Service Week Five [The House with the Tree in Front]

(July 15, 2018) Update: I hit a rough spot and decided to capture it in this week’s post. It ultimately prompted me to reach out to fellow volunteers and check my perceptions. It took a couple days but I am better – no need to send in reinforcements. Nearly every five minutes there is a high and then a smack down. For those of you reading along, I thought I’d preserve and share the ugly spots that make the rest that much truer. -J

Note. This week’s post is brought to you by an alter-Jess’ anger translator.


One-sentence summary: My host-sister and I had our first conflict resolution “talk” and you know how much I love addressing conflict; I am officially too old to stay up until 5am with 20-year-olds; an alpine start to a regional eco-tourism meeting possibly promising all my Peace Corps hopes and dreams; my first site-visit with PC staff was a felt like a semi-disaster; how to go about processing and re-packaging feelings of inadequacy and my worst fear: I am not enough.

P.S. Sorry, email subscribers. You got an early shot-off-the-bow and now a more calm, politically correct-er version.

Right Now: Each day is hard because I don’t know if I am doing anything right or wrong. And when it goes really wrong… everything I do must all be wrong. Right?

Expression of the week: “Tienes chispa!” (You have spark, brightness of light)

Regional Business Owners on a Tour of Tarmatambo, Junin


Turns out “the toughest job you’ll ever love” is a pretty choice marketing slogan.

“The job that blindsides you, throws you in the deep-end, dunks you underwater while tying on the kiddie floats, gives you opposing directions, and confirms you are doing everything wrong that you thought you loved last week” just somehow doesn’t roll off the tongue the same way. Probably wouldn’t sell many tickets to the show either.

The first month of service is like trying to find someone from the single clue: “My house is the one with the tree out front.” The past month I was patient with myself, with the process, not taking dismissals as failures, and was being super creative and persistent. Sure, ups and downs, but I know thought think know my only job is to listen, observe, and build confianza and relationships. Just take a deep breath and start knocking on all doors with the trees out front.

Finally, Week Five Monday, all this work paid off. I secured a sexy work project and socios I am so! stinking! excited! about! and who – bonus – are (at least mildly) excited to work with me.


Finally. The joy of a first breakthrough and validation of a small success.

…For all of 18 hours.

[Spoiler Alert: Any PCV 31/+ subscribers don’t read this post until after your site review please. It is not going to help.]

Tarma, Junín Plaza

The crash and burn (we knew it was coming – no one is allowed to say they are happy on the Internet, even if you are Beyoncé) happened at my first Peace Corps “review.”

Summary of what I heard*: You are doing everything wrong. You should be doing it differently. Why didn’t you try this? Why didn’t you do that? It’s because you didn’t do this. That need/want/concern isn’t valid. And my personal favorite, speaking in another language, [no response at all] = you are wrong.

It has been 32 days since I started in Oxapampa.

17 working days.

Remember the last job you started? How did you feel when you told you weren’t meeting standards no one gave you after the first month?

I feel like the one in the corner.

To be fair, my assigned staff person did not come in from nowhere, with a clipboard, ranking me with a measuring tape and putting big, fat red X’s in “does not meet standard” boxes I had never seen before.

But it is what it felt like.

And like you, dear Reader, I am also not certain what is filter, what is lens, what is the perfect storm of a Shitty Tuesday, or who/if/what it is worth reaching out to check myself. So I looked around, didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask, felt betrayed by the organization that told me it was here to support me, and ugly cried.

*Come along with me while I unpack this week’s existential crisis:

  • I know I am a perfectionist.

As a child, I would walk out of student-parent-teacher conferences (sorry Jay and Toni) in hysterics because of one piece of constructive feedback out of 100 glowing reviews in a sea of straight A’s. I have learned, over the years and quite a few evaluations (thanks NOLS) to be more objective and welcome constructive feedback as how to improve. However, when I lose my confident equilibrium (new country, all alone, new language) it is hard for me to listen to “challenges” objectively and with an open mind. So maybe, just maybe, it is all just amplified.

  • Tranquilo.

[I will kick the next person who tells me to calm down and not worry – or specifically, not care as much. I am going to have words for them.] This is not life or death. This is not life or death. This is stupid government checkboxes paper evaluations that no one in real life cares about. True. Even this blog post seems blown out of proportion to me – but it’s real. It is why I haven’t stopped crying yet.  (I stopped crying Thursday. The irony.)

Even so. I don’t want to live a life where I care less.

  • Lost in translation

I misunderstood the words, tone, and delivery in Spanish and exchanging feedback in a different culture. Also, already on the defense, everything feels like an attack. Hard to stop and ask clarifying questions when you’re already ugly crying on your heels. Classic NOLS acronym – don’t give constructive feedback if HALT: hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. Hey Peace Corps: Your volunteers are likely 1 to 4 of these at all times.

  • Assume good intent

From what I have heard, our Peace Corps staff is meant to be our support and advocates. Not judges and jury. They are also dealing with a trickle down of paperwork, mandates, and checkboxes. The expectations and resulting pressures placed on staff is likely 100x worse.

So if any of that reasoning above is true, and likely, a large amount of it, why do I feel like my heart was ripped open and stomped on after my first check-in? Is it just me?

Building on an Inca Trail in Tarmatambo, Junín

I feel like my wires are crossed and I can’t decode the right message. One message during Pre-Service Training is in the first three months our only job is to “stay alive – everything else is a bonus.” (h/t MEW). The more formal programming philosophy for the first 90-days is to focus on building relationships, settling in our homes, build self-confidence and trust in ourselves, our families, and in our communities. Another PC message includes a scavenger hunt list of demands (check-boxes) we accomplish and report by a certain deadline. Another message is from our assigned community work partners who think we are placed here to teach their kids English or to scrub the bathrooms. A group of fellow volunteers in WASH said they haven’t done anything yet and their reviews went great. Is my program being held to another standard? Am I? Another PC message received: “Why haven’t you shown any progress in working with your assigned socio? You need to do all your projects through this socio. Not work outside of them. You need to include them. And this is a skill you’re going to have to get good at since the entire municipality staff changes in six months all over again.”

(Feeling totally supported, by the way.)

Entering an Incan Ruin with a guide in Tarmatambo, Junín

Here is a brief inventory of the successes that I wish (even one) was acknowledged by PC staff:

  1. Successfully living with a new host family
  2. Initiating and developing a variety of relationships within the community
  3. Eating cow foot Jello with a smile
  4. Prioritizing emotional and physical health
  5. Acting as a support system for fellow volunteers
  6. Not falling in love with my married socio and driving his motorcycle during our unapproved vacation in Brazil during Carnival
  7. Excellence in deadlines, response to staff, and thorough, thoughtful reporting
  8. Persistence in logistics (such as getting approval for tutoring, contacting my tutor, bike application, etc.)
  9. Being hilarious in sub-par Spanish
  10. Excellence in tolerance for adversity
  11. Not being hit by (or physically hitting back) a moto-taxi or eaten by a pack of dogs
  12. Success in language immersion
  13. Professionalism in representing the Peace Corps and USA
  14. You left your best friend Cabot to do this? You’re so awesome
  15. Showing up every day at “work” in an undefined work structure
  16. Finding interested socios and projects within program goals
  17. Picking up drunk people’s trash in the woods every morning
  18. Sharing American culture with Peruvians (Goal 2 Peace Corps)
  19. Using MacGyver tricks to hold my underwear together
  20. Sharing Peruvian culture with Americans (Goal 3 Peace Corps)

Also maybe just asking how the hell I am doing. [#allcaps]

That’s all.

Eco-Tourism (Oxa) Group at Hotel Tarma

I feel hurt. I feel confused. I feel worn out enough that I don’t want to ask for any more help, call a friend who can just nod, or talk in falta Spanish to my host family. I want to pout. I want to rent 100 movies and eat trashy food and hide under my covers for three days until I stink badly enough or I am bored enough to start again.

But someone texts to meet for coffee also having a rough go. It is hard to feel sorry for ourselves when we can listen to someone else. Another volunteer took me out for a walk and helped me pick the bones of this post. Another friend from far away just throws me a foothold. And I get up, go for a hike, and force my terror-filled face into a terror-drenched, F-shaped smile and start the next day all over again. Si se goddamn puedes.

Maybe I am the only volunteer in the history of Peace Corps who didn’t get her gold star the first month. Maybe I have no idea what’s going on. But then again, maybe I am pissed off enough to know I am doing the best I can and if no one else is going to tell me this, I have to figure out, believe, and repeat, that my best is good enough. Tengo chispe, bitches.

Vamos a ver, amigos.

A Parting Shot

Everyone is Happy as Tiramisu Ice Cream on the Social Internet

14 Replies to “Service Week Five [The House with the Tree in Front]”

    1. I had to Google to see if that was a line from one of your characters. Now I just know that’s high praise for my writing 🙂 and the best response I could ever not have thought of ❤


  1. Good God Jess if nothing else you HAVE TO WRITE A BOOK. You are an amazing writer my friend. Fuck that review. So what if the cream is all over the damn table. I love you so much my friend. (That book is gonna make you rich.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. With support like you I may just finally give it a go. That was just the hug I needed. I think I’d rather risk starting and finishing a book than living for the checkboxes. Hugs back.


  2. Jess your a New Boston girl, so that means you are perfect!! If you want me to round up Gretch, Darla maybe a few others to come down and clean a few clocks, we will round up our JRTs and sort it all out, Love Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bwahaha I think I could only go on his adventure because I know a crew like yours always has my back. All my love and hugs and this comment was like a big hug from Debbie. My heart.


  3. Your list of successes sums it all up. You KNOW what you are doing well, and right. I know you care about the review, and maybe should…to an extent. But you KNOW what you are doing well, and right. Keep on keeping’ on. You will look back on this amazing piece of prose and laugh one day while reveling in the fact that you are not there still. You won’t be. Miss you, strong lady. (PS. I kind of tired of the Kenyans always saying “Pole Pole, mwalimu!” I didn’t need to be told to slow down or calm down…I was just doing my job the way I knew how. A little empathy, though I don’t stand in your shoes.).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What I know about you is that you held me together through the scary ocean in the Galapagos and brought me back alive, all the while keeping me laughing. Supervisors don’t always get things right. I prefer your assessment list…it sounds much more like the Jess I know.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh Michele. My heart. Thank you for reminding me of that moment we had together. I think I am here to get an intensive course on letting things go. Thank you for your ❤ and note.


  5. “I don’t want to live a life where I care less”… always give your best and full heart because honestly you wouldn’t even know how to do anything differently. If someone questions your work or effort, all the way from Oregon, I can say they are not looking in the right places and need glasses. Your amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I hope this all ends up as a book (obviously best seller) someday! It’s just so good! Raw and real, happy, sad, excited, low, confused, frustrated and exultant! ♥️

    Liked by 1 person

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