Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What I Learned in Peace Corps: Advice For New Volunteers

I am leaving El Salvador in 4 weeks. I have been looking back on the past two years trying to figure out what I would say to the class of volunteers that just arrived. What gems of wisdom can I give them. I know they will either ignore everything I say or it will get lost in the jumble of new information they will receive, but maybe one or two of them will remember some piece of advice 

You will be served food with bones in it. Even if the food seems as though bones have no place being there, there they will be. Get over it, bones never hurt anybody. Also at some point in time you will have food that contains at least one of the following: eyes, feet, intestines, brain, scales, lungs and/or testicles. Be gracious and learn the phrase 'Me hace daño'.

When someone dies, go to the wake. It is not important how well you knew the deceased. Your community will love you so much more when they see you supporting the family in mourning. Go for a few hours, eat a tamale. Sure it may be awkward for you, but it is a great way to integrate yourself, and no one else there will think it is weird.

Always carry toilet paper with you. Bathrooms here either do not have any, or they charge to use it. Be prepared.

On that note, it is wise to also carry around a mini- first aid kit. I started in training, and got made fun of for it. Sure my baggy containing band-aids, Advil, Sudefed, Imodium, Benedril, a nail file, re-hydration salts, toilet paper and extra underwear (because you just never know) may have seemed excessive to some, but I cannot tell you how often it came in handy. Also how often people have come to me because they needed something medical and were just unprepared.

Try not to judge yourself when general hygiene goes out the window. Because it will go out the window. You will preach washing your hands 1 million times a day, but after you finish eating your dinner with your fingers, you will wipe your hands on your pants. Or how you go days without bathing. It is hot, so you want/ need to take a bucket bath. But it is too hot to motivate to actually do it. It is a vicious cycle that can last days. It's ok, scoff now. Judge me please. Just come talk to me in 6mo to a year and let me know if you are still holding up.

This one is for the ladies. Guy volunteers get off easy when it comes to laundry. Guys will almost never have to do their own laundry. It is just not the custom down here. I felt for most of my service that I could not pay someone to wash my laundry for me, as I was afraid the women in my community would look down on me for it. Like 'Oh she can't even do her own laundry, she must be useless.' That is ridiculous. The first time I asked a neighbor to wash a guacual of clothes for me, I felt so free. That was one less item on my giant list of things to do. Also when I got my clothes back I was stunned to see that they were significantly cleaner than when I wash them myself. Especially my white shirts, it was like they were new again! I still do most of my own laundry, but it is nice to know that when I am feeling overwhelmed with everything I can ask for help on this one, time consuming task and it makes my life easier and you are giving a couple of bucks to a family who can probably use it. Also it is shamefully cheap to have your clothes washed down here, and the families can always use the money.

Stay hydrated! It is hot in most of El Salvador. If you do not drink excess water it is easy to not even realize how quickly you start to feel the side effects of dehydration. Perhaps you won't even feel the effects of it until it is too late... then you must drink the re-hydration salts. Trust me water tastes significantly better than the re-hydration salts.

The odds that you will poop you pants here are high. Just accept this fact now and your service will have a little less stress. I have a strong stomach and almost never get sick and it happened to me. Just stay calm and make sure you are prepared.

If you have people in your community that you do not get along with, take a deep breath. Do not let them ruin your service. There are exceptions to every rule, but you probably won't have to work with these people if you do not want to. Find the community members that understand you and are excited to help with your projects.

Papaya cures everything. When I first got to country it seemed like papaya was their solution to any medical problem I brought to PC staff. I scoffed at first, but papaya is great. It can help clear up anything from stomach trouble to an ingrown toenail. Fact.

But most of all I would just say, stick it out. Sometimes it will be hard and uncomfortable, but it is totally worth it.


  1. Great advice! I hope you gave that talk to all the newbies that came to your site last weekend.


  2. Now we just need someone to write an 'Advice: Reintegration into the US' post for you!

  3. I just accepted the invitation to serve in El Salvador for July 2013 and I'm so happy I have your blog to read before I get there!! Great advice!