Last week I passed an important milestone in my service. On May 14, 2010 I completed a full year in Nicaragua. In that year, I left only one time, and that was to go to Guatemala. That means I have spent more than a full year outside of the US, something that at one time I listed as a lifetime goal to accomplish before turning 30. Just made it. The day of my one-year anniversary in Nicaragua I was participating in the orientation activities for the new group that just arrived, Nica 53. It was especially nice to be able to reflect on my year in country while welcoming the newest additions to the PC Nicaragua family.
The new trainees asked a million questions - Will the language training really make their Spanish better? Do I feel safe in my site? What is my housing situation like? Do I feel like I'm making a difference? Did training prepare me to do my job? Do I like it here?I felt very fortunate to have almost all positive things to say - yes, the language training is amazing. Yes, I feel very safe in my site. Yes, I have a great housing situation, close to a host family but in my own place.
As to whether or not I'm making a difference, I still think it's a bit early to tell. But one thing I am happy to realize is that regardless of what kind of tangible results I am able to point to at the end of my service, the cultural exchange element is enough to make me feel that being here is worthwhile. Many Peace Corps volunteers are the only US Americans that people in rural Nicaragua (and in many places where Peace Corps works) will ever really know. And although I am sometimes asked what could have possibly possessed me to give up the advantages of living in the US, even for a couple of years, most Nicaraguans that I meet and get to know are impressed that so many North Americans would willingly choose to spend two years living at the same standard as some of the poorest Central Americans. My friends here have become real friends. We cook together and eat together, we talk about our families, we even have inside jokes - ask me sometime to tell you about 'pelo de cusuco' (armadillo hair). I honestly believe that this kind of interpersonal cultural exchange makes the world a better and a safer place, maybe even more than an improved oven or a family garden.
Okay, one more point before I get too mushy. Have you ever stopped to think that American English lacks a real term for our own nationality? In Spanish, they have the word 'estadounidense', basically United States-ian. We call ourselves Americans, but that term could apply to anyone living on either of the two American continents. I make an effort when speaking English to say US American, but that sounds kind of weird. American from the US is too long, United States-ian is kind of strange. Gringo is okay, but it only works in Latin America, and it has negative connotations. Any other suggestions?