Should I bring an iPod?


So I try to balance this blog with both information relevant to future Peace Corps volunteers, ideas of what it’s like in Peru, and thoughts on development/Peru/Peace Corps in general.  It’s gotten a little serious, so here’s an easy one:

Should I bring an iPod (or any MP3 player)?


Your music will save your sanity.

While a laptop is a larger beast and might stick out more, the MP3 player is pretty common around these parts.  Most kids in my town have USB memory sticks filled with music and then connect them to their moto-taxis, radios, or this recently introduced MP3 ghetto-blaster boombox.  It’s like a boom box (fierce speakers, battery powered) but instead of cassettes or CDs, you just plug in your USB and it automatically reads your MP3s. 

I don’t walk around listening to my iPod all the time and really only use it when I’m traveling.  For the long bus rides (or even the 2 hour rides to the capital city) or travelling, it can’t be beat. When I’m traveling around and staying overnight, I’m likely to stay in the cheapest place possible aka dorm hostel rooms.  The MP3/iPod can be a great friend against the snoring backpacker and/or loudly blasting music and/or drunken chatter.

What type should I bring?

I have one of the big iPod classics, and I might actually recommend against that.  It’s bigger so not as easily to keep in your pocket, but it’s good to have all your music in one place.

I also use a 1GB iPod shuffle, which is easier to move around with but alas has limited capacity.

Something you might want to consider is bringing an iPod touch. It can play music, videos/movies (great for long bus rides), and can connect to WiFi which is usually available in the capital cities.  Phones like Blackberrys and even iPhones can be seen in Peru (well the rich parts of your capital city).  Even for me, the WiFi makes the iPod Touch really tempting to buy.  Especially when coming into the capital city for a few hours, having the WiFi capabilities to check email/Facebook/news beats the hell out of lugging my 15” Dell around town.  So if you’re in the market for an MP3, consider the iPod touch.  But, at the same time, don’t go out and buy one if you’re short on cash and/or already have a fully functioning MP3 (part of the larger scale disease future Peace Corps Volunteer shopping sprees at REI).

And I know that I’ve only been listing the iPod and it’s because really, I have no idea what else is on the market – so make substitutions as necessary.

The Gringo as the Development Actor


“People from developed countries who do development work have not made common cause with the poor of the world. It doesn’t matter if you’re with a large international NGO, a small DIY operation, a hulking multilateral like the World Bank, an Irish rock band, the Peace Corps, or whatever. Even if you move to a rural village on your own and live like the locals, you’re still there by choice. That’s a key difference between you and your neighbors that can never be overcome, no matter how much you love each other. You (and I) grew up in a very different environment, with relative luxury and a very different health and educational system. You probably have resources and contacts that could take you back to the US or wherever. You might care a great deal about the fate of a poor community, but your fate is not the same as theirs.”

-Dave Algoso
Find What Works Blog


Peace Corps volunteers have the privilege of being able to leave the communities they work in.  We can leave our communities for the modern capital cities, eat some higher end foods, have a few beers and crash at a hostal/hotel.  Even moreso, if we really feel like it –we can go back home.  Either visiting during Christmas, or just deciding to early termination.  We can go back to our lives, our friends, our families in America. Hell, we have a plane ticket guaranteed!  If we want to early terminate, Peace Corps buys your plane ticket home and within a week you’ll be home. You leave.

And as much as you can be integrated in your community, you’ll leave.  You’ll leave all the problems that you see, all the social injustice, the poverty, the hardships your neighbors deal with. You’ll leave the challenges and the hurdles that you and your counterparts dealt with in order to work with a group of families and gain government money for a few small projects.  And while the children continue to get sub-standard education, you can go back and apply for graduate school fellowships for your two years of work. 

It’s harsh, but it’s true.  

Peace Corps also encourages volunteers to stay for third year positions: country initiatives, volunteer leaders/coordinators, Peace Corps response. Peace Corps encourages volunteers to stay in site for a third year and continue to work in their communities. In many ways it makes sense, especially instead of sending a new volunteer.  The 3rd year volunteer is already integrated and known, knows the community needs and resources and can be more effective at motivating and executing a project plan this time around.  And besides, two years really isn’t enough for any long standing change.  But really, when opportunities for promotions are up and all your PCV friends have left (aka a part of your emotional and technical support), how do you feel about sticking around and putting your life in the States on hold for a year?  Especially when you can just leave and go back to the States and still get a sparkling review. 

I’m guilty of this.  While I want to stay here in Peru for a third year, I’m set on a position with more leadership involved.  PCVLs and PCVCs also work with other NGOs, IOs, or government institutions at a higher level.  It’s more prestigious for me and allows for more experience. I’ll also live in a larger city, either the regional or country capital, with more resources and distractions.  I considered sticking around in my community to continue working but am probably not going to.  But why? My municipalities (local, district AND provincial) support me and show interest in my plans and the work volunteers here do in general. My socio is great, and there’s no lack of work to be done – especially in health promotion.   

But that begs the question – where does it stop? There will always be work to do here, whether I stay or not. But regardless, it shows that I still have that option.  Does that make me selfish? Does this make me less committed?  Wish I had an answer.

Keiko Fujimori and her dad


I’ve spent a few tries attempting to write a post about the presidential elections, and especially about the candidacy of Keiko Fujimori. Everyone turned out long winded and lacking any real base without seemingly turning this into a journal article or some un-cited Wikipedia page.

But what’s the deal with Keiko?

At age 35, Keiko Fujimori is a serious contender to win the presidency of Peru this April.  She’s young (35 years old), educated (MBA at Columbia University), experienced (former Congressional representative), has a campaign message of promoting citizen safety and security, and well loved by her country.  Why? Partly through her work in congress, but also because of her father – ex-President and current inmate Alberto Fujimori.

Alberto Fujimori won the 1990 presidential elections through his popularity, connection with the working man – Fujimori’s humble background plus his campaign involved handshaking and door to door campaigning in the rural parts of Peru largely avoided by politicians.  He inherited a country in deep problems – terrorism, drug trafficking, unstable economy, the works.  During his presidency, he stopped terrorism, reduced drug trafficking in the country, improved safety, improved infrastructure in all parts of the country with schools/health posts/roads (even in rural zones, where cost-analysis would say there’s little benefit).  At the same, he was responsible for an unruly ‘death squad’ accused of state terrorism and killing innocent civilians as well as declaring ‘emergency’, dissolving congress and installing himself as the legislative body.  Fujimori and his right hand man were also involved in corruption and extortion (murder, kidnapping, arms dealing, drug trafficking) and bother were tried and convicted and currently sitting in Peru federal prison.  Once again, ex-Presidente Alberto Fujimori is serving jail time for corruption and extortion and is heavily suspected (if not already convicted) of murder and kidnapping.

However, the Fujimori name remains favorable and popular.  He’s remembered not for kidnapping and questionable security forces, but for all the projects he brought to the rural zones who frequently describe themselves as ‘forgotten’.  He brought schools and roads to the far ends of Peru, and brought safety to many citizens through his tough security stance.

On top of that, Keiko has a clear political policy on beefing up national security and police forces to combat the growing crime throughout the country, an issue which citizens can identify.  She’s hardline and she’s clearly spoken, unlike other candidates who’s platform isn’t necessarily that clear unless it gets broken as scandalous news.  She’s constantly in the top-3 in opinion polls about presidential candidate –but her dad is still ex-President and convicted convict (she was once on record a while ago saying she would pardon her father if elected to office, but later revoked that statement).  Beyond this simple but jarring fact, Keiko Fujimori isn’t necessarily a bad pick for presidency or at least no worse than the other candidates  (11 in total, 5 with an actual chance of winning) unless you’re a leftist.

REPOST: Why Dry Bathrooms? (with pictures)

UPDATE January 2013:  I am conducting an evaluation of the project hopefully to be completed in late February or early March.  Will update then.

Or I guess the question is what are dry bathrooms.  Dry bathrooms are known by many names, and I tend to interchange them a bunch.  Dry bathrooms aka eco baños, ecological bathrooms, compost bathrooms, compost toilets, etc. are designed in the most basic sense to be part of a process to turn human waste into fertilizer. 
Wait!! But didn’t you say shitting in the fields was part of the sanitation problem in the first place?
Well, I never did say it but you’re right, Jimmy (errr…Timmy).  Directly shitting on plants is bad. Real bad.  The use of night soil (a cleaned up phrase for the combo of shit and piss) directly on plants is a point of high risk in the diarrheal circle. Viruses, worms, and germs find new homes in plants, which if not carefully washed, are ingested by humans causing a host of new problems.
Alright, Lyle Lanley. What’s this dry bathroom thing then?
Depending on the model, shit and piss are handled separately from the beginning to end stages.  The most basic design is a box with a toilet seat, and then a bucket inside for the shit/piss mix.  After every use, add in saw dust or something to start absorbing the urine.  Once full, you just add the bucket to the compost pile and let it sit and mix in for at least six months.  During that time, all the bad things in our poop such as viruses and worm eggs die as the temperature of the compost pile is higher than that of the human body.  In fact, most of the bad stuff dies off within a few days…just the pesky eggs stick around.

So that’s what you’re doing?
Yes and no.  Families here don’t readily practice composting as most of their food scraps are fed to the animals, and there’s not too much organic matter left.   The models we’re implementing are slightly more complex, but not complicated. We’re building a unit 2m wide by 1.9m long by 1m tall out of a concrete floor, bricks, and then another concrete slab to top it all off.  The inside faces of the bricks are sealed with a mix of mortar and SIKA.  The top concrete slab has a hole where we put the special toilet seat.  This seat is pretty simple: you sit, and the poop falls through the back half, while the urine is separated in the front half and channeled outside the unit. The urine is either collected in a bucket, or goes straight into a gravel pit.  After six months, the family moves the toilet to the other side of the unit and uses that fresh side while the poop decomposes in the other.  When the second chamber is full, we’re ready to take out the first mix and throw it in the air and let it fall like snowflakes…or use it as fertilizer. The unit, in this case, is surrounded by adobe blocks and the front has a elevated base floor to make it easy to sit on the unit.  I tell you, I’ve sold these things in Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook and by golly it put them on the map!
What about the urea in the urine? Won’t that burn the plants?
Yep, that’s why you add 3-4 parts water to dilute it.  Add in some spicy peppers and you got a handy organic insecticide, buddy.
Quick: Used the bathroom but I got toilet paper. What to do, what to do?
Well, if you wanted to go extreme, you could use leaves and just throw it in the mix.  But also, the toilet paper will decompose, so it’s safe to just throw in with the poop.
So you’re just going to build these things one time over and be done?
Negative.  One of the annoying things about dry bathrooms is training the families on use and maintenance. It’s just not a one-time thing.  Once built and in use, visits need to be made to make sure the bathrooms are in (proper) use, and there’s nothing wrong with the unit such as smells or flies.  And it’s helpful at the six month mark to remind the families to switch over. 
Is there a chance the track could bend?
You’re in the wrong meeting, my hindu friend.
Why not just build regular latrines?
While regular latrines are a solid solution, often times the pit fills up and no one does anything so the latrine goes out of use.  Or, as latrines are usually cheaply made, the smell and poor maintenance are usually enough to discourage use. Latrines also need to be built a certain distance away from the house as well as water sources.  In fact, the ground level in one of my communities is so high (how high is it?) you can’t dig a hole deeper than a meter without hitting water, making latrines a contaminant (well, for those living downstream).
Why not a septic tank?
Beyond cost, a septic tank takes a lot more time and effort.  It also requires more water, which many of these communities don’t have much of to spare.  Besides, if the septic tank or one of the lines backs up, usually no one nearby has any idea what to do, creating a public health issue.  No geological survey required, as dry bathrooms can be built almost anywhere. 
Try this on for size: where don’t dry bathrooms work?
Dry bathrooms are best suited for rural agricultural communities where water resources are scarce.  Furthermore, people there own their own land or will be able to sell their fertilizer.  Many times, people will work in agriculture, but it’s someone else’s land and the workers can’t just throw on whatever they want.  Lastly, it’s easier in a community that does not have access to drainage systems.  It’s hard to convince families of the benefits of dry bathrooms when their neighbor has indoor plumbing.
Where can I find more information about this exciting topic?
Your local library! Or, check out the ‘Humanure Handbook’, as well as ‘Sanitario Ecologico Seco’ by Lourdes Castillo Castillo (in Spanish).  I hear this Google thing is taking off (as long as you don’t click on the eHow or links). As well, feel free to contact me directly (matthewDOTwilliamDOTfuller A  T G MAIL DO T COM).

Holy Shit!


There’s really no appropriate words or phrase to properly capture what’s going on in Japan right now.  Not only are they scrambling in recovery mode after the earthquake and tsunami which devastated the country, but now the problems with the nuclear reactor(s).  What makes this thing worse is it’s really hard to decipher the news about what’s actually happening – what is speculation – what is panic.  And it’s not just the news sources, unsurprisingly it’s the Peru news sources as well.

Last week, when the earthquake and tsunami first struck, it was on all the major Peru stations for all of the morning.  Looping video feeds from CNN and other international news sources while the Peruvian news casters switched from talking about what was going on in Japan to how it might affect Peru – especially the expected tsunami.  Really, broadcasters were talking about disaster prevention while video clips of the ocean overtaking Japan were repeating on the screen. Brilliant journalism.  The state media source did the best job, especially spreading information about prevention and mitigation if a big wave were to strike – kids and old people should move inland after lunch just IN CASE an evacuation was needed later in the day and that everyone should have an emergency GO bag (with food, clothes, flashlight, water, etc).  By around 3 or 4 it was pretty clear that nothing big was going to hit Peru (especially after reports from Hawaii), but people were prepared.

But now, especially with the risk to Peru mostly diminished, it’s harder to get information about what’s going on in Japan.  Depending on what news source, we’re hearing that Japan is going to become a nuclear wasteland or that everything is under control.  Peruvians have a penchant for drama and sensationalist news reporting, but this isn’t helping.   And it’s heartbreaking and saddening to see all the destruction, to hear about all the lives lost, and what potential catastrophe lies ahead. 

Even for Peruvians, many of whom can still recall the effects of the earthquake in 1973 as clearly as the earthquake in Pisco in 2007, this hits home. Oddly enough, Peru has a lot of Asian ties, especially in Japan.  Not only just consumerism, but many Peruvians go over to Japan to work in factories and such and send remittances home.  As well, the ex-Presidente Alberto Fujimori and his daughter/current presidential candidate Keiko are both Japanese descendants (the older Fujimori claims he was born on a ship heading to Peru). 

Natural disasters are only disasters when they cause so much damage. We’re used to seeing this kind of destruction in developing countries like Haiti, but not in largely developed countries such as Japan. It can happen anytime.

And lastly, Haiti was also greatly affected by the Japan earthquake/tsunami.  A year and some months removed, Haiti is still in dire straits on all levels.  Infrastructure is still non-existent and piles of rubble still litter the country.  Employment is low, food is low, and people are still suffering. I do worry that Japan will overcloud the efforts and funds for Haiti, thus dooming Haiti to never reaching beyond being a donor funded country. 

The Digital Divide: Just having the technology doesn’t help

In my site, the collegio (secondary school) has a computer lab with about 12 machines and internet connections.  The computer lab is usually locked. The few times I’ve seen it open, it was only a few professors and no students. The collegio also has a multi media project to hook up to the computers.  It’s rarely in use.

One thing we thought developing countries were lacking was capital –economic, human, and technological.  Economic being money, human being knowledge and technological being everything from tractors to MRI machines. But it’s not enough to just have one the three.  Money doesn’t do anything on it’s own.  And you can have all the doctors and scientists you want, but if they don’t have labs and hospitals then their effectiveness is limited and constrained. And you can have armies of tractors, but if you don’t have the human capital to operate them (or the financial capital to maintain them) then all you have is a big piece of metal sitting around. That’s what’s happening a lot throughout Peru (at the least).

While the technology exists, many don’t know how to use it properly.  Kids go to the internet cafes to play Counter-Strike and Grand Theft Auto.  Adults use messenger and maybe a little bit of Google for basic searches.  Everyone types with their fingers.  Nobody really knows how to use Microsoft Word or Excel beyond the most basic functions.   I was lucky enough to have computer classes during my public school stint – typing, using Microsoft Office, Google searching for academic stuff, etc.  I’m comfortable doing everything electronically, I basically grew up with it.

However, most of the computers around here are ‘new’.  They’re recently introduced but not necessarily high quality. But most people are just learning how to adapt to them.  The local health network requires mountains of reports and statistic reporting – all done through Excel. Presentations in Power Point. And what happens? All the work in Excel takes longer than thought because of the unfamiliarity with data entry.  Power Point presentations are classic cases of what not to do with power point – overloaded with data and text.  Technology becomes a hassle and a slow down.

When I asked the director of the school why the computer lab wasn’t in use, he told me it was because nobody really wanted to use it.  Teachers didn’t know how to incorporate the computers or project into their lessons.  The director was trying to get a teacher for computer classes, but is still waiting.  All that’s missing is a little training.  Not too much, just enough to get things moving and get people comfortable.  But until then, the kids go on playing GTA instead of doing cool things like reading the Economist like I do. 

Should you bring a laptop?


We’re wired in the states – laptops, cell phones, iPods, iPads, wifi…all that good stuff. And by god I do miss it.  But when you’re about to ship off to your Peace Corps country, no doubt the thought comes up ‘should I bring my laptop?’.  It makes sense to leave it behind.  Most likely, you’ll be the only one in you community with this technology.  And people have lived without it for this long, do you really NEED it?

Need it: No.

Is it helpful: Yes. 

In short – laptops help to get things done.  While there might be computers available in your community (public internet cafes or school computer labs), it’s just helpful to have your own.  For better or worse, a decent chunk of my Peace Corps work-work is done on a laptop.  Compiling spread sheets of water usage, writing letters and reports to the mayor, making hand-outs for health talks.  While I could certainly do all of that on computers I have access to through the schools or the health post, it’s just easier to do it on my own laptop.  That way, I don’t have to worry about bumping a nurse off the computer (or waiting for them to finish up whatever report THEY’RE doing).  I’ve also used my laptop to have slide show presentations, which is helpful since PowerPoint isn’t used as widely around here, so it’s still a novelty.

Then there’s the office work.  Here in Peru – new volunteers fill out monthly reports on their activities and ideas for future plans while the vets fill out tri-monthly reports on activities and outcomes.  All of this is done on Word + Excel and is through email. While you can do it on public computers, it’s much easier to be able to download it and work on it later. 

And for personal use: here in Peru, most of our hostels are equipped with wireless (at least in the common areas), so volunteers can be seen lounging around in regional capitals throughout the country Skyping with amigos and familia back in the states.  Plus, volunteers trade movies and music almost as much as herpes, so might as well join in, right (especially if you have an outbreak, you’ll probably wanna stay in and watch a movie anyways)?

I knew a guy who said he hid his laptop while in his community, and only used it with the door closed or in his capital city. I don’t hide the fact that I have a laptop.  I use it openly at the municipality and the health post.  I’ve used it in the schools to play music or show a small video.  It alienates people if I choose to stay huddled up in front of it and not talk to anyone, but mostly they’re respectfully curious.  The only time it gets awkward (for me anyway) is when someone asks how much it costs: because no matter what it’s still more then what they earn.  But it’s a common question, and there’s no social stigma to it.  Just like it’s viewed as rude to ask how much money someone makes in the States, it’s not so much here.  I had one laptop stolen: and that was in Lima, not in my site.  But I had insurance, so no problem. 

I had to work without a laptop for a month during that period. And while it was slightly refreshing to catch up on a ton of reading, it made getting a lot of simple tasks that much harder.  The computers in my site are full of viruses and crash like my 9th grade bolsa wood bridge (wait…hey….I’m in WATSAN) and I missed just being able to watch a movie in English.  It wasn’t intolerable to be without a laptop, but made tasks that much more tedious.

So while you'll be alone with your laptop in site, it’s a really helpful tool to have.  In fact, a few of the volunteers who shunned their laptops before coming to Peru wound up having them sent anyways.  Unless your Peace Corps invite booklet says don’t bring one, there’s really no hurt in it. The iPad, on the other hand….