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
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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!