Fat Books & Thin Women

#Longreads : Paul Theroux’s “The Lesson of My Life”
September 28, 2011, 5:50 pm
Filed under: Favorite Longreads | Tags: , , , ,

Check back every Wednesday for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Paul Theroux’s “The Lesson of My Life” is a wide-ranging piece about his experience in the Peace Corps, an encounter with Obama and his hopes for the presidency, the differences between travel and sightseeing, and the ways technology has changed the Peace Corps experience. Theroux’s article isn’t worth reading just by the people considering joining Peace Corps, which is how I think a lot of Peace Corps-centered pieces are viewed, but for anyone attempting to better define why it is important, why it is necessary, to do this sort of work in the first place.

Theroux hits on a couple things that have troubled me during my service. First, internet is so pervasive now that the opportunity to truly “escape” has vanished. Nearly everyone in Macedonia, not just American volunteers, has the internet in their homes, and Peace Corps has changed to such a degree that it’s nearly impossible to function without the internet. During the five or six months I didn’t have internet (either because I was training, or waiting for my internet to be installed at my house, or because I left the router plugged in during a thunderstorm) I missed countless emails from Peace Corps staffers and co-workers in my school, the sort of emails that I needed to see to do my job. But this sort of technology, as Theroux points out, fundamentally changes the Peace Corps by making it possible for volunteers to retreat to the comfort of phone calls with family on a bad day. Over the past few months, which have at times felt crushing (failed projects at school, strained relations with my school’s administration due to the failed project, a need to reclaim my privacy), I’ve been guilty of this.

Theroux also writes of one of the differences between travel with an organization like the Peace Corps and the sort of sightseeing that ends in description of what people do not have: “Out of a guilty, grotesque, almost boasting self-consciousness, these wealthy visitors enumerate the insufficiencies. That’s because they don’t stay very long.” This is something I saw when I was at home, and it was something I kowtowed to when I did presentations on my Peace Corps service, because it’s not just what the visitors see but what the non-visitors want to hear that influences how we describe our travel. People do not want to hear that I’m still awed by how close families here are, how generous the people are, and how much more secure in people’s honesty I often feel here than I do in America (leave your phone in a cab in Macedonia and the driver will call you and tell you which gas station attendant he is leaving the phone with; leave your phone in a cab in America and you’re buying a new one the next day); they want to hear about girls being married when they are sixteen years old and children being taken out of school after the eighth grade, and women doing everything for the men of the family, down to getting them glasses of water when they call for them. These things are true, but as Theroux writes, they do not describe the whole of the experience.

With what sometimes feels like endless criticism of Peace Corps and the work volunteers do (see: in a bar recently, an American traveling through the Balkans describing the Foreign Service: “Look at me, look at me, I’m an American and I’m here to show you I’m a nice person” [exactly what we do in the Peace Corps], so many articles and tv shows over the last year about rape in the Peace Corps, poor agency response to volunteer problems, and reasons why Peace Corps is a poor “aid organization”), Theroux’s essay, which is in part a summation of his time in Africa and in part a defense of the necessary work behind this sort of travel, is a fine response to those who tear apart the Peace Corps without an understanding of the organization or the value of its volunteers’ efforts.

Travel—not sightseeing, but real encounters with real people—has never mattered more in helping us to see how we’re crowding a blighted planet, how interdependent we are.

Read Paul Theroux’s “The Lesson of My Life”


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