“Receptive, we approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting. We irritate locals because we stand in traffic islands and narrow streets and admire what they take to be unremarkable small details. We risk getting run over because we are intrigued by the roof of a government building or an inscription on a wall.” Alain De Botton. The Art of Travel
A couple of years ago, a study emerged claiming there are 2 types of people: those born with a certain “wanderlust” gene, one that would spur its owner on to risk-prone behaviors like boarding aircrafts for hard to pronounce locales, or putting too much wasabi on a particularly pungent piece of sushi, and those born without it. I implicitly distrust these types of studies; how could a piece of my DNA inform my desire to ride on a train for seemingly endless days over seemingly endless swathes of Siberian landscape, punctuated by stops on platforms hawking hard boiled eggs, ice cream on a stick, and those fuzzy-furry Russian hats we all secretly want to wear?
DNA aside, upon reading the book whose quotation introduced this post, I decided to uncover why it is I joined Peace Corps, beyond the reasons I stated in my application essay. If I figured this out, perhaps a piece of me would begin to unravel like a bit of loose string on an old shirt, and once pulled out, I would understand myself more fully.
Peace Corps Volunteers talk about “service”, giving of themselves to yet unknown humans with emotions, daily struggles, and dramas all their own. We too often forget, I believe, how much we receive from our host families and countries. Before joining Peace Corps, however, this notion that living in a foreign world with foreign customs and foreign landscapes, would make me a more whole, more Sarah version of myself invaded me, percolating to the tips of my consciousness until I finally clicked “Submit”, on my tablet’s cracked screen, sending away my completed application irrevocably. I don’t know about my fellow volunteers (and I should probably ask), but for me, thoughts of life in another country all had a glamourous tint, like the perfect Instagram filter, showing only the best while cropping out the unsavory.
The shininess of the new and unseen is infinitely irresistible, and not only because it will mold me into a supposedly better person. When I venture into territories unknown, I am less comfortable, more willing to stop and think, rather than judge away all that passes. And perhaps this is my favorite part of being dropped into a culture that shares only some of the characteristics of the one I call home. To look onto a space with fresh eyes, one that sees the world for its potential rather than its problems, is a blessing Peace Corps volunteers must embrace to succeed.
This openness pushes me to notice the brown bird perching atop the neighbor’s bamboo pole, citron stripes painted down its back like a racecar, to listen to its song so that I can later repeat it to my host Auntie, who despite my poor imitation, will probably be able to tell me it’s a brown breasted Twitter*…or something like that. I want to take this openness with me everywhere I go, from Main Street, Annapolis to unknown (to me) stretches of Patagonia.
I don’t know if my desire to join Peace Corps derived in some part from my genetic coding, but I do know that the clouds I see scudding across Kingston one rainy morning from the Blue Mountains of Jamaica will pass away, sun piercing through them to shine on New Kingston’s new buildings, and all that goes on below. I might chase the sun halfway around the earth to look at the world with fresh eyes and mind, but really, you can do this at home. Simply close your eyes, pretend you’re in a new place, and open. The rest is up to you…
*There’s no such thing as a “brown breasted Twitter”. It was simply the first fictional bird name to pop into my head. If in fact, I am wrong and there is a brown breasted Twitter out there, I apologize. That’s most likely not the bird I saw 😛