When people think about the Peace Corps they often do so in a somewhat romantic and idealized way. Most of the pictures non-Peace Corps people see are of volunteers in stock photo-esque situations. Leaning over a child and pointing to a new word in a book. Looking at a map with a local and pointing to a remote village that needs clean water. Standing in a field with a farmer pointing off in the distance to the future (I don’t know about you, but I imagine a lot of pointing when I think of stock photography). Perhaps another fitting image that comes to mind is of a volunteer eating an exotic food. But one thought that probably does not occur to people outside of the Peace Corps is the diarrhea that that volunteer will suffer through for eating such an exotic food.
In America I never had any gastrointestinal issues. I could eat anything without worrying about how my bathroom experience would be affected (save for one anomalous incident following a dinner of chicken and waffles). Indonesia does not offer the same assurances to my digestive tract.
Let’s set one thing straight first. Diarrhea, as defined by Peace Corps, is at least four “excessivley liquid” stools a day lasting longer than 48 to 72 hours. But in reality it’s so much more than that. Of course, diarrhea is just a symptom, and can have a variety of causes, both non-infectious and infectious, including bacterial, viral, and parasitic. The exact cause of someone’s diarrhea is often unknown. If there is one thing that’s certain about Peace Corps service it’s that you are guaranteed to get diarrhea.
Real diarrhea is about more than the liquid poops. It’s about feeling like liquid poop. Halfway through my second week in Indonesia I started to feel a bit ill. I was more tired than usual, though being tired during PST is to be expected. The exhaustion I was feeling wasn’t related to a lack of sleep, but more similar in nature to a constant sense of recovering from a particularly difficult workout. I felt hunger but had little desire to eat anything. To top the list of awful symptoms was abdominal cramping. In my opinion, the overall feeling was the worst part. Sure, the poops were terrible, and I visited the kamar kecil a little more than usual, but I would gladly take the crazy poops before the general feeling of diarrhea again.
My diarrhea tribulation was awful and it was the only time I have ever had doubts about my ability to complete my Peace Corps service. On the worst day, we had language class for nine hours and I spent the majority of the time lying on the floor. Luckily, that was the last day of my illness. It was also the day that I posted on the ID10 Facebook group about the plight of those suffering from diarrhea.
For whatever reason, people often feel ashamed of their diarrhea, and hide their struggle. Well there is no shame in diarrhea! My advice for anyone who joins the Peace Corps is if you are one of the first people in your group to get diarrhea: make it well known.
At first, my openness about diarrhea was not received with the accolades I had anticipated. No great wave of supprters rushed forward. Only two people (including myself) liked my post the first day. However, as more time passed, people began to come forward. And even now, nearly a month later, I am one of the first people to know when someone is in the midst of a battle with diarrhea. I was a little worried that this newly founded diarrhea advocate persona might eclipse the identity I had already been developing within ID10, but it has been a superb tool for getting to know my fellow trainees.
I have been diarrhea free for over a month and I am very grateful for such luck. My bout of diarrhea only lasted four days, though there are some trainees who have endured through more than a week. No matter the duration of the battle the best part is once it’s over. My confidence soared and I was certain that I could make it two years in Indonesia. I wouldn’t want to go through having diarrhea again, but at least on a second time around I would know there is a light at the end of the tunnel.