Greg Emerson began his Peace Corps journey in Morocco but was evacuated from the country before swearing in, when the US invaded Iraq. Months later, he flew to Peru, where he would spend two years working high in the Andes mountains.
On this Episode:
- Taking on a new name in a new country
- Trying to be the same as the locals, and learning that it would never be possible
- How a foreign Peace Corps volunteer could bring people working in the same community together
Photos from Greg’s Story
Greg’s Peace Corps Story
Where and when did you serve? What did you do?
My Peace Corps service began in Morocco in 2003, where I was sent as an environment volunteer. I was assigned a site on a gazelle reserve near Safi but never got to serve there because the program was suspended when the Iraq war began.
I was reassigned to Peru and served two years as a community health volunteer in the high Andes, living in a Quechua village and spending most of my time on nutrition and general hygiene projects.
What is one of your favorite Peace Corps memories?
I had many positive moments in my Peace Corps service, both in Morocco and Peru, related to the work and to my life outside of development work, but one moment that stands out to me comes from the end of my service in Peru, and the goodbye party that we had when I left.
It wasn’t just a good party – it was a tangible example of how my presence there, I think, bridged some gaps among the locals themselves that otherwise would not have happened.
As the lone foreigner in this mountain valley, everyone was curious about me for different reasons. For the group of mothers in my Quechua villages, I was not quite a child, not quite a partner, not quite an authority figure, but rather a little bit of all of them. For the teachers who came from the nearby city to our school, I was a peer, a fellow outsider. For the health post workers, also from outside of the village, I was a coworker and assistant. For the men and leaders of the village, I was, like them, a trusted and respected elder.
My “despedida” from Collon brought all of these groups together around the same table.
The conversation quickly turned into a discussion of my staying in Collon, taking a local girl as my wife and living out my days in the mountains. When I respectfully declined, it was suggested I marry the nurse from the health post, and once again live out my days in the high Andes. As we ate and drank more, inhibitions dripped away until we were engaged in a frank and hilarious discussion of sex in the village, sex in the city, masturbation and everything in between. These were subjects that rarely came up in plenty of other drunken conversations I had had (certainly not that graphic), and certainly never with such a mixed group as this.
I remember sitting at one end of the table and watching them talk with each other about all these things, laughing in part because of the taboo, but also learning about each other and about how differently they all experienced lust and intimacy. The villagers learned that city people take off all of their clothes to have sex (!), the city folks learned that a knobby potato could double as a sex toy, and they all came away from it with a much more nuanced view of how the other side lives despite the desires they all share.
I am quite sure that that conversation wouldn’t have happened without my presence, and it was humbling to see how, without my actively doing anything, I could facilitate Peruvians of different backgrounds understanding each other more than they had before I arrived.
What is one of your least favorite Peace Corps memories?
Most of the negative experiences I had in Peru have to do with money, and there was one incident about halfway through my service that reminded me that to some people, no matter how much the town accepted me as one of their own, continued to see me as a dollar sign.
Being at the head of a valley that led to a few beginner- and intermediate-level mountains to climb, Collon had regular visits during climbing season from foreigners coming to do some mountaineering. Many families had donkeys and would serve as porters for those groups, making good money to supplement their income from growing potatoes.
There was one guy I didn’t know too well but interacted with regularly as one of the porters, whom I considered a friend as much as the other men I worked with, who came to my house a few days after a job bringing a climbing group’s gear up to base camp with his donkeys. He was dejected, telling me that the bank in town wouldn’t change the money the clients had given him for Peruvian soles and how it was going to make his family go hungry.
It turned out that these were traveler’s checks, that he had brought to the bank unsigned. Knowing that these were worthless without that signature, I let him know that, and he broke down, saying that he had been deceived and that the foreigners and the banks just take advantage of people like him. He asked for my help, and I knew the only way that I could do that was to sign them myself and do what the forgetful tourist had not.
Of course, it turned out that the checks were reported stolen, and when I received word that the bank was looking for me, I had a sinking feeling that I knew why. As it turned out, my privileged position as an American volunteer in a poor Peruvian village meant that as long as the bank was made whole, they weren’t interested in arresting me for fraud, so I paid them the equivalent and knew that I faced a difficult conversation when I returned to the village.
I lost a bit of my innocence and naivete that day, when I confronted the porter in front of his family and asked him why the checks had been reported stolen when he had told me they were given to him by his clients, and while he tried to play dumb he broke down when I made it clear the position he had put me in. I knew it was myself who was at fault for my inability to say no to him, but when I realized (and he did) that things like this could get me sent home prematurely, I was angry. He clearly hadn’t realized the magnitude of the transgression, and acknowledged he had taken the checks from the client’s bag thinking it was an easy way to get a little bit more cash, and I never forgave him.
I had integrated very well into village life by then, and really felt a kinship with the villagers, who were often treated as somewhat disposable by the more modern elements of society around them, and I really thought they felt the same. That I was one of them.
Whether or not that was true, I also realized that no matter what, I was different. I did have money, and I did have resources, and I was able to live with a significant safety net around me both in Peru and anywhere else I would go. It was naive of me to think otherwise, and I was a bit more realistic in my assessment of my position in Collon after that.
What do you miss about the Peace Corps?
I will miss the close connection with nature, weather, the seasons, the animals that rural living in Peru and Morocco made so obvious. So much of life outside of cities is determined by forces beyond one’s control, and you live at the mercy of what Mother Nature throws at you.
I grew up and have lived in cities most of my life, and there’s a certain freedom I felt in giving up the control over what you are going to do today to the whims of rain, planting season, harvest season and all of the natural forces that determine what you do and when you can do it.
You don’t need to worry about all the things you have to do in town if the road is washed out for a week after a heavy rainstorm.
What is something you learned in the Peace Corps?
In Morocco, a volunteer who was close to the end of his service came to speak with us trainees and he gave a piece of advice that is especially true in the Peace Corps but I have come to realize resonates no matter what you are doing in life: Don’t compare.
In the Peace Corps, this means don’t compare your service to anyone else’s: Every volunteer is different, every site is different, every counterpart is different. Don’t feel bad because another volunteer can get people to come to meetings while you sit for hours waiting for someone to show up to your handwashing lesson. Don’t feel worthless because you haven’t learned the local language as well as another volunteer. There are many different ways to be successful.
In life, this idea has helped me not be too self-critical when things don’t go according to plan, and it has helped me feel empathy with others who come from different places than I do. We are all different, and just because some things come more easily to some people more than others, we all bring something unique and valuable to the table in everything we do.
Do you have a favorite quote or local saying?
The Quechua language and culture that I was immersed in in my village in Peru wasn’t the most lyrical or expressive, so I didn’t come away with many quotes and sayings. One thing I think of though is how people address each other and the honorifics and nicknames that I was called during my time there.
First of all, the Spanish version of my name, Gregorio, had a Quechua equivalent in “Llicu”. I was called “Don Llicu” from the beginning of my time in Collon, which was a term of respect given to me by sheer virtue of the fact that I was an American who had chosen to give up the comforts of home and come live with them for a few years.
It wasn’t until I had been there for maybe six months that some people (my host family first, then others) called me “Llicu cholo”, the second part being a kinda-disparaging term for a child who is a bit of a troublemaker.
When they started calling me that it signaled a change to a more familiar relationship, one in which they could call me an ostensibly disrespectful name because they knew that they could get away with it, that we could joke around and drop the formality that most of my early interactions with people carried.
More from Greg and Peace Corps Stories: The Unofficial Podcast