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.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Surreal Life

About a month ago I received a package from some of my friends back in San Francisco. It had a few good books in it and, strangely, a decapitated teddy bear. As my friend here said, isn’t that something a serial killer sends his next victim? Well, apparently that’s not the only time someone sends a cut up teddy bear. Non-serial killing friends from high school also do that. I then found a note with pictures at the bottom of the package. It turns out my friends were making fun of my puma experience. They sent pictures of them dicing up the teddy bear, apparently spoofing my pictures of cutting up the puma. Very clever. And then, to top it off, my friend wrote a letter mimicking my blog posting about it all. Oh, my friends are so witty. Just because I’m in Peace Corps does not mean I am immune to their mocking. You can take us out of high school, but you can’t take the high school out of us.

On to other things. I just had a friend come and visit for a week. That was a very interesting experience. Of course, it was great. I was very excited to get a visitor, someone new to experience this place. But you get a little apprehensive before someone visits you in Peace Corps. You want them to affirm all the hard work you are doing. You want them to recognize the challenges, both professionally and culturally, that you face every day. And above all, you want them to tell you that it is worth it, that you are doing good work, to keep it up. Well, you also want them to bring you stuff. I mean, let’s stop kidding ourselves. Keeping friends back home is only worth it if they a) are sufficiently in awe of your Peace Corps sacrifice and b) send you stuff. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Anyways, my friend came out here for a week. And she did not disappoint on any of those important points. She told me I was doing good work. She saw how hard the challenges were to get anything done. She saw how strange this place can be culturally. And she brought me candy. So four for four! Great visit!

I think my favorite thing she said about Guyana was this: “I’ve been all over the world and I’ve had some surreal experiences. But this, by far, will be the most surreal week of my life.” Now, she wasn’t trying to say this as a bad thing. She was talking not only about Guyana, but also seeing me here. You see, I’m very comfortable here. I may not have realized it, but having a friend come down made me realize how much I take for granted here as normal. Like cows, donkeys, goats, and sheep wandering the road. Like crazy mini-buses zooming down the road, risking the lives of everyone around them. Like how I say “good afternoon” to almost everyone passing me by. Like how I have little frogs living in my toilet tank. Like how I can slip into Creolese when talking with my neighbors. All these things I don’t even think about anymore. But she was very aware of it all and how different it is from America (and different from how she knows me). So I guess I can understand how this place would be surreal.

Despite the surreal aspects of this place, she had a good time. Or so she said. And I had a great time too. But it didn’t, strangely, make me want to quit Peace Corps and get back home. That was something I was worried about. On the contrary, it made me realize how comfortable I was with my life here. Yeah, I might be bored sometimes. Yeah, I might crave American food (or, more likely, Mexican, Italian, Thai, Chinese, etc.). Yeah, I might want American conveniences and luxuries, such as a washing machine (by the way, I will never complain about washing my clothes again in one of those things. They are possibly the greatest invention ever made!). But I can wait on those things. I signed up for two years, and I’m going to finish them. Not only that, I’m going to have a good time doing it. I’m going to get comfortable here and enjoy the ride. I’ll be back in America being a desk jockey jus’ now. Until then, I’m going to enjoy my hammock, the breeze, and a good book.

Food in Guyana

The past fifteen months have seen me reading a lot of books – namely, sixty-one books so far. Number sixty-two is currently “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan. I don’t think I can recommend this book enough. It is a fascinating look into what we, as Americans, eat on a daily basis. He follows the full life, from agricultural origins to dinner plate, of four meals – a fast food meal, an organic meal from Whole Foods, a sustainable meal from local, “beyond organic” producers, and an essentially hunter-gatherer meal of his own devising. It is clearly written, rigorously researched, engaging, and utterly relevant to all of us. Or at least it should be relevant. All of us should be at least somewhat interested in the food we eat and how it gets there. And we shouldn’t refrain from pulling back the curtain for fear of what we will find – the same systems will be there whether we know about them or not. The best we can do is to educate ourselves and to seek out the best choice, whether that be fewer Big Macs, more organic Whole Foods vegetables, or only buying from local, sustainable farmer’s markets (or, maybe for the more adventurous of us, hunting our own game).

Reading this book has made me think about my own food down here in Guyana. In some strange ways, the food I eat and the ingredients I use are “better” than what is offered in America. I know, for instance, that my vegetables are coming from local producers. Hell, I’m usually buying straight from them. Or I’m getting them from my neighbor’s backyard garden. And I know that they are not using crazy synthetic pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Or at least not to the level of the agribusiness in America. I’ve seen the chickens in their chicken coops – it may not be perfect, but it’s a long way from the tiny cages that make the Frankenstein chickens used by Tyson Foods, McDonalds, and KFC. And the beef… well it may not be the best, but the cows are free range and grass feed. I know because I see them wandering the roadside, eating grass (among other things) and getting in the way of cars. What I mean to say is that almost all of my fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat are produced locally and mostly naturally. It’s a true luxury.

So then why do I crave processed foods so much? Why do we crave the waxy apple that is exactly the same as the one next to it? And why do we abhor the natural diversity in appearance that any small scale, all-natural farm is going to produce? Of course if we think about it we can recognize the diversity and benefits of these local producers. But so often we don’t think about it. When I was living just outside of Washington DC before I came to Peace Corps, we had a Saturday farmer’s market about two blocks from my apartment. I would walk by it every week, sometimes even walking through it. But I never bought anything from them. Why? It wasn’t because I didn’t support local growers or all-natural or organic products. It wasn’t because I simply didn’t eat vegetables or fruits. I think it more came down to an ingrained capitalist consumerism that we have all internalized. I would look at these organic tomatoes, each slightly different from the next, and almost unconsciously think “why should I pay $3 a pound for these? I can get nice, uniform-looking ones from Safeway for half the price.” How I feel ashamed now, thinking about how easily I walked past this local farmer’s market every week to, instead, drive to Safeway to buy some mass produced tomatoes from Cargil, ADM, or some other massive agribusiness. Or, if I was feeling guilty, go to Whole Foods and support the big organic producers, an industry that is becoming more and more indistinguishable from its larger, non-organic cousin.

I guess all I’m trying to say is that this fantastic book is making me realize that I’m lucky to be in Guyana, where my only choice when buying produce and meat is to look at local, all-natural producers. It denies the capitalist consumer in me to search for the better price for food at the expense of health, nutrition, and larger moral-political ethics. I strongly encourage everyone to read this book. Hopefully for you, it won’t take a two year trip to a developing country to realize that supporting big agribusiness is probably not the best path to take when trying to decide what to eat for dinner.