Robert Strauss, a former Peace Corps Country Director recently opined in the New York Times that “For the Peace Corps, the number of volunteers has always trumped the quality of their work, perhaps because the agency fears that an objective assessment of its impact would reveal that while volunteers generate good will for the United States, they do little or nothing to actually aid development in poor countries. The agency has no comprehensive system for self-evaluation, but rather relies heavily on personal anecdote to demonstrate its worth.” He argued that the Peace Corps sends too many recent college grads who lack the skills to do their jobs. I disagree with Strauss and wrote the following response. Other letters both agreed and disagreed with his assessment. Perhaps it’s not fair to generalize from one’s own experience–which goes for Strauss and me.
I pride myself on being an omnivore–at least I did until I read Michael Pollan’s,"The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals." In it, he explains how the food that’s on our plates–whether it’s a Big Mac from McDonald’s, an organic meal purchased at Whole Foods, a local meal produced by a sustainable farm or one that you might hunt for yourself makes it to the table. The book lives up to the dictionary definition of dilemma, "a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives." The story of how food arrives on our plates is complex–but Pollan explains it in heartbreaking detail–the amount of carbon fuel required to produce organic crops, the bushels of corn required to fatten a chicken to the guilty pleasure he gets from hunting–it’s all in there, in wonderful, engrossing detail.
Having read the book, I almost wish that I had not eaten from Pollan’s tree of knowledge–I want back into my ignorant Garden of Eatin’ where I was happy with the stories I purchased from Whole Foods or the convenience of my McDonald’s Egg McMuffin. Though I must continue eating, it’s impossible to revert to ignorance–instead, I have to live in denial. It won’t be the first time. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I lived close to Pollan’s ideal. My family had a garden, kept animals, and prided themselves on growing everything without chemicals and preserving foods through natural processes. When I wanted a turkey for an American style Thanksgiving celebration, they introduced me to my neighbors who introduced me to the turkeys. I thought, "I didn’t want to meet and greet you, I just wanted to eat you." but there I was holding the squirming bird to see if he was big enough. (He was.) I must admit, those were some of the most delectable birds I’ve tasted, but still I longed for the familiar seemingly antiseptic Butterball. They were so much less messy.
All of the sudden those folks who are trying to eat local seem a little bit more rational, and I’m longing for the days when my Lithuanian hosts would go out and grab the eggs from the chicken coop in the morning. I used to fret when I met an animal, and they told me when he was going to expire–"oh, the pig? Easter." I was still living in my saran wrapped cocoon of ignorance. Now my cozy cocoon’s been torn again–and I’m thinking, heh, isn’t New Jersey the Garden State? Maybe there’s an answer on a local farm…
Recently, I received a questionnaire from Susquehanna University, my alma mater, asking about my Peace Corps service. I thought my responses lent themselves to a blog post. I elaborate on the "right" time to serve, my living conditions, work placement and what I found most challenging as a volunteer. Overall, I highly recommend Peace Corps. It exceeded my expections and I treasure the experience. I also posted some pictures.
Bloggers Note: Today’s blizzard got me thinking of Siberia, so I exiled myself to my computer and resized a few photos, which don’t quite do the terrain justice. I wrote this piece in 1997 not too long after I got home and hoped to sell it to the Newark Star-Ledger or the NY Times. No such luck, but here it is. – Ted
Let’s play word association. I say Siberia. You say the first five words that pop into your head.
"Snow, Dr. Zhivago, Snow, Bears, Snow, and Exiles."
No points for repeats–I’ll give you one for bears, and allow Dr.
Zhivago, but you won’t find any snow in Siberia in the summertime, and
the exiles living in Siberia now are there of their own free will, so
are no longer exiles at all. So what does happen in Siberia these days?
“Imagine that you wake up in a strange land. Your room is small but comfortable. As the sun streams through fine lace curtains, you look at your watch. It’s 4:30 A.M., far too early for the sun to be shining. Then you remember: Thirty-five years after President Kennedy’s call to serve, you’re in the Peace Corps, and you’re going to be living in this strange land for the next two years.” An excerpt from ‘Two Years of Cyber Deprivation’ Download full article.
Bloggers Note – I wrote this article for Cybertimes, an offshoot of the New York Times web site, shortly after I returned from my Peace Corps service and started temping at the New York Times electronic media company. I went from being a teacher in Rietavas, a town of 4,000 in western Lithuania, where I awoke to the crowing and mooing of our neighbor’s farm to honking horns and screeching New York City subways. Needless to say, my head was spinning. The most difficult aspect of my Peace Corps service was coming home. Though I spoke the language and dressed the part, I felt as though I didn’t belong. Everyone had two years of references that I didn’t get, and I had two years of references that were foreign to folks back home. However, I couldn’t have picked a better place to land than New York City–where an escape to a foreign country was always only a few blocks, or subway stops away.
The scene in Rietavas, Lithuania, on September 1, 1996– it’s the first day of school. (imagine a similar picture at every school in Lithuania, Russia and the former Soviet Union). Tradition dictates that the oldest 12th grade students escort the youngest first grade students to their classes. Students, parents and teachers don their best clothes. The 12th grade students opted to wear their Soviet-era black and brown uniforms. Students held fresh flowers to greet their teachers and perhaps soften them up a bit. We gathered first in church (Lithuania’s an overwhelmingly Catholic country.) It was sunny, crisp, beautiful day–one of my favorites as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The town came together, whether they had children or not, and saw the children off to school. A soviet relic with charm. September 1, is or rather was, always a joyous, hopeful day.
Athens, August 21. The Lithuanian basketball team
beat the US, 94 to 90. I am not a huge basketball fan, but as a returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Lithuania, 95-97) the result made me smile. Basketball is a sacred sport in Lithuania. Vaidas Paulauskas, a student, usually quiet during classes that stressed English conversation, always chatted me up after school about the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan. He’d go onto remind me that Lithuania’s best, then Marciulionis and Sabonis, played in the US. Lithuania is a small nation of 4 million, but its presence looms large in basketball circles.
For most of the 20th century Lithuania was caught up in global power plays–falling under Russian, German, and then Soviet domination. (The Soviets were kind enough to co-opt the best Lithuanian basketball players for their Olympic team before Lithuania broke free in 1991.) Nevertheless, it’s not often that a small country goes up against the legendary American dream team and wins. Yesterday, in beating the US, Lithuania showed that passion, practice and persistence can take down a giant.
As an American, I’m a little embarrassed that we’re getting trounced in a sport that we invented and where athletes command multi-million dollar salaries. As a returned Peace Corps Volunteer, I am overjoyed for my adopted country. In America, we expect to dominate. This reversal, an object lesson in hubris, is refreshing–if fleeting. My guess is the Americans will be more focused in the finals, but I’ll still be rooting for Lithuania.