Number of People with Nothing Better to Do

Friday, July 30, 2010

Peace Corps - The Prequel

About this time last year I received my invitation to serve in the Peace Corps. Since I’ve had a few inquiries about how one joins the Peace Corps and what the application involves, here ya go. The Peace Corps is a US Governmental volunteer organization dedicated to supporting the development of countries that ask for its support. The Peace Corps has three goals 1) provide technical assistance to areas where this assistance is requested; 2) promote a better understanding of who Americans are so we don’t seem like the assholes we appear to be, and 3) educating Americans so they have a better understanding of the folks where volunteers serve since we as Americans are basically geographically retarded. You won’t find that exact phraseology on the PC website.

The service commitment is twenty seven months. The first ten weeks is training after which you’re sworn in as a Volunteer and sent off to the middle of nowhere where you serve the next two years. A lot of people asked me why the two years? As I’m learning now, the 1st year is a lot of training, getting to know your community and, most importantly, letting the community gain confidence in someone that speaks their language for shit. It’s not until later in the first year or into the second year when your projects get off the ground, depending on the program and country.

Volunteers come in all shapes, sizes, colors, backgrounds, beliefs, and religious affiliations (though those may change during the course of service. Well, color not so much). All have to be citizens of the US. Most of the volunteers are younger folks out of college. There are a few retirees and there are folks like me that are mid-career. I was the oldest in my training class but am happy to report that the next training group has at least two people older than me.

The application process is fairly grueling and can last sometimes up to a year or more. First you submit an extensive application with letters of recommendation and a few essays. If your application looks good, then you are contacted by a recruiter for an interview. Again, the interview is fairly extensive. You get asked where in the world do you want to go (I said anywhere), what kind of work do you want to do (water & sanitation, environment, health, youth development, education, small business development, education, etc.), what’s your motivation to join the PC, etc.

If your recruiter thinks you’re PC material, they nominate you for a type of job and a region of the world. My nomination was for environmental/natural resources in Latin America. After the nomination, you’re run through a battery of tests. You have to submit your fingerprints for a background check and go through dental and physical exams. Apparently the PC doesn’t want criminals with irritable bowels and bad teeth so how I got in is beyond me. I guess since you're going to be out in the boonies you have to be somewhat healthy.

Once you clear all that, and that piece does take a while, (my dentist said I grind my teeth so that set my application process back about three weeks - I wore my recommended mouth guard twice by the way) you get a notification that you’ve cleared all your checks and that another recruiter should be calling you. If you’re in a relationship, they want you to fill out a romantic involvement worksheet to make sure you’re not going to get in country and get all weepy and sentimental and I miss you and all that and wind up quitting. That’s where the waiting game begins. It could be in one month or it could be six, you don’t know and you can’t really call anyone to follow up. They do advise you to not to make any life changing decisions like telling your boss to go f*ck him or herself, selling your house and all your possessions, and waiting by the phone for that call. It might not come for a while and if it does it might not be the news you want to hear.

When the call does finally come, you have another phone interview with the placement office. Now I hate phone interviews because I get kind of tongue-tied for some reason. But I gotta say I nailed this one in large part because I’d been going through the application process for some eight or nine months at this stage, was committed to it, eager to serve, and had done a ton of research. At the end of the phone interview, the placement officer said she believed I would make a great volunteer and that she was submitting an invitation to serve in the PC. Great! Where? Oh, I can’t tell you that but check your mail in the next two weeks or so. Mother F#cker!

The torment! Now I had to wait for the United States Postal Service to deliver my formal written invitation (It’s no secret that I’d had an ongoing bloody battle with the USPS in Chicago for years where I wound up on the losing side of said battle so it killed me that now I had to wait for something in the mail that those USPS f?ckers may or may not choose to deliver. There are horror stories of letter carriers in Chicago just throwing sacks of mail in dumpsters because they were too lazy to do their job. After countless meetings with those assholes in my local post office there I don’t doubt it one bit. But I digress…)

I did get my invitation in the mail. Peru. Water & Sanitation. Couldn’t have gotten a better placement as far as I was concerned. Get to brush up on my Spanish and apply my career track sort of. Now what? I’ve been through this 9 month application process, I’ve been invited. Do I really want to do this? I visited the PC blog website while sitting in my cubicle at a job which I loved and payed me well and read a couple postings from volunteers in Peru. I decided right then that I would be stupid if I didn’t do this. I ran across the street to the student lounge of the DePaul building and called to accept my invitation.

So here I am in Peru eight months in country. For about as long as the whole application process took. Was it worth it? Answer…Yes.

If you’re interested in the Peace Corps check it out their website If you’re still interested go ahead and apply, it could take about 12 months. They give you plenty of opportunities to f*ck up or back out. Who knows? Maybe you too can have the opportunity to serve your country, learn a new language, see some great places, help out some folks in developing countries, and have diarrea for the next two years.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Well, all of a sudden, I’m bored. I knew this time would come. It happens to all Peace Corps Volunteers at some stage during their service. I’m glad it didn’t happen to me until my 8th month of service. So far I’ve been balls-to-the-wall busy with my community diagnostic, helping out other volunteers on their latrine projects, training, etc. But now I’m bored. The week before last was fiestas patronales, a three day festival commemorating the patron saints of my town. The World Cup was also going on so I was able to keep myself entertained but not get any real work done. Last week was vacation over the 4th of July weekend which was fun. This week, however, nothing. I’ve got little stuff going on but these things only take up 2 or 3 hours a day and then I ain’t got shit to do.

I suppose I should be used to this kind of ebb and flow in my life. As an Environmental, Health & Safety Consultant, it always seemed to be feast or famine. I always had more work than I could handle one minute and then there was nothing the next. One thing I learned is that when you’re the busiest and you don’t think you can handle any more work, that’s the time to keep pounding the pavement looking for more.

I do have stuff coming up to look forward to. Friday I'm a judge in another beauty pagaent (Peace Corps is so hard). I have an HIV/AIDS training session to start HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns in my town. The week after is Peruvian Independence Day which I understand is a lot of fun. Then we’re putting on a camp for teenage boys focusing on the theme of leadership. I’ve got more in-service training after that. It’s up to me to fill in the gaps between these activities and I have been working with the mayor and the health post on putting together some projects.

But for right now, I’m bored and “pateando latas” (kicking cans). More like “pateando cilindros (kicking drums).

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Gringo of 2 Meters Can't Hide

Playing Volleyball
One of the nice things about living in a big American city is you can slip into the street and walk around in relative anonymity. That is not the case here in my little town of 1200 people where everyone knows everyone. Since I’m a gringo de dos metros, I get a lot more attention than the average Jose. Most of the time it’s pretty cool. When I walk through the streets, everyone greets me “Hola Beto!!”. Kids run up and say hey and ask me how you say this or that in English. Adults stop me to chit chat about nothing in particular. How about this heat? Cold isn’t it? Que tal las nenas? (How are the girls?) is always a good one. Sometimes I frighten people with my height. The other day I walked into the health post. As I entered, a little girl was running around, playing and ran up next to me unaware that I was there. She looked up, let out a terrifying, blood curdling scream and ran away screaming into her mother’s arms. Another little girl mentioned to me casually as I was walking through the street, “Mi mamá dice que me vas a comer” (My mom says you’re going to eat me).

The Peace Corps is 24/7 in that you’re pretty much under the microscope every time you leave the house, even when you’re in the house. Little towns can be gossipy so everything you do, whether good or bad is fodder for the gossip circles. My town had a volleyball tournament a while back. I wasn’t playing for any team but after the official matches were over, a buddy of mine and I and few of the local gays played a pick-up game. There were probably about 50 townsfolk that came out to watch the tournament and many of them stayed around to watch the gringo and the gays play. Now I haven’t played volleyball in years so I had my buddy set me a few practice spikes. My timing wasn’t, well, good - at all. The first set, I jumped up for the spike, completely whiffed and wound up tangled up in the net. Everyone in the place burst out laughing at me. I rarely get embarrassed because I’m pretty good at laughing at myself but I was downright ashamed and wanted to crawl under a rock. Second time exact same thing, whiff, tangle, finger pointing, roaring laughter. There were whispers among the spectators. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but I’m pretty sure it was something like - This 2-meter gringo is f*ckin’ AWFUL at voley. I finally started to find my timing and was able to at least make contact.

When we started playing the game I got into a bit of a groove and felt a bit more confident. My first real good solid spike the crowd was like “Damn!!!” And started clapping and cheering. I had several other good spikes to more cheers and applause. The following week, the tourney continued and I went to watch. One team was getting blown out so they were looking to put someone else in. There was a buzz in the crowd and people kept looking at me. Come to find the next day from my host mom that word was out on the street that I could play and everyone wanted to see me play again. But I was clueless at the time and didn’t play.

“Life in the fish bowl” is kind of a pain in the ass is when you don’t want to talk to anyone, you just want to go where you’re going and be left alone. For example, when I’m trying to catch a bus to go out of town for vacation or whatever I don’t want to explain where I’m going or what I’m doing. For as much as I like traveling, I don’t like the actual getting there part. I’m not built for this country and don’t fit into the local means of transportation - busses, cars, mototaxis, etc. The thought of getting on hot-ass, cramped bus where I have to pay a lot of attention to my surroundings so my shit doesn’t get robbed puts me in a bad mood and I don’t want to talk to anyone. But you put on a grin say hey to everyone and go with it.

Now I kind of know how feels to be Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. OK, maybe more like Carrot-Top.