Thursday, December 29, 2011

Mission Accomplished

I think most people have a love-hate relationship with holidays. Everyone has their favorite, but we all have the one or two "special" days that we could actually do without. For some, it's their own birthday. For others, nothing is worse than taking the day off in honor of good 'ol Christopher Colombus. Personally, my favorite holiday has long been Thanksgiving, mostly because it marks the last day of sanity before the official start of the Christmas (read: shopping) season. Unfortunately, in the last decade the unofficial start date of the spending season seems to have been moved up to the day after Halloween. 

While Thanksgiving remains a bastion of unadulterated family values (history aside), I have to admit that New Year's Day has slowly crept into second place for me, overtaking my birthday and April 20th along the way. Before you correct me, let me reiterate that I did mean New Year´s Daynot New Year's Eve. I do like champagne, chicken wangs and pretty thangs, but I've always liked a fresh start better than a big finish.

With that in mind, I look forward to the New Year, just as I look back with satisfaction on the one that we are wrapping up. I say "satisfaction" because in more ways than one, I did what I set out to do. The obvious one was finagling my way into the Peace Corps after a two year application and training process that can only be described as two-steps forward and 1.95 steps back. 

Beyond that, I actually nailed my only official New Year's resolution: to read one book per week over the course of the year. After falling a couple books short of the same goal in 2010, I re-pledged myself to the challenge at the beginning of this year. While I don't feel particularly smarter, I promise you that all that personal time with my books was great for my sanity, and probably saved at least one of you from getting cussed out or flashed on at some point during the year.

I still have a few days left to finalize my resolutions for 2012, but one thing is for sure: the book-a-week program is still in effect. While I have no trouble finding (making) time to read, getting my hands on good books has been a challenge at times. Unfortunately, after a strong run across several continents in less-than ideal climates, my Kindle went kaput a few months back. Luckily, my roommate lets me use his Nook. When I'm desperate, I can read digital books right off my laptop, but that can cause a headache quicker than Fox News. Besides, I think our Peace Corps Safety and Security Guidelines recommend against breaking out the MacBook Pro on the bus on my way back from soccer practice at night.

Fortunately, I've always been an analog boy in a digital world—my vinyl collection dwarfs my drawer-full of scratched CD's in cracked cases. Therefore, it's no surprise that I would take a paperback book over any e-reader, any day. So, to get my fix, I've had to be a bit resourceful. There is a livreria* close to where I work, but the books are dumb expensive, and I tend to be dumb broke. Back in October I got my Municipal Library Card, but it was disheartening to find that the entire Portuguese language collection lacked a single book by Paulo Coelho. In their defense, they do have the complete works of José Saramago, which I plan to dig into next year.

The library at the Peace Corps Office in Praia was more promising. Before shipping out for São Vicente in September, I raided the shelf for some good titles, including one very special one that I had to check out just on principle, even though I've already read it. There's nothing like a library with good taste in American historical fiction!

Beyond finding her book (again!) halfway around the world, I've been lucky to have Lita present in my life of literature this year.  Recently, she was gracious enough to stand in as my editor, offering some golden tips to refine my first short story. More importantly, my windowsill is now crammed full of books that she's shipped over from the states. Muito Obrigado!

So, for those of you that are interested, here's what I was getting into during all those times when I was nowhere to be found:
  • Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People - Stephen R. Covey (1989)
  • American Gods - Neil Gaiman (2002)
  • A General Theory of Love - Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini & Richard Lennan (2000)
  • Palace Walk (Between the Two Palaces) - Naguib Mahfouz (1956)
  • Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption - Laura Hillenbrand (2002)
  • Devil in a Blue Dress - Walter Mosley (1990)
  • Meant to Be: The Story of a Son Who Discovers He is his Mother’s Deepest Secret - Walter Anderson (2004)
  • The Known World - Edward P. Jones (2003)
  • The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century - Thomas Friedman (2003)
  • Martyr’s Crossing - Amy Wilentz (2002)
  • New News Out of Africa: Uncovering Africa’s Renaissance - Charlayne Hunter-Gault (2007)
  • The Bondmaid - Catherine Lim (1995)
  • My Wild Irish Rogues - Vivian Moore Hallinan (1952)
  • The Fortune Catcher - Susanne Pari (2002)
  • The Bonesetter’s Daughter - Amy Tan (2001)
  • Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power - Gary Willis (2005)
  • Women of the Silk - Gail Sukiyama (1993)
  • Soul on Ice - Eldridge Cleaver (1965)
  • Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause - Tom Gjelten (2008)
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone - J.K. Rowling (1997)
  • Motherless Brooklyn - Jonathan Lethem (1999)
  • The Ugly American - Eugene Burdict & William Lederer (1958)
  • Small Business in the Third World - Malcolm Harper (1984)
  • Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town - Paul Theroux (2003)
  • Slaughterhouse-Five (or The Children's Crusade) - Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
  • War Talk - Arundhati Roy (2003)
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot (2010)
  • Anthem - Ayn Rand (1938)
  • The Manifesto of the Communist Party - Karl Marx / Friedrich Engels (1848)
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll (1865)
  • George Washington - William Roscoe Thayer (1922)
  • Blindness - José Saramago (1995)
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; An Inquiry into Values - Robert Pirsig (1974)
  • The Lacuna - Barbara Kingsolver (2009)
  • The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good - William Easterly (2006)
  • The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón (2001)
  • Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkeyand Even IraqAre Destined to Become the Kings of the World's Most Popular Sport - Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski (2009)
  • Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen (2006)
  • Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World - Tracy Kidder (2004)
  • Bel Canto - Ann Patchett (2001)
  • The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine - Michael Lewis (2010)
  • 1984 - George Orwell (1949)
  • Outliers: The Story of Success - Malcolm Gladwell (2008)
  • Fight Club - Chuck Palahniuk (1996)
  • The Control of Nature - John McPhee (1989)
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley - Patricia Highsmith (1955)
  • Born to RunA Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen - Christopher McDougall (2009)
  • The Portrait of a Lady - Henry James (1881)
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books - Azar Nafisi (2003)
  • Starship Troopers - Robert A. Heinlein (1959)
  • Bound Feet and Western Dress: A Memoir - Pang-Mei Natasha Chang (1997)

Stay tuned for my thoughts on the best and worst from the list above, which will be posted soon on the "2011 Reading List" page.

Pura Vida,


*livreria = bookstore

Friday, December 23, 2011

Quick and Painless

I am a lifelong learner. No, that does not mean I love school. It just means that I love learning. I guess that is why I love teaching and coaching—after all, there is no better way to learn. As I look back on my last ten years of working in various capacities, I can point to one consistent theme. When I stop learning on the job, it’s time for me to move on. I’ve had at least one job where it was clear that my manager was not interested—or possibly threatened by and opposed to—my professional development. On the flipside, I’ve been lucky to have held several jobs where my managers wanted me to develop me to the point where I could do their job. 

While I avoided having specific expectations about Peace Corps, I have to admit that I was primarily attracted by the learning opportunity. Of course, I was and still am looking to help people, but I did not need to travel halfway around the world to find folks in need of help—I’m from Oakland.

For me, education is simply a matter of personal and professional health. In that sense, learning is my medicine. Like medicine, it takes many forms, some easier to swallow than others. On one hand you have tough stuff… think Law School. Now, I’ve never been, but I hear it’s something like a 20,000-hour dentist appointment. What about college? I guess that one is kind of like prescription drugs: necessary, but often times the generic ones are just as good as the high-priced brands.

Since arriving in Cape Verde, I’ve swallowed a whole bunch of medicine and had plenty of “learning opportunities.” For me, there was a clear parallel between the 13-week regimen of anti-malarial pills and the 9-week Pre-Service Training that I went through. Both seemed to last forever, and both caused heartburn and strange dreams. Then there were the endless sessions on the medical and safety concerns of the Peace Corps, which I liken to the Oral Rehydration Salts that kept me from wasting away during my weeklong battle through the cycle—essential but disgusting.

Thankfully, not all medicine is created equal. Take Robitussin: that stuff is pretty good, and I hear it works for everything. More importantly, not all learning opportunities are as painful as my Pre-Service Training (PST). With a tip of the hat to our Peace Corps Training Staff, I can gladly say that this past week was the perfect example. I just got back from three days of In-Service Training in the capital city, which was everything that PST was not. Even the bread during coffee break was better*, and that’s what really counts after all. But seriously, I walked away from three days of trainings feeling more motivated and better prepared to do what I came here to do. Even the medicine was quick and painless: one flu shot and a bag of supplies to take back to my island.

The only bad news is that in a couple of weeks I will have to start another 42-day course of anti-malarial prophylaxis. But that is a small price to pay for the opportunity to visit Dakar, Senegal in January! Stay tuned... Happy Holidays…

Pura Vida,

*Pao Quente is officially the best bread bakery in the country. Too bad they have not opened up shop on São Vicente yet.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Commitment and Canned Meat

One of the big themes of my Peace Corps experience, dating back all the way the application process, is the idea of commitment. Before I even knew what country I would be posted in, or when I would be leaving, I made a commitment to myself: I would see it through to the finish—27 months. For me, this mindset went hand in hand with a commitment to avoid having expectations—good or bad—about what my Peace Corps experience would be like. Basically, it was a two-part affirmation to myself. One: I had absolutely no idea what to expect, and if I thought I did, based on an info pamphlet or another Volunteer’s war-story, then I was playing myself. And two: no matter what the surprises, I could and would handle them. So far, this approach has carried me pretty well through the first five months, and I’m glad that I prepared to be unprepared. You are always surprised by the things that surprise you... that’s what makes it a surprise.

Along the same lines, I made another important commitment to myself. I promised myself that over the course of my service I would not start anything. I know this one take some explanation, so give me a chance. Don’t get me wrong, I love to start stuff—projects, businesses, activities. The point is, I did not come all the way to Cape Verde to “do my thing.” I certainly want to be involved with the launch of exciting projects while I am here. The important thing is that I will not be the one who starts them. Being an “idea guy,” it can be difficult—damn-near impossible—to hold back when I see an opportunity. But if development work isn’t damn-near impossible, then you’re probably not doing it right. So I haven’t formed a new soccer team, organized a co-op, or launched any awareness campaigns lately. Instead, I’ve been scoping out the landscape, getting my hands dirty when it’s welcome, and doing the double-dutch dance, waiting for the right second to jump in and start jamming.

So, while my contributions have often felt peripheral, I still feel like I am in the right spot. It is still rewarding to witness other people reap the benefits of their own hard work, even when they could have done it without me. For example, I conquered the cycle just in time to attend the closing ceremony of the Culinary Class. Oh, I remember their first days of  the training when they needed a recipe to boil water. Look at 'em now—how ya like them apples?!

Not everything in my life has been restaurant quality over the past week. Unfortunately, I have to admit that I recently broke an important commitment to myself. Shortly after my arrival in São Vicente, I vowed that I would never eat meat out of a can. Actually, I’ve been staunchly anti-canned meat for my whole life. When I was growing up, Spam was not a real dish, it was just an idea that came up when clowning folks**. As in, “your mama’s got snakeskin teeth.” Or, “your mama eats canned Spam with a spork and loves that sh*t.” I remember my visit to Hawaii as a child, when I first saw Spam on a actual restaurant menu. Eventually, I learned that Spam’s popularity throughout the Pacific Region is a legacy of the U.S. military presence, which only made me less likely to indulge. I even made it through living a couple of months on Guam without eating “spahhhm”*** even once—sorry Vicky, it’s nothing personal.

Let me be clear, this is not just about Spam—all canned meats are off limits. And don’t give any crap about “it’s just like eating canned tuna," because it’s not, and you know it. But, like I said, I broke down this week. Being a foodie, I was ecstatic when I finally got access to my own kitchen so that I could expand my diet beyond corn, potatoes, salt and butter. But as I stepped out of work on Monday, I recognized a funny feeling on the back of my tongue. It was a craving for something I first tried during my homestay during training: "spaghetti." So, I swallowed my pride, headed to the store, and grabbed the necessary ingredients for spaghetti a la Cabo Verde*: 1 pack of pasta, 2 eggs, butter, and a can of salchichas. Yes, I said a can of salchichas—that's how we roll.

Later that night, I sat down with a bowl of pasta goodness that made me feel just a little bit more integrated. Not surprisingly, my roommate decline to partake in the feast, but he was there to support me in my time of weakness. Besides, we reasoned, if you’re gonna eat canned meat, it might as well be hot dogs—after all, can it really get any more processed than miscellaneous meat parts and preservatives stuffed in an animal intestine? So, I loaded up my fork with a heap of noodles, hot dog and hard boiled egg, dripping with melted butter and hot sauce. And as I savored my first bite of the goodness, the sweet words of Luther Ingram floated through my head...

“If loving you is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.”

Pura Vida,


* No, this is not the actual name of the dish, it's just what I call it. Many Cape Verdeans find marinara or tomato-based sauce to be "too acidic."
**For the Motown Generation: clowning = playing the dozens
*** The vowel sound in the Chamorro pronunciation of Spam is the like the sound that the dentist asks you to make. As in, "say aaaaah."

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Man Down

Some people have a photographic memory. I have what I would call an audiographic memory. In my mind, almost every song I hear is in linked, in some way, to a past experience or period in my life. You know what I'm talking about. I’m sure you can think of a song that will ALWAYS remind you of the first time you asked someone (or got asked) to dance, whether you were twelve and twenty-one. It’s just that for me, this aural memory has always been stronger and deeper than any other form of recollection.

My first months in Cape Verde have brought plenty of highs and lows, each with their own soundtrack. My best memories of Cape Verde will always be associated with the honeyed sound of Mayra Andrade, or the Gypsy-styled yearning of Tito Paris. Three weeks ago, I passed up a chance to see the latter live in concert, in the interest of not spending money that I didn’t have. Luckily, two weeks later I was sitting at a hotel bar enjoying a free night of coladeira music. Sometime after midnight, the lead singer blessed us with a pleasant surprise when he invited a special guest to the stage… Tito Paris! I doubt I will ever hear coladeira music again in my life without being transported back the outdoor patio of that hotel. And next time he comes to town, I definitely got money on it.

But enough of the sweet stuff. As I said, my time here, like anyone’s life, has its highs and lows. Honestly, after a high Thanksgiving week, the last 8 days or so have pretty much kicked my ass. On the 30th we closed out a beardiful Brovember with the festival of M.E.A.T., which featured three-meat (no bean) chili and fried chicken smothered in beef gravy. Later that night as I laid up in my bed trying to get some rest before another day of work, I suddenly felt my stomach turn upside downand it’s been all bad since. Being bedridden with a bad case of "the cycle*" is bad enough when you can get some rest. Now, imagine trying to cope when the entire country is blasting Rihanna on repeat. Coincidentally, my least favorite thing about this country, by far, is their clinical obsession with “Man Down,” and for that reason, the song will be eternally associated in my mind with the low points of my Peace Corps Service.

The lows this week also include my not-so-illustrious soccer career. It appears I counted my chickens before they hatched in my last post, because after telling me that I had made the cut, the coach decided not to sign mehe wants me to help coach instead. Yes, it hurts my pride. Yes, I’ll get over it. After all, it’s been several years since I accepted that I was just a good player who planned on becoming a great coach. I wouldn't change anything about the last month of tryouts (except the result). I played hard and I played well, and I still have a good team to train with. Plus, I've made some more friends, and I’ll be there to support them at the opening game this Sunday. Hopefully, we will honor the passing of the great Sócrates by notching a win for the Corinthians family.

If there is anyone who’s really suffered during my status as “man down” it’s Mia. With nobody to play with she has gone literally stir-crazy (plus, I think she’s in heat). Lucky for her, we got to squeeze in a little play date with her best friend, MC**. Enjoy the moment of Zen, and please say a prayer for my bowels.

Pura Vida,


*Peace Corps slang for diarrhea, deriving its name from the fecal-oral cycle that often causes it.

**Named after the great Stanley Kirk Burrell.