Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Posh Corps

Unless you're an active Peace Corps volunteer or a returned Peace Corps volunteer, or you have an unhealthy obsession with the Peace Corps, you've probably never heard of the Posh Corps. The vision many people have of the Peace Corps is of volunteers living in mud huts, cooking rice over an open flame, bathing and washing their clothes in a bucket of cold water they have to walk three miles to get, reading by candlelight, and sleeping in mosquito netting. To some, volunteers who don't live in such a manner, or something reasonably similar, are not true Peace Corps volunteers. They are members of the Posh Corps.

At a minimum, Posh Corps volunteers are housed in homes or apartments blessed with modern conveniences such as electricity and indoor plumbing (think running water and toilets). They live in towns with grocery stores, cafés, and restaurants. They not only have kitchens, but the kitchens come with refrigerators, stoves, and ovens. Most have hot water heaters. Many have televisions hooked up to cable, and most have internet not only at their worksites but in their homes. The truly lucky ones even have washing machines and dish washers.

At our close of service conference, we all drew questions out of a hat. They were questions we were likely to be asked at some point by people in the USA when we returned home. We formed a large circle and a volunteer started by reading her question, which another volunteer of her choosing had to answer. We went around the circle until every volunteer had asked and answered a question. The question that I was asked was something like, "You served in Eastern Europe in a country that’s part of the European Union? That must have been real difficult (sarcasm)." At the time, I responded with an answer in line with the question, saying something along the lines of, "Yep. They don’t call it the Posh Corps for nothing." My response drew a smattering of boos and hisses from my colleagues and rightfully so.

No question. The volunteers serving in Third World countries face different challenges than we face. But, having talked at length with our former country director and our current assistant country directors, all of whom are former Peace Corps volunteers, as well as some other volunteers who have served in less developed countries, the primary challenges we face as volunteers – corruption, apathy, indifference, malaise, hostility, jealousy, mistrust – vary little from country to country. The work volunteers in less developed countries do might fall lower on Maslow's pyramid, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's more difficult.

Some will undoubtedly disagree and cling to the perceived distinction between real Peace Corps service and Posh Corps service. But how does one make such a distinction? Let's start with a list of ten. Without putting too much thought into it, here are ten things (all of which I've experienced during my service) that make one a Posh Corps volunteer:

10. You know you're in the Posh Corps when you heat your kitchen by opening your refrigerator.

9. You know you're in the Posh Corps when liquids, if left out of your refrigerator in your kitchen, freeze overnight.

8. You know you're in the Posh Corps when frozen locks prevent you from leaving your home, and, at other times, frozen locks prevent you from entering your home.

7. You know you're in the Posh Corps when frozen pipes prevent you from bathing for more than a week.

6. You know you're in the Posh Corps when you stop doing laundry, not only because you don't have water due to frozen pipes, but because even if you did have water you'd have no means by which to dry your clothes.

5. You know you're in the Posh Corps when your tile floor resembles a skating rink and you have no idea what's happening outside because two inches of frost have formed on the inside of all your windows.

4. You know you're in the Posh Corps when you teach less than five days in an entire month due to mandatory school closings ordered first as a result of an influenza epidemic and then as a result of temperatures well in excess of -20° Celsius.

3. You know you're in the Posh Corp when "breaking the seal" means peeing on and breaking up the ice that forms in your toilet bowl overnight.

2. You know you're in the Posh Corps when you sleep in long underwear, sweats, insulated socks, and a stocking cap in a sleeping bag under several wool blankets and you still wake up chilled and shivering because you're so cold.

1. You know you're in the Posh Corps when you lose any and all motivation to do anything other than crawl as far under the covers as possible in an attempt to stay warm.

All things considered, we live very well here. Lots of people, here and elsewhere, have it much rougher than we do. In that respect, our lives are "posh." But people who haven't served here and walked a mile in our shoes (at times through more than two feet of snow) are in no position to judge. The perception of the Posh Corp is far different from reality and is, quite simply, a load of bunk.

Winter was a bitch. Here's hoping Baba Marta is nicer. Честита Баба Марта!

The view from the inside looking out.

The way things have looked outside (even after a fair amount of snow melt).


  1. You just made me appreciate the heat in my house more than maybe ever before.

  2. I am an RPCV from service in Poland. This is an EXCELLENT piece. I lived in the school dorm and the heat would be shut off on weekends and long breaks - laughed at your layers of clothes for sleeping. I'm a native Californian and those winters were a change to say the least.

  3. I am also an RPCV from Poland, and I can attest that what you say is true. The "conveniences" in some ways make your work harder because you expect everything to be very similar. The flats and stores that seem to mirror a Western lifestyle do not translate into the the way relationships are formed or how the culture is evidenced in day-to day life.

    Nothing posh about my service. Hope Spring is better for you.