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What I Do

In the "Cult of Escapism": What I Do

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 


At July 2, 2012 at 8:15 AM , OpenID dcpierce said...

Laughed a lot at the mention of (and logic behind) your most popular post.


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