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In the "Cult of Escapism"

In the "Cult of Escapism": June 2011

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Biggie Hits the Comarca

“Jack, what does nigger mean?”

I recently gave two community members some music from my iTunes collection and have since had to define the N word and explain why AIDS was considered the “gay” disease in the 80´s.

Adan is one of a few community members with a computer and he asked for some music. I carefully picked a few hundred from my roughly 8,000 song collection and at this point I think he´s only listened to Juicy by Notorious B.I.G. and Dear Mama by Tupac. (Btw, Adan is 30 years old, very mellow and not at all interested in the thug culture, there´s just something about those songs; also, he speaks fluent English). So naturally, he asked me about this word so often used by those two rappers.

A history lesson followed, along with a recommendation to simply drop the N word from his vocabulary. He found it funny that a word existed that white people can´t use.

Perhaps more difficult was explaining to him that Juicy is widely considered Biggie´s best song and there simply aren´t many other songs in its class. This is after showring him nearly every Biggie song I have and him saying, “No, more like Juicy.” There is nothing like it, so let´s move on.

But my smile still stays on
Reading Lady Gaga´s Wikipedia page was one of the best things I could have done before joining the Peace Corps. My friend and work counterpart Juan loves Lady Gaga and 80´s pop and we frequently talk Gaga. He´ll see somethign about her in the paper, share it with me, and I´ll respond with a Wikipedia fact about her. For example, did you know that her name was inspired by the song Radio Ga Ga by Queen? Neither did he. But he´d also never listened to Queen.

So I began with Another One Bites the Dust and built up to Bohemian Rhapsody (btw how the hell do I translate that title?). As we listened, I explained Queen´s unique rock/showtunes sound, their cultural significance in the 80´s and when we go to Show Must Go On, I told him all about Freddy Mercury.

Yes, Juan is gay. I knew this within five minutes of meeting him and it was recently confirmed when he came out to my site mate, Laura. He hasn´t come out to me, but I think he knows that I know. Hell, he introduced me to his boyfriend the other day. Anyway, this added an interesting dynamic to the conversation. Juan, already mesmerized by Mercury´s outstanding vocals, sucked up everything I said about him like an industrial vacuum cleaner. By the end of Show, Juan knew about AIDS in the 80´s and that Freddy was dying when he wrote the song. “I can feel his emotion” said Juan as Freddy forced out a powerful “Ooooooooon with the Shoooooooowww!!!”

And now, it snows
The next day, I brought the DVD Edward Scissorhands to a house with a TV (and about 50 people crammed around it each night to watch movies...people are so enamoured by the TV that they will stand across the street looking through the window; I tried this and realized you can only see, basically, that there´s a TV on but not make out anything that´s happening, yet people will stand there for the entire movie). No one mentioned the style or the heart-punching story, but they loved the shapely bushes. I guess that´s something.

Goal 1 of Peace Corps is to share cultures.

I brought Biggie, Freddy and young Johnny Depp to Soloy in two days. Booyah.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Zero Deterrent Approach to Eating

There’s nothing hard and crunchy about rice, avocado and fried cucumbers, which means my tooth just found something foreign. I spit it on to my finger and identify: legs, head, a wing. It’s a beetle. I flick it aside and keep eating. This automatic reaction reminded me of a broader theme – Peace Corps Volunteers’ zero deterrent approach to eating.

Urged by insistent parents at a young age, I’ve been a plate finisher for many years. But I cleaned plate out of obligation and fear of reprimand. Now, after nine months in the Peace Corps, finishing food is mechanical, mandatory – a rhetorical question. Fly in the soup? Slurp. Seven boiled plantains and nothing else? No problem. Severed human head? … Ok that hasn’t happened yet but I’d probably eat it.

It begins with host families. If you don’t finish a meal you at least offend them and (perhaps more importantly) you’ve just abandoned your only chance at eating. So you shovel it in. If you’re a real pro, you may smile too. Many volunteers bring hot sauce to each meal (discretely, I usually had a bottle in my pocket) to add flavor. All become experts a dishing food to the dogs. Whatever the method, after host families, we are trained and will dutifully eat boiled woodchips if necessary.

I thought the habit would disappear when I moved in by myself but now I think about the beetle and everything I’ve eaten off the ground and all the boring boiled food I routinely and voluntarily prepare. It’s hard to explain, beyond saying that choosing not to clean the plate is like choosing not to urinate – it’s not an option. You can, like when peeing, put it off or save it for later or stir fry it, but eventually, it’s gotta go.

So we bite a beetle, flick it aside and keep eating. We’re handed a large bowl of rice with nothing else and we pick up the spoon. Sometimes, I notice a dull mental alarm trying to alert my mouth – “Unpleasant! Do not eat that! You just dropped that on the ground! Twice!” The alarm hasn’t stopped me in months. Hopefully it’s louder when I’m presented with boiled head.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Feeding the Family

One family will have dozens of pounds of rice to feed them for up to eight months thanks to my selfless, dedicated hard work. Or they will have dozens of hopelessly mutated, yieldless rice plants and wonder why they ever let the gringo on the farm.

Today (aka May 27th, when I wrote this), I spent four hours planting rice with my third host family. The work is simple, and would be easy if conducted in an air-conditioned room with plenty of clean, cool drinking water and motivational music playing overhead (like maybe Highway Star by Deep Purple). Unfortunately, we chose to plant on a large, hilly field with no shade or air-conditioning, between 9am and 1pm. One man did carry a radio but the best song of the day was a remix of a Black Eyed Peas song, which I think is called Time of my Life. Which is to say, the music was so motivational it made me want to punch myself.

To plant rice, one person makes evenly spaced holes in the ground with a stick and the rest put seeds in the holes and cover them with dirt. So each of us carried a bowl of seeds and a little stick, which Roberto (host dad) called “The Spoon,” though it definitely had no chance of putting soup in mouth.
This is actually me on a different day, not planting rice...but I'm in a field
We bent from hole to hole, putting in seeds and using “The Spoons” to cover them with dirt. Four hours of monotonous work allowed me to think deep thoughts such as, “My back hurts” or “This farm could sure use an air-conditioner” or “Why is Kevin Costner always picked for baseball movies?”

I rested more than anyone (including his 14 year old daughter) and the bowl of rice seed seemed impossibly heavy for something so small. But the work was rewarded with lunch and corn juice, which prompted Roberto to explain how to recruit farming help. It’s a three step process:

1. Ferment some corn juice
2. Give it to some friends
3. Set them loose on your field

The work, Roberto explained, is easier and the day goes by quickly when you drink chicha fuerte. That is to say, it’s easier to farm in a drunken stupor.

If only I had known. Next time I’ll bring a bottle of gin. And maybe an air-conditioning unit. 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Why Babies are Cute

Baby cuteness has got be an evolutionary trait. At some point, the Gods of Evolution were presented with human babies, possibly the most worthless beings ever created, and had to give them a chance at life. They reviewed their options: cover them in poisonous spikes; allow them to use their large brains; or make them so cute any non-sociopath would feel obligated to care for them.

This last option seems to have prevailed and it seems to work. Today, a mother asked me to hold her newborn for a few minutes while she went to find something. I’ve held few babies in my life so I just let her awkwardly lay in my arms like a large UPS package (the baby, not the mom). Everything went smoothly for about four seconds and then she started wiggling and all I could think was: What ever happened to Josh Hartnett? He was great in Luck Number Sleven and could have heart-throbbed his way through any romantic comedy. No wait. I was actually thinking: I’m gonna drop the baby. So I put her on a nearby table and held both of her arms, in case she suddenly learned to do a back flip. This is when I realized how useless babies are.

As far as I can tell, babies have three states: sleeping, crying, or gurgling. I’ve heard that babies laugh but I think that’s just a myth invented by parents hallucinating from lack of sleep and overexposure to close-proximity gurgling.
Not the baby I held, but he sure is cute
Without my firm, fatherly, but mostly awkward grip on her shoulders, there’s a good chance the baby would just nosedive off the table. Even if she managed not to, she can’t hunt or cook or even talk. Which means we humans produce tiny, useless, dependent versions of ourselves and the only thing keeping them alive is our innate desire to say “Awwww” and cradle them in our arms?

But it works. This mother spends many of her baby’s waking moments cooing and kissing her cheek. A shirtless Josh Harnett could walk by and she probably wouldn’t even notice.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Teaching Accounting – A Lesson in Simplicity

If you’re a nerd, there are few things more beautiful than a well kept inventory journal. Over the past week, I've visited eleven small stores in my community to follow up on an accounting lecture I gave at the beginning of May. Expecting nothing, I was pleased (and shocked) to find that each was sort of tracking their inventory. Three were already recording every transaction, every day. Most of them credited my lecture as inspiration to start accounting. I felt like kissing them. Seeing the pages of columned numbers was like watching a child’s first bite of ice cream.

For me anyway. As a Community Economic Development volunteer, part of my job is to help small businesses (like little stores run out of the house) learn basic management skills. I’m frequently approached by small business owners who just want to know if they’re making a profit. I realized early on that accounting would be an important topic, but it took several months to convert what I learned in business school into something basic and relevant enough to teach here.

I’ve settled with inventory management and a basic income statement. If stores track their inventory each day, count it once a month and track their purchases (i.e. keep their receipts), they have almost all the information needed to calculate profit. It gets tricky when they extend credit and eat what they sell (which they almost always do). I’ve stopped trying to tell them not to give any credit and started simply encouraging them to track it and set a per person limit. At some point, I intend to present the concept of “separate pockets,” but for now I just urge them to track what they take from the store.

None of this work is difficult – I encourage all to use their calculators to add and subtract – but few do it. This, I must stress, is human and not cultural. Running a business is hard. Tracking your business’s activities takes dedication, no matter how small the business. Sometimes, people just lack the dedication or work ethic. I’ve seen many of these owners with a machete (in the fields) and I can tell you they don’t lack work ethic. But there is frequently a lack of motivation.

Lack of motivation (I’ve found) tends to stem from fear or ignorance or, more commonly, a combination of the two. Countless people have told me they “can’t” do accounting, before even knowing what they must do. Many cite their limited education as an impassable deterrent. Others have received accounting training from government agencies, who feel it is necessary to explain the difference between a Corporation and a Limited Liability Corporation. No one in the Comarca is incorporated and no one has insurance! Get with the f*%$ing program! Sorry. Because of this fear and ignorance, I must reassure store owners that they are capable of accounting – that it isn’t that hard. Then I have to make sure my content really isn’t that hard. For example, I used to encourage owners to raise price above cost according to a profit margin percentage. I have since dropped the percentage and simply told them to make sure price is higher than cost.

This consistent simplifying is probably teaching me a lot about development work in general. I hope so. If nothing else, it’s made me appreciate, more than four years of business school did, how hard it is to successfully manage a business, no matter how small. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

My Moat

I almost broke my ankle two nights in a row. My landlord’s family, in my absence, dug a trench along the back of my house, presumably to drain rainwater but probably just to mess with me. They probably wait outside my house at night with night-vision goggles and high five when I fall in the trench on my way to the bathroom (life can get boring around here – but it’s always fun to laugh at the gringo). Nevertheless, I think they’re on to something.

I intend to expand and extend the trench, through child labor, into a moat. It will be too wide to jump across and deep enough to drown in. The drawbridge will be extremely and unnecessarily heavy and must be hand-raised by children, whose tears will lubricate the gears (yes, it will have gears, but they’ll hand-raise it anyway). The moat will of course be populated with sharks with laser beams attached to their foreheads.

This will make it difficult to go to the bathroom without being eaten or fatally wounded but it will be worth it, for reasons that I will unsuccessfully try to justify in the next few paragraphs.

As the rainy season descends, I’ve realized that plans will often get cancelled and I will have more time for home improvement projects. At first, I was considering building furniture but I’ve never seen a chair or footstool strike fear into anyone quite like a shark-populated moat. You may wonder what purpose such a moat could serve, besides manslaughter. That just shows how narrow minded you are.

1.    1. It will assert my dominance in the community as “craziest gringo
2.    2. It will deter unwanted visitors
3.    3. It is a natural place to dispose of organic waste (e.g. carrot peelings, uneaten rice, bodies, etc.)
4.    4. It’s a perfect place to host aquatic gladiator fights (haven’t you always wondered who would win – a shark or a group of piranhas?)  
5.    5. It’s American.

It’s already been seven months of service and I haven’t created anything extremely dangerous in my community. What the community asked for was someone to help the local businesses. What they really need is a child-enslaving lunatic with a dangerous moat around his house. Because, at the end of the day, isn’t that what the Peace Corps is all about? 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Peace Corps Reality Check (or “Jeeves, where’s my bathrobe?”)

My parents and sister, Stella, visited me here in Panama from May 12 - May 21. We toured Panama City a little, spent time at some nice beaches and beach resorts (yes, multiple), went to an Eco-lodge in a cloud forest, and finished off the trip in my site. It felt great to be in air conditioning and eat good, diverse, healthy food. It was also nice, of course, to see my family (I hadn't seen my parents in a year). Below is a guest blog post, written by my dad:

"Mo, Stella and I just spent ten days with Jack in Panama, touring the country and spending some time at his site, which was a great experience that allowed us to learn a lot about his daily life in the Peace Corps.  Mostly what I learned is that these Peace Corps volunteers are tough hombres and hombrettes (since my trip to Panama I try to use as much Espanol as possible).  We are talking about mas macho volunteeros, who are way grittier than you or me.  Their daily life consists mainly of extreme heat, humidity, varieties of bugs you’ve never heard of, intestinal stuff that we don’t even want to think about, tasteless foods, lots of mud, outhouses, bats, bat poop, big cultural challenges, communicating solely in another language etc. etc.  These are the good parts of the job – I can’t bring myself to write about the hard stuff. 

This trip was especially useful for me, because as I get closer to retirement from the Foreign Service, I have often thought that a perfect next step in my international career would be to join the Peace Corps. You know, live in a grass hut in an isolated location, and make a real difference by helping those who need help most.  An idyllic, sylvan existence full of simple charms.  Somehow in my mind’s eye, when I pictured the grass hut in which I would be living, I just kind of assumed that inside my hut I would find a nice soft queen size bed, fluffy pillows, a hot shower, refrigerator (maybe even a wine cooler with two zones for reds and whites), soft lighting, and of course, a nice clean bathroom well stocked with fragrant soaps and other bathroom products.  Muy incorrecto mi amigos and amigas!  Having now been at a real Peace Corps site, I can report that the grass huts DO NOT have these sorts of amenities.  There are no beds, and there are definitely no bathrooms overflowing with luxurious personal care products (because there aren’t any bathrooms).  There is however, the very soft lighting I hoped for, because without the electricity that we all take for granted, all you have is either a candle or a kerosene lantern to illuminate your reading - at least my fantasy hasn’t been completely shattered.

What is a typical day like in the Peace Corps?  From what I can tell from my short visit it goes something like this.  Wake up with the sun, feeling un poco sweaty and a bit dirty because you can never really get completely clean from your evening bucket shower.  Crawl out from under your  mosquito netting and take a quick inventory of the evening’s insect bites (hopefully they’re only insect bites), make a trip to the outhouse (which I can assure you is NOT one of life’s simple pleasures, although to be honest, I’m only guessing about this because I did my best to avoid outhouses while in Panama), prepare a basic breakfast that most definitely does not include things that require refrigeration, such as milk, butter, yogurt etc. and also does not include anything that requires electricity, like toast, waffles or that nice hot cup of coffee from your Mr. Coffee machine.  Get dressed in your hand washed clothes, or just wear the same clothes you’ve been wearing for the past few days, check shoes for scorpions and tarantulas (really), and then head out to do some good.  This of course is why you are here.  Since there are no cars or any kind of public transportation in your little village, you will of course be walking to your meeting, which is probably about two hours away, straight up hill on a bucolic dirt path (hope that it’s not raining).  Upon reaching your destination, wait around a few hours for everyone to show up, and then conduct your meeting in a foreign language that you’re still learning.  On a good day, people are actually interested in what you’re saying - on a bad day you’re greeted with blank stares.  Wrap up the meeting, walk home, prepare a simple meal before it gets too dark to see what you’re doing, read by candle light and go to bed.  Next day – get up and do it again - for the next two years.

Yup, this is not your typical day job, and I now know that you have to be a special person to be a Peace Corps volunteer (and to be honest, I don’t think I’m that kind of special person).  I of course, am already mucho impressed with my son Jack, but having seen how he’s now living and what he’s doing, I’m even more impressed.  This could be dismissed as fatherly pride, but I also met two of Jack’s colleagues (also Peace Corps volunteers), and I was equally inspired by their dedication and great attitudes.  Laura, who is also affectionately known as Coffee Lady because she graciously made us coffee each morning by boiling the water, and then patiently pouring it through a tiny filter that could handle about a thimbleful of water at a time, is also living at Jack’s site.  She’s a lovely young woman who is teaching English and advising on tourism.  We also met Scott, affectionately known as Toilet Boy (though now that I’ve thought about it, since he’s 6 ft. 4 inches tall, he should probably be known as Toilet Man), who has a two-hour hike just to get to his site.  This is a guy who is really getting his hands dirty, because his day job is building outhouses.  Now that’s dedication!  

These volunteers are living pretty rough, but I believe they are comforted by the sure knowledge that they are helping people that few others care to help.  From my perspective as a career diplomat, it is clear to me that these admirable young Americans exemplify diplomacy at its best.  So, my hat is off to PCVs all over the world.  From what I saw in Panama, the Peace Corps really is, “the toughest job you’ll ever love”. "

Here are some pictures of the trip:

Inside the Panama Canal

Enjoying some gin on the beach

An inter-cultural exchange

At the fireplace at the Eco-lodge (it's cold up there!)

The family in front of my house