Volunteering in West Africa through the Peace Corps with Josh Guerrero
In this episode of the Expat Empire Podcast, we will be hearing from Josh Guerrero about volunteering in West Africa. Growing up in a town of only 1,100 in population, Josh got bit by the travel bug during his first international travel experience to Japan. Following that trip, he began to look for more opportunities to get abroad.
This led him to move to The Gambia, West Africa, where he lived for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. Living with a culture that was entirely different from his own left him feeling even more curious about other places and cultures around the world. He then found his way to England to attend graduate school, eventually earning a Master’s degree in Field Archaeology. Now, as a professional archaeologist, he travels all around the southeastern US to conduct fieldwork.
Josh recounts many of his incredible stories from his time living in The Gambia through the Peace Corps in this episode, so if you want to know how you can get abroad while doing good for others, definitely have a listen!
LEARN in this episode:
✔ What it’s like to be the very first Peace Corps volunteer to live in a remote, rural village in West Africa
✔ How to pursue international experience as a Peace Corps volunteer and the elaborate application process involved
✔ The benefits of a minimalistic, experience-focused life
✔ The challenges of readjusting to a lifestyle of extravagance in the US after two years living in extremely simple conditions abroad
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Video Episode Transcript
Volunteering in West Africa through the Peace Corps with Josh Guerrero – Intro
Welcome to the Expat Empire Podcast, the podcast where you can hear from expats around the world and learn how you can join them.
Hey guys, before we get to the interview, I want to remind you that we’re offering free 30-min consulting calls to anyone interested in moving abroad.
Whether you’re thinking about retiring somewhere warm, starting an international career, or becoming a digital nomad, we’re ready to help you think through the next steps in your journey.
Send us a message at https://expatempire.com to schedule your call today!
With that said, let’s start the conversation.
Volunteering in West Africa through the Peace Corps with Josh Guerrero – Conversation:
David McNeill: [00:00:46] Hey Josh, thanks so much for joining us today on the Expat Empire Podcast.
Josh Guerrero: [00:00:50] Hey David, I’m glad to be here, man. I’ve been looking forward to talking with you again.
David McNeill: [00:00:54] Yeah, absolutely. It was super fun talking for your show. I know there’s a ton of different stuff for us to talk about. We have some similarities in our experiences and some big differences as well, so excited to get into that. If you could help me just, and really the audience by telling us a bit about your background, where you’re originally from, where around the world you’ve lived so far and where you are right now, that would really help.
Josh Guerrero: [00:01:15] Yeah, sure thing. Well, I was born and raised in a small town in rural Michigan, and I’m talking a pretty small town. Technically we’re considered a village, you know, about population 1,100 people. Everybody knows everybody. You got to be careful who you ask out on a date because you all might actually be related, you know, type of a small town.
Around the time I graduated high school I made the decision to join the military. I served for four years in the Marine Corps. Following that experience just tried being a regular college student, got my Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education. I took that degree and I decided to apply it to the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps has a very large education sector that led me to The Gambia in West Africa to serve for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer.
But following that experience, I’ve had a little bit of a paradigm shift. I wasn’t really quite feeling the education side of things very much following that experience mostly just because I became very, very curious. Of course, as you know all too well, David living abroad yourself is that having experiences like that leave you much more curious to see what else is out there in the world. I’m sure we’ll talk about this a little bit more in-depth as we go on in this conversation, but I cultivated that curiosity, and I decided to move to England to pursue a different career path. I decided to settle in on archeology, you know, just having this amazing experience, living with a culture entirely different from my own for two years, which again, just really kind of comes with being an expat. I decided to pursue archeology and I got a Master’s Degree in Field Archeology from the University of York. York is situated in the Northern part of England and I’ve been doing professional archeology work for about three years now. Currently, I’m back in the U.S. I live in North Florida. But who knows? I’m about to go through a transition here before too long and maybe I’ll find myself abroad again.
David McNeill: [00:03:23] All right. Sounds great. Well, there’s definitely a lot for us to dig into there, but I was just curious. I’m sure we’ll get to it at the end, but before we jump to the very beginning of your story, what exactly do you do professionally as an archeologist? I’m just curious about that career and maybe how it helps you to itch a little bit of that curiosity that you said that you’ve cultivated over the last handful of years.
Josh Guerrero: [00:03:43] Yeah. My current profession does keep me traveling quite a bit. Actually, in fact just last week I came back from the U.S. Virgin Islands; I was there for three weeks. But much of my work in archeology centers around what we call compliance archeology. I work in the federal sector for archeology and one of the things that we have to do is, on federal lands they have what’s called the National Historic Preservation Act, meaning that before any undertaking can take place on federal lands, whether it’s putting a new parking lot, building a new building, whatever the case may be, the grounds have to be archeologically inspected first to make sure that there’s no cultural heritage remains or human remains in that area that they want to build.
So I will actually go to do testing either…it’s usually with me as part of a team and we’ll go, we’ll do varying excavations and surveys just to see what the ground’s like. Then after we’re done testing, you know, we can kind of give our approval as to whether or not we think this area is clear of any archeological remains so they can begin building. So that’s primarily what I do. Not really quite as glamorous as what I think many people would think of. I’m not, you know, just barging into tombs, looking for that single artifact that belongs in a museum somewhere. I’m not battling with the forces of evil over these things either.
So, but yeah, it’s kind of a little bit of an overview and it does keep me on the road quite a bit like I’ve mentioned. I just came back from the Virgin islands after three weeks of slugging it out there. I’m actually heading up to Kentucky in a couple of days from our recording for a couple of weeks. Then from there, I’m going to be doing some work in Southern Georgia, possibly bumping back to Mississippi. So for someone like me who loves to travel and loves to be on the road it’s pretty fitting, but though sometimes as of course, we all know too well-being expatriates is that sometimes it can be a little bit weary, give or take, but it’s very rewarding nonetheless though. But yeah, that’s kind of an overview of what I do.
David McNeill: [00:05:59] Great. No, that’s amazing. I love to hear that and I’m sure we’ll get into it a bit more. So going back to your origins, it sounds like it was quite a small town that you grew up in. So I’d love to know how you got this bug or addiction for being abroad and traveling. Obviously, that’s a huge part of your life now. So where did it start for you? Where did that first experience happen or did the idea in your head?
Josh Guerrero: [00:06:21] Yeah, you know, that’s a really good point. You know, my small town isn’t exactly a hotspot for world travelers. Sometimes it can be tricky going back to my hometown after all my experiences and trying to share everything because, you know, there are issues with relatability. Not everyone can relate to what it’s like to live abroad, travel the world, which is fine of course. But I say like the initial travel bug had to come from my two-week study abroad trip that I took in college to Japan. Of course you yourself have lived in Japan for a couple of years, you know that it is a wondrous place. The cities are amazing. The people are wonderful. The food is delicious. The countryside is just breathtakingly beautiful. I’m certainly talking up the country pretty well and for good reason, of course.
That was actually the first country that I visited outside of the U.S. so I definitely got a very, very good experience, international travel experience right off the bat. This is definitely where the curiosity and the travel bug came from because this was just one country out of 193 countries out there. The first one that I’ve seen outside of my own, and I’m just thinking, well, what else is out there? I’ve got to see what else is out there.
What kind of led me to make the decision to live abroad, in The Gambia West Africa for Peace Corps was…And I hope I’m not getting too ahead of your question here, but when I graduated from high school and of course doing this trip to Japan, this was in my second to last semester. So I was kind of nearing the end of my college experience. So of course the thoughts were coming to mind, well, what am I going to do? I mean, I have to do something after college and my undergrad being in elementary education, you know, I was looking for teaching jobs, of course. I graduated from a university in Michigan.
Now at the time the job market for teachers in Michigan was just in awful shape. I mean they were closing down schools, they were letting go of teachers left and right. They had much more licensed teachers in the state than they actually had jobs for everybody. So there was a little bit of a doom and gloom kind of, sort of feeling on the horizon. I’m thinking to myself, well what am I supposed to do now? I mean, am I going to just do all this hard work for the last few years just to get unemployed? So I had to start looking at other options and I kind of had to look outward a little bit, outside of my home state.
Then I’m not sure exactly how I came across the Peace Corps, but as I started looking into the Peace Corps and I was seeing that they had loads of opportunities and they had much need for people with educational experience, you know, something I just so happened to have skills in, I looked into it a little bit more and I ultimately applied. After a very, very, very long and daunting application process, I was invited to go to West Africa to serve as a teacher trainer. That’s what led me to my first time living abroad. But yes, it absolutely began with just this two-week study abroad to Japan.
I think what led me to choose Japan for my first trip, and of course, the culture is something I was really fascinated to learn about. I’m a martial artist I grew up doing karate. So of course hearing stories about, you know, the samurai and the Ninja and other Japanese martial arts styles was something that led me to take interest in that country. Also, this was the first time that this particular trip was being offered at my university. They had tons of study abroad opportunities to countries in Europe, but not really quite so much in Asia. When I found out that this particular professor was doing this trip to Japan, I knew I had to capitalize on it. So I was kind of part of the beta test group. I think he’s done several trips following this because it actually went really well. All the students who went and had an amazing time. As you can tell for me, it was the type of experience that led me on a path of even more adventures following that.
David McNeill: [00:10:42] Yeah, absolutely. So that was actually after your initial time in the military as well, right? Did you have experiences going abroad for that or was that more U.S.-focused?
Josh Guerrero: [00:10:54] Yeah, that was more U.S.-focused. I was attached to what was called a non-deployable unit. Long story short is that my unit what we did is we tested aircraft. There was a particular aircraft called the V 22 Osprey, kind of like, I kind of described it as like a hybrid between an airplane and a helicopter. People have probably seen it in movies. It’s made the rounds in various Hollywood films ever since it became operational. My unit was tasked with doing a series of test flights to get this aircraft approved to go operational to be used overseas because at the time it hadn’t been used in Iraq or Afghanistan. So in order to do that, we had to kind of stay put, they didn’t want us like being scattered on deployments. They wanted us focused on just getting this aircraft operational.
And I say, unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to deploy. Now some people would say it’s kind of strange that if I was able to stay away from a combat zone during my service, I kind of had it made. Which I’d say, yeah, there’s some validity to that. But I was a Marine and my job was to be of service to my country. I think to some degree, would’ve liked to have the experience of deploying, but of course, I’m 35 now, so I’m well past the chances to actually enlist again and deploy. But yeah. So that’s just a little bit of a quick side note on my military service.
David McNeill: [00:12:25] Yeah. Yeah. That’s interesting to hear that. Do you think that any of that experience had an impact on your interest in being in the Peace Corps or was it just completely unrelated in your head. Having done neither of those two things I’m not sure if there’s a connection there, but I just wanted to see if there was any of that in the back of your mind.
Josh Guerrero: [00:12:43] No, I wouldn’t say necessarily having the military experience led me to do the Peace Corps. However, I will say that many things that I picked up in the Marine Corps were very applicable to my Peace Corps service or at least going about my Peace Corps service. Especially just kind of the discipline and the grittiness because living in a developing country like The Gambia. Living in a rural village way out in the middle of nowhere where you don’t have running water, you don’t have a lot of modern amenities that well, quite frankly, many of us kind of take for granted like electricity, air conditioning, all those creature comforts that were pretty much non-existent where I was living.
A lot of the mental toughness that I picked up from the Marine Corps as well because obviously you go through boot camp and you have really intense drill instructors screaming in your face for three months straight, you tend to build up a little bit of resilience. That’s very applicable to not just live in a developing country, but in many other facets of life as well. So I’d say, just the skill set that I’ve developed mentally definitely went a long way when I was trying to get adjusted to just life in this developing country because it definitely wasn’t easy. It’s definitely its own unique set of challenges.
Again, everything from lots of physical discomforts. It was about 107 degrees Fahrenheit most days there. Like I said, I had no air conditioning, I just had like a little hand fan that I would have to just like use vigorously just to try to keep myself cool. If I wanted to collect water or rather if I wanted to have water to drink, I would have to collect it. There was like communal taps in my village and they would only come on for a couple hours during the day.
For some reason I found this interesting, they were powered by solar panels. They actually have like a small, like little solar panel set up just outside the village. So I would have to just take buckets and pails when these water taps would come on, fill them up, carry them back to my house, run them through their paces. I had to put them through a filter and then actually and put a couple drops of bleach in the water too because the water in this part of the world you can expect to have a lot of waterborne parasites, like dysentery and Giardia. I contracted both of those when I was living there. I won’t get into the gory details if anyone’s curious, feel free to Google it. But yeah, it’s a little bit of a sad story when I contracted both of those things, but yeah.
So just to kind of get back to your question even though there wasn’t really much motivation from my Marine Corps service to actually go and pursue Peace Corps, the interest in doing Peace Corps more or less strictly came out of just me being an elementary education major. Then of course, just having this curiosity and this travel bug that I picked up from my Japan experience. So, yeah, that’s ultimately what kind of led me to do that.
David McNeill: [00:15:57] Yeah that makes perfect sense. So it sounds like it was a very intense and long application process and ultimately you were successful. So of course, I want to hear about what the application process entailed, but also, I can imagine that, of course you passed that you were able to get this assignment. Other people didn’t pass and some did, but were they actually able to tough it out in those situations? Because I can imagine, like you’re saying that your marine military experience gave you the mental toughness to be able to go through some of the difficulties that you just talked about. So you know is it just a tough route that people really need to think long and hard about if they want to go down that? And we’d love to hear just your thoughts on it and the overall application process as well.
Josh Guerrero: [00:16:41] Yeah, sure thing. Yeah, I definitely would say that when it comes to becoming a Peace Corps volunteer character is something that Peace Corps recruiters are going to look very closely into because yes, it does take quite a bit to commit two years of your life to doing this type of service, because that’s like the minimum that the Peace Corps is going to ask for is two years. There are instances where some volunteers will even extend longer than that, but the two years is the minimum that they last for.
For me, and I’m not sure if Peace Corps has changed their standards since then. This was 2012 to 2014 when I had served. But at the time I had to have at least a Bachelor’s Degree in order to apply. I also had to go through a whole battery of interviews and physical health screenings. I had to go to Chicago for an interview. That was just for me to even get nominated. Now, when I’m nominated, that doesn’t mean I actually have an assignment yet. It just means that I’m just one step further to possibly getting accepted, to actually serve in the Peace Corps. So I had to go to Chicago for my interview. Then after I was nominated, that’s when I got like a big packet of a bunch of forms that I had to get filled out by a doctor and everything from blood work that I needed to get done, immunizations that I needed. I also had to get some dental screening done as well. This was just to determine, to make sure that I don’t have any physical ailments that would prevent me from being successful.
So it was just a really, really long drawn out process. It took me almost like a year to apply. I think the reason why Peace Corps set it up that way. Of course, I’m just speculating here, I haven’t actually really confirmed this. But I imagine that having a bachelor’s degree as a requirement and having this lengthy application process, it’s their way of determining as to whether or not you’re actually committed to doing this. Because I think the idea is if someone has the willingness to endure four years, possibly even more to get a bachelor’s degree and to go through this, they’re going to stick it out and go through the rigors of what it takes to be a Peace Corps volunteer while they’re actually in country.
There have been many instances and I’ve heard these stories once I actually was serving, is that you’ll have Peace Corps volunteers like from the early days when there wasn’t quite so much in the way of requirements, will show up to the airport or hugging and saying goodbye to their families, getting ready to walk through the security checkpoint only to actually have it really dawn on them that, oh crap I’m actually about to give two years of my life to this. Two years away from family, two years over whatever else that they might be thinking of. It’s really hard to do that.
Even though I knew I was committed, there was definitely a lot of, like sort of the fear of missing out of a lot of things because the world doesn’t stop turning because we decide to go move abroad somewhere. Relationships that we’ve might’ve had can change. You may say no to a couple of potential job opportunities to go volunteer and the Peace Corps isn’t exactly the most lucrative route financially either. So, and yeah, it was difficult. It’s definitely a lot there to become a volunteer.
I guess like the second part of your question for volunteers who maybe didn’t have like prior experience, like mine with military whatever. A lot of them do really well because they were very good socially. Like they were just really good human beings and they knew how to interact with people. Another big component to being a Peace Corps volunteer, well quite frankly, just being an expatriate in general is just to have an open mind because being around and living amongst a culture that may be entirely different from your own. Of course, in Western cultures like with yourself, having been in Germany and Portugal, you do see a lot of similarities, but there are still some differences. Then of course, going to a developing country in West Africa there’s a ton of differences, culturally speaking.
So just having an open mind to kind of adjust to those because you tend to see things that are going to be a bit strange. I think one thing that I noticed that a lot of the volunteers that I served with had done really well is just kind of having, again, that curiosity. They see something that they find strange about a culture they want to learn more about it, they’ll ask questions. They’ll just kind of just immerse themselves with this culture that they’re now a part of. Then when you decide to do that, when you decide to go into those situations, whether it’s living abroad, traveling abroad with an open mind, it’s very rewarding. There’s a lot of things that you pick up that you maybe might’ve been unfamiliar with before, and sometimes it’s getting out of your comfort zone in order to do so, as we know all too well. But it’s a very enriching experience for sure.
David McNeill: [00:22:08] So when you look back at that time how do you feel about the experience overall? Obviously there were a number of challenges and difficulties. An extremely intensive application process. You were there for the two years. You came in with some expectations I’m sure about what the role would be. I think you ended up leaving after just those initial two years, which I suppose is standard. But just curious on, as you reflect on it, what was that experience like for you and would you recommend it to other people as well?
Josh Guerrero: [00:22:36] Yeah, absolutely. Again, it certainly wasn’t an easy experience, lots of challenges, but just like anything else in life, is that the challenging experiences are often the ones that kind of mold us in the way for the better. We’re able to extrapolate a lot of life lessons and I say tools to add to our toolbox, meaning mentally moving forward as well. I think I definitely would recommend that experience. It was also just kind of like the experience that just opened up so many other doors for me too.
Again, I keep going back to curiosity. Curiosity is of course, just like one of the most basic things that I think we as humans have experienced ever since the beginning. If you think about caveman, who saw the sunset over that mountain range and they wondered what was on the other side of those mountains so they decided to venture forth. Or someone who saw this vast body of water in front of them and tried to build something that would float on it.
So when I look back on this experience and just again, being immersed with this culture that was entirely different from my own and trying to learn a language that not even a percentage of the percentage of the world population can speak. I was trying to speak Sarahule. Also the relationships that I developed with my host family. My host family consisted of…I had a host father who was married to two wives. Yep, polygamous marriages we’re a thing. Then also there was a lot of just embracing a more minimalistic lifestyle that I also found a lot of benefit into.
Like before we hit record here, I was telling you about how, when I moved to The Gambia, it was just whatever I could fit into to check bags and a carry-on. Actually when I came back from Gambia, I had less stuff than what I actually went there with. It was just a really good eye-opener because it reminded me that I can do just fine with less. I think sometimes growing up in a Western country like the United States I’m not going to say everybody, I don’t want to paint everyone with the same brush, but there’s a tendency amongst many people here to be a bit materialistic. We like our stuff. We like our laptops, our TVs, our smartphones, our cars, our closet full of clothes and so on and so forth.
I think that this experience just kind of reminded me just to focus on what’s most important. For me, it’s not those shiny objects. It’s kind of the relationships and the experiences that I can have. I really love the adage collect experiences and not things. I don’t even know if I’m on track with your original question, but I hope you like this response.
David McNeill: [00:25:34] No I like it very much.
Josh Guerrero: [00:25:34] I hope you like this response, nonetheless. I think about just looking far down the line when I’m at the end of my life which I hope is when I’m over a hundred years old or something like that. When I look back on my life, I’m not going to reflect on the things that I’ve owned. Like I’m not going to think to myself, man, I’m so happy I bought that fancy new game console or I’m so glad that I bought that brand new t-shirt or whatever the case may be.
What I’m going to reflect on is the experiences that I’ve had and the relationships that I developed along the way where I would say I’m so glad that I committed myself to being a good boyfriend or a good husband. I’m so glad that I decided to immerse myself with that culture and got to learn so many fascinating things about them. Or I’m so glad that I actually just decided to take the leap to buy that plane ticket when I thought that maybe I didn’t have it in the budget to do so. I went and I had that amazing experience wherever it is that I decided to go.
So that’s how I really kind of like to live life. I like to collect experiences and not things because when we dwell so much on buying up things they come with a lot of maintenance. If we own a TV, the maintenance comes from the cable bill and paying that monthly subscription to whatever streaming services you want. Then of course it costs money to get internet. If you own a car you got to do all the upkeep and everything. So all these material possessions that we own, they come with a lot of maintenance and they come with a lot of subscriptions. Whether it’s with your money or with your time to try to again, do that maintenance.
Of course, I’m not here to bash anyone who wants to own stuff. I mean, I like nice things, just as much as the next person, but ultimately it’s just, I want to make sure and remind myself that these material things in the end a lot of them don’t even really matter. It’s really just the relationships that I’ve had with people along the way that I’ve met. Speaking of like my host family, the teachers in the school that I was called to serve in my village, the other villagers that I met along the way, the other volunteers that we were going through this tough experience together with. Those are the things that I really want to hang on to moving forward and continue to collect those same types of experiences and those same types of relationships moving forward. Again, I don’t even know if I even answered your original question.
David McNeill: [00:28:27] Well, I think you did, and I think this was even better. But yeah, I do have a couple of things to dive into a little bit there. So you mentioned a homestay experience that you had. So is that organized, is that an extended part of the Peace Corps volunteer experience or is that something that you through your own initiative kind of participated in?
Josh Guerrero: [00:28:45] Right. Yeah. That’s something that the Peace Corps will pretty much already prearrange for you. Kind of the way it works…again, maybe the Peace Corps may be a little bit different now, but at the time when I went back in 2012, you don’t necessarily really get to pick which country you go to. You can list regional preferences. I think at the time, my regional preferences, I’m not sure exactly what they were, but I believe they were Southeast Asia, Central America, and I believe South America.
But ultimately when the Peace Corps sends you an invitation, it’s going to be determined on more or less where your skills are most needed. With me having an education background there was a huge need for education volunteers in West Africa and other parts of the continent. So that’s where they invited me to go. Just a quick side note here is that when the Peace Corps actually invited me to be a volunteer, it was done very formally. They had FedEx me this big blue envelope with an actual typed out hand-signed invitation letter to kind of outline the assignment that they want me to take part in. Of course they said The Gambia and they had all these like supporting documents about The Gambia and the Peace Corps and everything.
So to me that told me that if I declined this invitation, I highly doubt they’re going to take the time to assemble another fancy-schmancy blue envelope like this again to invite me to go someplace else. So it seemed like a very now or never type of deal. So ultimately I pondered on this and I told myself that not only was just me trying to utilize my skills, of course, obviously, I’d have a job. I mentioned earlier how bad the teaching situation was in my home state back then, but I knew that this was a calling greater than myself. Of course, I’ve had like four years of service already in the Marine Corps. I guess maybe also part of me wanting to be a Peace Corps volunteer was to find a way to continue to be of service to others.
So when I moved there, after of course accepting this invitation, the Peace Corps they’ve more or less had a way of dividing up my cohort or volunteers. Like you’ll go there in groups kind of scattered at different times. I think like my cohort of volunteers, I want to say there were maybe about 17 of us all education volunteers. So they clustered us to all travel to The Gambia at one time. Then maybe a few months later another cohort of health volunteers would arrive and then agricultural and environmental volunteers would arrive a few months following that. Then maybe they’ll do another round of education volunteers.
So when we got there our sector supervisors they had pretty much already prearranged everything before arrival. They went to the different villages to see if they needed education volunteers. They talked to village elders to see if there was a family that would be willing to host a volunteer for two years. Then they kind of gave them a little bit of insight as to what that would entail as far as compensating them financially for hosting a volunteer and having an agreed upon sort of amount that a volunteer would pay them. Of course that volunteer would get a stipend in order to fulfill that compensation and that agreement. So pretty much everything was all set up for me. I didn’t have to do any sort of groundwork to find myself a place to live or to more or less, find a job while I was there.
You don’t just go straight to your host family. The first couple of months of being in country is actually more training. You do a little bit of language training. This gives you a chance to get a little bit more familiar with the culture too. So during that time you kind of have direct access to Peace Corps staff. They’re right there, sometimes you may be living around other volunteers because the way it works is you have training village and then you have your actual village. So when I was doing my training village, I was living in a village called Madiana. This was kind of closer to the Capitol where Peace Corps headquarters was. So that way, again, we had access to staff if we needed them for anything. Then of course we were living around other volunteers. So we didn’t have to quite deal with the isolation from being away from our American counterparts just yet.
So that was kind of a way to break us in. We were living with a host family at the time, again, to kind of get that cultural experience, but it wasn’t quite as immersive as I guess I’ll say “the real thing.” Once we were done with our few months of training, that’s when we were actually legitimately sworn in as volunteers. We had a ceremony at the ambassador’s residence in Banjul the capital city. The U.S. ambassador there hosted the ceremony at his residence. Following that that’s when we all disperse to our prearranged sites, as we call them.
So Banjul was on the Atlantic coast, of course. Then we were all just kind of scattered as we moved East and I was the furthest one East from the Capital. So I was the farthest away from, I’m not going to say like, well “civilization.” It’s just you know, and I was also the farthest one away from Peace Corps support as well too. So since I was the farthest away, seldomly did I get very many visits from other volunteers just because logistically of what it took to get to me. So they, I guess, had given that to me because I guess they kind of felt I was apt to handle it pretty well. So that was definitely pretty intense. If I had to, let’s say, get internet access, the nearest place where I can get it was the city of Basse, which is an 18 mile bike ride.
And of course, like I’ve mentioned, it’s 107 degrees most days. Seldomly do you get enough cloud coverage to properly shade you. So trying to make an 18 mile bike ride, just so I can check Facebook and respond to messages was a bit of a daunting process. So I think I handled it well, and I think my supervisor knew I could handle it well, that’s why she felt pretty comfortable about giving me that assignment because this particular village, it was called Baja Kunda, had never hosted a Peace Corps volunteer before. The school there, which was a basic cycle school, which is roughly about kindergarten to eighth grade, they were looking to have a volunteer come and work in their school there to help train the teaching staff on like classroom management techniques and various teaching methods.
So they asked for an education volunteer to come, and they got me. I think I did pretty well. The teacher seemed to take to me pretty well. Not all of them were willing to integrate some of my ideas or try out some of my ideas though some were. So yeah, that’s kind of how I ended up in the village of Baja Kunda. Then of course, again, going back to your original question, I tend to get off on these little side stories, but the Peace Corp arranged everything it was kind of nice. I just showed up and had a house for me. Then also what was also cool, I will say this, my house was pretty simple, pretty basic. It was just a square hut, probably about the size of my bedroom that I’m living in here in my townhome in Florida. My bathroom was a pit latrine in the backyard. Bad times if I really, really have to go to the bathroom and it’s pouring rain outside because I have no coverage over that thing.
Now for anyone who’s wondering about what a pit latrine entails, just imagine a hole in the ground. I mean, it was a little bit more jazzed up than that. It was completely cemented and over the hole there were two foot placements and I’ll just let people use their imagination what those foot placements were for. But since I was the first volunteer there this house was brand new. This pit latrine had not been used before. Unlike other volunteers who were stepping in for volunteers that had been there before them, the pit latrine has, well, let’s just say seen a lot of mileage if you will. Then the house maybe was in need for a little bit of TLC, because it was either having, like, let’s say cracks in the cement or the roof needed a little bit of extra thatch to kind of block out the rain. So for some volunteers it was maybe a little bit tougher to get situated if you will. So, but yeah, that’s kind of how that works is yeah. Peace Corps pretty much will have your living arrangements and your assignments all laid out for you by the time you get there.
David McNeill: [00:39:23] Well, it sounds like quite an adventure, I guess that’s the best way to put it. I’m curious how it all kind of came to a close, did you plan on just staying for that initial two years? Or what was your thought process going into one and a half years or two years in and trying to figure out what was next for you?
Josh Guerrero: [00:39:45] Yeah, I’d say by the time my two years were over I was pretty ready to move on. As much as I enjoyed being there, as much as how much I was taken away from that experience, I was certainly ready to move on. It’s hard living, like I said, to be there and constantly having to collect water and doing all those things. I was curious to see as to where else this could take me, and I was, of course, obviously eager to see family. Then of course there was this girl that I had been talking to back home that I was eager to get back and see about maybe trying something with her. Ultimately it didn’t work out, but Hey, that’s life, not all things work out the way we hope.
So. Yeah, I pretty much had made the decision that I was only going to stay for the two years, which I had felt like I had fulfilled my commitment. I was there for two years as Peace Corps had asked me to, and of course I went through all the arrangements to get myself up back accordingly. But I think going home, that was a tough adjustment because just being in this rural village in West Africa for this long, and just not having all these modern day amenities, as I’ll say, like the electricity, internet and good cell phone signal and all those things, it took a little bit to get readjusted to being back in the U.S. I definitely had some serious bouts of reverse culture shock and also just a lot of just weird feelings.
I remember my brother, he had picked me up from the airport when I had flown in. Now a little bit of a side story here. I had flown in in secret, so that way I could surprise my family and everyone else back home. Because I had told my parents a certain date that I was going to be flying in. Then of course my parents had pretty much told everyone else, yeah, Josh is getting back here and here, we can’t wait to see him and everything. But I actually told just my younger brother that I was actually going to be flying in a week sooner.
So he picked me up from the airport in order to get this ruse to work is that, yeah, he picked me up. I had flown in on a Saturday and he picked me up. So of course I got in kind of late at night, so I couldn’t, he couldn’t take me directly to my parents’ place. So another friend of ours had arranged for me to stay at his place for the night. My younger brother, he kind of like looked at me funny when because I got so excited for actually stepping on carpet because many of the…because like my home in my square hut in The Gambia, I had entirely cement flooring and with all the dust and sand that I could almost never completely get out of my house. So for pretty much about two years, I can’t really say I had entirely clean feet because it was just dusty and dirty all the time.
So I step out of the shower there and then I walk out of the bathroom onto the carpet. I almost collapsed on the floor and just wanted to roll up in it because I hadn’t stepped on the carpet in nearly two years. So that was definitely a really good feeling and it was really good to be home. I was really looking forward to being home. Then of course spoiler alert, I had a huge, huge reveal surprise for my mom and dad. My parents had gone to church that following morning on Sunday, and that was my moment to sneak into the house. then I just stepped out of the room. I just stepped out into the kitchen when my parents walked in, got a really huge surprised reaction from them. Because they weren’t expecting me for at least another week. So for me to show up then randomly as they came home from church. Yeah. That was pretty exciting for them.
David McNeill: [00:44:08] I’m glad they survived the shock as well.
Josh Guerrero: [00:44:12] Yeah. You know I wasn’t sure if….I think my mother especially was in a little bit of shock and awe and she felt…it was pretty surreal for her that yeah, her son just miraculously appeared out of nowhere just as she came home from church. But yeah, so I was really glad to be home and I was definitely ready to be home too. But it did not come without its challenges as well. Just getting readjusted to being back to life in the U.S. was a little bit hard. And it did take a little bit on my part too. I kind of had to sort of have a little bit of self-talk with myself because I found myself being kind of critical of a lot of people and a lot of things that I was seeing.
For two years of just having to go through the whole gamut of just to fulfill basic needs, like I talked about the water and sometimes I would wait hours for a meal and the meals would typically be pretty simple rice with maybe some vegetables or sometimes it would be just like a loaf of bread and butter or Sombi, which was just rice that had just been boiled in water. That was pretty much about it very, very simple stuff. But then I come back and then I just see just sometimes a lot of people getting all worked up over what I felt were just very, very trivial things. Like the barista at Starbucks gets their order wrong and then they flip out on them. Or the line is too long at the grocery store and they can’t be patient enough to wait. Or the food just may take a little bit long at a restaurant because they’re really busy. Then people are getting really hangry and demanding where their food is.
Of course, I tried to, like I said, I try not to be too critical. Sometimes I would find myself saying things in my head like, Oh, you poor, poor thing. Yeah, yeah. You just had to wait a little extra minute to get this food that someone else made for you, even though you’re living like royalty getting someone to prepare food for you right now. But you know, I kind of had to keep myself in check and just kind of remind myself that this is what they know, this is what they’re familiar with. It’s hard for them to relate to what life is like for someone like hundreds and thousands of miles away from where they are, unless they’ve had that experience themselves. But this is their perspective that they had because this is all they’ve known.
So I kind of had to remind myself just to not be so critical of people. Then ultimately it’s just part of even what Peace Corps’ role and one of their objectives is to share stories like this, like this conversation that you and I are having for instance, to kind of just show people and present to people what life is like for other cultures around the world. Just maybe that we shouldn’t take so many things for granted.
I always say that we may have hard days here in the first world or as I say, “first world problems.” Then of course and I’m not saying that it’s wrong for people to feel upset or impatient at times. I mean, we’re humans. I mean we naturally experience feelings like that, but I always just encourage people just to maybe reflect on the things that you’re grateful for and that you have a lot of things to be grateful for. I think sometimes, and I won’t get too deep down this rabbit hole, but we have a lot of issues that a lot of people are worried about right now. But I think that the issues that are sort of trending right now in this day and age, and again, like I said, I’m not going to really dive deep down on each individual one, but the fact that we’re able to complain about those things means that we have it pretty good because obviously our basic needs are met and our basic needs are met in abundance.
Like most of us here in the U.S. and you know, in other places in Europe where you are, we get to wake up and look up at a ceiling rather than a sky. We get to turn on a faucet and have seemingly endless amounts of clean drinking water, where so many people around the world I mean, the water in our toilet bowls, David are probably cleaner than what most people have to drink around the world. Well, I’m not going to say maybe most people, but many people. We can open up a fridge and a pantry and have a well-stocked amount of food. Or like I said, you just push a few buttons on your smartphone and someone’s going to bring a ready-made meal to your door or you have a grocery store with options up the wazoo of foods that you can choose from. Since we have all of those, I’m going to call them luxuries. Since we have all those ways to fulfill their basic needs again, in abundance, we have the luxury to actually think about and complain about so many other trivial things or to I guess I’ll say get worked up over a lot of issues that are kind of, sort of trending right now in society.
I think about like my host family in The Gambia, they’re not worried about things like politics and all these other things because so much of their day is spent just making sure that they’re collecting enough water, that they are preparing enough food for their family. It’s just every single day just so much goes into just fulfilling basic needs. So therefore that’s their focus. They’re not focused on what’s trending in social media right now. They’re not worried about what’s happening hundreds of miles away from where they are and they’re not dwelling on all these things because they’re quite frankly trying to survive.
That’s one thing that I always like to try to share with people from my Peace Corps experience, is that you’re not wrong for feeling worked up and frustrated with things that happen in your life. We’re all fighting our own battles, but if you have your basic needs met, then you’re good to go. You’ve got your foundational taken care of. So that’ll set you up well to handle like these tougher situations that you may face. Again, a little bit of a side rant there, but that’s just something that I’ve learned from my Peace Corps experience that I’ve integrated into my own life. I like to share it through my own podcasts. So I appreciate the chance to share it through this platform too man.
David McNeill: [00:50:59] Yeah, absolutely. I’m super happy to hear it. I totally agree with what you’re saying, but I’ll let it sit as you’ve said it. I won’t elaborate on it too much. But I guess as we wrap up here, you mentioned your podcast. So I’d love to give the audience here a chance to hear more about that. What the name of it is, where they can find it, what it’s about and what you’re trying to do with it, even more than maybe you’ve said about it so far.
Josh Guerrero: [00:51:22] Sure thing. Yeah. I appreciate that. Yeah. Well, my podcast is the All-Around Adventure Podcast. It’s a mix of travel, adventure and self-development, I welcome a wide array of different travelers and adventurers on the show to hear their stories. I also try to extrapolate some of the life lessons that they’ve learned from their experiences. Like I said, travelers of all kinds. I’ve had elite warriors on the podcast. I’ve talked to a couple of special forces guys who have come on my show. Scientists in the archeology field and then like the cultural heritage space. Expatriates like yourself, you’ve been on the show, David. So if our listeners would like to hear kind of a prequel to this conversation you’ve just been featured recently on the podcast.
So that’s really what it’s all about. Again, just kind of looking at my own experiences with living abroad in West Africa for Peace Corps, being a grad student in England, which unfortunately we weren’t able to touch on very much today. All these life lessons and experiences that I’ve learned and I wanted to have an outlet to share those with the rest of the world. As I’ve met more travelers along the way, and through my podcast I just kind of found that traveling, adventure, and self-development is a common denominator. So many other travelers that I met, they were talking about the exact same thing saying, yeah, I’ve grown so much from my travels and adventures. I’ve learned so much from interacting with different cultures and stepping out of my comfort zone to experience new and exciting things. It’s been so applicable to other areas of not only my life, but the lives of the travelers that I’ve had a chance to interact with and interview on my show.
So, yeah, so that’s what the listeners can expect. Expect to hear some pretty amazing stories from a wide array of different types of travelers and get some life lessons. You may want to bring a pen and paper when you listened to the show. Then you could find the show on pretty much anywhere you listen to podcasts, Apple podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher you can find it all there. My website is www.allaroundadventure.com, if you want to kind of maybe read some of the show notes and you can also listen to the episodes there as well. I’m also on YouTube, if you want to watch the video versions of my conversations with the travelers that I have. I also have a solo cast called Travel Reflections that you could listen to and tune into as well. Yeah do feel free to give it a listen. You know, I take pretty good pride in putting together all those episodes and getting the content out there for the world to check out and so I hope everyone likes it.
David McNeill: [00:54:17] Awesome. Well, I’ll be sure to put all of those links in the show notes and help everyone that’s interested to be able to find it, its definitely a great podcast, I really appreciate the opportunity to be on there myself and of course, to have Josh on the show today. So thank you so much again, for being on the show, for sharing all of your insights and really coming at it from quite a different angle from a lot of the other guests that I’ve had so far. So it’s great to get your experience and expertise and I’d love to see where your travels take you, whether that’s within the U.S. with your job now, or maybe some new adventures in the future and check in and see how things are going. But again, thanks so much for being on the show.
Josh Guerrero: [00:54:50] Sure. Yeah. I appreciate you having me on man. Been looking forward to this, looking forward to reconnecting and I appreciate you having me on. I know a lot of legwork goes into preparing for these interviews. So it was nice just to get to show up and just talk. Yeah. So I had a good time, man. I appreciate you having me on.
David McNeill: [00:55:11] All right. Thanks so much. See you soon.
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