When it comes down to it, any job is the exchange of your precious finite time for a certain amount of money. Lucky are those who get paid well for their time, and especially those who enjoy what they are doing. I believe that any job worth doing, one should be willing to do for free, and thus, I became a Peace Corps Volunteer. (Well, actually I became a Peace Corps Volunteer because I thought I would help make this world a better place, but for the purposes of this post, I’m setting aside that elusive and extremely idealistic goal.)
Being a volunteer isn’t about getting money, but being a PCV resembles more of a job than a true volunteering opportunity. Maybe, it’s more of an internship, where the PCV isn’t paid in currency, but in invaluable experiences.
In reality, PCVs aren’t working for free. We get money to live—relatively well—in a country that’s extremely inexpensive. Being a Peace Corps Volunteer is a tough job that goes beyond common perceptions of “full time.” Your role is to be a community member and that is 24/7. Unlike most jobs all over the world that are from a given time to another, this job goes outside teaching at school and it doesn’t stop unless you’re away from site.
To support these efforts, I receive about $200 per month, of which $80 goes to my host family for food, and the rest I must use for anything else I may need: toiletries, cell phone minutes (i.e.: pulsa), internet access, eating out (which I never do), etc. What volunteers do with their monthly allowance varies. Many spend all of it on necessary things at their sites. We aren’t supposed to be getting enough money to save, but out of the $120 dollars I have left over, about $100 goes untouched at my site most months, simply because 1) everything is so cheap that $5 can easily last me weeks and 2) there’s nothing to do/spend money on.
Monthly Allowance (i.e: Salary)
When I think about life in the U.S., I recall all the things on which I spent the money I earned. I made more than 10 times what I make here per month and it was so difficult to save money because everything is so outrageously expensive in the U.S. – and I didn’t even live in an expensive city. Sure, I live in a bit of fantasy world, because Peace Corps covers medical insurance and other expenses of the sort, but do you know how much money you save without owning a car, paying for gas, or paying car insurance? People in some parts of the U.S. are practically paying to go to work and here, the public transportation can be a bit of a hassle at times, but I’d take that and use the money saved to do ANYTHING else. (i.e: go to Surabaya/travel.) You can’t live in many places in the U.S. without owning a car and happy are those that do.
But…“there’s nothing to do.” That was a scary thing to contemplate when I first came to Indonesia. I usually have no problem entertaining myself—probably because I grew up mostly as an only child—and reading, writing, playing guitar, listening to music and chilling with my host family/school community in this small rural town consume my time and that’s fine. In the U.S. there are so many things to spend money on! Movies, restaurants, going out, drinking, internet, cable, concerts, clothes, shoes…all which are things I love and sometimes miss, but I love being removed from the temptation of buying things I’m perfectly happy without. (The only thing I’m not happy without is going to concerts, but even that can be achieved on rare occasions in Indonesia.)
I’m not bored, though at times I may get a bit lonesome. But the loneliness usually comes at the right time, which is right before I leave site again to meet up with other volunteers and/or travel. This is necessary to keep any person with such a demanding job, sane.
It’s somewhere between a blessing and a curse that Indonesia’s school schedules are littered with days and usually, weeks, of cancelled classes. On one hand, this can be extremely frustrating for a PCV. If you’re not busy with your teaching job, your purpose is indefinite and that can be hard to handle. But on the other hand, it gives one even more time to do things one enjoys. One could read more. Write more. Sleep more, if that’s what you’re into. (I’m not.) Do things you never had the time to do before, like planning girl camps or learning more about Garage Band and composing songs. In the U.S., I couldn’t have bought this quality of time, free from many of the usual distractions.
In addition to that, PCVs are allowed to be away from site for about 2 to 4 days every month and get 48 days of annual leave over a span of two years. FORTY EIGHT DAYS. That’s more than a month and a half of vacation. In most jobs in the U.S. you get two weeks per year. And we are in Indonesia! This place is filled with beautiful places to see and near other Asian countries that are just as beautiful, interesting and also, inexpensive.
(Using money I earned at home to fund these vacation days and the moral dilemma that brings may make up a whole other blog post in the near future.)
Coming from a job I didn’t find stimulating, what I was seeking with this opportunity was a challenge—and that’s exactly what I got. Teaching English in Indonesia is so difficult for a myriad of reasons that most days it feels like I’m climbing a hill of loose sand, taking one step forward and 20 steps back. If my job was only about teaching English I would quit, but in reality, my job description includes:
- learning a new language
- learning about a community
- engaging with all kinds of people (community members, students, teachers)
- engaging in extra curricular activities
- learning about Islam, Indonesia, myself in this context, etc.
- teaching about American culture
- promoting cultural exchanges, communication, peace and understanding
All the above are challenging in their own way, but most days, I enjoy doing them. Teaching and having exchanges with people is so rewarding. I am happy to take this over being in front of a computer in an office, no matter how much more I earned. You can’t buy this kind of satisfaction.
But still, all of this is exhausting. Like with any other job, what may have started out as a good thing, can burn you out when the job is so demanding. There’s a lot of compromise. You must live with a host family and give up some of your independence. This is hard for a 25 year old. You’re on call 24/7 with the community. You compromise relationships with family and friends for two years.
In addition, the cultural differences can be intense and the solitude adds to it. You can’t unwind every weekend with friends or family over drinks in a nice restaurant. You are on your own, unable to explain to most other people what the experience is like for you. I have also found that the local people I work with aren’t particularly understanding or empathetic to how challenging this job is and with good reason. They have never done anything like this before. Few people have. And so your PCV coworkers become an invaluable support system because they get it and can discuss it with you.
Honestly, this job is great in part because it has an end. I learn quickly and adapt easily and for these reasons, I think my first year as a PCV was what I would deem “successful.” But on that same note, it’s a little daunting to think of another year of more of the same. Knowing that it has an end point is a great motivator to keep me pouring my soul into every day. I’m not doing it to get a raise or promotion. I’m not getting into a lengthy career. I’m doing a job I can love for two years and then it will be time to do something else. Until then, I’ll keep working like I don’t need the money…because well, I don’t get any nor do I need it…and the time exchanged is well worth the experiences I receive in return.