Saturday, January 26, 2008

Rising Violence in Guyana

I'm back from the blog grave to post this little tidbit. Over this last Friday (January 26, 2008) eleven people were shot dead in escalating violence near Buxton. This is the infamous town that we volunteers were forbidden to pass through on our own -- too bad there was no way into the capitol without doing so.

I wonder what's going on with Peace Corps Guyana today. Most likely, they're clamping down on travel and not permitting anyone to pass through the area under any circumstances short of life-or-death injuries. Days before I left, they modified the ban to allow us to pass through there only during the day, and only in a hired cab, which was a lot better than "only in a Peace Corps vehicle," but it's incidents like this that freak out Peace Corps and make them come up with sweeping rules.

There's the link. It probably won't be around forever, so here's a block quote of part of the article:

Guyana shootings claims 11 lives

By BERT WILKINSON, Associated Press Writer

GEORGETOWN, Guyana - Gunmen stormed into a coastal village early Saturday and shot dead 11 people, the president said, in escalating violence blamed on a gang leader who has threatened widespread attacks.

The killings in Lusignan marked the deadliest massacre in this small South American nation in 30 years and came hours after gunmen attacked police headquarters in the capital, firing indiscriminately and wounding two guards.

Three children were among the dead in Lusignan, seven miles east of Georgetown, the capital.

"(This) could not have been done by human being but rather by animals," President Bharrat Jagdeo said as he prepared for meetings with security officials and the military. He said he would go to the village to meet with grieving relatives later in the day.

On Wednesday night, suspected gang members killed a Guyanese soldier during a gunbattle in Buxton, a village located two miles from Lusignan.

Police and government officials say they suspect a gang led by Rondell Rawlins, a former Guyanese soldier, is behind the violence. Rawlins has accused security forces of kidnapping his pregnant 18-year-old girlfriend days ago and police say he threatened to carry out attacks until she is found. Police said they are probing the woman's disappearance.

Rawlins is accused of being a crime boss since 2002, and blame him for the April 2006 slaying of Agriculture Minister Satyadeo Sawh — a murder that authorities said was aimed at destabilizing this former Dutch and British colony.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Center Cannot Hold

And so you can see how my relationship with AEA started to fall apart, as they refused to put me to work doing things that exploited my talents and previous experience, assigning me only to tasks I couldn't do very well, and then accused me of being a lazy complainer.

All this time, I was suffering through the homestay from hell.

Yes, I bet other volunteers could tell me horror stories that would make my experience sound like Club Med in comparison. But circumstances are circumstances, and the ones I was in were rapidly deteriorating my mental condition.

It actually began during training. My homestay was a modest home, middle-class by Guyanese standards, and the married couple who lived there were quiet, unassuming, and quite normal. The man of the house, an Afro-Guyanese, worked at the rum bottling plant in Diamond. The woman of the house, a Chinese-Amerindian mix, stayed at home and kept the household. They lived in a two-room home Grove, south of Georgetown, where most of the other PC trainees also stayed. For water they collected city water in two huge, black tanks out back. They had grass in the yard, though it was pitted and unwalkable because of the wandering cows that plague all neighborhoods in Guyana.

They were a nice couple, but shortly after my two-month training homestay began, I ran into trouble. It all involved a locked bureau.

Like all other homes in the area, theirs had metal bars over the windows to prevent burglars, which is a huge problem in Guyana. But having heard of another volunteer who had his laptop stolen despite such bars (he let it out near the window), and of the break-ins which happen routinely in the area, I decided it might be prudent to lock mine in a bureau they had in my room. Until this point, I had no need for the key they gave me; I locked my room while I was in it, but not while I was gone, and never locked the drawers. One day I put my laptop in it, locked it, and left the key hidden under a book on the top of the bureau. When I returned home from training that day, lo and behold, the key was missing. My homestay "mother" was the only person in the house that whole day, but she insisted she didn't go in my room while I was gone other than to sweep, and would never touch a key. When my homestay "father" came home from work, he had to fish out a spare they had in their own bedroom. But he wasn't happy with me, because I had asked if my homestay mother had taken the key. This had been done not in a spirit of accusation by me, but merely inquiry. To be honest, I wouldn't have cared if she had taken it, perhaps for safekeeping. I don't know. He unlocked the bureau, and I didn't use it anymore for my laptop.

Fast forward to the next week. I wake up one morning, am gathering my things for training that day, and to my utter surprise, I see the tip of the key sticking out from under a book. The same book. Where I had kept it before. That might have indicated it was my simple oversight, and that the key had been there all along, but I had checked underneath that book half a dozen times, and there had been no key. I had even moved the book, flipped through all the pages thinking it might have been in there, and even taken the damn thing with me to read during breaks at training. I had also physically removed every single other item from the top of that bureau, even pulled it out away from the wall to look behind it. No key. So imagine my surprise when I woke up to find it where it was supposed to be.

Of course, I had to know how it got there, returned to its original spot. So I asked them. They both denied having anything to do with it at all, asked me if I had simply missed seeing it before, and in the end, my homestay father accused me of being a "very suspicious person." My relationship with them was never the same again. I minimized contact with them, staying mostly in my room or out during the evenings. I considered locking my bedroom door while I was out, but figured it would only do more harm than good; besides, they had already shown they had extras of each key in the house.

With that unfortunate homestay experience behind me, I went into the next one. Peace Corps Guyana requires all volunteers to spend the first three months in their new assignment in a homestay -- that makes five months all told, counting the two from training. It's hard for me to live in someone's house for a couple days, much less almost half a year. Being subject to their rules and their timetable is one thing; I can just never shake the feeling of being a burden or that some sort of expectations are hovering over me.

In New Amsterdam, I was placed with a young guy (for the sake of privacy, I'll call him D here). He worked at the Adult Education Association where he was in charge of computers. I dedicated a blog entry to how D's house was set up, so I won't go greatly into it here, but I'll recap a few crucial details. The yard was big, with three houses in it. His sat in the middle of the yard, an unpainted wood building on four-foot stilts. Next to his house was a cream-colored house where his friend lived (until his friend moved abruptly in September to Barbados). On the other side was an ugly, unpainted monstrosity on high stilts that had no occupant by the time I moved in. It was under that house that I sometimes slung my hammock, did my laundry out of a sorry pipe in the mud, and chased chickens when I was bored.

Being on stilts was vital to houses in the area, since during much of the year the ground is utterly soggy with mud. In fact, to get to his front door, one would often have to tightrope-walk across planks laid across the grass. It was either that, or sink one's shoes up to the ankle in muck water. Chickens, donkeys, and wild dogs and cats routinely wandered into the yard and left special gifts, even more incentive to stick to the boards.

D was an attractive Afro-Guyanese man in his mid-twenties. He wasn't too much of a drinker, nor did he go out to clubs much. His main diversion was chasing women. And boy, did he catch a lot of them. He drove a motorcycle everywhere, which probably enhanced his image, which was one of roguish charm.

I occupied the other room in his house, which was flimsy and cheaply-constructed. Not that it was very far below the construction quality of most houses in Guyana -- the walls were a single layer of wood planks with occasional gaps in between. There was no ceiling, and the walls didn't extend all the way to the roof. I guess this was to help air move through the house, but it had the effect of making every sound from anywhere in the house as crystal-clear as though it had been made in your own room. Whispered conversations might as well be in your ear. And the floor was not much better, with cracks between the floorboards wide enough one could see the chickens wandering through the mud underneath the house during the day. The stilts were old and tended to rock, not to mention the floorboards which sometimes bent under the weight of an adult passing.

D's way with the ladies became apparent to me shortly after I arrived. I was introduced to a young lady who was his "girlfriend." Silly American me, I thought this was a term that meant something. There was an implied exclusivity there, but I had yet to learn how relationships in Guyana are valued. She lived in Georgetown and would make the trip to see D every couple weeks. Most days she would call at some point and D would spend a while on the phone having a hushed, empassioned conversation which ranged from sweet nothings to vowing he was not cheating on her to expressing a fervent desire to see her, all sometimes in the range of a few minutes.

As a Guyanese woman, his girlfriend was very savvy. She knew, having grown up there, what I was about to find out. Guyanese men are cheaters. Guyanese women, too, as it turns out. The whole country is screwing the whole country. No wonder HIV is sweeping Guyana.

I would come home and find another woman sitting in the living room, D preparing food, or chatting with her, or watching television, or making her wait while he talked on the phone to someone, or ran down the street for groceries. She would sit nervously, not sure what to make of my presence. Sometimes I would talk to them, but not for long. There was always an uncomfortable air in the house, and so I would simply retreat to my room. Before long, D would shut off the television and put on a CD of romantic music. Their conversation would grow quieter, a mere murmur over the loud music echoing through the whole house. I would put on my noise-cancelling headphones and try to drown it all out, entertaining myself with a computer game or a book or writing the first chapters of my new novel.

And then, inevitably, they would retire to his bedroom. His bed and mine were adjoining the same wall, which was no thinner than a row of planks could be. When he climbed into bed, just that level of motion would jostle the house enough for me to feel it in my room. But when he went into his room with a young woman, pretty soon I would begin to hear the smacking sounds of kisses, some more low murmuring, then a long silence. This was followed by one of two things: I would hear her gathering her things and leaving, at which time D would be compelled to drive her home on her motorcycle. Or, and this happened much more often, they would begin to have sex.

It bears some repeating: the walls were thin. They didn't connect to the ceiling. There was absolutely no isolation of sound in that house. Their activity would start to set the whole house into motion, and pretty soon my bed was rocking just as if they were in it with me. I could hear every sound, every moan, despite the loud music blasting from the stereo system in the living room. The first time this happened, I found it amusing, and a little embarrassing. I'm no prude, but I'm also not big on sharing such an experience with near-strangers.

As the months wore on, and I began to see how frequent these romantic interludes were, I grew less amused and more annoyed. It was an intrusion into my peace almost every night. Some evenings or afternoons I would come home and find D's motorcycle parked out front, the front door locked (it was rarely closed when he was home), and the romantic music blaring from the house. It was so loud, one could hear the lyrics from halfway down the narrow lane where we lived. It was always the same CD, a mix of American top 40 and adult hits, things like Celene Dion or Michael Bolton; anything they would play on a "Light Rock" station in the States, or that you would hear coming over the Musak speaker at your dentist's office. I always knew when I heard that CD being started up that I could expect to be subjected to an evening that would make Hugh Hefner blush.

Irritation soon became madness. If D had "gotten lucky" only so often, perhaps I could have dealt with it. But it happened every couple nights, regularly, and quite often with some entirely new young lady. I was newly arrived in New Amsterdam, and to be frank, was hoping to get a girlfriend in the area. As I watched D's ladykilling, I started to wonder if there was a young woman in the entire area he hadn't slept with. The thought was sobering. Especially combined with the HIV/AIDS statistics they hammered into us during training. On the occasion when I would go out to a dance or a club, I would look at the women and wonder which of them had been with D, or were routinely with men like D, and just how rampant this sort of behavior really was.

It turns out, it was everywhere. The more Guyanese I met, the more I encountered casual tales of affairs, cheating, casual sex. I don't think there is anything necessarily wrong with the latter, as long as all parties involved understand what they are doing, but in Guyana the sheer rate of it was overpowering. I quickly despaired of meeting anyone I could put trust in. And to be involved in a casual sex fling scared the pants off me, because I feared catching an STD.

And so the rocking house continued. Some nights he wouldn't get started on it until midnight, even knowing full well that I had to be at class early in the morning. I'm not a good morning person -- I hate being awake in the mornings, and have very negative thoughts about myself, my life, and the world in the hours between 6 am and 10 am, for whatever reason. This is made all the worse when I have had poor or insufficient sleep the night before.

One night, I had enough. Just as D got started, I threw on my clothes and shoes and slammed the door meaningfully on the way out. Passive-aggressive, I guess, but I was never very good at open confrontation. But I couldn't take being in that house one more minute with the walls shaking. I walked out onto the Backdam, a street between New Amstedam and Stanleytown, a dark, lonely stretch of road at any time of day, much less in the middle of the night. We were always warned about that road, but I went out there that night looking for trouble. I wanted someone to mug me, because I was consumed with so much rage and bitterness that I was hoping someone would just try it. They could stab me, beat me, whatever -- I just wanted to plant my fist in someone's face.

This was a real eye-opening moment for me. I knew instinctively that I was spiraling, seeking the darker side of life in New Amsterdam; I would frequently go to late-night dances out on the dark basketball court, where people were drinking and smoking weed heavily, bodies pressed closely together, tempers flaring, women wearing provocative outfits, young men doing wheelies on their motorcycles up the backdam, fights breaking out. I went to the nightclub just outside of town which was said to be owned by drug dealers, and the site of frequent fist- and gun-fights. I was drinking rum more and more. Spending most of my time by myself, in my room, sealed away under the mosquito net with the fan pointed on me, day and night, avidly reading book after book.

Moving out to my own apartment changed all that. I've written about that place, and posted photos. It was a breath of fresh air, a way of controlling my environment that I needed. But I never got a chance to make it back out of the dark place I was in. Those three months in New Amsterdam, living in D's shithole sex den and being unwanted at my site, had taken such a toll that I had done some things that were undoable. My secret trip to Georgetown to see a concert, my involvement in a scandal with a local Guyanese blogger who hated Peace Corps, an argument with our incoming CD, rumors that I was romantically involved with a boxer's wife, and whispers that I was going to dangerous clubs and dances, had filtered back to Peace Corps and throughout New Amsterdam and ruined my reputation with both. And anyone who has been in Peace Corps can tell you that you reputation in your site is crucial. Without it, your capacity is diminished or ruined.

With enough time, it's possible I could have repaired that image, my relationships with AEA and other volunteers, and gone on to have a positive, useful Peace Corps career. But there were too many factors stacking up at a critical juncture, and I had nowhere to turn. Seeing the first steps in my mental decay, I once called our APCD (the one who got our beloved CD fired, and who, in turn, was sacked some months after I left Peace Corps) to come visit me. He did so, but was not terribly interested in my complaints. Aside from the sex, I had legitimate problems with the homestay, as it was not conforming to Peace Corps regulations (locking door, some type of drawers to place items, privacy, etc.). He laughed off all of them. At that moment, I knew I couldn't even turn to the Peace Corps administration for help. With their aid, maybe placing me in a new homestay or -- better yet -- letting me skip the damn homestay thing altogether, and move right into an apartment, I think my downfall could have been slowed or averted. I needed help, and there was none to be had.

Perhaps one could say I'm just not good with homestays. I actually predicted that going in, and was a little nervous when I discovered that volunteers in Guyana had to endure extended homestays beyond what other volunteers worldwide required. In fact, most volunteers in Guyana live so closely with a local family that, arguably, they are in a homestay environment for their entire stay.

Some Final Thoughts, and a Farewell

Some might read this and tell me it was up to me to improve my condition, and that I needed to be strong enough, or flexible enough, going in to resist negative impacts from all these factors. But I think that's wishful thinking. Homesickness, the gremlin that nails most Peace Corps volunteers, wasn't my problem, nor was it a lack of desire to participate in Peace Corps. I wanted to give to the community, to be a member of an international relief and development organization with as much clout and respect as Peace Corps. But mostly I just wanted to be treated like an adult. All throughout training we were kept like junior highschoolers, chaperoned, told all the things we should be scared of. Then, when we were in our sites, we got the reverse: don't bother us, and just do your job. I needed something with a little less extremes. The two volunteers with WorldTeach, assigned to New Amsterdam, got much better support and respect.

Prospective volunteers are really the target of this blog, but to them I feel I need to add a disclaimer. My experience is not common. In truth, there is no Peace Corps experience that is common. Those television and magazine advertisements that show volunteers hugging scores of little African or Central American children are only part of the story. A little part. Your experience will not match that, no matter how hard you try. But nor will it match my experience. I had a unique situation, a unique response to that situation, a unique psychology, a unique background, and unique expectations. Someone thrust into my identical experience would not see the same outcome, or anything like it.

Some might claim I was a failure, and at time, I would be among them. But in the end, I had a fascinating experience, made some friends, learned something about the world and its people, and more importantly, about myself. I matured in many ways during this experience, even despite the fact that I was in my early 30s at the time. It is unshakably a part of me, now, for good and bad, and I am grateful for that.

And so to prospective volunteers, those going to Guyana, the Caribbean, South America, or anywhere else: Nothing you read in this blog is meant to dissuade you from Peace Corps experience. These are the memories and episodes in one person's life, and that's all they are. Some of them are good, some of them are not so good. Based on what I've witnessed, both in the late 90s when I shamefully gave up Peace Corps in the Eastern Caribbean, to 2005 when I went to Guyana, Peace Corps is undergoing a time of rapid administrative change, in part as a reaction to 9/11, in part to law suits, and in part to the changing perception of Americans worldwide. Peace Corps is finding itself redundant in some parts of the world, where progress and development have reached levels where they, honestly, don't need Peace Corps anymore. And everywhere it is finding it harder and harder to hang onto the role it used to play in communities and with volunteers.

But I still love this institution. I want to see some major changes, both for the sake of volunteers and for the survivability of the program. But Peace Corps remains one of the best experiences a person of any age can have, and I will continue to say so until I die or the program is ended. If you are thinking of joining Peace Corps, or are in the application process, or are about to go, or are in-country, or have returned, this will be one of the most important and amazing times of your life. Do it, without hesitation. Just be sure to read this blog, the numerous blogs of volunteers all around the world, the short stories published in Peace Corps publications, and the novels of fiction and non-fiction written by former volunteers. Read it all voraciously, and let it sink in. Then, when it comes time to go, forget it all and be prepared to experience something unique to you. Be ready for disappointments, but also be ready for adventures, hardships, friendships, and a feeling of being more alive than you have felt in years.

And don't quit.

- Aloha to all volunteers, former and future. This is Brian Reeves, signing off.

In Which my Social Life Dwindles

Isolation was one of the first things that affected me. I felt cut off from Peace Corps and most other volunteers by the Berbice river, which could only be crossed by day on a ferry. There were a few volunteers in my general area, including two from my training group, but I didn't "click" with any of them. A really good friend from training was technically close by, but across that damned river, so I rarely got to see him. Just crossing over would probably have counted for "leaving my assigned area" during the first three months, damn the Peace Corps. But it was irrelevant, because he sunk his teeth into his assignment with a gusto I have never seen. Catching him with any free time would have been just about impossible. I'm sure he had his reasons for this drive to overwork himself, but I don't know his psychology. He had been in Peace Corps in Africa during the 1970s, which probably had some measure of impact, though I couldn't possible say what that was.

The other volunteers in the area weren't well-suited for me. The two from my training were very nice people, but I know I bothered them. One was about as straight-laced and conservative as one could get. Deeply Christian, he had views on things that pretty much precluded us having any kind of relationship other than professional. The other was funny and entertaining, but said I reminded her of her brother. This colored our friendship pretty early on, because I found myself treating her like a younger sister, good-natured ribbing and all. I just couldn't help it. Something about her brought it out in me. I never had a single negative thought toward her, and wished her all the best, but once she was in her assignment I pretty much had zero contact with her, even though she was on my side of the river.

A couple of other volunteers from a previous group, GUY 15, were located in New Amsterdam itself. My relationship with them was difficult to properly pin down. The first was an older woman who was very friendly. Right after the end of her three month mandatory homestay in New Amsterdam, she had come into possession of a gigantic three-bedroom upstairs apartment that could easily have housed two more volunteers. It had a nice location across from one of the best restaurants in the town, and it was close to the ferry terminal. She hoped to have it become the location of choice for volunteer get-togethers in the area.

Also from her group was a young guy who lived in a neighborhood located on the opposite end of New Amsterdam from my homestay. I think the neighborhood was called Vryman's Erven, one of those indecipherable Dutch holdover names. He lived downstairs below a family with an incredibly hot daughter -- she was a bit of a shut-in, though, having apparently lived a life of partying and drinking but now preferring to hardly leave the house. The volunteer who lived downstairs had a funky, fun apartment. It can be seen in some of the photos posted on this site. We had a few parties at his place and always had a pretty good time. But as the weeks wore on, I heard from him less and less. He would be a block away from my homestay and not even think of paying me a visit, unlike the older woman, whom I would occasionally see coming down the street to check up on me.

This indifference weighed on me heavily. At first, he and I clicked, and we would have interesting conversations at his place or he would call me to see what I was doing. As he grew more distant, my isolation in New Amsterdam became much more oppressive. He (and his girlfriend, another volunteer who lived a ways out of New Amsterdam) was much more of a thinker and partier than the other volunteers in the area, and I relied on him for conversation and companionship. Peace Corps wants volunteers to start building friendships in the community, and though I was doing the best I could, I am not an easy one for making friends, and I was having adjustment problems the more I learned about New Amsterdam (more details soon). But this guy was also throwing himself into his work. His assignment didn't keep him very busy, having him come in for a couple hours every other day, and so he sought out secondary projects to keep him busy, like helping to open an orphanage, and tried to increase his utility at his primary project. I was introduced early on to the folks from the orphanage, where the woman from his group was also involved. I guess the two of them were hoping or expecting that I would get involved in it as well, but frankly, I just didn't have the mental energy to even think about such a thing at the time.

More and more I found contact with other volunteers, whether from my group or not, slowly slipping away. I spent most of my time reading on the porch of my homestay or hiding out in my room. Geographic isolation was becoming social isolation as well. I know that Peace Corps wanted me to go down this road, relying less and less on volunteers for my social interactions, until I was fully integrated into New Amsterdam and my social circles were comprised of Host Country Nationals. But it never happened. I don't know if it could have happened or not. Maybe all I needed was more time. Or maybe I was poorly matched for Guyanese. Or maybe I had prejudices and judgments that were more powerful than I knew. Whatever the reason, with volunteer contact almost completely gone, I retreated inward. My homestay didn't help anything.

(to be continued)

Things Fall Apart

When I was placed in New Amsterdam, I was assigned to work at the Adult Education Association's Berbice branch. Shortly after being told where we were going to be assigned, during training, we had a party night where we were introduced to our Counterparts. This party was held at the same hotel where we spent our first nights in Guyana, which lent a strange tone to the proceedings -- our experience was evolving, and the hotel had seemed to change with it. We would come back to this hotel one more time during our training, for our Swearing-In party, which would make training come strangely full-circle.

But this night, out back near the swimming pool, we had a celebratory atmosphere, complete with a rasta performing group called Conga-Nya, who interestingly were from New Amsterdam, where they lived in a poor slum called Stanleytown. Our APCD for training, the coolest member of the host-country Admin, used to live out there and played with them, which is probably why they played for our Counterpart night. (On a side note: during Town Day in New Amsterdam I met the lead singer and bought one of their CDs, which turned out to be blank by mistake, an error I didn't catch until I had left Guyana. Sad.)

They gathered us all together and did some silly suspense-creating game where we had to slips of paper and we were to match them with someone else's paper, or something like that. In the end , we made a circle and were called to stand up, at which time we had to go sit with our counterparts. Up until this point of the evening, you knew your Counterpart was in attendance, but you didn't know who it was exactly, and so you would look around at this sea of people and hope it was/wasn't this one or that one.

My Counterpart was an older Indo-Guyanese woman who taught primary school in New Amsterdam, through the Adult Education Association. Until this point, I thought they only taught adults, as per their name. I never got a picture of her during the entire time I was in New Amsterdam, but that's partially because I ended up not working very closely with her. She always pulled her hair back into a bun and she was noticably missing teeth -- she probably only had a dozen or so left. She had passable control over her children, which were just as terrible as schoolchildren the world over, but couldn't command as much respect as the woman who taught upstairs, and could silence the class with her tyrannic glare. My Counterpart was not a very effective teacher, and I say that even knowing that I couldn't do the job well either. Her idea of a lesson was to make the students copy passages from the book onto the page while she fanned herself or stepped out for unexplained periods of time.

That evening, she had also brought her supervisor, the woman who ran the AEA local branch. This woman was simultaneously serious and hilarious in a weird combination, but also tended to be annoyingly critical. She had an interesting hairstyle -- tiny twist braids about four inches long on the top of her head. Pretty soon into my stay in New Amsterdam, I found I was going directly to her for anything I needed, or just to say hello. I tried to keep up a friendly working relationship with her, and was sincerely trying to make myself at home there.

Maybe I wasn't trying hard enough, or maybe I was going about it the wrong way, but whatever the case, very soon after arriving in New Amsterdam, I began to notice a subtle decay in our relationship. It might have started the morning that she called me at 8 a.m. and wanted me to go with her to some sort of conference at a school in a tiny town to the south called Sisters. It was a Saturday, she hadn't mentioned a thing about it to me before, and I wasn't prepared or enthused to go, but I grudgingly went anyway. For the entire morning I parked my butt in a chair at the back of the wooden school room and fanned myself and drank buckets of water, trying not to wither in the punishing heat. My supervisor talked at great length about matters I didn't feel concerned me in the slightest, and I cannot now remember what they were. I probably couldn't have told you what was being discussed at the time, either; most of the time, I tuned the whole mess out and entertained myself with thoughts of the novel I was thinking of starting. To my chagrin, at one point she introduced me to the assemblage as not just a Peace Corps volunteer, but also a specialist in education. Everyone turned in their seats to smile and wave happily at me as though they were finally receiving the assistance from God they had prayed for. I wanted to tell them all I knew next to nothing about teaching primary school, having done nothing but college-level, and having very little exposure to children at all, much less through the classroom. I wanted to run and scream, because I was starting to suspect my involvement in the Adult Education Association wasn't going to be quite what Peace Corps had in mind.

This is what they told me: The Adult Education Association works with adults in the community to promote literacy, as well as a number of other skills. I was told they were excited to get me, had Peace Corps volunteers before, and were already planning how I could be of impact to the community. Well, one of those things turned out to be true -- AEA New Amsterdam had volunteers before through Peace Corps, a married couple, and they had clicked so well with the teachers and administration there, including my supervisor, that I was constantly compared to them. And there was no way I could stack up to their glowing legacy, as it turned out. The rest of it, about my usefulness and the adult literacy thing, turned out to be hot air. I was put almost immediately to teaching children. Not as a full-time teacher, since they had that, but as an assistant. For summer they had me teaching summer school to dreadful brats (I hate to say) and the experience was so taxing that I actually became quite sick. I don't work well with children; Peace Corps acknowledged this during my training interview, and made a note of it. That's why they put me with AEA in the first place.

After summer school, my assignment totally dried up. Then, they had me teach a single class in the mornings every other day, instructing adults (finally!) in computers (huh?)! And so for a single hour I would lead a class of about ten adults who were sitting around the hot computer room at AEA at work stations, instructing them in how to start e-mail accounts, open and work with MS Word documents, and a host of other things. I was also supposed to teach them how to use Excel, but I had never in my life used that program, so another teacher had to begrudgingly take over that section.

When that class was over, there were no others. I asked for something to do around there, but they literally offered me nothing. After a few weeks, apparently Peace Corps leaned on them to give me work, so they brought me in as a reading teacher for the schoolkids. Once a day, for an hour, the regular teacher (my counterpart or the holy terror upstairs) would get to slink away for a break and a drink, and I would take over her classroom to get the kids to read. We would do "round-robin" readings, one paragraph each. I would teach them new and fun words, like the longest word in the English language (pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokinosis), and we would play hangman. Lots and lots of hangman. This game was anything but a time-waster: I realized quickly that it was a valuable tool in teaching them how to spell some more complex words, and disguised as a game, they loved it.

But no adults. I was introduced by my supervisor to a contact at the University of Guyana's local Berbice branch, and I was set up teaching an English class there for a secondary project. At first I was promised the honorary capacity to build the class as I saw fit, and I got very excited thinking of the ways I could arrange a composition class. However, this promise quickly evaporated, as I found I was relegated to teaching the review portion of another teacher's class. College classes in Guyana were arranged so that all 100 or so students met in a giant lecture hall twice a week, and the other three days they broke off into smaller classes of 20 or so to conduct reviews of the lecture material. And that's what I was doing. Composition turned to really mean grammar, something I stink at teaching, and so I made a fool out of myself more than once up there.

Nothing was working out as I envisioned. More and more I envied Rustin and his position at U.G. in Georgetown, where all the action was, not to mention the Peace Corps office, a hub for the travel of all the other volunteers. He would routinely visit with other volunteers from all around Guyana, while I was locked away by myself in a job that didn't need or want me. I would have killed for a position at the curriculum center. Instead, I was doing nothing of importance.

When the whole thing came to an end, and I was called into the office of the acting CD to discuss their decision to send me back to the states, one of the things they accused me of was idleness. Apparently, my supervisor, the boss at AEA New Amsterdam, told them I was lazy and complained all the time when she would give me assignments. This was both true and not true: I did complain, but not to them, and not because I was being given work, but because the work I was given was not what I was earmarked for. I would routinely go to her and ask if there was anything to do, and she would say she would find something. And that was that. Nothing ever came of it. On the rare occasion that she would assign something to me, it would be so far outside my area of expertise that I would feel compelled to express my doubt in my ability. Apparently, this is what she interpreted as complaining. But it was more an attempt to inform her that I was probably not qualified for the job she had in mind. In spite of her preconceptions, I was not capable of teaching any old thing.

Funny thing is, there was an assignment that came up that would have been perfect. Right after I first got there, she had all kinds of grand ideas of me creating and teaching courses on writing reports. When she asked me to draw up a sample syllabus and course outline, I gladly did so, pouring my heart into it. I was excited to teach those classes, and envisioned that being my real contribution to AEA. I turned in my outline and never heard a word about it again. Come to find out, the Berbice police department had contacted AEA to see if someone there could teach the entire police force a report writing class. They were willing to pay good money to whomever taught the class. As a volunteer, of course, I would do it for free. My supervisor elected to do it herself.

Using my outline.

Urban or Rural?

Just a little over two years ago, my PC Guyana group began to enter the phase of training where w are sent off to our respective corners of the country to spend a few days seeing our assignments. The big day came when our geographic location was announced. Like usual, we were at the Diamond Center, the community recreation hall near the Diamond processing plant (which is where Demerara rum, Soca soda, and Diamond bottled water is bottled and shipped). It was hot, but we were beside ourselves with excitement, because after weeks of near-house arrest conditions in our homestays, watching the perceived freedom of Peace Corps shrink into a fantasy, the idea of us being finally out on our own was like a sugar pill.

I will give Peace Corps a little credit, here. During our interviews a couple weeks into training, when the admin asked us about our interests and where we would like to be (urban or rural?) I might have posed something of a challenge. I was the only person in our group with an advanced degree and college teaching experience. They knew it would be a shame to waste that by sticking me in some primary school and calling it a day. I told them at that time that I was particularly interested in being attached to the University of Guyana, or alternatively, with the Guyanese government office that is responsible for creating curriculum used in the school across the nation. (I used some of these curricula in classrooms while I was in training and in New Amsterdam, and while not bad, I was already coming up with ideas for how they could be improved upon.) When asked "rural or urban?" I responded, without hesitation, "Urban!"

Why urban? Why didn't I want to venture out into the wilds of Guyana, living in a Amerindian settlement or far-flung village, like the Peace Corps volunteers you always see on the ads? They're always squatting in a circle of little African kids, or smiling as they help a brigade of men haul sacks of grain, or standing up in front of a crude classroom with turquoise walls and pointing at a blackboard. Why didn't I want this? Surely all volunteers internalize that image to some extent, and their entire Peace Corps experience is spent trying to match that image. So why not me?

I think the answer lies in my previous abortive Peace Corps attempt in the Eastern Caribbean (which still sounds like fun). Training there exposed me to alternative Peace Corps experiences, and more than that, replaced those advertisement images in my mind as being an authentic experience. Not that the advertisements and their African villages and squeaky-clean volunteers vanished from my consciousness, just that they were relegated to a more minor position, and memories of St. Lucia and Dominica took their place.

In truth, and I even knew this to some extent at the time, my Guyana Peace Corps experience was always an attempt to fulfill that mental picture. And anyone who has been to the Eastern Caribbean and to Guyana will know that I was doomed to failure. While there are some commonalities, the cultures are also very different. The environment is different. The mentality is different. I told the admin I wanted an urban assignment in part because the urban experiences I had in St. Lucia -- going into town and walking along the streets, shopping at the market at the base of the hill near training, drinking rum at Rodney Bay -- couldn't be replicated in a rural environment. I wanted to go to reggae clubs, walk in the streets, feel the energy of a Caribbean city. I sought excitement. I wanted to see where the Caribbean was growing an expanding, expressing itself on the world stage, intersecting with cultures abroad, and defining itself. You don't get that in a tiny village that gets it power from a single generator or water from a communal well.

So I told them I wanted an urban assignment. Bless their hearts, they must have worked hard to get me even a little of what I wanted. But I had the misfortune of going to Guyana the year before a major election. Peace Corps was biting its collective nails in anticipation of that day, visualizing volunteers being caught in Georgetown as the whole place turned into bedlam: entire blocks burning down, mobs of terrified people running and screaming, necks being chopped by machetes, gunfire in Stabroek market. They had decided, in order to avoid any incidents, to "phase out" volunteers in the capitol city, and not allow any new ones to be place there.

Well, that put the kibosh on my urban assignment. The next best thing was New Amsterdam, which is more of a town than a city, but it was the most they could offer me. Nobody could be in Georgetown, and that was that.

Except... it wasn't. One of the members of our group was assigned to the University of Guyana's main campus, which was located where? In Georgetown. Why wasn't he forbidden to stay there, you might ask? And if he could be there, why couldn't I? Those are very good questions, and I asked myself them every day in New Amsterdam. This is nothing against Rustin, the volunteer who was teaching at U.G. -- I don't harbor an ounce of grudge against him. He was fortunate. I was disappointed in the admin for this decision, not Rustin.

But one didn't need to think hard to see their justification. All throughout training, our group was divided into two clear groups: those who were playing it safe, and those who wanted to take risks. Anyone who has read my blog will know instantly which group I fell under. And those of us who wanted to take risks -- and did -- were the ones who got caught or lived on the edge of getting caught. One person in our group was nearly sent home for a decision to sneak off to a Beenie Man concert on the night of our Swearing-In party. She was one of the risk-takers. Rustin was not a risk-taker, at least not in Guyana. He was one of the large group of volunteers more interested in playing it safe, going by the rules. He wasn't a huge drinker, he didn't express "dangerous" ideas of wanting to explore the so-called forbidden areas of Georgetown. In short, admin felt they could trust that he would stick faithfully to campus and not be haunting the more risky locations in the city. And as far as I know, he (mostly) did just that. But then, he wasn't in Guyana looking for the same kinds of things I was looking for. I'm sure he got the experience he wanted, and I think that's great.

Because the admin could read my personality, they knew leaving me in Georgetown wouldn't work. Come election day, I wouldn't be in the relative safety of my rented room, or hiding out at a fellow volunteer's place elsewhere in the country. I wanted to be downtown, in the chaos, observing Guyanese history. And all the days before and after election day, they knew I would be wanting to go to the off-limits bars and clubs in Georgetown, like Club Tennessee or the strip clubs. And they were right. So they placed me a hundred miles away from those places.

Some Thoughts on Blogging

As you'll notice by looking closely at the date these entries were written, I haven't written a thing here in months. This, despite wanting to "get some stuff down before I forget it." I've discovered that maintaining a web site, or even a blog, is an easy thing to put at the bottom of a list. Especially when it regards material that is no longer current in your life.

It is now the beginning of September 2007. About a month or two ago, the last members of my incoming Peace Corps Guyana group returned to the states, trickling back one by one in the style Peace Corps prefers. It was a milestone that produced mixed emotions in me. I felt a little bit of sorrow and regret, since part of me wished I could have made the entire two years with my friends. I also felt a little bit of relief that I wasn't in Guyana for that long. I felt happy for my friends who finally get to see their own friends and family again. I felt disconnected from them, and from the whole experience, as it fades back into the past and becomes increasingly irrelevant in my life.

(As a side note, I am not entirely happy with how Peace Corps handles COS. It seems like it would be much more meaningful if all volunteers wrapped up their affairs and left at the same time, right after the COS conference, and then spent a couple days saying goodbye in the same place where they had their Staging, two years before. It would be great closure for all.)

During the times when I feel a little disappointed that I didn't stay in Guyana, I just try to think clearly about the experience. I wasn't happy, I wasn't healthy, and I wasn't into it. There were several reasons for that, some of which have been discussed at great length in this blog. But I have a few more experiences that might help clarify exactly what happened to me in New Amsterdam, and why I ended up being sent home.

The following five posts are meant to wrap up this blog by filling in some missing pieces I didn't get time to express, or left out for other reasons. I wanted to write a lot about New Amsterdam, interesting things I'd seen there, people and places; but I am beginning to see now that there are things I will never get a chance to write, in this blog or elsewhere. There are simply too many details. But as an author, I console myself in knowing those details are not gone, and I can expect to see them show up again in my fiction and my memories. I won't be writing in this blog anymore, unless the web site needs an occasional edit just to stay current. I think this blog is a self-sufficient, complete entity now, and it can do it's work without my interference, and that is to tell my story to other volunteers, past and future. I hope you find these last entries entertaining. And please bear with me; my memory of these events isn't as crystal-clear as it once was.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The View from One Year

It has now been one year since I returned from Guyana. Starting around mid-November, a few weeks ago, I began finding Guyana in my thoughts a lot more often than I had for the past year, though to be truthful my whole Peace Corps experience has come to mind in some capacity nearly every day. But the last few weeks have marked a sort of milestone; that is, one year since being "voluntarily sent home" from Peace Corps, and so it seems only logical that I'd be a little nostalgic.

So where am I right now? Let me start with that. I'm living in Honolulu, renting an apartment room on the cheap, and barely getting by while teaching at a local university. Jobs here are not easy to find, and so the struggle continues to find meaningful employment. I'm dating a girl I met online shortly before moving here. And I finally finished the novel I began while in Guyana just a few weeks ago.

I am being honest when I say I don't miss Peace Corps much, though I miss the people quite a bit. I got a few good stories out of it, and though sometimes I speak in a fond manner about the place and my time there, I also know I had some very hard times I wouldn't care to repeat. Time has the tendency to erase the memory of pain, and so it also has the tendency to erase the memory of discomfort and displeasure, or at least blur it so that one cannot remember exactly what was so unpleasant about a situation, at least not directly. I remember being unhappy; I don't remember how it felt. At any rate, I don't regret re-joining Peace Corps, and I don't regret accepting the Guyana assignment. I have no real regrets, surprisingly, including some of the "poor" judgment I exhibited. Poor, according to Peace Corps, but I still contend I didn't do anything that warranted being sent home. Maybe it wasn't the greatest decision-making in the world (after all, it nearly resulted in me being killed), but my reasons were very complex and not entirely in my control, so I cannot completely accept culpability. I'll discuss all that in another entry.

So the next few posts will serve as a way of doing those things I said I wanted to do last year: get some stuff off my chest, reminisce, educate/warn/excite future PCVs, and catalogue the extremely odd place that was New Amsterdam and Guyana in general. Readers of this blog have waited nearly a year to see anything added. I wouldn't expect a flood of material all at once, but I want to put this stuff out before my memory becomes too fuzzy and before it once more loses its relevance to my immediate life. These will probably be the last posts I do on this blog, though I might come back every once in a while to simply keep it active for a few years. Like all digital media, blogs have a transient nature; I've looked over many web pages and blogs from volunteers that, when I came back some time later, were simply gone with no record of their existence. Take what you can from this web site while it exists, because inevitably the data will be lost or corrupted or will go out of business, and it will be gone. Just like our own lives, I suppose. Alas.


Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Recycling Finally Coming to Guyana

This message came from the Peace Corps admin, I presume copied from one of the Guyanese newspapers, the Stabroek News, Chronicle, or Keiateur. This would be a welcome addition to Guyana, which has a real problem with litter from plastic bottles. There are just heaps of them laying around everywhere, choking up gutters and blocking up waterways, which is one reason there was so much flooding there last year.

Plastic recycling factory to start up next month
By Nicosia Smith
Thursday, December 8th 2005

With plastics seen as a prime villain in major flooding this year there is hope on the horizon with a US$1.5M recycling factory to begin operating next month.

Horace Fordyce of Envirotec Recycling Enter-prise at Princes Street told Stabroek News in an interview on Tuesday that his company, a subsidiary of Trust Enterprises Canada Inc, plans to open the recycling plant in the compound of the incinerator after getting the necessary permission. Plastic waste, including the ubiquitous plastic bottles, will be processed for export. Eventually it is hoped to convert the plastic waste here into items such as crates.

The magnitude of the plastic waste problem was examined in a 2003 study done by Fordyce. According to Fordyce's study recycling can prevent bottles, plastic cups, plates, forks and spoons from entering the environment where they have posed major environmental and flooding headaches. According to the statistics, 7,811,214 pounds of legitimately recognized and tariffed plastic items entered Guyana in 2003.

In addition to illegally imported plastics, containers of petroleum by-products such as lubricants, degreasers, transmission fluids, brake fluids, window cleaners, pharmaceuticals and patent medicines, cosmetology and beauty enhancement products are imported and tariffed by content only.

"This is a serious oversight," Fordyce wrote in his findings, "as disposal of the containers are necessary."

To have this effectively and efficiently done a levy is required to defray its cost.

As the company begins operations it is hoped that the environmental levy placed on certain products will go to Envirotec to dispose of the waste generated. That levy on imported plastic containers goes into the Consolidated Fund.

Fordyce said he recently held discussions with Prime Minister Samuel Hinds about the plastic waste problem and the Prime Minister immediately initiated a scope- of-work collectively with the City Council to tackle the problem. Hinds also made the Princes Street location available and the City Council is unceasing in its efforts to ensure the January deadline is met.

Envirotec plans to set up more than 100 plastic waste depots and it is the agents of these depots who will collect the plastic. A price is yet to be determined for the various quantities of plastic.

Very shortly, a public education campaign will begin sensitising the public about the plastic waste problem. People will be urged to practise garbage separation and to deposit their plastic waste at the depots.

Optimum use of the plant machinery will depend on the steady supply of electricity. Fordyce said the cost of electricity "is really putting a stranglehold on business" but this would be vital to how many hours a day the plant works. Over US$1.5M is being spent to build the facility, inclusive of the machinery used.

Included in this cost as well is a plastic waste processing factory at Linden, located at a former bauxite mines machinery service workshop. Fordyce said, "some machinery is already here and operation can commence before the January 30 deadline."

This Linden site will cater for plastic items being taken into the interior locations and those generated on the Linden-Soesdyke Highway. A staff of 60 will be responsible for the general operation of the network. It is also planned that this network will be extended to deal with the regions such as Berbice and Essequibo. Currently, Envirotec does in-house recycling for Banks DIH and Demerara Distillers Ltd (DDL), and Fordyce said that these companies maintain the mandate as it relates to environmental management.

This Princes Street recycling facility will also develop the capability to supply bio-degradable bags to replace the non bio-degradable bags now in use.

Fordyce opined that if the government should ban non bio-degradable plastic bags then the problem of waste as a result of their use will not exist.

"Plastic is here to stay," he said, since the world has moved to plastic but we can use bio-degradable plastic.

This company has similar waste recycling projects in Suriname, Barbados, Jamaica, the United States and Trinidad.

The recycled waste from Guyana will be shredded and shipped overseas and in the future a washing, clashing and injection moulding plant will be built, which will be able to use the recycled material to make items like crates.

Maybe There's Something To It After All

After I posted this post, I got a message from an anonymous reader. The message reads:

I am a Guyanese who have been reading your blog for some time now. I am glad to hear that you made it back home safely. I think, however, that you might not even now grasp the real danger that you were in.

I dont know you BTW. I just know some of the actors in this drama.

I must say, hearing this from a local Guyanese, one who evidently knows one or both of these people, gives the situation a lot more weight to me. I am more inclined to believe this from someone who has nothing to gain or lose whether I stayed in Guyana, unlike the CD, who several volunteers agreed was "gunning" for me, to see me dismissed for something -- anything. Our Safety and Security officer told me he legitimately believes I was in real, serious danger. (When I asked him if I was asked to resign so a new Country Director could make an example out of me, he replied, "What do you think?")

So, to my anonymous reader: Thank you. Your opinion on this matter means more to me than everything I've heard from anyone so far. I would love it if you could give me some more details or information, but I understand if you prefer not to. My e-mail can be found in my profile link on the right if you choose to. Otherwise, thanks again.