Serving as a volunteer provides numerous unforeseen challenges and is a job that requires you to be “at work” 24/7. For even the most outgoing of volunteers, this can become tiring. For those who consider themselves introverts, it can leave you utterly drained. Yet, Kate Martin, a self-described introvert, had an amazing service, despite the pull to always be out in her community. It all comes down to knowing how to make your service yours and working within your personality and skill set.
Kate Martin’s Peace Corps Story
Where and when did you serve? What did you do?
Peru 2006-2008. I was a Community-Based Environmental Management Volunteer. I worked in a community of banana and cacao farmers, and organized town clean-ups, environmental education training, and a “healthy homes” initiative that collaborated with families to support the use of hand-washing, disinfected water, compost, and mini-landfills. I also had a women’s exercise group for the first year or so – we would run in the mornings and the doctor at the Puesto de Salud taught aerobics a few nights a week.
What is one of your favorite Peace Corps memories?
During my second year, we were asked by the Park Service Guards to serve as translators for the Finnish ambassador to Peru (like many things, we found out the day before that we were asked/expected to do this). I had a shared birthday party planned with my host family’s nephew, who also had a birthday in January, for the afternoon. We spent the morning in the dry forest with the park guards and the ambassador, and were running late to get back, and it was the first time I insisted that I needed to be somewhere on time – so much so that I had the park guards drop me off before we got back to the capital so I could take a moto-taxi across the river and get back to my community. We had an awesome birthday with super sweet cake and ridiculous pictures and it is one of my favorite memories because the desire to get back for this event let me know how attached I had become to my host family and community.
What is one of your least favorite Peace Corps memories?
A friend and I got mugged – we were leaving a bar and asked the bartender to find us a reliable moto-taxi driver. We got into the moto-taxi and the driver went back inside, which was out of the ordinary but so were lots of things, so we didn’t register it. He passed the street our hotel was on and turned up a different street. We were in the middle of telling him he missed our turn when another moto-taxi pulled up alongside us and banged on the roof and ordered us to get out. They pulled my friend to the ground and got his wallet and phone and I gave them the money I had. They left and we ran to our hotel. I was pretty shaken for the next several days because it was a reminder of how much we stuck out, even if we felt immersed in the culture. There was that shock of being pulled into someone else’s narrative of who we were (white tourists with pockets full of money) and out of the narrative we had built for ourselves (committed volunteers who finally blended in and were embraced by our host country). And we were both, and that is one of the ways I think Peace Corps really stretches you: you have exist in and honor multiple and often conflicting perspectives on your role for the part of your life you spend in service.
What do you miss about Peace Corps?
I miss my breakfast – my host mom made “chancado de plátano” with a boiled egg from our chickens and a homemade spicy vinegar. That meal is the thing that made me feel super cozy and at home when I went back to visit. I really miss how the kids moved in our town – they had pretty much free rein and everyone knew each other so they watched out for each other’s kiddos. Kids were super friendly and would come hold my hand and crawl in my lap. I miss that trust – from them and from their parents. I miss being out of an urban area. We had burrowing owls and pygmy owls and iguanas visit regularly and lots of other birds. It was nice to live so close to nature.
What is something you learned in the Peace Corps?
Everything I start to write is sounding like a cheeseball meme that should have a picture of a sunset or a beach behind it: we’re more alike than we think, or our differences dissolve through empathy – and it is really more nuanced because making connections across cultural differences is not easy or always joyful – but I do think that the ease or difficulty of connecting had way more to do with individuals and less to do with a culture or an economic status than I anticipated. I think this has given my brain the ability to really pause and think before I say “Peruvians are …. ” or “women are …” or “teachers are …” or whatever that would paint an entire group of people with broad strokes. There are lots of stories and personalities and circumstances within any grouping and my volunteer experience made me more aware that generalizations make the description easier for me but not more truthful and accurate about who I am trying to describe.
Do you have a favorite quote or local saying?
“No es costumbre” which means “it’s not the custom” and was used to explain everything from why you can’t go outside at night to why people didn’t wash their hands before eating. An object lesson in the fact that culture is created and is also so powerful that it comes to seem monolithic.