I love Jamaican tamarind balls, but they are way less appetizing when I consider that tamarinds are also a sort of monkey.
This post will be long. So I’ve broken it up into some sub-headings!
- trip home and matan’s wedding
- what I’ve been up to in Jamaica, generally speaking.
- Some more abstract thoughts on development
- politics politics politics
- Parting thoughts
Trip home and Matan’s Wedding
So, not long after posting my last “real” post (if posts about janky-ass toasters can be considered more real than posts about chickens that is) I visited Seattle for a couple weeks and then went to Pennsylvania where my little brother got married.
The trip home was delightful. Some of my Israeli family came out to Seattle and it was great being able to share some of Washington with them; Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, breakfast burritos, bicycling, sailing, and the necessity of brown paper bags to facilitate the drinking of beer in the park.
It was also just great to be back in Seattle again for a bit. I was really worried that after 2+ years away I would have a hard time being around my friends again, but all was for naught. For one, people were really forgiving of me being pressed for time and slightly frenzied, for two, I think that friendships are proven by being able to pick up more or less where you left off and a lot of friendships were proven in a way that warms my heart. My friend Brandon picked me up from the airport and fifteen minutes later we were chatting it up over a couple of pints and it felt like I had only been away a few weeks.
I did not really make my hourly whereabouts known, so on my first full day back (also my birthday) I shocked the shit out of both Heather and Winona by showing up randomly at their places of work. Lots of hugs and a few stares from passers by not used to seeing such expressive hugging, presumably.
Other highlights of my visit include racing sailboats in a couple of duck dodge races, blowing a fireball off the back of a sailboat in honor of my friend Ellis’ birthday, a great barbecue at Brandon’s place where I got to see a bunch of familiar faces and meet some new ones, some great bicycle rides, some productive meetings with marine environmental affairs professionals, and lots of delicious beer.
After a couple weeks it was off to Pennsylvania, where my little brother got married. Not too much to say about this, other than that the wedding was beautiful, the music was great, and the couple were adorable. I’m happy that Matan and I drove out from Philly to Harrisburg the day after I got in and then went booze shopping together because without these few solid hours of brother-brother time, it would have been hard to get much time with that kid at all. Honestly, from the time I arrived in Philly (Wednesday night) to the time I left Harrisburg (Labor day, the day after the wedding) was a blur of people and quick conversations, and late-night writing toasts. Sometimes I wish i could slow time down a little bit, but I guess that this frantic nature of gatherings like this is the product of time being zero-sum game and the reality of having lots of people who are a part of your life.
It was a beautiful wedding and being the best-man was a tremendous honor.
Incidentally, I managed to make it to the age of 29 without ever having worn a suit. In high school I swore to myself that I would make a point of eschewing suits until I was 30, making exceptions for court-appearances, my own funeral, or my brother’s wedding. At least I got to wear the suit with a pair of snazzy red-silk braces instead of a belt. I’m waiting for braces to make a popular resurgence. Lumberjacks are really onto something.
What I’ve Been Up To in Jamaica, (generally speaking))
Since making the move down to Port Antonio, I’ve been working on Lionfish reduction and Marine Debris.
In practice, the Lionfish work has been a mix of school visits, fishing beach visits, and conversations with pretty much anyone who will listen. Victories have been slow in coming, but are still there. More fishermen are now aware of how to safely handle the fish, and some basic marketing strategies discussed with fishermen seem to be paying off. Portland remains a tough nut to crack compared with some other parts of the island, but the dispelling of the (poisonous) lionfish myths and the embrace of the (delicious) lionfish facts seems imminent. Sometimes I need to remember that total victory is exceedingly rare in any undertaking and so even if I can’t convince everyone to embrace lionfish as a food source, I can still convince some people and these people will hopefully convince other people and so on.
I’ve also been lionfish hunting a few times (mixed success) and was trained at DBML in scientific surveying and specimen collection techniques for the ongoing lionfish project here at PEPA.
Marine Debris work is school-focused. And after numerous school visits i have my spiel down cold. It is awesome. Each time I give my presentation I get to trick a kid into drinking lime juice thinking it is water, talk about the fragility of ecosystems, and shock the shit out of kids by telling them about the longevity of plastics. The program is simple, scalable, and sensory. I’m making a manual of the main spiel (and other activities) and with some luck and some help from friends in high places my activity modules might be incorporated in the Ministry of Ed’s new curriculum.
Some other volunteers and I are also working on a Lionfish children’s book. It is very very cool but I can’t give away too much. Photos to come though, I promise. I’m very proud of this project.
That just about does it.
But I also need to mention that Porti is now host to a handful of new volunteers. Hooray for government issued friends! Mark has taken over my role as the mountain man/keeper of the rio grande valley, while Brie and Sara are keeping Lauren and I company in the greater Port Antonio are. Porty lucked out with this intake. The group here is really great.
Some more abstract thoughts on development
- development environments are necessarily much more complicated than they seem. Looking around any developing nation, the need to distinguish between causes and effects of slow development is exceedingly difficult. I think that this task gets more complicated the more time you spend in a place. This seems strange, but it is not really. The more time you spend considering an environment, the more factors you see as being a part of that environment and the greater the relationships between those factors become. Additionally over time you come to realize that factors with low visibility can still have major effects on the development climate. Each facet of complexity made clear to the the development worker has the double effect of leading to a more complete picture of what is going on, but also eroding the confidence required to make declarative statements about causes and effects and what to do about them. I think that finding the balance between admitting to clearly not understanding every dimension of the development problem while still having the confidence or gumption or moxie or what have you required to try and solve some piece of the problem is one of the fundamental challenges to doing development work.
- Actually, negotiating this balance between not knowing everything but still knowing enough to humbly get started might be one of the fundamental challenges of life, not just development
- Putting people with similar interests into a room and letting them interact is an exercise with tremendous value. I think that all gatherings of this sort should incorporate as much unstructured time as possible. Sometimes hallway conversations are more valuable than structured time.
- Environmental Problems in particular are very complex.
- PC is not a conduit for funds, and most projects undertaken by individual PCVs utilize little capital. To be sure, some development needs must be met by major capital expenditures, but PCVs have certain assets that few other agencies have. I think the most important assets PCVs have is time, flexibility, the ability to network with a vast range of experts both within and outside of Peace Corps, our impartiality, the “clear eyes” we can bring to a situation (this is problematic and clear eyes can get blurry quick as I discussed in the first bullet), and our ability to experiment without worrying about our jobs. Of these assets, the last one is far from the least important.
- The “brand” of Peace Corps is tremendously powerful. Truly astonishing is the willingness of Americans who are not serving to nevertheless provide technical advice to volunteers who ask for it. Volunteers can tap into a pretty amazing well of goodwill at home and I think that this is a resource that is largely underutilized.
I went to a Project Advisory Committee meeting in Kingston yesterday, and the following thoughts are a result of thinking about development in general and Peace Corps’ role in development specifically. These thoughts are not in any order. Nor are they particularly well elucidated just yet or organized into any sort of argument or structured narrative.
The situation in the USA with the primary campaigning would be positively hilarious if the stakes were not so high. I wonder how historians will mythologize the current state of american politics.
It is sad that apiculture and apiaries have nothing to with apes.
Also, a fellow PCV was wearing a shirt yesterday that reminded me of a shirt my mom bought me when I was maybe five. I’m happy my parents let me dress myself growing up, but it led to some wardrobe disasters throughout the years (not that I’m much better now, honestly). Specifically, I don’t think I learned to tuck my shirt into my pants instead of into my underpants until I was a freshman in high school. I was thinking about this fact and realized that the the timing of this discovery coincides with my discovery of women. Now I’m left with a major question: Did I stop tucking my shirt into my undies because I discovered women, or did I discover women because I started tucking in my shirts properly?
This is a question for the ages.
As of this week, the first of my training group are starting to close out their service in Ghana. It is really surreal seeing facebook status updates about their close of service. I guess it is really weird because an entire post will get “cos energy” when a group closes out, and even though no group is leaving here until May, I’m still getting some of that energy from afar.
The energy could also be from the knowledge that were it not for my decision to extend my service, I could have COS’ed as early as this Thursday.
It took me a long time to achieve happiness in Peace Corps. Indeed, there were some times that were so trying that I could have told you, to the day, how much time I had left in Peace Corps, and always I looked to my earliest possible COS date of July 14, 2012. Now we are just about there and I am getting all sorts of new stuff started. Funny how life works out.
Truthfully though, happiness was something i had to strive for, and even on the best days, Peace Corps is hard. It is more difficult than I did imagine. It is more difficult than I could have imagined. It is also stranger, more wonderful, more rewarding (though the victories oft are small), and more surreal and hilarious than I could imagine too.
On a lark, I called up some of the new trainees a few days ago, just to drop a line and see how they were doing. Their spirits are so refreshingly high, all wide-eyed wonder at the marvelous and new. I spoke with one new trainee and he seemed shocked to learn that the global average early termination rate is around one-third. Indeed, Group 80 was around there, and with the recent loss of two volunteers, Group 81 is rapidly approaching that figure as well. Just as the decision to join Peace Corps is difficult, so I imagine is the decision to leave early. I don’t envy at all those who seriously confront this choice.
This thinking also reminded me of a graphic I discovered some time ago.
By the numbers.
This was accurate a few years ago. I’ve heard that applications have skyrocketed in the past few years, so I wonder if the spread between applicants and interviews is even wider.
Otherwise, I’m starting to build a market for lionfish in Port Antonio. Getting some traction with local restaurants. Aiming high, I wrote an email to Margaritaville this morning. If I can get even a few local restaurants to serve the fish, I hope that a proven market would lead to more fishermen actively targeting this species for harvest. So delicious. So invasive.
Marine debris project also going well. Went to the summer camp at Fairy Hill last Friday and ended up playing a fun game with a bunch of kids ranging from a (wise beyond his years) five year old to eleven year olds. I think I need to modify the “decomposition timeline game” (starting with a new title for the game, clearly). But it was a good first attempt and after we played the game we reused plastic bottles by planting bok-choy seeds in little planting pots the kids could take home.
The environment education only took about an hour, but I can think of many worse ways to spend a day than hanging having profound conversations with a deep-thinking five year old and helping other kids to jump rope. Too bad I was not allowed to photograph the day’s activities. The kids were great.
I am now the proud owner of the world’s most awesome toaster.
It is possibly the cheapest toaster ever; also quite possibly the ugliest.
But I made it, and I am very proud.
First I went to the hardware store and purchase some galvanize steel wire that they call “rafting wire” because the Rio Grande raftmen use it to lash their bamboo rafts together. I got two gauges of wire, a half pound of each, and ended up spending a paltry 120J for the lot.
I then used my trusty multitool to bend the larger wire into two rackets, and then strung the smaller wire across the rackets. You can tell that I did not worry too much about symmetry.
Then it was time to try my new contraption and see if it would work.
After maybe a minute over the flame on either side, the toast was ready! It looked pretty good too. Might take a little practice to get exactly the toast I want, but I was pretty pleased.
Then it was time to enjoy the toast of my labors.
In non-toast related news, a new batch of trainees arrived on Island on Wednesday. I was in Kingston for medical and got a chance to spend the afternoon with them. It is always so refreshing meeting new trainees. Their enthusiasm is really uplifting, and it is a lot of fun to watch them begin this adventure and to remember my own beginnings. I hope I get to see them again soon.
One of the more interesting things about meeting new trainees is that it puts into incredibly sharp focus all the pithy little thoughts about Peace Corps, Jamaica, and development in general that I have had throughout the past two years. I’m going to start a new tab on this blog that lists all these little thoughts.
I’ve done some more thinking about the Donald Trump–Oompa Loompa overlap, and I’ve stumbled upon something that I find quite remarkable.
Granted, I have only once seen a single episode of “The Apprentice” but from this episode I gathered that the show follows this basic plot:
Does this trope sound oddly familiar to anyone else?
I see one of two possibilities:
Possibility the first: Roald Dahl was such a genius, that the entire television program is a case of “life” imitating art. (NOTE: “life” is used problematically in this context–I have a hard time justifying a reality TV show as “life” but bear with me).
Possibility the second: Oompa Loompas exist. Willie Wonka exists (or did at one point–I would not put it past Orangeman to find some way to make him disappear). Roald Dahl was reporting fact that is stranger than fiction, and Donald Trumpa-Loompa is descended from some escaped Oompa Loompas who told him the management secrets of Mr. Wonka and he now uses this strange form of management to run his operation.
Ordinarily, I would discount the second possibility as absolute nonsense, but for some reason I find it every bit as plausible as the first.
In other news.
June 1st marked the two-year mark for me since leaving Seattle for staging. Well I remember the northerly take-off, the view of the Olympics, Vashon Island, Puget Sound, the UW, Lake Washington, my mom’s house, and finally Mount Index and Lake Serene as we passed over the Cascades and screamed eastward. Two years. As of today it has been 732 days since I’ve seen home. Amazing. Looking forward to visiting home in August. And to attending Matan’s wedding in Pennsylvania too.
My extension project has been approved. All I need now is to go through the medical check-out and I’m official. This project developed a lot of momentum fast. So much work to do. I’m really stoked.
Storm season began a couple days ago, and as if on cue, the island has been subjected to a bout of serious rain that has pretty much halted life as we know it in Moore Town.
Yesterday, fed up with cabin fever, I donned my raincoat and walked 1.5 miles in the pouring rain to the neighboring community. Along the way pretty much every other person remarked on the fact that I was walking in the rain, told me to get out of the rain, or insisted that I needed to drink some rum with them to stave off the sickness that would almost certainly result from my walking in the rain.
Not to be deterred from my mission, I walked to the Seaman’s Valley junction and, after helping him to find a goat he had lost (this is an ongoing theme of life here), bought a 15lb jackfruit for 300j from my friend Rat.
The walk home was even more bizarre, as everyone commented not only on the fact that I was walking in the pouring rain, but also on the fact that I was walking in the pouring rain while carrying a jackfruit. You would think it was the first time in their life they had ever seen a hairy white man wandering around in a torrential downpour, wearing sandals and a raincoat and hauling a 15 pound spiny fruit. Wait a minute…when I put it like that their incredulity makes much more sense.
In any case, for the first time in my life, I am the proud owner of an entire jackfruit. Yep. The whole thing. Forsooth! The time will soon be nigh for fragrant deliciousness. And for strange and slightly gross stickiness.
Some photos of my prize! The pencil and nalgene are intended to give some idea how enormous the jackfruit is. They don’t do a great job.
Good lord Donald Trump is an orange, orange man.
I would like to see his long form birth certificate. I wonder if original surname was “Trumpa-Loompah”. The resemblance is, in any case, striking.
Also, I think my pac-man boxers were swept up in the rapture. This makes me sad.
Today is Norwegian Independence Day. I’m not Norwegian, but growing up in Seattle, I’ve come to know and love no small number of Scandalnavians. Mostly though, today reminds me of the opening passage of Kon Tiki, a passage that I believe ranks as one of the greatest book openings of all time.
Once in a while you find yourself in an odd situation. You get into it by degrees and in the most natural way but, when you are right in the midst of it you are suddenly astonished and ask yourself how in the world it all came about.
If, for example, you put to sea with a parrot and five companions, it is inevitable that sooner or later you will wake up one morning at sea, perhaps a little better rested than ordinarily, and begin to think about it.
On one such morning I sat writing in a dew-drenched log-book:
May 17th, Norwegian Independence Day. Heavy Sea. Fair wind. I am cook today and found seven flying fish on deck, one squid on the cabin roof, and one unknown fish in Torstein’s sleeping bag…
Here the pencil stopped, and the same thought interjected itself: This is really a queer seventeenth of May–indeed, taken all round, a most peculiar existence. How did it all begin?
Granted, I’ve never done anything nearly so badass as sail across the Pacific on a balsa raft just to prove a point. I’m pretty sure that Thor Heyerdahl (and his 5 shipmates) have pretty much all of us beat in the badass department. But what I love about this passage is how succinctly it describes the situation of realizing that a small series of rational choices can suddenly land you in a situation that is, at least by the highly problematic and relative normative standards, very weird.
Say, for example, that a peace corps volunteer just COS’ed and left you all of his pots and pans. And say that your keys fell out of your pocket in a taxi you took to his old house, and say you did not realize your keys were gone until you were locked out of your house that night. This is what happened to me yesterday.
In any event, today I returned to Port Antonio from Moore Town in an attempt to find my keys, or failing that, to at least get the backups (of course there were backups!) cut as my new primary copies. I had no reason to worry over the security implications of losing these keys, but I was really sad to lose the keychains–one a hamsa with the traveler’s prayer written in hebrew on the back, and another a bottle opener shaped like a bear that has been with me since I turned 21 and has opened countless bottles of delicious beer. In any case, the search was on!
So it was. Soon after arriving at the Texaco station that serves as the transit hub of Porti, I had managed to enlist pretty much all the taxi men in my cause to find my keys and they all assured me it could be done. Unfortunately, we followed a red-herring at first and so I waited a long time for Jason’s Mitsubishi when I should have been trying to track down Fedex’s corolla sedan. I did not remember the car other than that it was a black sedan–itself a bit of a rarity–but everyone assumed that this could only mean Jason.
Eventually Jason arrived, and the lack of keys in his car confirmed my suspicion that it was somebody else. Jason did not know Fedex’s number but he had my number and said he would work on getting Fedex’s number and he would call me with it and I could track down Fedex that way. Bit of a bump, but so far so good.
Eventually, yet another taxi man (Tinka) claimed to have seen Fedex’s sedan at the garage in Prospect, so off I went with him to Prospect to see if things would pan out. Unfortunately the car in Prospect only looked like Fedex’s car, and Fedex was nowhere to be found when…A phone call!
Jason with a number for Fedex? Nope! Fedex himself? Of course not. The voice on the other end of the line was a friend of a friend of Jason who had a number he thought might belong to Fedex. Good enough to be worth a shot. I dialed the numbers and lo! Fedex on the line! He remembered driving me to Anchovy yesterday and had a set of keys in the car that he thought were mine. The only problem is that he was on his way back to Porti from Kingston and would be awhile returning.
By this point, the car I was traveling in had pulled into a yard to drop off an entire family of four. And so I found myself describing the keys and keychains to Fedex while the family looked on, clearly amused at my detailed description of a keychain shaped like a hand and a bottle opener in the shape of a bear…
And here I thought to myself “This has turned into a rather strange day”. It became even stranger (and sweeter) when a little girl in this family, sympathetic to my frenzied state, wandered in the house and returned with a mango taken from their tree.
In any event, Fedex called as he returned from Kingston and all it took was a quick trip to the street from the internet cafe to finish the handoff. Keys are returned to me. The taxi men will be shortly notified that the search is off, and life will return to “normal”.
And here is where things get extra weird. The transit system in Jamaica appears to be pure chaos, but there is really an order underlying everything. From the time the search for Jason began to the time I met up with Fedex to get my keys was less than three hours and it would have been less than hour had Fedex not been out of parish.
In the immortal words of my friend Huelo (currently a PCV in Bulgaria), “It takes a village to babysit an absentminded American”. I had more successtoday with this informal system than I’ve had tracking luggage with the highly developed systems of major airlines. Given this practical situation, my pre-existing notions of chaos and order were shown to be remarkably ill-founded. I should not be surprised. But somehow I am.
This controversion is the strange and wonderful nature of cultural immersion that happens over months and years. It is no ordinary thing to find a fish in your friend’s sleeping bag, but taken in context it makes some sense. Likewise, it is no ordinary thing to talk about an aluminum bear while standing in the front lawn of a family of strangers, but taken in context…what else was I to do?
An entire cadre of Peace Corps Volunteers closed their service yesterday and returned to the US. It has been 716 days and this morning since I left Seattle and I have not been back yet. I’m going for my first visit home in August. I’m really excited but I’m also really curious. This morning proved to me the extent to which the strange has become familiar but I have yet to experience how the familiar has become strange.
Having the name “Raz” in the United States (or Jamaica for that matter) has meant that throughout my life, I have not really had much need for nicknames. My name is weird enough as it is and most of my nicknames have been variations on Raz; Razi, Razeleh, Razzyfazzy, Razzmatazz, Razzle-dazzle etc. But there is one nickname that I cherish over almost all others and that I was reminded of today. That nickname is Wet-Ass.
Let me explain.
Sailors can be broken up into racers and cruisers, but I find this distinction pretty weak. A much more robust distinction is the distinction between sailors of dinghies and small catamarans (wet-asses), and sailors of keelboats (rail bait). Although I sail pretty much anything with sails, I am and always will be a wet-ass at heart. It is an epithet i share with many people, all of whom share the common experience of sailing boats with our bottoms hanging out over the drink; a truly select group!
To understand the name, look at exhibit A
Doesn’t this look fun? It is really fun. I’ve spent many many hours in this exact position, on this exact sort of boat. And in the process, my ass has gotten very wet.
Although it has happened from time to time, much more seldom has my ass gotten wet while sailing keelboats (exhibit B is the banner of this blog). You can see why, right? Wet-asses sit with our butts outboard, while rail bait sit with their butts inboard–the difference is immense. Trust me on this.
But wet bottoms are not only to be found in Neptune’s domain. I can think of several unfortunate times when my ass has gotten mighty wet while riding bicycles, or even walking. But prior to this afternoon, I really can’t think of a single time it has gotten wet from riding inside a four wheeled motor vehicle.
This all changed this afternoon.
Coming back to Portland from a behavior change training in Ochi, I managed to pass the first two legs of the journey without much ado. In Annotto bay I boarded a minibus bound for Port Antonio and found myself sitting in the far right seat of the very back row.
I foolishly neglected to check for telltale signs of water damage around the top of the rear hatch of this minibus and therefore sat right under the place where the seal was damaged. Oops. Just out of Annotto Bay we hit a band of torrential rain that lasted throughout the one hour ride to Porti.
What started as a slow drip of water from the hatch soon turned into an almost constant trickle. The water landed just below the nape of my neck, slowly soaking my shirt, then my trousers, then my drawers, and finally my butt. By the time we reached the St. Margaret’s bay bridge I was quite literally sitting in a puddle of water and at this point the lady next to me took notice of my situation.
I should clarify here that at no point during this time was I upset. I was a little bit uncomfortable, but the sheer astonishment and amusement at finding myself in a situation so absurd (and yet strangely familiar) completely outweighed any sense of outrage or indignation I might have had otherwise. Without needing to even think about it that much, I found myself mantrically thinking “I’m a Wet-Ass. My ass is wet. It has been wet before. It will be wet again. But this might be the only time I ever sit in a puddle inside a car so I should really try to enjoy this”.
To be fair, my reasoning sounds pretty weird to me when I write it down like this. But this really is how I felt! Unfortunately, the (dry) woman next to me did not share my resigned sentiments towards dampness. Quite the contrary, she was so incensed at my plight that she took it upon herself to start yelling at the ducta.
I told her that such a scene was really not necessary. She was incredulous and told me that she admired my spirit but that she could not abide this situation. I thanked her for the compliment and then made a futile attempt to explain why I did not mind sitting in a puddle inside a car. I tried to explain to her that I’ve actually spent hundreds of hours of my life with a soaking wet bottom just to earn the right to call myself a Wet-Ass, and that this current exposure to moisture was really just a vindication of a title I’ve worked hard to earn.
This conversation quickly caught the attention of most of the other passengers nearby. So passionately did I explain my reasoning that I can say with utmost confidence that by the end of the ride I had succeeded in convincing them all that they had spent the past hour of their lives riding in a minibus with a stark raving lunatic.
Even with a common language, some things really just don’t translate all that well.
All the literature warns you how difficult Peace Corps can be. None of the literature warns you just how surreal and hilarious Peace Corps can be. Almost two years since shipping out I realize I would have it no other way.
Current Location: My room in Moore Town.
Current Time: 2043
Current Temperature: Very pleasant.
Current Beverage: Lemongrass Tea with honey.
State of the Raz: Showered and dry.
State of Raz’s pants: Still pretty damp.