I have always embraced challenges, and have become comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. I was a backpacking guide in the mountains of New Mexico for a few summers, I spent a year as a wilderness survival instructor in Georgia’s Appalachian Mountains, and I hiked over 1,000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. I enjoyed my mountain experiences, relished going to sleep under the stars and embraced being dirty. I love the physical and mental challenges that living outside brings.
Last year, as my husband and I were looking for the next adventure, we decided we wanted to experience living outside of the United States. So we joined the Peace Corps, and the government sent us to Jamaica.
I had never been to Jamaica before, and when I found out that I was going to be living on a Caribbean island for two years, I had visions of braving the elements in a little hut on the beach, enjoying the ocean every day and having no running water or electricity. I thought the Peace Corps might be like an extended camping trip. These assumptions were naive. The Peace Corps is challenging in ways I never imagined.
My husband and I reside in a tidy concrete house in rural Jamaica. Our home is small and hot with brightly colored walls, a little gas stove and a refrigerator. We have running water, electricity most of the time, and internet some of the time. There aren’t many physical challenges in my community (other than being hot all the time). Instead, we have been struggling with emotional challenges.
Attempting to integrate into a new culture is difficult and confusing. Jamaicans speak a dialect called Patwa, and although it has similarities with English, most of the time it feels like what it is: a completely different language. Communication is a struggle every single day, every single conversation, in a thousand different ways.
I am not used to experiencing the gender inequalities that are present in rural Jamaica. I do not receive the same respect that I did in the States, and it is frustrating to see my husband gain respect so quickly simply because he is a man, while I have to work so hard to prove myself. I also endure unwanted attention and sexual harassment on a weekly, if not daily, basis.
On top of everything, my husband and I are both homesick for familiarity. We miss air conditioning. We miss comfort food. We miss the freedom of owning our own car, of controlling the music that we listen to, of going on dates to the movies or out to a restaurant. We miss our friends and our families.
Although our marriage is a beautiful support system within itself, having a partner in the Peace Corps is also a challenge because we are leaning on each other in ways we never had to before. We are both extremely extroverted, but in this unfamiliar culture sometimes we feel like we are each other’s only friends. That puts a lot of pressure on both of us. From my experience in the outdoors I know that two things leaning on each other can create a nice shelter, but they’re also at risk of pulling each other to the ground.
I know that our situation is not unique. Partners who share a majority of their experiences, whether it be hiking, traveling or careers, can lose their individuality if they aren’t intentionally creating space by setting boundaries. This lesson took us months to learn.
The emotional challenges of my new job are so different from the physical challenges that I am used to, but I know that Peace Corps is broadening my global perspective and molding me into a better global citizen. I am becoming more self-aware, and my communication skills are expanding in order to bridge the cultural gap between myself and my Jamaican counterparts. My husband and I are also improving our communication. I know I will continue to grow throughout my service here, and for that I am extremely grateful, as well as for the challenges that have been placed in front of me. Thanks to the Peace Corps, I am re-learning how to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.
Emily is a 20-something social worker from the Midwest who loves banjo music, front porch sitting, and any kind of card game or board game. Emily is happiest when her feet are in a cool mountain stream.
Emily IG: @blondeandbackpack
Achilles IG: @beardandbackpack