Monday, December 12, 2005

My Last Hours, Part One

Over the year and a half I've been writing this blog, I've noticed a trend: Usually at least a couple of weeks goes by after an event before I finally get around to writing it all down. I'd like to say it's because I wait to digest what happened so I can do it justice, but the simple truth is I am lazy. So, true to form, it's been a couple of weeks now so I want to write about the last couple of days I was in Guyana. Warning: What I'm about to write doesn't reflect all that well on Peace Corps Guyana, but I feel it's important to get this out there.

During the final week I was staying in Georgetown at the Windjammer, there on medical reasons. Around Wednesday I got a call from our APCD, Terrence, that the CD wanted to talk to me on Friday morning. No problem. I was a little nervous, just because I knew Jim didn't care for me much, and neither did Terrence, but I hadn't done anything wrong since I got busted for sneaking to the concert. I was trying to straighten out my act, now that I was out of the homestay. I was calling in on Fridays (a mandatory and silly policy), I was putting some distance between some of the more shady friends I'd made in New Amsterdam, I wasn't going to dances as often, and I was in the first stages of planning a way of creating my own projects around Adult Education Association, since they weren't too interested in giving me things to do. So I thought I was doing all right.

Friday morning rolls around, and I'm at the Peace Corps office on time for my visit with the CD. Of course he's running behind schedule, so I linger around, reading magazines. Seeing Terrence, I ask him if I could request an Out-Of-Site weekend so I could go visit a fellow PCV who lives near to Georgetown. Even though he knew full well what was about to transpire, he sweetly says yes, and sends me to go get the paperwork. At last, the CD is ready for me, so I go on in there and get comfortable. In walks Terrence. My nervousness starts to grow.

They begin with small talk, asking me about my health. I was feeling worlds better after my cold-fever-cold bout. Staying at the hotel wasn't something I needed, but something the PCMO wanted me to do just to make sure I was okay. Satisfied with my answers, they get right to the heart of the matter. Jim tells me they've heard I've been running around with a married woman.

My jaw drops. My first thought is, Who blabbed? But my next thought is, No, I'm not "running around" with her! So I proceed to set them straight: YES, I am friends with a woman. YES, she is married. I met her at a dance nearly three months before. They wanted to know if I'd slept with her. If I'd known what was in store for me, if I'd known there was no way for me to get out of this interview with anything less than an Early Termination, I might have been a little more biting. I didn't have to answer them. It was none of their business. But I told them the truth that, no, we never slept together. Even though I told them this, they insisted on referring to our friendship as an "affair" throughout the rest of the interview, which leads me to wonder what was told to them, and whether they even believed me or not.

Then they surprised me. They knew she was married to a pro boxer, and they even knew his name. They even knew that Nicole had met someone else during our trip to the reggae concert and had spent almost all her time with him! The level of detail they knew was astonishing, as if Terrence himself had been there that evening. Someone in Peace Corps has loose lips. Some other volunteer, whom I had told this stuff in confidence, had gone straight to admin and sung like a bird. Although they had evidently waited a few weeks to do so, which makes it even stranger -- it leads me to wonder if this person had recently perceived a slight from me, and had used this as revenge. The other option is that someone in the New Amsterdam scene had done it. That's what Terrence tried to lean me toward believing, even though he wouldn't tell me, after repeated pleas on my part, who had talked to him. But the theory that someone from New Amsterdam had done this was a little weak, because it would require that they A) know I work for Peace Corps, B) find the phone number for PC Guyana, and C) have a reason for wanting to tell this story.

Nevertheless, it seemed I was making some progress convincing them I had done no wrong, so they brought out their second cannon. Seems they had recently talked to the Adult Education Association, and my supervisor there wasn't happy with me. According to her, I was lazy, I complained all the time, I was hardly ever there, and they couldn't get me to work in the mornings. Well, my reply to those accusations was that there are two sides to every story. For one, I wasn't lazy. I asked for things to do all the time, and was always blown off. They had nothing for me to do. When I first got there, they had all these plans to have me teach communication and report writing courses. Those classes never materialized. I assisted the summer school classes for a few weeks until they ended, then I literally had NOTHING to do for several weeks until Terrence leaned on them to give me an assignment, and then they tossed a 4-week computer class and a daily reading group at me and called it good. No more word about communication classes or the like. At one point, the local police wanted to take a class in report writing, and rather than set that up with me, my supervisor decided to put together a packet by herself and send it to them. Never once did she consider having me teach them. The part about me complaining was totally misconstrued. I never complained. I did let them know whether something was outside my skill set, which maybe they thought of as complaining, but the fact is I wasn't put on there to be a teacher for children. Peace Corps sent me there because it was the Adult Education Association, and my years of college teaching were to be put to use there. Besides, the PC knew I don't like children and can't manage them. So when AEA repeatedly wanted to stick me as a replacement or substitute primary teacher, I told them I had no training or aptitude in that. Maybe they saw that as complaining.

Or maybe it was the morning thing -- true, I prefer not to work in the mornings. That's because years of experience have shown me that I can't think properly in the mornings, I am very impatient, and especially in Guyana, mornings are hard on me psychologically. In the hours before noon, I feel great contempt for the world, other people, my life, and my self. That all fades by afternoon, and I love life again. But I'm not in the proper frame of mind to do anything in the morning (in fact, since every morning in Guyana I wanted to ET, and no longer did by noon, a fellow PCV advised me not to take any action in the morning until I've had some time to think about it). I don't know why mornings are like that for me, but in 34 years that's never changed. And being in that awful homestay didn't help anything. Besides, this was adult education I was supposed to be doing, right?, and adult education almost always takes place in the late afternoon and evening. Time and time again I told Terrence that. The other volunteers who were teaching primary or secondary school had to work in the mornings, yes, but they were done by early afternoon. My schedule was to be all afternoon and into the evening -- the same length of time, just a different part of the day. He NEVER quite got that, and he threw it in my face again during their little intervention.

So I gave them my version of my supervisor's accusations, and told them I had considered asking for a site change, but then I had gotten in trouble and decided not to push things for a little while. They dismissed my defenses again, probably once more assuming I was lying. So I told them that, in my honest opinion, I think I was acting out because of the homestay. I'm not psychologically fit well for having to stay in some stranger's spare bedroom for months on end. And especially considering the horrors I endured at the one in New Amsterdam, I feel I was going crazy, and it led me to do reckless things. Ask anyone I know, and they'll tell you I don't normally behave the way I did there. My ex-girlfriend "M" says she swears I'm a different person. I attribute all that to being hemmed in during the homestay. So I told them this, and said I lost a lot of stability when Terrence basically laughed off my legitimate complaints. At this, he suddenly grew very uncomfortable, shifting in his seat, and seeing that Jim was looking to him for explanation, Terrence grew combative. He swore he had offered me a chance to change my homestay, but I had turned it down. Yes, I said, that's true, but by that point in our conversation it had become obvious he had no intention of taking me seriously, so I just decided to live with it. All his suggestions for improving the quality of my relationship with my host I followed, and things did improve for about a week, then they were back into the dumps. "So why didn't you tell us?" he asked, and I told him that because of his treatment of me, I didn't feel I could trust them any more. And that's true -- Terrence blowing me off when I was in desperate need of help really made me lost all faith in PC admin (any last shreds were blown away when they conspired to have Kumar sacked).

I'd like to think our CD took this to heart and it will come back later to haunt Terrence. I believe Terrence isn't right for his job. Not that he's not competent, because it seems he knows how to do his job (though I've heard lots of interesting information to the contrary *ahem*), but he doesn't respect volunteers. It shows in the way he talks to us, treats us, handles us. He has been working as APCD for about ten years, and if there was a way to gather up all the stories about his treatment of volunteers in those years, I think it would be enough to have him ousted. Now that I'm no longer part of Peace Corps Guyana, I can say with confidence that I believe that should happen.

So then Jim, our CD, finally saw this wasn't headed in the direction he was trying to steer me, so he came flat out. He wanted me to ET. If I didn't, he was going to Administratively Separate me. I was stunned. Even though by this point I sorta saw this wasn't going anywhere good, I wasn't expecting this. Being AdSepped is bad -- it's the equivalent of being fired. If that happened, I couldn't use PC on my resume, as contacts, or ever hope to do Peace Corps again. (Not that I plan to, now.) Like most employers, they offer you the chance to quit before you're fired, just to make things a little more palatable. I tried to tell them this wasn't called for, and that I wasn't even friends with this woman any more -- hadn't talked to her in weeks -- and that I wasn't afraid of Howard doing anything to me, but that only served to prove to Jim that I was clueless and incompetent. In the end, seeing I had no choice, that I NEVER had a choice, I signed their piece of paper. Again.

What rankles me is that, knowing they wouldn't accept any other outcome, why did they even try and talk to me? Why lead me along like that? The level of disdain they show volunteers is astonishing. It's been that way since the moment we arrived in country: locked up, hidden away, shut up; chaufferred everywhere, chaperoned everywhere else, told to be home by dark, told what to wear, what to say, who to be friends with, where to go and where not to go, what to think, what to want, what not to want, to take our medicine and our punishment and be happy about it, and just generally to be good little boys and girls. There was a time in my life when this was the sort of treatment I received and had to take, and that was when I was a child. Being in Peace Corps was like going to summer camp. There is no freedom, no independence, no autonomy -- only the illusion of those things. But that illusion evaporated the moment we stepped off the airplane.

Peace Corps used to be a place where people who craved a solo, adventurous experience could go to see some of the world and work and serve on their own terms. It isn't like that any more. It probably hasn't been like that in twenty years. What killed it? Maybe it was bad press, or maybe it was litigation, or maybe it was just bad management. Maybe it was because all the people who were once liberal, independent kids who joined the Peace Corps in the 70s and decided to stay on as PC Washington admin have slowly grown more conservative and institution-minded, and have turned Peace Corps into a government bureaucrat's machine, but one slowly being gummed up with new layers of rules and regulations. It's part of the inevitable evolution of all organizations, that they become more conservative as they get bigger and as the years go by. Almost nothing can reverse that trend. But the thing about it that pisses me off is that Peace Corps still advertises itself that maverick, soloist's adventure, selling itself on an image of Peace Corps form the 60s and 70s, and maybe a little of the 80s, but one that has no relevance to the Peace Corps of today. So you apply, thinking you'll be living and managing your own life, with Peace Corps as something of a remote contact, but the truth is they will micromanage you from the moment you arrive in your country.

As you can tell, I'm a little angry about it. It's normal for me to be so. I resent the interference -- I was managing the situation. For God's sake, I'm 34 years old, and I think I can handle my own personal relationships. I don't need some hidebound fellow, storming into Peace Corps Guyana with the "New Sheriff In Town" attitude, to decide for me.

Which leads me to the real truth here. When you boil down this situation, reduce it to its most basic, this was really a move to get rid of me. I strongly believe that. The day we met each other, he made up his mind that I was some renegade, some loose cannon. He thought I'd be endless trouble, and wanted a way to excise me from his life. He was right about one thing: I don't willingly submit to control. He recognized that in me probably in the first few minutes. But more than that, I'm not like the rest of the volunteers, who seem much more willing to toss out their personal sovereignty, for whatever reason. For some of them I think it's because they're young, fresh out of college, and used to being told what to do. For others its because they really don't mind being meddled with. But my whole life I've had a thing with authority; no, it's more accurate to say I've had a thing about being told what's good for me. I don't mind obeying traffic laws, and not killing other people, and just generally following the law, because almost all laws are in place to protect other people from your actions. That's something I don't mind, and I think it's right. But I don't respect rules that are in place to protect you from yourself. To me that's unforgivable. And that's what Peace Corps has in place. You could argue many of their rules exist to protect their reputation from your actions, but I only buy that to a certain extent. Using that as a justification has allowed them to turn volunteers into little puppets. It's inexcusable.

Apologies for the rant, but these are feelings that have been building since I arrived for Training, and they finally reached critical mass. Talk to any of my GUY 16 fellows and they'll tell you I always resented being under the Peace Corps thumb. In a way, something like this was inevitable, because I wouldn't not (and could not) toe the line. But to this day I insist that being trapped in the homestay situation for five damn months turned what could have been a managable claustrophobia into full-fledged rebellion. I can't take that homestay thing.

More to come.

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