Tuesday, July 10, 2007

From Termites to thermostats: PC Guinea to PC Cape Verde

Moral anguish ceased me. At four in the morning, the “night” before joining the Peace Corps, having shoved the essentials into a bulging duffle, I stood hesitating before two piles of extras radiating with symbolism: In one, the great books, the War and Peace, Madame Bovary, the stuff that, while not nursing VIH infected babies with grape seed extract, I was supposed to tackle during Peace Corps service. In the other, the shameful girlie products: the mascara, the foot scrubs that had unwittingly crept into my routine and seemed damn near essential for Guinea, a poor West African country where toilet paper would be a specialty item.
Noteworthy in this latter pile was Bedhead Control Freak by tigi: a hair gel which promised to “fight the frizz, stomp the curl” and “control my freakin hair”. It always delivered on this promise (at the somewhat unreasonable price of about one month Peace Corps salary per ounce), so I pondered: Could I forgo this for two years? Would the ruggedly handsome freelance photographer who would snap telling portraits of the children I nursed, learn to love me despite my natural “freakin’ hair”? Or, if I ripped out the first 100 pages of War and Peace and left the rest, to make room for my beloved Bedhead, wouldn’t I still get the gist?
Stumbling onto the bathroom scale with the newly bloated duffle, my moral anguish subsided: less than seventy lbs. I could bring both. Bewitch the freelance photographer with silky locks, captivate him with Russian literary references. Score.
Little did I know that I might as well have brought Anna Karinina, too. In my remote village near the Sahel--a dusty labyrinth of indistinguishable huts and mango trees --I never undid the plastic wrapping on my Bedhead. It never made it out of the duffle--along with the footscrubs, the toner, the facemasks--which sat beneath my rice sack mattress under a sprinkling of yellow termite dust. Of vital importance to me here were sports bras, sunscreen, bleach to treat my water, and Pepto-Bismol to treat me when it didn’t work.
I was enduring all the hardships that horrify and thrill Peace Corps Applicants: Dodging the ubiquitous cow poop and mango pits, I carried water home on my head from the village pump. At night, I lit candles, which officially lost all romantic value when my table cloth burst into flame. I biked 85 kilometers to town for salad and toilet paper, and was delighted when the mystery meat that sometimes showed up in my nondescript rice dish was less hairy than my legs.
Hair gel was superfluous to such an existence, and not just because you couldn’t afford it: poverty simply made pretense impossible. A padded bra to conceal a flat chest, a mascara-embellished eye to distract from a big nose, could not prevent the neighbors from walking through your yard--which doubled as kitchen, salon, outdoor shower, dining room, and suburban throughway--and finding out what you really look like, who you really are, how you treat your family. (And yes, when you are watching your neighbors grow visibly skinny during the season of hardship, perishing from curable diseases like malaria at the health center, frizz is the last thing on your mind.)
As an American it was hard, to let go of the privacy that lets you fix things discretely: the psychiatrist’s office with the side door, the night time corrective braces, the flesh-colored bandaids. And yet, part of the appeal of village life was giving up: no matter what I did to stake out a private life, an unrelenting band of loving surrogate mothers absolutely refused to let me have one.
* * *
But just as my privations and lack of privacy were becoming comfortable, a violent nationwide strike drove the Peace Corps to evacuate Guinea. I was transferred to Cape Verde.
If God or Peace Corps Washington had felt guilty about my austere life in Guinea, they made it up to me with this transfer. Wedged between the interior mountains and the endless sea, the capitol Praia is clean and quaint. Street lights illuminate cobbled roads swept daily for the squeaky white taxis--2005 corollas almost without exception--that zip past colonial homes, neatly landscaped plazas. Locals in spotless western attire eat pizza at clean, well-lit cafes, fiddling with new ringtones on their cell phones.
My new roommate’s house was the icing on the cake. In the glare of the halogen bathroom light, across from the flushing toilet, the washing machine, and the eternally mysterious bidet, sat a half-used bottle of Bedhead. “Oh no,” I thought, picturing my wonderfully unused bottle in Guinea. “Am I back in a Bedhead country already?”
I was: as if to confirm it, my new APCD pointed to my tattered patchwork purse, the beloved masterpiece of a village tailor, which had literally lost its flap to a hungry Guinean cow. “Buy a new purse, throw that one away, or I will,” he said, half jokingly.
So it was to be silky locks and neat purses: Posh Corps indeed. And yet, behind the gleaming veneer of Cape Verde’s pizza and ringtones lurks widespread inefficiency and malfunction that are all the more shocking. Candles dot our “penthouse” apartment because electricity cuts out several times a week. Gleaming bathroom faucets and plumbing, stand—as decoration only--beside water basins schlepped daily from the public cistern atop women’s heads. In the quintessential world of smoke and mirrors, someone clears a field to plant corn beside a fully vamped shell station and a heap of trash and human feces.
Still, Cape Verde, with its ample toilet paper supply, is a mid-developed country, according to recent UN designations. And with it has come that distinctively first world estrangement. I buy my vegetables from a different lady each week and she thinks I am a tourist. When, in Guinea, I knew what my neighbors had for dinner (and it wasn’t vegetables), in Cape Verde, rounding month two, I haven’t met them yet.
This is the challenge of “Poshe” Corps Cape Verde: creating an “authentic” Peace Corps experience despite the relative luxury and first world fences. Is it feasible? Many Volunteers here would say no. Entering the marbled, air conditioned airport for the first time, many were as shocked and disappointed to find an Africa without huts and latrines as I was. “I came here to be deprived of things and I have to dress nicer than in the U.S.,” one said.
But Peace Corps, as stated in its mission, is not about privations: what is essential here is the thrill and the utter discomfort of adapting to a new culture. It is dealing with the well-intentioned host family that force-feeds you carbs and the local drivers more interested in practicing English with you than watching the road. It is that ascendant moment when you understand your first unmemorable joke in local language, or that unexpected chat when you open someone’s mind. All of this is Peace Corps, its essence and its challenge, entirely independent of socio-economics.
So I will start it again. I will crack open the bedhead, and introduce myself to the vegetable sellers who think I am a tourist. But the coins I hand them for the juicy carrots are coming out of a flapless Guinean purse.


Blogger Joel said...

are you really going to throw the purse away?

4:27 PM  

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