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In the "Cult of Escapism"

In the "Cult of Escapism": October 2011

Sunday, October 30, 2011

What’s My Age Again?

Humberto is hammering the corner post of the latrine into the ground while the rest of us watch and shout encouragement. “More force! Use your arms!” yells Juan. “Harder!” yells Eusevio. I yell, “Yeah, Humberto, hard, like last night!” There is a pause of disbelief, then uncontrollable laughter from all sides. “Jack, I can’t believe you said that!” “Like last night…hahahahaha!” That’s right boys, I have a dirty mind too, you just haven’t experienced it yet. But it’s about time.

A lot of volunteers assume an identity in the community. Some want an inflated image; some want to appear more professional; some* just don’t want the community to realize how often they are thinking, “That’s what she said” during conversations. I used to restrain myself and assume a more “professional” persona and now I’m steering conversations towards bedroom humor. What happened?

Upon arrival, I was worried my potential work counterparts (whom, at that point, could have been anyone for all I knew) would doubt my abilities because of my age and lack of professional experience. In the immortal words of Blink-182, “Nobody likes you when you’re 23.” So I tried hard to appear professional by acting serious**, dressing well, and refraining from making fart noises with my armpit during meetings. This last part was particularly difficult, but after a few months, I had the role down and the people fooled.

But I realized a few things. First, having a college degree in rural Panamá, especially a college degree from America, is basically a lifetime accomplishment. College simply isn’t an option here for most and their education system is about as effective as a square bowling ball, so a foreign degree impresses people.

Additionally, my various jobs throughout high school and college don’t matter much, in terms of résumé in the States, but in a town with mostly subsistence farmers and thus over 90% unemployment, those jobs are relatively impressive.

Finally, being white commands an inherent authority out here – especially if you have a beard.

So revaluing my previously underestimated strengths, I gained confidence and stopped worrying about my “professional” image. The people I worked with knew I worked hard and my wardrobe of almost entirely polo style shirts was high fashion. But I still had a personal reputation to uphold and I worried constantly that people would think I was weird.

Which was pretty stupid of me.

How can I possibly not be considered weird out here? If I act exactly like the locals, that defines weird – i.e. out of the ordinary; i.e. a hairy white guy in an indigenous autonomous region in Panamá cutting the grass with a machete and commenting on the weather in Ngäberre. And if I act natural, that’s weird because I do strange things like eat non-root vegetables, floss my teeth, and listen to rock and/or roll music.

Then, one day I said “hard like last night” and everyone loved it. And I realized that I could act more naturally and not necessarily get judged. So now, if someone catches me after a midday hammock nap and asks if I was sleeping, I say “Absolutely!” instead of making excuses for my grogginess. And if I’m running slow on the soccer field and someone calls me out, I tell them their sister tired me out the night before.

Because I can be a 23 and a professional. That’s good with my machete.
At least, that’s what she said.

**And it was acting for sure – I may not be capable of being serious. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Over, Under, and Over/Under Rated Aspects of Peace Corps Panamá

Forks, peanut butter, seminars and tri-folds are all accounted for. So are potato peelers and speed metal. The following lists apply to either (or both) fellow volunteers and locals. There is no particular order.


You won’t save the world. Or even your town. When you leave, 15 year olds will still be getting pregnant with their second child, babies will still have extreme protein deficiency and extended bellies, and everyone will still be really poor. I’m not saying you won’t make a difference, I’m saying you probably won’t make a difference. And btw, I’m not bitter, I’m actually quite happy (seriously). But rather than over value idealism as a Peace Corps quality, it’d be more productive to try and be as flexible and absorbent as possible. Like an expensive tampon.

Cup Noodles
Yeah, they’re easy to make and cheap and tasty, but they’re about as nutritious as ingesting cardboard. That said, I have a personal stash at home. Hypocrite?

I like most of the seminars we do, I just think we do too many, relative to the actual impact they’re probably having.

Panamanians love tri-folds – ask any volunteer who’s worked on tourism or with any local government agency. They love tri-folds like Californians love the words “anti-oxidant” and “solar energy.” Have you, reader, ever purchased anything because of a tri-fold?

Sugar-Coating During Training
It felt like the office pulled aside any staff member or volunteer who had contact with the trainees and said, “Don’t scare them…” I didn’t get this, they should have been trying to scare us away. Instead, training had the “La-la” type of feeling you get at a Bible camp. Training should be more like boot camp, so we can weed out the weak early. Brutal honesty would have prepared us a lot better than the sweetened stories we were fed.

The Every-Two-Weeks “Rule”
Going two full weeks in site doesn’t earn you a trip to the city.

“My Site is Harder than Yours”
First, nobody chooses their site, so how can you give anybody shit for having electricity or indoor plumbing? Yet there’s this “I’m more badass than you are” mentality among many of the people with the tougher sites. You hear a lot of conversations like,
“Oh yeah, well in my site, the people can’t even afford toilet paper.”
“In my site, we don’t even have walls, not even on the latrines!”
Shut up. I have way more respect for people with difficult living situations that don’t complain (I’m talkin’ to you, Scott).

Aright, I realize that whole list was rant-ish in nature, so let’s move into the slightly more positive:


Peanut Butter
Every volunteer loves peanut butter, but yet its importance in my life cannot possibly be overstated, therefore it is still underrated.

Really Stupid Humor
Country folk love stupid humor. I use the same stupid jokes every day and get genuine laughter, every day. I just introduced the Ngäbe people to The Three Stooges (thanks, Kenny and Lisa). They love it. Love it. Stupid humor – use it.

The Volunteer Report Form (VRF)
A lot of volunteers rush through this required, trimester report. Guys, Washington uses these to justify our existence and we’re underfunded as it is. Plus, it’s literally the only thing we are required to turn in to the office. Take it seriously.

The Living Allowance Survey
There’s exactly one way to get a raise in the Peace Corps – if everyone else gets a raise too. And the only way to do this is to fill out the Living Allowance Survey. If Washington sees, in the results, that many volunteers are not being paid enough to live on (and some are not), they give us all a raise. But they only look at results from a country with 80% compliance. Half of the volunteers in Panamá did not fill out this survey. Really?

Vegetable Peelers
A lot of locals just use a knife to peel vegetables, so volunteers do the same. But using a knife takes longer and wastes a lot of food. You what doesn’t? A vegetable peeler. And they’re like 60 cents.

Fruits and Vegetables
This is aimed at Panamanians (and fat Americans): a lot of fruits and vegetables are really easy to grow but people (here) still prioritize less nutritious root vegetables. Rice and root vegetables every meal is a terrible diet.

Drinking Water
Volunteers and locals are both guilty of not drinking enough water every day. They say they don’t need to. They’re wrong.

Bat-Proofing Your House
My single greatest achievement in the Peace Corps.

Listening to Speed Metal While Cutting the Grass with a Machete

And now, things that are somehow over and under rated.


You can eat anything with a spoon or chopsticks or your hands, but dammit do I love eating with a fork.

They’re so obnoxious and the office makes us do way too many during training. But dammit if the locals don’t LOVE them

Machine Laundering Clothes
I think too few Americans value re-wearing clothing and tend to overwash. But dammit, those machine-washed clothes are so much better than hand washed clothes.

How you can Deep Fry Anything
A bit overdone in the U.S., but dammit if everything doesn’t taste better deep-fried.

Making Unnecessary Lists

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Scott’s Visit

Scott’s cutting carrots while I fill a pot with water at the sink outside. We’re talking through the wall, a domestic and peaceful heterosexual male couple making dinner together, nothing out of the ordinary in Panama’s largest indigenous autonomous region. Then the sink explodes.

More precisely, I turn on the faucet and the faucet head rockets into the zinc roof, which booms with the impact. I scream in surprise at the near face-to-missile collision, then in annoyance when I realize how much water is spraying directly into my chest and then in pain as the ants begin to bite my feet.
I have brutal ants in my yard and there are a few key spots, like directly in front of my sink, that are safe. Once you exit these demilitarized zones, you’re screwed. After jumping back from the gushing water, I’m standing in the North Korea of my yard and receiving the full five star treatment. Unfortunately, I can’t escape until I locate the faucet head and stop the flow.

By now, Scott has emerged and is contributing to the situation by standing on the porch and laughing at me. To be fair, it’s pitch black and I have the only headlamp and therefore the only light. So I dance to avoid the ants and search for the faucet head.

Ignoring everything I learned in 9th grade physics, I search around the sink instead of inside of it (for some reason it didn’t occur to me that the faucet head, which shot straight up, would have come straight back down), which is why I saw the scorpion before I saw the faucet head.

The scorpion is scurrying away from the sink and towards Scott, so I grab a length of PVC pipe laying near me and begin pounding at the scorpion. Now, I’m still getting bit by the North Korea ants, so I’m still dancing, but now I’m dancing and hunched over swinging a club, like a stereotypical depiction of a caveman, only less sophisticated. I slam the scorpion, who manages to not die the first four times (he just kept getting buried in the dirt) but succumbs on the fifth. But there’s no time to celebrate this small victory, because water is still gushig from my faucet, I don’t know where the head is and my feet feel like someone is setting them on fire.

Finally, I check inside the sink and find the faucet head. As I put it back on, I get blasted again by the water, effectively soaking any remaining inch of dry shirt that I had. But the water is under control and the scorpion is dead, which means I get to fill the pot, go back inside and cry like a five year old girl over my sore and swollen red feet.

We made a few unrelated videos:

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Friday, October 21, 2011

Freeballing in the Bull's Mouth

I recently learned that it’s easier to lead a seminar with no underwear on. This isn’t intuitive until you enter the Bull’s Mouth and realize the many ways it can threaten your personal parts and how freeballing can help. 

Ok, context. Last week, I went to the northwestern most province in Panama, Bocas del Toro (Mouths of the Bull), which borders Costa Rica and the Caribbean Sea, which means, it also hosts many gringo tourists. It also houses a significant number* of poor Ngabes (indigenous – same ones I live with) and therefore PCVs. My friend and fellow volunteer Adam invited me to help him with a Project Management and Leadership seminar in his site in Bocas, so, ignorantly, I put on my underwear and headed north.

Dense green mountains surround Adam’s site, creating a windless heat bowl. Just add water and the jungle sprouts every kind of stomach virus, bug, and bacteria you can think of, and then 15 more you’re never even heard about.
View from Adam's porch

Upon arrival, I realized looking around that while I undoubtedly live in a tropical site, Adam lives in a tropical. ass. site. He also has powerlines with no electricity.

“Oh those.” Said Adam, “Those go all the way to Mexico. The government displaced the farmers in order to build them but we don’t get any of the electricity.

Awesome. Another victory for the indigenous.

Anyway, it was extra hot and extra buggy, which meant there were also extra chiggers. “They’ll bite your balls” said Adam. “It helps if you don’t wear underwear.”

My balls, you say? Underwear off.

See, chiggers like to burrow under bra lines and waistbands and bite until you pinch them off. Pant lines are not as tight, therefore not as warm, therefore less appealing to the chiggers. It was also a lot cooler.

Enjoying the new breeze down below, we prepared for the seminar, by which I mean I told Adam and his counterpart what to do. I’d already led the seminar once in my site and Adam almost religiously refuses to prepare for anything (which is ironic, because he’s without argument one of the most successful volunteers in the country), which made me the pre-seminar authority. Which was fine, I prefer to freestyle public speaking anyway, and the lack of discussion while preparing meant that we prepared quickly, which meant we had time to go do stupid things in the jungle.
Adam swinging in

Now, Adam is 32, going on 24 and I’m 23. When together, we drop an additional six years in maturity and tend to make healthy decisions like: jump off high rocks into rivers; swing on vines into rivers; climb up the middle of a waterfall and then jump off it into the river. You may detect a theme.

We got lost at one point and while vine swinging, I kneed Adam in the kidney, but otherwise we escaped our own debauchery unharmed. Plus, Adam has another kidney.

The seminar went well – we presented to the new directors of the tourism and cacao producer’s group that Adam works with. His counterpart, the president, did a lot of presenting, which is better and also easier for Adam and I. The group was sharp too, which meant we finished early each day and got to do more jungling and spend more time talking with community members.

I’ve visited several volunteers in their sites and I enjoy seeing the way they interact with the community. Many volunteers put on a bit of a persona, in order to be taken more seriously, or simply out of self-defense. Adam acts exactly the same in his community, except he responds to Chiro.
Me on a waterfall

I have a Ngabe name as well, but only about half the people use it (if that). But no one was saying Adan or Adam. “No one knows my English name” he told me. “Someone named me Chiro when I first came and that was it.”

The most notable thing about his name, however, was how frequently it was stated in the course of a conversation. Example:

Adam: “Hey! How are you Community Member 1?”
Community Member 1 (CM1): “Good, Chiro. Where are you going, Chiro?”
Adam: “To the artisan house to do a seminar, are you coming?”
CM1: “Yes, Chiro. I’ll be there later, Chiro.”
Every sentence. It was almost part of the punctuation.

His community members also had another amusing speaking habit.
Chiro on his porch
“Oh shit!” Adam’s neighbor screamed in greeting.
“Oh shit!” Adam responded.
Apparently he’s fallen off his own mostly sturdy constructions (like the ladder up to his bed) and used the phrase. Closely surrounded by neighbors, his cursing was heard and mockingly mimicked and is now a common greeting.

Overall, an excellent experience. Between the jungle and the well-functioning tourism and producer’s group, it was a pleasure visiting and working with Adam. The freeballing both literally and figuratively paid off and I’m happy to report that my personal parts are chigger free and that 14 people know a little more about being community leaders.

Hopefully Chiro also teaches them the liberation of freeballing.

*No, I don’t have the actual figure. Consistent readers of this blog are now realizing how useless the footnotes are. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Really Wet Season

Water seeps under my door and slide along the wall, like a secret agent creeping around a corner. Except I can’t just shoot the water and bury it out back if I want to get rid of it. My buddy in PC Honduras used to laugh when he told me about women there furiously sweeping water from their porch. Broom in hand, I realize I’ve joined their futile fight against the wet season rains.

Actually, it’s now the Really Wet season (official meteorological term). December – May is the mostly dry season, which means it rarely rains and there’s a steady, strong breeze. June – September is the wet season, and October and November are extremely, inconsiderately, there-is-no-end-in-sightly wet. Wet season means it will probably rain at some point every day, but often for only 20 minutes or so. Really Wet season means it always looks like it’s just about to downpour and four or five times a day, it does.

The rain is random here. In the States (at least, in the northeast), I feel like a rainy day means it will probably rain, off and on, all day. And if huge, grey clouds are coming, it will rain. Here, there are always huge grey clouds that can’t seem to make up their minds It’s like we live in the garden of a severely narcoleptic person holding a watering can. Sometimes he’s asleep with it tipped entirely, sometimes he’s asleep with the nozzle pointing ominously sideways, but not quite down. I often have to stop myself from looking up and yelling, “Just fucking rain and get it over with!” Luckily, I haven’t actually done this yet and community members don’t cross the street when I walk near them.

There are benefits to the Really Wet season: it’s cooler; rain on a zinc roof is relaxing at night; and if you don’t feel like leaving your house during the day, hard rain is an unchallenged excuse. Unfortunately, I get cabin fever too quickly to stay inside too long, so I end up getting wet every day.

Which means my clothes get wet and never dry and then mold. Although, they mold, somehow, even when they don’t get wet, so I might as well walk around.

Unfortunately, in the Really Wet season, I have fewer places to walk to, because people are less likely to show up for work if it looks like it will rain hard. Which is always.

There are tactics to deal with the wet: enjoy the cool – it’s nice being able to walk without sweating; assume it will rain – don’t fool yourself and for fork’s sake, don’t ever forget your umbrella; just get wet. Getting used to getting wet helps you follow through on your commitments. You want to be able to stand on your porch, face the downpour, and say, “Fuck it.” I’ve found it helps to actually say this out loud. It’s ok, no one else speaks English.

The Really Wet season is relentless and potentially depressing, but if you can appreciate the humor in its narcoleptic nature and apply a few coping tactics, your clothes will still mold. The grass is literally greener right now, but I’m already ready for the sun to come back. 

Friday, October 14, 2011


I’m whistling loudly and looking at a tree. Behind me, five over 40 year old men are giggling and passing a mango around in a circle. I yell “Ya!” and turn around. The mango is quickly passed one last time and the final recipient squeals and drops it on the ground. Everyone’s laughing, hard. I've never seen these men this happy.

The players are the board of directors of a farmer’s cooperative that I work with. We’re taking a break from a Strategic and Operational Planning session to play hot potato, one of many potential dinamicas we Peace Corps Volunteers use when leading a session. And the board loves it. Why is this kid’s game so popular among grown men?

First, what is a dinamica? Basically, any ice-breaker or five year old birthday party game qualifies. Hot potato, duck-duck-goose, two truths and a lie – they’re all usable as breaks or rejuvenators and are almost guaranteed to be a hit among Panamanian country folk.

During training, we were introduced and overexposed to dinamicas. According to Official Peace Corps Policy*, a two hour session should feature no less than 14 dinamicas. Training already feels like summer camp anyway, so this constant exposure to kid’s games raises large, almost visible question marks as to the relevance of these activities and professional nature of the organization. As such, when training ends and we are sent to our sites, we all vow never to do another dinamica, not even at gunpoint.

After three or four months of dinamica abstinence, we try one out during a meeting. Just the tip. And damn it if those people don’t love that dinamica. We’ll return to the thrilling topic of long-term planning or inventory control and 30 minutes later a hand pops up, “Can we do another dinamica?” This man is 55 years old.

So we accept them and now any time I prepare a lecture, session, or activity, I factor in a few dinamicas. If I’m really on my game, I’ll connect the dinamica to the topic (e.g. “So, like in hot potato, if you successfully pass the responsibility on to someone else, you win!”).
Volunteer Adam leading a dinamica

I admitted defeat to my boss at a recent seminar and she smiled broadly, “We told you. You won’t find a group of kids that enjoy these games more than the adults you work with.”
I found this particularly true when booze was introduced.

A few weeks ago, I attended a friend and counterpart’s birthday party, which involved finishing two buckets of fermented corn liquor, or chicha fuerte. After two hours of listening to the men talk about the 1014 political race, I decided my chicha wasn’t nearly fuerte enough to put up with this, so I introduced them to drinking games.

I explained “Thumper” (aka “Animal Game”) – a game where all players thump the table, clap to the rhythm and “pass” animal signs around. You “receive” a pass by doing your own animal sign and then pass again by doing someone else’s in time to the beat (i.e. thump, thump, clap; thump, thump, tiger; thump, thump, bird…). After explaining the game, a man asked, “So we’re doing a dinamica.” Yep.

Which means children’s games, ice-breakers AND drinking games are all fair game.

The game went well in that everyone but me got drunker and everyone could not stop laughing. Every time my counterpart did his animal, a tiger, the men would start giggling uncontrollably until they lost it completely and started slapping the table and rocking with laughter. We played a few more games over the course of about two hours and it only got funnier.

After discussing with other volunteers this peculiar love for children’s games, we’ve concluded that many of our country companions simply have shorter childhoods, during which they spend a lot of time helping in the house and on the farm. Which means they grow with an unsatisfied desire to be silly.

While at first I resisted on the grounds of unprofessionalism, I now embrace my role as “facilitator of silliness.” With so many games at my disposal, I’m confident I can keep the silliness going. And if I run out of ideas, I can always just bring a few buckets of fermented corn liquor to the meeting and see what happens.

*I have no actual citation for this.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Let’s Talk About Donkeys Instead

(From September 30th)

Four hours after the alleged start time, the participants are still debating whether or not to start the meeting. Arguments are stated, restated, recycled and then stated again. There’s another vote and another clear decision is made, until further arguing muddies its finality and the debating resumes. My service has been an active study in dysfunctional, unproductive meetings, but I've never been to one this bad.

To better understand this thrilling topic, let’s look at a typical Panamanian country meeting:

(Note: This could be a meeting for a cooperative, town hall, or any other organization).
Many groups have been trained to use an agenda, which is written on something – be it a large piece of paper, a whiteboard or the side of a donkey. This is followed as closely as a third grader reading the New England Journal of Medicine.

The first points always include a prayer, which goes something like this:
(Everyone stands)
- Person 1: “Who would like to lead the prayer?”
(Two minutes of awkward, standing silence)
- Person 1: “Ok, that was good.”

Which brings us straight to the purpose of the meeting. Many groups arrive at the purpose of the meeting, address it for a full six or seven minutes, then tangent indefinitely. And by indefinitely I mean that I left a meeting four months ago that may still be happening. Indefinitely in that it’s not uncommon for participants to show up to an 8am meeting with flashlights.

This doesn’t always happen. Sometimes groups talk, concisely, about the proposed topics, moving through each with practiced efficiency, eventually arriving at a famous part of the agenda titled, “Other Matters,” at which point they will tangent indefinitely. Ok, so maybe it does always happen.

So what do they talk about, if not the actual proposed topic? I can’t even tell you. Let’s say the purposes are to talk about the cooperative’s cattle project and financial health. The one thing I can guarantee is that we will hear very little about the cattle project and nothing about the financial health. We will, however, hear about how one member’s neighbor did not pay him enough for a donkey, or another’s theory on why crops are poor this year (this theory will also never involve biology, ecology, or any other actual science). Each member will take turns standing up, saying “Good morning/afternoon” to everyone present and then rambling for at least twenty minutes and up to twenty days. Some don’t stop until their vocal chords burst and they collapse from exhaustion. At which point, the other members load him on to a donkey and it carries him to his home in the mountains.

The meeting I attended today was a Comarca (indigenous autonomous region) congressional meeting. The Director of Peace Corps Panama (my boss’s boss) and a few other staff members were attending to renew our formal relationship with the Comarca. Which meant we needed 15 minutes for our little speech and some Q&A time. Four hours after the congress voted to start the meeting, they were still debating whether or not to start the meeting (they didn’t have a majority present). The arguments were basically:

“There’s no point in starting without the majority present because all decisions would be moot anyway.”
“Fuck those people that didn’t show up, let’s start without them.”

For four hours.

A member eventually approached us and admitted they probably wouldn’t even get to us today. So the staff traveled the eight hours back to Panama City, promising to come back next time.

As frustrating as it was, the Director made a good point – this is democracy in action and at least they’re taking the process seriously. That’s fine, but can’t they do it faster? Or at least install air-conditioning and hand out cold lemonade?

Maybe when it comes to meetings, I should consider a more authoritative approach. I’m thinking Dr. Evil dumping board members into a pit of fire. Or tazing people that get off topic. Or maybe streamlining by asking only yes or no questions the entire meeting. Somehow, we need more efficient meetings.

Cause really, I’m tired of hearing about people’s donkeys.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

What Would Buffy Do?

You’d think they’d have learned by now, but then they have brains the size of air molecules and apparently love dark, smelly places. Faithful followers of this blog already know that I’m talking about bats. Again. I haven’t counted, but I’d wager about half my entries are about trying to kill bats. Well, another one bites the dust.

Actually, he’s probably biting feces, if his jaw still works. Earlier today, I was sweeping in my house when I experienced a feeling unique to my time in Peace Corps: sweeping, sweeping, everything’s fine, sweeping if I don’t poop right now I’m going to poop on the floor.

So I walk, quickly but carefully, to the latrine, open the lid and…bat. Hanging inside and sleeping. Seriously, bat? Do you not have a sense of smell? Do you like being killed by blunt force? Do you realize how badly I need to poop? I tried reasoning with him thus, but apparently this bat had not yet developed verbal communication, so I considered my other options.

PETA would probably have recommended relocating the bat to a luxury apartment and sending it piles of fruit every three days. As tempting as that sounded, I deferred to the Age Old Question: What would Buffy the Vampire Slayer do?

Luckily, when I was in middle school, my sister watched approximately 100,000 hours of Buffy, so I can get away with admitting that I also watched about 100,000 hours without sounding like a sissy. 


I also know exactly what Buffy would have done.

I picked up a conveniently located pointed stick and stabbed. Stepping back, I prepared for a Buffy-esque spinning back heel kick but instead heard a dull thud below. Which is probably for the best, since I’ve never actually attempted a spinning back heel kick.

Keeping PETA in mind, I was concerned that the bat wasn’t warm enough and that a PETA representative might pop out of the woods and point this out, so I pooped on the bat and closed the lid.

Buffy probably would have done the same.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Personal Days and the Back to Site Blues

The air-con is up so high I’m shivering. I sit defiantly on the hotel bed in my boxers, refusing to put on clothes or turn the AC down. This is my personal protest against Panamanian weather – that merciless bastard that makes me sweat every day, but not today! I insist on being cold because I know that in minutes I’m headed back to site and it will be about a month till I return. The back-to-site blues settle in.

About once a month, I got to David, my closest city and the second largest in Panama, and spend the night in a cheap hotel that gives Peace Corps Volunteers a discount. In a day and a night, I grocery shop, eat food I otherwise can’t get, go to the movies, and spend a lot of time on the computer. This is called a Personal Day in the PC Handbook and we get two per month (honor system).They encourage us to “recharge” and return to site with Energizer Bunny-like dedication, until the battery fades (or until we run out of peanut butter).

Some crave healthy food or contact with stateside friends, but for me, meeting up with other volunteers is the real pull. I’m a very social, outgoing person, which is not a helpful trait in the Peace Corps. (Cue the tiny violins) It gets lonely living among people that don’t (maybe can’t) entirely understand you and I look forward to leaving not for internet but contact with friends. (You can put the violins away now).

So leaving the city after a personal day sucks sometimes. Boxers on, AC blasting, Law and Order: The One with Jeff Goldblum on the TV, and the AFC East standings on the computer, I check the clock and realize it’s time to return. I say by to other volunteers and get on the bus back to site.

The first two days can be hard. Electricity in the city reminds you that you’re unnecessarily exposing yourself to easily-solved hardships (like no light, intense heat, clothes that won’t dry, no Jeff Goldblum, etc.) and a few good meals remind you of the impending dietary monotony. Opening the door to your house reminds you that there’s no one there but unwanted critters. (Hey! I told you to put that violin away!)

How to recover? I wrote a whole blog post about that but the short answer is to get back to work. A lot of times (especially as my service progresses), I don’t get any back-to-site blues, because I’m busy. In those cases, a trip out is more like a deep breath – not strictly necessary but it feels good and helps re-regulate your breathing. This is how it should feel and being busy up to and after the trip out helps.

Conversely, days leading up to a trip are telling. If you’re restless with anticipation, that’s a bad sign (unless you’re out of peanut butter – that’s a true emergency). Excitedly anticipating a vacation is one thing and totally natural for anyone, but fiending for that internet and air-con day? Steady, Jeff Goldblulm will still be there if you wait a few more days. Ideally, you’re working, making connections, killing spiders and BAM! that day out you planned is two days off and you barely noticed you just spent three weeks in site.

Some volunteers live for these days their whole service; I don’t know how they do it. This mentality is common your first few months but if you never get past it, I think you’re missing an integral part of your service.

Sometimes it sucks returning from city to site. Almost all of us volunteers grew up and have lived with a higher standard and a quick re-exposure to that standard can make our lives seem relatively depressing. Or it can give us the jolt (read: peanut butter) we need to keep walking and pounding the drum. Best case? While watching TV in our boxers we catch Independence Day, in English and return to site imaging that we are Will Smith and our work counterpart is Jeff Goldblum (“I don’t hear no fat lady!”).

What? Just me?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Cutting the Grass in a Hockey Mask

There’s a line of people laughing at me, which strikes me as a bad idea since I’m holding a machete. I adjust my hockey mask and vow to take revenge while they swim in Crystal Lake.

No wait, I’m confusing myself with the serial murderer Jason from the Friday the 13th series. I should stop ingesting so many dangerous hallucinogenic chemicals*…

Ok, I was indeed wielding a machete, but not butchering campers – just cutting the grass. An artisan organization was hosting an event and needed to clean up the grounds, so I joined about six other community members in the chopearing or grass cutting efforts. But, having grown up in large cities, before Peace Corps, the closest I’d come to a machete was watching Hotel Rwanda. Which is to say, my chopping skills are limited. Which is why people were laughing at me.

This has always been an interesting double-standard in my Peace Corps service. While teaching accounting, for example, when the store owner divides the wrong numbers while calculating unit cost, I’ve never burst out laughing and called them a moron. But as soon as I pick up a farm tool, people call their friends over so they can line up and take pot-shots . I think there might even be a kind of bat signal, alerting the town when the gringo is making a fool of himself.

So I chop, and consider myself successful if the grass is shorter after I swing. However, this exacting standard is apparently not enough for the spectators, who scream, “Harder!” “Lower!” “Not so hard!” or simply, “Gringo!” The highlight was when a young lady offered to take over. My manhood and dignity thus questioned, I simply smiled and kept cutting.
Jasons in training

Chopping is fun, for like 40 minutes, then it’s just tiring. The technique is to bend your knees, lean forward with a straight back, bring the machete up past shoulder height and chop across your body, as low as possible. I’d also recommend not cutting off anyone’s legs (including your own). After two hours, if you’re right handed, your right wrist, shoulder and forearm and left lower back will ache. Also, if you have fragile, sissy, city-hands like me, you’ll develop a large thumb blister, which will make it difficult to hold pens and write blog posts.

It’s satisfying though. In a job with mostly intangible successes, something as simple as cutting grass represents a visible success (i.e. grass is tall; CHOP; grass is short). Although people were laughing at me, they weren’t laughing that much. That probably doesn’t sound too comforting to you, but I figure if I was doing a truly terrible job, the people would have stayed longer and laughed more.


The laughter and massive thumb blister have convinced me that I need to chopear more. Although my efforts are primarily entertaining, within two days, everyone seemed to know that I had participated in the cutting and I think they respect my effort. If nothing else, one day it might help me while I’m chasing teenagers through the forest in a hockey mask.

*Just kidding, Peace Corps office!