Thursday, December 8, 2005

Peace Corps Retrospective - Two Years in Words

Part I - Life Near Death

In Peru I learned what it is like to really be in a life-or-death situation. I learned this on the roads and in the mountains, sometimes by choice, but mostly by situation. In the developing world you are not always in control of the situation you find yourself in, and you get used to it. Instead of being constantly frustrated, I became surprisingly tolerant. Instead of having panic attacks, I learned to trust my karma, paying off all of my good luck with good deeds.

One memorable threat to my well-being took place on a mountain I climbed last year. I fell into a large crevasse, falling in a few meters before my backpack and the snow that had collapsed around me plugged the hole. I would have fallen quite a lot deeper, but, with my legs dangling below me, I was able to push myself out without the help of my stupefied partner. I was very lucky. That mountain has killed people, and I was happy not to add my name (silent T and all) to that list.

My biggest fear in Peru, though, had nothing to do with ice and snow, but rather with the dangers associated with traveling on severely substandard roads. I rode in tons of unsafe vehicles, simply because there are no other options. On one trip I rode in the open bed of a pickup truck with eight other people. We were going up a winding mountain road (in this part of the world you are always going either up or down) when we came upon an overturned truck and its cargo, fanned out across the dirt road in front of us. It was then that I started questioning my decision to save a dollar by not riding in the cab. A dollar buys you a seat belt, and it would be the most valuable dollar I DIDN'T spend. I chalked up the decision to my well-fed sense of adventure until I realized that if what I REALLY wanted was adventure, I would have saved another dollar and ridden the five hours standing on the rear bumper and holding onto the tailgate for dear life.

Well, coming closer than ever before to death taught me many things, and gave me a lot of perspective. I have friends, family, and am happy to be alive. I learned to see the good in anything, absolutely anything, no matter how ugly or frustrating. I suppose this was one sort of coping mechanism to help deal with crappy roads, reckless drivers, and the general disrepair of Peruvian infrastructure. When you live in a place where nothing works, you really notice and appreciate even the smallest things that DO work.

So I think it is safe to say that I no longer take anything for granted. And I now have a huge tolerance for inefficiency - it is very hard to frustrate me these days. Because over two years I experienced every emotion my brain could manifest, and as I look back, I value it ALL. Bad or good, comfortable or uncomfortable, it all taught me something, and learning is never a bad thing.

I will end this ramble with Voltaire, whose words echo the whole reason I left the United States in the first place. He once said "If we don't find anything pleasant, at least we shall find something new."

Part II - Planting Roots

For two years in Peru, I lived under a mountain. My adobe house in the Ishinka valley was watched over by Vallunaraju, a dramatic glaciated peak over 18,000 feet high growing out of my backyard. Over the course of two years, I saw the snow accumulate on the glacier that would then melt in the dry season, feeding the river that fed my town, and me, every day. I lived with the earth more than I ever have before, and it fed me in many different ways that I never expected.

I climbed a mountain this year, the most beautiful of all, called Tocllaraju. As I reached 19,000 feet before the last section of the climb, I looked up at the most exposed and unstable slope I had ever had in front of me. As I double-checked my knots, I looked up to see a condor soaring by silently below me, only about 30 yards away. Now, seeing a condor that close, and from above, is rare. At 19,000 feet, there is nothing that a condor is hunting. He was on his way somewhere else, gliding effortlessly through the thin air at almost 6,000 meters above sea level, not once flapping his wings. The Incas believed condors were gods, surveying the land in bird form. I felt watched over, way up at the top of that little piece of the world - a place much more fit for a bird than a human being. It was a beautiful climb, and a magical experience that I know will never be repeated in my life.

Of course, daily life way down at 11,000 feet also influenced my view of the world around me. Many people heard many times about the thousands (over 4,000 total) of potatoes that I ate in my roughly 600 days in my village. The monotony of my diet aside, I knew these potatoes for their whole lives. From seed to mouth, I participated in the cycle of life that we are so alienated from in the land of ultra-processed foods. I planted, weeded, fertilized (we had no latrines for my first year in Collon), harvested, cooked, and ate the potatoes that sustained me. Then I planted and harvested their children, and ate them too. Again, an experience that may never be repeated in my life. I don't really expect to be a subsistence farmer when I grow up.

I used to think about how I have no real roots in the US - I have moved around a lot, and my friends and family are spread out over continents. I had always had a roof over my head, but had been totally unconscious of the land beneath my feet. I had never had a garden (potted plants don't count), nor had I ever built anything.

In my first week in my village, I helped build a house from the ground up. As I ceremonially placed the last roofing tile on the last bare section of roof, I was told that we had just built my own house. I donated my house to my community, as I decided to live with a host family to learn Quechua and integrate into village life, but the experience was invaluable. I now know how to build an entire house with mud and a few tree trunks, and my own two hands. I am not saying it would last a lifetime, but it would stand on its own. And that is pretty good, I think.

I also became a farmer. Aside from working potatoes in the family's fields, I started and maintained more than a dozen vegetable gardens, and ate freshly-picked vegetables for two years. It's a ton of work, but it was a little more convenient than hiking two hours with a backpack full of carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, spinach, lettuce, etc. every time I wanted to eat a stir-fry. Anyone who has had a garden for a while knows what I am talking about. It is really the most natural way to nourish yourself, and it is worth the effort.

Now don't get me wrong - I am not planning on moving up to North Dakota to become a thistle farmer for the rest of my life, but I do know that I will never be too far from the dirt, the trees, the mountains, the snow, the grass, and all those very tangible things that can feed us in sometimes intangible ways.

Monday, February 28, 2005

Hedonism: Not as Dirty as it Sounds

Carnaval in Rio is an experience unlike any other. It is by far the biggest holiday in Brazil, and includes a week of activities, street parties, concerts, and samba shows, providing plenty of opportunities to get wasted and stay up all night. By far the most amazing part of it is the positivity and happiness that permeates everything about Carnaval.

With so many free, public street parties with plenty of cheap beer and an almost complete absence of uniformed police, I expected the occasional fight to break out, or the occasional drunk man to try and paw my white friends, but there was NONE of that. It was a celebration of happiness, hedonism, and fantasy. The kind of social experiment that would never work in Peru or the USA, for sure. It certainly helps that Rio de Janeiro is paradise, an urban, commercial city with beautiful beaches. Basically a supermetropolis full of beautiful people in bikinis and sungao (the Brazilian version of the Speedo).

My key observations:


The main Carnaval activity is the 2-day samba competition fought out among 14 samba schools in Rio. These spend all year designing incredible costumes, themed floats, a song, and practicing their samba skills. Each school presents their piece in the Sambodromo, a site specifically constructed for 3 days of use during the year. Bleachers and VIP boxes flank the pasarela - the central road down which parade the floats and dancers, and thousands upon thousands of spectators watch the spectacle of fantasy laid out before them. Rivalries between schools are fierce, and they have some diehard fans. Only in Brazil can dancing samba and dressing up reach the status of a professional sport... 


Cariocas - people from Rio de Janeiro - are the happiest, most relaxed people in the world. Mornings are spent on the beach, recovering from a hangover or just starting the day off with some sea and sand, and it is not at all uncommon to see men in flip flops and sungao (remember, the Brazilian Speedo) carrying a briefcase on their way to work at 10:00 in the (late) morning. During Carnaval week, it is not at all uncommon to be squished into a packed metro car with samba dancers in full regalia on their way to the competitions. Only in Brazil does a metro ride at 6 in the morning involve neon feathers tickling you from all sides... 


Rio is also the most open and accepting city I have seen outside the US. The gay community is large, visible, and fully integrated into city life. There is a section of the Ipanema beach, the "Gay Beach," as it were, that is presided over by a gigantic rainbow flag. I discovered the gay beach by accident, just walking along the surf with my friend Steph. All of a sudden, we were surrounded by hordes of tanned and muscular men wearing nothing but the tried-and-true sungao (by the way, for those of you wondering, I was never able to gather the courage to wear one - Peace Corps has taken 10 pounds from my already slender body and ruined my body image). It was just nice to see beautiful people hugging, kissing, whatever, just showing their love in public without fear of reprisal. I never expected to see that in South America. 


Before Rio, I celebrated Carnaval in Brazil's 4th largest city, Florianopolis. The main surfing town in this country with so much coastline, Floripa is beautiful and relaxed, like a smaller, less touristy version of Rio. On my way to a samba party on one of the many amazing beaches in Floripa, I was stuck in a public bus in bumper-to-bumper traffic for 2 hours. No joke. But what would have been unbearable was turned into a party because, ... Carnaval is all about happiness. People sold us beers through the windows while a samba war broke out between the 2 groups of (mostly young) Brazilians in the front and back of the bus. The two sides exchanged sambas, Carnaval songs, and football chants, each trying to outdo the other with volume, bouncing the bus, and smiling. Only in Brazil will you find a bus full of tanned, beautiful Brazilians laughing and singing as they wait 2 hours in bumper to bumper traffic. No cell phones, no iPods, no Nalgenes. Just beer and laughter. 

What you need to know is that Brazil is paradise. A vacation to Brazil is an embrace of pure happiness for a little while. It is extremely good for the soul, and I might be addicted.