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.

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