What to do…what to do?


It’s summertime, and as I posted before, there’s a pretty big lapse in demand for my labors.  Well, I could teach summer school but I figured might as well take a breather.  After all, I’ll be pretty busy in the coming weeks and months – building bathrooms, health promotion in schools, and possibly doing another bathroom project. 

In the mornings, I’ll go and check my e-mail at the health post, coordinate some things (Peace Corps anniversary, site visits from APCD and Washington big-wigs, hosting Peace Corps training events), but there’s still a gaping hole in my schedule, especially in the afternoon.  So what’s a guy to do?


+ Take a nap!

+ Watch movies/TV: Even the most productive Peace Corps volunteers are guilty of watching entire seasons of a TV show in a few days. 

+ (shudders) Exercise (it took me three times to spell that word right).  I’m currently on week 4 of a 90 day workout plan called P90X

+ Read

+ Being a nerd and reviewing my macro-economics textbook

+ Download articles, save them to my hard drive in the morning and read them in the afternoon

On Egypt.


With the recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and now what appears to be Iran, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Libya friends back home ask me if I’ve heard of what’s going on. And it’s true; it’s pretty easy to live under a rock while in the Peace Corps…working in rural zones and all. I’m lucky, as I can buy national newspapers (La Republica, Peru 21, and El Comericio) in my town AND I have access to cable TV. This is especially nice considering some fellow volunteers live in cities much bigger than mine and don’t have access to newspapers. But anyways, thanks to the internet TeleSur (nationalized Venezuelan TV station); I was able to keep updated about the protests in Egypt and could see live coverage. No one in my town really talked about it much…Egypt is a truly foreign place and in a foreign world to many people in town, so it was hard to relate.

To me, the protests and the changing government are interesting. It was heartening to see that the 18 days of peaceful protests led to a peaceful change of government (for the meantime at least). While not as quick and needing much more manpower than a simple violent coup, the protests showed the power of peace and seemingly have spread to other countries. Fed up with high food prices, continuing and deteriorating conditions and no hope for the future, Egyptians came out in force and asked for a change. And the ripple effect has spread to other countries, where especially the youngsters are out in force. And with international spotlight, it’s not as easy for the governments to overtly suppress these protests without international backlash.

And while some people were upset that the Obama administration did not support the protests and speak for Mubarak to step down sooner, I agree with that policy. With our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, US support for democracy in other parts of the world can easily be viewed as new imperialism. Sure, words aren’t sending arms and munitions but at the same time it could at the very least rise speculation from detractors. And since when did we change to being all gung-ho about the US spreading democracy in the middle east after two terms of George Bush plus the economic downturn (see: Lexington’s ‘Was George Bush Right?’ at economist.com)

But just because the protests are seemingly over, Egyptians still have much to worry about. Some pundits and editorials are pointing this to being another military coup. After all, who is in-charge right now? The Egyptian Army. While quiet during the protests and largely apart from the Mubarak government, right now they’re the ones with the power. It was announced that open elections will be held in 6 months, and while there is reason to believe it (I remember a paper citing that since the 1990’s, we’ve seen an increase towards the military turning towards democracy), it’s still a wait and see type situation.

As well, problems that caused the protests (food prices, unemployment, poverty) aren’t just going to go away because democracy rides into town. In fact, Michael Ross wrote a paper entitled ‘Is Democracy Good for the Poor’ discussing that, in fact, we have very little information about the effects of government on decreasing poverty levels. And while we can predict middle and high income democracies will certainly have lower levels of poverty, a poor country is still a poor country and will struggle to provide basic services to its citizens whether a democracy or not.

Michael Ross measures under-5 deaths as well as life expectancy, data sets available for every country, and found that over 30 years, countries that transitioned from non-democratic to democratic showed no significant improvement in these indicators. Additionally, when democracies do spend money on social services, the middle and upper classes benefit more than the lower classes due to access and availability of services. (Michael Ross 2006 “Is Democracy Good for the Poor?”). And while democracy obviously has its benefits, it is not the magic bullet to Egypt’s problems…but it could be a start.

Can’t stop the summer

So I wound up getting bit in the ass by my project.  Well, slightly.  I gambled and overstepped, and got burned by the unchangeable.

Well, I’m probably being dramatic.  I think at one point in this little fountain of knowledge about how timing has a lot to do, specifically with projects.  For example, during high season (summer) for crop picking, don’t expect to find anyone at home as every member of the family is going to be hard at work in the fields.  But during the ‘winter’ around these parts, there isn’t as much demand and/or work to do in the fields, so people are more likely to come to activities.

And that’s what happened.

During the first three months of health talks, attendance was pretty steady in both communities (La Botella and Huabalito).  Then December hit, January came and something weird happened.  At meetings in La Botella, families came as usual.  But in Huabalito only one or two people would show up for the meetings!  Hmmmm…weird I thought, and rescheduled the meeting for the next week..posted a piece of paper on the school door and told the neighbors.  But the same thing happened, nobody showed up except two people.  And the same thing the week after, meanwhile people from La Botella were coming to the meetings regularly.  How could this happen?  All the families have a schedule with the exact dates of the talks, so it wasn’t a surprise that we were having these meetings.   So what happened?

Summer kicked in.

While in La Botella, the main crop is grapes and sugar which are more or less grown year round. But in Huabalito (which is literally about 10 minutes further up the road) everyone grows rice.  And the summertime is high time for rice, especially with summer rains.  So nothing was stopping (and rightfully so) all the participating families from their hard work and most of their yearly earnings, not even an energized talk on trash sorting.  Families will work 6-7 days a week in their rice paddies from January until March trying to get the most out of rainy season. 

So I went out to the community and talked to a few families (catching them at breakfast) and the local health promoter about what to do. He assured me that in March things would be back to normal, and that we could just do the remaining sessions then.  It’d be a little cramped because we also have to talk about the bathrooms, but we were all happy with the compromise.  And then I was sent away on the bus with a backpack full of mangos, maracuyá, and 5 pounds of rice.  I guess my job isn’t so bad after all…

Volunteer or Professional Organization?

Peace Corps Volunteers are called volunteers for a reason: the willingly sign up.  But don’t business professionals willingly sign up to work at X&Y company?  Especially with the growth of Peace Corps, not only in size and number of volunteers but also in terms of programming areas and effectiveness, the role of the volunteer has changed.  Volunteers are no longer just issued a plane ticket to country, sent-off, and wished the best of luck.  Peace Corps invests a lot in the volunteers, from various trainings before and during service, a medical unit, security staff, administrative, and technical support.  However, unlike being a lawyer or a general 9-to-5er, we never really get to take off the Peace Corps hat.  It’s said that our job is 24/7, and going home means going down the street, where (like it or not) you’re still representing the good ol USA and Peace Corps.

One of the items of contention the volunteers and administration share is Professionalism and Volunteering and where the line is between the two.  For example, our handbook has a dress code that isn’t demanding we wear uniforms or suits while in site, but does mandate length of hair and what you should wear while officially working.  I personally don’t disagree with the idea that wearing shorts and sandals while at a school, health post, or government institution is unprofessional. But what about when we’re off the clock. We can’t wear what we would like, as if we were back in our own home. And beyond social consequences, we face letters in our files for ‘repeat offenses’ (which matter if you’re needing a letter of recommendation for grad school or your next job) as well as the possibility of early termination (I can’t even imagine what the scenario is for that).

But joking aside, we’re always on the clock.  Is it appropriate to get drunk at a town party, where everyone will see you (even if they’re drunk, too)? Or do you abstain, frowning and scoffing your head at the local customs (getting ridiculously drunk at functions is generally socially acceptable as long as everyone is doing the same, here in Peru and in other countries world-wide)?

Likewise, many of our communications in the Peace Corps happen electronically, through email.  I can’t really think of a volunteer who has a separate email account for Peace Corps, so precious internet time is mixed between answering and mailing Peace Corps staff and responding to your friend’s ridiculous stories, coordinating for your family to come visit, and finding out an ex is getting married to a circus performer.  Yep, 24/7.  And sometimes is that you get rapid responses from your mom or your ex’s fiance who shoves his heads in lion’s mouths to pay rent, but emails to Peace Corps Peru staff go unanswered, even after re-sending them various times.

Both volunteers and administration, I believe, have differing views of the other.  I won’t speak for what we term ‘the Office’, but the general idea is that we volunteers in the field are first priority for the organization and it’s hard to understand why e-mails go unanswered in an office where you hear Microsoft Outlook sounds go off every minute.  But then again, maybe that’s it – overwhelmed staff?  Regardless, what else is there besides volunteers (sarcastic) to take care of? 

This is also not to say that Peace Corps is unresponsive.  The Medical and Security Units are always quick to pick up their ringing phones, but seemingly simple things often drag out and require many back-and-forths (over e-mail), forwards and cc’s.  However, volunteers are notorious for being slow and late to turn in their vacation requests, monthly reports (used the first 3 months of service) and tri-annual report – all of which are often incomplete and full of blanks. 

It’s really just a back and forth, I guess.  In the end, Peace Corps is largely what YOU make it to be – professional or semi pro.

Is it really about Goal 2? Goal 3?

Roughly 50 people work in the central Peace Corps office here in Peru.  However, the push and focus is still largely on development, often calling volunteer ‘facilitators of development, organizers’ and a host of other buzzwords.

While the Peace Corps has three goals (1. Assist with development using human and technical resources 2) Be a representative of the US in foreign countries 3) Teach Americans about the host-nationals), the focus is still largely goal 1.  We have plenty of information about water treatment, child nutrition, and how to plant a tree and plenty of staff to help with that, however there’s really no manual on ‘Best Practices to Teach About Americanism’ nor ‘Proper Techniques on Sharing a Carbonated Beverage with an Older Member of Your Community’.  I’m not sure what the office reaction is to PCVs who really don’t ‘do’ much in terms of technical work in their site, but are very integrated and well liked.  It definitely doesn’t look good for the program nor the country, especially compiling success reports and asking for more money as there’s no box to fill in for ‘received x number of invites’ or ‘name is shouted x times while walking across town’.

However, Peace Corps is pushing the World Wide Exchange program, where a volunteer has a pen-pal exchange program with a class of American students from elementary level to high school and they converse about the life of a volunteer (yawn) as well as local cultures, customs, etc (aka Goal 3).  A few volunteers have extended this and turned it into a letter exchange program between American and Peruvian students, and generally eating the cost of postage differential (we get paid the price to mail one letter a month but mailing 20-30 letters raises the price significantly).  And there is a spot to check in our tri-annual reporting tool if we’re participating in the program.

I guess while it’s easy to quantify how many people come to health talks or how many local craftsmen have raised their output and income, it’s difficult to quantify Goal 2 (and boring).  A happy volunteer is not necessarily the one building and working all the time, but the one who walks contently through their community, has a small group of fans who actually know their name, and a few people who can name which state you’re from (and that you like Coca-Cola). 

Wanted: Artists, Doodlers, Sketch Artists, Graffiti Artists….

We’re often known, as volunteers in the Peace Corps, to be an eclectic bunch with various backgrounds.  Engineers, business people, biologists, botanists, disaster management specialists, and journalists arm the ranks of Peace Corps Peru.  Of course, we still have our (super) generalists, who have a slightly less technical and professional resume but still fit the bill (and job description).  And while the focus for Peace Corps is to fill x amount of spots with certain professionals, generalists with different skill sets (public speaking, construction) still make up a large chunk of volunteers in most countries.   But whether skilled or not, with a Master’s, BA, or whatever,  I propose that an important skill for the Peace Corps (and often lacking in many volunteers) is the ability to draw. 


Even just general doodlers can be an asset to many programs.  Why?  There’s a need to step back and talk about education and literacy first.  Well, we generally work in impoverished communities which tend to have poor education rates.  While level of education achieved can vary, largely the population is under educated.  Especially in communities where adults only have elementary or partial secondary school completed and have spent a large amount of time out of school, reading is a limited activity.  Reading for pleasure, beyond the Bible, is almost unheard of and most reading is just basic forms and signing off.  For the volunteer, most likely a college graduate and used to reading articles/papers/books, reading a pamphlet is nothing.  However, if a volunteer hands a 40 year old woman, possibly 30 years+ out of school, full of words and few illustrations there’s a good chance the intended message won’t come across. It might be intimidating, or at the very best minimally effective.  The same while giving presentations or talks to the community.  It does little good to fill a papelote (large poster papers) with words…even as we learn using Power Point – too many words leads to a) the person overly concentrating on trying to read everything on the paper and not paying attention to you b) not read anything.

However, some cleverly animated paper presentations and handouts can go a longer way than any kind of word material.   People are more likely to pay more attention to the drawing, to have it stick in their mind and find a message in it.  That’s not to say it can be without text, but the main message should be in the drawing.  What’s more effective, more striking: a picture of someone not covering their nose while sneezing and snot going everywhere or reading ‘cover your nose when you sneeze’? Images tend to stay with us longer.  Even a simple sticker by the sinks remind us to wash our hands.  Simply, images are more effective than printed words when dealing with things like health promotion and general non-formal teaching methods. 

So, if you’re looking to join the Peace Corps, but don’t necessarily feel like you qualify or if the recruiter may have doubts, try pulling this card out of your sleeve.  I can’t really guarantee it’ll work, but it couldn’t hurt your chances.  (PS: Let me know if it works!)

Talking Trash

One of the topics we talked about in my Viviendas Saludables program is trash management.  In the two rural communities I work in, neither one has any real trash management program in place, and most residents throw their trash in far off places, or simply burn it.  As I was giving a talk to families I realized what an immense problem it was, and the solution even more so.  How can I really expect that much positive change out of one simple talk and a couple home visits?  Most people seemed pretty content with the way things are with the trash, and didn’t see a problem.  What to do, what to do???

Peru, among many countries in both the Peace Corps and the real world (whatever that is), has become increasingly focused on issues of environmental sustainability and reducing contamination from various industries and sources.  Children are taught all about the need to save the environment and learn all kinds of cool slogans, hold song and art contests and anything you can think about to get the message out. Government news stories focus on environmental stories, including conservation and general feel good fillers.  However, the majority of Peru still handles waste and contamination in a poor, environmentally unfriendly fashion.

Let’s start at the school.  Although kids participate in poster contests about caring for the environment, they still throw their plates and papers on the floor – not even in a waste basket.  Recycling is generally out of the question – the school said they tried but kids, no matter how much class time given to the subject, kept on throwing their trash into every container and not separating it.   Old habits die hard, and is an example why trash and sanitation is one of the hardest and exhausting jobs a volunteer can have, and it never really looks like that. 

The thing with trash is, it’s not necessarily a physical project with garbage cans, trucks and landfills.  Rather, it’s a holistic and behavior change project, where people have to alter their day-to-day habits in order for positive actions to take affect.  Separating the trash, while seemingly simple, can be a grueling door-to-door effort where little immediate change happens.  People have to be convinced that their changes are for the better, and will directly benefit them and/or their families.  There is a need to understand that burning your trash is dangerous and toxic, and simply throwing it out into uninhabited territory contaminates the environment, even if you can’t see it. 

And what to do with the trash?  It’s not only trash, but volunteers and community leaders must also think of all the R’s in trash management – reduce, reuse, recycle, repair, reject, repurpose, etc…  All of these help with trash management by reducing the general output of trash, thus reducing the demand for recollecting services and landfill space.  Especially if you’re trying to work in the town, community or even just a section of the town, you’ll need backing and support by the municipality.  Man-hours have to go into doing a trash analysis (collecting trash from a sample population in the town for 8 days, and then sorting and weighing the material).  After that, the municipality and community partners need to talk with residents, usually door to door, about project plans and what is needed from the residents (trash sorting, for example).  Then it’s on to training the Municipality workers about any new programs (recycling, composting) and sort that all out. 

Even in the small rural community setting, trash management is a task in itself.  Community members must first see the need to change the way they manage trash beyond ‘the gringo says so’.  After that, families must practice seperation of organic materials, inorganic recyclable, inorganic non-recyclable (which can be further broken down), and then toxic, and then a solution must be found for each type of trash (composting, feeding it to the animals, micro rellenos, recycling, battery collection) and followed through.  This process can take months before anything is achieving…finding a buyer for recycled material, families using micro-rellenos, not finding batteries thrown on the ground.

Getting Out of the House or ‘I DON”T WANNA GO TO SKEWWWWLLLL’

With Peace Corps, you never know how your day is going to start (or end, I guess).  I’ve woken up, left the house with one objective and found something else along the way.  Such is the life. Here’s a few examples:

+ Within my first week at site (December 1st to be exact), I set out to walk across town to meet up with the health post and talk with socio about some beginning work plans.  I ran into them coming down from the health post, saying they were going to a parade.  A parade? 9am on a Wednesday? Alright, cool. So we show up to the elementary school, and the kids are armed with various signs and posters about HIV/AIDS.  Cool!  Turns out, the health post organized the parade and were at the front with a banner and handing out condoms and of course Mateo was to be included.  So I walked along with them, holding the banner and marching through town on display.  At least the town found out I was anti-HIV/AIDS.

+Two weeks ago, I was sitting in my room, listening to music and drinking some coffee (aka easing into the day) when my sister comes and says ‘Mateo, te buscan’ or ‘Mateo, they’re looking for you’ or ‘Mateo, there’s people at the door for you’.  People, not just persons? In the morning?  So I go to see what’s up, and there’s about seven university students from Trujillo who came to see me and were sent by the regional mayor (who I, to my knowledge, had never met at that point) to do a project on tourism in our rural valley zone.  Funny thing about that - there’s really not too much to make you swerve off the Pan-American highway to come to my town.  My family sat in the kitchen laughing at the ridiculousness of the seven students cramped into our small sitting room and all eyes pointed towards me.  Best part, they also filmed our conversation. 

+ Sometimes I leave the house, and no one I need is where they’re supposed to be or their last known whereabouts.  Sometimes things don’t get followed through on.

+Sometimes I just leave the house, check in at the Municipality/Health Post/High School just to see if anything is new, maybe talk with some people on the street, have a cold Coke and see what else I can get into.

The life of a Peace Corps volunteer is always varied and consistency is not a normal part of life for volunteer nor national, especially for posts in Peru.  Volunteers are their own boss, and nobody is going to fault you for not ‘punching in on-time’.  We make our own schedules, make our own rounds.  It’s beautiful, liberating, and also frustrating.  You’re the jefe, you’re the boss. Every initiative will be yours, and most of the beginning footwork.

And sometimes, there really is nothing to do. There’s really just shit to do.  Things get put on hold, people go away for awhile, school goes on break,  there’s transitions - during local election season, it’s impossible to get anything done through local government that won’t be finished and on display before the elections, and if the incumbents lose, it’s 3 months of lame duck (if they choose to show up at all).  And even amidst all that, there’s still not stuff to do.  And many times, like it might be in the States, it’s easier to stay dressed down, make an extra cup of coffee and stay in, turn on the TV/NetFlix (or in PC case, computer) and veg out for awhile.  But I always think it’s worth it to do a ‘vuelta’ (a turn or lap) to check on things, and see what you might stumble upon.  Season 2 of How I Met Your Mother will still be there when you get back.