Wednesday, September 26, 2007

No long goodbyes

I left my site for the last time (as a Peace Corps Volunteer) on Monday morning, and by Friday I will no longer by a U.S. government employee at all. It's kind of wierd.

The last few days up to my evacuating Agua Fria were pretty busy ones, filled with lots of urgent appointments both work-related and social. It wouldn't exactly be accurate to say I "finished" my "projects", unless you accept a definition of both words so broad that it'd be a statement worthy of an American politician. Nevertheless, I feel pretty good about my service overall. Perhaps I ruminate most often about the specific things I really wish I'd done and hadn't, but I think it's in my nature to concentrate more on negative outcomes and think about what I should've done differently or how to fix existing problems. As others have pointed out, I am typically my own biggest critic.

Leaving Agua Fria was harder than I expected. Up until the last couple days, I hadn't thought about it that much, and I don't think most people were all that clear about when I was actually leaving, so it wasn't until those final days that I was really saying a lot of goodbyes to people and imagining what it would be like not to see them again. Based on the kind of conversations I had throughout the rest of my service about my eventual departure, I was a little apprehensive about the goodbyes because I expected them to contain a large amount of people asking what stuff I was going to give away when I left. It was an extremely pleasant surprise that, when it really got down to the last few days, I heard almost none of this. Just people telling me how sorry they were that I was going, that they'd miss me, that they appreciated the work we'd done, and that they hoped we could stay in touch somehow or that I would come back to visit sometime. It was very touching. Suddenly, it seemed a lot harder to leave than I'd expected.

On Saturday, my final day with the Maestro en Casa kids, we had a little party and cut a cake, and they all signed a Maestro en Casa uniform shirt for me to take home. That same day, I went down to talk with the captain of the soccer team I'd played with most often, to see about exchanging the team's old ball (signed by all the players) for a new one that I'd bought the previous week. Instead, they decided to give me a signed team jersey, since the old ball was so stripped and soggy that it was impossible to write on. They also decided to plan one last soccer game on the following day, Sunday, my last day in site.

The game was a typical one for us, on a rocky and rutted field in hot, humid weather and played rough. I got a going-away present from the other team of severely overextended quad muscle that I haven't hardly been able to bend past 90 degrees until today, but before that happened I managed to sink a penalty kick (my teammates insisted that I take it) and we went on to win 5-4. After that we signed the jersey and talked about all the fun times we'd had.

Later that evening there was a small going-away party in the cooperative's office, with wonderful food made by one of the women members, orange juice, and coffee. Just some of the people I had worked most closely with were in attendence, and we talked mostly about the different projects we'd done, expressed appreciation for each others' contributions, and speculated about the future of middle-school education in Agua Fria and the coffee cooperative. It was really nice; ideal for my personal preferences. I got some more going-away presents and everyone went home to sleep at bedtime around 8:30 pm. :)

That's pretty much all that happened worth mentioning. I've been in Tegucigalpa since yesterday now, and will be here until Friday (and maybe Saturday) fixing administrative issues and doing my final medical tests. I was invited to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the new trainees tomorrow at 11 am, which should be interesting. Working with them has been kind of like watching my own service come full circle.

I'm going to miss being part of an organization that I'm proud to be part of. I don't think I've especially felt that way about other labels I've carried previously in my life, besides maybe family surnames. High School Student at Lakeside. Kid from Washington. Geology Student at Western. Cross-Country Runner. I just didn't have any emotional attachment to them (but then, I've never given much of a damn about being a member of any specific group anyways). But I've truly enjoyed being able to say that I'm a Peace Corps Volunteer. I guess now I understand a little better that aspect of the appeal of political parties and religions - belonging to something you believe in.

After I officially sign myself out of service on Friday, my general plan of action until Sam gets here October 9th is to go see some of the cool stuff on the north coast of Honduras that I've never gotten to see yet (like the national parks and wildlife preserves, which are reportedly awesome; the best in the country), and visit a couple volunteer friends on my way back. It should be good times. I'll try to keep some small updates posted here.

One more thing before I end this post - I took my Spanish interview yesterday, and got rated Superior (the highest level you can achieve in the type of evaluation we use). Considering where I entered the country at, this is an achievement worth feeling good about. And I do, very much so. It was a goal I'd had for myself but was more wishfully hoping than expecting to achieve. Going into the interview I didn't feel like I was doing very well, and expected to get what most other people in my group who started at a comparable level to me got - Advanced High. I was pretty psyched when I heard the result, and have been feeling awesome about it since yesterday. Now I can officially claim (with evidence to back it up) that I am fluent in my second language. Schwing!


Friday, September 14, 2007

Wrapping it up

Well, the time has finally come (sort of). My peace corps service officially ends the 28th of this month, and I need to spend the three days previous to that date dealing with pending administrative and health issues in Tegucigalpa, so I only have about twelve full days left in my site. This week and next I’m going to be working on fixing as many loose ends as I possibly can before I scramboozle (which certainly isn’t as many as I’d like to), but if I stuck around until everything I have been working on was definitely concluded, I’d be living for the rest of my life in Agua Fría.

Probably what I’m going to get the most closure on is my Maestro en Casa 9th grade class, although even there I won’t be able to stay until they finish this school year. I have had to make some tests to be applied and graded in my absence, but I’ve gotten to the point of knowing who the capable people around here are that I can leave this kind of job with, and I’m not extremely worried about it. Right now we have a couple extra Saturdays, since it suddenly turns out that we’re ahead of schedule, so I’m doing a small presentation on AIDs that I learned two weeks ago along with the trainees. I think this is a pretty great idea and I’m glad I got to learn and implement it before leaving.

The proposal to get a Centro Básico built around here that I started working on a couple months ago is now officially turned in, but I suspect there will be follow-ups necessary to keep it moving. In Honduras, simply having 70 sixth graders annually with no access to further education isn’t enough to get a project built on its own merits. You need to have political connections as well, send five proposals, stage a demonstration outside the regional office of Public Education, etc. Either that, or start greasing palms left and right, which isn’t really a viable option for myself or the Agua Fría community organizations. The least I can do, I guess, is recommend the project in the strongest possible terms to my replacement (still don’t know who this is going to be just yet, but I will next week). As I may have mentioned previously, it’s really a shame I fell into this idea too late to follow it all the way through.

Speaking of the trainees, I finished my last section with them last week, which was probably a good thing since I was starting to get strange paternalistic feelings towards them. This group of PAM volunteers is quite substantially different than my training group was. Very few of them have the kind of background you might expect for a Protected Areas Management volunteer (Only a couple are real educated hicks, like several people in my group were). They’re also so cool and unflappable with the cultural adjustments, at least as far as I can tell. I seem to remember that we had a much harder time with it. Then again, as a whole they speak much better Spanish than we did. Furthermore, they seem to have a minimal interest in partying. The entire time I was with this group, I don’t think I ever heard a discussion about being inebriated. You couldn’t spend five minutes with my training group without that subject coming up. I think my overall assessment is that they’re going to do a great job, as long as they’re patient and stick it out.

I’m starting to reflect a lot on my service: the good times, the bad times, the fun, and the frustrations. Certain vignettes stick out especially. I clearly remember the feeling I used to get walking from my house up in the middle of freaking nowhere down to Agua Fría every day, marveling every time that I was actually living in another country, I was actually walking to work through coffee farms and tropical deciduous forest, seeing tropical birds, tasting tropical fruits, and working with people who spoke a different language. It was so cool. That kind of excitement wore off a long time ago, but I can easily recall what it was like.

I remember with a distinct shudder all the conversations I had with the director of the Maestro en Casa program, trying to work out a solution between us and the elementary school so they wouldn’t lock us out of the classrooms on Saturday. I’d try to drown out her bitching about the elementary school’s director by imagining what it’d be like to stand up and say “WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU? THESE ARE TRIVIAL PROBLEMS!! THE ONLY REASON THEY EVEN EXIST IS BECAUSE YOU AND PATRIK BOTH PUT YOUR PERSONAL PRIDE BEFORE THE EDUCATION OF 80 STUDENTS! HOW IS IT POSSIBLE THAT PEOPLE LIKE YOU CAN BE EDUCATIONAL DIRECTORS?” But of course I didn’t say anything. Then I’d have to go and play both sides of the argument, reasoning, pleading, and cajoling until I got them to come to some kind of agreement through me, hating every second of it. Was it worth it? ABSOLUTELY.

I recall the way all the conversations I have with Isaí go, the both of us alternately defending or denouncing Honduras or the United States, discussing what was wrong with the world or awesome in Agua Fría, or going over the miniscule details of his agricultural methods. Every conversation with Isaí is a kind of argument, but somehow you’re always in agreement at the end.

I clearly remember something a técnico said yesterday in the middle of giving a training session on small agribusiness management. He was talking about how it isn’t good to blindly follow the directions of other people; how it’s important to try things out and see them for yourself. He then gave the example: “If I hear a preacher say something, for example, in church, I don’t just going to take his word for it without thinking at all myself! I go home and consult my own bible, and see if he got it right!” Cue hand-over-eyes-forehead-slap. Incline head forward and shake slowly, if desired. Talk about stifling cultural paradigms.

Another incident that comes easily to mind was the cold, windy night in January 2006 when we started loading up the 2005 coffee harvest to send out in trucks the next day for Siguatepeque. It took three times as long as anybody thought, and at 11 pm I finally started pitching in just so the poor workers, who were all threatening to go home, could get the job done. At about 2 am we gave up and I half-slept curled up in the middle of a nest we’d made of full coffee bags on Doña Ada’s front porch with cold air leaking in all night (somebody had to be there so they wouldn’t get stolen).

I remember lonely nights spent in the middle of the city of Choluteca, and nights spent alone but happy in my house, well-accompanied by a candle and a book or a pen. I also remember the night I spent during my first October here when a thunderstorm rolled in around 7 pm and raged until after ten, the lightning strikes hitting so close that I’d count less than half a second between the blinding flash and the earsplitting crack. I sat out on my front porch for awhile as that storm started, and actually had to go cower inside because it got so violent I was too scared to stay out any more. Half a bottle of rum saw me through safely.

I could go on like this with recycled material all day, but you get the general idea. Right now I mostly feel impatient to finish going through all the motions that need to be gone through, and anxious to see my family again (and Washington!). Stand by ‘til October 19. :)