Tempest Carter is the kind of person who enters a room full of strangers, but leaves [that room] with a new family. She's spirited and familiar, but organically so; therefore she never comes off presumptuous or too forward. She's plugged-in, mindful— conscious of her surroundings and how she fits into them (she'll get the party started with one of her infamous YouTube DJ sets, throw on an apron to help out in the kitchen, usher in a game of Monopoly, throw back a shot of whisky and make her rounds on the dance floor, or simply sit back and observe). It's this innate aptness that has helped her blissfully navigate through her life in (and out of) the Peace Corps. Tempest exudes a level of humility and compassion that comes only with experience. In other words, she has lived. She's warm. She listens. And like the people who love her in her native Philadelphia, the people in her Campo in Panama had no choice but to love her too.
ND: Hey Tempest. What's new? How are things down there?
Tempest Carter: Amazing! Incredible. I just came back from helping out at another's [Peace Corp Member] site. I learned so much. We taught the kids about sexual health, family planning, goal setting [and] visions. Then the next day we did a seminar about inequality and domestic violence. It was great. I loved it and the children were moved.
ND: That sounds amazing! I love that you're having such a rich experience down [in Panama]. I'm jealous. What prompted you to want to be stationed in Latin America, anyway?
TC: I have always been drawn to the Latino world. Ever since I was a little girl on my steps in Olney [section of Philadelphia], I have been surrounded by Latino culture. The hum of a telanovela on my neighbor’s TV, or the Aroz Con Pollo she would give me when I was locked out of my house, all came together to create a kinship that has never lessened. On the professional front, during undergrad I studied economics with the thought that I would use that as a base in development work. I wanted to understand in an intimate way why some people had massive amounts of wealth while others lived in favelas. Joining the Peace Corps was a way for me to see the world from another vantage point. It also allowed me to get a taste of the life of a Developer. When you sign up for the Peace Corps, you can't choose which country you are stationed, but you can rank areas around the world. Latin America was number 1 for me, followed by Sub-Saharan Africa. I chose Latin America because I had been working on Spanish fluency and had hit a brick wall, and I would never get over that wall without being immersed. Also, I had become really interested in the African Diaspora. Learning about the stories and disparate histories of those that were stolen from Africa was very exciting for me. I wanted to know, “What happened to us after we left?” Latin America, with its large Afro-descendent population, seemed a perfect place to serve and to learn.
ND: What was the [application] process like?
TC: My Peace Corps process was very long. I had a year deferment and then was asked to serve in the Middle East at a time when there were safety issues pertaining to women. I declined that invitation. I had to sit through 6 months of silence but the blue Peace Corps packet finally arrived!
ND: That must have been a relief, but exciting too. What were your thoughts when you opened that packet to find you'd be going to Panama?
TC: When I saw Panama, I was vaguely excited. I had little information about the culture or what to expect. A quick google search helped me to see what a treasure Panama is, and I've been incredibly happy and fulfilled with my work here.
ND: As standard with most Peace Corps assignments, you're in a rural area— a village. How was it, as a Philly girl, moving into that kind of a situation? Did you have to make any adjustments?
TC: It has been really funny. I live in the Campo (translation: the countryside) and it has been a trip. I had to let go of some “ Philly gurl” baggage. Learning to use a latrine (out house) was easy for me as was fumbling about with mediocre Spanish. The hard thing was trusting the tranquilo (trans: calm) lifestyle. One day I was in a small internet café in my village. A group of young boys crowded behind me and started to laugh. They started asking a series of questions and acting weird. In Philly, I would take that as a group of people sizing you up to rob you or hurt you in some way. So I struck first. I snapped my head around and said, “Que Pasa?!” (What up?! You got a problem or something!). The whole café came to a stop. I later found out that they were just trying to sell me some Tamales but unsure of how to approach me. I felt so ashamed! I approached the group of boys and told them I was sorry and I bought a tamale.
ND: That was pretty decent of you. You weren't obligated to go back and buy anything, so I'm sure they appreciated the gesture.
TC: They have turned out to be some of my biggest allies here in the country. In order for us to grow together, I had to realize that I was in a different place. Sometimes I have to keep my Philly-ness. My village thinks it’s so funny that I always think someone is shooting when they play with fireworks in the morning, but letting go is a process.
ND: [Laughs] Gunshots— that is pretty funny! So tell me more about your village.
TC: My village is a dream land. It's very flat and green compared to the rest of my region. It is filled with beautiful flowers, palm trees, and fruit trees. The village runs the gamut, socioeconomically. My host aunt is building a pool to go with her colorful concrete-block house, while last week, I partied in house made of mud and straw. The people are the best part. They are the kindest, funniest, most ingenious people in Panama. No lie. My neighbor just wired his grass hut, which he uses for lounging on hammocks, with internet and made an eco-phone made of wood. They love to joke about everything from politics to sex and are fiercely protective over me. Peace Corps volunteers often lament the fact that for two years they have the same conversation with their communities two million times: “It’s hot, huh? Yeah.” That's not the case with my community. They love to talk and are really outgoing. It’s a perfect fit for my personality.
ND: What strides did you have to take to gain the locals' acknowledgement and respect?
TC: I earned their trust fairly easily. I laughed at myself. I spoke to everyone and most importantly, I saw them as equals. My people do not need me. [I had to] understand that and get rid of the ego that comes with wanting to “save the world."
ND: I love that. It reminds me of a quote I like by Nathaniel Bronner, Jr. that goes, "Ego has a voracious appetite; the more you feed it, the hungrier it gets." I feel like your situation, this experience, is a great ego-check. I'm sure once you came to that realization, things were different, weren't they?
TC - After that, it was smooth sailing. I am the resident cheerleader. People invite me to birthday parties, pageants, fairs, soccer games, and just to sit on their porch and talk. I do all of those things. The more time and love I give them, the more they give me. Living here has been one of the most blissful experiences of my life.
ND: You recently had to move from your place into a different house. I know you put a lot of time and energy into making that house yours. Tell us about that situation.
TC: The house drama! In the Peace Corps, you live with a designated host family for 2-3 months. After that, you can move out on your own. While Pasearing (trans: Walking and visiting community members), I saw my dream house. It was a colonial style mud and concrete house with 3 floor to ceiling doors. I fell in love fast and hard. I wanted that house. I told community members and they found the landlord 4 hours away. I got the house. I spent a lot of time and money making it into a home— buying fabrics, appliances and even internet for the house. People in my community told me not to live in the house; they said it was ugly and old. That it was filled with ghosts. What they failed to tell me, was that I was living next door to the town perverts. We can chalk this up to stereotype of Panamanian indirect communication. I started to see that the men were undressing me with their eyes more, and that one would enter my house without permission. No problem: I would tell the man to leave. One night, I was up late chatting with friends online and listening to music, when I heard banging at my back door. Someone was trying to push down my back door to enter my house! After failing at that, they started to climb on my roof. A neighbor, hearing the ruckus, ran out his house and tried to chase the person off. [With it] being dead of night, no one saw who did it but the majority of my community had an idea. It was one of my two pervert neighbors.
ND: Oh wow! That's pretty insane. How'd you manage the situation?
TC: I called Peace Corps right away and they came out to my aid. Community members found me another house in a day and I have been here ever since. My new neighbors barred the perverts from even walking on my side of the village. It has been my community, time and time again, that has come to my aid. This is why relationship building is so important.
ND: You're right. And it seems like you've built solid relationships with your village. So what happens when your two years is up?
TC: It's gonna be rough.
ND: Right. I can imagine how you'll feel. When I left London, and then a year later when I left Tokyo— and I wasn't in either place for the amount of time you will have been in Panama— it was difficult for me. What do you hope to take from this whole experience? What do you hope to leave behind in the village?
TC: I will not leave any monuments in my village. There will probably be no physical reminder that I existed yet I hope to live on in People’s heart. I hope that I inspired some people to stretch the bounds of what they thought were possible.
ND: Well said. Memories outlast monuments anyway. So has this experience influenced the way you think about and navigate through everyday life? Has it given you new ideals and values?
TC: I have gotten so much from this experience already. The most important thing is the knowledge that I am enough. Before I entered the Peace Corps, I was vested in this idea that I needed to be perfect. I needed to be head of something, or I did not exist. Here I have learned the ideals of non-striving. I have learned how to live in the present moment more and how to love in ways that I did not think possible.
ND: What's your travel philosophy?
TC: Treat people how you would treat a good friend. You never know how a person can change your life if you let them. On a superficial level, you get invited to really cool things. On a deeper level, you find yourself becoming truer and more humane. Also, relax… most things work out.