***disclaimer: I got the idea for this post from a previous blog post of Jenna Hostetler’s at http://jenna-hostetler.blogspot.com/. She’s an ex-journalist/photographer, volunteer and friend of mine here in the Dominican Republic, and generally does a much better (and more succinct) job of letting readers into the lives of ordinary Americans trying to do extraordinary things. Not that she’s ordinary, though.***
One of my side jobs here at Peace Corps is being an editor for the Gringo Grita (The White Man Yelling), the hilarious, completely unprofessional, and always insightful biannual magazine that is published here in-country by volunteers. In each issue of the Gringo Grita, there is a section that has volunteer exit interviews; that is, interviews from volunteers who are wrapping up their Peace Corps service in the Dominican Republic. Apart from my inner English major that dies a little each time I have to decipher the grammar of people who haven’t written in English for two years, this is always my favorite part of the magazine. The interview questions are designed to provoke self-reflection, and volunteer responses span the gamut from cynical to inspirational, and everything in-between. In other words, people get real.
With the close of 2014 and this new, fresh 2015, I decided to take the exit interview—plus a few added questions—as an honest attempt at introspection, a ver lo que me salió. I also think it will be interesting to look back at this at the end of my service, and see how my answers have changed.
So, let’s talk about me.
Gringo Grita: Exit Interview
Name: Connor Toomey
Higher education: English and Spanish major from Roanoke College.
Previous job before Peace Corps: Two months working on a truck route for Cintas Corp. in San Antonio, then moved to live with my uncle in Denver doing solar panel installation for SolarCity. Tweaked an old college basketball injury a month into the job, quit, and worked as a management trainee at Enterprise Rent-A-Car at the Denver International Airport for six months.
D.R. apodos: Kanor, Wei!!!
Site location: San Francisco, San Cristóbal
Project assignment: Primary literacy, and all that’s related to it. Teacher training, parent talks on importance of education in home and strategies they can use, and lots and lots of tutoring and reading with kids.
Project reality: Doing as described above. Also solicited 325 children’s books from Colegio Babeque with the help of Peace Corps librarian Rosina, who is a godsend. Not as much teacher training as I would have liked—like American teachers, they are busy people and resistant to change/criticism—but hopefully that will change soon. Chicas Brillantes (girls empowerment group), and now just starting two courses of Deportes para la Vida (youth sexual education program) with freshmen students at the local high school.
Most useful thing brought into country: Spanish major and previous abroad experiences in Peru and Colombia. A general sinverguenza-ness.
Least useful thing brought into country: A broken laptop. Clothes that made people ask if I was a Mormon missionary (Mormons are my people, but if you are trying to fit in here and make friends it’s not a good look).
Best “I-know-I’m-in-Peace-Corps-now” moment: Waking up my second day in-country, walking into my host family’s kitchen in the barrio caliente of Pantoja, and watching my five year-old naked host brother sitting inside of the refrigerator, eating cherries, and throwing the seeds on the floor while his three year-old brother stood on a top of a backrest of a plastic chair with his hand buried up to his elbow in a fish tank with live crabs. Also bucket showers by moonlight, and latrines.
I felt most integrated into Dominican culture when: This past Christmas, Dominicans corrected me on my manners. I was simultaneously ashamed and proud of myself all at the same time.
Funniest experience in country: See next question. Also getting pick-pocketed in Santo Domingo and hitchhiking 100+ miles to the 4th of July celebration in Bayahibe right after I first moved to my community. And any time with my project partner- she is unlike any other.
Most memorable illness or injury: I was helping my project partner’s husband put a new water tank on his land for his cows, which involved carrying heavy tires and cubetas of water over some rough terrain. On a rest break, Yei, my project partner’s son, poked a wasps’ nest. All of us took off running in different directions, and at a dead sprint I was clotheslined by a single strand of barbed wire placed at face-height. Never saw it coming. I went down like a wideout getting sniped by a wandering free safety in the backfield. There was also that time I gave the Swear-In speech in front of the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic with the full-blown fever and rash of chikigunya.
Most Dominican habit you’ll take home with you: Saying God willing** after any statement that regards the future, the nose scrunch, lip point.
Most beautiful place in country: My sweet loma country where I live in the foothills of the Cordillera Central. Monte Plata will always have a special place in my heart, as well. Objectively speaking, I would say the South, or Monte Christi** National Park in the northwest. A wild, beautiful place. But I’m looking forward to seeing more!
Most creative way you killed time in your site: Don’t kill time, guys. Two years is too short for the unique experience this job gives us. I studied through grammar books, listening to music, and reading novels in Spanish, planned for Peace Corps projects as well as ‘next step’ plans in my life, worked out, and made up reasons to hang out with Dominicans my own age.
What Spanish word or phrase have you made up during your service and what does it mean?: Not sure. But I love hearing and saying D’ lo mío! (My man!) as a way to greet people. It’s a shortened version of tú eres de lo mío, which is Dominican slang for saying you’re my type of person.
How have you changed during your service? I’m no longer high-strung, although I’m still a Type A person. I don’t get rattled easily. I’m less productive. I say please and thank you less often. I’m more critical of development work. I’m desensitized to many things I wish I wasn’t. I believe now, more than ever, that the world would be a better place if more people traveled and/or lived in other places, and did so with an open heart and mind. I’m quieter in English, and louder in Spanish. I get lonelier easier. I’m quicker to defend America from strangers, yet more apt to see the ignorance/excesses that we have as a society/culture. I’m now certain of the fact that I want a family. I’m more grateful. I would like to believe that I am more giving, and more humble, but am not sure. There is still room for improvement. Finally, I no longer believe in the myth of a ‘self-made man.’ The only way you truly get ahead in this life is if you help others, and they help you. I’ve probably changed in other ways, but I’m still too close to tell.
If your service were a book, what would its title be? Good question, let me get back to you in 17 months. Maybe 27 Stories.
What books did you read and/or podcasts did you listen to during your service that you would like to recommend to other volunteers?: Tough one. Read books that inspire and challenge you, is the best I can say.
What are you glad you did here?: Interpreted for a medical mission, visited the border, worked hard and played hard. Kept this blog. Made Dominican friends my own age. Dated Dominicans. Visited as many volunteers as I have in their communities (I’m up to 11 different sites!).
What do you wish you had done here?: Pico Duarte, Romeo Santos concert, use my SCUBA certification, visit more volunteer sites, especially a batey, open and close a grant for my Escuela Basica, become completely fluent in Spanish, learn how to dance bien bachata, merengue and salsa, found better ways to engage and teach the teachers at my school, buy a snorkel, goggles, and speaker to play music loud with my kids, visit every rincón of this absurd little island, cook more, and have my friends and family visit. But there’s still time for all that, right?
What will you miss six months from now?: Well, I’m still going to be here, but if I wasn’t: Speaking Spanish on a daily basis, all the wonderful friends and family that I have here in San Francisco, my delinquent children, dancing bachata, afternoon rain, fresh fruit, and getting to see my inspiring, hilarious, brilliant gringo friends at beautiful locales cada rato. And so, so much more.
What won’t you miss six months from now?: Women who believe they were made to cook, clean, make children, and accept male infidelity. Men who make women believe that. A complete and total lack of customer service. Rude people. Washing clothes by hand.
What’s next?: Planning on applying for PCVL (Peace Corps Volunteer Leader), Public Affairs programs at Texas A&M and University of Texas, and another Fulbright. We’ll see what shakes out.
Big plans for your readjustment allowance?: Ship a few things home, including my cat Porfirio Rubirosa. Then, God Willing, a quick visit to Haiti to see Port-au-Prince, then visit my old host family in the most beautiful city in the world: Arequipa, Peru, for two weeks. After that I want to fly into Guatemala City, cross the Mexican border, and take my time going home via bolas, public transportation, and on foot. No sé porque, pero siempre me he soñado con México. It’s high time this Texan visited his next door neighbor. Along the way I would like to visit some of my friends’ families, my old Spanish professor and adviser Dr. Flores-Silva, and stay in a few Peace Corps sites. After a month or so my Dad will drive down from San Antonio to pick me up in Laredo. The goal is to save $5,000 of the $7,000 readjustment allowance.
Advice to a new volunteer: Study Spanish if you’re not a native speaker. Just living here does not automatically mean you will pick it up. Work at it, and you will be rewarded. Also, make friends your own age in your site! It is not easy and you might have to readjust your expectations/standards, but they are out there and you can find them, I promise. Visit other volunteers in their sites, especially older volunteers and volunteers who you admire and respect. You will leave each volunteer visit having learned something, and feeling recharged and inspired to create positive change in your community.
Algo más?: Pon tu granito de arena. Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. – Mark Twain. Finally, if something scares you, challenges you, or makes you feel uncomfortable, do it! There’s no such thing as being static. Each day you become better or worse than you were the day before, and it’s only through adversity that you grow.
For Peace Corps volunteers reading this, no te lleves mucho de mí, soy el pino nuevo en el bloke, todavía. I’m still the new kid on the block. After all, I still have 17 months left.
17 months. Doesn’t seem like that much time, does it?
Most of my New Year’s resolutions can be found in the “What do you wish you had done here?” section of the exit interview. But in case you are still hurting for a New Year’s resolution, here’s a quote that might help. It’s from an anthropologist who is explaining why she would choose to leave the comfortable to live with a foreign people.
“You mean other than because it’s incredibly fun? I guess because it pays off for your psyche. It pays off for your psyche when you are able to tear down your own system of belief. You’ve got to undo your preconceptions about the world, about who you are, about yourself, about community, about everything. Because when you study a foreign tribe, you’ve got to leave your world behind, you have to be totally open and empty, which is—almost impossible. I mean, you’re trying to get into another soul. But it is also a great deliverance. It’s the best chance you can have to know who you are.”
–Fieldwork, Mischa Berlinski
I’m not saying we should move to a foreign land and eat rice every day. That would be silly. I’m just saying we need to seek out the unfamiliar and the uncomfortable where we are right now. Most times, it’s people—living, breathing, talking, walking people just like you and me—that make us most uncomfortable. That’s why we should start with them. Let’s peer into another person’s soul and see what’s there. We could begin with our neighbors and colleagues, and end with someone who scares, disgusts, or simply confuses us.
Let’s start with the soul.