Thursday, September 06, 2007

In Which my Social Life Dwindles

Isolation was one of the first things that affected me. I felt cut off from Peace Corps and most other volunteers by the Berbice river, which could only be crossed by day on a ferry. There were a few volunteers in my general area, including two from my training group, but I didn't "click" with any of them. A really good friend from training was technically close by, but across that damned river, so I rarely got to see him. Just crossing over would probably have counted for "leaving my assigned area" during the first three months, damn the Peace Corps. But it was irrelevant, because he sunk his teeth into his assignment with a gusto I have never seen. Catching him with any free time would have been just about impossible. I'm sure he had his reasons for this drive to overwork himself, but I don't know his psychology. He had been in Peace Corps in Africa during the 1970s, which probably had some measure of impact, though I couldn't possible say what that was.

The other volunteers in the area weren't well-suited for me. The two from my training were very nice people, but I know I bothered them. One was about as straight-laced and conservative as one could get. Deeply Christian, he had views on things that pretty much precluded us having any kind of relationship other than professional. The other was funny and entertaining, but said I reminded her of her brother. This colored our friendship pretty early on, because I found myself treating her like a younger sister, good-natured ribbing and all. I just couldn't help it. Something about her brought it out in me. I never had a single negative thought toward her, and wished her all the best, but once she was in her assignment I pretty much had zero contact with her, even though she was on my side of the river.

A couple of other volunteers from a previous group, GUY 15, were located in New Amsterdam itself. My relationship with them was difficult to properly pin down. The first was an older woman who was very friendly. Right after the end of her three month mandatory homestay in New Amsterdam, she had come into possession of a gigantic three-bedroom upstairs apartment that could easily have housed two more volunteers. It had a nice location across from one of the best restaurants in the town, and it was close to the ferry terminal. She hoped to have it become the location of choice for volunteer get-togethers in the area.

Also from her group was a young guy who lived in a neighborhood located on the opposite end of New Amsterdam from my homestay. I think the neighborhood was called Vryman's Erven, one of those indecipherable Dutch holdover names. He lived downstairs below a family with an incredibly hot daughter -- she was a bit of a shut-in, though, having apparently lived a life of partying and drinking but now preferring to hardly leave the house. The volunteer who lived downstairs had a funky, fun apartment. It can be seen in some of the photos posted on this site. We had a few parties at his place and always had a pretty good time. But as the weeks wore on, I heard from him less and less. He would be a block away from my homestay and not even think of paying me a visit, unlike the older woman, whom I would occasionally see coming down the street to check up on me.

This indifference weighed on me heavily. At first, he and I clicked, and we would have interesting conversations at his place or he would call me to see what I was doing. As he grew more distant, my isolation in New Amsterdam became much more oppressive. He (and his girlfriend, another volunteer who lived a ways out of New Amsterdam) was much more of a thinker and partier than the other volunteers in the area, and I relied on him for conversation and companionship. Peace Corps wants volunteers to start building friendships in the community, and though I was doing the best I could, I am not an easy one for making friends, and I was having adjustment problems the more I learned about New Amsterdam (more details soon). But this guy was also throwing himself into his work. His assignment didn't keep him very busy, having him come in for a couple hours every other day, and so he sought out secondary projects to keep him busy, like helping to open an orphanage, and tried to increase his utility at his primary project. I was introduced early on to the folks from the orphanage, where the woman from his group was also involved. I guess the two of them were hoping or expecting that I would get involved in it as well, but frankly, I just didn't have the mental energy to even think about such a thing at the time.

More and more I found contact with other volunteers, whether from my group or not, slowly slipping away. I spent most of my time reading on the porch of my homestay or hiding out in my room. Geographic isolation was becoming social isolation as well. I know that Peace Corps wanted me to go down this road, relying less and less on volunteers for my social interactions, until I was fully integrated into New Amsterdam and my social circles were comprised of Host Country Nationals. But it never happened. I don't know if it could have happened or not. Maybe all I needed was more time. Or maybe I was poorly matched for Guyanese. Or maybe I had prejudices and judgments that were more powerful than I knew. Whatever the reason, with volunteer contact almost completely gone, I retreated inward. My homestay didn't help anything.

(to be continued)

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