Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Occupational Hazards

One of the best parts of serving in the Peace Corps are the benefits. And I’m not talking about the fluffy, sense-of-accomplishment, I-feel-like-I’m-changing-the-world-while-learning-a-new-language kind of benefits. I’m talking about full medical and dental. In recent years, Peace Corps has unfortunately made some headlines due to some of the dangers associated with being a volunteer. Fortunately, I still haven’t been mugged, assaulted, or anything of the sort. BUT, there are times when I find myself thanking my lucky stars that I’m more or less covered should something ever go down. Case in point...

Midway through last week I overheard my coworkers saying something about what we were going to be doing on Saturday. Wait up... hold the phone... I think I heard a “Saturday” in there somewhere in a conversation about work. 

“Ohhhh, nobody told you? We’re doing a group clean-up on Saturday morning from 8am until noon!”

Yay, right? Well, I wasted no time reviewing my contract, and believe-it-or-not, there is no I-don’t-work-on-Saturdays clause in it. No surprise... par for the course when you work with kids... especially in the wonderful world of youth soccer. Besides, this would hardly be the first clean-up campaign that I’ve been a part of, and  The last time I got my hands dirty like that was with the University of Johannesburg as part of our Mandela Day initiative. This would certainly be another worthy cause, as the soccer fields in my barrio have been crying out for some love and attention.

So, when saturday morning rolled around, I stumbled out of bed, scarfed down an arepa, and headed out the door, ready to tackle some trash. But, on my way out, my host-mom stopped me with an unexpected question. “Don’t you need a machete?” In my infinite naïveté, I looked at here like she was a little nuts.

“No, no, don’t worry.” After all, I was planning on picking up some bits of trash, not hacking it into even smaller bits. So I strolled over to the field, feeling ready to do my part. The first person I saw when I arrived was my co-worker, Danilo, hunched over a stone, grinding his machete in preparation for battle. All of the sudden, I had a flashback to Cape Verde. In any standard portuguese dictionary, the definition of the word “limpar” is “to clean.” BUT... in Cape Verdean Creole, “limpar” often refers to the annual arduous process of clearing your land of all vegetation in preparation for planting a new crop... as in "Nos ten ki limpar lugar."* It’s kind of like weeding, except you do it with a panga and it takes a lot longer. So, I connected the dots, albeit a little late. When they said “limpiar / clean-up,” they weren’t just talking about the trash. Instead, we were all scheduled for a date with the bushes surrounding the two soccer fields (one big and one small). So, I tucked in my lower lip, walked back home, and took my host-mom up on her previous offer.

As I headed out the door, my host-mom offered a casual warning... “Watch out for the snakes.” I flinched, but only on the inside. On the outside I smiled and replied, “It’s better they bite me than the kids.” You see, this “clean-up” wasn’t just about aesthetics... this was about workplace safety... Every time a ball goes of the field, one of the kids has to chase it down. Obviously, we'd rather not have them dodging snakes along the way. Which brings me back to the topic of full medical. There’s nothing to make you thank your lucky insurance plan like a few hours of weed-wacking through snake-infested super-grass.** Honestly, the thing that scared me the most was not the prospect of a snake bite. In face, by the time one kid shouted out, "Hey look, snake eggs," I was already in the zone. What really had me on edge was working in close proximity to a bunch of machete-wielding preteens. It reminded me of something i used to say back home when kids would do really stupid things with themselves while under my care... "Hey, their parents signed the waiver."

The sad truth is that these kids were much, much more effective and experienced in the ways of the machete than me... as their snickering constantly reminded me. So, after about an hour of hacking away at the grass, I surrendered my machete to an eight-year-old, donned the rubber gloves from my Peace Corps-issue medical kit, and went in search of some loose trash to pick up. Last week I showed my counterpart how to use some essential functions in Excel, but when it comes to machete-work, there was no capacity-building to be done.

Thankfully, I made it through the morning without getting accidentally shanked. The only health-related consequences were the blisters on my first-world hands and the extreme water loss suffered as a result literally sweating buckets. I headed home, ate lunch, and scratched my body incessantly until the water came back on in the house.*** Thankfully, I was able to squeeze in a quick shower before heading out for my weekly game of soccer in the city. Which brings me back again to the theme of coverage.

Eleven years ago, while playing pickup basketball in Washington, D.C., I took a forearm to the kisser, which broke my front tooth in half. After a root canal and a porcelain crown, I went on with my life without further incident... until last weekend. Just a few minutes into our soccer game, a(nother) flying elbow caught me square in the grill. Seconds later, I was spitting out the back half of “my” tooth**** and nursing a swollen lip. I was understandably pissed off, but by the end of the game I was just thankful that I didn’t knock the whole thing out. After all, I remember what it was like to walk about for a week with a missing front tooth... talk about prejudice. It’s hard enough to catch a cab as it is.

Being no stranger to soccer-related injuries, I bounced back in time to go out dancing later that night. Because of my swollen lip, I volunteered to be Javi’s wingman for the night, and assumed responsibility for making him look like the more attractive option. As of tonight, my tooth still hasn’t completely fallen out, and hopefully I can visit the dentist next week before it does. Like I said, I’m just glad I’m covered.

Pura Vida,

*Translation: "We have to clear/prepare the field."

** Yes, I am embellishing for added effect.

*** It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then the water “disappears” from our barrio. It’s kind of like a rolling blackout, but with water, and since I’ve been here, it’s never lasted for more than a few hours.

**** If your mama can call that hair and those nails "hers," then I can call my porcelain crown "my tooth." I paid for it, so it's mine!


  1. Hacking at weeds with a machete=automatic PCRV bad ass. Good luck with tooth!

  2. That was something, Drew! You should be proud of your accomplishment as a member of the Peace Corps! And I also agree with your point. Your job can definitely put you at risk, especially since you are far from your homeland. My advice for you is to peruse your contract and read the terms and agreements, especially the part about accidents, injuries, and compensation. You can avail the services of a legal professional to help you understand the vague parts of the contract. Other than that, just enjoy your time helping! Here’s to volunteerism!