I was in the Peace Corps, and honestly, it was the greatest experience of my life. It constantly challenged me emotionally, physically and intellectually. I did things that I didn’t know I was capable of.
In addition I learned what the real, real world was all about; not just a college campus. With the help of the locals where I served, I built a school, trained teachers and taught in the school. I also worked on a water catchment system, and some other stuff. The people of island I was on treated me like one of their own. I now speak on of the most obscure languages in the world and have skills that for the most part have not even existed for between 300 and 500 years. But I would not trade those experiences for anything.
Now to address the myths. Peace Corps is not a soap box for Christianity. I am a rather agnostic Jew. When I was in the Peace Corps, there were out-and-out athiests, secular humanists, agnostics, a few Christians and every other sort of point of view going through training. As I remember, the wacko Christian types “deselected” themselves rather quickly when they saw the types of people who they were training with. Yes, I imagine some get through, and since PCVs are not too carefully supervised on their assignments they may have done some proslitizing before the locals complained and asked them to leave.
My experience though, is that most of the fundamentalist types have better missionary situations through some more God related groups like their own church or some of the out-and-out missionary groups.
As for the capitalist part: While the Peace Corps does have small business assignments, all of the assignments have been requested by the area you will be serving. So, does the Peace Corps go in and attempt to superimpose a cooperative store in Latvia? No. If someone in a specific village requests it, yes, then they will look for a volunteer who can do it, and try to place the volunteer there.
Yes, as you said, volunteer stories are about how great the experience was. There’s a reason. When you do something that gets you closer to people than you ever thought possible, when you do something that you thought was impossible, when you survive something that you never thought anyone, much less you, could survive, you have a great experience.
I suffered maleria and amebic dysentary. My island was hit by a typhoon (to make sure I survived, the locals tied me to a breadfruit tree). I ate food with maggots in it. At one festival I even ate giant lizards and dog. I had contact with the outside world only about every three months or so when the tramp steamer came out to the island. There was no electricity, no running water, no telephone, no air conditioning and no natural gas. But as I said, I loved it. Most volunteers who make it say the same.
Some don’t like it. Some don’t make it the full two years. In its own way, the Peace Corps is like “Survivor” meets the “Real World” all in a foreign language. And if you have watched those shows there is a pretty good dropout rate. It is the same situation with Peace Corps sometimess. Look around you at your college/university. How many of your classmates could survive it? For that matter can you?
The specifics you asked for advice about. Really, most of that is trivia. You filled out you application so if they find a place they will invite you to a staging to see if you match up OK and make sure you are not a total crazy.
The physical: No way to prepare for that. Well, maybe don’t let your roommates throw you a “Night Before the Physical Party”. Mine did that, and the physical ended up being a very painful experience. I am told it isn’t usually.
Culture Shock: It will happen. In some cases you will be going back (figuratively speaking) hundreds of years. It is going to happen. Peace Corps will try to prepare you for it in training, but it won’t be enough. It will be weird, painful and wonderful.
As for volunteer’s stories “attempting” to pull heart strings. Generally speaking volunteers don’t try to do that. Let me put it this way. How many times a week do you really have something touch you emotionally where you are now. Not often, right? In Peace Corps, it is a very, very regular experience even for the toughest person. Those things stick in your mind. Just part of the experience: no special attempt for the heartstrings.
If you’ve got the guts to try it, it will probably be a great experience.
(there is also a Peace Corps Web Ring that might be useful)