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In the "Cult of Escapism"

In the "Cult of Escapism": August 2012

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Weird Gringo Equation

I'm standing in my towel, fresh out of a bucket shower, flossing my teeth and listening to a band called Fear Factory (really) and a kid named Chameleon (really) walks in and asks, matter of factly, “Are you pulling your teeth out?”

Like people do that. Just stand around their houses casually pulling their teeth out.

I've noticed this type of logic employed here many times – if people see me doing something they consider strange, or see something unusual in my general vicinity, they immediately connect the two and push them under the same umbrella – 'weird gringo stuff'. Here's my theory in equation form:

Gringo + nothing = weird
Weird + nothing = weird
Gringo + weird = acceptable

By this logic, I could be standing in the road near a horse kickboxing with a bear and they would find this less strange than me standing by myself. Well that's what horses and bears do when they're around gringos. Of course.

This equation idea began a few days ago when I went to a town further north and upriver from mine. I was going rafting with some guys from my town*, as a tag-along – a last second invitee. So we're in the town center, near the river, getting prepped for launch, and every passerby (who are from the even more rural northern towns of my district and don't know my companions, let alone me) looks at the big blue raft and scattered gear, eyes bewildered and utterly confused, unable to fully process just why this, this thing is on the road. And then they see me and they visibly relax and keep walking. They don't know, have no concept of what the blue thing is – don't know that it goes in the water and people sit on it and deliberately ride over the worst parts, whee! – but as soon as they see me, it makes sense. A revision of my equation:

'Something weird, to the point where I have nothing in my life I can even remotely relate it to or begin to understand' + Gringo = acceptable

Not one person stopped and asked us what the hell we were doing, they just saw the raft, saw me and were content to keep walking. They'll probably return home and recount the most thrilling part of their day (week?):

“And right there in the middle of the road, was...a blue thing, maybe a boat, with a bunch of people around it wearing bright orange shirts [vests].”
“A blue thing that might be a boat? What do you mean?”
“There was a gringo with them.”
“Oh, OK.”

I almost wish I hadn't told Chameleon (yes, really) that I was cleaning my teeth. I should have answered, as matter of factly as he had asked, that yes, I am pulling my teeth out. And I guarantee that he would have hesitated, subconsciously run the equation and then moved on and gone for a coloring book. Later, he would then recount the story to his mother, my landlady, who would frown slightly and then mentally give in to the equation. “Oh, OK.”

*Have I ever mentioned, in this blog, that we have white water rafting in my town? I'll get right on that.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

An article I wrote about development literature:

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Selling my Stuff

“Save me this, Jack.”
“I'm not saving anything, you have to give me money for it to be yours.”
*Long pause.*
*The long pause extends to a longer pause.*
“OK, save it for me.”

I'm selling everything in my house. I've heard the stories of their last weeks in site from other volunteers that have already left: the scrambling, the bickering, the offense at not being chosen to receive your stove or your cooking pot. Showing up at your house on your last day and asking what you're going to give to them, instead of saying good bye. None of these are guarantees, but they have all happened to volunteers in their last weeks in site and it sounds disheartening and exhausting.

As such, I've spent months devising the best system to avoid this and have settled on a goal: to have everything in my house sold or otherwise accounted for by the beginning of my last month and to leave my community with nothing but a backpack. The system must:
  • Get rid of my possessions
  • Without playing favorites
  • Without offending anyone

I settled on selling everything at a steep discount and then using the money to buy stuff for community members. It may seem strange to sell things and then buy things for the same people, with the same money, but this system accomplishes three things:
  • It eliminates favoritism
  • Makes the people value what they've purchased
  • Gives me a budget with which to buy my favorite people presents
  • Allows me to use bullet points again, rather than write full sentences

To explain the second point, I've seen too many government handouts and charitable church donations that get disregarded because they were never given any value in the first place. I want people to pay, so that they value what they now own, so it's not just another addition to the mound of garbage in the backyard.

Additionally, after my experiences working with over 40 small stores and other small businesses, I'm operating a strict NO CREDIT policy, which confuses people but saves me money on headache medicine.
For Sale

So people show up and look around and tell me to save them stuff and I tell them no and they get really confused. I then explain that NOTHING is being saved for ANYBODY (which is...almost 100% true), and that to be the owner of something, I need to have the money in my hand. When I explain that I know how people here deal with credit, most people hesitate, then smile slyly, like they've just been caught stealing cookies, “ know us so well!”

I enjoy purging and this, this is the ultimate purge. Every few days, my house is a little more empty. I can already mentally fit everything I will save into my one backpack. So, with just over a month left in site, I'm quickly approaching the first of my goals. Most of my items are sold, my conscience is clear and I have just over $80 of budget dedicated solely to community gifts. Now I can spend my final month hanging with the people, finishing projects, and putting in some serious hammock time, without worrying about those last few days.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Fighting the Flood

(From August 20)
Today, I had to prevent a flood with a broom and a hoe. Five minutes after returning home in torrential* rain, I propped up my hammock for a peaceful afternoon of reading, when water slid through my front door and surrounded my feet. I grabbed a broom and began sweeping against the incoming current.
The water coming in

This, by the way, is one of the most hopeless feelings I've ever had: sweeping a $3 broom against an unstoppable rain flow. Water swarmed my ankles, dampening the bottom of my pants. Water slithered into my kitchen and made no indication of slowing. Water turned the corner to my room. I took a quick mental stock of everything on the ground and began sweeping with an intensity that would make Betty Crocker proud. This was sweeping on steroids – if the steroids also had crack in them. But talk about Sisyphean – this felt like sweeping the ocean off of the beach.
My "Oh damn, that was close" face

I realized that my defensive maneuvers were soon to fail and dedicated myself instead to a counter attack. With a few final furious strokes, I created a temporary respite and ran around the corner to get the hoe. My only chance was to re-dig the preventative ditch around the house deep enough to carry the water down and away. So, ankle-deep in mud and soaked from above, I deepened the ditch. I had to stop several times to go back and sweep encroaching water out of the front door. I must have looked like a lunatic – hacking a ditch for a few seconds and then dropping the hoe and running into the house to sweep away the water and then running back to the ditch. However, after a few minutes, the water flowed brown and beautiful away from my house and I paused to savor the victory.

The new ditch; plus, my cheap but trusty broom
I dug a little deeper to make sure and then swept the remaining rain out of the house. Minutes later, the rain subsided and the victory felt more final.

I have 45 days left in my service and it looks like Panama won't let me go quietly.

*By the way, the word 'torrential' gets used to the point of irrelevance. To clarify, this wasn't heavy raining, it wasn't 'raining hard' – this was torrential. When the dude wrote the dictionary definition for 'torrential,' he was looking out his window at what I was seeing.   

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

My Top Five Public Transport Moments

In Panama, most rural bus routes are sanctioned by the government, but the buses themselves are privately owned, usually by the drivers. As such, the drivers pursue their own personal schedules while driving their route and tend to try to take, on average, approximately 40 passengers over the bus's suggested limit*. I'm told this is true throughout Central America. Does this make almost every bus trip longer, more dangerous, and almost excruciatingly uncomfortable? Absolutely. Do the drivers care? Not even a little bit.

More frighteningly, the passengers don't seem to care either. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a driver stop by his house or a friend's house, just to chat. Or pack people on to the point where nobody can move. Or stop at the store to pick up some groceries and a six pack. And the passengers never say anything. Never. As an American, this is difficult to stand. We're a direct people and even the smallest of the drivers' abuses would be considered unacceptable in the U.S. and subject to verbal assault and maybe a swift kick in the jaw. So while the drivers may be guilty of the acts themselves, ultimately the passengers are guilty of letting the drivers get away with them.
A decorated Diablo Rojo bus

The problem is, Panama is a small country, with a small country mentality of being indirect. It's far more embarrassing to call somebody out than it is to be called out, particularly when you live in the same small town as the person you're chastising. So, if you have one bus route leaving your town, with only a handful of drivers, it's difficult to be the first person to speak up, lest the driver remember you and treat you differently. Then again, I'm not sure how much worse we could be treated on these buses, so maybe we better just start yelling at these guys.

Anyway, here are my personal Top Five Most Ridiculous Public Transport Moments. Note that these aren't my worst moments – that list would involve pure complaining – these are the moments that made me literally physically slap myself in the forehead in disbelief and think wistfully of the Tokyo subway system, which gives you a little ticket if the train is more than two minutes late.

5. A Broken Lock: In order to go to my friend Kyle's site, you have to cross the Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal. Which is pretty cool, unless the lock breaks. This happened to Kyle and I, trapping us, on the way back to the city and so we got off the bus to join a crowd of people walking to the other side of the lock. As soon as we reached the footbridge, a driver came cruising up, claiming that they had fixed the problem and he was about to go across. A bunch of people ran for his bus and we followed them, trusting the locals. He was lying and by the time we figured that out, they had closed the footbridge. We ended up waiting three hours in traffic, watching tankers inch through the lock, for our bus to reach a boat that ferried us across the water.

4. Double Hang: Pickups outfitted with seats and a tarp cover are common transport on rural back roads. These trucks uncomfortably seat ten people but often carry up to 25. It's additionally common, extremely common, for several passengers to hang off the back of the pickup, standing on the bumper. I've done this many times and I think it can actually be more comfortable than being inside a packed pickup bed. However, once a driver got so greedy (or motivated) that there were a row of five people hanging from the back and then another row of five people hanging behind them. I was on the second row. Doing this required embracing the person in front of you and, for lack of a better term, butt humping them every time the pickup hit a bump. Which it did every few seconds.

3. Flying Bags: Many small buses tie luggage to the roof under a tarp, which is fine, as long as the luggage stays on the roof. On one bus trip, some people started shouting and I turned around to see baggage flying off the back of the roof. By the time the driver stopped, there was a trail of luggage behind us, including: bags, backpacks, avocados, mangoes, babies, etc. Later in that same trip, the driver hit a pothole and flattened the tire. We then had to wait for another bus to pass us because the driver didn't have a jack AND didn't know how to change a tire. You'd think that if your job is to drive a vehicle then you might be prepared for something as common as a flat tire. But then, that kind of logic makes sense, so they couldn't possibly follow it.

2. Crabs: Drivers often stop and back up to pick up customers that they didn't see in time. Once, on the highway, our bus stopped and backed up for a solid two minutes; the driver then got off the bus, which alerted me that this wasn't a routine customer pick up. Turns out, a guy on the side of the road was selling crabs. The driver got back on the bus after the extensive effort to evaluate this seafood and proclaimed to us passengers that the crabs were too expensive. He shared the price and the first two rows of passengers, rather than castigate him for making a ridiculous stop, agreed that the crabs were too expensive and began animatedly discussing fair crab prices. That's beyond complacence on the part of the passengers – that's active participation in asinine bus driving.

1. Pillow Talk: All time most ridiculous moment. Our driver stopped on the side of the highway for a full fifteen minutes and just waited. Note that when you stop a bus, there is no airflow and Panama is a tropical country. After fifteen minutes, his girlfriend boarded the bus and sat down next to him and they began kissing and pillow talking. They did this for ten minutes and then she got off and he kept going. I've never so acutely wanted to harm another human being.

*This is only a slight exaggeration. A friend of mine who served in Honduras said he once noticed a sign inside his bus suggesting a maximum of 40 passengers. From his limited vantage point, he calculated 60 and the driver still did not consider the bus full.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A New Low

(From August 8th)

Is this is a low?

I washed my clothes yesterday, hung them out to dry, and then left my house, intending to return before the afternoon rains. So of course it rained about three hours earlier than is usual, which means I came home to lines of dripping clothing. The only option at that point is to move them under the roof and wait till the next day to try and dry them. It often takes a third day to fully dry some of the thicker clothes. This multi-day drying process has happened to me many, many times in my service and has contributed to the general moldy stench of all of my clothing.

Wet, smelly clothes; plus, white man thigh
This time, however, is a more challenging situation. I don't have that third day to finish drying everything, because I'm leaving on a week-long trip. If I leave my stuff on the line, even under cover, it will probably dry, just to get wet again when the rain falls sideways. If I just hang everything in the house, it will cease drying. Either way, I pretty much guarantee returning to a line of freshly molded clothes.

I did think of a third alternative: put the clothes on and dry them with my body heat. So, tonight, while I read about evolutionary psychology, I'm pausing about every ten minutes to put on a new pair of damp boxers and socks. All of them smell bad.

I have thus reached my newest low: sitting in my house, alone, in the dark, reading a nerdy book and cycling damp, smelly clothing on and off my body. There are certain things I won't miss about the Peace Corps.  

Thursday, August 9, 2012

It Feels Like a Victory

(From July 22nd)
Yesterday, the Tourism Committee and various households hosted 45 tourists and in two days, earning over $1,900 for the community. More importantly, they did all the work.

The students at the Esperanza waterfall
A few months ago, members of my tourism group invited me to a meeting with a tour operator and some potential visitors. At the meeting, I met a Returned Peace Corps Honduras Volunteer coordinating a trip for youth leaders. Some members of the Committee presented to him what we offer and I agreed to be the contact person, since it's a lot easier for me to access internet than other members of the group.

However, I did not coordinate any host families or any participating members of the effort. I just passed information from one source to another (which I wouldn't have had to do if we had some source of internet here) and hoped that the group could handle their responsibilities.

Sell, sell, sell
They crushed it. Fifteen host families, two days of taking 45 people hiking, eating and participating in cultural activities and all I did was lurk around and watch. The coordinator of the students (the RPCV) handed me all the money and I gave it to four members of the Board and reminded them to take out 10% for the Committee. And they did, no hitches. This all probably sounds fairly simple to you readers, but for me it's a major victory – the Committee that Laura and I helped found did all the work themselves, from making the initial connection, to planning, to executing, to paying all those responsible. If this wasn't a fluke then that means we have a self-sustaining group, capable of bringing money to the community from outside, which creates jobs and gives artisans and small business owners new revenue sources.

But then maybe it was a fluke. Already, only a week later, I see signs of internal division in the group and hear talk of raising prices. Raising prices?! The prices are already high and the group works just fine as it is. Greed. Greed could bring the group down. And if that doesn't bring it down, then maybe we just don't get tourists for a few months and the group loses motivation. We can't make tourists come. I want to enjoy this high; I want to think that in my last two months of service, my group is exactly where it needs to be and when I leave, they will continue kicking ass without my support. But there are so many ways to fail and so many doubts despite this recent success.

It feels like a victory, and I hope it is, because otherwise it's just a glimpse of success at the end of a service, followed by a crushing defeat.

Update from August 5th:
A traditional meal with the management team
Today, we once again successfully hosted an important group of tourists – the management team of a new hotel on an island only about an hour from my site. After doing our day package, the owner said he was interested in including it as a day trip, that would run about once a week. He also intends to contract some of the community's artisan women to sew some of the hotel's table cloths and robes. Boom baby. Job creation and a potentially consistent and indefinite source of revenue – that's exactly what we've been working towards. Please, tourism group, please don't screw this up.