In March of 2012, I was a Peace Corps volunteer and I was falling apart. In case you don't know, Peace Corps is an organization that is funded by the US government to send volunteers overseas for two years. During their time living abroad, volunteers are assigned projects to help the communities where they live. They live in cities and small towns, by the ocean and in the mountains, with host families and by themselves. The variety of experiences are as varied as the volunteers themselves.
I first heard of the Peace Corps when I was a freshman in high school. A visitor spoke to my US Government class about his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in eastern Europe and I was hooked. From that moment on, I knew that I would graduate from college and join the Peace Corps. As cliche as it sounds, it was my dream.
After an 18-month application process, in March of 2010 I received my acceptance letter and was told I would be leaving for Peru on June 10, 2010. I was elated. My dream was finally coming true.
In August of 2010, after 10 weeks of training, I moved into my home for the next two years. I was living close to Huaraz, in the department of Ancash. Huaraz is in the Andes mountains at approximately 3,000 meters (10,000 feet). My town consisted of approximately 500 people and electricity and running water were luxuries. I didn't have a toilet, just a small hole at which to aim. Transportation to the city was hit or miss and a trip to get groceries usually started with a 45 minute hike. I thought it was perfect.
Fast forward 19 months and my dream had become my nightmare. My host sister was stealing money and jewelry from me. Peace Corps refused to let me switch towns even after I told them I was severely depressed due to lack of work. I was showering once every two weeks. Two of my close friends were barely talking to me. Rats were slowly taking over my bedroom. I was cutting (again). Someone was spreading rumors that I was trading sex for cocaine. Peace Corps had told me I could only leave my town once a month and, subsequently, I could only get groceries once a month. I was barely eating.
I was damn near suicidal.
So I decided to do something for myself. In Peru, I had discovered that I loved hiking and, even better, getting lost. I relished the feeling of trying to get to Point B from Point A with no directions, no maps, no ideas. I loved walking and getting lost in the music and my surroundings and, for once, not thinking about my problems and stress.
So on March 9, 2011 my Golden Retriever puppy, Gulliver, and I hit the trails and tried to figure out how to get from our town to the town of another volunteer. I didn't even know if it was possible, if I could make it in one day, or if I remembered the name of their town. But it was an adventure.
The beginning of the hike was wonderful. The sun was shining, we were strolling on a familiar trail, my iPod was fully charged, and I could barely feel the ground under my feet. I had considered wearing a skirt but was glad that I had instead opted for my favorite hiking uniform: dirty jeans and a ratty T-shirt. I looked like hell but it felt like Heaven.
Then we started getting lost. Really lost. I would push through branches and get whipped in the face by vines just to realize I was at the edge of a ravine. I would come to a fork in the road, climb up and up for twenty minutes, and realize that I had chosen the wrong path. Lost, dirty, beaten, but determined we pressed on.
Eventually, we came across another road and, miraculously, it was heading the direction I wanted to go. The switchbacks looping back and forth on the steep hill were intimidating but I was ready to tackle them. About halfway up, I came across an old man and woman who were also climbing. The harsh environment and living conditions make it close to impossible to guess the age of many Peruvians, but I guessed that this couple were at least in their 70s. I asked them if they knew where my destination was and the man quickly replied that he could show me which path to take. After getting so tragically lost, I was relieved to have met someone that could provide some guidance and I happily began walking with them.
The man asked all of the questions people normally asked when they came across a 25-year-old white woman wandering the Andes by herself: Why are you here? Where are you from? How old are you? Where are your children? You really don't have children? But, you're married? Really, you're 25 and not married? Really?
We passed a small group of buildings and I greeted a woman we passed. She didn't say anything to me, which I thought was strange. Then I realized that the man's wife also hadn't said a word the whole time I was with them. It was odd but not unheard of. Many people in small Peruvian villages still speak the indigenous language, Quechua, and since girls often drop out of school before boys –- or don't go at all -- they are less likely to learn Spanish.
The man pointed out his home and said that he runs a small store. I was hungry and gladly bought a pack of saltine crackers I collapsed in the shade outside of his home and Gulliver found a patch of shade to sleep in. I rested for awhile and slowly started to feel uncomfortable. Not physically uncomfortable but just that intuitive feeling that something is strange. Maybe it was the way that those women wouldn't talk to me. Maybe it was a look someone gave me. Maybe it was exhaustion. Regardless, I decided it was time to keep moving.
So I thanked the man for the directions and said I was going to continue.
“First,” he said, suddenly authoritative, “you need to sign my book.” He explained that he makes any stranger that passes through sign his book in case they get hurt or steal something from the community.
Strange and stranger, I thought but did as he asked. When I got to the column that requested a phone number I wrote all the numbers but the last one correctly. I wasn't planning on stealing any sheep and I didn't want to be falsely accused of something. I had watched "Locked Up Abroad."
While I was “signing in,” the creepy feeling was growing and I was ready to get going. But the man insisted that he would walk me to a fork in the path, despite my protests. After 10 minutes of hiking uphill, I was tired and decided to take a break. I sat down on a log and the man sat next to me.
"Are you really single?” he asked.
“Yes.” I said, thinking that I should have just made up a boyfriend.
He put his hand on my leg and squeezed tightly. “Well, don't you want to have sex with me?”
“NO!” I exclaimed, pulling his hand off of my leg and standing up abruptly. While I was getting up, the man put his hand on my butt, slid his hand between my legs, and moved his fingers as if trying to feel my crotch. It all happened in five seconds. In my mind, it will always last for an eternity.
I quickly walked away, not wanting to engage or give him the satisfaction of seeing my face. A minute or so later, when the initial shock wore off, I yelled, “Fuck you!” I’m sure the man did not speak English but I hope the vehemence of my voice expressed my feelings.
At this point in the story, female friends usually say they would have punched the man. But in that moment, I wanted to get as far away from that man as I could. I never thought to hurt him... I just needed to get myself somewhere I felt safe.
Except I wasn't safe. I was in the middle of the Andes mountains, somewhere between my home and a friend's home. I had sporadic cell phone coverage, was turning around every few minutes to make sure the man wasn't following me, and didn't know where I was going. My grand adventure was suddenly terrifying but I really had no other option except to keep walking.
Once I was sure the man wasn't following me, the impact of what happened hit me. I couldn't take more than a few steps before folding in half by the tears. With shaky hands, I called my friend Emily and explained what happened. She instructed me to call the Peace Corps doctors and inform them. So I called a Peace Corps doctor, told her the story, called her after my hike was over, and then didn't hear from her for 10 days. By the time anyone from the Peace Corps called to make sure I was okay, I had already decided to quit.
Adding to the trauma, that hike didn't get any better. I was lost, randomly becoming overcome with tears. Gulliver was attacked by a pack of dogs. It started getting dark. Then is started to downpour. I never made it to my destination and finally had to hike down the mountain, cutting through fields, until I found a town on the main street. I was soaking wet, cold, exhausted. Gulliver was sick.
I felt broken. I’m pretty sure I was.
Within a week, I decided I had to go home. This thing, dream, idea that I had held for so long was destroying me. It was time to go home and try to put myself together again.
I’ve struggled with what to call that “incident.” Sexual assault implies violence. Molested makes me think of children and creepy neighbors. Groping sounds like something two horny teenagers do in the back of their mom's van. As a social worker, I’ve been taught that labeling doesn't matter, actions don't need to be attached to words. But as a writer, words are important to me and I couldn't give words to what happened. So I stopped talking about it, hoping that if it didn't have words, it didn't matter.
I came back to America a little over 100 days before I was supposed to finish Peace Corps. I tried to get on with my life, which was close to impossible because I was still caught up in the pain of everything that happened in Peru (which I’m pretty sure could fill a dozen more It Happened to Mes). I would cry and get angry for no reason. I had absolutely no patience. I couldn't look at a picture from Peru for three months. I would visibly cringe if a man I didn't know tried to touch me. I had panic attacks if I was alone in an elevator with a man. One day, two men walked towards me in a hallway, completely non-threateningly, and I could barely breath until I got to my car and left an incomprehensible voice mail for a friend because I was sobbing so hard.
Many well-meaning people, including a therapist, have told me, “Well, at least you weren't raped.” And I understand the sentiment, but minimizing what happened doesn't suddenly make it okay. It doesn't mean it didn't happen. It doesn't mean I wasn't terrified. It doesn't mean that it didn't violently change who I am and my perception of the world. So I recently came to the conclusion that, yes, I was sexually assaulted. Though the attack wasn't physically violent (thank God), psychologically it continues to torment me.
I feel like I’m supposed to stick some lesson to the end of this essay, tie this story up with a bow, and say everything is great because I learned some life-changing lesson from all of this. Except that I haven't. At least, not yet.
Rose Kennedy once said, “Time heals all wounds." I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. That's what I hope for. And for now, it's my new, and only, dream.