Peace Corps Surprises

When I signed up for the Peace Corps I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I could expect from my experience.   I did lots of research, asked lots of questions and got a lot of good information reading the blogs of current and past volunteers.

But no matter how prepared you think you may be, it is unlikely that your Peace Corps service will be anything like you expect.   For some volunteers, that is a bad thing and they end up going home early, others do the best they can with the unexpected and others find that their experience is very different, but perhaps better than they ever expected.

As I wrap up 18 months in Tonga, I find that I’m in that latter category.   I came here with very few expectations and have found joining Peace Corps to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

When I signed up I was prepared to live on a small island, perhaps with no electricity and certainly didn’t expect to have access to the Internet daily.  I imagined I would be working with just one or probably just a couple of businesses helping them in my role as a business advisor.   When I thought about the friends I would make, I always thought in terms of the host country nationals in the country where I would be serving and never really thought much about getting to know my fellow volunteers.   I figured I would be living in a small village and would know everyone by name and they would probably know me.  I also thought I would be alone most of the time and that I would probably read more books than I ever imagined.   I thought I might read those books by candlelight or a small kerosene lantern. 

My friends had a different idea of what my Peace Corps experience would be like.  One told me of his experience living in a Peace Corps house with armed guards and another friend wanted to know if I would be digging ditches, which is kind of the Peace Corps cliché.   Others joked that I would be living like Tom Hanks in the movie “Castaway” and another thought my work would be like that of a missionary.

In reality, none of my expectations nor the predictions of my friends turned out to be reality.

My “surprises” have for the most part been positive.  I’ve made many friends but it hasn’t just been with the Tongans.  It has been with my fellow volunteers and also with many of the people who live here…the so called “ex-pats”  from the US, New Zealand and Australia that run many of the tourism related businesses.

Instead of working with just one or two businesses, I’ve worked with many businesses through my job at the Tonga Development Bank.   The bank’s goal for me has been to help any business that needs help and that includes businesses that don’t do business with the bank. 

I live in a pretty nice house by Peace Corps standards and I have electricity and running water almost all the time.  Tonga is still a developing country so those services are not always reliable. I have slow, but daily access to the Internet and through that have been able to keep in contact with my friends and family.  Clearly my standard of living is no where close to what I was accustomed to in the USA but I’m doing just fine.

I live in a town.  It’s not large, but it’s certainly not a village.   I know a lot of people and certainly a lot more people know me.   I’m still surprised with strangers come up to me and call me “Steve”.   The nice thing about the town is that it’s big enough that I still meet new people on a regular basis.

I never imagined I would be taking “business trips” in Tonga, but I’ve been to most of the outer islands in Vava’u and have been to the Ha’apai Island group and some of its islands as well.  I’ve made three trips to ‘Eua and am scheduled to do a lot more traveling this year before the end of my service.

But to be fair, not all of the surprises have been pleasant.

I’ve been really sick just once and had a bizarre case of fish poisoning that caused me to temporarily lose 80% use of my left arm and hand.   I have learned which Tongan foods will “give me the runs” and which ones won’t.  I’ve also eaten many things I never thought I would eat and I’ve had cravings for “Real” American food more times than I can count.

I was robbed while staying at the Friendly Islander Motel and I have had to say goodbye to friends who have either completed their service or who left early.

When I look back at the past 18 months I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed.  My good days have far outweighed the bad days and as I write this, there has never been a day when I felt like quitting.

Very soon a new group of Americans will begin getting invitations to come serve their country in Tonga.  These will be the people who will replace my group once we come home in December.  Tonga is not for everyone.   There are times when you will wonder why you are here and even why Peace Corps is here.   Some volunteers have had really unfortunate things happen during their service…things a lot worse than anything that has happened to me.   And some people come here with very unrealistic expectations either about Peace Corps or about what they think they can accomplish.  However, I can’t imagine that for me, I would have been as happy serving anywhere other than Tonga.

I look forward to my remaining months of service but I also look forward to coming home.  I know that while my real home is in the USA,  I know that Tonga will always be a part of me.

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