Daily Life / Indonesia / Peace Corps / People

Love in the Time of Peace Corps

Ah, the juicy stuff. I bet most prospective Peace Corps Volunteers would be curious to read about this. Or, maybe not, considering that most PCVs end up isolated in some small village in some foreign country. If anything, most future PCVs are not thinking about love as they prepare for Peace Corps because 1) we don’t join for this reason, and 2) we are mentally prepared to help people and give up our social lives in the process. Still, like in “normal” life[1], romantic love finds you anywhere.

Some types of relationships found in Peace Corps:
-PCV and PCV (eh, common and expected.)
-PCV and Host Country National (or HCN, which is considered to be the ultimate sign of successful integration.)
-PCV and Peace Corps Staff (not officially allowed, but it happens.)
-PCV and long-distance significant other (for the brave souls that can foster relationships from thousands of miles away.)

In Peace Corps Indonesia, all of these relationships have occurred or are currently occurring. All the new relationships begin with texting. So normal, right? All these volunteers-in-training get dropped into this new environment and become each other’s support system. A support network reached most easily by cell phone. It’s easy to see how eventually this support becomes something more—maybe even, a real connection. Peace Corps initially has this alien feel to it—like walking in a dream—but after some time, it does become normal and we all adjust to our new reality. PCVs in relationships become accustomed to traveling for hours and hours in a public bus to meet their significant other for a few days. They do it as if it were nothing, like driving to each other’s houses back in the States. We are all in long-distance relationships—even with our platonic friends—so we get familiar with long phone calls and constant messaging. We memorize multiple time zones in order to coordinate Skype conversations (internet permitting), since all lasting connections rely primarily on good communication. Or, for those that get involved with a HCN, they get really good at the local language and learn details about our country-of-service that is otherwise inaccessible.[2]

Love in the Peace Corps is dramatic. Peace Corps life in general is already dramatic, since the highs are extreme and so are the lows. Mix that with romantic drama and it can be really exciting, or turbulent…depending on each situation. It’s so normal. The countless conversations I’ve had about love/significant others must be some of the most ordinary conversations I’ve had throughout this extraordinary experience. (At least, infinitely more ordinary than attempting to find a mathematical equation for happiness using cheese as a variable[3]. Long story.)

Then come the less normal aspects of love in the time of Peace Corps. First and foremost, Peace Corps is a finite experience. After 2, or 3 years max, the dream ends and we continue our long-term “real”[4] lives. What happens to all those relationships formed during Peace Corps when it all ends? The thoughts loom over all current relationships. In some cases, it’s simple. People are in love and will work hard to stay together, whether that means moving to be near each other, or maintaining a long-distance relationship. Some people involved with an HCN, will choose to stay in their country-of-service. I even know people who are the offspring of these types of relationships[5]—so, these do work. Though, presumably, in most cases the situation is more complex.

Relocating anywhere for a relationship is tough, and it’s also a huge commitment. Peace Corps relationships don’t have the luxury of time and space “to see how they go,” they get intense as soon as there is talk of someone moving half-way around the world. Others have plans to pursue things like graduate school or careers, or simply to go back home, which—when applied to two PCVs—it often means in two different cities, states or countries, making a manageable long-distance relationship into an expensive long-distance relationship within an entirely new environment. Add thoughts that maybe the relationship wouldn’t work at all outside of these unique Peace Corps circumstances, and it becomes a brain tangle of confusion and complication. Life is hard. Love is harder.

But it isn’t always this hard. Awhile ago, I visited an Indonesian household and I was having a discussion with the ibu of the house. She introduced me to the idea of cinta lokasi, or “location love,” as she explained how she ended up with her husband. They lived near each other and they got together. Period. It’s not a romantic tale filled with foreign excursions and chance meetings[6]—it’s the tale of how most people fall in love: locally, and with people very similar to themselves. This is how my parents met.[7] This is not how my grandparents met. Though this was before Peace Corps existed, my American grandmother randomly met my Ecuadorian grandfather, married him, and moved far from her original home to build a new one in a country she had scarcely visited before.

I think I’m genetically wired[8] to be caught in between these two extremes. I see the practicality of cinta lokasi, and the romance and difficulties in the other[9]. Both relationships can be successful and beautiful—it all comes down to the quality of the connection. There’s the rub: the difficult choice between pursing a connection or believing it can be found again, elsewhere. But most importantly, as the initial stages of love are surpassed—which for most of us will not be within the limited duration of Peace Corps service—it comes down to the effort. Love, in and outside Peace Corps, is—and always will be—a lot of work and compromise. And, of course, it takes a lion’s share of courage to see it through together[10].

I can come up with a few cheesy metaphors association love with a drawing in the sand, but I'll let you make your own. (Also, I'm recycling this photo because it's my blog and I want to.)

I can come up with a few cheesy metaphors associating love with a heart drawn on the sand, but I’ll let you make your own. (Also, I’m recycling this photo because it’s my blog and I want to.)

[1] I use quotations around the word “normal” because the circumstances of my life are often strange to those looking in, yet, it’s still my life, which is its own kind of normal most days.
[2] For real, all, this is the best way to learn.
[3] The important thing to know is that cheese is rare in Indonesia, thus, our lives will always feel a little less than completely happy. The equation has yet to be fully developed, or solved.
[4] As in the above note, life is always real, but I’m using the word to indicate long-term circumstances that go beyond two years.
[5] I mean adult people, not that there has been children sired by PC Indonesia people. Not to my knowledge anyways.
[6] All meetings are chance meetings, but in Peace Corps, meeting someone you would never have met without joining the program makes it feel like it was cosmically meant to be. This is an error in perspective though. These occurrences are present in varying degrees throughout life.
[7] While the initial circumstances were a lot more stable for my parents than the typical Peace Corps relationship, it does not undermine the trials and tribulations they’ve had to face as a couple—those that all relationships face sooner or later— including tragedies, compromises, and long periods of living separately because of jobs and other circumstances that arise. Cheers to them for staying together for nearly 28 years.
[8] Or at least, mentally wired.
[9] Specifically, the difficulties within intercultural relationships, which intrigue me a great deal.
[10] Courage akin to the one that helps you complete two years of Peace Corps service.

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