to have to transition back into American life and culture and re-establish and prove myself to myself all over again.

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