The Fun That Was Peace Corps Guyana - Mark's Blog

Postings from just north of the equator. Let's see if training in CPR and First Aid prepares me to teach Health Education in a small, remote village in Guyana. I'm thinking... no. Read all about this ill advised decision! In addition, here is the required Peace Corps disclaimer: "The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the US government or the Peace Corps." So, please, don't confuse me with the White House Press Secretary.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Peace Corps Volunteer

You are no longer reading about a Peace Corps Trainee. I'm an officialy, full-fledged Peace Corps Volunteer! Whoo-hoo! Actually, I feel largely the same. It was kinda funny. We are at our ceremony, we are told to stand up and repeat and oath, and suddenly we are PCVs. It was kinda like, that's it? Oh well. I'm excited. Our whole group made it, which makes us just the second Peace Corps Guyana group to get through training intact. And now that I'm a PCV, it's a lot harder for them to kick me out. So now I'm in it for the long haul.

But I feel like Friday is a bigger day. We move out to our sites Friday morning. So today is spent packing and saying goodbye to all my friends in GUY17 (my PC health group). It's actually pretty sad to say goodbye. These people are amazing, and I feel like I've really bonded with many of them. Though some are going to be close enough to see fairly frequently if I would like, a few of my best friends are on the other side of Guyana. So I'll only be able to see them every few months, when we all have to come into Georgetown for something. So today is farewell day.

Anyways, life is good down here. I'm ready to start working at my site. I'm excited to finally be on my own, no longer living with a host family. And I'm happy to finally start my two years. I now get to start to save a little part of the world. Wish me luck!

Thursday, April 13, 2006

This is Peace Corps?!

So I just got back from spending almost a week at my site. First off, let me apologize. I said I was in Queenstown, but I mistaken. I'm actually in Affiance, a smaller town about one mile down the only road on the Essequibo Coast. So my apologies. I will be working in the Columbia Health Center, which is really the Affiance Health Center, but somehow is in Columbia, a town that begins seamlessly from Affiance without any warning. Confused yet? It really doesn't matter, because I will soon become the white doctor living and working in Affiance. So if you ever come and visit, that's how you can find me.

Yeah, I think I'm going to like this. I feel like I signed up for Posh Corps. My living situation is a little too nice, it seems. I am living with a family that owns a general store. So I live right behind it, in a free standing building right above our kitchen. I say "our" because apparently I am now family. Their home is my home. So anyways, I have my own bedroom and bathroom, which has a normal toilet, sink, and - get this - shower. And honest to god shower. It may not be the best shower, but wow. I was almost enjoying the bucket baths. Now I get a shower. And downstairs is a nicer kitchen than I've had since I moved out of my family's home in San Francisco. And my host mom makes really good food. So I don't know how much I'll be cooking for the next two years. We'll see.

So I'll have a lot more to say once I start working there. It's a small health center with not too much going on. So I expect to start some secondary projects, probably working with HIV/AIDS education. As we all probably don't know, Guyana has the second highest infection rate in the region, the first being Haiti. Though the official number is 3% to 5% infection rate, the real number could be a lot higher because testing is minimal and the stigma against being positive is immense. And even if the official number is right, it's just waiting to explode. So I guess I'm living in a tinderbox.

But before I get you all sad, let me tell you a little story from my time on the Essequibo Coast. Peace Corps is not the only international organization here. Among many others, the U.N. has a doctor program here. The U.N. doctor who has been placed at the main Essequibo Coast Regional Hospital is Dr. Nagesh, a HIV specialist from India. He's been here for the past 6 months, with 18 months to go. So Dr. Nagesh is amazingly nice and intelligent, as well as passionate about fighting HIV/AIDS. And he's friends with a few of the Peace Corps volunteers on the coast. So he invited a few of us over for dinner on Tuesday night. So we show up at his house. But I shouldn't say house - I should say mansion. Apparently the U.N. has very high security standards for it's doctor volunteers, so he was forced to live in a huge, two story, four bedroom mansion, all by himself. It has a perimeter fence, bars on all the windows, etc. Inside it is massive. And it's really funny, because he totally doesn't have enough furniture to fill it up. He's almost ashamed of it, but he had no choice. So we come over and he's making real Indian food, which was fantastic. But first we sit around, and he shows us an Indian magazine he just got from India. Apparently, there is a documentary about him fighting the rise of HIV/AIDS in India - and it's called "Dr. Nagesh." How ridiculous is that? He has a documentary NAMED after him. Not only that, but it got second prize in a French film festival. We're just sitting there, amazed that this wildly talented and brilliant doctor is here in Guyana, making us food. And he was telling me how he was worried I would be under-utilized at my site. Me under-utilized? How about you, Dr. Nagesh? Jeez. So then we have dinner, and he puts on music. The first song? Nas - "NY State of Mind." A gritty, early 90's rap song about New York. I had to put down my fork and start laughing. I mean, this is not quite what I thought Peace Corps is all about. Here I am, drinking the best rum in the world (did I mention we're drinking Guyanese rum, which is world famous), eating Indian food prepared by a famous Indian doctor working with the U.N., sitting in a mansion, listening to Nas. It was a little much for me. This is not the "mud huts on the African Savannah" I imagined when I signed up for Peace Corps. Not that I was complaining.

Anyways, that's life down here. From what I can ascertain, it sounds like Prez Bush broke some laws. Impeachment, anybody? Though that's not Peace Corps talking - that's Mark "crazy liberal from San Francisco" Hejinian talking. So anyways, feel free to let me know how that turns out. Cheers!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Site Placement

After a one day delay in finding out our sites for the next two years, we were told today where we will be spending the next two years of our lives. As I've said earlier, this is pretty crazy. But anyways, to refresh people's memory, I was mostly concerned with working with a NGO. I had also done my volunteer visit on the Essequibo Coast and loved it there. So.... drumroll please..... I was placed with a small community health center in Queenstown on the Essequibo Coast!!! I'm pretty darn excited. My initial reaction was disappointment that I was not placed with a NGO. However, I am on the Essequibo Coast, which was beautiful and fun. Plus, the volunteers that are already there, along with the ones from own group who are going to be there, are amazing. So I can't really complain.

And the more I've thought about it, this will be good for me. I've had lots of experience working in offices of some sort or another. Though working in a NGO would be more comfortable for me, nobody said Peace Corps was about comfort. And the ability to interact with people and deal directly with their health care will be both challenging and rewarding. So I'm very excited.

So let me explain a little about community health centers. Basically, they are the first level of preventive health care in Guyana. All communities have their own health center. They will typically be staffed with some number of nurses, medex, and other staff. There is a lot pre- and post-natal work done at these clinics. So I will have lots of opportunities to talk with new mothers about their care of their new children. On top of that, they represent a great captive audience. As I get more comfortable and discover the major health issues that need to be addressed in my community, I can do health presentations and talks with them as they wait. Anyways, there is little structure but lots of potential for me. I'm excited to get started!

By the way, if you are trying to figure out where the Essequibo Coast is, basically the Essequibo River is the biggest river that runs through the middle of Guyana to the Atlantic Ocean. I'll be on the northwestern coast of it. So just Google it.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A Money Lesson and More!!!

Okay, because the most common response to my postings is "$200 an hour for internet?!", I am going to give you guys a little money lesson. Mostly to confuse Americans, Guyana uses the same money symbol ($) as the US. But the conversion is basically Guyanese $200 is equal to US $1. So if I say something costs $200, you can imagine that it is costing only $1 in America (if the price were the same). Then, of course, you say "buck up Mark and spend more money on the internet!" Ah, but it's not like I was making that amazing $12 an hour while I was in DC. Oh no. Right now, Peace Corps gives me $500 a day to pay for transportation, any snacks I want, any beer or rum I might ingest, and any other incidentals. That's only US$2.50. So not that much. And when I get to my site, they only give the Guyanese equivalent of about US$200 a month to pay for all my bills, food, transportation, etc (except rent, which they pay separately). So as you can imagine, I cannot quite live the high life here.

Anyways, enough with the monetary lesson. More importantly, I find out my site tomorrow!!! I'm very excited. I realized that this is kinda like when I applied to college. You put yourself out there, show some sort of preference for one thing over another, and then sit back and let someone else make a decision that will directly impact the next few years of your life and change you forever. So I'm just sitting here, waiting for my thick envelope. I'm pretty anxious, though I could be worse. I guess my whole go-with-the-flow attitude kicks in during these times. That's always good.

Anyways, thanks Peter for telling me the Felix Hernandez will be starting every game for the Mariniers. That's a key piece of information I didn't see on Sorry Greg that UCLA lost. Except not really, because I don't care.

Speaking of Greg, let me give him a shout out. He's doing "design your own Peace Corps" in Brazil. Basically, he is helping a poor community outside Rio build and maintain a much-needed community center. It will have English classes, computer classes, dance classes, capoeira, and other after-school classes for the children of the community. He is doing the fundraising all by himself. He already has gotten money from some community organizations in the states (Rotary Foundation, etc) but could use more. Everyone should go to his website, which is It explains it much better, with pictures and everything. It is a great cause, and I personally vouch that he will not take the money and spend it on prostitutes in Brazil. I watched him slave over his grant proposals while we were in Washington DC. So if nothing else, check out his site and pass it on to a friend (or rich, money-giving friend, ideally). As his website says, he only needs $33,712 for the next two years!!! That's nothing. Don't buy that car and help a whole community.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Peace Corps Guyana Just Got Real

I just got back from my volunteer visit, which is the best idea Peace Corps has ever come up with. Basically, I've been in and just outside Georgetown for the past four weeks for training. But they keep asking you about where you want to be placed for your two years. But what do I know about Guyana? I haven't seen anything. It would be like living in New York City for four weeks and then having to decide where in the USA you want to live - Boston, random town in North Dakota, rural village in Alabama, or mountain town in Colorado? Being in New York tells you nothing about anywhere else. It's the same way with Georgetown. So that's part of the reason why they send us trainees on the volunteer visit - to see where the volunteers actually live and get an idea of what life might be like for the next two years. As far as I can tell, life is going to be sweet.

I went, with four other guys, to a bunch of volunteers about three hours away (at least when you take a mini-bus, then a speedboat, and then a taxi). It was across the largest river in Guyana, on the Essequibo Coast. I had a blast. The volunteers are sane, which is always good to see. Their places were really nice. Some even had ovens! Holy molley! One guy had mosquito-proofed his whole apartment, so he didn't need to sleep under a mosquito net. That seemed almost too luxurious for Peace Corps. But anyways, it was almost a tease to see these volunteers living by themselves, when we're still stuck with our host families.

But it was an amazing time. The Guyana outside of Georgetown is gorgeous. I would love to be placed there. And speaking of placement, I find out my site this Thursday afternoon. So I'm pretty excited. I talked about wanting to be in Georgetown, but now, after my volunteer visit, I would like to be on Essequibo Coast. But I'm flexible. The only thing I really want is to be placed with a NGO. Basically, most volunteers are placed in community health centers, where they do presentations and generally help. It sounds like it can be really slow and boring sometimes, especially for the first year. But there are a few sites where you work in a NGO. These organizations are mostly working with HIV/AIDS education, outreach, and prevention. From what we have heard and know, I think it would be ten times better for me. So I've been pushing PC to place me with a NGO. The problem is that most of the NGO's are located in Georgetown, which is the big, bad, scary capital of Guyana. I'm a city kid, so I know I could handle it. In fact, part of me would like to be in Georgetown to get that big city experience. But my volunteer visit was awesome, and the Essequibo Coast was amazing. So I also think that I might rather be out on the coast. I'm torn. I guess I want to work for a NGO on the coast. But (un)luckily, it's not really up to me. So we all have a second meeting with the PC staff about where we want to be placed this week. And then on Thursday they tell us. So it's basically sit back and enjoy the ride time for me.

Anyways, that's what is going on over here. I didn't know that March Madness had started until it was already the Elite Eight. So that sucks for all your Zags fans out there. They need to stop choking. And Greg, how come UCLA is all of a sudden good? I'm sure you told me about how they were good earlier, but I wasn't paying attention. Anyways, go UCLA I guess. And speaking of sports, baseball must be starting soon. Anyone should feel free to send me emails about the Giants, Red Sox, A's, Mariners, or any other team. I'd like to know anything about it all. Trent, who does Peter Gammons say is going to win it all? I need to know!!! If you guys don't tell me soon, I'm going to have to become a hardcore cricket fan. I'm already pretty good. I dominate when we play ourselves. And I can hold my own against the Guyanese PC staff. I hit a few 6-runners (which is like a homerun) and bunch of 4-runners (which is like a ground-rule double) last time we played. I think I'm going to come back to the States and join the US national team for cricket. Screw law school.