Thursday, September 06, 2007

Urban or Rural?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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