Joining the Peace Corps in Peru: Stories from a Volunteer

Extras — By on July 12, 2010 at 9:46 pm

by Robyn Correll
Special to Lost Girls World

I had three wishes when I applied for Peace Corps. To be on the coast, someplace warm and where I could easily hit up Machu Picchu. I was expecting Guatemala, but when I got my assignment as a health volunteer in Peru, I shrugged and thought, “Ok, this will do.”

Five months later, I boarded a plane with my camouflage hiking backpack (a gift from my dad) and the last bag of Reese’s Pieces I would eat in a long time.

I suppose I should start off by saying that there are plenty of rational (and not rational) reasons to join the Peace Corps – and I’ve probably thought of them all. But those aren’t what brought me to Peru. I came here because it felt wrong to stay home.

From the moment I had talked to my first RCPV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer), enrolling in the Peace Corps was the only thing I wanted to do after college. Believe me, I looked around. I was a responsible college senior that evaluated my options. But really, when it came down to it,nothing blew my skirt up like two years exploring a place and meeting people rarely encountered by Americans.

So that’s how I found myself here: in the pinky nail of Peru, 3 degrees from the Equator and 40 minutes from some of the most beautiful beaches in South America.

My days are irregular. Sometimes I sleep in (if the roosters let me), sometimes I wake up early. I always enjoy plenty of conversations about the weather and short cat naps in the hammock. Mostly, though, I talk about sex.

Or, rather, HIV. My life is filled with an endless stream of condoms and blushing faces.

Tumbes, the department of Peru where I live, has a high prevalence of HIV infection, with numbers skyrocketing every year in the surrounding towns and villages. In some at-risk groups (like men who have sex with men and sex workers), more than 15 percent of the population is affected.

It’s bad. And it’s only getting worse.

The first time I gave a charla, or educational session, about HIV, its methods of transmission and prevention, I whipped out a banana – my favorite tool – and showed the six steps of condom use to a room full of teachers and parents. They stared at me blankly or red-faced or giggling, while I struggled through my own embarrassment and flimsy Spanish – only to watch the banana explode on me and the condom break.

It was perhaps the second worst day of my Peace Corps experience. (The worst was when the dentist at the health post made me cry because of my Spanish … I was having a sensitive day.)

I decided then that I would work with teens. Better really, considering what a big dork I am, and how often I make fun of myself. Teens are just more chill. And they laugh with you.

So, for the past year I have dedicated myself to HIV prevention, focusing on the youth in my community. Peace Corps Peru received a grant from PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), and along with a couple teachers, a midwife from the health post and a few health promoters, we’ve formed a force of peer educators. The teens are trained to talk about HIV in their schools and assist with teaching the adults in their communities. With them, we hope to educate an entire generation to cultivate, as the popular saying goes, “a culture of prevention.”

It’s work, but we have fun. And being with them is my favorite part of any day.

When I’m not talking about sexual health, I’m in the kindergarten and primary school washing my hands or with mothers boiling water. We plant vegetable gardens that might or might not reach a harvest and march in parades for Earth Day. We show She’s the Man while talking about doing sports, not drugs, and when the rains come hard, hole up in a classroom to talk about life skills and self-esteem.

Every day is different. And there’s always the next thing.

With any experience abroad, there are the choques, or roadblocks, but in the end, that’s not what I will remember. For every day that I close my door and find solace in NBC’s The Office, I have 20 where I am basking in the bliss of a job that demands – in its description – to get to know a place, a culture and a community.

For now, I take more than I give. But I look forward to devoting my next year of service to trying to make up for the imbalance.

    1 Comment

  • Wow, what a selfless thing to do. I’m full of admiration for you, teaching sex education in a foreign language… talk about getting out of your comfort zone