This is Peace Corps.

On Friday, our training groups had the opportunity to visit two sites of an alternative education project for the children of the Aetas, a local indigenous tribe. It was an incredible experience.

To get to the second site, we had to cross a suspension bridge hanging high over a river, and walk along a narrow footpath along a cliff, essentially through the jungle. The children were seated in the packed sand of the school yard under the trees, surrounded by palms and vegetable gardens.

We taught them Red Light, Green Light, Simon Says (Sabi ni Simon, in Tagalog), and Duck, Duck, Goose. We brought the kids hamburgers from Jollibee for lunch, and overheard one of the older women from the village examining the buns skeptically, muttering, “Hindi kanin ito,” “This isn’t rice!” This isn’t rice–it isn’t food. I know some Americans who would agree.

Some of us walked back down the footpath, even further through the jungle, to the village. We sat on a bamboo bench and conversed in our halting Tagalog. We saw the nipa huts where the Aetas live. The children poked us curiously, then ran away. We were thoroughly charmed. We thought, “I could live here.” We thought, “This is the Peace Corps.”

Our sites are nothing like this little village. We have power (most of the time) and running water (usually). We will wear uniforms to school, and teach English to classes of sixty adolescent Filipinos, most of them with cell phones in their backpacks and a better working knowledge of American pop music than I could ever hope to have. We will watch bootleg movies on our laptops while lying under our mosquito nets–if we bother with the nets at all.

And you know what? That is also Peace Corps. If your primary reason for joining the Peace Corps is that you wanted to live in a bamboo hut across a river, you joined the Peace Corps for the wrong reason. Where ever Peace Corps goes, it’s because there’s a need. Maybe the need is for clean water and sustainable farming. Maybe the need is for youth trained to use computers. Development is development.

One of the core expectations of Peace Corps volunteers talks about serving “under conditions of hardship if necessary”. I sometimes wonder if it should say, “under the necessary conditions”. The presence or absence of a flushing toilet is not the mark of a post’s importance. We ask: is there a need? Can I help fill it? Then we live however the people in our community live.

I say all this, because sometimes we can feel a little disappointed at the Peace Corps experience we’re having. Is it really Peace Corps if I had McDonald’s for dinner yesterday evening? If I’m posting this from a coffee shop three minutes from my home? Some people call Peace Corps Philippines “Posh Corps”. In some ways, it’s an appropriate nickname.

But I think if we walked away from our visit with the Aetas just thinking that way, we’d fail to be successful volunteers, when the work we will be doing in our various communities is important. Because, yes, sometimes Peace Corps looks like this:

Jane puts her Tagalog to the test

But sometimes it looks like this:

Me with the teachers of Calaogan Dackel National High School

And sometimes it looks like this:

At a field day we held at the local high school