Total Pageviews

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Peace Corps 1: The Other Path not Taken

Applying for the Peace Corps was in itself a kind of trial.  A long application, hunting down documents and references, medical check up, background checks, essays, an interview.  My current job actually had a similar process, but at the time I was convinced that I was going through a kind of gauntlet to test my endurance, like a weed-out class: if you can't hack the application, you don't have the determination to be a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV).  Determination and patience, that is.  It was almost a year between when I applied and when I left.  It could have been sooner, if I had known then what I later found out.

My interviewer was a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) who projected the Peace Corps vibe from her frizzy hair and ethnic shawl to her tanned, Birkenstocked toes. At my interview I was asked what sort of position I would like, and I asked what she thought would be best?  She told me that more than half of PCV positions are in the education sector, so that was the best way to get in quickly.  She was correct, in a general sense:  For most people, with non-related degrees, education is the best avenue into the Peace Corps.  But for specialists it is different.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I had no interest in doing engineering at this point.  I assumed that doing engineering would be like taking engineering classes, many of which I had not enjoyed.  One reason is that I am not a detail-oriented person, and engineering seemed to be very dependent on having every detail be absolutely correct.  The consequences for failing to do this could be catastrophic, and I couldn't imagine putting myself under that kind of pressure to do something I'm not really that good at.  So I didn't bring up engineering in the interview, and didn't even imagine trying for such a position.  I don't remember her bringing it up, either, but that could easily be my brain remembering myself in the best light.  I remember it as playing the percentages: 50% of postings are education, 5% are engineering.  Lower chance of getting one of those.

Once I was in country I met the group of PCVs doing engineering work: urban design, and drinking water supply systems.  The people doing these programs were in a program parallel to ours, occasionally in the same training facility, but mostly elsewhere.  When they found out that I had a degree in civil engineering they wondered why I wasn't in with them.  After all, the Peace Corps needs all the engineers it can get, since very few people with such a high potential income generating degree volunteer to go overseas working for $150 a month, plus travel expenses.

I made some connections.  I found out a bit about what they were doing, and sort of wished that I had taken that direction.  But once you are in a program, heading in a certain direction, it is difficult to make a change.  Unless you cheat.

At the end of my first full year I was in Kathmandu and spent some time talking to Ed, a fellow PCV who was working on a manual for designing downhill drinking water supply systems for delivering water from springs to distant villages in pipes to avoid contamination.  The old manual was very old, and needed updating, and he had taken it upon himself to do so.

He easily convinced me to help by just showing me some of the chapters of his book.  Ed was a good engineer, but a terrible writer.  I had taken classes in water systems design, so I knew the basics of what he was doing, but I found it very difficult to understand his ideas.  I knew that I could help him to improve his manual, even though it wasn't in my job description.  In fact, staying in Kathmandu wasn't in my job description.  So I was careful not to be seen by my manager.

Chastise 1996 Rob all you want, but he can't hear you.  Or me.  I wish that I had tried to do this in a more appropriate manner, but I'm not sure if it would have worked.

As it was, I helped Ed for about three months at the beginning of the year.  I was discovered when my manager showed up at my district center (my official posting) with a case of beer to help me celebrate my birthday.  I understand that the PCVs in the area had a good party.  Not my proudest moment.   Ambika Joshee, if you are reading this, please accept my most humble apologies.

Though I was not doing what I was supposed to be doing, I was doing something that I became very good at: editing a tech manual.  I was putting in full days in front of a computer and consulting with Ed, trying to make the ideas and procedures in his head comprehensible.  Sometimes I could figure it out from the context, but at first I had to have him explain in person before I understood well enough to pass the idea on to another.

After a few weeks of working a funny thing happened, though it didn't seem funny at the time.  I opened up the first chapter I had worked on to reference something and was shocked at what I found. Somehow the original version had been saved, rather than the complete edit I had worked on!  I took it to Ed, and we did some digging into the files.  We eventually figured out that no work had been lost.  The original was still there, and the version I saw was my final edit.  But in the intervening weeks of working with Ed, both of us had improved so much that our original writing was unrecognizable.  Ed's current output was on a par with what I was originally doing, and my current standards were so high that my original work looked incomplete.

It was the first time that I remember being seriously impressed with my own improvement.  Our dedication to the project and honest feedback had taken both of us to higher levels of performance.  It was hard work, but I was having fun, and producing something that I could see being more useful than any of the teacher trainings that I had not yet organized or participated in.

That's when Ambika came back from my birthday party.  I pleaded my case, Ed and his manager both asked to have me reassigned, and I went back to my post.  I simply was not up to openly defying my manager, especially after doing it in such a sneaky way.  He had a point, that I was not doing the job I was supposed to be doing.

It is so hard to write this without blaming Ambika.  Looking back, I am sure that if I had played my cards differently I might have been able to work with Ed, maybe while marginally participating in some education objective.  But I had made him look like a fool, and made his job harder, as well as doing work that simply couldn't be accounted for in my file.  The only way to make it right was to go do the job I signed up for.

I later heard that when I left Ed was really brought down.  He had only three months left, and that was after extending his service six months.  He finished the manual, but it was never really finalized, and as far as I know never published.  It was some of my best work, and one of my most ignominious failures.

Time to play "What if...?"  Where would I be now if I had made that project work?  I don't play this game very often, as it tends to sow regrets.  But it can also provide a crop of lessons, so I will attempt this crop, just this once.

December, 1995, I talk to my supervisor, Ambika, and convince him that I need to change jobs.  I work full time with Ed to produce a water supply manual for use in Nepal.  We successfully complete the writing just as Ed leaves the country, and I usher the new manual through publication, dissemination and training from June through December.  I am having such a good time with it that I extend my service for six months (after a break in Thailand, of course) to produce a revised edition.  This is based on feedback from Nepali and Peace Corps engineers using the manual, and my own observations after visiting projects in different parts of the country.

I mail Ed a copy of the revised version, to follow up the first that he took a year previously.

When I COS (Close Of Service) I still visit Andy in Korea, and have a great time, but the prospect of finding work as a tech writer/editor in the Land of Plenty is too strong to resist.  I return to America and get a job at (an engineering textbook publisher?  a tech firm?) earning good money while getting better and better at doing what I do: writing.

Would I take that path if I could choose it now?  Of course not.  Sure it would be nice to have a nice house and job in The States.  I'm sure I would have still met interesting people, as they can be found anywhere.  I probably would have been happy, as well.  I might have met someone who was as perfect for me as Horyon, and I might have had children as amazing as Maxine and Quinten.  But I think part of me would not have been satisfied staying in America after experiencing Nepal for two years.  I would always have been hungry for something more, something different.

Or worse, I would have learned to ignore that hunger.

No comments:

A Brief Introduction

Roblog is my writing lab. It is my goal to not let seven days pass without a new post. I welcome your criticism, as I cannot improve on my own.

Here is a link to my cung post, which remains the only word which I have ever invented, and which has not, as far as I know, caught on. Yet.