Thursday, December 27, 2012

Turning the Page

It's that time of year again. Before I look forward to next year, I have to take a moment to look back at the one we're wrapping up. It's been another year of movement for me—from Cape Verde to Senegal and back... home in the USA for a week, then onto my new nest in Barranquilla, Colombia. Peace Corps—and life in general—has been treating me right, so all I can say is "thank you."

Despite all the moves and changes—both expected and unexpected—I've haven't lost my sanity yet. That's largely due to the consistent things in my life being there for me. One of those things is writing—i.e. this blog—so thank you for reading and coming along on the journey with me. But if I had to choose between writing and reading, I would reluctantly through down my pen, pick up my book, and dig in. The book-a-week program continues through hell, high water, and Grad school applications. I'm happy to say that I just finished turning over the last page of book number 52 on the year... five days ahead of schedule... woo hoo! Here's a look back what I've enjoyed this year, in the order that I read them.

  • Bastard Out of Carolina - Dorothy Allison (1992)
  • The English Patient - Michael Ondaatje (1992)
  • Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System from Crisis—and Themselves - Andrew Ross Sorkin (2009)
  • Galápagos - Kurt Vonnegut (1985)
  • Africa United: Soccer, Passion, Politics and the First World Cup in Africa - Steve Bloomfield (2010)
  • Zone One - Colson Whitehead (2011)
  • Jazz - Toni Morrison (1992)
  • 1776 - David McCullough (2005)
  • Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff - Rosemary Mahoney (2007)
  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration - Isabel Wilkerson (2010)
  • Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever - Will Hermes (2011)
  • The Appointment - Herta Müller (1997)
  • Malcom X: A Life of Reinvention - Manning Marable (2011)
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls - Ernest Hemingway (1940)
  • Parable of the Talents (Earthseed #2) - Octavia E. Butler (1998)
  • An Equal Music - Vikram Seth (1999)
  • Steve Jobs - Walter Isaacson (2011)
  • Star of the Sea - Joseph O’Conner (2003)
  • Is Marriage for White People?: How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone - Ralph Richard Banks (2011)
  • Bossypants - Tina Fey (2011)
  • The Dark Room - Rachel Seiffert (2001)
  • Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World - Michael Lewis (2011)
  • The Pickup - Nadine Gordimer (2002)
  • Blink: The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking - Malcolm Gladwell (2005)
  • Greaseless: How to Thrive Without Bribes in Developing Countries - Loretta Graziano Breuning (2004)
  • The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova (2003)
  • Drop City - T.C. Boyle (2003)
  • Creation: Darwin, His Daughter & Human Evolution - Randal Keynes (2001)
  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery (2006)
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil - John Berendt (1994)
  • The Two Gentlemen of Verona - Williams Shakespeare (1623)
  • Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef - Gabrielle Hamilton (2011)
  • A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens (1859)
  • Noticia de un Secuestro - Gabriel García Márquez (1991)
  • The Idiot - Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1868)
  • The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America - Timothy Egan (2009)
  • La Casa Verde - Mario Vargas Llosa (1965)
  • Major: A Black Athlete, a White Era, and the Fight to Be the World’s Fastest Human Being - Todd Balf (2008)
  • The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)
  • Cuentos Chinos - Andres Oppenheimer (2005)
  • Bridge of Sighs - Richard Russo (2007)
  • Rebuild the Dream - Van Jones (2012)
  • La Casa de los Espíritus - Isabel Allende (1982)
  • The Next IQ: The Next Level of Intelligence for 21st Century Leaders - Arin N. Reeves (2012)
  • The Prophet - Khalil Gibran (1923)
  • La Revolución Perdida: Memorias III - Ernesto Cardenal (2005)
  • The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox - Maggie O’Farrell (2006)
  • The Tuskegee Syphilis Study - Fred D. Gray (1998)
  • Candide - Voltaire (1758)
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day - David Sedaris (2000)
  • El Síndrome de Ulises - Santiago Gamboa (2005)
  • The Time of Our Lives: A Conversation About America - Tom Brokaw (2012)

Since I'm ahead of schedule, I may not be doing too much reading in between now and the New Year. Instead, I plan on soaking up more of the sights and sounds of the holiday season in a what is still, for me, a new country. Here's a quick taste what it's been like so far...

An event for the children of Puerto Colombia, including gifts, a clown show, and a little Christmas cumbia from the Orquesta Sinfónica de Barranquilla...

Midnight Christmas Eve Dinner with the extended family...


Entonces... felicidades, desde el mejor familia, del mejor barrio, de la mejor ciudad, del mejor departamento de Colombia!!! 

Happy New Year to everyone, and as always...

Pura Vida,

Monday, December 10, 2012

Why I'm Smiling

I’ll tell you why I’m smiling. It’s easy to take things for granted, no matter how good you have it. During the last two weeks, I’ve had more than a few good reasons to take a step back and appreciate the goodness. I’ll start with the relatively boring stuff.

At the end of November I headed to Bogotá to take the GRE. As I mentioned before, I’m knee-deep in the process of applying to graduate schools to chase a Master’s degree in Education. The test went really well—definitely well enough that I won’t be taking it again, and that’s a big reason to give thanks.

After taking the test, I had a few days to kick back and enjoy Bogotá, and a whole new side of the country where I live. Some highlights: enjoying the hospitality of Shay, a friend of Javi’s from waaaaaaay back.... Nick’s restaurant in Chapinero, including the Chapinero Porter from the Bogotá Beer Company... experiencing the madness of a Copa Sudamericana semifinal match between Millonarios and Tigre at El Campín...

Honestly, none of that compares to the pleasure of reconnecting with my brother from another, Mr. Taylor, who's recently relocated to Bogotá. We’ve done San Francisco, Oakland, Washington D.C., Costa Rica, and Mexico, so why not try to conquer Colombia

After a strong week in the capital, I returned to the Caribbean Coast. The first thing I did was stuff my jacket back in my suitcase under the bed—won’t be needing that in Barranquilla. Then I set my focus on taking another huge step in the grad school process—I actually and finally turned in my application to UC Berkeley. If you’re one of the many people who think the job description for my current work was specifically written with me in mind, then you’ll probably feel the same way about this program at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. I just hope the powers-that-be in the ivory tower will feel the same way. It’s an M.A. in Education, with a concentration in Cultural Studies of Sport in Education. I’m applying to several other programs, but until I actually complete another application, this one will remain my top choice.

Sticking with the theme of academic milestones: my 11 year old host-brother graduated from ? grade, giving the grown folks another good reason to smile (and party).

As if the relocation of Mr. Taylor wasn’t enough, I was blessed this week with a visit from my cousin Rodger. Before I go any further, I should clarify something. I share absolutely no blood with Eli and Rodger, but they are still my family.* Mr. Taylor is my bruh bruh, and Rodger is my cuz-cuz.** Anyway, Rodger made a cameo in Barranquilla over the weekend before heading on to Cartagena to connect with some of our old friends from the high school days who are in-country for a vacation. A good time was had by all.

Honestly, the only low-point came last Friday during our weekly friendly football game. About twenty minutes into the game I received a pass and made a quick move to shake the defender. Just then I heard and felt it—the rip, the tear that every athlete fears. The sound of a career-ending injury. Fortunately, I have no playing career, and even more fortunately, it was only the sound of my turf shoes finally giving out. They’ve served me well, through six countries and billions of hours of coaching and playing. Luckily, I had just picked up my replacements from Eli, imported directly from the States. Hopefully, this pair will bring me as much joy as the last one.

Pura Vida,


* I do actually have a "real" cousin named Roger, but he spells his name without the "d" and he's probably reading this from Martha's Vineyard, MA, not Colombia.

** Not to be confused with the famous North African dish, or the small village in Peru

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Cutaneous Larva Migrans

I started my Peace Corps service in Cape Verde, a tiny archipelago nation located 350 miles off the coast of Senegal. While there are plenty of things that don’t work well in that country, it is, by African development standards, doing very well. I could list statistics all day to back up this statement—infant mortality, literacy, and HIV/AIDS rates—but one milestone stands out as particularly important. In 2007, the United Nations upgraded Cape Verde’s status from a “Least Developed Country” (LDC) to a “Middle Income Country” (MIC). Botswana and Maldives are the only other countries to ever graduate from the lowest categories of the Human Development Index—by definition, this is progress.

   Very High
   Data unavailable

So, if everything’s going so well in Cape Verde, then why is the Peace Corps there? Well, the short answer to that question is, “It’s not.” In January earlier this year, Peace Corps announced that it would be closing it’s operations in the country, in part because of the progress that country has made. As of last month, the last remaining volunteers have either finished their service or they’ve transferred to a new country to continue working. With the exception of my two buddies that transferred to Namibia, all of the volunteers now find themselves in nations that are on the UN’s list of Least Developed Countries.

And then there’s me. I ended up transferring across the Atlantic to live in work in Colombia, a country that has never been on the LDC list. In fact, Haiti is the only country in the Western Hemisphere that meets the unfortunate criteria. Like Cape Verde, my new home has its fair share of disfunction. But, once again, I find myself in a relatively well-developed country.

Why does this matter? Well, it should be no surprise that the level of development in a country can have a huge impact on the life—and happiness—of a volunteer. What may surprise you is the theory that I’ve been developing over the last year. It goes something like this: serving in more-developed countries can be a significant psychological challenge for volunteers.

Most aspiring Peace Corps Volunteers are looking for a challenge when they sign up for the job. Many of us develop an image in our heads of what this challenge will look like—pit latrines, water from the well, colorful native clothing, etc. In reality, the whole world has changed a lot since the Peace Corps was founded 50 years ago—even the poorest parts. This means that a household may have wireless internet, but no running water. More to the point, it means that many of today’s volunteers are having to recalibrate their psyche. In Colombia—and in Cape Verde—I heard many volunteers express doubts about the value of their own work. What am I doing here? Does this country even need me?

This phenomenon is even stronger for volunteers that serve in urban and peri-urban communities. In Mindelo, the “big” city where I made my home in Cape Verde, the bus system was cheaper and more reliable than AC Transit. During my shortened service in the islands, I had the privilege of hosting volunteers from several other African countries, and without fail, they were blown away by how good I had it. Surely, there were things about their respective countries that they would never trade it, but it was clear that in most areas, Cape Verde was simply more developed than the majority of its African peers.

Because of this, posts like Cape Verde—and Colombia—get labeled as “Posh Corps.” The first time I heard the term I thought it was hilarious. After a while though, it just gets annoying. It’s almost as bad as when people say things like, “Cape Verde is not really African.” Right, just like Uncle Phil isn't really black. Apparently, being successful is grounds for immediate disqualification. I don’t buy it. Africa is the sum of all its parts, not the constraint of its stereotypes.

Like I mentioned before, the world has changed a lot in the last 50 years, and thankfully, so has Peace Corps. The mission is still the same. There are still plenty of volunteers with more “traditional”—just ask the Water and Sanitation specialists in West Africa. However, in many cases, the work to promote peace and freedom will look and feel different—it may even come with running water and wireless internet. The important thing to remember is that there are still volunteers serving in over 70 countries around the world, and each one of those countries—and their partner organizations—asked them to be there.

The next time a volunteer is doubting the need for their work, they should remember that, like Africa, the Peace Corps is the sum of all of its parts—even the more developed ones. If that doesn’t make you feel better, then do what I did: go out and get yourself a nasty tropical disease. That’ll surely make you feel authentic. In my case, a feces-borne parasite in my toe did the trick. While you may call that gross, I call it a merit badge. I even emailed my friend Erin, who suffered from a much more acute case of worms while serving in The Gambia. As of the writing of this post, I have not heard back from her, which means she either hasn’t checked her email, is unimpressed, or both.

Instead of taking a picture of my foot, which isn’t pretty even under normal circumstances, I decided on a more artistic approach. So, I present the next installment in our series, Haiku Therapy...

What the hell is that?
Sandworms love rainy season.
Nothing "posh" 'bout that.

Thank you, Cutaneous Larva Migrans, for making me feel like a real Peace Corps Volunteer.

Pura Vida,


*This post is dedicated to my new, but dear friend, Yubi, who has been laid up in the hospital since Friday a more serious leg injury. ¡Que mejores pronto para que podamos seguir jugando!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Thoughts from The Prophet

During a stretch of years that has taken me all over the place, it's been nice to have a few sources of consistency in my life. For the most part, I thrive on variety, but even the most antsy among us benefit from having some sort of anchor to remind us that our today has something in common with our yesterday and tomorrow. For me, one of the most important sources of consistency has been my reading habit, which has evolved from being a personal interest into a full-blown dependency. 

My books have been with me along every step of the journey—even before my "journey" was an actual journey. I haven’t been writing much about that side of the adventure in recent months, but rest assured, I’m still on the book-a-week program. One thing I love about reading-while-adventuring is that it seems like every book is relevant to something in my life, no matter what the book is about, what I’m going through that week, or where I’m going through it. It’s become a sort of side game for me while reading a book to see how long it takes to arrive at that “ah hah” moment, where I suddenly realize that what I just read is totally relevant to my life beyond the book. Admittedly, sometimes it's a stretch—but hey, it’s a game and I don’t like losing... not even in imaginary games that I play in my own head.

Every now and then—maybe once a year—I come across a special type of book that really is about everything. Books like these stand out to almost every reader, often becoming bestsellers, then classics, and in rare cases, sacred texts. To give you a better sense of exactly the type of book that I’m talking about, here’s a quick list of some of the books that have hit me in that sweet spot.

Tao Te Ching - Lao Tzu (6th Century BC)
The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway (1952)
God Speaks: The Theme of Creation and Its Purpose - Meher Baba (1955)
The Giving Tree - Shel Silverstein (1964)
The Missing Piece Meets the Big O - Shel Silverstein (1981)
The Four Agrements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom - Don Miguel Ruiz (1997)
The Giver - Luis Lowry (1993)
Love in the Time of Cholera - Gabriel García Márquez (1985)
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies - Jared Diamond (1997)
The Fortress of Solitude - Jonathan Lethem (2003)

These are not necessarily my favorite books—although a few of them are. They are just books that seem to have a universal application to life. If you’ve read any one these books—no matter who you are, or when and where you read it—my bet is that it spoke to you in a way that seemed beautifully, or creepily, relevant to your immediate life.

This week I was lucky to finally read another book that fits the bill. I recently snatched a fifty year-old copy of The Prophet off the shelf in the “library” at the Peace Corps office, and wasted no time digging into a classic that I probably should have read a long time ago. I highly recommend it to you, no matter who ore where you are. More than anything, I just want to share a few passages that gave me a new perspective on the life I currently live as a Youth Outreach volunteer in Colombia. Here’s the first:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

A later section on the theme of “Work” offers this gem of a quotation: 

Work is love made visible.

The last bit that I wanted to share pushed me to reflect on one of the most common sources of stress for Peace Corps Volunteers: the home-stay. Even though we all sign up looking for a challenge, almost all of us eventually come to a point where we just might kill a kitten for the chance to be a little bit more comfortable. In a section titled “On Houses,” Gibran’s prophet challenges his audience, asking:

... tell me, people of Orphalese, what have you in these houses? And what is it you guard with fastened doors...
... have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master?

The Prophet, widely hailed as Kahlil Gibran’s masterpiece, gave me a fresh take on my day, my week, and everything going forward, and that’s a big part of what I’m looking for each time a pick up a new book. I hope you come across something today that does the same for you. 

Pura Vida,


*If you are going to leave a comment to say that The Alchemist or Siddhartha should be on my list... please don't. Yes I read them and yes, I enjoyed them, but they already get plenty of shine so I left them out. Please feel free to leave any other comments, with or without book recommendations!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

No Cover

Luther Vandross and Janet Jackson once said, “The best things in life are free.” While at times I have questioned Janet's wisdom—for example, her decision to pick Jermaine Dupri over me—I think they nailed this one right on the head. I’ve never been a huge fan of “things” and I hate paying a cover charge just to hang out with people. This may explain why I’ve always been slightly allergic to Los Angeles.

Don’t get me wrong—sometimes you have to shell out some dough and it can be worth it. Way back in July, Javi and I jumped on the opportunity to buy pre-sale tickets for two Colombia World Cup Qualifying matches against Uruguay and Paraguay. That proved to be one of the best decisions I’ve made since coming to Colombia.

That being said, my motto is still, “If it’s for free, then it’s for me, and give me three.” A good thing is only that much gooder when you don’t have to pay for it. Last weekend we hosted a Jornada de Salud* at my worksite, offering vaccinations, dental and medical appointments, and even a yoga workshop—all for free! The only tough part was getting to work by 7:00 am on Saturday morning. 

Luckily I had the rest of the afternoon to rest and recharge my batteries for the Halloween weekend festivities. Being a big fan of “free,” I’m always looking for a bargain when it comes to social outings. For that reason I was dragging my feet last Saturday as I left the house to meet my friends at Trucupey, a club in Barranquilla. Rumor had it that the cover charge for the Halloween party was  20,000 pesos—almost ten dollars. Goodlordthatsalotamoney, especially when I’m balling on a Peace Corps budget. I decided to suck it up because I hadn’t hung out with the conejitas* for a couple of weeks.

We had a pretty good time waiting in The Line (another thing I hate doing), checking out the local costumes—Señor T, mummies on stilts, Mario & Luigi. Eventually, we got the word that due to spontaneous inflation, the cover charge had doubled to 40,000. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one in our group that wasn’t havin’ it. Natally made a good faith effort to sweet-talk the cashier, then she tried getting ugly—at one point I think I heard her say, “Look honey, I can count.” Surprisingly, neither strategy worked, so we all stepped out of line with heads held high and began to plot out a Plan B.

The first suggestion was to head to Calle 84, a neighborhood with a strip of clubs and lounges. It’s not my favorite place to hang out in Barranquilla, mostly because the drinks are expensive and it feels a little fancy. The last time I found myself there was back in September on Dia del Amor y Amistad, the Colombian equivalent of Valentine’s Day. After searching around for a place with an available table that wouldn’t charge us just to step inside, I decided that I had to make my move. I talked some of the crew into heading back to my barrio, where the (free) party never stops—literally. That September night (and morning) turned out to be nothing short of epic. When I went to bed at 7:00 am the party was still going. When I woke up at 11:00 am the party was still going. Yes, that is the sun rising in the background.

If it worked for Amor y Amistad, why not give it a shot for Halloween? This time we showed up in my barrio with two taxis full of folks ready to party. Unfortunately, when we got to my house the neighborhood was dead... just my host-mom, Chabela, and three friends chatting on the front patio. We greeted them, got the guests comfortable, then I made a beer run. When I got back from the corner store, Chabela had already borrowed a stereo from the neighbors and had it hooked up and bumpin'. The night warmed up pretty fast but the tipping point came when Chabela reemerged, freshly showered, dressed in all black and ready to get down.

If I had a dollar for every time one of my friends told me that my barrio was their new favorite place in Barranquilla, I would have enough money to pay the cover charge at Trucupey next time. But I still wouldn’t do it—I would pile into a taxi, head back to my hood, and hope to have half as much fun as I did last weekend. 

Happy Halloween and Pura Vida,


*Jornada de Salud  = Health Day
** Conejitas = Extra Cute Bunny Rabbits