Friday, September 23, 2011


I wrote this for the volunteer publication so I thought I'd share it with you as well. It is kind of specific to the Peace Corps so if you don't enjoy it it's only because you're on the outside and not because of my lousy writing. I've translated all of the Spanglish in parentheses. Here it goes:

The Plight of the Aardvark in Southeastern Botswana

According to the Oxford English Dictionary an Aardvark is “A South-African quadruped ( Orycterŏpus capensisCuv.), about the size of the badger, belonging to the insectivorous division of the Edentata, where it occupies an intermediate position between the Armadillos and Ant-eaters. I’m not an Aardvark, and this article is not about Aardvarks, but you’re crazy if you think I’m going to keep reading the dictionary until I get to the part about the American. That book is all character development and no plot.

But I wanted to read about the American because they tell me I am one. I’m skeptical. I was always under the impression that I was a “Man of the World.” Don’t ask me where I got this impression. I had done some traveling before I came here. A few months here, a few months there. But the problem with having done some traveling is it gives you a false sense of worldliness. And you get all of these college students coming home from a semester of drinking with other Americans in very Americanized bars in Spain who are now “wordly.” Well I was most definitely “worldly” when I signed up for the Peace Corps. I was not an American. American was Texas. American was 9-5 office job. American was credit cards and debt. I was above all of that. Destined for greater things. Like unemployment or a manual laborer in a communist nudist colony. But I was wrong. Because when you don’t spend more than three months in a place you never get past the First Stage of Culture Shock. I don’t remember what the stages are as they explained it to us in training because I wasn’t paying attention. Seriously, they talked at us a lot. And it was hot. But I’ve now looked back on the past two years and my time here does seem to fall into four vaguely distinct stages.

Stage 1: F#@K YEAH!

When I arrived in my community they all looked at me with a bit of distrust. But I was not worried. Yeah, the guy who took a cross-cultural psychology class in college is going to get worried. Come on! I immediately switched into objective thinking mode. What if a 25-year-old Guatemalan guy had showed up at my house in New Jersey and said, “Hi, I Pablo. I come for fix your plumbing. You help me?” I’d say “No way, Jose!” But I know better. “It’s OK.” I said to them in my head. “I am wordly. I understand you people.”

At first everything is very new and exciting. “Oh boy, they play their music so loud here. What an interesting cultural observation!” and “Poor drunk, toothless, old man. American imperialism has reduced you to this. Of course I’ll give you cinco pesos (approx. 13 cents).” All these cute and interesting cultural differences! I would laugh with my friends, “Oh I had a class today and only three of 15 students came. It’s not their fault though.” Nothing could defeat my idealism. Rome wasn’t built in a day. It was built in 27 months.


Stage 2 is ugly. Getting stuck in Stage 2 is very dangerous. Stage 2 breeds hatred and racism and ulcers. Because eventually the “cultural quirks” that were so fascinating two months ago become “rage-inducing idiocies.” This is the part where you argue vehemently with the cobrador (guy who charges you on public transport) over those five pesos because “it’s the principle of the thing.” Nevermind the fact that you’re on the guagua (bus) to Cabarete (beach town) with a red bracelet duct taped to your wrist so you can rip off the all-inclusive. This stage is ugly but necessary. It’s tough love. Time to shake your romantic notions of the third world. Poor people are like rich people except with less money. Some of them suck. Some of them are awesome.


Being angry all the time is very tiring. Eventually you won’t want to do it anymore. You’ll take some deep breaths and pull out your yoga mat and pop a horse tranquilizer and pass out on your floor. And when you wake up you’ll have come to the realization that the country is the way it is and you are not going to change it. Even if that does happen to be part of your job description. You do your job and put up with the absurd, no matter how You start to talk about the United States like it’s Candyland. “I can’t wait to go back to the United States and lick my chocolate ice cream roof!” If you never leave this stage then that’s OK. It’s relatively harmless for the most part. Despite what famous quote sayers might suggest, apathy is not the root of all evil. People with opinions – crazy, evil, stage 2, opinions – are. But if you can, try to push through to the much more ambiguous Stage 4.


While you’re in the acceptance stage your fury level will drop from a red alert to a green alert and your objective thinking device will be enabled once again. You will think about the United States and realize that we are also stupid in our own special way. Our government is plenty corrupt and equally unable to get things done effectively. We don’t rip off foreigners directly, we just buy everything from people who do. We don’t litter, because that Native American man cried a tear back in the 1970s, but the consumption of a single American results in the environmental contamination equivalent of 10,000 Dino cookie wrappers on the ground. Every country has its own flavor of bullshit. It is a bullshit not inherent in the people but learned over time. And once you’ve gotten used to the smell of your own bullshit it just becomes the normal smell and all other bullshit smells funny and makes you want to punch holes in the wall. But it’s important to remember that your bullshit is just poop too.

So then maybe that’s what it means to be an American. It’s the preference of a certain type of poop. But then where does that leave us? Should we just forget about this whole idea of helping other people and stick with our own kind? Wrong. People need help; in the USA and the DR and everywhere else. But your offer to help others does not obligate them to take on your ways. So while it might make you furious when people show up an hour late and don’t show enthusiasm when they’re digging holes in the ground, you can hardly blame them for not wanting to live in a constant state of stress and depression. Though a happy medium might be nice. So the next time you’re in a meeting and an Aardvark shows up an hour late and interrupts you to saludar (shake hands and say hi to) everybody, remember that that is just the way of the Aardvark.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Tranten (Thirty-One)

We’re doing a small water system project in my friend Cameron’s community in the southwest of the country right now. It’s a Batey (Haitian sugar cane cutting community). Batey 9 to be specific. That is the beautiful name it was given by the sugar cane company.

Batey 9 is where they invented the term “When it rains, it pours.” The majority of the year it is drier than a British sense of humor lost in the desert without water. Nobody even knows I’m white because the constant sweat and dust combine to form a natural blackface which can only be removed with a Brillo pad. But then about four times a year the sky drinks a couple wine coolers and loses its inhibitions and opens up to Batey 9, gushing about all of its condensation problems. The result is a giant mud puddle.

Then the mosquitoes emerge and have massive mosquito orgies in these puddles. But don’t let the sexual promiscuity of these insects fool you. These are not hippy mosquitoes. Once all the wet n’ wild procreation is done the mosquitoes organize into highly efficient, blood-sucking warfare units. Unit six is assigned to Cameron’s house and is especially deadly. We are forced to retreat into the force field (mosquito net). The mosquitoes hover around until we emerge for more provisions or to carry out bodily functions and then they attack like little buzzing vampires trying to cash in on the Twilight/True Blood craze.

Speaking of bodily functions, the Bateys in the southwest have a very interesting design feature in which the houses have no bathrooms. I’ve come to have a very loose definition of what a bathroom is in this country. Any kind of hole in the ground with a structure that will not collapse in the next five minutes meets my requirements. But in Batey 9 they literally have nothing. So you have to go outside and poop in the fields. You might think that this sounds freeing, the open air on your bum, no tan lines. It’s not. It’s hot and dusty and there are thorny bushes that poke your butt if you’re not careful. Except at around 6:30 in the evening when there’s a nice breeze and the sun sets over the mountains. Then it’s nice.

Everybody in the Batey speaks Creole (Haitian) which I don’t understand. It’s strange to be in a place where I can’t understand the people. One benefit is that rather than seeming like an odioso for not making small talk they just assume it’s because I can’t speak Creole. I’ve started learning some important basic words such as food (“manje”), water (“dlo”), and elephant (“elefan”) so that I won’t lack food or water if I ever find myself at a Haitian elephant farm in the middle of an African savannah.

We started work last week. Everything was going uncomfortably well until Saturday when we were finishing up the connections to the houses and the pastor came over to tell us about a community ordinance which requires all water taps to be inside the house. Now I’m pretty sure all “ordinances” in this community exist only in the Batey 9 ether but we decided to comply anyway. Or Cameron and I did. All of the people working with us threw a fit and controversy ensued. This put me more at ease and I was able to start working the way one should work in the Dominican Republic, surrounded by conflict and grudges.

Cameron and I work pretty well together because we’re very different. Cameron has a mild case of OCD and would, if given the opportunity, undergo an operation to become a robot so that he could be more efficient. But then he would get stuck on a task and his mainframe would not allow him to move to the next task until he finished the first one but his wiring screws up and he overheats and needs to cool off. I am more of a squirrel, immersing myself in a task for 30 seconds, then looking up, look left, look right, look left, look right, “hey, that tree looks nice!” scurry, scurry scurry, immersed, repeat. So together we are a squirrel robot which everybody knows make the best water engineers.

UPDATE: Success! We finished. Everybody has water. Hooray.

Digging to China.

The three musketeers install the taps.

The knee bone is connected to the shoulder bone.

Yay water!