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In the "Cult of Escapism"

In the "Cult of Escapism": August 2011

Monday, August 29, 2011

Get Some Holidays

This is ridiculous. I've been in the community almost a year now and haven´t participated in one uniquely Ngöbe holiday. As a cultural ambassador and role model within the Comarca, I deliver the following message: get some forking holidays, guys!
A Parade in November
Panamá has unique holidays: January 9 is Mourning Day (for what I don´t know); November 3 is Separation from Columbia; November 5 is Colon Day; November 10 is the Uprising of Los Santos; November 28, Independence from Spain; and December 8 is Mother´s Day (not unique in name but in that it´s a national holiday and a BIG deal). They also celebrate Christian holidays like Good Friday and Christmas. And no, nothing productive happens in November. 

In the Comarca, the November holidays earn parades and Mother´s Day is like Thanksgiving, in terms of volume of food consumed and amount of work mom has to do. Christian holidays are acknowledged but not celebrated. Why not? “No money.” Fair enough, but there are still no uniquely Ngöbe holidays. Why. Not?

Historically, the Ngöbes weren´t unified – families created communities and occasionally there were chiefs or warlords, but otherwise not much in terms of politics or identity. Then (in short), the Ngöbes spent a few hundred years getting their asses kicked by the Spanish and were driven (mostly) into the mountainous area now known as the Comarca. But they still didn´t unify, politically or otherwise, until 1997 when the Comarca (which means “autonomous region”) was formed. So they´ve been slowly discovering a cultural identity, placing previously unrealized value on their language and “traditional” dress*. The next logical step? That´s right, holidays baby.

Drumline from a November Parade
You may ask, “But Jack, you´re a Peace Corps Volunteer that makes your own schedule, living in a region with about 91% unemployment – do you all really need more days off?” First of all, quiet down and keep that kind of dangerous thinking to yourself; second of all, yes. Holidays are different, they carry a sense of entitlement and inherent pleasure. They free everyone in your area and give you all a valid excuse to party. Holidaylessness is not only morally wrong – it´s un-American. And that´s worse than anything right?

Besides, everyone´s doing it, even the Japanese. That´s right, the Japanese, the famously (read: stereotypically) hard-working, baseball-playing, uptight, worker bees of Asia have multiple unique national holidays. My favorite (note: I lived in Japan for four years) is Golden Week, a week between April and May with four real holidays and a normal day that has since been converted into a holiday to make it a full week off. “The logic? F*ck it, let´s make that a holiday too.” That´s the spirit, Japan.

Golden Week is a perfect example of holidays created for the sake of having holidays. The U.S. has Labor Day and President´s Day. Their significance? They´re days off. Boston has Patriot´s Day. Why? So we can host the Boston Marathon (read: so everyone can get drunk and watch the Boston Marathon). Take note, Ngöbes, the U.S. is a young nation but we figured it out quick.

So the solution is simple – invent some holidays. Ready? Autonomy Day – boom, holiday. Urraca (famous Ngöbe warrior and renowned Spaniard-killer) Day – boom, holiday. Memorial Day – of what? Could be anything, the point is – boom, holiday.

See how easy that is Ngöbes? I just made three holidays in three sentences. Let´s get out the calendar and pen and the fermented corn juice and make a day out of inventing some holidays. If the Japanese can do it, we sure as hell can. 

* “Traditional” because it was imposed on them by missionaries in the 1960´s; they now dress this way as a means of separating themselves from Latinos. Does this make it traditional? I´m still debating it, with myself and other volunteers.

Friday, August 19, 2011

One Year in Panama

After a year in Panama, I haven’t contracted any fatal illnesses, lost any limbs or degenerated into a crazed, bearded, drooling lunatic. So overall, I think it’s been a success. But I've thought a lot about August 2010 Jack compared to August 2011 Jack and came up with the following extremely scientific chart:

Jack August 2010
Jack August 2011
Jack Fischl
Live with the Indigenous
Speak Spanish
Know what a Ngäbe Is
A what now?
The largest indigenous group in Panama
Know how to pronounce Ngäbe
Poop in a Hole
Sweat Enough to Flood the Panama Canal
That’s gross
Every day
Am a Hiking Machine
Sarah Connor..?
Patience of…
A four year old
Mother Theresa on Valium
Bats killed
At least 4, including two by hand
Intestinal viruses
Excuse me, I need to go throw up
Will Save the World
Have Sexual Relations with Females
What relations? Who?
Pounds of Rice Consumed in the Past Year
Who cares?
Sleep on a Queen Sized, Pillow-Top Mattress
Now you’re just making fun of me

So there have been a few changes. But I’m glad I’m here and look forward to the famous “SECOND YEAR,” when apparently most meaningful work is accomplished and everything is spelled in capital letters.

And as the saying goes, that which doesn’t kill me makes me wish I could take hot showers. 

Some pictures from the past year:
Adam jumps over me during training (September 2010)

Second host family house (December 2010)
A traditional Ngobe house in the mountains (March 2011)

Volunteers in indigenous garb during a seminar (June 2011)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

What I Do

I swear I’m actually doing something productive down here. Glancing back at this blog, I realized that few posts talk about the actual work I’m doing – most concentrate on quirky anecdotes, killings critters, and interesting travel stories. While killing bats with brooms and getting caught showering naked* make for interesting posts, I figure dedicated readers are probably wondering why their tax dollars are funding these activities. Here’s what I've been working on the past few months:

·         Basic Accounting and Inventory Management with Small Store Owners – This is a secondary project that I did actually write about in another post, but in summary, many people open small stores or run one out of their houses. Some do this simply to save money by buying in bulk from the delivery trucks and sell the surplus; others hope to generate significant income. Owners from this second mindset attended a lecture I gave about accounting and signed up for individual follow-up. Since then, I periodically go to any of the eleven dedicated owners and check their books.

Explaining accounting
So far, one has successfully calculated his monthly profit (he had one). Most are close, they just had more trouble than I anticipated counting their inventory (this is not as simple as it seems) and need to count once more so that they have beginning and ending inventory for the month. I predict that a few months from now, only four or five will be left putting in the necessary effort, but that’s fine – if you’re nerdy enough (and I am) watching semi-literate people with no formal business experience track their sales and calculate their profits is surprisingly rewarding.  

·         MEDO – This local NGO was founded and is run by a driven and intelligent member of the community and actively: teaches environmental health in the district’s schools, builds latrines, provides rain water catchment systems, picks up trash, manages a new botanical garden, helps the local clinic, and hosts “eco-volun-tourists.” In short, they’re like a locally-run, micro Peace Corps (the founder is also an English teacher, which almost entirely rounds out the scope of PC efforts).

     My work with this group is sporadic, as the president/founder is extremely scatter-brained. A typical conversation with him consists of him sharing 16-27 new ideas or projects that he’s considering and then asking, “So what do you think?” As such, my contributions have been attached to the whims of the president and I have contributed something to almost all of the above mentioned projects. Work with this group is another secondary project, but it has so much work potential, I think of it as a nice back pocket option in case my primary project breaks into pieces and catches on fire (always a looming threat in this line of work).

Writing a business plan
·         Seminars – The Peace Corps office and many volunteers hold seminars to develop the skills, capacity and leadership potential of certain community counterparts. I have taken a local lady to an artisan business skills and personal health seminar (if you think those things aren’t linked, you’re not the single mother of six kids); a man to a business plan development seminar; and two men to the required, office-sponsored Project Management and Leadership (PML) seminar.

I will continue to work with the business plan man to see his idea from conception to concrete structure and with the artisan woman to appropriately price her goods and access markets. Hopefully she’s also comfortable enough asking me about family planning and disease prevention but if not, I stressed to her that she could always talk to my site-mate Laura.

Site-mate Laura and I in our Ngobe colors
On August 4th and 5th, myself, Laura two other volunteers, and three community counterparts did a PML seminar in my site. About 25 people participated in four small groups and seemed to learn a lot (see the bottom of this post if you’re interested in a list of topics covered). My favorite result was the participation of our three counterparts, who confidently co-facilitated many of the sessions. Peace Corps is about capacity building and these three are quickly becoming young community leaders, at least in part because of our efforts. Feels great.

·         Tourism – This is becoming my primary project and consumed nearly all of my July. Laura and I work with a Tourism Committee, comprised of community leaders (like the three mentioned above) and leaders of tourism-related organizations (like MEDO and artisan groups). The group’s goal is to create a consistent and environmentally and culturally sustainable source of income and jobs for the community. My personal goal is to make my town the first significant tourist destination in the Comarca.

We’ve created a day package:
- One “adventure” activity: horseback riding, hiking, or white water rafting
- A traditional lunch
- Traditional dance presentation
- Traditional sport presentation 
- Artisan demonstration

Tourists watching the Jegui dance
So far, we’ve connected with three major tour operators from the U.S. and Panama and one brought two groups in July and is adding our tour to their list of activities. We’ve distributed laminated, color flyers to 25 hostels and hotels in the neighboring region and will soon distribute 25 more. Our web presence is under construction. We are also connecting with the government-run Panamanian Association of Tourism.

This project has a lot of the stresses associated with starting your own business, except we also deal with the intra-community politics and challenge of making the project sustainable (i.e. the Committee members can continue it after Laura and I leave). But it has been extremely rewarding going from an idea to seeing nearly $500 in revenue in one month (a significant amount of money around here and more than I make in a month).
Like most volunteers, my professional life consists of a mix of primary and secondary activities. Many volunteers define their “primary” activity as the one that was assigned to them by Peace Corps. My “assignment” was more along the lines of, “Here are the various groups and opportunities in the community; do something.” So I define my primary work as whatever occupies most of my time. Peace Corps projects can change and fall apart and reform surprising often and four months from now, this post will probably consist of several entirely different activities that I didn’t anticipate. This makes work interesting, frustrating, fun, rewarding, and maddening all at once.
But it sure beats sitting at a desk every day.  

*My most often accessed blog post is titled I Think My Neighbors Saw Me Naked and is always generated by Google searches. I need more sexy titles.

PML Seminar Topics:
  • Identifying values, goals, objectives, and priorities
  • Managing resources: time, information, money
  • How to form and reform effective groups
  • Structuring group interactions
  • Facilitating group interactions
  • Empowerment through empathy and passion
  • How to write formal letters
  • Public speaking
  • How to interact with government agencies 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Swept Under

By the end of my service, I anticipate a Ulysses-sized saga that details my battles with bats in Panama. Here’s the next installment:

10:30am – I come home from a quick morning meeting and open the door to flapping wings. My first though: man, that’s a huge butterfly. My second (and more accurate): that’s the S.O.B. that poops on my floor and won’t eat the poisoned banana I laid out.

I close the door behind me and literally say out loud, “All right motherfucker, it’s daytime now, let’s do this thing.” (I like to tell myself I’m not cracking up but the evidence is mounting…)

Tiny troublemaker
I grab the broom leaning against the wall beside me and start swinging. Now, I’ve been here before, but normally it’s 2am on a moonless night and I can only see parts of the bat’s flight in my flashlight beam – I’ve never come close to hitting one. But broad daylight was different. I missed several times before I was able to anticipate his next swoop but I did and with a tight two hand grip, I raised the broom and put some Albert Pujols into a tomahawk swing. WHACK!

I paused post swing and waited for a resurrection. Nothing. I found the body and prodded it. Nothing. Bats killed with blunt force: 2.

I thought about a Viking burial, considering the battles we’ve been through, but settled on unceremoniously flinging him into the forest.

By now, I’ve accepted that with every kill I earn a few silent nights and poopless mornings. I’m sure that’s something even Ulysses could appreciate. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

You Are Not Alone

Not by any stretch of the imagination. As a Peace Corps volunteer, you may not live with another human being but you definitely do not live alone. Let’s breakdown some common housemates and my relationship with them:

Ants – First mentioned because they are most common and appear completely un-deterrable. According to Webster’s 12th Edition* ants are, “Small but relatively strong, organized little bastards that make colonies in the corners of you house.” Relationship: they infiltrate my food and bite my feet and I occasionally commit Antlocausts with a can of Off. But otherwise we live in peace.

Roaches – I hate them. In my first host family, there were cockroaches in my bed (they were spawning in my mattress pad), which permanently guaranteed my roach-loathing. Thankfully, there are no nests in my current house, which means there are few cockroaches and I maintain a crumb-free house to keep it that way.

Roach sightings always end with a sandal and a squish.  I take morbid pleasure in leaving the roach carcass out and later watching ants dismantle it and carry it under (this is part of my shaky peace accord with the ants).

Frogs – Worthless. These little dudes seem to mostly hang out in corners and hope I don’t notice them. I do. Sometimes I let them stay, because they eat insects and just look so pathetic. However, most of the time, I just throw them out.

Spiders – Also bug eaters, my policy is to leave spiders, unless their web is in my way or they’re big, hairy…

Tarantulas! – Kill at will. Did you know they shrivel up when they die?

Scorpions – Ditto. Dispose of carefully.

Bats – Any frequent reader of this blog knows how I feel about bats. They’re sky rats. They wake me up flapping around and poop on my floor and for that we are permanently at war. Poisoned bananas have become a near permanent fixture in my house and I’ve logged two blunt force murders.

Mice – Poop everywhere and are capable of getting into bags of food, which is why everything is in Tupperware and why there are pink pellets on the floor. My buddy in Honduras says a three foot snake has helped him with his rat problem; I thought about getting one then realized I would be voluntarily introducing a three foot snake into my home. I’m not that desperate. Not yet.

Moths – Spend most of their time flying into candles – they’re more useless than frogs.

The Bug I Just Smacked While Writing This – There are many mysterious insects that make guest appearances, usually in the form of a dive-bomb directly into my face. Many meet the same fate as the moths and others meet the back of my hand (“Nice to meet you, lovely day we’re having…” SMACK).

My favorite is one I’ve dubbed the Helicopter Beetle because when it comes into the house, it sounds like a helicopter, only louder. It will come in and bang into the zinc roof about 67 times before dive-bombing directly into the ground and dying. Every time. I don’t know if this is some kind of death ritual or if I just attract suicidal beetles; either way, it’s perplexingly entertaining.

So I coexist with my creatures and have relationships ranging from neutral to hostile, to hostile with a psychotic fury (See: roaches). But the important thing is that I do co-exist. And by the way, any hippy that preaches “co-existing with nature” should try this for a few weeks and then get back to me.
*Not really.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Funk

I smell bad. Nobody says anything but I smell unbelievably, unendingly, unconstitutionally awful. I have a few anti-smell factors in my favor, but mostly I’m faced with the perfect storm of stink. Let’s break it down:
First, I’ve been in Panama for 11 months (11 months!) and I’m still not totally used to the heat. I’m probably better adjusted than before, but ultimately I’m a hairy white guy of Latvian-British-Irish descent so Panama’s probably not the best place for this body. Also, I spend most of everyday walking somewhere, including up hills, mountains, and the sides of active, lava-spurting volcanoes. So I sweat a lot.
Moldy pants
Second, the rainy season is in, scientifically speaking, full Butt-Drenching mode, which means most of my clothes are perpetually wet and are all in some stage of molding. Wet clothes have their own special smell, which we volunteers call “The Funk.” At this point, my clothes are funkier than Tower of Power.
Third, to combat the sweaty funk, I apply Old Spice deodorant more liberally than a Miami beach bound Norwegian applies 80spf sun block. You ever site next to someone (usually someone fat and hairy, with labored breathing) on a bus or a plane who smells awful but tries to cover it up with strongly scented deodorant? You’ll notice this person effectively smells like sweet butt. That’s me. Beneath my layer of perfumed respectability, stink rays are blasting like Captain Picard during a Borg invasion.

Even my dry sack is molding

I do have a few advantages: A – I’m not fat; B – I don’t’ eat a lot of fatty, smell-producing foods. But I can hardly take credit – my metabolism reaches speeds that NASA can only dream about and I don’t eat fatty foods because they’re largely not available.
So I’m hairy but not fat, sweaty but covered in man-perfume, funky but not in an entertaining way, and I’m always damp. Which means I smell. As soon as someone passes out, I’ll know we’re at situation critical. For now, just refer to me as “The Funky Buttman.”

Monday, August 8, 2011

Staying Happy and Productive

I first considered the title “Staying Sane” but realized that Peace Corps volunteers don’t really risk losing their minds completely. Except Doug, who now refers to himself, in the third person, as “Quailman” and wears underpants on his head at all times. No wait, that’s from the cartoon show Doug. I’m imagining things now…maybe I should reconsider the title…
Seriously though, if you don’t take care of yourself in the Peace Corps, you become unhappy and lose your motivation, which affects your work, which means you have less to do so you lose more motivation and…spiral. Bad. So what do you do if you’re the only white person for 60 miles or more and no one else speaks English or can possibly imagine your previous life and you eat rice and root vegetables every meal and it rains every day and you can’t even watch one Yankees-Red Sox series the whole season? Here are some bullets of advice:  
Go out and talk to people 
Peace Corps makes a big point of recommending this during training and trainees unanimously seem to think, “Uh, screw that.” If you’re down, you want to talk to people who you can relate to right? And how can anyone in town possibly relate to what you’re going through? Well, they can’t relate perfectly, but humans all have the same emotional spectrum and if you tell someone you’re down cause you miss home, they’ll almost certainly understand. (They already think you’re bizarre for ditching your family and home and travelling hundreds of miles to live with them so they won’t be offended if you confess to being lonely or homesick.)
I’m not a big emotional conversation type of person so I just generally locate someone I like and hang with them for a few hours. For me, story tellers, jokesters, and activity people are the best. If I don’t feel like talking, the story tellers take my mind elsewhere. Jokesters make me laugh. With activity people, I’m forced to concentrate on something else.
My third host dad, Roberto, is a good example of a story teller and activity person combined. A typical visit with him usually features several stories about “the old days” (i.e. tribal Ngäbes) and a trip to his farm. He also typically feeds me. So after three hours of thinking about old Ng be rituals and planting rice, I’m generally feeling better, or at least different.
Not everyone helps as much as Roberto but it’s surprising how many people can make you feel better if you visit them. Touché Peace Corps.
Stay Busy
Ok, this isn’t always within your control professionally – some sites are real small and demand one main project that you can’t work on every day. But, in most sites, you can throw yourself at any opportunity, even if it isn’t a strong area for you.

For example, I work with two cooperatives, a tourism group, 11 small store owners, an environmental and community development organization and will soon (hopefully) be teaching computer and environmental classes in the school. Will I be working on all of these things for the next year and a half? No. Do I work with one of these organizations every day? No. but these myriad options give me something to do most days of the month until one or several main projects begin to dominate more time (right now tourism seems to be the looming frontrunner). So if I spend a day visiting houses or reading in my hammock, I feel like I’ve earned it, because I’m working most days. If you don’t earn the hammock, you feel useless – the most dangerous emotion in the Peace Corps.


Exercise releases endorphins – the chemical that makes you feel good (and which is artificially released by many recreational drugs). I play volleyball and soccer whenever I can and exercise at home every day. Not every community has sports, or even a good place to jog, but every home has a floor (for push-ups or sit ups) and most have a farm nearby – and that’s some serious exercise.

Some say it’s awkward when community members see you jogging or doing yoga. Excuses. You look like an alien anyway, plus you’ll be setting a good example. I once finished a set of sit ups at home while a visiting kid colored in a coloring book three feet away. Awkward? He didn’t care one bit. People will get used to it, the same way they get used to understanding your shitty gringo Spanish.

Call if you can

I’m lucky enough to have cell service in site. Not everyone does, but all at least have a pay phone or can hike up to a spot with service. Other Peace Corps volunteers are great for venting. My parents call about every week (though they often somehow get connected to a confused latina:
Quien habla?
Is Jack there??

Occasionally, I even call friends in the States. Calling home can be depressing – you hear about your friends having fun without you, sports you can’t watch and food you can’t eat. But you also realize that those same friends will still be there in two years. So will the Red Sox and so will Buffalo wings (how I miss thee). When you call, you hear a familiar voice, which is comforting and you also often realize, “Nothing’s changing back home – I should put my head down and enjoy Panama while I’m here.”

Treat yourself

As a human, I get an inordinate amount of pleasure from food and music. Friends and family often send me packages from the states with food (thank you thank you); I store it. That crucial bag of Jelly Beans or peanut butter crackers sits tight in Tupperware until the depression hits me and I feel like crap. Then I open the bag and slowly eat the contents. Ooohhh yeah.

Certain music also works like medicine. During host family living, when babies screamed and dogs howled and roosters would not shut up, Radiohead’s In Rainbows saved me (and probably the roosters) multiple times. Now, the nostalgia and comedy combination of Blink-182’s music makes me smile. Bands with a complete sound like Led Zeppelin or the Red Hot Chili Peppers distract me as I focus on listening to each instrument.

Reading is a popular but dangerous remedy, because it’s such a solitary activity, but it can work. Site-mate Laura reserves magazines for tough days. I read Dave Barry and think about how funny his Peace Corps book would be. The common mistake though, is reading at home alone when visiting some community members is actually a better option.

Be Dave

You might remember Dave from Run Through the Jungle. Dave has an activity specific to each day of the week: Monday he takes his malaria pill and crazy dreams ensue; Tuesday he plays soccer; Wednesday he checks off 1% of service completed; Thursday is Snickers day (the highlight) and so on. He also, in an effort to save money, lives off of $1.50 a day (btw $2 a day or less is considered extreme poverty anywhere in the world). This type of rigid discipline makes each day distinct and ensures that yes, time is passing. Then again, Dave’s such a nerd, he actually enjoys studying for the LSAT. I prefer to stuff my face with beef jerky.

Like everything else in Peace Corps, you deal with being down in your own way. The important thing is to find in site remedies, rather than relying on escaping to the nearest city. Unless the Sox play the Yankees in the playoffs – then I’m off to find a TV.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

I Got Stung By a Scorpion

And it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be.

I was in the storage room of an artisan house, gathering traditional bags, dresses, and kitchen items to put on display for incoming tourists. I picked up three gourds and was crossing the room to grab a fourth when the scorpion stung me.

I roared. It felt like a wasp sting, if the wasp had ingested steroids for several years and upgraded to a Cadillac stinger.

Dropping the gourds and grabbing my finger, I stomped out, shouting some English words that didn’t need translating. Juan, who was helping me set up, asked if something had bitten me. I said something incoherent, probably along the lines of “M-m-m-m, uuuhhhggh!!” and he went into the storage room to investigate.
Just a flesh wound

For five minutes, the pain was intense and I tromped around complaining and cursing and kissing my finger while Juan investigated the gourds with a stick. He soon came out and said a scorpion had escaped to the ceiling. We looked at the wound and sure enough, there was one little stinger-sized hole in my finger, surrounded by red swelling. After about seven minutes however, all pain was gone and I was back to displaying artisan goods.

I know a girl who got stung on her eyelid and said the pain lasted 30 minutes. Another was stung on the arm and it lasted for four hours. A Panamanian once explained to me that the pain lasts a few hours and then you get hungry. So I was expecting something a lot worse. Juan said I’d been stung by a “house” scorpion and that mountain scorpions are the painful ones.

So I got stung by a sissy scorpion. I just hope they never get access to steroids or Cadillac upgrades cause even the sissy sting hurt like hell.