It’s true, there’s not denying it. Peace Corps and the experience of Peace Corps volunteers is in some ways markedly different than in the early stages of Peace Corps during the 1960s-1990s. No longer are volunteers necessarily roughing it in mud huts, without light for two years. Nor are volunteers isolated and completely out of touch with the world around them. And yes, Skype, video chatting and e-mail are pretty common means of communication. Does that mean Peace Corps is any less difficult?
First, let’s talk about technology. With developing countries, it’s often that technological development ‘skips’ a stage or two. With developed countries to pour in the R&D, developing countries can adapt to the technology that may or may not directly benefit them. For example, in many parts of the world it’s common that people don’t have landlines, but carry cell phones. Kids in my town have never seen an Apple II, but frequently use MSN Messenger and play Grand Theft Auto on internet connected computers. Technology has changed things not only for Peace Corps volunteers living in remote rural communities, but also for the world at large. And it is actually more common to communicate electronically between cell phones, chat, and text rather than Snail Mail service. Internet costs S/1 (35 cents) an hour, and volunteers often pre-type e-mails home whereas mailing a letter to the States costs, aprox S/7 or $2.50, which is costly when you make $300/month.
Beyond that, I can only really speak for PC/Peru. Part of your living conditions depends on your program and it’s objectives, as well as safety and security. Programs might focus on certain areas, sectors or populations, which may make your site a big city or a small farming annex.
Even more with security, Peace Corps Peru has requirements where volunteers can and can’t live. It’s required that volunteers live with host families during their service, and most will actually live in the house and be part of the family. For that, they need to find a family with an extra room as well as in a safe area, with certain physical aspects of the house (barred windows, solid doors) and most often these families tend to be more well-off members of the community and thus the volunteers tend to live in the better parts of the town. And I don’t think any member of the community really judges that the gringo lives in the nicer part…why would they? The other members of the community would probably like to live their too if they had the choice.
And with the increase of communication, comes the increase in responsibility. There’s more structure and a certain pressure from each program to achieve a number of ‘changed outcomes’ each couple of months. We have weekly interaction with someone from the administration, whether it’s the doctor, regional coordinator or the program director. Most Peace Corps business is conducted through e-mail unless it’s been established that the volunteer DOESN’T have a reliable connection every one-two weeks. Many of the e-mails require follow-up in some form or another, which is time consuming and slightly stressful for the volunteer especially when you have over 100 messages between Peace Corps, friends, families, and offers to increase your member size with just one tiny pill.
As well, volunteers aren’t free to roam about their country and are required to be in their site. Sounds a bit obvious, but a week of disappearing to the beach or for a multi-day hike without previous authorization just doesn’t exist. Volunteers are granted a certain number of vacation days, and have to request in advance to use them. Furthermore, volunteers are required to report to HQ when they spend time out of their site, or pretty much when we don’t sleep in our own beds. Illegal vacations, or taking time out of site without proper reporting, are grounds for disciplinary actions and even early termination. Given all this, we often question whether or not volunteer is our true job title, given all the formalities and requirements imposed.
I’m not complaining about the requirements, as they all have their base and reason. However, Peace Corps isn’t the two year free-ride foreign vacation courtesy of the US government some make it out to be. With all the requirements, goals, and objectives it is an actual job, and the title of volunteer can be misleading. But as the pamphlets and web banners say, Peace Corps is the toughest job you’ll ever love.