To work in a place where running water and electricity can be a luxury, where people speak a language you don't, and where cultural traditions seem new and strange requires adjustment. The loneliness of being away from family, the frustration of not being able to communicate, and the physical discomfort of new places give way to the joy of new friendships, the acquisition of a new language, and the appreciation of another culture.
Phillip Ubaldi, Jodie Hendrick, and Roger Dix are three of the 474 CSU,
Chico graduates to serve as Peace Corps volunteers since 1961. All three
volunteers began their service in 1997. Since December 1998, 24 Chico
graduates have been volunteers, and currently 19 are serving.
Avocados and mudslides
Living with 10 other people in a small house was Ubaldi's first taste of Guatemalan life. The house was cold and wet, and the food was limited, but the friendship and hospitality were abundant.
Ubaldi worked with farmers who grew export crops marketed through an agricultural cooperative. Each farmer worked about one-tenth of an acre of steep hillside. Because the export crops, snow peas and zucchini, were foods the people didn't eat, farmers dumped the food when the price was too low. People lost income and food, so Ubaldi researched alternative crops. Avocados would work with the climate, the terrain, and, if the export price was too low, people would eat the avocados themselves. He talked with hundreds of farmers, and some decided to plant avocado trees.
Ubaldi lived in a town of 2,000 people nestled at the base of a hillside. He tells of seven deadly mudslides that struck after almost two weeks of heavy rain last year, burying houses and killing people. "Because of deforestation, there was no root zone. It's just all soil on a steep mountainside; the soil reached its capacity, and it all went down." Twenty-seven houses were lost, buried under 10 feet of mud. Fortunately, many people were outside, and most survived. The town mobilized within minutes, with the mayor taking charge and directing rescue operations. The disaster led to a renewed interest in reforestation and disaster planning.
After his two years of service, Ubaldi joined the Crisis Corps, another
Peace Corps project. He returned to Guatemala for six months, helping
another community develop disaster plans.
Potatoes and privacy
After training, Hendrick lived in Dubnica nad Váhom, a manufacturing town of about 25,000 people, where she worked with Dub, or Oak, an environmental education group. Initially the organization didn't have an apartment for her, so she lived with her boss's mother-in-law. While Hendrick found the lack of privacy difficult, her language skills improved immensely. She learned how to cook Slovakian food, including potato pancakes and the national dish, bryndzové hulusky. "That's goat cheese with potato dumplings and bacon on the top, very fattening but a wonderful dish."
After seven months, Hendrick moved into her own apartment. When Hendrick's brother came to visit her, she decided to make Slovak food, but found she was out of flour and went to borrow some from her neighbor. That was how Hendrick made a friend, and how she learned that "once a week each person cleans the hall of the apartment and down a couple of stairs."
Hendrick taught environmental education, discussing topics like the
ozone layer or pollution with schoolchildren. Sometimes they explored
the school yard, learning about trees, leaves, and photosynthesis. She
helped develop libraries for Dub and for the public school. She worked
with another Peace Corps volunteer on a teacher training program for environmental
education. Hendrick volunteered for a third year in which she taught English
and also helped create an English-speaking debate group for high school
Cows and culture
Dix had traveled in Central and Eastern Europe, but never to the countries of the former Soviet Union. His Peace Corps assignment to Khust fulfilled his desire to live in the mountains in the western part of the country. Dix spent his two-year service teaching English in Khust, and signed up for a third year when he married a fellow teacher, Neyla.
They met shortly after Dix arrived in Khust, and Neyla helped him with language and cultural skills. In Ukraine, teachers dress more formally than in the United States.
"The women usually wear some kind of nice dress with some kind of nice shoe," explains Dix. "They wear nice shoes even though the streets are so horrible. The men often wear suits to class, and I was dressed like an American." Neyla told him the kids and the teachers would respect him more if he dressed better. Dix changed his style.
Dix became well known in town as "the American." Running for exercise is a rare thing in Ukraine. When Dix began his morning runs through farm trails, the farmers would stop and stare. After a while they would only glance and say, "Oh, yeah, that's the American running."
Dix taught high school students. Other teachers would have him come
into their classrooms to teach subject-related material in English. During
the Ukrainian elections, he taught students about American elections.
He formed a drama club, and he involved students in sports.
Hendrick sees coming home as analogous to her arrival in Slovakia. "I'm in another country, and I have to learn the culture all over again." American consumer culture was highlighted for Hendrick by a trip to a mall, which she characterized as being "so huge." "We really have a lot of things," notes Hendrick. "Go to a grocery store, and there's a whole aisle full of different coffees."
The Peace Corps experience brought these three volunteers a new understanding of different culturesand of themselves. Hendrick appreciated the increase in "self-confidence, patience, and being open to more ideas." Dix misses the Ukraine "because of people, my friends, and family we left behind." Ubaldi discovered "that there's a lot of need for people to be helped."