Monday, October 29, 2012

In which Tim presents a blast from the past...

 All of the facebook posts from friends who are stuck inside because of Hurricane Sandy made me think of hurricane evacuations I experienced as a Peace Corps volunteer. The way it worked was that when a storm was approaching the island we would get urgent phone calls from our office in the capital ordering us out of the countryside and into urban hotels where they knew we would be safe. It was fun to stay in comfortable rooms and watch TV, but irritating to be ordered there with little notice and not be allowed to go home until someone somewhere said we could. This is an article I wrote for our volunteer magazine during one such period of confinement in a hotel. I hope it's enjoyed!

Consolidation and Campo Guilt
by T.S. Brown

I am not sure how long I've been sitting in this hotel.  The calendar says it's been three days, but it feels like three months.  Am I still a Peace Corps volunteer, or has my close of service date come and gone during this consolidation?  Boredom and excessive television seems to be turning my mind into a guineo mas duro (ripe banana) that's been on the shelf for a few days too long.  I have been immersed in english televison and conversation for so long that my spanish muscles are beginning to atrophy.  I hope I can still talk to my neigbors when I go back to my community.  That is IF I ever go back.  And if they remember my name.  I think they were just getting used to the idea that I am not moving away any time soon.  I'm not just a tourist visiting their community for a few weeks.  But now I have pulled a disappearing act twice in two weeks.  I get a message on my cell phone, and have to say "sorry guys.  It's about to rain, and the Peace Corps doesn't want my feet to get wet.  I'll be back soon, si dios quiere (if God wills it)!"  So off I go, down the mountain, arriving at the hotel well before the rains set in.

The first few hours of consolidation are a lot of fun.  I get to experience luxuries like air conditioning and restaurant food.  I can get up to the minute headlines from CNN rather than relying on two month old editions of Newsweek.  There are also lots of friends around to visit with.  But for me, these thrills tend to disappear quickly.  The air conditioning gets unpleasantly cold, and the restaurant food is more expensive and less tasty than a meal prepared by my host mother.  On CNN the talking heads are jabbering in the same obnoxious way that they were when I watched them from home.  And friends are great, but more so when they've actually chosen to spend time together rather than act as cell mates in the Peace Corp's version of Folsom Prison.

I should not be here.  I am missing meetings that my community was just starting to get into.  My english students are going to be behind by the time I get back.  The gardens will be sprouting weeds.  This consolidation is getting in the way of the important work I am here to do.  How does the evacuation look to my neighbors?  I often tell them that I am here to be a part of the community.  To live like them, eat like them, and to feel solidarity across the cultural gap.  But here I am, running for the high ground as soon as something potentially dangerous comes along.  It sure doesn't make me feel like part of the community.  I feel like a tourist with a "get out of jail free" card sitting in my back pocket.  I begin to question why I'm in this country at all.  I am a fraud in humanitarians clothing.

These are the thoughts that sometimes buzz around my head during extended periods of inactivity, and I am coming to understand it as another dimension of my cultural adjustment.  As an American, my sense of self worth is intimately connected to my sense of productivity.  If I think I am doing something constructive I tend to feel very good about myself.  My parents and grandparents are hard workers who taught me to believe that nothing would ever be out of reach so long as I was willing to apply myself.  This upbringing has been very positive in that I've been able to dream big, and I've been driven to give my all to school and work.  The unpleasant side effect, however, is that when I am not being outwardly productive (like right now), my sense of self-worth takes a major hit.  I feel useless, and useless things do not carry much value.  The fact that I am not in this hotel by my own choice makes no difference to fact that I feel like a pathetic waste of human space for not accomplishing more with this day.

This is the feeling that a lot of Peace Corps Volunteers call "campo guilt".  We feel a sense of shame when we are not at our sites, being busy little bees for peace and justice.  Campo guilt can strike regardless of whether we are lounging on a beach, called to a meeting in the capital, or even when we are consolidated for a hurricane.  I think we've all had it, and I believe it to be a sign of an American cultural tendency that isn't always healthy.

That tendency is that we are addicted not to productivity, but rather to a sense of being busy.  Our self worth is found not in actually getting things done, but in being in a constant state of movement.  We continue to do do do, because if we stop we will feel useless.  Our culture has conditioned us to act this way.  Back home you can usually climb the ladder to comfort and success if you are willing to work hard enough.  Constant "doing" pays off.  Things are a little bit different here in the DR.  Rural farmers toil and sweat from sunrise to sunset for next to nothing, while urban bureaucrats have good jobs with decent salaries just because they had friends in the political party that happened to win the last election.  In our own work many of us have found that a conversation about baseball over a cup of coffee with a community leader will do more for our projects than hours worth of well researched and professionally delivered presentations.  This is frustrating.  We get angry when our hard work doesn't produce the same results that we feel it should.  Our American mindset tells us that the lack of results probably means that we are not working hard enough.  Therefore, every moment that we are not at our sites becomes a wasted moment.  A squandered opportunity to do that one more days worth of work that might have made a difference.  We are certain that both our neigbors and our Peace Corps colleagues are talking about our laziness, and how if we just put a little bit more into it we would actually be able to help someone.  And in the back of our minds we think they may be right.

We need to be a little more fair, and stop judging both ourselves and those around us.  Yes, things work differently here than they do back home.  Dominicans have different ways of relating to each other, different ways of considering productivity and self worth, and different ways of getting things done.  This is not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing.  It is just different.  Frustration and miscommunication are what happens when we begin to assign positive or negative moral value to cultural differences.

Success in our work simply means that we have to change the way that we look at things.  We American volunteers are like athletes who've spent our whole lives training to play football and win.  Suddenly the Peace Corps has decided to place us in the middle of a basketball game.  If we play the game we know then we are not going to get very far.  And we are probably not going to convince all of the Dominicans on the court to stop the basketball game and play by our rules.  If we want to win we had better shed our football cleats, put on some basketball shoes, and learn how to play the game that everyone else is playing.

So if you, like me, are sitting on a couch somewhere and feeling down about your lack of productivity, cheer up.  We need to leave our sites on occasion for the sake of work, sanity, but especially to let our mothers know that we are not being swept away by the storm they're probably watching on the news right now.  Stop feeling guilty.  You are doing good work.  Now get up, and go play some basketball.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Regarding endings, and beginnings

 As life moves us from one act to the next, the scenery can often change very quickly. A few short months ago my life consisted of zipping up and down mountains on the backs of motorcycles, wading rivers, and sharing life with people who have very little material wealth. Now my home is the campus of an elite university that only children of great privilege of have access to. My work used to consist of building things to improve the lives of my neighbors. Now my main concern will be writing papers to meet the demands of people who I imagine will be mostly elderly white males with lots of letters after their names. I've moved from being a Peace Corps volunteer to being a paper writer. From grass roots development worker to graduate student.

This change is not easy. As a PCV I could see the near immediate impact of my work, and it was gratifying. Most of my production now will be in the realm of the abstract. I live in a fascinating city, but I miss the countryside. I miss the kids, the music, and the peace and quiet that comes with a community lacking electricity. I may have left the island, but it definitely left a piece of itself wedged in my heart. When I dream now, I usually find myself in the DR, walking through a coffee farm or hiking my river.

Despite this deep longing to return, I believe I am in the right place for now. I can't forget the kids I left behind and the huge barriers they face in life. They attend crappy schools funded by corrupt politicians, and often return home to a lack of food and clean drinking water. It's just not fair. We've all read the statistics, but these are my friends I am talking about. I think about them every day. I want to spend my life helping them, and others like them. In order to do that, I need to learn a lot more about the way the world works. So here I am, at the University. I have enrolled in a top International Affairs program, ready to take whatever knowledge this place has to offer and learn to apply it effectively.

Our world is in big trouble. Poverty, disease, war, and the continuing collapse of our environment are creating some apparently hopeless situations. I don't know where this is all going. Maybe humanity will just end up destroying itself. What I do know is that I am not going to sit on the bench and watch it happen. I'm going to fight, even if it's a losing battle. I am incredibly blessed to have found a life partner who feels the same way, and I take great comfort knowing that we move forward together. The adventure on the island may be over, but the action is only just starting.

Thanks for reading along for the last two years. I am touched that so many followed my stories through this blog. I do intend to keep blogging, though the material I have to work with may not be quite as exciting. Please stay tuned for when I announce the location of my new blog. Thanks again.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Regarding what I read...

Here is the final list of books I read during my Peace Corps service.  I think this covers about the last six months.  Enjoy!

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
An old favorite.  It was given new meaning, though, as I was involved in killing snakes with a machete while in the middle of reading it.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Book 4) by J.K. Rowling
I read it in a day.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5) by J.K. Rowling
The same as ever.  Harry is a crab.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6) by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7) by J.K. Rowling
Definitely a favorite.  I laugh, I cry, I lose about a day of my life as it is impossible to put down.

A Perfect Spy by John le Carre
Twists and turns abound as the reader travels into the world of cold war-era British espionage.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
I wish I could write like that.

The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is by N.T. Wright
A historian's examination on what the teachings of Jesus are all about.  Stimulating and challenging.

Kingdom Without Borders: The Untold Story of Global Christianity by Miriam Adeney
The author examines what the church looks like today in many different corners of the world.  Very interesting reading.

Tortilla flat by John Steinbeck
Great fun!

The Kennedy Curse : Why Tragedy Has Haunted America's First Family for 150 Years by Edward Klein
It was fun to read, but I felt a little guilty learning about all this family's dirty laundry.  JFK certainly had some interesting exploits...

Captured by Grace: No One Is Beyond the Reach of a Loving God by David Jeremiah
This book tells the story of the apostle Paul in parallel with the story of John Newton, the reformed slave trader who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace."  Thanks, Grandma and Grandpa!  I really enjoyed it.

Dune Messiah (Dune Chronicles) by Frank Herbert
Very nerdy.  I was going to try reading the whole series, but this book made me give up.

Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers: Prayer for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne
About uniting prayer with social activism.  It challenged me to think more about the way I pray.

The Pilgrim's Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity Reason and Romanticism by C.S. Lewis
An interesting telling the author's coming to faith.  A little weird, but very Lewis in all ways.

The Known World by Edward P. Jones
A novel about slavery.  It dragged out a bit, but the writing was generally quite good.

Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics by Joe Biden
Fascinating.  A great read for anyone interested in politics, and the history of American politics over the last 40 years or so.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (P.S.) by Robert M. Pirsig
Strange.  Maybe I needed some '70's era hallucinogens to help me appreciate it more.

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner
I never studied creative writing, but I am trying to be a creative writer.  This helped.

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
Not bad.  A little dry, but still interesting.

The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman
I was familiar with the concept, but this was the first time I sat down and read the book.  Useful for understanding relationships a little bit better.

The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (Official Edition) by U.S. Government
Not as boring as it sounds.

Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 by Garrison Keillor
Takes you inside the head of a semi-fictional teenager in a fictional town.

Pontoon by Garrison Keillor
I really enjoyed this story.  It's another Lake Wobegon novel, and Keillor again shows his mastery of culture and language.

Naked by David Sedaris
Hilarious Sedaris stories, climaxing with his account of time spent at a nudist colony.

How to Be a Pirate (Heroic Misadventures of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III) by Cressida Cowell
This is part two of the "how to train your dragon" series.  Good stuff.  I will read it to my kids.

unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity... and Why It Matters by David Kinnaman
This book really has it's finger on the pulse of my generation.  Anyone who cares about the relevance of the Kingdom in our time should read this book, and be prepared to examine some hard truths.

Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle: Living Fully, Loving Dangerously by Kent Annan
This book is about a guy and his wife who move to Haiti to do rural community development work.  I read it around the time that I was dealing with some earthquake stuff, so it sticks out as one of the more significant books I read in Peace Corps.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
A very astute examination of the cultural issues at work as a non-English speaking Hmong family attempts to get answers from the American healthcare system.  Eye opening.

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer
A well written (yet not unbiased) history of the Mormon faith.

Twilight (The Twilight Saga) by Stephenie Meyer
Ha.  I don't know how this book made it to print.  The grammar is clumsy.  The syntax often stinks.  The story telling is downright manipulative.  I could write a lot more, but I will stop at saying that this book is simply bad writing used to exploit the desires of emotionally hungry teenage girls, and get them to spend money.

Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King
A history of the artist's work in the Sistine Chapel.  Made me want to visit.

The World is Flat: a Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Tom Friedman
A must read for anyone interested in where the world is going.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution--and How It Can Renew America by Tom Friedman
Better than it's predecessor.  Friedman looks at what it will really take to dig ourselves out of the hole we are in ecologically.

The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (Vintage) by Barack Obama
It is good to have a President who knows how to write.

The Cider House Rules by John Irving
Delightful storytelling, despite the strange story.

John Adams by David McCullough
This is one of the best books I have read on the early history of the United States.

Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough
This is the story of Teddy Roosevelt's early life.  I enjoyed it.

The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story by Richard Preston
Ebola.  Lots of ebola.  After reading this, I got nervous every time I had an upset stomach.  Really gross.

Basic Christianity by John Stott
A classic.

The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer
I read my late Grandfather's copy of this, his favorite book.  It is good to begin with, but made more interesting by his notes in the margins.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Altogether a great piece of fiction.  I laughed, I cried, and I finished it with a desire to make a better world.  Thanks, Kim, for the recommendation.

It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It by Robert Fulghum
I read it about three times a year.  Enough said.

Jars of Clay: Ordinary Christians on an Extraordinary Mission in Southern Pakistan by Pauline Brown
I have read this piece of family history before, but it became more real this time, as I was reading it in my own rough, rural setting.

The God I Don't Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith by Christopher J.H. Wright
Thanks, Aus, for the book.  Rev. Wright always hits the nail on the head.

The Traveler (Fourth Realm Trilogy, Book 1) by John Twelve Hawks
Silly sci-fi, but still fun.

Dan Brown keeps trying.  This da vinci code sequel is in the same spirit, albeit a bit less controversial.

American Raj: America and the Muslim World by Eric Margolis
Important reading for anyone interested in America's role in the world today.  Merciless journalism.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

In which Tim and Kim take some friends out for pizza...

After the beach trip went so well, we decided that it might be fun to take the kids on another day trip before moving away. Their sister had moved in with relatives in the city a few months back, and they hadn't been to visit her yet. We went to pick her up, and then take all three of them out for pizza (which they had never had before).
Our assumption was that all kids everywhere love pizza. It certainly holds true in America, and I figured we would be fine because I have never seen these particular kids turn down food. As it happened, they tasted it, picked at it, and moved it around the plate, all with very glum looks on their faces. Having been a picky eater as a child, I had memories of visiting relatives and having to be polite while attempting to eat something that I considered to be inedible. I asked if they liked it. They said "well, yeeees, but....Timo.....when are we going to eat rice???"

I guess pizza is not everyone's favorite after all.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

In which Tim and Kim take some friends to the beach...

The Dominican Republic is full of beautiful beaches. Due to the small size of the island, it's not really possible to travel anywhere in which you are more than a few hours travel from that glorious Caribbean blue. I only lived about three miles away from the coast, and if you stood up on my roof you would be able to see the ocean. This fortunate geographic set up means that just about everyone in the DR with the means to travel a short distance can enjoy the beach. There are two beaches within half an hour of my community, and they fill up with locals enjoying themselves every Saturday and Sunday. Kim and I would go frequently as well (often when there was no water in the pipes at her house, we would go bathe at a local beach. Life is rough.).

This being said, not everyone is able to enjoy the beauty of the Caribbean. Poor people, especially women and kids, often never have enough spare money to travel the short distance to the coast. This concept came home for me when I found out that my two best friends, Ales (8) and his sister Maroli (5) had never even seen the ocean despite having lived their whole lives within three miles of it. I told Kim about this, and she said "well, we should take them to the beach!" So we did.
When I first told the kids I would be taking them on a field trip out of the community, they didn't believe me. They thought it was some kind of joke. But then as the day got closer and I didn't change my story, they started to get excited. They picked out their best clothes, and even cajoled their dad into buying them new flip flops. This little day trip was becoming a very big deal to them.

We left early in the morning and caught a motorcycle. These two kids are normally very energetic and not at all shy, but the idea of taking a motorcycle farther than they had ever gone before made them a little nervous. Maroli cried, and Ales became very quiet. She calmed down when I gave her a cookie, and he cheered up at the idea of riding in front of the driver on the motorcycle.

We got to Kim's house, ate lunch, and went to the beach. We had a great time. The kids loved splashing in the water in the inner tubes we rented for them. We drank pop, ate empanadas, and had an amazing time. Ales tried his hand at sweet talking all the girls about his age, and Maroli couldn't stop staring at the ocean and asking how big it was. When we got back home, the kids couldn't stop talking about everything they had seen and done. Their joy was so pure and honest.

This may not strike you as a very remarkable story, but it felt to me like one of the best days of my Peace Corps service. These kids have given me so much over these two years. They've been my Spanish teachers, domino opponents, errand runners, gossip sources, hiking buddies, and constant companions in times of loneliness. They were the only people who were ALWAYS there and who NEVER got frustrated with me. I've tried to do a lot of projects that are supposed to help give these kids a better life, and I don't know if any of them will work out. What I do know is that for one day I was able to give them something they had never had. It felt really good.
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