This past weekend, friends of mine brought to my attention an interesting NPR radio segment and web story (“Texting, Skype Alter The Peace Corps Experience“) that relates directly to my current life situation. If you’re reading this, you know that I am a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Ukraine and, of course, that I have Internet access, email and a blog. The following excerpt highlights the premise of the article:
Until fairly recently, joining the Peace Corps usually meant living in a remote location and leaving behind your family, friends and way of life. But improved technology is changing how volunteers serve — and how they keep in touch with home.
Each Peace Corps Volunteer has a different experience. As mentioned, however, until recently, the lack of necessary infrastructure in countries occupied by the governmental organization kept volunteers living in a more primitive manner. My uncle, for example, who served in Ecuador in the late 90s, living in a remote village, castrating sheep with Swiss Army Knives and his teeth, had no local Internet access. I vaguely remember him being able to send an email once every month of two, but it was done from Quito and only after a more than eight-hour bus ride into the city. He relied heavily on the old methods of communication. For the two years he was in South America, we corresponded mostly through handwritten letters and the occasional collect call made from a public telephone.
Fast forward 12 years. Now, I am able to communicate with my friends and family back home in a multitude of ways, including email, text message, through Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, even via video chat – Skype – the very thing I remember as a child thinking only James Bond-type characters and international persons of great significance were able to do. The benefits of such technologies are vast and obvious, so I’ll save my breath and your time.
Impaired by the elation brought on by having such technologies available, what aren’t so obvious to PCVs are the negative aspects of spending so much time using them. The NPR piece touches on just one, from Peace Corps’ Rwanda country director, John Reddy:
“If a volunteer is telling their family they’re having a bad day or a bad week, and then the family member calls Peace Corps Washington and Peace Corps Washington calls me … I have to find the volunteer and see what the problem was,” he says.
What the story doesn’t delve into are the consequences of living a wired life amongst a community that is mostly ignorant to such technologies. Prior to coming to Ukraine, I had nearly every new technological device known to man. So, I’m not here to knock them, because I love them as much as the next geek. As a journalist, it was important for me to have 24-hour access to news and information, to be able to connect with coworkers, sources and editors when I needed. But here, if I hide behind my MacBook or the screen of my smartphone, I’ll miss something valuable, some culturally significant tidbit that could help me assimilate further into the community. And isn’t that what Peace Corps is all about?
In Ukraine, it’s important to put in your time with the people. It is a culture that values face time and small talk. Here, traditions outrank technology. Technology might make that small talk interesting, and it certainly will help you hold onto your American way of life – as much as you can – but like the Peace Corps days of old, getting your hands dirty with the locals is still the best way to make friends, stay sane and get the most out of your experience.