El Clima June 2015 – “Posh Corps”

by a PCV in Ecuador

This is re-posted from the volunteer magazine El Clima.

Definition: Peace Corps site placements that lack the stereo- typical hardships of service. Sites with: running water, electricity, internet, washers and dryers, in- door plumbing, and/or hot water.

Among volunteers, this term can be loaded, implying that a volunteer is not suffering enough to earn real PCV status. The need of the countries we serve reflects the type of work and lifestyle that volunteers lead while they are abroad. I’d like to break the stereotype, without going too far into murky waters, which seems to be rooted in the nostalgia for the 1960s and reflects a paternalistic ideal of the world beyond U.S. borders.

As a volunteer in a middle-class community of educated professionals, I count myself among those who are in “posh corps” placements. At times, because of the idea that people have of “rough and tough” for Peace Corps, my middle-class life- style made me feel that I would let people at home down if they knew how much I was not suffering in Ecuador. Or that, frankly, my family would not support my being here if my placement were not “hard enough.” I signed up for worldwide service; yet here I am, working and enjoying some amenities common to the U.S., just like the population of the teach- ers I work with. I am as guilty as anyone for believing my experi- ence would be like the posters, something like a very rainy season on M*A*S*H with fewer martinis, and English teaching instead of surgery. It is nothing like I imag- ined, except for the teaching part. Also, there’s a lot more rum and zhumir here than gin. This may be a sign that recruitment propaganda is in need of an overhaul.Cuenca

Needless to say, I was uneducated about Ecuador and the TEFL program. That in itself is an important reason to come: to expel provincial ideas about the world that I unknowingly maintained. Volunteers live at the level of the people in their community with the goal of integrating into that community. This allows us to better share our expertise with the host country nationals who request it. In the countryside, volunteers may have an outdoor toilet and live at home with the family for their entire service. It all depends on how the people they work with live, and the cul- tural expectations of the commu- nity. On the other hand, I live in an apartment in a mid-sized city. I continue to eat with my Ecuador- ian family, but I have the option to eat at home. I have hot water and a bath tub. On weekdays, I go to work in heels and a suit jacket, just like I did in the US.

Among PCVs, enduring hard- ship during service comes in various forms and can be self- inflicted. There are volunteers who bathe in cold water though they have hot water available, or who do laundry by hand regard- less of having access to a washing machine. The idea is that suffering is a requirement to be a dedicated volunteer. It’s worth reflecting on why the notion exists that hardship is part and parcel to sharing information with the people we live and work with. Though I worked with struggling communities in the U.S., I never once felt that I should hand wash my clothes or take a cold shower to better serve their needs. I ask, how would host nationals inter- pret this motivation to go abroad to endure hardship? If the shoe were on the other foot, how would I feel if someone came to visit me and decided to camp on my lawn because my house was nicer than expected?

In short or long, being a volunteer is about sharing skills with and learning new skills from our communities. There are difficulties inherent to integrating and working abroad; we are people from distinct cultures, languages, and ideologies, and it is work to build friendships and working re- lationships in spite of these differences. Yes, I’ve taken a few bucket baths when the water was out. I’ve done this at home in Colorado, too. Thankfully, the world is a dif- ferent place than it was in the 1961 and the work we do has evolved according to the needs expressed by the countries who host volun- teers. There aren’t “posh corps volunteers” so much as there are volunteers who fulfill the requests for skills in a variety of communi- ties, like we always have. The reality that we are serving in increasingly better-off communities may just mean that soon we’ll be out of a job—just—as we hoped.

6 thoughts on “El Clima June 2015 – “Posh Corps””

  1. How interesting! I was there 1998-2000 and “posh corps” wasn’t a concept. I was aware that as a ‘city’ volunteer I had luxuries my ‘campo’ buds didn’t but I don’t recall any expectation to endure hardship. I was grateful for my plumbing, temperamental as it was and i truly don’t remember anyone viewing my service as somehow less valid than those who had more basic accommodations. I wonder what changed?

    1. Same in the mid-60s . . . Some had “posh” placements but I don’t recall resentment of feelings of superiority by those who didn’t. But, back then, no one had the Internet or a cell phone. I visited a friend serving in Riobamba in 2006 and was shocked to learn she had a cell phone. Part of me wanted to say “well, when I was here in 1966 . . . ” But, that would have been silly. And, I liked the security and safety the phone provided her as she traveled to her rural assignments. TR

  2. Nice vent. Now go home and wake up on the other side of the bed. As you point out, PCVs have different experiences. Rather than rationalizing yours, you should celebrate the diverse populations served by PCVs. When you wake up on the others side of that bed, try being FOR three or four things a day, rather than against stuff.

  3. When I served in Manabi in the mid 1980’s, I don’t recall any resentment of “posh corps” placements…and I think all of us made choices regardless of the available luxuries. The story about PCVs doing their own laundry instead of using an available washer reminded me of my experience: I lived 3 miles off the paved road, no electricity or running water. And one time early in my service, I finished washing my sheets using a bamboo shelf and water dipped with a gourd. After the 2nd arduous rinse, I was wringing them out, ready to finally hang them to dry–this had taken me most of the morning to do–and dropped a sheet in the dirt. At that moment, I decided to pay someone to do my laundry for the rest of my service. A local woman made some money, my clothes were cleaner, and I was definitely happier. Despite my bare bones living situation, it seems pretty posh, in retrospect!

    1. Ruth (Overlund) Gorham

      I also had someone wash my clothes when I lived in Manabi (78-80). I just couldn’t get them as clean as they could. The women would laugh at me trying to wash my clothes by hand, and tried to teach me. I just never got the technique. Like Elizabeth says, a local woman made some money and I got clean clothes,

      I actually enjoyed the rustic lifestyle I had there. It was a lot of fun. There was never any jealousy or animosity over the type of assignment any of us had. Some people lived in the city, some in the country.

  4. Who cares about living conditions. The important thing is how successful you were as a Volunteer. We were quite content in 1962 working with the Quichua Indians in Chimborazo, making the long journey to Riobamba once a week for a hot shower, boiling our water and eating cuy. We also enjoyed visiting our fellow Volunteers in Quito and Guayaquil who actually had beds, running water and real toilets. Quite a difference in our living standards but all of us with the same sense of helping others and developing relationships.

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