Tag Archives: Peace Corps

Peace Corps Nepal, officially online

Peace Corps Nepal has launched its own Web site, nepal.peacecorps.gov.

There are currently 38 Volunteers in Nepal working in agriculture. During their service in Nepal, Volunteers learn to speak the local language of Nepalese. More than 3,675 Peace Corps Volunteers have served in Nepal since the program was established in 1962.

It’s pretty good, and it has information for future volunteers (on expectations and more, including packing suggestions). I really like the FAQ, which includes this sound advice—for those of you reading this right now:

What to Expect
Each volunteer’s experience is different. Invitees can read volunteer blogs, listen to RPCV stories and search the internet about Peace Corps and Nepal; however, they should not expect to know many things until arriving in country. […]

You can connect with the program on its official Peace Corps/Nepal Facebook page.

A collection of Nepal PCV blogs

I hear the N/199 group is doing well at the PST in Chautara, Sindhupalchok district. Very exciting. I am following a few of the PCV blogs with what I will admit is mix of admiration and envy. I said never again, but ah, to do it all over again—wait! no, I wouldn’t. I mean, I would, but I don’t have to. Never mind, doesn’t matter. Now I armchair quarterback.

I wish them well in their service and experiences. I hope I get to read some crazy shit, like about drinking jar for breakfast during training. Nonsense!—and I loved every minute of it.

What I did

Somehow we came up with idea over dinner. I had just arrived in Birtamod, Jhapa, to visit Andrew one last time before our lives as PCVs.

I was going to stay for a night, maybe two, before heading back to Birganj.

Anyhow, we were having dinner, and Andrew was talking about the school visits he would be making the next day: a short in-and-out trip to invite two English teachers to an upcoming training.

So wouldn’t it be funny, we thought, if I came along pretending to be one of those know-nothing jocks from Washington, DC, pretending:

  1. to know something about the work that we’d just invented
  2. be aware in the slightest of the surrounding people and their culture

We could mock the worst aspect of Peace Corps to the people whose opinions actually mattered—the Nepalis, who were often victims of seemingly random, surprise visits from people with unclear agendas and even stranger messages to deliver to people with whom they have no direct contact before. Weird.

I had seen it happen just a couple of months before when two Peace Corps suits (essentially ‘from corporate’) rolled up in a white SUV at an agricultural co-op where a PCV was working.

Their backgrounds were not in agriculture. They had no visible interest in the economics of the micro-finance scheme of the NGO. In fact, they were ex-military intelligence.

Strange ambassadors to send to a dirt farm needing development assistance, especially considering their collective credentials from Vietnam and Somalia.

After they asked preliminary questions on how the office was built (my favorite question, With what type of steel reinforcement?) and the location of the toilet (there was no toilet, just a pit latrine), they mostly talked amongst themselves about the chiye they had been served.

Oddly, they both compared it with teas they had had in Vietnam and Somalia, respectively. Which was enlightening.

Anyhow, the locals had sat nearby, uncomfortable with their non-comprehension of the foreigners’ curiosity with the tea.

The Nepalis there been told that they two men in starched white shirts, khakis, and high-gloss burgundy loafers had come to Nepal a few days ago from far away to visit their NGO. And so far they had been asked about concrete, and then mumbled to themselves for 20 minutes about, apparently, the tea.

Then they walked to the white SUV and drove off into the sunset, leaving the volunteer behind to explain what had just happened.

Sadly, terrible behavior by the office types in Peace Corps isn’t limited to dumb Americans, although they usually do it with such skill it is humorous for everyone involved.

If only these bumblings were just cultural misunderstandings, they could be excused. But it is usually logistical and financial intimidation. If they don’t put on a good show, they won’t get a PCV.

If they don’t get a PCV, they won’t have access to the piles of money available through grants and proposals.

Now, we are way up in the Himalayas, far from the hot, oppressive Terai. A friend from my group was posted in small village in Lang Tang National Park in the heart of Rasuwa district, north of Kathmandu and bordering the Chinese province of Tibet.

It is a wonderful place of mellow, accepting people: some indigenous to Nepal, some decedents from Tibetans. All are Buddhists in my friend’s village, and there’s only a single government school, which is where she teaches.

So a couple of the senior staff from Peace Corps (who happen to be Nepali) show up in her village to assess the situation. She has but a few months left in her village before her time as a PCV comes to an end.

The staffers are her program officer, a woman, and a training officer, a man. Upon arriving, the two check into the one hotel in the village, which they find awful. They begin complaining to the sole proprietor of the sole hotel in the little village about the hotel’s lack of rooms with joined bathrooms.

Actually, the village is little more than a overnight stop for trekkers heading up, up, up to see some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Probably a rare occasion to hear the phrase ‘attached bathroom’ spoken in Nepali.

But they’re not done. Much to the PCV‘s horror, during dinner, the duo ask the proprietor for meat with their meal. The guy says that meat isn’t available and heads back into the kitchen.

The PCV is crawling in her skin and explains that most all Buddhists in her village don’t eat meat. She’s lived there for 24 months without meat.

Nonsense, the woman says, I saw chickens out front. Then the PCV has to explain that chickens also lay eggs.

When the proprietor comes back from the kitchen, they ask him again for meat, mentioning the chickens.

They’re for the trekkers. Although I’m a Buddhist, I’ll prepare eggs. The woman is spurred by this and starts negotiating how much it will cost her to pay him to kill a chicken.

Of course, they didn’t get any meat. All they had done was attempt to bribe a person into abandoning religious beliefs for money. And meat. The volunteer was so mortified that she spent the next day apologizing for her office’s thulo manches.

Touching lives, making a difference.

Our plan was for me to wear Andrew’s pin-stripped suit, a Nepali >topi, and act like a total ass.

A few rules: I couldn’t speak Nepali and would have to pretend like I was from Mars and be totally baffled by everything. Yet I would have to press them for certain pointless information and ask them to complete specific pointless tasks in my absence.

We showed up at the school in a white car that we had rented for effect. We had the driver pass through the gate and right up to the office’s front door.

The driver, convinced by a test dialogue Andrew and I had run through during the drive, got out and opened my door for me. I then walked directly into the office and began loudly introducing myself to the faculty who were waiting together before the school day began and exams were handed out.

Hello, I am from Aaaaahmeriii-cah, I said in my best moron-from-Washington voice and then, commanding Andrew, shouted, Translate! The faculty then gave their introductions.

I listened and then began asking them random statistical information, like how many 14 year olds were currently attending the school. It’s the age when children learn the best, I told them, Get ’em when they’re 14, and it’s all over—translate!

Andrew was trying to translate, but the sight of me looking so out of place and acting like such a fool was too much for him and he started laughing, quietly to himself.

His counterpart came over to ask him a question while I was discussing dental health with the headsir, putting his hands around Andrew in an unexceptional display of affection.

I turned to him, We don’t do this in America, I said, looking as dumb as I sounded, And I find it . . . disturbing.

I realized that I was losing steam and asked the headsir if I could address the entire student body, but he told me that because of exams, only a few classes were present.

That’ll be sufficient, I said, because I need to share some things about dental health.

I then asked the faculty what they thought was more important, learning English or dental health.

They talked amongst themselves and then told me in unison, Both are important.

Fine. I then walked out of the office and wandered around the school, pointing at students and shouting, Is this a student, Andrew?

Once the students were assembled, I produced a whistle I had taken from Andrew’s and blew it as loud as I could. I had them.

Out of another pocket, I took out some floss that I had grabbed it as we left Andrew’s, thinking a prop or two might come in handy. I asked the students, What is this?

No one knew so I told them it was floss, yelled at Andrew to translate, and began giving a demonstration of how to use it in front of the 8th and 9th graders, who were assembled outside.

A girl raised her hand and asked (in Nepali), Is this available here?

I said something and Andrew translated, Probably not.

I then asked the students if they enjoyed learning English and of course they said yes.

And how can you speak English, I was really being ridiculous, without a nice smile?

I then asked the kids how to take care of their teeth.

Brushing, they responded in unison.

I then asked some other ways. A hush fell upon them and no one said anything for about half a minute, until a small boy in the back of a line said, Exercise?

Exactly! I told them, glad that the kid had given me something else to ramble on about, Mouth exercises!

I then went through the three mouth exercises I invented on the spot, the big O, the sidewinder, and the cat’s meow. I’ll let you imagine what these were.

I had the kids going through the exercises when the headsir came up to me, It is time to begin the exams.

I concluded by telling those present that I would come back in five years. If they hadn’t taken care of their teeth, I would remove them—forcibly, Translate!

A girl raised her hand and mentioned that they wouldn’t be at this school in five years. Good point. So I took their names and told them that I would track them down. This seemed to make them happy.

The faculty hadn’t bought my act, though, and I think that’s a good thing.

Next time when a white Peace Corps SUV rolls up in the school grounds, drives right up to the office, and some hack with absolutely nothing important or significant to share with the faculty marches into the office, maybe they will have a broader context to understand the significance of such things.

One last note.

As Andrew and I were leaving, we noticed two teachers. One was Andrew’s counterpart, mouth wide open, and the other was the headsir.

The headsir hand a length of floss in his hand and was carefully flossing the other teacher’s teeth.

Touching lives, making a difference.

Blogging in the Peace Corps

It was the end of December, and I was coming back to Birganj from Rajbiraj. I had celebrated Christmas for a second time in Rajbiraj and was thinking that this would be the last time I would be there, the last time I would make the trip I had made perhaps ten times before.

Last year’s Christmas was, well, difficult. We had the Ghost-of-Boyfriend-Past haunting us as well as the unpleasant work of dealing with the house dog dying of rabies. The mood was somber and the days were foggy. Late night calls were made to Kathmandu and long silences stood for explanations. The dog died the morning I left.

The day after Christmas, the winter fog settled over the East-West Highway north of Rajbiraj.

The day after Christmas, the winter fog settled over the East-West Highway north of Rajbiraj.

This year, however, Rajbiraj was a little more joyous. This was, at least as PCVs, our last Christmas away from home. There were nearly a dozen of us in Rajbiraj this year, and we filled our friends’ deraa, sleeping two to a bed with two on the floor and maybe five or so on the floor of the kitchen.

We bought two chickens, ate them. Tony made his yeast wine that everyone tried, some enjoying more than others. And the night of Christmas, Kara organized a burning program on the roof of the house.

I think I understand a little better now how a lynch mob operates. Once the fire was burning strong, with relics of things best forgotten smoking in the wet, cold night, we ran out of things to burn.

Suddenly a chair was in the fire. I went down to Laurel’s room and found knick knacks to feed the fire. Soon books and clothing found their way in the fire. A moment of clarity is all that saved Kara’s entire catalog of underwear from the blaze.

The actual fire mentioned in this story, garments as indicated.

The actual fire mentioned in this story, garments as indicated.

I was planning on going back to Birganj the day after Christmas, but it turned out that a Maoist bandha has closed the district of Saptari.

Luckily, these things get communicated quickly among the buses going to and fro, and I was saved from spending a night in Simra or Patalayia or in one of the godforsaken towns along the East-West Highway outside of Parsa district, one of the poorer stretches of the East-West Highway, known for little else besides growing problems proportionate to the Maoist one.

But I made it back to Birganj without incident. I have always managed to enjoy using public transportation in Nepal. I think it is the best way to meet people, learn the language, and see this beautiful country.

The ride was uneventful, but I started to look at things a bit more teary-eyed since my days as a PCV were coming to an end. I can’t help but force myself to look at the scenery blurring past in the window and say, The last time, the last time.

Back in Birganj, I was about to leave for Kathmandu the day before New Year’s. According to the Peace Corps policy on vacation, I can’t take vacation during my final three months in country, which means that if I wanted to use those last nine days I had earned, I would have to use them before January 7, 2004.

The Peace Corps office in Maharajgunj, Kathmandu, about two months after opening.

The Peace Corps office in Maharajgunj, Kathmandu, about two months after opening.

So I decided to fly to Kathmandu and spend the New Year’s with friends. I was going to get things right this year. I had succeeded in my Thanksgiving (in Kolkata with the US Consulate) and in Rajbiraj (no breakups or dead puppies), and I was going to get New Year’s right this year.

My previous New Year’s Eve was spent at Luke and Rob’s place in Birganj. The sun hadn’t made an appearance in a week, and the cold, humid air was permeating everything. The fog was beautiful in its way, and I fell in love with the gray Birganj winter just as reluctantly as I had fallen in love with the hellish Birganj summer.

That day, we got pizzas from a Hotel Vishuwa and shared a bottle of wine and whiskey, toasting the New Year with each pour.

I remember at some point in the evening, having to wander through the midnight rain in search of a corkscrew to open the bottle of wine. It was raining and cold but beautiful. The streets were deserted with the feral dogs sleeping in warmer places, and I felt like I was alone, like the city was mine.

Back at Rob and Luke’s, we sat in a circle trying to play one of Luke’s board games, one called Naughty Monkeys, all thinking about what we should have been doing on New Year’s Eve. That was last year.

This year, it was the day before New Year’s Eve, and I was checking my email after visiting a school. I got an email from the Peace Corps’ office saying that I needed to call immediately.

When I called, I was forwarded to talk to to the ‘number two’ in the Peace Corps office, someone with a title like “Senior Training Coordinator.” I thought it was about her upcoming visit to Birganj.

It’s about your blog, she said and my stomach sank, We’re a little concerned about some of the things you’re writing.

I immediately remembered the story of a Peace Corps volunteer in Samoa who had been sent home because of what he had been writing in his personal Web site.

They said that Al-Qaeda could use it to track down Peace Corps volunteers in Samoa, he told me, I told them if Al-Qaeda wanted to find volunteers in Samoa, they could just come ask where the Peace Corps volunteers lived.

He had been shuttled out of the country 72 hours after being contacted.

The finance office In once-new Peace Corps office in Maharajgunj.

The finance office In once-new Peace Corps office in Maharajgunj.

I had three months left in Nepal. I wanted to finish my work and leave knowing that I hadn’t failed in any way. So I agreed, perhaps too quickly, that I would suspend publishing to my Web site until I finished my remaining three months of service.

After that, I could say whatever I wanted, granted it wasn’t libelous, which I’m not worried about since the Peace Corps office wasn’t concerned about the truthful things I was publishing.

Seems that people coming in the soon-to-arrive group of volunteers had been chatting and reading Web blogs of volunteers and were concerned about the security situation.

This phone call had occurred exactly two weeks after I had posted an entry titled Bombs Over Birganj about something like half a dozen bombs in the Birganj area (where I live) and a massive attack by the Maoists on my airport, which was, by most measures, a failed attack.

Two people had called the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, DC, and said they weren’t coming based on this and other stuff they had read in chat rooms about the situation in Nepal. I was a thorn in the recruiting office’s side.

When I got to Kathmandu, I knew things were going to be different this year. We gathered at the Hotel Ambassador on New Year’s Eve, ordered pizzas, and brought wine bought from a store down the road.

Kathmandu was cold, but the staff at the hotel built us a bonfire in the hotel’s garden. We gathered around the warmth, told stories, met our Nepali friends who happened to be in town.

PCVs using the computers at the Peace Corps office in Maharajgunj.

PCVs using the computers at the Peace Corps office in Maharajgunj.

That’s what made this year different. I wasn’t a solitary bideshi walking through the dirty empty streets of Birganj in search of a corkscrew. I was just a guy with a kaleidoscope of friends enjoying the fleetingness of the moment.

Since Thanksgiving, my days have been filled with lasts. My last impromptu Thanksgiving with curries. My last Christmas with second-hand gifts. My last New Year’s Eve with more than a dozen friends.

Nothing about finishing my Peace Corps service frightens me, except that in leaving Peace Corps, I’m parting ways with some of best people who I have come to call friends.

A week later, during our COS conference in late January, I was rushing around in the computer room trying to get materials arranged and the curriculum printed for a teacher training in Dharan.

Kara was working at a computer, and I went by before I left, since I wouldn’t have time to go out that night and was leaving bright and early the next morning for Biratnagar (and from there, Dharan).

I said, See you later, but for a moment neither of us really knew when later would be.

There was a pause, looking at one another, really, for the first time in two years, uncertain of what would come next.

Violently sentimental garbage

If at any moment throughout the day I could write down the fleeting impulses caused by my upcoming departure (in 34 days), psychoanalyzing my anxiety would be much simpler.

Exactly when I got it into my head to join the Peace Corps is something I wish I could remember, probably because I was more articulate about it then than I am now. How many times have I heard people half-heatedly proclaim, I’m joining the Peace Corps? It’s enough to make me vomit.

Somehow the collective social consciousness thinks of the Peace Corps as a French Foreign Legion but for conscientious objectors. Are you failing in college? Out of jail with nowhere to go? Unemployed but unwilling to live with your parents? Hell, join the Peace Corps.

What I’ve learned about Peace Corps volunteers is that they are a group who, as a generalization for example’s sake, have their lives in order, insomuch as they are willing, transitory expatriates; however, I can’t deny the opt-out factor. At a time when future plans are discussed openly at family functions, joining the Peace Corps is an easy decision (usually answered with a breaking Oh).

A year later, I was riding buses and teaching kids.

A year later, I was riding buses and teaching kids.

I’ve never met anyone who has joined the Peace Corps (or U.S. armed forces for that matter) because they had an immediate future planned out. And as I put behind my college life, I realize that the rest of life isn’t necessarily any different than before. I’ve chosen a cheap, unique, and moderately elite graduate school: I turned in applications, went to interviews, and even took a few tests.

Just as I was nervous leaving for college, so am I now. Just as I met smelly people who could hardly read or write, so will I in Nepal. My worries are no different than at any other time when I moved: nervous about making friends, retaining ties to old friends, adjusting to a new lifestyle, and the terrible realities of pending dysentery.

I’ve been lucky to have the support of friends and family, which hasn’t gone unnoticed. My good friend Randy sent me a farewell card and wrote on it a few quartets from T.S. Eliot’s The Dry Salvages:

Fare forward travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus.

When I arrive in Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport, the newness of everything will invigorate me. Thinking of it now gives me an anxious sense of happiness. When the waters are still, let us mock the storm.

Maybe I’ll just join the French Foreign Legion if this Peace Corps thing fizzles. It’s just the first entry, of course.