Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Memories of Dominica

The last time I talked to my ex-wife (I think it was October), I mentioned I was reapplying for the Peace Corps. She was supportive, but then asked me, "Incidentally, why do you want to do it again?" I told her some line about curiosity and having no attachments now, but all along I knew she suspected the real reason: because I regret my decision to ET.

In case I failed to mention it in my first lengthy first post, my relationship with my ex-wife was less than stellar. I won't air my dirty laundry here, as much as I would love to, but this is an essentially public forum and it wouldn't be fair. And maybe not legal. Anyway, suffice to say hindsight has shown me I was foolish to make the choice I made... although deeper hindsight has shown me lately I might have only used her as a convenient excuse to get out of something that was scary and hard, to take the easy way out. The fact of the matter was, I wasn't happy with my assignment being switched on me, didn't feel I was qualified to do what they wanted me to do, and was immaturely jealous that the others on my island were going to be living in better conditions than me. In some cases, really better conditions.

I mean, I knew I had gone into the Peace Corps and that it wasn't going to be easy. I knew this. But having all kinds of unexpected luxuries during training, with a homestay family that had cable, a new car, and a washing machine, I kinda got seduced. When I first applied, I was fully expecting a mud hut in the savannah, eating rice, pumping well water -- the whole nine yards. Then to have all these familiar amenities available made me soft. And then to be given an assignment where those amenities wouldn't be available -- not in general, but just to me... well, I admit I got a little petty about it. During my most honest moments, I believe I really left the Peace Corps in '98 because of those things, not because of my ex-wife.

So anyway, I got to thinking about my previous Peace Corps service the other day, and spent a good long time staring at pictures. I used to languish under crushing feelings of regret and remorse at having ETed so early into my service for such a horrible reason. But going through the application process and having an assignment pending has started the process of erasing the regret. Unlike most situations in life, I am getting a chance to try this one again. It won't be the same; I realize that. It couldn't possibly be the same, because it wouldn't have the same wonderful people, homestay, or assignment... hell, even if I beat the odds and get lucky enough to get a second Caribbean assignment, the chances that it would be on Dominica are nearly astronomical.

And, really, would I want that anyway? If my new assignment was too close to my old one, it would just be weird and creepy. Because, first of all, I should let the past be the past, and to resurrect it by retracing my steps would be like... animating a dead body, or something. The past is done, over, gone. Let it stay that way. Second of all, it would just plain creep me out.

On the other hand, I do sometimes yearn for the chance to literally do it over again. Go back in time and occupy my old body and make new choices. See it through. Let my marriage vanish into the dusty reliquary of unrealized alternative pasts, instead of the Peace Corps.

Oh, man -- and to make things worse: when I went up to Washington DC during Thanksgiving, M. and I went to the Smithsonian's new Museum of the American Indian. It was really crowded that day, like spectacularly crowded, but we saw about half the place. On the third floor there was a section devoted to the native Caribs who live on Dominica. The Caribbean got its name from them, and a few hundred years ago they were the most wide-spread and feared of all the regional tribes. There's a spot on the Northeast side of Dominica, essentially a "reservation" for them, and that's where the last remaining 800 or so Carib people live. THAT WAS WHERE I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE ASSIGNED! Yes, my assignment was to be in Salybia, working with the disenfranchised Caribs, in one of the poorest sections in all the Caribbean.

I spent a long time in that display area in the Smithsonian, watching all three videos, examining the artifacts, looking very closely at the people. If I had been a God-damn man and stayed, I probably would have personally known all the people on the video, since it had been shot recently and was put together with the help of tribal leaders. Interviews and scenes were shot all around the Carib Territory, and in the background one could see the thick palms and undergrowth, the wood-frame houses on stilts, the dirt yards with tubs and clotheslines and chickens, and sometimes in the distance you could see the ocean. I was overwhelmed with excitement, sadness, remorse, fondness... I called M. over and eagerly pointed out all the stuff and told her this is where I would have been. She's originally from the Caribbean as well (Jamaica) so it "looked" familiar to her and made her smile. It was a bittersweet moment for both of us, feeling disconnection and loss.

I'll never totally be over my decision to ET. It was the wrong decision, plain and simple. I've known some people who like to approach life with a "No Regrets" attitude (my ex-wife included), but I feel regret has a useful function: it puts into focus your bad decisions. It's part of the process of learning from the past and avoiding making the same mistakes in the future. Small or trifling mistakes may not be worth the effort to regret, but major bungled life events? Sure. My hope is to lay rest the spirits of regret that have haunted me for years, to redeem myself through this new attempt. Or at least make peace with the past.


p.s. I forgot to include this site in my list of light reading. It's a fascinating read about a woman named Meagan who was assigned to Dominica just two years after me. If I had stayed, I might have met her just before COS as she was beginning her training. She ended up ETing, too, but for vastly different reasons. Her journal is a compelling and fascinating read, but it's a little long -- leave yourself an hour or two. I strongly recommend it to anyone planning to join the PC and wondering what a bad experience is like.


Me said...

Even if you have regrets, I think the lessons learned from past experience is far more valuable than having made the "right" choice at every turn. Sometimes I wonder if at "our" age, we don't stand to get more out of our PC stints than those just out of college. We have tasted the "real" world and have a little more perspective that will not only affect our service, but how that service will affect the rest of our lives. Or, maybe I am just trying to justify not being 22 years old anymore (btw, you couldn't pay me to be 22 again!).

Brian Reeves said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Brian Reeves said...

(Whoops! My real reply below)

I think you've got something there. It's unrealistic to think we'll make the right choice in all situations... and if we did, how would we grow? We would have nothing to force us to pause and reflect. I mean, how often do we spend long, sleepless nights dissecting past victories?

Anyway, one of the benefits to being a 30-something volunteer is that we have a little more perspective and experience. We've graduated and done stuff. Most haven't (I would guess about 60% of PCVs are fresh out of college and about 23 years old); this is their post-college experience. Frankly, I can't imagine doing something like the Peace Corps correctly at that age. I was too self-centered and naive. Not to say I don't have my moments now, but back then I didn't know a thing about the world -- or about my self so I couldn't have been expected to tackle such a huge responsibility.

By the way, I would now say the same thing about when I was 26, my age when I first joined. In retrospect I think I wasn't ready. I'm envious of those who are mature enough at 22 to handle the Peace Corps. I certainly wasn't one of them. Now that I'm 33, I think I can handle it, but who knows? maybe ten years from now I'll think of my 30-something self and wince like I do about my 20s.

Despite that, not only could you pay me to be 22 again, I would pay. Mostly for health reasons -- not that I'm bad right now, but back then I didn't have to work to stay fit and strong. I had hair where I wanted it and not where I didn't. :) Plus for some reason 1994 was one of those years that feels like it forged who I am now, and I've always wished I had played things a little different then. I won't get into it in detail, but I had one of the best years of my life and would love to go back in time and live it again.

As you can see, one of the things I need to learn is how to put the past to rest. I'm working on it. :)

Anonymous said...

The sting of disillusionment is a tough thing for a PCV. Wither it be with job assignment, living conditions, or a general case of “not what I expected”. It gets lots and lots of volunteers. In fact I would guess that all volunteers experience it at some point to some degree. I got two pieces of advise (and they are essentially the same thing) from COSing volunteers when I got here, that have been invaluable. One: “Throw out all of your expectations, it’s just easier that way”. And Two “Don’t take anything here seriously.”
I would venture to guess that these apply almost universally.