Monday, January 31, 2005

Flooding in Guyana

An official news release from the Peace Corps website:

Peace Corps Moving Guyana Volunteers Away From Flooding Areas

WASHINGTON, D.C., January 26, 2005 –11:00 a.m. (EST) In anticipation of continued thunderstorms and flooding in Guyana, the Peace Corps is taking precautionary measures to ensure the safety of its volunteers serving in and around the capital city of Georgetown, Guyana. The Peace Corps is temporarily relocating 25 volunteers from the affected areas to Suriname.

While they are in Suriname, the 25 volunteers will assist currently-serving Suriname volunteers with their work until they can return to their sites in Guyana.

The 27 Peace Corps volunteers in Guyana who are in areas not affected by the flooding will remain at their sites. Peace Corps staff will also remain in Guyana to continue to support the volunteers.

In preparation for possible crisis situations and natural disasters, each Peace Corps program has an Emergency Action Plan specific to that country and developed in cooperation with the Embassy and Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington D.C. The plans are tested frequently and information is updated constantly. Volunteers are thoroughly trained in their role and responsibilities in the Emergency Action Plan. Posts are prepared for all emergencies.

Families are encouraged to contact Peace Corps' Office of Special Services with any questions or concerns they may have. The Office of Special Services maintains a 24 hours a day, 7 days a week duty system. The telephone number during standard office hours is 1-800-424-8580, Extension 1470; the after hours number is 202-638-2574.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

"Peace Corps Invites You to Serve"

I was about to write another "still waiting for my Invitation packet" entry... I was thinking of titling it "28 Days Later," "Never Gonna Get It," or my favorite, "Waiting in Vain." But then my Invitation came! Yes, it arrived in the mail today! Maybe it was my impatience and excitement, but it just seemed like it took a really really long time to make its way down the East coast to me, here in Tallahassee. I picture it wandering from small town to small town, hitching a ride on the back of a farmer's hay-filled truck, walking through pastures and prairies and forests, whistling as it saunters down far-flung country roads, eventually falling in with a band of escaped prisoners on the run from the law and having to spend a few nights holed up in a backwoods cabin for warmth on a cold night, falling in love with the desperate widow who lives there, then making a hasty escape when her redneck brothers come by and find them in bed together, forcing my invitation packet to quickly pull on its thermal underwear and climb out the window and run off into the dark, foggy forest, the rednecks shouting and chasing it with their shotguns -- "I'ma git you, boy! Ain't nobody bangs ma sister but me!"...

Anyway, it arrived today around noon. My roommate knocked on the door, and just as I roused out of slumber he tossed it onto me very unceremoniously and closed the door (he didn't mean to be a dick; he just doesn't know much about etiquette sometimes). It felt thicker and much more... boxy than I remembered my 1998 invitation feeling. Turns out, that's because there's a box in there. It's a thin little paperboard container of sorts that holds four folders:

• one labeled "Passport and Visa." It contains information for acquiring the no-fee passport I'll need.
• a second labeled "Resumé and Personal Papers." It asks for an updated version of my standard resume, but I think I'll send my curriculum vita instead, because it is a little more complete about my teaching abilities. Also in this folder will go a "Statement of Goals and Expectations," which asks me to "reflect on my motivation to commit to a two-year Volunteer assignment." This statement, unlike the ones I wrote for the initial application, will be forwarded to the Country Desk and then off to the CD and other trainers so they'll know a little about me before I get there.
• a third labeled "Finance and Insurance" with instructions on acquiring Peace Corps personal possession insurance and getting student loan deferements.
• a fourth folder, empty, labeled "Staging Materials." It is empty, the folder says, because these materials will come later as I approach the date of my Staging. If I remember correctly, this stuff comes just a couple weeks before departure, so that would be mid-May for me.

The box/container also included my actual VAD, which was identical to the one e-mailed to me by my PO a few weeks ago. It's a little easier to read in the printed format, but has no new information. (Note to self: try to put up some more particulars in the next post).

Also in the box was the Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook. It is a bound, blue trade-paperback-sized manual with lots of information about Peace Corps service in general, including legal issues and what to expect. It is not program-specific. Examples of what it includes are further definitions of what consititues Early Termination, how to appeal a Separation, what Trainers look for when determining if you are to be sworn in, volunteer conduct and cultural sensitivity, how leave accumulates and under what circumstances you can take it, etc. I couldn't help but compare it to my old one. I still have it lying around amongst my old Peace Corps materials. Back then, it was a simpler, brown, staple-bound booklet with no illustrations and less information. All the basics were covered, but in less detail it seems. Nowadays the binding is better and it has all these cute little illustrations accompanying sidebars and has nice b&w photographs. Volunteers have to bring the Handbook with them and keep it all throughout their service; which makes sense... it is very valuable.

The last thing in the box was a little slip of blue paper which read, "The Welcome Book referred to in your VAD is in production. As soon as it is available, it will be sent to you. Thank you." Too bad -- I was looking forward to that most of all. But it will come, in due time. I still have a few months to wait anyway. No rush. If I'm thinking of the same thing, my Welcome Book was a nice, spiral-bound notebook containing TONS of information on the country of assignment, including politics, environment, points of interest, customs, a sprinkle of local language, letters from current PCVs, and -most importantly- a packing list. My old Eastern Caribbean book had different chapters for the various islands comprising the "Eastern Caribbean country"... several countries, technically, but taken together as one for purposes of Peace Corps governance. It was probably the single most valuable piece of information to come out of the Peace Corps before departure, and maybe even afterward.

As soon as I get it I'll let you know.



The Shame of the World

I saw Hotel Rwanda last night.

What happened over there was the shame of the world, the shame of all of us. We turned our backs on a holocaust, plain and simple, where almost half as many humans died as did during the Nazi Holocaust, but unlike that tragedy, which took place almost entirely in death camps kept secret from the eyes of the world, people were being butchered in the street in Rwanda. We had footage of it. We knew exactly what was going on, who was doing it, why it was happening, and what could be done about it. And we withdrew and let the "darkies" sort it out for themselves with blood and horror.

As Nick Nolte's character in Hotel Rwanda put it (speaking to Don Cheadle's character, the hotel owner), "you aren't even a n***er, you're an African!" Simply put, the world didn't give a shit about the slaughter because the people dying were Africans, the blackest of the black. It was out of the world's way, in a continent long considered by many a diseased, ignorant place full of evolutionary throwbacks, not worth anything once they've been converted to Christianity, and their lands plundered of anything the Europeans needed. The fact is, Europeans created Africa as it exists today -- it, like so many other troubled places in the third world, is resculpted, reimagined, rewritten, and recreated in the image the colonizing Europeans desired, the form that would garner the most profit, and then abandoned to its own devices. Most often this means it devolves into war and poverty and disease, with puppet governments repeatedly toppled by warlords who are sold their weapons by us or by various European countries. Colonial powers invaded, organized things to their liking, took what they needed, then simply left; the resulting situation is chaos and bloodshed, as former political boundaries were ignored by the colonizers and different people, often with antogonistic history between them, were forcibly cohabited. When the colonizers leave, racial or tribal or class tensions explode into open warfare. But -hey- what do the colonizers care? The Africans were only half-people to them anyway. Let them kill each other. The world will be better off without them, right?

People chide me for feeling "white guilt" sometimes. Maybe it isn't the most productive attitude sometimes, but when I see stuff like this I can't help it. It's very easy. I try to remind myself that Europeans and Americans aren't the sole authors of inequity and hatred around the world -- all people, all races, are capable and guilty of doing evil unto each other -- but why does it seem white folks lead the pack?

Anyway, it was moving, powerful, and definitely one of the best pictures of this last year. Why it isn't nominated for Best Picture is beyond me. But at least Don Cheadle is nominated for Best Actor for this role, which he richly deserves. He was utterly convincing as his character, and it was nice to see him play someone who isn't a heartless thug or killer (I say that even though I liked him in Out of Sight). The best part about the movie is that wasn't about white people in Africa, unlike every other freaking movie set in Africa I've ever seen: Out of Africa, The Ghost and the Darkness, Cry Freedom (probably the worst offender, because it was supposed to be about Steve Biko, but it was really about Biko's white journalist buddy who, with Biko's help and ultimate noble sacrifice, gets his ass the hell out of dodge when the shit starts coming down). No, Hotel Rwanda was about African people and focused on African characters. Yes, there were some white folks in there, some of them played by notable American actors like Nick Nolte and Joaquin Pheonix, but they were supporting characters to Don Cheadle's hotel manager. It was really refreshing.

Go see this film.


Tuesday, January 25, 2005

By the Way...

... I still haven't received my Invitation Packet. My PO said it would take "7 - 10 days." I think it's been ten now, not counting weekends.

Not nervous, just anxious. I wanna read it! :)


The Ripple Effect

A few days ago I got a phone call from an old friend from the Peace Corps Eastern Caribbean, one of the most wonderful, cool people I know. I'm continually amazed at my luck to still be in contact with her... I mean, we knew each other for only two weeks almost seven years ago. Two weeks! And even though we were close during that time, it wasn't like we spent every waking hour together. Her homestay family was on the other side of town from mine, and I actually spent more time with a couple other volunteers than I spent with her. Nevertheless, somehow our connection has managed to continue and stay strong over all these years and during inevitable quiet periods (those long gaps between communication that can last years sometimes). Somehow we didn't lose track of each other. I have friends from the past who have simply vanished and I cannot find, people who were my closest friends for most of my 20s and who are now utterly gone. And yet I still have this wonderful friendship, despite the odds, despite the years. We haven't physically seen each other since the last morning of training on St. Lucia, as everyone divided off into smaller groups to continue training on their islands of assignment. She went on to have the full two year PC stint, with all the experiences and relationships that involves, the days and weeks and months and years of incidents I can only imagine. My suspicion has always been that two years of Peace Corps experiences must certainly "drown out" two weeks of training experiences, that as fun as training was, it must certainly fade into the background noise of all the other time spent in the Peace Corps. That, effectively, I would be forgotten. It makes sense, if you think about it.

Turns out I'm wrong. She remembers me very well, and we reminisced on some of the incidents and shared sensations of training -- the lectures, the heat, the parties, the food, visits to the main city of Castries, etc. In fact, one of my earliest memories forged during training involved her and a couple other volunteers...

It was our first full night on St. Lucia. We were all being put up at the Skyway Hotel in Vieux Fort, on the extreme southern end of St. Lucia. We had arrived the night before after sunset -- a shame, because it would have been nice to see the island from the air -- and had undergone an endurance challenge to get through customs, so the first night involved little but dinner and bed. But the next night several of us were feeling antsy, our curiosity about the nearby town becoming difficult to abide, so spontaneously we decided to walk down the hill and check it out. It was about a quarter mile away, down a curving two-lane road that ran past a pleasant beach (Point Sable). The sun had set by the time we headed out and it was totally dark. Cars and trucks whizzed past us on the road, islanders curiously staring at this clump of Americans, so obviously out of place. The Trainees accompanying me were Rahiel, a "Pre-School Teacher Trainer" from Chicago who already had a lot of previous experience with the Caribbean, Walter, a "Vocational Skills Trainer" who had just come off a previous PC stint in Africa teaching house contruction, and my new-found friend, Michelle, a "Basic Ed Instructor" from Detroit.

The four of us made our way into the town of Vieux Fort. I remember feeling nervous, the kind of anxiety one gets in a totally foriegn environment, sharply aware of the vulnerability that comes with being new and clueless. It was exciting and frightening at the same time. I wanted to be more at-ease, but the truth was, I had only been to one Caribbean town in my life before this, Alice Town on Bimini, the Bahamas. It was completely different. Vieux Fort wasn't very brightly lit and there were simply no white people. Bimini was a haven for anglers from Miami and yachters from all over the East Coast, and I had been there during peak tourist season. Here, we were complete and total minorities. Later I would come to be more comfortable with being a minority, the lone white guy as it were, but as with anything there has to be a first time. And I was on edge. Granted, anyone who knows me would remember I tend toward being a little nervous, all the time, when around strangers. I'm not sure where that low-level distrust comes from, but even in the States, in my own neighborhood, or at the mall or at school or anywhere, I always feel slightly on guard and in a continual state of being hyperaware of my surroundings. Much of this nervousness has faded, over time, down from something bordering on raw paranoia when I was in my teens. Again, I have no idea where it all comes from, because I don't think my youth was any more traumatic than anyone else's. But nevertheless...

So we walked into town and decided to take a left at the first road we came to. This was my first real introduction to "Caribbean-style" street planning: the houses were built almost flush with the road itself, the doors opening onto the most narrow of sidewalks. On one side of the street there was a ditch or trench that was about two feet wide and two feet deep, perfectly square in cut, with no barriers as would probably have accompanied it in (litigious) America. Instead it was an unguarded hazard and I was amazed to not see more evidence of vehicle accidents. Most of the buildings seemed, as we walked down the street, to have simply no electricity whatsoever; I remember vividly seeing one open doorway that led into cavernous darkness within, and barely being able to make out the form of someone moving around in there.

At the far end of the road there was some sort of din which eventually was revealed to be coming from a stack of huge stereo speakers arranged in a brightly-lit intersection. Dancehall or Ragga music, I don't remember which, was blaring from the speakers so loudly that it hurt to be standing in their vicinity. It was a "jump up," a sort of street party that is very popular in the Caribbean. Absolutely nobody was there. Only the disc jockey was present, doggedly switching tracks for the crowd he hoped would assemble as the night wore on. People milled here and there, walking up the street or down it, as if out for a stroll or attending to errands. It was actually fairly busy, but only with foot traffic -- during the time we explored the street only one pickup truck cruised by.

We turned and went back the way we came. Partway down the street, Rahiel -- always the brave one, being more familiar with these surroudings than the rest of us -- asked a local man if there was anything interesting in the area to do. He told us of a dance club not too far away, partway toward Laborie. We walked that direction and pretty soon another truck with some locals asked if we wanted a ride. Accepting, they drove us to a cluster of shops, what in America would be a mini-mall, and we could see quite a crowd gathering in one area. Among the stores was a staircase that led up to a dance club. We timidly stayed down on the ground floor in the parking lot for a short while, eating ice cream bought from one of the nearby stores, and then made our way upstairs to check out the action. A wicked dancehall beat was shaking the floor but, again, absolutely nobody was dancing. At least this party was crowded -- we milled among the dozens of people before Rahiel and Walter took to the floor to dance for a little while. I decided to wait that one out, a prudent choice considering the stares I was getting and the fact that I knew not one bit how to dance to that type of music. I mean, I was already very familiar with Reggae and Dancehall, already they were my favorite musical styles, but I had only been exposed to it long-distance, so to speak. I didn't feel like I could possibly dance to it in any legitimate way.

Eventually we left the club and waited on the street for a "transport" (the local bus) to come by, our EC dollars in our hands. As we killed time we talked about dancing, and I shared that I knew how to do the "butterfly," a somewhat suggestive dance move that involves spreading and closing one's legs. They all laughed and wanted to see me do it, but I balked and refused. For some reason, inexplicable to me, that remains to this day something I regret. My shyness rearing its head again. It has taken the work of most of my lifetime to gradually wear that shyness down. It still haunts me, but now I have a much greater handle on it.

So after an adventure that lasted about three hours, we arrived back at the Skyway hotel and parted ways to get some sleep before more Orientation in the morning. As short a time as the whole experience was, that night stands out in my head as one of the singular memories of that time. Friendships were forged that night. Long before I even left the Peace Corps I lost my connection with Walter, but both Rahiel and Michelle remain friends of mine now, years later. I'm convinced it is because of that one night.

Amazing how such small things can ripple forever into the future.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

On Letting Go

A good friend of mine sent me a beautiful travel journal as a Christmas gift. Included with it was a nice note from him and his wife that wished me luck and gave me support. It began, "When you take the assignment, go in without preconceived notions and embrace each day like the next page of a new book." This, along with some of the comments I've received on this blog, led me to want to tackle the subject of the way I talk about the Peace Corps, travel, self-doubt, and especially about "letting go." It's obvious I say or write some things that might be making some people nervous about my attitude or perceptions.

For one, I'm writing a lot about Guyana itself, and the facts/traits about it I've managed to gather from around the net and other sources. It may seem like I'm fixated on superficialities or developing a set of expectations, but what I'm really trying to do is synthesize what information I actually have right now. Which is to say, not much -- there isn't a whole lot of information out there about Guyana. I've scoured the net, I've read travel books (for lack of better, more community-oriented literature), and I've heard from a current PCV there. It might be that I should be thinking more about the assignment I'll be doing than where it is located, but right now I know next to nothing about the assignment. All I know is it where it will be located and that it has something to do with "community" and "literacy." But as I learned, and as any PCV will tell you, what specifically you'll be doing isn't even solidified until halfway through training, and even then it can end up changing based on the needs of your site.

So the long and short of it is, I have practically no information. On either the job or the location. But of course I'm excited, like any applicant, and I think about it constantly and want to write about it, so I end up writing about the few things I know. And that perhaps comes across as being fixated on superficialities or building up expectations. Other than those things about which to write, I have nothing. More entries about how I'm waiting for a package aren't particularly useful or interesting. And it wouldn't satisfy my need to write.

So what ends up happening is a lot of these blog entries have to do with internalized issues. You don't see that on many other PC blogs -- I'd like to think that sets mine apart in some way. Applicants, PCTs, and PCVs undergo a constant rollercoaster of excitement, fear, boredom, dread, self-confidence, and self-doubt. I'm no different on that, but perhaps I like to write about the internal stuff a little more than others. And I find I write more about the stuff one would consider weaknesses and strengths... Not feeling like I have a home, or a place to belong? That's a major weakness. I'm not proud of it. My excuse-making and cowardly retreat from my previous Peace Corps experience? Another weak point in my life. I'm not afraid to face those demons and to write about them in a public space, and the end result is I write about a lot of frailty and negative stuff and that probably comes across as -again- obsessing and setting myself up for failure. Other blogs I read don't approach these issues, other than maybe to say, in one sentence or two, "I'm feeling nervous" or "I wonder what it will be like?" or "Can I even do this?" I like to explore those issues a little closer. It's a peculiar aspect of my personality that I notice negatives more often than positives, especially when it concerns myself. I'm my own toughest critic, and rarely a cheerleader. Another weakness, and probably my biggest one. I'm working on that constantly. Fact is I'm going back into the Peace Corps, despite a previous failure and despite a pretty savage self-reprisal about it, because I want to do it. Period. You won't hear other PC bloggers say stuff like that, and maybe that's because they don't think it, but my only other option would be to not explore the full range of my thoughts, or to simply ignore them or pretend I there aren't complex reactions, and that would definitely lead to failure.

For anyone reading this, if you are concerned that I might not make it in the Peace Corps this time either, based on some of the soul-searching I do on this (very public) journal, I have nothing more to offer than my expression of hope. I believe I can do it, and I want to do it, and I will do it. I know I'll find things upon arrival that I'm disappointed in, and there will be many tough times in training and beyond where I'll just want to get the hell out of there. It happens to everyone. The first time I joined, it never once occured to me that I might leave, especially not after only a month (a "three hour tour," one reader amusingly called it). But I did, and now that has to be factored into my decision to go try again. I can't blithely jump in without contemplating whether I'll ET again because that would be dishonest; it's now irrevocably a part of my Peace Corps experience -- though I'm hoping to do better this time and so move beyond that moment of failure. I can't pretend I won't undergo self-doubt again, but I do believe this time I'll have more and better emotional tools to see myself through. That's all I can offer.

I appreciate everyone who reads this blog and who takes the time to engage in these thoughts. My battle is now, and has forever been, learning to let go and enjoy myself (just ask my friends who went with me to Key West for spring break in 2001... heh). I'm happy to have your support.


p.s. If any fellow PCVs or applicants dealt with these same issues, I would love your input on how you overcame them or dealt with them. Comments or direct e-mails are always welcome. :)

Thursday, January 13, 2005


KuewaOn my right bicep is a tattoo I got the last time I was in Hawai`i. It depicts a petroglyph (rock carving) version of a wa`a, a Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe. These canoes were often quite large, cut from koa trees, with two long and thick hulls lashed parallel to one another and connected by a platform upon which the sailors lived and stored their supplies. On these types of long-distance canoes the Polynesians crossed huge expanses of ocean, making their way from island to island with only the stars and their knowledge of tides and waves to help guide their way, a feat which easily puts them in the category of the world's greatest mariners. They were guided by a spirit of exploration and self-reliance that allowed them to endure weeks without land, living only off caught fish and supplies, like coconuts, they brought along with them. They were solitary travellers alone on the endless face of the world's most massive ocean, the loneliest and most isolated position one could ever imagine.

I found myself drawn to this image the first time I saw it while researching the history of Hawaiian petroglyph art. Among the images of turtles, or `ihe-wielding warriors, or powerful kupuna, the images the Hawaiians carved of their canoes, the one piece of equipment to which they owed their life and livelihood, their very existence, seemed to hold a mystique and power of their own. I know my interpretation of that symbol is not the same as that of the ancient Hawaiians who carved them upon the bare rocks so long ago -- to me it represents a feeling of both the need for newness and a craving for adventure along with a more itinerant state of homelessness. I'm a wandering spirit in search of a place to belong.

A vagabond or wanderer would be kuewa (pronounced koo-eh-vah) in Hawaiian. Ka`apuni (kah-ah-poo-nee) means "to go around, to travel."

Soon I'll be travelling again. I've been too long in Tallahassee; it isn't where I belong. I belong in Hawai`i but it may be a long time before I get to live there; maybe never.

I've decided to accept the assignment in Guyana. I called my PO on Wednesday and asked him to send me my official Invitation packet. He said it should be here in a little over a week. I'm sold on Guyana and I can't wait to see the information included in the Invitation packet. If it's anything like my last one, it will be full of tons of interesting and enlightening reading material to prepare me for the assignment. I'll share on here what I can.

Interestingly, ka`apuni also means "revolution, revolving." My Peace Corps experience is coming full circle.

Some Notes on Guyana

Over the last few days, as I mulled over this opportunity, there were a few interesting connections and Guyana-related items that factored into my decision. I thought I'd share a few of them here, in no particular order:

• "M", my ex-girlfriend, now lives in DC and her downstairs neighbor is a woman from Guyana, "Ms. Joyce." This lady is in her 60s, I believe, and when M first moved in there the woman was incredibly nice and welcomed her as a fellow Caribbean immigrant would, by making some regional dishes and tea and kindly letting me copy some of her reggae and soca CDs (yay Mighty Sparrow!). Guyana is far enough away from Jamaica, and each island has its own flavor anyway, that her "Caribbean-ness" was very similar but had a few differences from M's. Unfortunately, their relationship turned sour over a dispute about M's cats (they've escaped a couple of times and Ms. Joyce claims they damaged her plants. It was a big drama, and things have only gotten worse. Joyce also proved herself to be a gossipy, self-righteous "fishwife," the kind of nosy woman who spreads cruel rumours about others while touting Christianity, thriving on scandal even as she is casting dispersions and judgments on those who don't follow her creed. I don't consider Joyce's behavior indicative of Guyanese, any more than it would be of any troublesome meddler anywhere. It's unfortunate, though, because I would love to have gotten in contact with Joyce through M and learned more about Guyana that way. Until everything went sour, Joyce was very pleasant, and very Caribbean.

• Up until about three years ago, my Dad used to work right across the border in Venezuela, in a place called El Dorado. He is a "mercenary geologist," who is hired by several companies to go into the field and do various work, which usually means he is leading or part of a group surveying to see if there is enough of a valuable mineral in an area to begin a mine (most of the time that mineral is gold). Sometimes he helps run operations at a mining camp. This is what he did in El Dorado. In fact, for the better part of the last ten years he has worked and/or lived in some capacity in South America, in Venezuela, Columbia, or Argentina. This is where he met my now step-mother, his new wife. She is from Columbia, but has worked all across the northern South American coast region, and she used to be married to a Guyanese. She gushed with excitement and positive energy about my assignment there. This was very encouraging. In addition, one of my Dad's lifelong friends and colleagues lived in the Guyanese town of Omai for a while. I told Dad to have him e-mail me.

• Guyana is situated just south of the mighty Orinoco, and has three major rivers of its own. Because of this, it doesn't have the pristine, tropical beaches enjoyed by its neighbors or nearby islands. This was a disappointment to me, because like anyone else, I like to be surrounded by beauty. Also I like to snorkel. However, Guyana is possessed with vast jungles and rain forests, and is close enough to places that do have reefs and fine swimming opportunities that short jaunts to use Peace Corps vacation time are fully possible. It's best "leisure" quality is its position, located between the Amazon and the islands of the southeast Caribbean, including my old post, Dominica. I'm very excited about seeing some real, hardcore tropical jungle!

• There is almost no information available about the place. The local Barnes&Noble had simply nothing on South America, excpet many books on Peru, for some reason. At least Borders had books on South America, nothing of course on Guyana specifically, but I was able to read a little about the region. No blogs or online diaries, save that of the too-oft-cited Jason Pearce, and this one about a fellow from the UK who spent two years there in the British version of the Peace Corps, the VSO. I also found this resource which is very helpful. Other than that... nada. Lonely Planet has a section about it, but no actual books. Any travel books I bring with me will have to be about South America in general, with a section on Guyana.

• Another subscriber to the Peace Corps yahoo group had this clarification for me, which helped me understand more about the housing situation in particular and eased some of my concerns (*terrors*) about staying with a family for two years:

...Guyana is definitely culturally Caribbean. People even refer to it as an island due to its geographical seperation (by way of the huge rainforest that makes up 90% of the country) from the rest of South America. Secondly, most volunteers do not "live with" a host family for their entire service. I can only think of two such volunteers out of approximately 60 curreny PCVs. You will most likely live in a "compound" with another family. That is you will have all of your own facilities; kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, etc. within the same property as a family that has their own of the same. Not a bad setup since you have close interaction with a local family while still being able to lock your doors when you need "alone time". Living in this situation has been positive for practically all the volunteers here as far as I can tell. As far as "community-based education", in all likelyhood, this means you will be a teacher in a secondary school, although there are a few assignments that differ depending on your age, experience and skill set. Just an added personal view, I love Guyana and will truly miss this place when I come to my COS in late July of this year. Its a really amazing place with so many opportunities. Backpacking in the rainforest, attending East Indian cultural events (the country is 50% East Indian, as in from the Indian subcontinent and has the highest percentage of Hindus outside of Asia) and the islands of Trinidad, St. Lucia, and Barbados are always a short plane ride away.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Whole Wheat on One Side, Light Frosting on the Other

Well, I found out what the mystery "perfect" assignment would be. It is a literacy training and teaching program, probably similar to this Guyana assignment, but this is in Belize! My PO honestly felt there was no way in hell anyone would drop out because that country is highly-prized amongst volunteers. It's another English-speaking Caribbean mainland country, like Guyana, and I've always been curious about it. BUT, if I want it I'd have to wait around a year and, frankly, I don't think I want to do that.

This whole day I ruminated about the option before me. I have to admit, it sounds increasingly good: for one thing, its location is wedged right in between the Caribbean and the Amazon. I've always wanted to see the Amazon, and from what I hear many PCVs take breaks to do some travelling to relatively nearby locations. A jaunt down to the Purus River to canoe through the jungle would be just about the most amazing thing ever. Plus my father used to work in Venezuela in a place called El Dorado right across the border from Guyana and that's where his wife is from. (Funny, but our lives share some bizarre parallels in unexpected ways.) Living for two years with a family would suck, because I like me privacy and I don't want to be in a situation where I'm expected to be more social than I am, but the PC likes their Guyana volunteers to live with a family because it helps integrate them better into the community.

Looking a little closer at my motivations, I'm embarrassed to realize just how much I bank my expectations on the location of the site. When I think about it, the actual assignment, the job seems just as important, if not more. Could I be totally and completely miserable in -- for example -- Jamaica, if I had a lame job and/or counterpart? Oh yeah. Heck, I might clash with people and end up hating my assignment. This could happen anywhere. And if I were to hold out for a location, giving that more preference over the job, I could very easily end up doing something I don't want to be doing or that doesn't challenge me. I know the Peace Corps says "be flexible, be open," so I'm trying very hard to let the picky, fussy part of me let go.

Fact is, Guyana isn't bad. I was fully expecting to get something like Uzbekistan or Mongolia or Bulgaria. No offense at all to people serving there, but I couldn't do it. I was reading on one woman's blog, I think she was serving in Kazahkstan, and she wrote about coming home from her work everyday and spending fifteen minutes hugging the water heater just to warm back up. *shudder* Hell with that. I couldn't serve in a place like that, mentally. But my point is, I kinda dreaded finally hearing from my PO because I was afraid he would send me somewhere that simply sounded 100% unappealing. Guyana is nice; it's not precisely what I was yearning for, but it's damn close. It's still tropical, sunny, and has the added benefit of being English-speaking so I wouldn't have to labor for months learning something totally new (it has a creole, but that's much easier). Plus -- no hurricanes! It's too far south to get them.

• Tropical
• Close to Caribbean, including Barbados, T&T, and even St. Lucia; also Spanish Main!
• Close to Amazon
• Dad used to work near there
• Assignment sounds good -- teacher training is part of it
• Probably would be in a coastal city
• Departs in May
• Soca!
• Good climate with no hurricanes
• Not too far from USA, so I can get visitors and have easier time sending my writing to publishers

• Close, but not IN the Caribbean
• Not an island, which for some reason I really dig
• Permanent Homestay
• I'm already sick of Jim Jones/Kool-Ade comments (to the anonymous poster who commented on this: I don't mean you. I've received jokes about this from everyone I've mentioned it to, including people I didn't think even knew where Guyana was! It's probably something I'll have to get used to).
• Higher expectations for personal appearance (slacks and button-ups, which I don't think PCVs in the Pacific have to worry about)
• Not likely I'll want to stay there long-term (I fantasize about loving my host country so much I simply stay after service)
• Not sure it has good reefs for snorkelling ... (?)

I don't have the luxury of a lot of time to decide. "I recommend you commit to the Guyana program now if you really want to
serve in the program," my PO said in an email today. I'll try to make up my mind by midweek.

Still taking suggestions...


Sunday, January 09, 2005

Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood

Okay -- I got a call from my PO finally. He called me at 10:30 on a Sunday morning (!) -- which I found suprising, but delightful. Heck I was just glad to finally hear from him in person. He told me he was having trouble placing me because the Medical Office had put a lot of restrictions on me. He actually didn't know any of the details of those medical restrictions; apparently they keep that information confidential, which is certainly good in some ways, and he is also bound by their take on my limitations. I couldn't just tell him to ignore my nut allergies, for example, because he'd be in big trouble for doing so if something were to ever happen. Plus he doesn't know exactly what caused the limitations he has to work with.

He was actually very nice and pleasant in person. Maybe his e-mails seemed cold because they were terse. He explained that my interest in a particular geographic area was not a problem and he'd work to accomodate that wish, if possible. As for his previous sketchy-sounding e-mail, he explained it was a formality; he was required to get an expressed not implied statement about my being ready to commit, a requirement for anyone who reapplies after an ET. So my saying, "by all means I am ready to commit to a Peace Corps assignment" was exactly what he needed. Evidently it had to go in my file. Legal stuff, I guess. But the good thing was my very limited geographical availability meant I would take precedence over other volunteers and he could "bump" some nominees so they could accomodate me. One of his biggest priorities was using my Master's Degree, since so very few volunteers have advanced degrees.

There was a program he thought would be "perfect for me" in the Caribbean; problem was, it was already full. I assume that means all the invitations had been sent out and accepted. It departs in May of this year... not sure where to. He said he really wanted to put me in there but couldn't. And then he presented me with a quandary: he said there was a position he thinks I'd be good for in "South America," teaching English. This assignment combined formal English teaching with more informal, "community-based" teaching. "You mean tutoring, right?" I asked. He said that might be part of it, but it meant a lot of things including literacy and remedial instruction. He asked if I'd like to be sent that official invitation. I waffled a little, not sure if I wanted to just jump on the first thing out of the pipe. Sensing this, he said "Hmm. How about if I send you the VAD to your e-mail address and you can look it over. It wouldn't be an official invitation, just a chance for you to look at the assignment and get a feel for it." So I said sure, and he forwarded it.

Here's the gist of the assignment, and after that I'll explain my predicament a little more clearly. The assignment turns out to be in Guyana, which is along the northeastern coast of South America, just a little southeast of Trinidad. It's an English-speaking country, but most people speak "Creolese" which is pretty cool -- another creole for me to study. Slightly over half the population, though, are from India. I guess that means vegetarian food would be easier to come by than in other assignments. My job, according to the VAD:

The primary task of Education Volunteers will be to teach life skills, language, literacy or remedial reading, math and science in the public school system. Therefore, for the entire duration of your service, you will be working primarily as a teacher in the school system. This will help you gain an understanding of the public education system of Guyana. However, since your general role is that of a community educator you may also be called upon to work with groups in the community.

It goes on to mention several specific projects, principally creating education programs and doing Teacher Training. Excellent. I would also be called upon to act as an educator to K-12 students and do various functions within a school like organize events and activites and programs. This sounds peachy to me -- exactly what I hoped to be doing in the Caribbean or Pacific, and Guyana is very close to being in the Caribbean. In fact, it's a member of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM). In short, it sounds like a really good assignment.

Here are the drawbacks. For one, this is the country from which the now infamous Jason Pearce was unceremoniously sent packing. His offense was blogging his experience and being a little too free with the information. Already I'm paranoid about this blog; I write a lot of material and a time and I appreciate honesty in writing (that what I teach in college). I don't want to ironically suffer the same fate as Jason in the same country!

Another thing that makes me squirm a little is the VAD's description of volunteer housing: "Due to the scarcity of housing in Guyana, there is a possibility that you will be living with a Guyanese family during your entire term of service with Peace Corps/Guyana."

For the first three months after swearing-in as a volunteer, you will be living with a family. This means that the volunteer will occupy a separate and secure room within the family living quarters. This will allow the Volunteer to have a period of familiarization with the community as part of and identified with a family before selecting a more permanent housing arrangement. At the end of three months, living with a Guyanese family is still our most desirable housing option for volunteers.

Priority #1. Volunteer lives with a Guyanese family living quarters: i.e. a room within the family living space; this is the first and most desirable situation.

Priority #2. Volunteer live in a family house in an upper or bottom flat on a long-term basis. This option will be considered only if the option above cannot be found.

Priority #3. Volunteer lives with another Volunteer, following Peace Corps/Guyana guidelines regarding rent and appropriate safety and security measures. This situation will only be considered if none of the above two exists.

Unlike any other PC assignment I've ever read about, we would be living for two years in the home of a local family. Two years, spare bedroom, perfect strangers. I mean, I feel like I'm imposing when I stay at my own mother's house! More than anything, I hate feeling like a burden or a bother or the houseguest that wouldn't leave. I already know I can look forward to a couple months staying with strangers during training, but I don't know how I'd bear two years!

Ultimately, I'm faced with a decision: do I accept this assignment which is damn good, or do I see what others my PO can wrangle? I wrote to him saying I'm seriously considering this, but I want to know what the "perfect" assignment he found was, where it was, and if it would be worth it, in his professional opinion, for me to wait for it if need be. I've been toying with the idea of moving to either Miami or back to Hawai`i, and a search around the Net revealed an lecturer/adjunct job at the University of Hawai`i or their community college system which pays basically twice what I'm paid here (which is peanuts -- seriously, I make less than $10,000 a year) and I could try to find some dump studio apartment in Waipahu to tide me over. I don't need a nice apartment, not if it meant I could live in Hawai`i again, my life's biggest dream.

I would love some input from my readers, regulars or strangers alike. I'm capable of figuring this out on my own, but as with all huge, life-altering decisions, it's a good idea to get a few outsider viewpoints before deciding which path to take.



Saturday, January 08, 2005


Update: I'm obviously back from my trip to Miami and school has already begun. I plan to write a long post about Miami, specifically South Beach, because it is a very interesting and peculiar place, and for some reason I got inspired while I was down there. Funny thing is, I didn't really do much of anything. I'm deeply engaged in a book by Paul Theroux, an ex-PCV who is now a prolific and well-respected travel writer. The name of the book is Happy Isles of Oceania, and it chronicles a long voyage he went on in 1991. His wife left him, he found out he might have cancerous melanoma, and then he was sent on a press tour to promote his new book through New Zealand and Australia. He brought his collapsible kayak with him, and along the way he decided to just take off and see the sights, not go home, because he needed to get his mind off his twin troubles. He moves from Australia though New Guinea to the Solomons, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and ends in Hawai`i. It's an absolutely gripping book -- anyone who is nominated or invited to a position in the Pacific should consider reading it. (He doesn't go to Micronesia, but if that's where you're being sent I recommend A Song for Satawal, by Kenneth Brower, which covers two islands Peace Corps services: Yap and Palau.)

When I came back from Miami I saw an e-mail from my PO asking me to call him this week. I haven't had any luck getting hold of him via phone, so I wrote to him asking when good times to reach him might be and whether this is good news or bad news. What I meant was, good news = an assignment, and bad news = unable to find an assignment for a while. I'm not sure he understood that's what I meant because he wrote back this morning with a cryptic message:

Are you ready to commit to a Peace Corps assignment?
I really need for you to say you are."

It made me kinda nervous for some reason. Mostly it was the wording -- I'm not sure if this is standard for someone who has a record of ETing or if something I've said specifically made him reticent about me. I have been sharing with him my hope for a Caribbean (or Pacific) assignment, and I told him my reasons, one of which is my desire to take on the Eastern Caribbean again and do it right. I thought mentioning that would be harmless, especially given that I added the disclaimer that I knew the Peace Corps would send me where they needed me. My fear is that I might have been too eager to share that -- he isn't drawing together a nomination, after all -- and it made him doubt my sincerity.

Or maybe it's just because I ETed once before, and he needs to clear his conscience that I won't do the same again.

I wrote back saying I most definitely am ready to commit and tried to ease some of his fears. For one thing, having done the PC before puts me in the unique position of knowing roughly what challenges and stresses I can expect during training, at least, so they won't blindside me, like they did before and they do to so many PCTs. I don't know exactly what he wanted to hear, but I hope I made him feel a little more secure about me. If anything, I'm less likely to ET than other volunteers for all these reasons... Plus the fact that I have a lot of my self-respect and dignity riding on this! I'm not proud of myself for ETing before and to do so again would not speak well of me. :)

So, nervous-making times. Hopefully he and I can finally connect over the phone and work this though. I'm ready for an assignment.