How I joined the Peace Corps--from Ecuador to Kyrgyzstan
Up until the age of 16, I had no idea of what I wanted to be as an adult. Then, in 1999, one event changed that and put me on an 11 year path towards serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer. This is the story of that event.
I was living in Riobamba, Ecuador as a foreign exchange student. I lived with a host family in a second story apartment on a street near the town’s market. Every morning, after breakfast, I would sit on the family’s little patio outside the kitchen and drink coffee and watch the market scene before going off to school. The market—the Condamini—is a large outdoor area covered with a large, arching awning that has to be at least 200 yards long, and probably as wide. Inside the covered area, people in rows of stalls sell vegetables, meat, clothes, and anything else they have that can be justifiably sold.
Outside the Condamini, ad hoc merchants orbit the structure like satellites, pronouncing their merchandise. These often improvisational merchants nasally shout things like, “Notebooks, noootebooks, nooootebooks,” or “waaatermellons, waaatermellons." One man even regularly sold tires, one slung around each shoulder.
I was watching this scene one morning when a tall, white haired old man appeared out of the chaotic morning mass. He walked up to the first floor of the building, unlocked the door, and went inside. This must have made some impression on me, but I wouldn’t actually talk to my foreign neighbor for about six months, when I noticed some English language books in the windowsill of his apartment.
I needed books in English. I knocked without thinking. He opened the door.
“Hey, do you speak English?” I asked.
He hesitated. Confused, “Yeah.”
“Ok. Well, I live above you. Can I borrow some of your books?”
“Ok.” He backed up a little.
I let myself in. Looked around. “Do you live here?”
“Yeah.” He was getting a little annoyed.
“I work with the Peace Corps.”
“What’s the Peace Corps?”
“We’re Americans volunteering in other countries.”
“Nice. How much do you get paid?”
Monotone, again, “We don’t get paid. We’re volunteers.”
“What do you do?”
“I work with a local business. We sell art. I help them.”
“Wow. That’s cool of you.”
We talked for a minute about something else, I took a book from him, and then I left. I never saw him again, but that simple, five minute conversation started something inside me. I know it sounds unbelievable to say that from the moment I walked out into the street I wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, but it’s true; sometimes life actually works like that. I knew.
Over the next year or so, I investigated the Peace Corps as much as I could. I even applied straight out of high school—back when the Peace Corps used paper applications—and was rejected outright for not having any qualifications or education. I kept trying. I read every book written by a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer that I could find, and started volunteering in college. I enjoyed every service activity I did on its own, but everything I did was initially inspired by its potential merit on a Peace Corps application. While I studied I worked in homeless shelters, youth centers, and food banks. I even traveled to India and then back to Ecuador to volunteer at a school and a nature reserve for a summer each time. I joined the AmeriCorps. I got married, and then recruited my wife. Throughout all of this, I forgot who the white haired man was, but I never lost focus of my goal—serving as a volunteer in the United States Peace Corps.
I’m sitting here in my little apartment now, writing this story as a current Peace Corps Volunteer in Talas City, Kyrgyzstan. The power is out, and it’s cold. Tomorrow my school’s winter break will end, and I will go back to work as a Teacher Trainer. My job is hard. Sometimes it is incredibly hard, but I love it. I have enjoyed the path I have taken to get to Kyrgyzstan, and I am proud of the fact that I am, after 11 years, a member of the United States Peace Corps.
I don’t know who that white haired man was. If you're reading this, thank you. 11 years after your service, your positive influence continues. I know you weren’t recruiting me, but you did. You were the spark. Thanks. If you don’t mind, look me up on the internet. I’d like to talk to you about your service, and maybe reimburse you for the book I never returned.
K18 PCV Talas City, Kyrgyzstan