Thursday, November 17, 2005

How I Lost my Independence, Lost a Friend, and Nearly Lost the Peace Corps: A Drama in Three Parts

Part Two: I Get in Big Trouble

Where I last left off, I had gone to a reggae concert in Georgetown, breaking three Peace Corps rules to get there, only to be snubbed by a friend I had gone with. The concert was finally coming to an end after the wonderful performances of reggae legends Gregory Isaacs and Luciano.

The concert ended abruptly and the great mobs of people began to clear out of the arena. Just a few minutes before it ended, N and her relatives found me and indicated they were going to leave a little early. I didn't want to go, since one of the two reasons I came to the concert was to see Luciano, who was performing at that time. I told them I'd simply catch my own cab back to the house in Kitty and meet them there shortly. And so they went.

As the great mass of people began to drain out of the arena, I dug in my pockets to get out money for a cab. My blood froze: my wallet was gone!

My first, desperate hope was that I had dropped it on the ground while dancing, and that if I went back maybe I'd find it right there where I'd been standing. But even as I postulated this, I knew the reality would be quite different. I had been pickpocketed and my wallet was quite gone. Sure enough, a return to where I'd been standing revealed only bottles and other assorted trash on the ground. I went over to where a clump of Georgetown-area Peace Corps folks were standing and talking and they confirmed, yes, it happens a lot. In fact, one of them said, he caught some young kids fishing in his own pocket earlier. No doubt it was them. I couldn't remember seeing any kids near me, but then again I had been very occupied with watching Luciano. And I knew it had taken place somewhere during Luciano, because just before that when Fanton Mojah was playing I had gone to see if I could buy some water, and had my wallet then. The thieves must have struck right in those last few minutes when I was holding my camera aloft and filming, my right hand nowhere near my money pocket.

As you might imagine, I was angry. Angry at the pickpocketers, yes, but more angry at myself. It hit me: what in the world did I bring my wallet for, anyway? All I needed was the money itself -- nobody cards for alcohol here, and I certainly wouldn't be using the Visa card or bank card that was in there. Why the hell hadn't I left it with my backpack? Heck, I'd also brought my keys -- I must truly have been operating on "autopilot." Leaving the house? Keys, wallet, check. But I never bring those things to concerts in the 'States, so why did I bring them this time? Stupid, stupid, stupid!

Fortunately, I had pulled some money out of there and put it in another pocket, so I'd have money enough for another day or two. But that didn't erase the vexation I felt about the situation: in that wallet had been contact information for everyone I know in the U.S. and Guyana, some of which I don't have repeated elsewhere, I had a Visa card, two ID cards (Peace Corps and Embassy), a ScotiaBank ATM card for my local account, two perfectly good calling cards, photos of my family, a Peace Corps contact list, instructions for accessing my FSU Credit Union account, local video club membership cards, and even my Leon County voter card (why the hell is that still in there?!?). How would I replace those things?

Instead of getting a car, I decided to walk back to Kitty. I wouldn't say it was safe, exactly, though for a long while I was one of a great crowd of people moving down a busy road, so I was pretty safe then. It dispersed after a while and I found myself walking almost alone through a dark section of Georgetown at night. Our Safety and Security Officer would have thrown a fit!

I made it back safe to the house, only to find it darkened. N and the others must have come back, I thought, since they left by car about ten minutes before the end of the concert. In fact, they might have been here for as long as 45 minutes. Nobody responded to my increasingly loud knocking. Great, I thought, they've fallen asleep and forgot about me. No amount of banging elicited a response. Finally I decided to lie down and wait for dawn when the host, being Guyanese, would most likely wake. So I lay on the only available surface, a wooden slab beside the trench in front of the house. After a while, the occasional whine of mosquitos began to turn into a constant drone. I was being eaten alive. Time for a new plan, more desperate measures. I found a small plastic ball in the yard and began tossing it at a window I calculated to be the owner's bedroom. Sure enough, after a couple minutes of that, he angrily leaned out the window to see what the hell was the commotion. I apologized and explained, and he came down to let me in. I asked him how long ago the others got back. He said they weren't back yet.

Weren't back? My mind raced. Where could they have gone? After the ill treatment I received from N earlier, I thought for sure they had decided to go to Buddy's, Georgetown's finest night club, and decided not to bother with me. Not long after, though, they arrived in a car. Seems the cab driver had driven them all over town then forced them to pay for it in some kind of scam. They were vexed, themselves, and so finally everyone went to sleep pissed off, exhausted, and much poorer than when they began the night.

At about 8:30 a.m. my cell phone rang. Groggily, I answered it but snapped to wide wakefulness in a second. "Hi, this is officer so-and-so from the Georgetown Police Station. We have some things of yours here." My wallet! Had it turned up? Yes and no, as it turns out. When I hurriedly took a cab down to the station, I learned that some junkie collecting bottles after the concert for the deposit money had found a paper bag with a whole bunch of cards and things in it, and had turned it in with the hope of getting a monetary reward. Seems the pickpockets had no interest in the Visa card, ATM card, or identifications -- a big difference from what you'd find in America. They kept only my money and the wallet itself and tossed the rest in a paper bag. I was completely floored at my good luck; I got everything back, minus the money of course.

Riding a cab on the way back from the station, it hit me: how did the police get my cell phone number? I felt a sudden sinking feeling when I deduced that they must have called one of the numbers on my i.d., either the Peace Corps or the Embassy. Sure enough, about 20 minutes later my phone rang again. It was Gwen, from admin. "Brian," she asked. "Where are you right now?"

I couldn't -- and wouldn't -- lie. "I'm in Kitty," I said.

"Don't go home just yet," she said. "I need to talk to the CD."

She called back a while later to say she had arranged a hotel room for me at the Windjammer, and that I was to meet with the CD the next day, which was Monday. I asked her over the phone what the damage was but she had no idea. She said it could run the gamut from nothing to being sent home, depending on how the deliberations go. So I let N and her friends go back to New Amsterdam. Before she left, I tried to get N to talk to me about the night previous. She seemed to be suffering from a guilty conscience, agonizing over this sudden bad turn of events, and perhaps finally seeing things from my perspective about how she had practically ditched me. I let her stew in her own sauce and said goodbye. They all walked me to the Windjammer, which remarkably was around the corner on the same block from where I stayed the night before. They left and I stayed.

Peace Corps regularly contracts out to hotels with some kind of arrangements. This was a lesser-used one. It was very nice, long and narrow with a leafy patio out front and a fairly lush restaurant on the ground floor. When I checked in they told me that the place was booked solid -- seems there were a bunch of missionaries in the hotel -- and so they would have to upgrade me to room 316, the "Bridal Suite." Sweet! This room was spacious, clean, with a broad bed draped with a decorative curtain, a ceiling fan, and a positively frosty air conditioner. I went down and had a meal on the account Peace Corps provided and spent the afternoon reading and dozing. As the sunset approached, I decided to take a walk down to the seawall. It was only a block away and I had never been there. Yes, believe it or not: even though the seawall is culturally and socially central to Georgetown (it is a big hangout zone), and I had driven past it God-knows how many times, I had never had the chance to go there and check it out. So I walked down with my camera and got a few great shots.

The seawall is a long dike, essentially, that runs the length of most of the coast of Guyana. Remember that the Dutch were one of the first settlers here, and taking a cue from their engineering marvel to reclaim North Sea sea floor for farming purposes, they wrought the same change on the rich shallow sea along Guyana. Most of the populated areas of Guyana used to be under water. And because they are still at or slightly below sea level, a wall is needed to maintain the new coastline. You may remember the floods last January, when torrential rains backed up reservoirs and filled the basin of Georgetown. Recently high tides and heavy surf spit ocean water into Georgetown in a miniature flood, as hundreds of feet of the seawall gave way. The wall is really the life or death of this city. It is also one of the top social gathering spots. People come out here to lime, jog, picnic, or just walk with their family. Peace Corps has always been either too preoccupied or too nervous to let us come out here. Now was my chance.

So I walked a short distance of it, taking a few pictures. I was astonished to learn that, just on the other side of the wall, often there are vast fields of trash -- most of it washing up with the tide, a sea of empty plastic bottles or foam bits. I stopped at a small complex of red buildings that had the audacity to call itself a "resort:" it was merely a restaurant with a playground, a view of the muddy sea, and some captured animals on display. A jittery monkey was chained to a small toy house, and chromatic macaws clung to the sides of cages. The tide was out, though, so I walked along the beach and out to the end of a long stone breakwater. I was once more astonished at the color of the water here. It is thick with river sediment, and each tight curling wave is the color of Metamucil. It is almost totally opaque -- I could only see a few inches into the water. The sea floor was only visible in the last couple feet where the stained water broke along a shelly, mucky flat. The beach was wet, compact sand with occasional crab holes. The neap tide had exposed quite a broad band of sculptured sand. Even as I walked, I could see it seeping slowly back in, inching along grooves cut by waves and slowly filling in tiny puckered holes.

As the sun finally sank behind Georgetown, I dashed back across the one-lane highway that leads out of town and retired to my hotel room. There I had a nice dinner, then went to my room where I paced and feverishly contemplated what I should do and say the next day.

Morning arrived too soon. I checked out and took a cab to the Peace Corps office. It would be wrong to say I was nervous. Perhaps I was a little anxious, but truth be told, I wasn't scared or angry at being caught. I honestly wasn't afraid of the outcome, either way. Being sent home was a distinct possibility -- in fact, they had me booked for a second night at the Windjammer in such a case -- but I wasn't afraid of it. If it happened, it happened. In some ways I would welcome it.

I knew I had broken rules, but I didn't think I had done anything wrong, if you see the distinction. So I went into the office and waited in the lounge for my sentencing. There were several other volunteers there, including one who snuck out to a concert the night of Swearing-In. She had been caught and reprimanded very heavily for her actions; hearing of my plight, she commiserated and commented that I had joined the small brotherhood of PCVs on probation. Some others have gotten into hot water for, among other things, taking short day trips across the river from Lethem into Brazil. A short while later, I went upstairs.

After Kumar had been "asked to resign," we have had a period with no permanent CD. This was our acting CD, a nice fellow named Roger, who had been a PCV in Africa in the early 70s. We talked a long while about how Peace Corps used to be -- in those days, there were few rules and very little oversight. Volunteers were sent out to their sites and almost never seen or contacted until COS. In him I felt I had something of a sympathetic spirit. He understood how, in the ensuing 30+ years, law suits and bad press have slowly eroded the libertine spirit of Peace Corps, had turned it into a nanny state. In his time, he said, people would routinely take trips out of the country without telling Peace Corps, and nothing was thought of it. Nowadays, we can't leave our village without filling out paperwork weeks in advance. In those days, volunteers were on their own and trusted to be able to handle it. Now, we have our hands held through Training, admonished where not to go or whom to talk to under threat of administrative separation, locked down into sites, forced to live without privacy, and even asked to call the PC office weekly to let them know we are still alive. I commented that it was like being in junior high school all over again, and he regrettably understood the point. Peace Corps does not give us the chance or credit to make our own adult decisions; we are treated like teenagers and given that level of respect. Other organizations which do the same work don't put such limits on their volunteers, like World Teach. (There are a couple English girls in New Amsterdam working with Project Trust. They have almost no rules, can go where and when they please, and these girls are eighteen years old!)

What they wanted from me was to verbally assure them that I understood the rules and would promise never to break them again. Simple, right? But my pride kicked in. I couldn't tell them that. When they posed that question to me, I paused for a long, long time, and the words just wouldn't come out of my mouth. Those who know me well know that I can sometimes be very resistant and rebellious to authority. Usually I take passive resistant means, because direct confrontation almost always ends in disaster for me. But this time I finally said, "I have a hard time saying that, because these rules impose limits on me that make it very hard for me to operate." Something like that. And I proceeded to break down how and why I find the rules to be detrimental. For example, I think being "locked down" for three months in New Amsterdam, the aim to make me more integrated into the community, might have backfired -- I know making me share a house with some has done that. I can be a bad roommate, simply because my tendency toward nonconfrontation and brooding makes me end up feeling very negatively toward my roommates. Usually I get over it once I'm out of the situation.

They tried to get me to see it from their perspective. The CD remembers his time in Africa, and back then several people went missing or turned up dead, almost always the victim of animal attacks. Gwen's first thought, she told me, was that I was dead in a ditch somewhere. I asked, "Why was your first thought the worst case scenario?" Because literally dozens of scenarios could have led to the Georgetown police having my wallet, including that I simply forgot it at the grocery store.

In the end, I signed their damn piece of paper. I signed on the dotted line indicating that, yes, I knew and understood the rules and promised not to break them again. And, should I break them again, I would be immediately sent home with no exceptions. I signed it, even though I still don't believe I did anything wrong. And I do not regret my decision to go to the concert, at least not for this reason, and I don't consider it a foolhardy or stupid thing to have done. I was well aware when I planned the trip that to get caught might mean being sent home, and I was perfectly willing to take that risk.

But I'm still here. No adsep for me just yet. I didn't need the second night at the Windjammer after all. Instead, I rode back home to New Amsterdam with a group of volunteers heading out to my town for a conference. I brooded and steamed the rest of the day, vexed at this reinforcing of senseless rules and even more disenchanted with Peace Corps. But mostly I was thinking about N and how she treated me, and what I should do about it.

To be Continued...

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