Let me tell you about a dream I had last night.
I was with my Peruvian community and we were preparing for a long journey. I didn’t know where we were going or how long it would take us (days, weeks, maybe longer), but I knew things would be better for us there.
We chose to take this journey by boat, raft, kayak—anything that would float—and headed down a twisting black river. I was on an old raft crammed in amongst others from my community. We spent all day on the river going through complicated rapids, over hidden falls, hanging up on trees and root wads. Soon it became pitch-black night and many of our boats were destroyed, possessions lost, and members taken by the swift current. We were cold, wet, and tired from the long day with all of our losses. Things were bleak.
As we pulled over for the night and sat on the shore, I decided to look for resources and I climbed up a steep embankment. When I reached the top I found myself on a beautiful, well maintained cement path that followed the river. It was not in fact night, but sunny and warm, and when I looked back in the direction from where we came I could see the point where we started only 100 yards away. We had gone through a tough, tumultuous, and long day, but we had barely gotten anywhere.
I was immediately annoyed and angry with my community, wondering why they had never used the path and why they had chosen to go along the dangerous and difficult river. It made no sense to me. But somehow I knew they knew the path existed, they had just always taken the river.
(Are you still with me? I promise, I'll get to a point.)
Soon the path was filled with people, specifically people from the U.S. Some of them were my friends, but most complete strangers. They were wandering this way and that, bumping into me, bumping into each other, talking about yoga classes, restaurants, concerts, and clothes. I knew the path could lead all of us to “the place” where things would be better, the place my community wanted to go to, but they were content to mingle and spend time along this part of the path. No one looked me in the eye, no one looked around at all, and they never looked down the embankment.
I didn’t know what to do. I knew the way my Peruvian community was going was not the best way, but that I would never get them to leave the river. On the path I was just as lost, pushed around by a crowd of people who didn’t seem to care about more than their next destination that would bring them to more personal gain. The dream ended with me frustrated, sad, feeling guilty for not being able to do more, and angry.
I can’t remember the last time I had a dream that was so symbolically straight-forward in its meaning. This dream is very much how I feel these days. I am on this journey with my Peruvian community working towards development, and it is a slow and arduous process, one that can hardly be measured. I have all these ideas on how things could progress, but I get near nowhere with them. And while I am on this journey with twists and turns that have changed my life, it will only be for a short while before I return home—the place where many people don’t get to experience this and have a harder time understanding it, and in short, have their “first-world problems.” In the U.S. we have so many opportunities the rest of the world doesn't, and yet so often we are stalled, not moving forward. And amongst it all, I am feeling so helpless. I dearly want to help, but due to so many factors I am often unable to do anything.
And as far as where the river and path lead to…well I’ll get to that in a minute.
I am not surprised that this dream followed a skype conversation I had with a dear friend of mine (my Loba!) who is freshly out of service, having COS’d right before Thanksgiving. I was telling her about some very upsetting things that have been happening in my site with the youth and the authorities, and she was telling me about her transition from campo life to the luxuries of the U.S.A. She is working on finding peace with the experiences, changes, and transitions with her service, and feelings that accompany all of it. For example, that we become part of a community and we live and laugh with these people, love them, mourn with them, and we become family, but how we also witness a lot of upsetting, tragic realities in our communities. And then, in her words, we get a “magic ticket” that just takes us away from it all. But these people don’t get to leave. These people that we bond to so tightly will continue to have hardships that aren’t even a reality of our U.S. lives, and in that there is a sense of guilt.
It reminds me of a Huffington Post blog that was being passed around by a few PCV’s titled Peace Corps Guilt. It was a post written by a PCV in Paraguay and she talked about the sense of guilt and helplessness she struggled with everyday in her service, and how it was connected to her feelings that all the first-world commodities she was still allowed seemed like frivolous expenses that could’ve in turn been used to do something simple like feed a starving child, family, community, etc. She wrote about how she never felt she was able to do enough and wanted to help with immediate needs of hunger and poverty but she couldn’t possibly solve this problem in a sustainable way. What it came down to for her, what she knew she could do, was Peace Corps goal 3; telling those back home about her experiences. And by doing so she would not solely hold the burden of wanting to change the world, but she would spread it out to others. Because the guilt associated with never being able to do enough and allowing others to live in impoverished conditions while we thrive belongs to everyone.
The guilt my friend and this Paraguay PCV are talking about I get. The feeling of helplessness, of never being able to do enough—oh, I get it. I have loaded on the guilt, telling myself I could always do better. I have fought and pushed for projects to go through, and when they didn’t I took a lot of the blame. I’ve been hiding the fact that I have enough money to go to my regional capital to watch a movie and get Starbucks a couple times a month. This is the inherit guilt many of us have when we enter our service, because no matter how integrated we get into our community, we are at an economic level that allows us more comfort than those around us. And well, we will always have that “magic ticket” that we can take at any moment.
However, I don’t wish guilt on everyone (although there are definitely guilty people out there I wish for one moment felt remorse). While guilt can be a good motivator, it is also an insatiable beast. I think the direction Loba is going in is the right way, in searching for peace in the midst of this transition. I also agree that educating people back home and doing our best to explain the reality of our experience is very important. And maybe I’m getting into a philosophical and ideological debate here—but do we have to feel guilt in order to be enlightened and want to change a situation?
Do my friends back home have to regret their yoga classes and happy hours and feel guilt for every latte they drank this week in order to learn about the need for a better public education system in Peru?
Does my family have to feel guilty for every meal they ever ate at a restaurant in order to understand the need for basic things like clean running water and waste management in the campo?
No, of course not. The U.S. and Peru have two very different realities. While I may joke about “first-world problems” everyone really does have their own problems, their own realities. Hardships come in many different ways. Yes, there is extreme extravagance and wealth in the U.S., and companies and organizations spending unseemly amounts of money on things that do not further our world in becoming a better place. But the people I will be talking to about my experience when I get home (and now through my blog) are first and foremost the people I love. I do not want to shower them with guilt, but with stories about all of the unique facets I have come to love and despise about Peru. I can in no way claim any sort of “higher moral ground” or martyrdom for being here and choosing to live and work in the 3rd world, I have just been allowed a perspective I didn’t have before; one that I hope I can share with my Peruvian community and with people back home.
Ever the idealist, I am literally dreaming of a better place—a place we all want to get to but for our own reasons just aren’t making our way in that direction. I saw the path so clearly, heading off in the direction of a beautiful scene of mountains and trees, the sun shining bright. I don’t know where it was going, and I couldn’t even tell you what it leads to, but I think it can only be described as progress.