This page has moved to a new address.

In the "Cult of Escapism"

In the "Cult of Escapism": July 2012

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Legendary Brian and Brandy

Four months before I arrived in my site, two volunteers finished their services and returned to the U.S. I've been hearing about them ever since. After volunteers leave a community, the people remember them to varying degrees and in different shades of affection. For Brian and Brandy, the affections ran deep and their memory borders on legend.

My site-mate and I have lived in the shadow of that legend our entire services. While not the first volunteers in my community, Brian and Brandy were the first that left a major impression, the first significant non-missionary gringos to live in the town. So we were constantly compared to them:
“Laura, Brandy used to sew her own dresses, why don't you?”
“Yak, Brian and Brandy used to teach at the school, why don't you?”
“Yak, Brian used to regularly save infants and puppies from burning buildings and wells, why don't you?”

The Legends
Some of the comparisons were easy to live up to; for example, the most common thing I heard about Brian was that he played sports. Well great, I love sports and would have played even if he hadn't, so that was a gimme. Some comparisons were more difficult however, particularly because they weren't entirely accurate. The most common: “Brian and Brandy spoke fluent Ngäberre” and “Brian saved dozens of people from a catastrophic flood.”

First of all, by their own admission, they didn't speak anything close to fluent Ngäberre. Second of all, damn. I was kidding about the burning building thing, but the flood story I've actually heard many times. During a massive flood a few years ago, B&B were living on what turned out to be an island and flood plain (no one told them), along with many other families. The island flooded and, cut off from the mainland, the residents were forced into trees and on top of houses for a few hours. At some point, Brian helped his neighbors' kids on to the roof of their house and then climbed into a tree. That's the true story. Again, the legend has taken on such extreme forms that one person told me that Brian and Brandy were the only ones who sensed that the flood was coming and, despite doubt and resistance from the island's inhabitants, convinced everyone to get into trees, thereby saving something like 80 people.

How do I live up to these inflated legends?

This inflation is a reflection of the impression that they left on people. B&B are remembered fondly and so their hindsight value is improved. This should be what every Peace Corps volunteer strives for: we should be so loved by our people, that they remember us doing things that didn't even happen, of possessing abilities that we didn't actually have.

Brian and I playing volleyball
I'm thinking something like: “Oh yeah Jack (once I leave, they'll start correctly pronouncing my name too), he was eight feet tall and had a PhD in neuro-biological-molecular chemistry. He also inseminated 17 virgins without even touching them and performed open heart surgery on an infant with tweezers and a pair of scholastic scissors. Plus, he saved more people than Brian ever did.”

This past week, Brian and Brandy returned to visit after just over two years and I was excited to meet the flesh and blood legends. In several extended interactions with them, we discussed how Soloy has changed, how they remember their services, what it's like coming back. (We also talked about Boston University – turns out we all went there). They also deflated some of the more popular legends and explained how they got so integrated and so loved.

“No one would talk to us for almost a year. Our primary project fell through before we even go to site and so we were also scrambling to find work. We were determined to make these people talk to and work with us.”

So it turns out that B&B began by responding to the challenge of making a stoic people love them. They succeeded and in their success, created a shadow for future volunteers; a shadow that Laura and I lived under for two years. I told Brian this and he responded, “Well, hopefully it was cooler that way.”

It was. It was much easier for me to integrate, because people already had some experience with Peace Corps volunteers. I wasn't quite as weird or aloof or utterly perplexing as B&B must have been and this made my service easier and more flexible for me.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to throw a puppy into a well and then save it – legends don't just make themselves.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Burning the Lazy

The cure for laziness feels just like a hot nail being pressed against your spine, repeatedly. It feels like that because that's exactly what it is.

According to custom, pregnant women can make you lethargic, and the only way to remove the lethargy is to burn it away. Lately, I'd been feeling that lethargy – less motivated to work, more likely to nap in the afternoon – and I mentioned this to one of my host moms.

“Well, have you been interacting regularly with any pregnant women?” She asked.

I thought about it and then we went over a list of currently pregnant women in my town. She mentioned Mariela and I realized she had to be the culprit – she attends my nearest store, which I go to almost every day. Plus she's really pregnant*.

So I approached Mariela with a simple enough request: “I want you to burn me.”

Turns out, “burning” should happen on Tuesday or Friday, at around 6am. I have no idea why. So on Friday, I rose before dawn and was standing in Mariela's kitchen at 6:15. She had a pot of coffee on and a length of metal wire sticking in the fire. Her dad, Fidel, one of the hardest working and wealthiest men in the town, was also there, excited to see the spectacle.

While waiting for sufficient heat, Fidel informed me that a worldwide famine was imminent and that it would be wise to plant on “every corner of land” that I had. I told him I don't own any land and he laughed at me. Puny, landless white boy. I told him it was a good thing that I was at least removing my laziness and he agreed. Apparently, I'll soon need to work for my food.

Minutes later, I was standing near the stove with my shirt off and my back to Mariela. “Here it comes” she said.

I've struggled to think of a more creative comparison for the feeling and the best I've come up with is repeated flaming wasp stings. Which is actually more abstract – it's probably far more likely for one to be burned by a nail than to be stung by a wasp with a flaming stinger. But anyway, to the best of your ability, imagine a burning nail poked up and down your spinal column and that's how it felt. Some pokes provoked more of a dull burning pain, while others felt more like tiny electric shocks.

If it sounds primitive and unnecessary, it is. But sometimes primitive motivations might work best. I chose to have this happen, but traditionally, it was more of a threat. Moms would tell their kids that they were being lazy and the kids knew full well what that meant. And beyond that, “burning” is labeled a cure, rather than a punishment (apparently it is also applied to aching joints), so it isn't really be classified as abusive.

Now that my back is dotted with red burns, hopefully I'm more motivated to work. If nothing else, I won't be napping this afternoon, because I can't lay on my back.

*Does more pregnantness make you more lethargic?

Sunday, July 22, 2012


“And a $5.00 price minus $3.00 in costs means you have...?”
“A $2.00 profit.”
And then I threw candy at a full grown man and he scrambled to pick it up off the floor after it bounced off his chest. This is what I've been doing for the past two weeks.

I spent much of the second half of June traversing Panama with my Co-Business Plan Coordinator, Dave. Using our experiences from our communities and some already well developed Peace Corps material, we've created a two day, basics of business seminar that includes: Planning, Marketing, Calculating Unit Cost, Determining Price, and Calculating Profit. I'm not sure why I just capitalized all those words, but I felt like I should. Anyway, the seminar has given us a general view of the type of basic skills that rural entrepreneurs lack across the country and exposed us to a wide range of education levels and capabilities.

High End
In the agriculture-rich highlands of western Panama, we taught business planning (rather than just basic business) skills to entrepreneurs that are already mostly successful. Several were college graduates and almost all were already running profitable businesses in tourism or sustainable agriculture. Two of the participants were indigenous men who worked as banana pickers on a plantation for about 20 years before they banded together with the other pickers and bought the company. They now form the board of directors and ship nationally and internationally. How cool is that? Talk about rags to riches. And they weren't even the most successful entrepreneurs there. We conducted the seminar in a modern building, with a projector and PowerPoint; the hosts who requested the seminar served us three meals a day, plus strawberries and cream as snacks. Strawberries and cream!

Mid End

In a community in one of the central provinces, we placed a desk on its side on top of another desk and taped up pieces of paper to drew our visual aides. Most of the participants already had functioning groups, but not a huge amount of revenue and were looking to expand their markets and tighten up their operations. However, there was also one guy who wanted to be a vendor but confessed that every time he purchased something and resold it, he lost money. Price higher than the cost, brother. The hosts provided coffee and fresh squeezed milk from their cows and were generally pretty on top of it.

Low End
On the far eastern side of Panama, near the Colombian border, we only ended up using two pieces of paper for visual aides, because we only covered about 1/10th of our material, which had already been stripped down from thirteen pages to six. Almost every participant was illiterate and one business owner ended up realizing that he loses 16 cents for every bag of sugar he sells. Which is the exact equivalent of handing someone a bag of sugar, not accepting any payment and handing them 16 cents. Like 12 times a day. The hosts did not provide food.

I feel like every seminar has basically been a home run, except that last one I just mentioned, which was more like an intentional walk. This success has reassured me that we've developed a set of lessons that challenge participants but are also within their capabilities to master. I strongly believe in the importance of teaching basic business skills to the poor and uneducated, because even if they have a solid business idea and a strong work ethic, they'll likely fail if they can't manage it. Small business development employs and empowers people and I hate to see people failing out of ignorance, rather than laziness.

I've still got a few seminars left in my last three months, but unfortunately Dave is leaving me to go to law school. Which is sort of discouraging – after spending a lot of time together, Dave decides that torturing himself learning about the law for three years is a better use of his time. Maybe my breath smells. In any case, I'll be throwing candy at people alone, which probably won't be quite as effective and definitely won't be as fun. But maybe I'll get more strawberries and cream out of it.
Two man wolf pack

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Almost Over It

(From July 12)
I'm leaning against a tree, eating an ice cream and watching a 14 year old repeatedly stall a manual truck. It's humid – it's always humid – and my biggest accomplishment today was being the only person to attend a meeting that I was invited to. I'm not quite over it these days, but I'm pretty damn close.

The volunteers from my group and I have exactly three months of service left and the majority of us have checked out. The inconveniences and idiosyncrasies we've joked about throughout our services are now morphing from funny to unbearably annoying and the thought of returning to an easier, more familiar life with better food is ever present. America, we long for you.

Some recent snapshots:

An artisan group invites me to a meeting at the president's house at 10am. At 10:15, I'm the only person there. Not even the president is there and the meeting is in her house. I'm over that.

On a bus ride that I know will last at least 6 hours anyway, the driver stops and waits for 15 minutes for his girlfriend to show up, make out with him for five minutes in the seat right next to me and then leave. I'm over that.

A random pedestrian in my town asks me for money. Over that.

Rice, beans and chicken for lunch again. Over it.

Kids bang on my door at 6:30am until I wake up and let them in. Over. It.

Members of the tourism group bicker over personal issues while we're supposed to be planning for a visit of 46 tourists. I'm so over that.

But then, at 6:00pm, the skyline west of my house is fading from red to deep blue and a hummingbird flutters past me on its way to a flower. I haven't spoken to my boss in about a month, because I don't have to, and I'm the only person that controls my calendar for the next five weeks. And for the five weeks after that. I can't get across town without stopping and chatting every three minutes and between then, there are constantly people (mostly kids) shouting “Yak!” from their porches. I haven't worn a tie in over a year. I have a good book waiting under my hammock, plenty of food and snacks from the U.S. and perhaps most importantly, projects that still need work – that will always need work – but have a decent chance of outlasting me.

So I'm not done yet. It may be oppressively hot and itchy leaning against this tree, but the ice cream in my hand is cold and satisfying and makes me think that there's still plenty to enjoy about the next three months.

Monday, July 16, 2012

A Worthy Promotion

Every day, my phone company, Movistar, sends me at least three text messages advertising promotions. Most of the texts advertise the same three promotions every day and I just ignore them, because they all encourage me to do something like buy 500 text messages that I have to use in three days. I'm not sure that's even possible. However, today they sent me a new one and I think whoever invented it should be instantly promoted to Head of Marketing.

The promotion states that, for $1.00 per month, you can text Movistar the numbers of people that you don't want texting you and Movistar will block texts from that person.

Panamanian dating culture is one of pursuit. The men are expected to constantly text the women, call them twelve times a day, bathe them in praise, express their undying love every three hours, swear that they didn't text her last night because they were receiving triple bypass heart surgery, not because they were cheating, etc. Mostly, if a woman ignores the pursuit, she's not annoyed, just forcing further chase. If it sounds smothering, ridiculous and immature to you western-minded readers, that's because it is.

We have our own silly dating rituals (like waiting three days to call, going to the movies, etc.), but anyway, that's how it works here and that's why this promotion is so brilliant. Uber-pursuit is a generally accepted dating approach, but that doesn't mean that 100% of Panamanians want it. It also sets women up for a lot of creepy situations that involve a lot of creepy text messages. So three hours after Movistar offers you unlimited text messages for two days for only $1.00, they also offer to block texts from people you don't like for $1.00. They're both supporting the dating culture and sabotaging it and making money off of both efforts. Brilliant.

Now if you'll excuse me, it's been 27 seconds since I texted my Panamanian girlfriend – she's probably worried that I don't love her anymore.

Friday, July 13, 2012

"Building" a Table

(From July 9th)

I “built a table” today. At least, the end product looks vaguely like a table if you squint at it from a distance. It also looks more like a table if you face it, close your eyes, and imagine a real table. But whatever, at this very moment, there are things on top of it, so I consider that some kind of victory.

One of my 2011 New Year's resolutions was to build a chair. My dad heard about this and, as a former carpenter's apprentice, pointed out that a chair is difficult to make and that I could probably use a table more anyway, since I have the carpentering ability of a four year old and don't have much table space in my cooking area. He suggested that in May of last year and, like almost every New Year's resolution ever created by anyone, I didn't do it that year. This year, I changed tactics and didn't make any resolutions. And hey! I built the table.

The "table"

With only three months left of service, my focus has narrowed to just a few core projects, both in and out of my site. I'm not taking on any big new commitments, because there wouldn't be any point, which means that my down time in site now really is down. For most of my service, I would feel guilty on days without work and scramble to try and do something “productive.” I don't feel that guilt anymore. I have enough on my calendar to ease my insecurity and am finally perfectly content when I spend a whole day puttering around my house, between my hammock and my stove. However, I've been doing this for the last few days and was getting a little restless (not motivated to find work, mind you, just restless). Enter table building.

I've had enough found wood set aside to make a table for months and I finally pulled out the old saw and hammer and got to work. With rock music bumping from my tiny, fading speakers and a pen behind my ear (because carpenters always have a pencil behind their ear), I “built” that table.

Counter space
Let me explain those quotations I keep putting around “built.” One leg doesn't quite touch the ground, which I suppose makes the table about 75% the table that it could be. I ran out of properly sized nails about half way through, so most of the table is held together by nails that just barely unite the two pieces of wood. Despite measuring before I began, when I placed the new table next to my old one, to expand the counter space as intended, the new table was a flush two inches above the old one.

But hey, I have that counter space that I wanted and I didn't pay a dime. And I killed what would have been a boring morning. Just don't ever, whatever you do, stand on that table. I guarantee it will fall apart.  

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Child Cyclones

Do any of you remember that Nintendo 64 game Olympic Hockey: Nagano 98'? Among the greatest games ever created, no doubt, but anyway, this morning, I was dreaming that I was playing that game with my buddy Dan and we were having a great time. And I was winning. When suddenly, seven children began knocking on my door and screaming my name. So much for sleeping in and kicking Dan's butt in video game hockey.

The hurricanes
People use the metaphor 'like a storm' to the point where it is cliched and almost meaningless but I can't think of a better time to use it, because those kids really were like a hurricane – shouting, swarming, grabbing everything within their reach and throwing it on the ground. The sheer force of their energy forced me to sit down and just gawk. Really? How is it even possible to be so amped so early?

I'm no good for anything before breakfast, but I knew that if I began cooking, all seven would expect me to feed them. Not happening. So I just sat, swallowing my morning mouth, waiting for them to go to school.

I have a core group of kids that visit my house. This group knows not to bother to ask for anything except my recycling, because I won't give it to them and have already explored every corner (there aren't that many) and asked about every possession, so there's no mystery left for them. They come over and go straight for the box of toys and cards and coloring books and go to work on their own. This morning's kids were not my core group. These seven rookies wanted me to give them everything they could see. And you can see everything in my house from the front room.

Two from the core group..drinking hot sauce (don't ask)
“Yak! Give me this pencil!”
“Yak! Give me this coloring book!”
“No, that book is for all the kids and stays here.”
“Yak! Give me this book!”
Hesitation. “That book is in can't read English.”
“Yes I can!”
“Read me one sentence of that book and I'll give it to you.”
“Yak! Give me this plastic bag!”

I didn't even have the energy or mental fortitude to yell at them, so I just sat, swaying slowly back and forth and wishing that I was still asleep, beating Dan at video game hockey. Then the harmonicas came out.

The kids, not surprisingly, have no idea how to play harmonica, but they can sure make a lot of noise. In fact, this was their clearly stated goal: “Paco! Let's see who can make the most noise!” I swear he actually said that. So Paco and Melvin began blowing as loud as they could into the harmonicas, while the other children continued to whirlwind in circles, scattering my possessions on the ground as they went. I finally said, “Boys! A harmonica is for playing music, not making noise. Stop it.” They smiled and stopped. For about five seconds.

Before I could muster the energy for another scolding, one of the girls again asked me for Atlas Shrugged (in English). I decided to pull out the heavy cultural artillery.

“OK, if you want to visit me, then visit me – don't just come here and ask for things.” Directly calling people out like that is a fairly serious move in this culture and I thought I had made my point. The kids blinked twice, four times. I thought I had successfully guilted them... “Yak, give me this book!”

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Almost Colombia

The most surprising part of this trip was that, after traveling east from Panama City for 12 hours, I still wasn't in Colombia. Remember that Panama has roughly the same area as South Carolina. If I started in central South Carolina and drove east for 12 hours, I'd be in Morocco. 
From the boat ride in

As I mentioned in my last blog post, another volunteer named Dave and I have been 'touring' the country, giving a Basics of Business seminar in other volunteers' sites. Our most recent trip took us to one of the more remote sites available, in an indigenous reservation near the Colombian border*.

To get there from Panama City requires seven hours on a bus, 30 minutes in a van, 3 hours in a boat and then another 30 minutes in the back of a truck. Add wait time between connections and it's a full 12 hours.

For the last two hours of the boat ride, you see nothing but water and seemingly uninhabited islands and shoreline. Then suddenly, a house with a satellite dish pops out of the jungle. Then a town with sidewalks, powerlines and many more satellite dishes. Their school has internet. What now? Where the hell am I? How could I not be in Colombia yet?

Carmen's community
Seriously though, a gigantic, house-sized generator electrifies four or five towns and so you end up with stilted wooden houses and leaf roofs with satellite dishes on them and flat screen TVs inside surrounded by squalor. It's still extreme poverty, only with HD and HBO.

Carmen lives with the Enbera, another indigenous group I wrote a bit about in a former post. If you don't feel like clicking that link, here's a short summary: short, painted bodies, extremely poor, topless women in colorful skirts. That's a whole culture in ten words.

Carmen is in my same sector – Community Economic Development – but after countless teenage pregnancies** and several AIDS deaths within her first year of service, she started concentrating more heavily on sexual health education. She's also hoping to create more job opportunities through tourism efforts and wanted to get Dave and I out there to help her artisans straighten out their business operations a little bit.

"0.90 means 90 cents, not 9 cents..."
Before every seminar we've given, the recipient volunteer always warns us that their community members have a low level of education and that we should expect to go slow, that they might not get it right away, etc. The people in my region have the lowest average years of education in the country (4.1) and Dave's people weren't any better, so we usually just brush the warnings aside and deliver a solid seminar, at the right level. But DAMN were Carmen's people uneducated.

Carmen said that most sixth graders in her town still can't write their own names. This is particularly sad because the kids actually do go to school for those six or seven years and still can't write their names. Shit. I'd like to see what it is they're actually doing in the classrooms. Maybe they can write other people's names.

In the sepo, or stocks - this is an actual punishment
Anyway, that made it difficult to give a seminar on basic business skills. Almost every participant was illiterate and those who could write usually didn't make any sense anyway. One person out of twenty knew that $0.10 means ten cents (they use U.S. currency here). We found out that one small store owner had been losing 16¢ for every bag of sugar he sold. At one point, a group of artisan women had to calculate 1/1 and they reached for the calculator.

Dave and I usually hit a home run on this seminar – this time was more like an intentional walk. We told Carmen that before her women moved on to running a business, she might want to teach them about decimals and perhaps a little division.

While isolation and lack of education make it difficult to teach business skills, it's a perfect formula for proselytizing. Carmen's town is about half Square Evangelicals (I'd never heard of it either), which are apparently the double bacon quarter pounders with cheese of Evangelicals, which are already the Whoppers of Christians. We happened to be there for a Wednesday night service, which featured highly amplified bad singing, praying and angry shouting. It was only missing an exorcism.
Carmen and I walking down the river

That wasn't a joke, this town has about two exorcisms every week. I thought an exorcism was a once in a lifetime event for a small town, but there it happens more often than gigantically fat people eat Whoppers. Thing is, any illness, any miscreant teenager, anything negative is apparently appropriate grounds for an exorcism. Ever seen There Will be Blood? It's like that, but much louder because they have microphones.

I had a cold when I arrived and considered dropping in during service for a quick exorcism but decided to take a Panadol instead. My nose is still sniffling two days later – maybe that's God's way of telling me that I'm long overdue for an exorcism (but where would I even start?).

Shockingly hairy
These Squares also treat everything with prayer, including snake bites. Within the last year, a man has died and a child has lost his arm because after being bitten by snakes, they were first sequestered and prayed over in the church for 24 hours and then med-evaced. Gotta work on your order of operations, my Square friends.

Does this town sound like a hip destination? Let me redeem it a little, because I did have a good time there.

There are few primary (i.e. 'virgin') rainforests left in the world, but one of them surrounds this site. Rare and endangered animals slither, swim, crawl and caw throughout the jungle only a few minutes' walk from the town center and it doesn't take long to lose sight of all farms and houses and become entirely immersed in this deep green kingdom. We walked a jungle trail for about an hour and returned to the town by walking in the river. I've seen a hell of a lot of jungle in the past two years, but this still managed to impress me, being so raw and unaltered.

One of my favorite moments was when Dave and I got painted with jagua fruit juice. The woman first painted my back and when I turned around and presented my hairy chest for painting, she broke down laughing. So the family came running and broke down too. “Is that even possible?!” asked one of the daughters. The woman hesitantly put the stick to my chest and drew a line across, giggling the whole time. It worked and now everyone in my town is wigging out over my painted body.

So despite a fairly weak performance on the seminar and approximately 27,000 hours of round trip travel, I'm glad I went out to Carmen's site in almost Colombia. To say it was visually stimulating would be like saying three quarter pounders are 'enough' to make you full. Plus I have these sweet tribal tattoos for the next week. I gotta stop talking about hamburgers, I'm making myself hungry for something I have no access to...

*Whenever I mention the Colombia border, people tell me to be careful. So you know, the FARC has officially declared that it will no longer take civilian hostages as ransom. So that's nice.

**This town has the youngest pregnancies I've ever heard of – and I'm used to some young pregnancies where I live. In our two days in her site, we saw a pregnant 13 year old and heard about a pregnant 10 year old. TEN YEAR OLD. Damn.