A friend back home recently asked me for details on the 12-week Pre-Service Training (PST) that all trainees have to go through before being sworn in as volunteers. For many, PST is survival of the fittest in action.
In fact, it says it in the Trainee Handbook: “Most volunteers say that PST is the most intensive and demanding period of their Peace Corps service…”
I could say it’s like boot camp, except I’ve never been to boot camp. I do know that while it was not physically demanding, the near constant mental and emotional demands were exhausting.
The amount of information that is presented in 12 weeks is like drinking from a fire hose; some of it gets in, most of it runs off. If you’re lucky, you will absorb it later.
First, there’s the integration process.
A major tenet of Peace Corps is that living with Host Country Nationals (HOCs) will help you adjust more quickly to the culture and learn the language immersion style.
Again from the Handbook: “Build relationships with Armenians; especially spend lots of time with your PST Host Family. It may seem like the last thing you want to do sometimes, but it will be worth it in the end.”
So true, but easier said than done.
Imagine being dropped into a house where you are expected to live with your new family for three months while you integrate into the culture. They don’t speak your language and you sure as hell don’t speak theirs. They are friendly and very welcoming, but the language barrier reduces the conversation to smiles, nods and arm waving.
They are eager to make you feel at home, but all the food they offer you is different, some of it inedible, to your palate. You learn the words for “I’m hungry,” “I’m full,” “it’s delicious,” “I love it,” “I don’t love it,” “it’s too salty,” “it’s too greasy” and “I’m sick.” You have Peace Corps Medical Office on speed dial.
All the families are thoroughly vetted by Peace Corps, but the housing situations vary widely. Some houses have indoor plumbing, others have outhouses. I had a real bathroom with a nice shower. Ninety percent of the time there was water.
Then there is the actual training.
We attended classes five days a week from 8:30 to 5:30, with a half day on Saturday just for Hayeren (Armenian) language training. The first three and a half hours were spent in our villages with language and culture class. Mostly it was language, although we tried to distract our Armenian instructor, Satenik, with as many culture questions as possible.
Then we had lunch, and were bussed to the town 20 minutes away to an elementary school where we had training class for four and a half hours. Topics covered included the three goals of Peace Corps, the 10 Core Expectations of a Peace Corps Volunteer, culture lessons, technical skills sessions, health lessons and safety and security, all designed to prepare volunteers for just the first three months of service. After that, there is more training. And more training.
We learned that we are always representatives of our country, and anything and everything we do reflects on that. We were told what we could and couldn’t do. We learned that Armenians are intensely proud of their small country; how to evacuate in the case of civil unrest or disaster (although the aging Soviet nuclear reactor was deemed “perfectly safe”); and that snakes are dangerous.
Plus as participants in the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certificate program, we also had classes on teaching theory and five sessions of putting that knowledge to practical use in the classroom with real live students.
But here, walk with me through a typical day:
It’s early September and we’ve been in the village for several weeks. Four of us have been assigned to Taperakan, a small village in which many people have never seen an American, except on TV. Despite our attempts at cultural sensitivity (no shorts, no skimpy tank tops, no sneakers, no flip flops) we stick out like zebras in a flock of seagulls.
At my house (toon) my host mother rises early to cook breakfast for me. It’s always hot, and it’s always fried. Fried eggs, fried potatoes, fried tomatoes, fried eggplant, you name it, they fry it. We have an incomprehensible exchange which ends with me saying yes to everything. I think. I make instant coffee (soorj) for myself because the tiny cups of strong Armenian coffee are just not big enough. My host mother learns her first lesson in American Ways.
I gather my books and walk the dusty three blocks to the culture center, passing several groups of men who stare and children who giggle. We were told that women in Armenia don’t make eye contact with or talk to men on the street, so we avoid their stares. It’s 8:20 a.m., already hot, and Mt. Ararat shimmers in the distance framed by the cement block houses that line the dirt streets.
We gather in a small, run-down room of the culture center, which has also seen better days in the “glorious” Soviet era.
For three and a half hours we struggle valiantly to: 1. Recognize the 39 letters of the Armenian alphabet, 2. String them together into words, 3. String those together into sentences like: Yes oonem mek yeghbayr bites choonem kooyr (I have one brother but I don’t have a sister), and 4. Remember what we were taught.
Then it’s back home to eat the hot lunch that has been prepared by my pregnant host sister. Even though we are “family,” I am not allowed to cook, clean or even take my dishes to the kitchen.
It’s a typical lunch: fried potatoes, plain pasta, plain rice, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, Armenian cheese and lavash. Four courses of starch, and then it’s on the bus and off to Artashat for the rest of the day.
The group training is a chance to see the other trainees, compare notes on daily life, get and give hugs and support.
One reports that his breakfast every morning is a bowl of fried eggplant. Another is having trouble asking her host father to not smoke in the house. A third has had diarrhea for a week and wonders if that’s a problem (YES).
But spirits lift when the trainer asks people to share their success stories of the week, with candy as a reward.
There are tales of breakthroughs in language, shared cooking and being introduced to relatives as “our daughter.”
The Peace Corps is big on “student-centered learning,” and in training that means skits. Lots and lots of skits. We hate skits. But they keep us awake, and we are team players, so we count off, group up and write our plans in marker on large flip chart paper. Lots and lots of paper.
I would give an example, but honest to God I can’t remember a single one (sorry Charles and Jim).
Finally at 5:30 the “work” day is over, and we are bussed back home. Peace Corps Armenia has a policy that during PST trainees must be back in their “clusters” by 7 p.m. Although it’s an easy bus ride away, we are only allowed to go to Yerevan once a month, with our families, with three days notice and prior approval. Peace Corps is both mother and Big Brother during PST.
Back at the toon, dinner is a repeat of lunch, with an unidentifiable meat object (UMO) added. After politely eating as little as possible, I retire to my room, ostensibly to study.
In reality, my brain is fried and looking at Hayeren is the last thing I want to do. Facebook is calling…
PST was hard. Maybe not the most difficult thing I’ve ever done (I’m old), but I think I came out of the crucible a stronger, better person. I know I made friends that I am confident will help me through the tough times, the lonely times and the sad times, as well as be there for the good times — of which I’m sure there will be plenty. No one else can really understand what we went through, and as the trainers kept telling us, “this is your family now.”