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Zoot's View: Whether to Return by Larissa Zoot, Honduras 93-95
Zoot's View is a regular column in PeaceMail written by RPCV Larissa Zoot. This quarter she enlightens us to her inner struggles about returning to Honduras - or not. Her candid and often humorous column has been a regular in BARPCV's newsletter for years.
As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, my life exists in three stages: before, during, and after. Each carries with it a number of complicated decisions, often further complicated by the significance of the experience in the overall course and patterns of my life. I’ve been grappling with one of the “after” decisions for almost ten years now and have yet to make a move. It’s the question of whether to return to my site of service. I constantly question my motivations, both for visiting and for not visiting. Of course there are issues of time and money, but for me, the real heart of the struggle is expectation. Expectation, and fear of losing what I hold most dear: the memory of my service and what it meant to me at the time I served.
Granted, I would love to see my friends again. I would love to hike those trails in the Honduran mountains, and to see all those stars in the clear night sky. I would love to re-immerse myself in the language and culture for a short while. I would love to see all those children I played with grown, and glory in their survival and successes. I would love to eat tortillas made the “real” way and mangoes right from the tree.
But the truth of the matter is, I’m also afraid that if I go back the place itself will be more different than I want it to be, or that I myself will be different in ways I don’t anticipate. I’m afraid a return visit will call into question all the ways in which I like to remember the experience or all of the ways I like to think I have grown since then. I’m afraid to tarnish the memories - both my memories of those two years in country, and equally as much, the host country nationals’ memories of me.
You see, Peace Corps meant the world to me, to the young woman that I was at that time, and if I go now, it just may mean something entirely different.
I feel some pressure too, because I am the stuff of which legends are crafted: the first Volunteer ever to serve in my site. By now my character and accomplishments have probably reached mythic proportions and I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble - least of all, mine. There have been many Volunteers in my site since me, and it’s only if I don’t go back that they will always pale in comparison. Childish, perhaps, but I don’t want to do anything that risks knocking me out of the position of most remembered and most beloved.
So much of my early self image has rested there. What if I go back and discover that I’m not as adaptable at 33 as I was at 22? What if my Spanish has taken such a nose dive that I can’t readily converse with my favorite neighbor and just pick up our friendship where we left off?
There are matters of genuine risk too. Crime in my country has increased exponentially since the time when I was there. I got off easy with just one non-violent mugging the entire two years. Do I really want to tempt fate?
I have a friend who returns to site to visit on a regular basis, and every time she goes I feel torn between my various wishes and fears. If I don’t go, does it mean I lack a true commitment? Does it mean I don’t care as much as I claim to about the friendships I left behind? If I do go, will the experience live up to my expectations? Am I even sure of what those expectations are?
I know that much has changed in Alubaren. Babies have been born, good friends have died. The levels of development and technology are different. I would not quite be returning to the place I visit so often in my memories and dreams.
So I hesitate, year after year. Returning to Alubaren would steep me in the reality of life there today and I’m not entirely sure I welcome that reality. By failing to return I preserve the memory of what was in the years of my service. It’s not the most developmental approach, and certainly not the most selfless, but it’s honest. I’m not entirely the idealist I once was.
For now, I send the occasional letter, and look forward to my friend returning with news and local gossip. I don’t search the web for airfares or shop for gifts to bring. I reflect instead on what it meant to me to serve in the Peace Corps and I get on with my life in other areas. I never say never, but I have yet to find an answer to the question of whether I’m ever meant to return.
RPCV Profile: Bill Fallon Returns to his Peace Corps Roots with the World Health Organization
Janna Behrens, Ghana 95-97, and Bill Fallon, the Philippines 74-75, contributed to this article.
A native New Englander, Bill Fallon was born and raised in Arlington, Massachusetts. After graduating from St. Michael's College in Vermont, he joined the Peace Corps' Group 77 to the Philippines in the Supervised Agricultural Credit program.
While in the Peace Corps, Fallon helped poor, rural farmers work collectively in groups to raise pigs to increase their families' incomes. His prior experience with pigs was limited, but he learned much from these "amazing animals" and found that by working together, the community could reach the goal of raising their families' incomes. "In the end, I learned about how people work together (or don't), the ideas of trust and dependability, and what motivates people to do their best. Yes, it was an exceptional experience and I'm very grateful for that."
After the Peace Corps, he returned to the USA for graduate studies in international non-profit management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. With his Masters in Business Administration in hand, he returned to Baguio City in the Philippines with Plan International. This move jumpstarted his career in non-profit management that would span fourteen years. He worked in health, education, and community development projects such as water systems and sanitation programs for poor families and their communities. The assignments took him to Nepal, Thailand, and back to Cebu, the Philippines.
In 1990, he returned to New England once again to obtain a second Masters in Human Resources. He graduated from the Heller School at Brandeis University with a Masters in Management of Human Services, which launched his training career. He started at Arthur D. Little as a corporate training manager and soon returned to Asia with the United Nations International Labor Organization in Cambodia. Other UN assignments took him to Myanmar, New York, and Manila. Fallon currently serves as the World Health Organization Personnel Officer , covering the 37 countries of the South Pacific.
Did his Peace Corps experience provide him with the skills for a career international development? "Most certainly. Working in a multi-culturally environment requires a set of competencies that would be considered essential to working overseas. The Peace Corps provided me a strong foundation to build on - particularly when working in a Third World country. There is no question that had it not been for my Peace Corps experience, it is doubtful I would have returned overseas with so many interesting countries, exciting travelling moments, incredible people and cultures culminating in numerous life-enriching experiences."
Fallon now lives in Manila, the capital city of the Philippines, which is an experience that is quite different from his Peace Corps days where he lived in a remote area of the Northern Luzon island with no electricity or running water. His co-workers in the city have formal education compared his Peace Corps colleagues who often did not.
But his Peace Corps experience and his current WHO position have one definite commonality: Filipino culture. He finds the constant smile and giggle, the helpful attitude and the genuine curiosity permeating Filipino society. "It's enlightening to re-experience the culture as I remember it then and now. Much has changed in terms of development; the increase in the number of people, the worsening pollution and traffic problems, but the one constant is the resilience of the culture here. I'm so grateful to be given an opportunity to live and work in the Philippines again."
Of course there are challenges, especially given the current public health situation in Asia. With the outbreak of Severe Acute Respitory Syndrome (SARS) in the area he represents for the World Health Organization (WHO), Fallon and his team had their work cut out for them. They contracted consultants and specialists in epidemiology and those with experience in epidemics. These people fanned out all over Asia to combat an unknown health phenomenon that was killing people and spreading rapidly. Fortunately the disease has abated now and the people of Southeast Asia are returning to some sort of normalcy.
Fallon was responsible for reporting the death of Dr. Carlo Urbani, a WHO physician, to his WHO colleagues in Geneva. Dr. Urbani contracted SARS when it first appeared, before anyone knew about it. "He was a hero in many ways, warning the Vietnamese government to isolate suspected patients to stop the spread of SARS, thereby saving numerous lives," says Fallon. Several governments, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and the Pope have recognized his efforts. Dr. Urbani's death, SARS, and the numerous other health issues WHO handles has impacted Fallon's daily life in many ways.
The political climate, too, has influenced his work. "There is plenty of 'fear-driven' media to keep the UN Security people active. In actuality there was not the backlash expected from the Iraq war among the Muslims in the south. From time to time, there are political demonstrations in front of the US Embassy, close to our office," observes Fallon.
As in many developing countries, foreigners have and/or are perceived to have more wealth that the indigenous people and are often targets for criminal activity. But Fallon doesn't feel particularly threatened. "There are instances, but probably not any more that Boston or Seattle. As an American, there really is no difference here from any other Western nationality. Most Filipinos have a relative living in the U.S. so there is a strong affinity for the U.S. But on the street, all non-Asians are treated the same," Fallon notes.
Despite the challenges, Fallon remains committed to in the field of development, which comes down to this: "True development takes place between one's ears. The notion that the more money you spend, the better development takes place is usually wrong. What motivates people to do what they do and what they truly value in life are important starting points to consider. I believe in people - their innate capacity and desire to learn. Providing learning opportunities, asking the right questions, creating a safe environment while maintaining a thirst for knowledge and new ideas is how development - people's development - can flourish."
He admits that there are more challenges than rewards, but that is fine with him. Peace Corps provided him with his first taste of the realities of international development.
What advice would he give to a Peace Corps Volunteer just starting out? "Bring oodles of patience, a good stock of perseverance and a well-grounded sense of humor." He found that while host country nationals tend to stare a bit more than he was used to, it was genuine curiosity.
"Get into the culture and language as quick as you can - it's much more fun inside rather than outside. Keep your head and heart open. Stay vulnerable "