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In the "Cult of Escapism"

In the "Cult of Escapism": January 2012

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Roads: Part Deux

(Here is my friend David Johnson's counter argument about roads as development efforts. You'll notice that his article, unlike mine, has things like facts and statistics. This is because David has a master's degree in Development and is generally much smarter than I. You can find more of his well-written, typically hilarious and less statistically-laden blog posts at             
           Ten years ago, the Veraguas village where I live was only accessible by a multi-day hike through a national forest and over the cordillera. Six years ago, that foot trail was topped with gravel allowing 4x4 chivas to make the nauseating trip. One year from now, that gravel road will be expanded and paved with asphalt, thus incorporating this remote village into a growing Panamanian infrastructure. Surely this is a positive development for the subsistence farmers I live with, but they would tell you otherwise.
            The progression from transporting materials by horseback to rugged trucks greatly improved the lives of my village counterparts. In addition to the hauling of physical supplies used to build an expanded school and health post, new services arrived as well. Institutional support from MIDA, IPACOOP, MENSA and numerous other acronym-wielding do-gooders loaded the villagers up with projects, handouts and trainings.  
While the expected arrival of increased health and education services is appealing, my villagers fear what might leave the community on this new road. Namely, the loss of land, businesses and family members terrifies my community counterparts. Land loss is feared through the dissolution of insecure titles that give the villagers the informal right to farm the land. The livelihood of local businesses is threatened by the rapid exposure of a previously isolated market. Locally-owned businesses risk being replaced by traveling salesmen with megaphones. This well-known cycle of deterioration is proliferated by community members leaving the area to earn a living elsewhere. When the cycle reaches this point the government should start to be concerned
If we are to believe the radio propaganda, road building is a top priority for the current government. Yet concurrently, Panama has a housing deficit of 136,665 homes, according to the Housing Ministry’s (MIVI) 2010 Housing Indicators System. But what does this deficit have to do with road building? In a word, todo.
In his famously influential study of Peru’s “informal economy,” The Other Path, Hernando de Soto lays out the influences of unstable urbanization in Peru. Unsurprisingly, “the most visible one is the building of highways.”
The Ministry of Economy and Finance’s 2010 report on Internal Migration cited that 40.6% of Panamanians moving from one province to another are relocating in search of a job or better income. You probably can guess where these people are migrating to. The only province in the country with a positive net migration is the capital province of Panama, gaining 24 new inhabitants for every 1000 current residents. This influx is reflected in the fact that Panama City and its outlying neighborhoods make up 33% of the housing deficit in the country. To think that all of this problem could be tied to those persistent radio ads promoting the initiative for more road construction.
The task for the government should thus be to continue to broaden the health, economic and educations opportunities of rural Panamanians through road construction without forcing migrants to the broken-down door steps of Panama City. I believe the old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” suits this situation well.
Extending roads to previously isolated communities must be preceded by the extension of legal and technical support that was previously denied to those communities. Land must be titled. Modern business practices should be employed. Communication between government agencies and communities must be increased. These requirements are not easily completed. Who is up to the task? Since Peace Corps Panama’s Community and Economic Development Program has been discontinued, someone else will have to lead the charge. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Paved Roads Make Awesome Lego Spaceships

(Another volunteer friend and I have debated whether receiving a paved road is more positive or more negative out here in rural Panama. As such, below is my argument FOR roads. Tomorrow, I will post my friend's counterargument. By the way, I cannot disclose the actual name of my community on this blog, so I'm referring to it as MyTown.)

MyTown sits at the end of a five year old paved road and has since become, according to local expert metaphor-makers, the New York of the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé. That is, it is one of the biggest and most developed towns in the Comarca and a regional hub of commerical, governmental, and social activity. While there are always drawbacks to being added to a national infrastructure, MyTown shows that the benefits outweigh the costs and that a paved road is the best way to encourage laissez-faire development.

In economics, they say laissez-faire, or 'hands off' when talking about an open market. The argument states that the market will take its own natural course and that the natural course will eventually become the most efficient. Part of the reasoning is that this open market empowers the individual to shape it.

A road may begin as a government-led development project (which is inherently anti-laissez-faire), but once the road is complete, the recipients can use it however they want. Empowerment. It's like dumping a box of assorted Legos out in front of a child and walking away – you haven't told them what to do or how, but suddenly they have many new possibilities. Some kids will go back to sucking on their fingers; others will use the Legos for a while and then get bored, neglect the Legos, and return to sucking on their fingers; and some will figure out how to build an awesome-rocking spaceship.

MyTown has seen many improvements since the road's inception. Now only two hours drive from both David and San Felix (as opposed to multiple days walking), MyTown and its surrouding towns have better access to government services in health, education and infrastructure projects. As such, MyTown now has an effective maternity clinic, religious centers, multiple cooperatives, widespread latrine use and a functioning aqeduct. I see more solar panels every month and in just over a year, have witnessed the arrival of a cell phone signal (booyah), cold soda in stores (double booyah) and the creation of more small businesses than I can count. This is organic, hands-off community development at its most effective and it would not have happened without the paved road.
Some argue that a road accelerates negative change beyond its natural pace: more brain drain, better access to harmful drugs, exploitation by outsiders, etc. While I can't deny that the pace is accelerated, I argue that the pace of positive change (i.e. access to health, education, etc.) accelerates just as quickly. Furthermore, the negative acceleration argument implies a lack of choice.

The road doesn't force anyone to drink sugar coffee with every meal and ruin their teeth. It doesn't make intelligent people leave the community. No one has to give up susbsistence farming and start a small business, but at least now they can do something other than subsistence farm, if they want. A choice. Laissez-faire.

Many in the MyTown area have indeed chosen to continue subsistence farming, while many now mix their income sources between farming, odd jobs and personal small businesses. No one curses the road or claims that the negative aspects of the community come from its creation. They benefit from their regional position as a hub and welcome further development.

Five years ago, the government dumped out a box of Legos in MyTown and walked away. Some recipients ignored it, some rejected it, but many picked up the opportunity and have been building spaceships ever since. They were not forced to do anything, but rather empowered to choose to improve their lives. We have since seen many such improvements in a short time and I anticipate more awesomer, more rockinger spaceships hereafter.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Zombies from my First Year in the Peace Corps

Today was the Ultimate Cleaning Championship, with Jack Fischl and Jack's Mountain of Unused Documents pitted in a sweaty, ultra-featherweight title fight that would definitely not be interesting to watch. Organizing and aggressively downsizing these old documents was like unearthing the Graveyard of Aborted Projects and facing these zombies was amusing, disappointing and relieving.

In my first six months, I spread myself like a shotgun blast, hoping to hit somebody worth working with and something worth working on. I would straight up impose myself on potential work counterparts and anything that had anything to do with Community Economic Development. Basic accounting lessons, sustainable farming, strategic planning, tourism, organizational improvement – I went after whatever presented itself and often tried creating interest where it didn't otherwise exist (“No, seriously, you know you want me to teach you long term planning”).

Looking back, it amuses me to see how scattered and desperate I was. Uselessness is the most dangerous feeling to experience in the Peace Corps – much more so than loneliness, isolatedness and every other 'ness' – and I was hustling to keep myself active and at least feel like I was doing something useful. I don't regret it – I eventually found my focus and put the shotgun away. But it was funny to see the things I thought I might work on and all the materials I printed and never used.

Funny to see those unused materials, yes, but also sort of sad. It's not like I misjudged the situation or attempted stuff that was paternalistic or inappropriate. And it's not like I didn't try. Which is what makes it sad – I tried a lot of things and failed in most of them.

For instance, there are a lot of small businesses in my town and few of them follow a plan or keep track of what they're selling. Now, I'll argue that on this small of a scale, you can definitely function and even thrive without a plan, but keeping track of your money is pretty important. For example, small store owners buy and sell without tracking, using their personal money in the business and their business money for the family. Again, not inherently disastrous, but many will suddenly run out of money in a time of need. “But I've been selling a lot, how is it that I don't have any money?” If there is a sudden medical expense or some other emergency and your primary (or only) income is your small business and you don't have any money, you're screwed. That's just one reason I figured small business management would be important.

So I visited every small business I could find and offered my services. I had a public lesson with private follow up at each business. Twenty one stores came to the public lesson and signed up for individual follow up and I now work with exactly none of them. Because they stopped doing the work. The easy escape here is to say that they're lazy, but that's difficult to argue since they have the wherewithal to stand in their store for 10 hours every day and take care of a family of 12. Which means they probably stopped doing the work (i.e. tracking their sales each day and doing monthly inventory so that they could accurately calculate their monthly earnings) because they didn't understand how or what purpose it served. Although I covered all of that in the public lesson, I knew it wouldn't stick, which is why I did the individual follow up and I often felt like I was getting through to the owners, that they understood what to do and why it would help. But one by one, they stopped doing the work and I got frustrated and stopped showing up.

These stores are just one example of a community problem that I identified, tried to alleviate and failed to alleviate. Others include: the trash problem, dysfunctional cooperatives, dysfunctional artisan groups, the trash problem, and various other small business related issues. But success is often forged through failure and now I feel like, for the rest of my service, my work will be more focused, relevant and better received.

All that shotgunning and failing eventually landed me where I am today: nine months left in my service and I know I will spend most of my time working on tourism and business planning. We've been building the tourism potential of my town and had some modest successes. Moving forward, we need more and better advertising, including a stronger web presence, better organization and well, more tourists. After all the things I've worked on and thought about working on, I've made tourism my primary focus because of its potential to create jobs and bring outside money in (improving businesses within the community helps, but it doesn't create cash). By now, I know who in the community is competent and motivated enough to do what is necessary to succeed. Additionally, some other volunteers and I are working on a sustainable way for tourism-worthy communities to advertise online (more on that in later posts).

I will also work on business planning, both in my site and countrywide (I am the 'Business Plan Coordinator' among the volunteers – I'll let you know what that means as soon as I figure it out). The focus here is not only to effectively plan and monitor a small business, but to potentially write and submit a plan in order to obtain funding.

Finally, I'll do whatever people ask me to do. I often get approached on the street with requests to teach or consult something. It doesn't always amount to something worthwhile or realistic (I was once asked to design a school in my site. It took me a while to convince them that, perhaps, an architect would be more qualified for such a task) but if someone asks, I'll at least try.

The document zombies lay at the bottom of a trash bag and my clean desk and almost empty folders indicate that I'm the new ultra-featherweight champion. So that's nice. But what's nicer is the security of knowing what I'm doing here and feeling justified and excited about it. Hopefully, by the end of my service, the zombies will remain buried and I will look back on some other seemingly irrevlant meatphor that representes my successes.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

I Almost Met Mel Gibson in my Site

In mid-December, I was walking past a vacant cow pasture, when a helicopter flew over me at low altitude. This is not entirely unusual – I've seen helicopters out here before, though never this close. I ignored it until it started circling and swinging to the side, as if to get a look below. Then it started landing in the pasture.

I'd heard rumors that Mel Gibson had come to the Comarca to make a movie about the Ngäbes. This is entirely possible, as Mel Gibson has a house in Panamá and is active with local charities. Plus, he made that movie Apocalypto. So as the helicopter descended, I was convinced that Mel Gibson was inside, had seen me walking by, and wanted to talk to me about making a Ngäbe movie.

This created a serious problem for me: since his anti-Semitic outbursts a few years ago, I've been boycotting Mel Gibson movies. Which has been really hard for me, cause I like his acting and I love Braveheart. But now, this Holocaust-denying douchebag was landing fifty feet from where I stood and he needed my help making a movie. A mental debate raged: do I shake his hand and help him, or tell him to go fuck himself?

The helicopter landed, it's physical blades slowing as my mental blades stormed, and of course, Mel Gibson was not inside.

Turns out, some top political person was visiting my town to make an appearance while the bi-monthly welfare was being distributed. As such, one of the national newspapers had dispatched a helicopter with a cameraman and a reporter to cover the event. The helicopter seemed pretty unnecessary, as there is a paved road coming into my site from the main highway, but the reporter was a good looking female, so I figure that had something to do with it.

Anyway, they got out, surrounded by a crowd of curious onlookers and one of my work counterparts went over and literally pointed them in the right direction. (This amused me – when giving directions to a helicopter, you don't have to say, turn left, you can just point).

They left and I watched, feeling pretty silly for unnecessarily putting myself through such mental and emotional strain. The worst part is, I never even decided what I would do (I really like Braveheart).

Ok, so the title of this post is a blatant lie, but it's like they say: never let the truth get in the way of a good title.  

Friday, January 20, 2012

First Day Back

I went to sleep excited and woke up covered in reality. Oh shit, I'm back in it. Traveling back from vacation with my family in the Philippines, worried that I would emotionally resist my return to Peace Corps life. Waking up, I realized it was much more mundane – I wasn't bummed about being back in the jungle, back in the Peace Corps, I was just bummed about coming back from vacation.

But then, that happens every time right? You wake up the Monday after a good vacation and think, “Damn, I gotta go to work today and … work. Shitty.” Shitty indeed. But if you're ever excited to come back from a vacation, you probably need to take better vacations.

So I wake up in Soloy, not entirely happy but at least feeling justified in my negativity. Now a “seasoned” volunteer (with over a year of service), I've found that on depressing days, housework can do a lot to make you feel better. In a job with mostly intangible victories, housework is a great way to string together multiple, tiny, totally tangible victories in the span of a few hours. Sweeping the floor, fixing the window, organizing the desk, cleaning the black carbon off the bottom of the pots – tiny tangibles. And they feel good. After a few hours of such productive distractions, I realize it doesn't help to be back in the community if I spend the entire day in my house. Drawing up a calendar for January, I left looking to fill the days and thus calm my ever present concern that I'm not doing enough.

It's nice to see everyone and as I expected, it's not difficult to catch up on what I missed. “How was your New Year's?” “Good.” “Did you kill a pig?” “Yes” or “No.”

Done. I can fill in the blanks – those who drink, drank for three straight days on and around New Year's and punched each other in the face and those who didn't stayed in their homes and tried to avoid errant face punches. This is part of why I didn't feel guilty leaving my town for the holidays.

As I continue my walk around town, my calendar slowly fills with invitations to meetings, requests for assistance with ___, and social events. I'm feeling good about my imminent productivity, until a man I vaguely recognizes approaches me,
“Did you give the lesson on accounting?”
I hesitate and realize that he's talking about a lesson I gave about eight months ago. “Yes.”
“You said you would follow up with us personally but you never came to my store.”


“Well, where is your store?” I'm expecting him to name a distant town. There were a few store owners that lived several hours from me and didn't have cell phones and I never quite got the motivation to walk out there and have a family member tell me they were gone for the day.

“Right there” he replies, pointing to a store that I walk by almost every day.

Guilt and confusion struggle for Most Prevalent Feeling as I wonder how I could have overlooked him and why it took him so long to call me out. I apologize and we pick a day to work together.

That was a bummer, but also basically an anomaly. I've been very careful about following up on my work and especially at keeping promises. Then I get to Emerita's house.

Right from the beginning, she seems pouty. By now, I know that means that I didn't do something I was supposed to. Usually, this means some kind of cultural error – I didn't eat all of the food they gave me; I didn't show up at her daughter's birthday party; I waited too long between house visits – and I figured it was probably my absence at her New Year's party. I explained where I had been and felt exonerated, until I looked at my calendar and realized that before I left for vacation, I was supposed to help her with inventory management. I had totally blown her off. Shit. Two in one day? The past was haunting me worse than Ebeneezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve.

We planned a meeting but by now, I was feeling pretty shitty. What am I doing here if I'm not helping the people? How can I call myself a good volunteer if, in the same hour, I get called out for blowing two people off? These kinds of thoughts are extremely dangerous because they generally lead to other, similar thoughts that drag you into a spiral of self-doubting depression.

Within a half hour, I'm thoroughly guilty and thoroughly blue. Bugs and heat are annoying but feeling useless is what crushes volunteers and causes them to quite. I shuffle home and can only think of sitting in my outdoor hammock and staring at the banana trees. This is a bad idea. Luckily, I keep it together enough to remind myself that this is a bad idea and that I absolutely need to do something more useful than tree-staring.

I exercise at home in order to get the endorphins and leave the house immediately afterward. The Peace Corps manual suggests getting out and talking to people when you're down and they're absolutely right. I visit my landlord and her family and they give me coffee and a bag of freshly picked beans to bring home. After 30 minutes of bullshitting with them, I'm already feeling better. I then go play volleyball, which is inherently a pretty social experience. Better still.

The final re-motivator shows up in the form of two tourists. They had contacted a community member, who had then asked me to greet them and make sure everything was cool. I've done this many times and didn't think too much about it, but then, during the conversation, they told me that they had heard about Soloy from a flyer in one of the hostels. “We were just looking for something less touristy.”

Amazing. The kinds of tourists we actually want found our flyer in a place that we deliberately put it!

This may sound obvious to you, but this was a big little victory for us. Additionally, they were excited about trying some of the activities listed on our flyer and the people in town were actually prepared. Well, mostly. But the point is, this is exactly the kind of situation we've been working towards. Tourists finding one of our ads, calling us ahead of time and then community members organizing their visit (as opposed to Laura and I).

It might never happen again, but it happened today, my first day back, and it saved me from the depression that comes when you feel worthless in your site.  

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

24 Hours in New York Concrete Jungle

On December 22nd, I landed in New York for a 24 hour layover on my way to the Philippines (where my parents live) and it felt like I had traveled into the future. The jungle still had a hold on my habits and mentality and I got off to an awkward start and had the following conversation with my sister, who met me at the airport:

“Do you have hot water in your apartment?”
My sister looked at me like I had asked if I should put my left shoe on my left foot.
“Uh, yeah Jack, we have hot water.”
Of course. I was in the concrete jungle*, not the green one.

I hadn’t thought about the question before I asked it, but from then on, I was careful not to ask more stupid questions and to refrain from waving at every person that I passed on the street. At one point, a busload of kids passed and I almost instinctively waved but caught myself – that's not friendly in Brooklyn, Jack, it's creepy.


I wouldn't say the day in NY was overwhelming, but I definitely experienced minor reverse culture shock. Here are some things I noticed about Brooklyn, after living in a town of 4,000 people in an indigenous reservation in Panama for a year and a half.

Everyone walks fast
I almost lost my sister leaving the airport as I ambled along at a tropical pace. The surrounding people, recognizing my weakness, wasted no time pushing past me, stealing all of my possessions and spitting on me. Not really. But after she backtracked to get me, I asked my sister if we should be running like everyone else to catch the train. She gave me another, “What are you, a moron?” kind of look and replied that no one was running, they were just walking the way people walk here. Shit. Now I know what all those Midwestern kids were complaining about when I was at Boston University (“No one holds the door” “What's the big rush?” Why is everyone so skinny?”).

Everyone speaks English
You're welcome, by the way, for pointing that out. It's not that I was surprised to hear people speaking English, it was just weird that the ambient language was so much easier to understand. I speak Spanish and can understand ambient conversation in Panama if I listen, but it's much easier to ignore. On the train in New York, I felt like I was forced into everyone's conversations just because I could understand them. Which brings me to...

People are more intense
I don't know if this is just New York, or all of America, but everyone seemed to have a big personality. And I finally understand that European stereotype that Americans are loud. Sitting near a group of men having a conversation on the train, I sincerely wondered if they were drunk. (I will note here, however, that while Americans may be louder, public transport in America is much quieter – no blasting radios or cell phones, not as much incessant honking). It also seemed like everyone was trying hard to have their own fashion, their own opinions.

In Panama, I've always been struck at how hard people try to be like one another and how obvious they are about it. I'm often called out for not wearing similar clothing and not having certain common possessions. Like, “Why are you wearing sandals and not fake Crocs? That's not what everybody else does!” In the States, and more specifically, in Brooklyn, everyone seems to try hard to be their own person and makes a big show of their effort. (Ironically, most people end up looking extremely similar anyway, but continue to make a big deal about how different they are).

So stylish
Having said everything I just said, people in Brooklyn are pretty stylish, even if it's all the same style. I felt like kind of scrub most of the time.

Blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics abound! I love that about New York. Panama is pretty diverse on paper – nationally about 20% black, five indigenous groups, the rest Latinos and a smattering of whites and Asians – but most of the black people are in one region (Colón), the indigenous are concentrated in their own autonomous regions, or close by, and the rest of the non-Latinos are, as I said, smattered. It was refreshing to see the diversity.


I had what to most city dwelling Americans would seem like a pretty typical night out: happy hour, dinner and then hanging in an apartment, drinking and talking. But everything excited me. Pizza! Buffalo wings! Beer that doesn’t taste like urine!

Seriously. The food in Panama, country-wide, is BORING. And there are maybe three bars in the whole country that play decent music, at a volume that allows you to actually talk with people and I've only found one of them (and it's like nine hours from where I live). And the cheap national beers, which are often the only options, really do taste like urine. Sometimes, to save money, I just pee into an empty bottle and bring that to the bar. So I enjoyed the hell out of Sam Adams and Brooklyn Lager and other real beers. And did I mention buffalo wings?

These physical pleasures were definitely nice, but the highlight of New York, without a doubt, was seeing my sister and some of my close friends. I’ve spent my entire life on the move, but I’ve learned that with true friends, no matter how much time passes between reunions, the friendship stays intact. This was again true with the seven close friends that met me in New York. After some smiley greetings and gushing ‘I missed yous,’ it was straight back to the stories, gossip and dirty jokes that I expect from my close friends.

Now, stick with me, cause I'm going to unnecessarily try and make this into a nerdy metaphor: it's like Han Solo in Star Wars: Episode 6 – he may have been frozen for a few weeks, but when they freed him, he was a little cold, a little weak, but otherwise the same old Han. With close friends, an extended absence is like cryogenically freezing the relationship and sticking it on the wall of Jabba's palace – it recovers quickly.

The nerdy metaphor is now over. Was that too much?

Let's move on to the philisophical, “What this means for Peace Corps Volunteers” part of the post.

After stateside trips, many volunteers have returned with the same report: “It was so good to see my friends and family and to go out like I used to, and I miss that, but it’ll still be there when I get back. Nothing has really changed.” For a lot of volunteers (myself included), each week is entirely different and there’s always a trip or a project or something coming up in the next months. Add to that new perspectives and either personal growth or slow mental collapse and we volunteers are in a constant state of change.

And life's not like that for most office-bound, stateside working professionals, which isn’t necessarily bad, but undeniably different. Part of the Peace Corps challenge is living an inconsistent, often uncomfortable, life. So for many, when they visit the States, they realize that that stable, familiar life is still there if they ever want to go back. Mostly, this helps volunteers appreciate how interesting our life is down here, without feeling left out.

I miss my people back in the States. But luckily for me, most will be there when I get back, dressing classy, walking quickly and spitting on outsiders.

*Where dreams are made of.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Another article on PolicyMic: