Friday, October 28, 2005

My fun life...

Check out this website:My fun life... It's by a fellow PCV in El Salvador. It's interesting to see how the Peace Corps thing is going down in a Spanish-speaking country.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

My Training Homestay, View Two

It's been a while since I've been able to post images, but here is the first of two companion photos to this one of my homestay house from training. This particular photo is of the opposite direction, standing at the back door of the house and facing the front (or west) through the kitchen and living room. The three strange colored bell-shaped things are contraptions to put over food to prevent flies.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Suppose They Gave a War and No One Comes

The thing with our "resigned" Country Director can now officially be considered to have blown over. He is gone from the country, back in Washington D.C. None of us will probably ever see him again. The official word from the Volunteer Action Committee is that we are moving on. We have an acting CD who will only be with us for another week or so, then a new one will arrive to take over the post. Here's hoping he's as friendly, accessible, and productive as Kumar was.

I don't think we'll be going beyond the letter campaign we held last week. The person(s) responsible for his dismissal still retain their jobs, and swear to God and all the angels that they never had anything to do with it, and they are shocked -- shocked! -- that we would ever think them capable of such a thing.

So we all cried "WAR!" last week and now it seems we're opting instead for uneasy peace. Good news for the perpetrators in admin (we know who you are). But bad news if the new CD is a buffoon, or there is any further outrageousness. I don't know how much more we could take.

A Bit of Genius

I love Paul Theroux. He's one of the most insightful and eloquent writers I know, and his travel essays are gripping from start to finish. If you haven't read anything by him, I strongly recommend The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling Through the Pacific, one of my favorite books.

But there was one piece of clever wordage I wanted to share with you. In his essay, "Chatwin Revisited," from Fresh Air Fiend, he discusses a personal aquaintence of his who recently passed away, an eccentric traveller and avid "postcarder." Of postcards, he says the following:

Postcards are the preferred medium for many self-advertisers, combining color, cheapness, and an economy of effort -- something like a miniature billboard.

That's how I've always felt about them, too. There's not enough room to write anything of any value on the back, and as you can tell, I like to write in-depth about my experiences to share them. But when I read this, I also realized how much like postcards blogs can be sometime!


A Place To Lay My Head

Having some trouble as regards housing around here. It's approaching the three-month mark of my Peace Corps volunteer experience (hey, that's... one eighth?) and the mandatory site "lockdown" period is almost over. This is a period, Peace Corps-wide, where for the first quarter in one's site one is not permitted to leave it, the idea being that it promotes faster or more complete "integration" into the community. I can't say with confidence that being imprisoned in New Amsterdam has really done that for me... sure, I do feel more physically oriented, like I know where things are, but I don't know that many more people than I did when I arrived, and I don't feel like part of the New Amsterdam "community," whatever that is.

But that's not the point of this post. Point is, the "lockdown" is almost over, meaning, among other things (like soon I can travel out of the country), that I am to move out of my temporary housing soon. I've been staying in housing arranged by the Peace Corps all this time. Peace Corps has also arranged housing beyond this, but it is with the elderly mother-in-law of one of my bosses, and to be quite honest, living in such a situation would be totally unacceptable. I don't think it's a good idea to live with your boss' in-laws! And considering that my current host would no doubt like his total autonomy back soon (I'm sure he's tired of having to play music low in the mornings or t.v. low in the evenings... though he sometimes transgresses these rules spectacularly) I need to find some place of my own.

My present goal is to move into a place relatively near the two best supermarkets in the area. I obviously can't tell too much about it online (because Peace Corps is afraid all the bandits, kidnappers, muggers, and murderers in all of Guyana read my blog and will converge on me as soon as they have a solid lock on my location!), but I can say a little. It's a brand-new building, nicely painted, with a narrow but long porch ideal for a hammock. It has a strange layout, too, with one open area that includes the kitchen. There is an upstairs area divided into two rooms one could conceivably use as bedrooms, but they tend to be hot (heat rises) and they have the "attic-ceiling" thing going on, where the ceiling slopes downward and the walls have box windows. I'm simply too tall to stand properly up there, so I seriously doubt I'll use either room as a bedroom, or anything else for that matter. Most likely, unless I change my mind, I'll use the main area downstairs as a large studio apartment. But everything there is new, never-used, and I've also arranged to pay the landlords to furnish the place.

The problem is this: there is a business in the building that Peace Corps is concerned about. They worry that allowing people access to the building would give them all the time they need to "case" the joint, to figure out a way to get to my living area. So they refused me. But they took their time doing it -- I arranged this place in August and the landlord has been waiting for my 3-month period to end so I could take residency. They would have rented it out to someone else long ago but for their promise to me... I respect that. So it was with a heavy heart that I called to tell them I couldn't take it, all these weeks later (after they could have been receiving rent money from the other people who wanted it).

You need to understand the housing situation here in New Amsterdam. The day I arrived back from the trip to Lake Mainstay I found that my hosts's best friend, who lived in the tiny house next door, had moved to Barbados to take a job there. Such a sudden move; I never even got to say goodbye. The day after that, some friends came to move his stuff out of there. On that day, I told the landlord I'd be willing to move in there if they would fix a few things that are broken and put in a water tank. Just like where I live now, there is no running water, and everything we use has to be drawn from a standpipe in the mud under the house next door. "Put in a water tank," I told her, "and I can pay way more rent." She decided against it. The very next day the place was visited by no less than four groups of interested parties, and it was rented out that evening to the first-comers. Gone, just-like-that. Housing is at a premium here. The only places I've found in New Amsterdam to rent, besides the one I mentioned above, are either waaaaaay too expensive or simply dumps I would never live in. Being denied really put me in a bad spot, in New Amsterdam's incredibly tight housing market. To wit: I had nowhere to go.

To end this entry: when I called to let down my potential landlord, they told me the business was soon to move out. This is the sole thing keeping it from being okay by Peace Corps standards. So I called Peace Corps today and they said if the business does, indeed, move out then the place is fine for me to take. So I might be back in business. If so, I'll be there in just a couple weeks' time. Wish me luck.

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

One of my favorite writers is Paul Theroux, an ex-PCV and one of the best travel writers ever. In his essay, "The Exile Moritz Thomsen," from Fresh Air Fiend, he writes, "Whatever else travel is, it is also an occasion to dream and remember. You sit in an alien landscape and you are visited by all the people who have been awful to you. You have nightmares in strange beds. You recall episodes that you have not thought of for years, and but for that noise from the street or that powerful odor of jasmine you might have forgotten."

The last three months have been interesting ones, and nowhere has the evidence of pressures, both subtle and unsubtle, been felt but in my dreams. For some inexplicable reason I keep having ex-girlfriend dreams. There's nothing I can pin down why this might be happening, though the best and most plausible reason is because I'm currently quite single, quite lonely, and quite isolated. So maybe my little mind is clinging to the pleasurable sensations of having someone I love and trust to share affection and intimacy with. Note: these dreams took place over a month ago, and I have just now gotten around to writing about them. These are not recent dreams. Things have calmed down on that front quite a bit.

Since the last "dream" entry, where I related an odd dream about discovering I was a father, I had two more dreams with strong emotions. The first had me hanging out in a building that was sort of barn-like (who ever said it would make sense?) as I waiting to be reunited with my long-lost love. Again, the exact identity of this person was nebulous -- she was nobody I've ever dated in real life, though everyone at the same time. I was waiting there with terror, love, excitement, and longing because I hadn't seen her in a long time. Seems many years ago this person had gone missing... simply disappeared, as though kidnapped, or as if she had lost her marbles and gone wandering off into the wilderness. Some how, some way, she had been found and was being taken to this place to meet me. The moment she walked in I began to weep with joy, and it was at this moment I woke up to find myself with real tears streaming down my cheeks.

This bizarre merger of dream reaction and real reaction was strongest in the last one of these dreams I had. In this, I was all by myself out in some blighted wasteland. As far as I could see was cracked, dry earth, with only scrub brush, and rocks to break the monotony. In the far distance a great, snow-capped mountain range formed a mighty wall. This could have been southern Utah. No sign of other humans at all. The reason I was in such a place was to visit the grave of my ex-girlfriend. In the dream, I could remember that many years before we had been lost in this scabland of wilderness, trying to survive and find our way back to civilization. We were starving and parched for water. I could remember how, at the height of our suffering, she collapsed to the earth and died in my arms; I had gone on to bury her in the dry earth and place a stone to mark the grave site. I managed to survive and made it back to civilization, and now every year I would make a trip out to this same lonely spot to visit her grave. And so, in my dream, I had just arrived at her gravesite where it was located near a dry stream bed. As soon as I saw it, I sank to the ground and began crying and embracing the headstone, overcome with a complete and crippling grief. I hugged the stone like it was her, and I choked out words of sorrow and longing, and my body shook with uncontrollable racking sobs. The sky turned a blood red and lightning began to flicker along the distant horizon. At that point I woke, sobbing uncontrollably. It took a couple minutes to gain my composure and sort out what was dream and what was reality.

I'm not taking Larium, I swear -- I just think the pressures of homesickness and social isolation have been working on me at levels I cannot consciously detect. Personally, I love dreams whether they are pleasant or nightmarish. I just need to figure out what's going on behind the scenes of these, to see why they are thematically linked. What the hell?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Two Nights in Heaven

A couple weeks ago we had our All-Volunteer Conference (AVC). As the name suggests, all currently-serving volunteers in the country are required to attend. Not that we were complaining -- it was held at a resort on the Essequibo coast called Lake Mainstay. It's a long way to travel, nearly all the way across Guyana from where I am, so some of us in the Berbice region travelled over the Berbice river the night before and stayed with another volunteer so we wouldn't have to get up quite as early the next day. Her apartment was very sweet, but there weren't enough beds for everyone; as a result, I slept that night on a hammock on her back porch. Normally I would balk at this, with mosquitos and all, but since I didn't have any choice I made do.

And I'm glad I did. It turned out to be an amazing experience. Where she lives there aren't a lot of street lights, so light pollution was at a minimum. I could see all the stars laid out before me like an astrologer's map. A palm tree off to one side rattled in a cool night wind that was strong enough to keep the mosquitos off me. It was the perfect temperature -- all I needed was a thin sheet, and even that was mostly psychological. I listened to ambient music on my iPod and pondered the nature of the universe until I fell asleep.

The next morning was hell. We caught a minibus to where we met the Peace Corps van, and then we all drove to the Peace Corps office in Georgetown, where we proceeded to sit around for several hours. The Demerara bridge was open to let through ships, so there was no way across the river anyway. I bought a few items in town, had some dinner at the best spot in G-Town for "ital" food (Rastafarian), then we headed out on the long trek to the Essequibo. Once there, we caught the ferry to take us across the river. You might think a ferry ride across a river should be a short affair, but this is a mighty river, and it is very wide at the mouth. Boats going from one side (Parika) to the other (Adventure) have to thread a series of large and small delta islands. Speedboats do it in about 20 minutes. The ferry takes over four hours.

Yes, four hours. We entertained ourselves by chatting and taking photos and listening to music. By the time the ferry docked it was dark. Our bus caravan proceeded on to the resort, which is located on an inland lake about ten or so miles from the coastline. Someone asked me if it was like an island resort... actually, it's like the opposite of an island!

We drove down twisting dirt roads for what seemed like a lifetime, then arrived at a gate. On the other side we could see some buildings built on a gradual slope that led down to a pitch-dark lake, like a void in the night. Our buses stopped and disgorged us, and we went into the main building to register and get our room keys. It was a lot like you might expect a tropical lake resort to look: rattan furniture, potted tropical plants, ceiling fans rotating langorously above. My roommate and I, the same fella I roomed with during Orientation, lugged our backpacks down the brick trails between small, square huts until we found ours. It faced the beach, a white, sugary expanse of grainy beach sand that I felt surely must have been imported. We were pleased to discover that the huts were sealed and air-conditioned -- and, even better, divided into two internal bedrooms for privacy. For the first time since I arrived in Guyana, I slept in a cool room without needed a mosquito net. It was wonderful!

The next morning we roused ourselves out of bed and had a great breakfast of toast and eggs and juice, then converged on the conference room to begin the conference. The schedule was to divide the conference into two distinct days: the first was about PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief). This is a United States initiative to bring AIDS and HIV education to people around the world, and Peace Corps has been roped into it. Everything we do regarding HIV education here now will be associated with PEPFAR. The good news is, and this was the point of the entire day's conference, we can apply for grant money to do AIDS education. I don't know if I'll do any of that -- they want us to, but I simply don't feel qualified.

After the day's session ended, we all went for a dip in the lake. It was black water, just like all the other lakes in Guyana, and though this water was just as tea-colored as the others, it wasn't quite as opaque. It was also the perfect temperature: a soothing lukewarm bath that was not too cool and not too warm.

The layout of the resort was pretty basic. It hugged the shoreline of this lake along one section cleared out from the encroaching tropical forest. In the center was a large U-shaped building which contained the hotel lobby, the kitchen and dining area, and the large air-conditioned conference hall. In the middle of the "U" was a covered patio with a pool table. North of the main building were clusters of huts, identical to mine, which stemmed out from the central area along nice brick-lined walkways. South of the main building was an isolated grouping of rooms in more of a motel-style, all together in a line. Some other buildings were out here as well, mostly for hotel staff. The beach was studded with palm trees and had two or three different thatched buildings to distribute drinks and food during more boisterous times (this resort hosts several HUGE celebrations throughout the year, including a boat regatta and a Guyanese version of Spring Break).

The night brought partying, though I elected not to bother. I knew I'd regret drinking the next morning, and besides, we were only going to be there two days and I knew the partying on the last night would be more intense and more fun.

The second day, more of the same, although this time the subject wasn't PEPFAR grants but the results of the Volunteer Action Committee's survey about the staff and admin. Seems in previous years the results brought out some real passions in people, and this year the VAC went through contortions to make sure that didn't happen. And it didn't -- though some of the results were inflammatory toward certain staff members, and there are obvious animosities underlying it all, we kept it quite civil. This is the part of the conference where Kumar, our unfairly dismissed Country Director, received a STANDING OVATION. Certain other staff members, including the one who worked so hard to get him sacked, received absolutely abysmal scores (2.4 out of 4!)... but I'm not bitter!

Of course the day ended with more partying. We had dinner, then a huge portion of us convened at the waterside bar for dancing, karaoke, and some nighttime swimming (clothing, uh... *optional*). We crowded the dance floor, shaking it to all kinds of great Guyanese and Caribbean tunes, from soca to dancehall to reggae. In the midst of it all, we had a "Tick Tack" competition. "Tick Tack" is a Guyanese song, very popular, referring to the clocklike motion of a certain dance move women do with their hips, moving them back and forth in a tightly controlled way. We competed by region, but finally the admin took it home, courtesy of a new young woman they just hired on staff, who put all us whities to shame.

I finally dragged back to my hut at about 2 am. I hadn't had a proper night's sleep in several nights, and I knew it wasn't going to start tonight. I enjoyed my last night in that bed, then in the morning we all said goodbye and climbed back in the buses, bound for our respective sections of Guyana. All of us in Berbice were fortunate enough to be able to spend the night in Georgetown, since passage through Buxton was slated for the next morning. Ergo, I got yet another night in an air-conditioned hotel bed. This wasn't as nice, but it was still a sight better than my fan-blown creaky bed under the mosquito net back here in New Amsterdam!

Which is where I'm headed right now. Good night.

Morning Edition

Here's the story, as it appeared in the Stabroek News, a local newspaper out of Georgetown.

In response to an inquiry, Acting Chief of Mission at the United States Embassy in Georgetown, Michael Thomas yesterday disclosed that Guyana's Peace Corps Country Director Kumar Lakhavani has resigned stating personal reasons.

"We wish him well in his future activities," he said, adding that Lakhavani enjoyed his stay in Guyana. Lakhavani could not be reached for comment. Thomas, the Embassy's Charge d'Affaires, said that Lakhavani is scheduled to leave Guyana this week. He resigned on October 7, Thomas said.

Sources told this newspaper that the Country Director had encountered difficulty in his relationship with Wash-ington DC Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez and this led to his decision to leave.

A former Peace Corps volunteer who has completed his two years in Guyana said that he was shocked and dismayed by the developments.

Lakhavani is said to have turned the programme around, reinvigorating the volunteers and boosting their morale.

"We, the volunteer and returned volunteer community are very upset with this sudden news and are totally in the dark as to what is going on. We were under the impression that things were on the up and up within our own community," he said.

A staff member of the Peace Corps office in Guyana said that the matter was the subject of a meeting that was to be held yesterday afternoon involving officials of the United States Embassy.

When Stabroek News contacted the Peace Corps offices in the US, staff said that because of the Privacy Act and confidentiality agreements, it was not possible to comment on personnel matters.

Peace Corps volunteers in Guyana are involved in many aspects of social services including health and education. According to the organisation's website, Lakhavani, was president of the Greensboro Junior Chamber of Commerce before joining the Peace Corps. It said that during his tenure, the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce and the Junior Chamber International recognised him as the 1998 Outstanding President.

Lakhavani also managed PricewaterhouseCoopers' international training centre in Tampa, Florida, managed the European ERP practice at Deloitte Consulting, and then moved on to work with USAID as a special assistant leading projects in human resources, procurement, financial management, and security and administrative services. He began his posting in Guyana earlier this year.

Full link:

Of Course You Realize, This Means War

A report from the front lines: Aside from the online petition, we've begun an active letter campaign, the ultimate target of which will be the high-ups in Peace Corps Washington. We're putting together positive testimonials from all the volunteers here which support Kumar as being a good Country Director. The thinking is, perhaps a unanimous groundswell of voices will get people to listen. Because, after all, the entire admin all exist to serve our needs, no?

Here's the letter I wrote to add to the collection, which will be sent to Washington, DC later this week:
My name is Tom-Brian Reeves. I am a currently-serving volunteer in the Peace Corps Guyana program, having sworn in just over two months ago. Yesterday, I heard our beloved Country Director, Mr. Kumar Lakhavani, had resigned his job for reasons not explained to the volunteers of this post -- though perhaps resigned should be in quotation marks, because it is obvious to even a casual observer that Mr. Lakhavani was essentially forced to resign or be fired.

His dismissal was a serious mistake. Mr. Lakhavani has been everything one could look for in a Country Director: he is passionate, positive, serious about his job, and has a healthy rapport with the volunteers. In him we had a friend and an advocate, much more than just a boss; he was approachable, he was sympathetic to our needs, and he offered moral support. In short, he understood that the Country Director existed to serve the needs of the volunteers and he worked to make sure we both received what we needed and were as well-adjusted into our assignments as possible. He was no push-over, but commanded respect, and perhaps more so because of his friendly manner.

A good Country Director is crucial to the health of a Peace Corps post. I began service in 1998 in the Eastern Caribbean (EC 65), and though at that time I did not continue with my service, I remained friends with some of those who did. In the second year of their service the acting CD was replaced and someone new brought in. This person brought negativity and an adversarial tone to that post; several otherwise happy volunteers ended up Early Terminating simply to get away from his incompetence. Among their number was one of my friends who found his leadership to be demoralizing and counterproductive. With Mr. Kumar Lakhavani, you had the opposite -- a good leader and a good man, someone who could revitalize the ailing Guyana post and bring out the best in his volunteers.

I fervently hope an appeal can be made in this decision and have it reversed. The Peace Corps has acted on the wrong man this time. I invite Peace Corps to contact me, or any volunteer in Guyana, to look into this matter more closely. Please consider reinstating Mr. Lakhavani as Country Director for Peace Corps Guyana.

Brian Reeves

Sadly, things are not going so well for our cause. Just a couple days into it, and we're starting to realize we may be fighting in vain. My personal hope is that, whether we're successful getting Kumar back or not, we proceed to go after the (bleep) that got him sacked. I want this guy OUT.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Someone Please Slap Me

I wish this was a fevered dream brought on by Larium. But it's not. I meant to come on today and write a little about our All-Volunter Conference, about Lake Mainstay and all the fun we had. Instead, I have some horrible news to report.

Our beloved Country Director, Kumar Lakhavani, was fired over the weekend. More accurately, he resigned under duress. I found out about it this morning when I came in to check my e-mail. A couple of high-level admin people have apparently bellyached about him for many months. I know who one of them is for sure, and I'm so angry I could spit bullets. This guy is an ineffective policy-maker and totally untrustworthy. (He once asked me, with a smirk on his face, if I'd "hooked up" yet in Guyana -- i.e., had sex. This was on the same visit where he dismissed my grievances about my homestay housing where I have no running water, no privacy, no furniture, and my host frequently having sex in the next room.)

I don't know exactly what the grievance was, but here is my personal take on the matter: As the CD, Kumar was able to bring a positive energy back into Peace Corps Guyana, which had suffered heavy losses under the yoke of the former CD, Earl Brown. All the volunteers loved him because he brought back the attitude that the volunteers' needs come FIRST, and that the staff and admin are here for us, not the other way around. Notably, Kumar even received a standing ovation at the recent All-Volunteer Conference, whereas some of his inferiors (in every sense of the term!) received poor ranks in a Volunteer Action Committee survey. Some of the admin (who received such poor rankings) are holdovers from Earl Brown's reign and from what I understand liked his condescending attitude toward the volunteers. They found Kumar to be too soft on volunteers, too buddy-buddy.

And so now Captain Bligh has held a mutiny against Fletcher Christian.

Here's the e-mail. To be on the safe side, I'm deleting any specific names or titles for those responsible. If you really want to know more, check the PeaceCorpsGuyana Yahoo Group.

Apparently ******** ******* and another staff member have been calling and complaining for months now and Kumar has been fired. I think they let go of the wrong staff member. If you want to contact Peace Corps, I would suggest it...I couldn't find the best email but you can either contact them at this address:

or here:

Or call here: 800.424.8580

I am very disappointed and very upset, as Kumar gave a lot of hope to
volunteers that were fed up.

Kumar was awesome, he really connected with the volunteers. This is
the letter I wrote to Peace Corps in support of him.

"I was a volunteer under both Earl Brown and Kumar Lahkavani in Guyana. The year and a half under Mr. Brown was absolutely a disaster. Many volunteers, like myself, avoided the office, avoided staff avoided Mr. Brown when possible. The office, our "safe haven" was anything but comfortable. Many of us hated our Peace Corps part of life, the part where we had to speak with folks at the office, had to come in, had to deal with the negativity. When Kumar arrived, it was like a ray of was awesome and my experience turned completely around. I am glad he came.

So my question is, has anyone actually been to Guyana to see how he operates? To see how happy the volunteers are? Mr. *******, who is a large part of his dismissal, is incompetent. I've been around long
enough to hear the stories, see the man in action and been affected by his decisions. I think there needs to be a real evaluation as to who needs to be dismissed and who needs to stay. I am guessing you have no idea that this is going to seriously affect the volunteers and RPCV's from Guyana. What a huge demoralizer. Did you know Kumar
received a standing ovation from the volunteers at the AVC Conference?

I understand there are plenty of issues with the Guyanese post, but
Kumar is not the biggest of your problems....if you want to know about corruption in the office, I can tell you. I have seen and witnessed very despicable things on the part of the Guyanese staff, I will be more than glad to share them with you. You are making a huge mistake letting Kumar go. You really are.

***** ******
RPCV, Guyana
2003 - 2005"

This is a travesty. The person responsible for this is the one who should have been fired. Please, if you would like to support our cause, go to the our petition on the Petition and add your name to ours. This petition is only the first of many actions. Mr. ******* thought he was getting rid of a little pest, but has unwittingly declared war on 60+ volunteers. Where this will end, who knows. Stay tuned.