Peace of the Pie

In June 2010, I quit my job so I could bike around Europe for the summer. I planned to return to San Francisco in September. 'Sure the economy's rough,' I figured, 'but I'll find something.'

Friday, October 22, 2010

The heart of the matter

Let's catch up internet, it's been a while.

Once I got back from Panama, I was lucky enough to find a job fairly quickly in San Francisco. I worked for Hamilton Family Center, and for the most part I enjoyed it. For the summer of 2010, my family was planning a trip to Poland to visit distant relatives. So after a year and half working with low-income families to find permanent housing, I had an opportunity to parlay my family trip into a two month cycling journey around Europe. I took it.

I quit my job, and it felt like the right thing to do. Everyone I talked to encouraged me, said they wished they had done something similar. I was a little worried, but I wanted to move on from that job at some point and a biking trek was as good a reason as any.

The trip was great, and I still tell people that I don't regret it at all, but the process of looking for work, the cold, anonymous grind, is much more difficult than I expected. I've been looking for a full-time job for more than a month and a half now, and even though I've been able to make ends meet, it has been a non-stop hustle. Just since I've been back I've worked five different jobs, and many times I've felt like I'm in a post-modern novel.

So before I get to the existential questions and big picture observations, I'll write a little bit about how I've been playing the rent for the past six weeks. Seems like a good place to start.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

October 11th will be my last day in Cerro Iglesias. That’s three weeks from today and probably only a week and a half from the time I post this. How do I feel? Reflective? Sad? Mostly just busy to be honest. Next week eighteen trainees from the recently arrived group will be here to learn about rural aqueducts and build a few more latrines that the community most likely won’t use. So that leaves only two weeks, and I’ve promised myself that I won’t do any work my last week, since I’ll probably need every spare minute to say goodbyes, pack up, and try to establish some sense of closure. That leaves one week. One week to try to finish the beneficio project, to finish putting up the now-corrected traffic signs, to write all the reports Peace Corps requires. It feels a bit like finals week in college: so much to do, and the worry that I’ll be doing it all up until the last minute and won’t get a chance to say all my goodbyes. All this I still much prefer over the curse of boredom.

In thinking back on the last two years, I’ve often tried to figure out why exactly this experience can be so challenging. There has been boredom, apathy, and failure, to name a few, and these are all significant factors. But living here, having long days of boredom, seeing community apathy, and enduring personal failures, feels more intense and more intensely personal than in the States. I’ve always felt it but only recently have developed a theory as to why. For the most part, I grew up in a culture of ideas and hard work. In school and in the jobs I had, the solution was nearly always that I needed to work harder or that I needed to find a different angle to approach whichever problem I couldn’t figure out. In the States we work longer hours with less vacation than anyone outside of Japan, and it shows. Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, George W. Bush. They all got to where they are through hard work and by being a step ahead of their peers. When I was falling behind on my thesis I spent fourteen hours at the library and caught up.

There is plenty of hard work to be had up here, but that isn’t necessarily enough to affect positive change. You can have an important and well-thought-out seminar topic and have worked hard to organize the seminar, but still no one might show up. Development work is like education in that no amount of hard work will compensate if no one is buying the idea you are selling. The idea was there, and you certainly worked hard to execute it, so maybe the problem was you. I think that’s at least part of the reason this experience is so emotionally intense. It is so personal. Successes are no different; they are a reflection on you, not your ideas or commitment.

This will most likely be the last time I update this blog, so I’d like to thank everyone who bothered to read it at one time or another, especially those who commented or told me in person that they were reading. The challenges I faced were a little easier knowing that someone else was listening. Having your support, however seemingly small, meant a lot to me. Thank you!

Photos: the coffee-drying house, after a long day's work, two guys fighting, supposedly over a woman, host bro Mariano, Isiais and I, me and la gente

Friday, July 25, 2008

An emusing story

I manage to fool most people most of the time, but those that know me well enough know that I have moments of breathtaking stupidity. So to most readers this is not shocking news, but it again proved itself in an interesting way recently. The newly paved road has brought more and faster traffic, so I decided to give talks at the nearby schools about highway safety because most of the students walk along the road everyday. I also wanted to put signs up near the schools to tell cars to slow down. Every student could submit a drawing about highway safety, and the winner’s would be included in the road sign. So far, so good.

I gave the talks and collected the drawings. Nowhere that I could find in Panama prints or laminates on a large scale, so I had the posters made when I was back in the States, and I don’t mind saying, it was not cheap. The signs looked good though; ‘MANAJE CON CIUDADO’ (drive with caution) they commanded. Only one problem though, it’s spelled maneje. I only finally bothered to check after I’d given four of the six signs to the schools, not before I presented any of the signs, and certainly not before I made them. With no one to blame but myself, I didn’t get that upset about it. I had made that mistake so long ago that the desire to fix the problem overshadowed the obvious truth that I and only I created the problem in the first place. I got some white and black paint and found that they stick reasonably well to a scuffed laminated surface, so I think I’ll be out of the woods as far as leaving behind a lasting tribute to my incompetence.

The strangest part about it though, is that no one corrected me. I’m still trying to figure out why exactly. Elementary education standards in rural Panama aren’t that high, so I wouldn’t expect any of the students to call me out, but I presented these road signs at the schools, in front of dozens of teachers. Even with education slipping in the US, I would like to think that one couldn’t slip ‘DRAVE WITH CAUTION’ by the average elementary school teacher. So either no one noticed, which is a bit of a frightening thought, or some of the teachers did notice and didn’t tell me. Maybe they are having a laugh at my expense, but more likely they saw the official-looking signs, saw me presenting them, and, even though it didn’t look quite right, didn’t fully trust their judgment against mine.

Around Cerro Iglesias, as Phil Conners said, I’m kind of a big deal. I’ve written in the past about how strange of a thing I am here, but the life of a Peace Corps volunteer is also as close to being a celebrity as I am bound to experience. People seem to know where I am and what I’m doing all the time, many more people know my name than I know theirs, and nearly everything I do inspires curiosity. I realize how pompous that sounds, but I’ve felt that way for a while and most volunteers would agree. What this latest episode adds to the paradigm though, is the realization that being the only gringo here endows me with the powers of Oprah Winfrey. If I tell people to read The Poisonwood Bible, they will because my opinion holds intrinsic value. If I spell potato with an e at the end, people will nod along and assume they had it wrong. If I parade around my new traffic signs, not even the honest little boy in the crowd will point out my naked ignorance.

Photos: one of the posters in rehab, a drawing I recieved for the competition, spelled correctly, and my house, newly exposed for all the world to see (my neighbor decided to cut down all his coffee plants and banana trees).

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Lookin for some strange

In the summer before I came to Panama, I drove down to Santa Fe for a family wedding. From there my brothers and I drove across Texas and up through Mississippi to Washington D.C. A friend met me in the capital for the 4th of July, and we drove back across the country to Spokane. A big ole loop, a grand ole time, and it roughly doubled the number of states I can say I’ve visited. Two years on though, what sticks out most in my memory is how much sameness we came across. Downtown Chicago reminded me of Seattle, North Carolina felt like northern California, and Houston was a fatter, uglier Los Angeles. Everywhere seemed a lot like everywhere else. Except Mississippi. The Delta really felt like somewhere else, somewhere different. The food, the formalities, the rhythm of life, it didn’t seem rooted in the homogeneous froth of the Disney Channel, Wal-Mart, and Applebee’s. Granted, we spent less than a full day in Mississippi, and our stays were equally brief in Houston and Chicago, but this was the impression I got.

That distinct feeling of unfamiliarity is in large part what I hoped to find when I signed away two years of my life to the Peace Corps. Exotic foods. Extraordinary customs. Exotic and extraordinary women. However, due to a hundred years of direct U.S. presence, Panamanian culture is fairly bland. Reading about adventures in Sub-Saharan Africa or Central Asia makes me yearn for something stranger, even as I sit in my hammock inside a bamboo house with mud floors and no electricity. The Panamanian diet ranges between beans and rice, chicken and rice, and rice and rice. Nearly everyone is Christian in a way not much different from the States. Men wear Yankees hats and shake hands to greet each other. I’ve felt this way for a while now, even though I know it is in part because I’m just used to life here.

Around noon today I was sitting around waiting for our ten o’clock meeting to start, watching an eight year-old casually and absentmindedly flick the tip of his machete against the ground. The blade edge gleamed silver, meaning it had recently been filed razor sharp. In the States, I thought of machetes as used by Crocodile Dundee to hack through brush or brandished by African tribes to wage low-tech warfare. The hint of Ghangis Khan savagery I always associated with machetes is pure masculine exoticism. Here though, nothing, nothing, could be more banal. In the States, the thought of a lone man walking towards you carrying nothing but a three-foot sword is terrifying and rarely happens. In rural Panama, the machete is the hammer, the sickle, and the kitchen knife all rolled into one. Even the poorest have their own machete; even the most disabled know how to wield one. I realized I should give Panamanian exoticism another look to see what else I might have missed.

Style. Nearly every woman here sews and probably half of all the clothes worn in Cerro Iglesias are handmade. All the women wear ridiculously bright and intricately designed dresses called ngwaes (nog-was) that they made themselves. The fabric is cotton cloth they buy down the hill, but the dresses are purely original in design, cuffed by sharp triangles and patterns. Men and women alike use chakras (chalk-ras), a hand woven shoulder-strap bag, to haul everything from cell phones to hundreds of pounds of firewood. These range in size, color, and material depending on their purpose. Chakras the size of a notebook might be intricately detailed with bright colors similar to a ngwae and used as a briefcase to carry important documents, while much larger chakras are almost entirely functional and incredibly strong. Each chakra is the product of dozens of hours of effort, working plant fibers into string before weaving them.

Work. Almost no one here has a regular job in the way we have them in the States. Most people have work they have to do or ought to do everyday, but most days are different from every other. The sharp distinction that we have between home and work absolutely does not exist here not just because work isn’t consistent but also because most work directly involves the home. Some families have stores, which might be like a regular job, but the store is literally part of the house and becomes like another newborn – cared for by different members of the family and asleep at random hours of the day. In Cerro Iglesias, there are practically no permanent jobs that pay cash. Jobs that pay, like construction or coffee-harvesting, are temporary or a long ways away or both. Even families with cash coming in from a son in the City or from some other source have cyclical agricultural chores, firewood to gather, clothes to wash. ‘Work,’ in the Office Space sense, never really ends. It never really begins either.

Communication. I love words, written and spoken, and I love a well-crafted argument or a delicately expressed thought. Communication here is different, far less literal. Words are still important, but what is said matters less than how. An opinionated declaration is often punctuated with ‘sí o no?’ (yes or no?), which is not an invitation to ponder what has been said but a flourish urging the listener to nod. The seemingly innate ability to turn a one sentence argument into a twenty-minute impassioned speech fascinates me. Ngäbes rarely discuss their feelings towards each other though, especially men, but it is clear to me how they feel by how they shake hands, where they sit and stand, and how they’ll sometimes lean on each other when watching soccer. The culture is far more physically oriented – everyone has been doing physical labor since they could walk, humor is mostly physical, falling down makes kids laugh instead of cry – and so is communication. When I’m sitting by myself on a bench, rare is the new arrival who doesn’t sit right next to me.

Photos: Of the school on a beautiful afternoon, some neighbor girls in their school uniforms, women crowded around the store window to cash in their food stamps, Vincente after a hard day of carrying 2 x 4s, soccer on that same beautiful afternoon

Monday, May 19, 2008

Which of us is the superhero?

In Cerro Iglesias, more than half the people call me by my Ngäbe name, Iyi (Eegee). When the captain of our soccer team writes out our lineup, it says Iyi Dobrobo – Mediocampo (mid-field). Nearly all of the volunteers living in indigenous communities have a similar doppelganger, and when I got mine I didn’t think of it as anything more than a nickname. Many of our American names are hard to pronounce and I figured a primary reason for giving me a Ngäbe name was to facilitate shouting at me when I walked by. It’s the same reason we pronounce it Laz Annjelez: to switch into another language’s tongue contortions for two syllables just doesn’t seem worth it. When I asked what my name signifies (hoping against hope that it meant ‘noble warrior,’ or ‘dragon’s breath,’ or ‘Walker, Texas Ranger’), everyone responded somewhat confusedly, “’s a name.” Just as well I thought, the man who gave me the name had never met me when he did.

But Iyi has become a real person over the last year and a half. He and the person writing this blog entry are very different people.

Iyi loves lukewarm chunky corn drink.

Iyi loves watery sugary coffee.

Iyi doesn’t mind if you laugh at his attempts to speak Ngäbe, he will only smile in response.

Iyi really doesn’t like being called ‘gringo.’

Iyi leaves his house for a meeting at the time the meeting is supposed to start.

Iyi thinks a pack of crackers should really cost ten cents, and the fact that they are now fifteen makes him shake his head at how expensive things have gotten.

Iyi thinks a dog is healthy if it has all its fur and he isn't able to count all its ribs.

Iyi is going to cry when he leaves because he will miss this place terribly.

Iyi loves the cool climate here, he says it reminds him of the States.

Iyi will come back to visit whenever he can.

Iyi gets one thing done in a day and feels productive.

Iyi is always happy to have visitors, even if he was really looking forward to sitting in his hammock and reading.

Iyi has an incredibly simple sense of humor, he’s not sure if irony or sarcasm translates into Spanish, but it doesn’t seem to translate in Cerro Iglesias.

Iyi tells the same jokes over and over because they always get laughs.

Sometimes, if I’m outside of Cerro Iglesias and I run into someone from there, Iyi and I meet, and it can be a little awkward. Iyi lives a very simple life, and rarely spends more than a dollar and a half in a day. Since Iyi and I look identical, it's hard to justify to the person from my site why I have a bottle of wine in one hand, a t-bone steak on the end of a fork on the other, and I'm skipping down the street in my gold-plated sneakers. Iyi and I are very different.

In no other chapter of my life have I had such a distinctly different persona, and so it seems fitting that I have a different name. In October, I'll leave that name behind and probably never use it again unless I go back to visit. For the first few months after I'm gone, I'll probably turn my head when someone shouts 'BeeGee!' or something like that, but eventually it will fade from my consciousness. I still hear stories about Joyo and Choli, the two previous volunteers, and so that's probably where Iyi will survive. 'Iyi, he sure loved corn drink...'

Iyi can’t believe how fast his two years have gone by.

There are some things we have in common.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Fast Times in Cerro Iglesias

That’s not what we think, that’s how it is,” an affable tech guy told me matter-of-factly when I asked if he thought Ngäbes were lazy. Unbeknownst to him, he was at the time helping the Ngäbe-run cooperative, which was the only thing keeping me from jumping down his throat. I was in a city a long ways from the Comarca, and it’s likely that this friendly, college-educated young guy had had little to no contact with Ngäbes in his life, but he didn’t hesitate to write off the entire race as indolent. I was in the same area a few months ago when three middle aged women expressed the same sentiment. The irony of their doing so while sitting in rocking chairs in the middle of the day on a weekday escaped them.

It seems common for those who have never been to the Comarca and have had little contact with Ngäbes to color them all as lazy and dirty. Unlike Lou Dobbs towards Mexicans, the feeling is not one of anger but disgust and superiority. I don’t get the sense that Latinos think Ngäbes are taking their jobs, but more that there could be an ocean between them and the Comarca for all they care and that they shouldn’t be wasting any time or money on Ngäbes. A friend of mine told me he was on a bus (outside of the Comarca) speaking Ngäbe with a friend when someone turned around and told them they should be speaking Spanish. I’ve heard similar stories in the States of soccer moms telling supermarket employees that even if they’re speaking amongst themselves, they oughta be speaking English here in America. But because overt racism is no longer socially acceptable, incidents like I described with the tech guy are fairly rare.

Racism now resembles the intangible but all-important high school popularity. What Hollywood gets most wrong about high school are the mechanisms involved in excluding the uncool. Movies play up the big, bad jock (usually named Brad) flinging rubber bands, and the evil cheerleader (Kelly) maliciously telling the nerds about parties they aren’t invited to. This makes the popular easier to villainize, but in reality there are very few wedgies and more of a general and accepted sense of hierarchy, status, and superiority. Racism outside of the Comarca is very similar, and although I don’t see Ngäbes and Latinos interacting daily, the interactions I see often are weighted with a similar overtone. Also like high school, while Ngäbes snark amongst themselves about Latinos, many of them emulate the Latino culture and are quick to escape the Comarca if the opportunity arises.

Therein lies one of development’s greater challenges: if the work I do allows or causes people to further shun their own culture in favor of the homogenized Latino/American world of Yankee hats and Daddy Yankee (a reggaeton group), can I call that work positive? If I help someone produce and sell bread, and then with that money, he leaves the Comarca to live in the city, is that progress? The community loses a leader and his children grow up not speaking their own language. What I tell myself is that development is about providing choices to those who didn’t previously have them. Their course of action is an exercise of personal freedom. I would prefer that he stay and live and work and raise his children in the Comarca, but I also realize he is deciding between a world of dirt floors and a world of electricity, between subsistence farming and grocery stores, accordion music and Shakira. So I can’t blame him.

In the end of the movie, the nerd usually triumphs at the Big Party, lands the impossibly gorgeous girl, and realizes how lucky he is to have the friends he has. I guess I’m hoping for the same sort of thing.

Photos: a nearby hill carved away to get rock for the road, road construction, the soccer field, where the road, the dumptruck, and everything else is in play, some high school kids watching soccer, the last orange of the season.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Where are the Gershwins of yesteryear?

First of all, I want to thank everyone who donated to the project or passed it along to a friend. I just recieved word that the project has been fully funded and in a few weeks, I’ll receive the money and we can get started. There’s a joke that in Alaska there are two seasons: winter and construction, and even though it hasn’t been a typical dust bowl summer here, the same still applies and right now is the best time of year for construction. So thanks again for the quick and generous response.

We still have a month of summer left, which will hopefully be enough to finish the various larger projects around town: the new municipal building, the new roof for the school, and incredibly, mercifully, gorgeously, the road. Due to a measurement error, only enough funds were allocated for seven kilometers of beautiful asphalt for our eight kilometer road. This means when they’ve finished you’ll be able to drive a Ford Fiesta eighty-eight percent of the way up, but you’ll still need a heavy 4x4 for the remaining twelve. They’ve already flattened, widened, and put the initial layer of gravel on those seven kilometers, so the ride down feels less like a forty-five minute crash landing, the chivas run more regularly, and the stores always have eggs. The days are longer and sunnier, people are working to finish whichever home project before the rains come, and in general, things seem to be happening. Kinda. There is a strange duality in the summertime because even though there is undeniable proof that things are happening, sometimes it feels like nothing is happening. School is out for the summer, so the streets are empty of the constant movement of teachers and students. Often, especially in the middle of the day, the town feels empty. So much needs doing in the window of summer, but maybe not today.

I am feeling a similar dichotomy with the time I have remaining here. With little more than seven months left, this is my last summer here. In fact, my lasts started back in November – I won’t be here for another Independence Day – and each one that passes reminds me of how little time I have left. I’m making progress at the cooperative and on a few of the other projects I’m involved with, and there is still a lot I want to accomplish. I know August’ll sneak up on me and I’ll be incredulously saying my goodbyes. Buuut, some days are static and sleepy, some days are a mile long, and those days remind me that seven months is not a weekend retreat. The World Series will be over by the time I get back, and the season, the preseason, hasn’t even started yet. Seven months is more than two hundred days, more than five thousand hours. So sometimes I get caught up dreaming about the next chapter of my life, but that seems to be best remedied by a good game of soccer.