Tag Archives: Peace Corps

Our Hangout

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It’s a crummy shot but at the top you see the three characters? That’s BAR. Going down the front is BILLIARD.

I loved this place when I was in Peace Corps. Eight of us lived within a two hour walk of Martuni, the central town for all of us. This is where we’d always hang out while waiting for other people to show up. I’m positive we Americans were the only people who ever actually drank booze there, all the Armenians just drank coffee, smoked, and played pool. In two years I never saw anyone other than us with alcohol. Best beer in town, the only place to get it actually on tap. Way better than what you’d get at a restaurant; just a bottle poured into a glass.

Lots of great stories too. Vachik was this big bouncer dude who worked in his late 40s early 50s who just adored us. Called all the guys in our group his sons. He would always tell us about his time in the Soviet Army and him being a wild youth. It was my favorite way to practice my Armenian. A funny thing happened once. A German couchsurfer was staying with me so me and him went out for a couple of beers. Vachik was talking to me and I was translated for the German. He kept saying ‘Germanatsi, germanatsi’ when referring to the German guy. Well, ‘Germanatsi’ is German in Armenian but trying saying it out loud. After Vachik left the guy asked me, ‘Why did he keep calling me a Nazi? I felt very uncomfortable.’ I explained it to him and he laughed it off and ordered another round.

Once I was with some Armenian girls at this weekend camp training I was hosting. I had longish hair and it was near Halloween. I was on a Boondocks kick and decided to get my hair cornrowed and go as Gin Rummy. So the girls did it for me and after the training I went to hang out with Vachik a bit. Fast forward a week. My hair was coming undone and I wanted to do it again. I went to the stylist but couldn’t really explain what I wanted. I went and asked Vachik if he could help since he had seen what I had. Him an I leave the bar and we’re walking down the street and then I just hear him yell ‘Hey! This is my good friend here. He wants his hair done. This is how you’ll do it for him.’ Then I got it all done.

What a dude.

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Comida Sucia

Comida Sucia

One night during our training in Bolivia I got sick. I had the runs and didn’t think much about it since it happens to everyone eventually. I drank a bit more water like we were told to do by the doctors and went to bed. The next two days were more of the same so I finally called the office to talk to the doctors about it. The rule was that if you had diarrhea for more than three days you had to go to the hospital.

So the doctors set up the hospital stay and a friend and I went. Normally I’d go alone, but this was when my Spanish left much to be desired and I really didn’t want to deal with medical issues in a language I didn’t know. I went with a girl who lived in a house near me because she studied Spanish in college and was pretty fluent.

We get there and the doctor is talking to us, my friend kind of translating. All I caught was ‘comida sucia’ – ‘dirty food.’ Well that just meant I had a case of food poisoning, nothing important. I was hooked up to an IV to replenish the fluids I had lost from all the pooping and things were running well.

About an hour later they decided they needed a stool sample from me. So they gave me a little cup to fill whenever it was time to go. Just the cup, nothing else. In America if you need to give a stool sample you normally get a small bowl that fits on the toilet seat and a spoon to scoop it into the cup. Not here.

It was finally time to hit the bathroom so I brought my IV bag and cup with me. I didn’t know how to take the IV out of my arm and I couldn’t find a nurse, so that was that. I put the IV bag on top of a cabinet in the bathroom and with so much grace an aplomb, got everything right in the cup. I was so proud of myself. No mess at all.

On the way out I saw a nurse and mentioned I had it, she told me that someone would be around to collect it soon. I headed back to the room where my friend was waiting and left the cup of poop on the table. No one came for a long time, so the two of us just sat there making poop jokes.

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I’ve been worse

Eventually the doctor comes in and takes the sample and is talking to my friend. They’re going on and on and she must have told him that she was a bit sick too. He wanted to help being a doctor and all. If she’d just let him give her a shot she’d feel much better. My friend hates needles, she had to turn away when the IV was put in my arm, so she kept saying no. But eventually she caved and said yes.

So the doctor takes her out into the main area and I’m along for emotional support. While he’s getting ready, my friend and I are talking trying to get her mind off of what’s going on. She refuses to look because she’s super nervous. I snuck a few glances but saw nothing out of the ordinary.

The doctor came over and got my friend’s attention. I guess she didn’t like what she saw. The needle was a bit bigger than normal, but not outrageous. I didn’t think there was a problem with it, but I wasn’t the one in the chair. She screamed and bolted out of her chair, screaming as she sprinted to the bathroom. The next sounds I hear are her vomiting out of sheer stress. This went on for close to fifteen minutes. It was wild.

After regaining her composure she came out and hid behind me so the doctor wouldn’t talk to her. At this point the IV had been removed and the stool sample was sent away to some lab for work so there wasn’t much use in us being around anymore.

So we went out for ice cream.

End of the Line

This is the final entry about Peace Corps’ evacuation of Bolivia in 2008. You can read part one, part two, part three, and part four. Or just keep on keeping on here if you don’t care about the build up.

So Peace Corps got us to Lima. They put the whole lot of us in a resort just outside the city. Four bed bungalows, good food, we were living the high life. Or we would be if we weren’t the most depressing lot of PCVs you ever saw.

We tried to occupy our time exploring the area which wasn’t so hot since we were in a small town on the outskirts of Lima. But a few things happenings do stick out.

I had the best Chinese food I’ve ever had (we’ll see if that stands when I actually move to China) was there. Some friends and I skipped out on dinner because we wanted to go out for drinks. We hadn’t had Chinese food in months because it doesn’t exist in Bolivia. We all sat down and were reading the menu in Spanish. Almost all of the dishes came con chaufa, ‘with chaufa.’ And near the end I could get beef or chicken chaufa on it’s own for like two dollars. None of us knew what chaufa was but drawing upon previous experiences with Chinese restaurants and the price tag for the chaufa, I made the logical jump that chaufa was some sort of eggroll. Probably a bigger one if you get it on it’s own. So I got two, a beef and chicken chaufa.

Our food arrives and lo and behold what do I get? Two plates of fried rice. The mounds of rice were the size of my head. The serving sizes all around were enormous. They served dishes that were twice as big as any normal human being would eat. Wasting food sucks, but there was no way we would have been able to finish all of it. They literally had to pull up a second table next to us just to put our food on.

Another restaurant story happened to a couple of friends. One evening PC hired a bus for us to take us into downtown Lima. Some of the guys went to Hooters because they had this deal, unlimited wings and beer for about $40. So while we were hunting out ceviche and pisco sours they were just crushing wings. At the end of the night it turned out there was some fine print. They had to eat a plate of wings and drink a beer, if they ever got two plates per beer or two beers per plate instantly it went over to having to pay for each beer and set of wings. Of course they didn’t know this and ended up with a $400 bill between the five of them.

At our ceviche place, the waitress asked us to speak English because we all learned rural Bolivian Spanish and she didn’t understand our dialect. That was pretty embarrassing.

Those were the highlights. The low came when the country director gathered us all together for a conference. There it was announced that Peace Corps was temporarily suspending the program in Bolivia. It was like taking your first blow in a boxing match. It wasn’t unexpected, but hurt all the same.

Later that night you wouldn’t be able to find any alcohol within five miles of the resort. We bought it all. Lots of tears and anger at Washington for screwing us. Solace was found at the bottom of a bottle.

Have you ever tried to deal with a hundred and forty hungover and pissed off PCVs? Not a job for the faint of heart. But deal with us the staff did. Suspending a program entails a whole bunch of paperwork and logistical nightmares. They walked us through it, holding our hands every step of the way. We were given the option to finish our service in Latin America (what most people did) or do a complete two years somewhere else (what I did, ending up in Armenia). They brought down counselors to help us deal with the rapid readjustment and in general went way out of their way to make us happy. Not like that was going to happen though. We all had friends in Bolivia we were leaving behind. Training groups that were like families were scattered across the globe with less than a week to cope.

Peace Corps said the program was evacuated for volunteer safety. Most of us think that’s a cop out reason. The commonest theory is that PC Bolivia was caught up in the Bolivia – America diplomatic scuffles and we were just a pawn. Washington took us out to spite Bolivia for some slight and Peace Corps is a whole lot less important than a DEA mission I guess.

The Unfriendly Skies

This is the fourth part of the Peace Corps vs Bolivia saga.  You can read part one here, part two here, and part three here.  There’s one more chapter I need to write sometime during this holiday season.

It was a normal day. I went to work at the school, did my trainings with the teachers, and was eating dinner watching the telenovela with some friends. Unexpectedly our regional director popped into the restaurant/guesthouse I lived in. He told me I had an hour to get my stuff together, we were going to be consolidating in Tarija. It was strange that he was there in person, but not strange we were consolidating. We’d do this just about ever other week because of security scares. Normally it came over the phone though.

He left and headed south to pick up some other volunteers, he would grab me on the way back. My friends asked me what was going on. I lied to them. I told them that there was a conference in Tarija I had to be at for the next three or four days. They never asked me why the regional officer came down at eight PM instead of calling; probably chalked it up to the crazy gringos.

I put my important things together, passport, computer, toothbrush, and a change of clothes and waited to leave. There was a nagging sensation in the back of my head that something was wrong this time, but we’d done this so many times before I thought they were just being nice and giving us a free ride. I told my coworkers I’d be back in a few days and we’d go over the plans for the new garden. That didn’t happen. I never saw them again.

Peace Corps stashed us in the guesthouse we would always use in Tarija. They told us not to leave, but forget that. This was our city and we weren’t scared of anything. We took it as a holiday. All the volunteers were together for the first time ever and that was cause to celebrate. So for three days we slummed around Tarija; buying things we couldn’t find in the villages, using the internet, going to restaurants and bars and clubs, the normal things we would do.

Finally a message came down from our main office in Cochabamba. We were to relocate to Bermejo, a town about four hours south, right on the Argentine border. Was this getting more serious? Should we be concerned? Will they try to slip us out to Argentina since we’re so close? Lots of questions needed to be answered.

But of course there was a problem. Another round of bloqueos was planned for the day so we had to leave at o’dark thirty in the morning to make it through before the protesters came and shut the roads down. The dozen of us pile into cabs we scambled to find and paid out the nose for. We were getting reimbursed so money really wasn’t an object to us. PCVs are notoriously cheap unless the company is paying the tab.

We arrived in Bermejo and checked ourselves into the hotel that the bosses had reserved for us. Again another four days of nothing. Eating and drinking, what else could we do? Another message from Cochabamba, conference call time for us. Living in the far south of Bolivia we were the most remote of the volunteers. Unknown to us, by this time all the rest of the volunteers in the country had been moved to Cochabamba. So there we were, an island of American foreign policy just drinking beer in the sunshine.

The country director gets on the conference call. She tells us that a plane is coming for us to bring the whole lot of us to Cochabamba. Wait a second, since when did this backwater border town have an airport? And why can’t we just go to Argentina? Most of us were hoping for the nice government per diem to take a proper vacation. I still sigh that we missed the opportunity to enjoy delicious wine and butter-tender steaks courtesy of the US taxpayer.

Well Bermejo did have an airport of sorts. The next day after the conference call we gathered our baggage and piled into cabs again. At least the drivers knew where were going. We pulled up to a tiny airstrip. There’s a single man waiting there with a set of keys. He unlocks a padlock, we dip through the chain link fence, and then he pulls out a bottle of wine and waits for us to leave so he can go home. We’re sitting and waiting for an hour or so thinking about this nonsense when there’s this loud drone. Our eyes follow our ears and what do we see? A C-130 making a landing approach. No one’s in the control tower, there’s nothing at all that makes this look like a working airfield. The runway looks like the length of a football field.

Somehow the pilots stick the landing. No sense in turning of the engines, the ramp is let down, we pile on with our stuff and we’re moving even before everything’s sealed up again. For the twenty or so of us, there was a lot of room. Most folks decided it was nap time and made themselves comfortable. One person asked the crew where we were going. Peru they said. What? Aren’t we just going to Cochabamba to be with the rest of the volunteers? These pilots are idiots.

We begin our descent into Cochabamba. No problems landing, we hop on out into the terminal. Who greets us? All the other volunteers. It was like being a millionaire rock star coming off a private jet to adoring fans. By fans we mean people we hadn’t seen since we finished training, for some that was almost two years.

But there’s nobody else in the airport. I know Cochabamba isn’t exactly an Atlanta style hub, but still it’s a ghost town. Then it clicks with us, the pipeline bombing. There’s no fuel for the planes. So the whole air system in Bolivia is shut down. PC called in a whole bunch of favors and scored a military plane from outside the country and got in touch with the right people to open up the Cochabamba airport just for us.

The Bolivian Peace Corps staff herd us back onto the plane. They’re staying behind in case things cool down. There’s lots of work that needs to keep on keeping on. And they’re getting paid for it. We’re just a bunch of shmuck volunteers, it looks real bad if something happens to us.

We take off once again. What used to be a cavernous hold is now packed to the brim with dirty, sweaty, stinking bodies. It was like sauna crossed with eau de toilette if that meant literal toilet bowl water. And flying over the Andes can get pretty bumpy. More than one person got sick. Overall, I’d give the flight a D-. The only reason they scored that high is we didn’t crash.

We landed in Lima to be greeted by the American ambassador in Peru and the Peace Corps Bolivia country director. What happened next is another story.

I Never Felt Unsafe

But maybe that’s because I’m dumb and I just have an underdeveloped sense of self preservation.  This is the third piece about the Peace Corps and Bolivia relationship that fell apart.  Read parts one here and two here.

The first sign that Bolivia was going to be an interesting country to live in came two weeks after we landed in the country and were doing our Peace Corps training. Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez came out and claimed that American Peace Corps Volunteers were actually spies sent by the CIA. This wasn’t some paranoid fantasy, there was a bit of truth to it. What happened was that a Fullbright scholar reported for a briefing at the US embassy in La Paz. There an embassy worker told the Fullbrighter to report any Venezuelan or Cuban aid workers in Bolivia. Venezuela is working to improve their standing in South America by sending aid with their oil money and Cuba has a long tradition of sending doctors to areas in the region. The Fullbright scholar was understandably upset and he went to Bolivian authorities. They did some digging and found this same embassy worker gave a group of Peace Corps Volunteers the same assignment. This was immediately overruled by Peace Corps bosses. As a federal agency PC is notoriously independent and makes it a point to be apolitical.

During a tour of our training city of Cochabamba we were shown where the local DEA mission was. We were only shown that so we as volunteers could be told that any interaction with the DEA people or operations could result in our immediate separation from the program. Again, trying to stay apolitical.

There was a running joke among Peace Corps Bolivia, you weren’t a real volunteer until you got robbed. I was on a minibus leaving the city getting back to my house a bit outside of town. A woman and child were running to catch up so I hollered at the driver to stop. The bus was already overcrowded when they hopped on, everyone pressing against each other. About five minutes later the woman and boy jumped off. I got pick-pocketed. No good deed goes unpunished.

There was a time for about a week or so that the local police in the city of Tarija where I was eventually stationed went on strike. Why? The story was that some local Tarija cops were about to dig up some corruption on some federal police officers. The federales and were not happy with that, so they executed the local police. Their fellow cops went on strike after the corrupt cops walked free.

Bloqueos were a daily occurrence. Whenever Bolivians are upset about something they’ll grab a bunch of rocks and just set them across the road. Since there normally is only one road connecting cities, this is pretty effective. Then the people will just sit in the road; eating, chanting, and drinking. Minibuses and taxis just drive up to the bloqueo and we would get out, walk across the lines, and get into another car. The protesters never bothered anyway, sometimes I would be invited to join them to hear their complaints.

There was a protest in Tarija once. Well there were many protest in Tarija, this is just one that sticks in my mind.  People were upset that Hugo Chavez was going to visit the area. They were part of the Media Luna and the anti-government factions. We were stuck in our hotel unable to leave because the protest focused on the single federal building in the city which happened to be right across the street. The protesters kept lighting bits of cardboard on fire and throwing them through the windows they had broken.  We stood on the roof watching the drama unfold until people started throwing rocks at us calling us Venezuelan spies.

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Crummy picture of part of the gathering by our hotel.

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Equally crummy picture of the burning tire left behind as the protest moved on.

One female Peace Corps Volunteer would get raped a year in Bolivia. That was a fact of life and one of the first things we were told. It’s a credit to all the females that served not allowing the fear of assault scare them away.

A volunteer by the name of Walter Poirier is known in the Peace Corps world as to be the only volunteer to have gone completely missing. One story is that he was taking his bike home one night in the rain and the road through the mountains was washed away. Another is that he was murdered. His body was never discovered.

A couple of volunteers have suffered violent deaths in Bolivia. One woman was murdered, one died in a motor accident, and one in a plane crash. Again it’s a credit to all the volunteers after hearing about these possibilities that no one gave up. We knew the risks.

The very first sight that greeted us in Bolivia.

The very first sight that greeted us in Bolivia.

Add to this illnesses and hospital visits and Bolivia seems like a pretty rough place. Malaria was a pretty common problem.  The cholorquine medication they gave us to prevent the disease worked, but many volunteers (myself included) didn’t take it.  The nightmares that were a common side effect simply were not worth the prevention.  I watched I am Legend one night after taking my weekly dosage and laid terrified in my bed for hours until the sun rose.

But Bolivia wasn’t bad. I’m not alone when I say I never really felt unsafe or victimize. Almost all the volunteers thought the same way. I haven’t heard a single person regret their work there, even the ones that were victims of assaults and violent crime. Many of them refused to leave.  Other volunteers in the South America region called us crazy for dealing with Bolivia. Maybe we were.

The First Cracks

This is the second part of the dissolution of the Peace Corps mission in Bolivia.  The first part about coca is here.

Coca is a sticking point in US – Bolivian relations, but it is not the only one. The current Bolivian president Evo Morales is an unapologetic leftist leading his Movimiento al Socialismo political party and the Cocalero union representing coca growers of Bolivia. He’s also the first indigenous president of Bolivia and a loud critic of many of Washington’s policies in South America, especially the war on drugs. He grew up dirt poor, not even finishing his schooling. A bit informal, he still acts like a campesino and prefers to go by Evo than anything else.. Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela and another critic of Washington gained stature in Latin America due to investing Venezuelan oil wealth into social projects throughout the continent. Together Evo and Chavez try to act as an alternative to US leadership in Latin America, having success with some other leaders in the area.

A bombastic leader, Evo was also forced to deal with tensions within Bolivia Directly tying into the end of the Peace Corps/Bolivia relationship was a series of protests and referendums in 2008 spearheaded by the Media Luna, an informal name grouping the eastern, lowland provinces together. The center of the conflict involved the distribution of profits from natural gas extracted in those areas. Strikes and protests broke out throughout the region that eventually led up to a bombing of a vital gas pipeline and a clash between pro and anti government supporters that left twenty killed.

As disruptive as the protests and riots were for the country, Peace Corps volunteers were left basically unaffected. The large scale violence happened in cities, not in the tiny villages the volunteers were stationed in. Peace Corps Bolivia’s security officer was good at getting the information out to volunteers keeping us in our sites where we were safer since we had relationships in the community. But on a higher level there were some changes. For one, Evo accused the US ambassador at the time of being involved with the civil unrest trying to undermine the government and declared the ambassador a persona non grata, kicking him out of the country. Washington responded in kind expelling the Bolivian ambassador. This was the beginning of the end for Peace Corps Bolivia.

Coca

This is the first entry in a long saga about how the Peace Corps ended their relationship in Bolivia.  You can read more about the political situation here.

What is coca? At the most basic it’s a plant. But there’s much more than that. If you ask the United States government they’ll tell you it’s a security threat that needs to be wiped off the map through prodigious use of herbacides and fire. If you ask many people in South America they’ll tell you coca is a miracle cure. Harvested for over eight thousand years, coca has helped the Andean people fight altitude sickness, fix hangovers and stomach problems, relieve pain, even combat malaria. Where’s the disconnect?

Coca can be refined into cocaine. This makes coca a premier target for US law enforcement. A key tenet of the war on drugs in South America, is the eradication of coca. Aerial fumigation and bulldozing of coca fields happen on a regular basis. This doesn’t stop the peasants from growing coca, there’s just not enough money to be made elsewhere. Study after study has shown that to effectively reduce the amount of coca being grown to reduce the amount of cocaine coming into America development projects aimed at helping the cocaleros transfer from growing coca to other crops need to be ramped up with money and personnel. Unfortunately this isn’t happening quick enough so the status quo remains. It’s a Catch-22. When coca is destroyed, prices go up. When prices go up more people plant it. The unfortunate result is that cocaine is still easy to find in America.

Daniel Ritiere

On the other side, coca is an integral part of traditional Andean culture. Along with the medicinal uses, some people believe that coca leaves can be used in divination. It also plays a heavy role in traditional religions. This connection to the past should be no surprise in the Andes where many people still speak Quecha, the language of the Incas. My host grandmother I lived with only spoke Quecha, her daughter had to translate the Quecha into Spanish so we would be able to communicate. With coca being so important to their culture, the coca eradication program has fanned anti-US sentiment in the region. A common refrain I heard through conversations, ‘If cocaine is such a problem in America, why aren’t they fixing the problem in America?’ There are those who claim that the war on drugs is nothing more than an attempt to finish the job the Spanish tried and crush out all indigenous culture. US law enforcement officials are no more than neo-conquistadors in their eyes.

Coca is legal in Bolivia and the Bolivian government does cooperate with US authorities to destroy illegal coca fields. Evo Morales does have many issues with the United States, but he agrees that cocaine manufacturers are a security risk and need to be dealt with. He has worked to extend protection to legal growers and tried to reduce the eradication program from the US with varying degrees of success.

Legal coca leaves are sold in bags by weight, ranging from a few ounces for a day’s supply up to hundreds of pounds to resell in local markets. It is often chewed giving off a slight tingling and numbing sensation. You can also find mate de coca which is a tea made of coca leaves. This is more common throughout the whole country, the chewing intake is normally limited to the more indigenous parts of the country.

As a foreigner there are some risks involved with coca. Outside of South America, most countries don’t differentiate between cocaine and coca. In America coca is considered a Schedule II drug, just like cocaine. So bringing any back to the states is a big no-no. Customs may let you slide on an ignorance plea, especially since the amount of coca needed to refine cocaine is outrageous, but in this day of constant security risks in airports it’s not worth it.