“A Contented Misanthrope”

(Robb’s description of Arthur Rimbaud (French poet), from Dark Star Safari, by Paul Theroux)

Here’s an excerpt:
In one of my favorite self-portraits, Rimbaud, grimly jeering at his life, wrote home:

“I still get very bored.  In fact, I’ve never known anyone who gets as bored as I do.  It’s a wretched life anyway, don’t     you think–no family, no intellectual activity, lost among negroes who try to exploit you and make it impossible to settle     business quickly?  Forced to speak their gibberish, to eat their filthy food and suffer a thousand aggravations cause by     their idleness, treachery and stupidity!  And there’s something even sadder than that–it’s the fear of gradually turning     into an idiot oneself, stranded as one is, far from intelligent company.”

Though he denied it, he was the happy captain of the drunken boat.  Like many of us, he made a meal of his     suffering–complained even as he was rather enjoying it, thrived on adversity, and grumbled dishonestly about     savagery and bad food, discomfort and poverty.  Contemporary accounts prove that he lived well in Harar, made     money, and felt at home in the town.

What is it about us that craves the approval, neigh the admiration, of others?

I started wondering this when the Fantastic Mr. Fox brought it back to mind (what a fun movie!).

Well, I guess now is a good time to connect these thought to my Peace Corps experience.  It is, of course, our Peace Corps blog.

As Peace Corps volunteers, we encounter a variety of responses from people, voicing their opinions and level of knowledge about what we’re up to by the very words and tones they use.  On the spectrum of understanding, most folks seem to lean toward the extremes–Either we’re in Peace Corps on an extended vacation OR we’re being coerced by the American Machine to live in squalor and be constantly harassed for 2 years.  We’re draft-dodgers or we’re self-less heroes.  We’re future diplomats or we’re running away from our futures and/or our loved ones. We are none of the above.

If I had to sum Peace Corps service up, at least my PC experience, it would be to say it is:
an opportunity, requiring sacrifice, to expand one’s perspective and work harder than you ever have to achieve maybe less than you ever expected.  It’s leaving the life and people you know and getting to know an entirely different place and different people, and getting to know yourself in this new environment.  In some aspects, PC life is so “easy” because we are paid our monthly stipend every month that covers basic living expenses.  If we need to see a doctor, we go and the copay is covered by Peace Corps.  The business side is there–We have to report our activities, our whereabouts and occasionally our “feelings,” but the reasons behind all this make perfect sense.  The 27-month commitment is voluntary, and like in most voluntary commitments, finishing the entire run qualifies you for certain perks–like a re-adjustment stipend of $6,000/person, financial discounts on grad school, a non-compete status for a year after you return home, and other things.  For the rest of our lives, we’ll be RPCVs and there’s something valuable in belonging to a group like this.

If you’d like to know more about the origin, goals and structure of the U.S. Peace Corps, here’s the Wiki article.

With most of our basic needs met through Peace Corps support, we are unencumbered and therefore motivated to do something meaningful in the progression of the Peace Corps mission:
“To promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower.“

There are 3 specific goals the Peace Corps uses to accomplish this mission:
* To help the people of interested countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained workers
* To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served
* To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans

Each country’s Peace Corps staff must work with government leaders, etc. to determine how Peace Corps-Jamaica’s volunteers can meet these goals in a helpful and peaceful way throughout the country.  A country’s needs change over time and with different leadership, and PC-Jamaica will change as the country’s needs change.  For instance, PC-J is about to start a Pilot Program here in Jamaica on Teen Sexuality, and I wonder if there’s any other country where this topic is more appropriate for a Pilot Program than Jamaica.

The sectors in Jamaica right now are:
Community Health, Water & Sanitation (Health)–Includes waste water, drainage, infrastructure as well as environmental health issues and community health education in general–from handwashing and TB to HIV and heart disease and mental health.
Youth As Promise (Youth)–This includes literacy, counseling, ICT and life-skills building
Green Initiative (Environment)–Eco-tourism, food production, agri-business and agro-forestry, environmental education & conservation

Josh and I are both in the Health sector and we were assigned to a local farmers’ group in a rural community in a mountain valley in north-eastern Jamaica.  From this strategic location, we can draw support from local community groups, listen to perceived needs and goals of the community and its members and decide if there’s anything we can do, individually with our own skills and talents, to help others and achieve the Peace Corps goals.  We are responsible to Peace Corps for being respectable examples of Peace Corps volunteers, of Americans and also responsible to report results–at least our efforts toward increasing the sector goals–ours is increased understanding and behavior change toward better individual, family, community and structural wellness.  Whether we are showing movies on Sunday nights, helping to upgrade a computer lab or writing a grant for renewable energy components, our underlying agenda is to equip our communities with the information they need to improve their own health, water and sanitation.  So we try to fit that stuff in any chance we get.

Okay, that’s enough for now.  I just wanted to provide an overview, in case anyone reading might secretly think one of those things above—2 year beach bum or self-less humanitarian.

Honest to goodness, we are at the beach more than we ever were in Nashville.  We sit in the river next to our house often–it’s a past-time and a way to cool off.  We live in a rainforest, people–it’s beautiful up here!  We have made good friends with extraordinary people while in Jamaica.  We make our own work schedules and we can change them whenever needed-This means that we might watch a 2 hour movie at 10:00am on a Tuesday, but be ”working“ at 10pm on Saturday…it’s just like that.  Life and work is slower here, but the need for initiative and follow-up and politeness and determination and humility is just as integral to success.

Our physical living situation–It is simple and takes more planning here.  That being said, we are healthy and mostly happy.  Water is plentiful, but sometimes dirty (so we strain & boil). Electric current is decent, but sometimes goes out for days (we have candles & kerosene lamps ready).  Our stove/oven is gas and thank goodness!  Our windows have no screens, all have burglar bars on them and are perpetually open when we’re home (so we sweep and dust all the time).  Insects abound, as does sweating.  However, our location is cooler and breezier than most on the island and we’re thrilled with that fact.  We’re chilly at night, almost half of the year.  We can’t get the same foods in the same variety for the same price as we did back home…but I’d say the supermarkets do a good job of stocking with variety.  Some foods are available, but don’t work with our budget, which should be similar to middle-class level in our community.  Luxuries like alcohol, coffee, cheese and meat, nice shampoo, tampons, and…razor refills are so exorbitant for what we can afford, I’d almost rather not shave at all.  We practice big-time portion control with these luxury items!  We walk and take taxi everywhere guys…and our road is pretty much the worst.  I think our PC supervisor, Ms. Genevieve, was half joking when she came across ”Friday“ this morning to see us, saying, ”If you guys called me asking to get OUT of here because of the road, I wouldn’t hesitate. That is serious!“  We’re used to watching our steps.  Comments like that just make us feel tough and awesome.

I hope I’m giving you both sides.  This is no Haiti, no Malawi.  We are not in huts grinding our soy with pestles. However, we do work…it just doesn’t always look like the ”work“ you do or we used to do.  It’s a lot of communication, lots of meetings and lots of research and follow-up.  It’s a lot of chatting and drinking and playing dominoes.  It’s a lot of speaking up and a lot of listening.

We have less than 6 months left in our service and i want to use this time to help our viewership understand a little better what this is all about, and what it’s been about for us.  We think that maybe we’ve done a disservice in using this website as a sounding board without a guiding principle of mission statement.  We want the blog to contribute toward Goal #3–helping you gain knowledge about another part of the world and the people who live there and dispel some of that crazy Us vs. Them mentality.

So who has questions?

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6 Responses

  1. this question may be something you’ve been asking for a while. but…. with all the programs ya’ll have helped get off the ground or have fed into, with the grant writing, why isn’t there anyone willing to fix that crazy dangerous road?

  2. Dear Jesse and Josh,

    I am ready to join you in Jamaica as a Peace Corps volunteer…beginning training on March 18th. Probably as one of the oldest members of the new group of volunteers, I am eager to begin and work diligently, daily and deliberately to keep pace with other trainees. It is a great opportunity for me, having never lived in the tropics after 40 years of teaching in the U.S., Sweden, New Zealand and Japan. I retired for one year, but have missed the interaction with students, faculty and staff colleagues, and even government officials and ngos so much, the Peace Corps seemed like one last great opportunity for me to pursue. I hope to work on a range of environmental and educational projects in the “Green Initiative.”.

    Your more extensive/thorough blog(s) and photos are certainly the best I have read and viewed, allowing the reader to understand the daily life, the vibrant cultural fibers and textures, and challenges, hard work and joys that can be experienced by Peace Corps volunteers in Jamaica.

    I am not sure where in Jamaica I will be living, but since most of my research has been on coastal issues, fisheries, law of the sea actions, and ecopolitics, maybe I will finally have the opportunity to actually work on coastal management systems/projects and/or fragile reef ecosystem initiatives. I have a lot to learn in Jamaica, and hope in some small way to carry out my jobs/assignments with the demeanor and patience and humor that both of you reveal in your blog entries. (and great photos, Josh). I like photography, too, and have a good Pentax which I am afraid to bring, but did just get a new Nikon Coolpix L100 and a very, very cheap underwater camera, too. Doubt I will get pictures of your quality, texture and feeling, but photographing the beauty of daily life is a great joy.

    I look forward to “hinterland” journeys and hope we meet before your two years of service in Jamaica are over.

    All the Best,

    Forest

    Forest Redding, Jr.
    Peace Corps Trainee

    p.s. (Warning: this is a long postscript!) Since I just found out I was joining the Jamaica PC trainees (Group 81) two weeks ago, I have been trying to get my gear and essentials together… and final paper work submitted to Washington during the Blizzard of 2010!

    (I did watch the Superbowl, and since I grew up in Indiana, had to cheer for the Colts and Peyton. Still, I like an underdog and thought the Saints’ “lucky breaks” in the second half really qualified them to be true Super Bowl champions.)

    I am about to purchase a new lap top to bring with me to Jamaica. Any advice on what capacities and software are really needed on my lap top…are essential for most PC volunteers’ jobs in Jamaica? Doubt I will work on any dance posters (not that talented graphically) but do like to write and offer powerpoint presentations on a variety of ecopolitical topics. I know, this “reply” is too long, and I doubt I will have that much time to blog during training. Just wanted you to know that I have enjoyed reading your blogs. Oh, and thanks for the packing list suggestions…. and for what it is worth…Your Thanksgiving tube broadcast really made me smile (and occasionally laugh)….and your face is not lopsided, Josh. Wait until you see mine.

    • Hey Forest

      Nice to hear from you. I’m glad this blog has helped you prepare for your service. That’s nice to hear.

      As far as the camera, you just have to decide if at some point you’ll wish you had the Pentax. If yes, then I’d just bring it. it’ll be fine. However, I am battling some mold issues at the moment. With the proper attention, safety shouldn’t be an issue at all.

      The computer: We use Macs. I’ve found my Macbook Pro to be advantageous in about 99% of the cases here. Windows viruses are rampant here, but a Mac really doesn’t have anything to worry about. I have Windows XP installed on mine so I have no compatibility issues. Plus every Mac is basically a self-sufficient computer island. It’s already got everything you’ll need as far as various softwares go. Even my new DIgicel Modem works on it. The only downside is you wont find any Mac support here on island so you’ll have to learn fast :) And if you have the option, buy Applecare. Chances are it will pay for itself within the first year or so.

      Of course, I should say, a PC would also work fine. I would recommend ANY computer over NO computer. I would find my life and daily tasks very frustrating without it. I guess I’d be a better famer though.

      Best of luck finalizing preparations for here. The warm tropics are waiting very patiently for you.

      • Tried to reach you by e-mail, but did not succeed. So here is my retyped reply to your e-mail.

        Hey, Josh and Jesse,

        Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. It really means a lot to me. I went ahead and bought a laptop (HP Notebook Pavilion dv7). One of the couples in my Group 81 (Ron and Carole Sand) is bringing a 17″ HP laptp, too. At our 60+ age, we like to work with bigger screens. I also got a new digital Nikon Coolpix L100 (got it on sale…isn’t everything on sale!) and will bring that in March. Don’t laugh. I also got a very inexpensive Vivitar AquaShot underwater digital camera. Most likely, I will be stationed in the “hinterland,” too, but have to try some simple underwater photography whenever I visit a coastal/beach area. (I posted some November 2009 Sanibel Island pics on my facebook recently.)

        I do have several other questions & promise I will not ask too many in the month ahead.

        What kind of converter or adapter should I bring to hook up my laptop and other electronics? You will quickly discern I am not a tech person by the type of questions I am asking. I may try to go home to Oklahoma this first Christmas and will bring my Pentax K100 and better lenses to Jamaica then. Hope I will be “settled in” and ready to take daily pics afer training. Photos of daily life in Jamaica are what really interest me, and I know from my other stays abroad, groups one speaks to “back home” really do appreciate good photos that accompany trip, travel and project narratives.

        I am known as the human bug magnet…since insects seem to find me attractive. (Guess I talk too much…too much CO2 I think!) People enjoy being around me since I pull in most of the bugs. Actually, I am interested in entomology, ornithology, and especially marine biology/conchology and malacology. I am an amateur in all those “…ologies.” If I had to do it all over, I would be a marine biologist instead of a political scientist/IR person. Before I ramble on too much, what local remedies do you use to deal with bugs? Do you sleep with nets? My wife Kathy and I love animals, and the idea of a cat that eats bat-sized moths appeals to me. I would have to photograph the moth first, of course. I gather from your more recent log entries, you now have some internet connectivity!

        Since we still had snow coming down and winds blowing at 30 mph in Oklahoma today, the tropic warmth sounds very appealing. I have taken a university travel group to Central America only once (in the mid 1970s to Belize and Guatemala). We spent two weeks in the Belizean Barrier Reef and islands, and days up in the Maya mountains near the Guatemalan border. For the students and me, it was such an intense and memorable experience, and I am eager to have many similar experiences in Jamaica. I do have vivid memories of the coastal heat, open windows and sweating profusely at midnight trying to get to sleep. Once up in the mountains of Belize, however, the heat abated somewhat.

        I know your days in Jamaica are nearing an end. Hope you really enjoy your last months in Jamaica and that your preparations for graduate school and life back in the States are progresing successfully, too. We are at opposites ends of our professional careers, and how I wish I could be in your place now, about to enter graduate school and begin your family. For Kathy and me, our graduate school days were some of our most challenging and unforgettable. We lived in married campus housing in a unit that was so small that my desk and books were in the closet. On our first Christmas, we purchased a real tree from a farmer near Bloomington (Indiana), since it looked so perfect … and small…until we got it into the apartment. Every night, when we converted our sofa into our bed, the Christmas tree would fall into the bed, ornaments and all. It was a Holiday Season to remember.

        See you in Jamaica.

        Forest

  3. One day closer to Jamaica. Weather here in Oklahoma is sunny and cold, but we still have a foot of snow in our backyard. I am ready for some tropical climes…heat, rain, reefs, coastal shores and “bat-sized moths in the “hinterland,” too!

  4. Hi Forest, welcome to Group 81! A bunch of us have gotten together over on Facebook – http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=181408387759 – feel free to join us. Looking forward to meeting you in Miami!

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