The land of eternal now

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27 Février 2012

FN: 7

The land of the eternal now

In the US, we are forever focused on degrees of time. We have a meeting at 9:15. His father is a Baby Boomer, but her mother is Generation X. Lunch can be taken between 12:30 and 2:00, but for no more than 45 minutes of that period. The baby is 23 weeks old. The plane leaves at 6:11. Your quarterly tax payment is due on the 18th. The world record for the 100 meter sprint is 9.58 seconds. For us, time is a societal obsession of sorts, and although we don’t often think about it our love/hate relationship with chronology is one of the very few truly universal and defining characteristics of American life.

Think about it: whether you’re black, white, Latino, Asian, Buddhist, Jainist, gay, straight, Republican, Democrat, urban, rural, rich, poor, young, old, or something else entirely, if you’re doing it in the US, you’re probably doing it in a regulated timeframe. Even if you don’t realize it. Whether you’re running to catch the school bus, sitting down to watch your favorite TV show, or headed off to church, you’re usually doing so at an exact time. There’s very little that happens in the US that doesn’t do so at a set time – and even those things that do, like births or hurricanes, are subject to an amazing amount of prediction and prognostication. Our society just won’t tolerate the idea of timelessness.

Here in Africa, very little of that has any meaning.  Sure, they are aware that time exists, and busses and schools run on schedules, but no one really takes it very seriously except where they have to interact with Westerners. The idea of time here is less exact and far more notional. The bus leaves when it leaves. The child is weaned, but hasn’t yet started to lose its baby teeth. The garden season is winding down, the hot season is about to start, and the rains aren’t yet on the horizon.

For Americans, that most Western country in the West, the First of the First World nations, this casual approach to time tends to be simultaneously charming and frustrating. On the one hand, it’s kind of nice no one is ever stressed about time, and it’s definitely a load off to know that no one gets too terribly fussed when the inevitable travel delays make you late for something. On the other hand, meetings routinely start an hour (or more) late here, and trying to get any sort of service – be it in a restaurant, for a home repair, or just from the guy in the boutique – is an exercise in tedium that’s right up there with having your teeth pulled. Sometimes it’s nice that they don’t stress time, but when you want or need something, it’s incredibly irritating.

I think it has to do with how agriculturally-oriented life is here. Farmers don’t think in hours or minutes, they think in seasons, and since 90-plus percent of Burkinabé are directly involved with farming at some level or another, I think they’ve just sort of…absorbed…the farmer’s viewpoint of time. They tend to think in terms of seasons, they don’t have a huge amount of concern about the particular time of day, and they don’t really have much of a sense of history either.

This last point is particularly interesting to me.

I don’t mean that they don’t know the history of their country or their people. They know both, just fine. In fact, your average Burkinabé probably knows more about the history of Burkina Faso than the average American does about the history of the US. Hooray for rote memorization?

No, what I mean is there’s no real sense of classic here. On my iPod, I have music from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’, 00’s, and 10’s. Your average Burkinabé has music from the last 5 years. Maybe they listen to older stuff and I just don’t know it, but I don’t think so. There really seems to be a mindset of living in the here and now that I find absolutely fascinating. You go to a bar, and the music is either current from Ivory Coast or Mali, or it’s God-knows-what-random-song from the US or Canada. The idea of preserving a cultural époque, of looking back with nostalgia on a particular time or cultural period just…doesn’t exist.

I can’t decide if this is a product of the same mindset that has no problem being two hours late for a thirty minute meeting or not. Surely, there’s a relationship in there somewhere. But I haven’t seen it yet.

But I will. Just give me time.


The obligatory packing list post for Peace Corps Burkina Faso


25 Février 2012

FN: 9

The obligatory packing list post for Peace Corps Burkina Faso

There aren’t a lot of rules for Peace Corps bloggers, but one of the biggest is that, at some point, you absolutely have to post a packing list. It’s an unspoken requirement. In fact, if you don’t do one, they punish you by making you live in a volcanically hot little mud oven of a house, where you eat terrible food and poo in a hole in the ground.

Oh wait…

Rule or no, everyone does one. This is because no volunteer ever brings exactly what they wanted/needed, and we’re always trying to improve the process. Also, everyone else is a chowderhead who couldn’t give good advice if their life depended on it, and it’s up to us to fix what is obviously a broken system. We’re Peace Corps volunteers; this is how we think.

My feeble attempt at improving the packing list post is to subdivide it into 3 categories: what I actually brought, what I wish I had brought, and what I brought but didn’t need. I’ll try to explain everything in some detail, and hopefully at least one future volunteer will find it to be of use.

What I brought:

  • Clothes: 2 pairs of jeans, one pair of dress slacks, 2 dress shirts, 2 polos, 2 pairs of shorts (1 cargo, 1 basketball), 8 t-shirts, 4 quick-dry shirts, 8 pairs of socks, 5 pairs of underwear (3 Ex Officio),  2 long sleeve shirts, 1 pair sweatpants, 1 sweater, 2 pairs flip flops, 1 pair sandals, 1 pair athletic shoes, 1 pair dress shoes, 1 baseball hat, 3 pairs of good sunglasses
  • Books: 1 physical book for reading on the plane, many hundreds of ebooks
  • Personals: Shampoo, conditioner, contacts & solution, 3 toothbrushes, 3 sticks deodorant, 1 razor (but I have almost no facial hair), 1 bar of soap, one bottle of cologne
  • Electronic: netbook, ipod nano, iphone (with ereader & books loaded), external HD loaded with movies and music, 5 pairs headphones, chargers for everything, a good converter/adapter/surge protector, camera, stopwatch, digital thermometer, replacement battery & kit for iphone
  • Other: Bug Hut Pro II, Thermarest, Leatherman Wave, pocket knife, Petzl headlamp, drawing kit & paper, photos of friends & family

What I didn’t need:

  • Clothes: The sweater & long sleeve shirts. Some volunteers get cold at night, but you can buy winter clothes here cheaply if you need them, and they’re really bulky. Save the space and bring no more than 1 long sleeve shirt. Especially if your stage is in the summer. It’s a total waste of precious packing space. I also probably shouldn’t have brought the dress shoes, since I’ve only used them once and definitely could have bought a cheap pair here.
  • Books: any physical books. The transit house is loaded, and all I did was transfer my physical book from my bag to the shelf there. Unless you’re in love with the physical medium, use that space for a Kindle.
  • Personals: I’m a boy, so I brought exactly what I needed. You can buy more soap and toothpaste (Colgate will be the only brand you’ve heard of) here. Bring enough shampoo & conditioner to get you through stage – a new bottle of each should do it – but you can buy more later in Ouaga. I use Dove brand bought here. It’s decent and not insanely expensive.
  • Electronic: the solar charger for my iPhone. A lot of volunteers get a lot of use out of theirs, but my site has electricity, so it wound up being a wash for me. If always having a charge is a priority, definitely bring one. If you’re tight on money, consider holding off. If nothing else, the first person to claim mine in country can have it gratuit.
  • Other: I don’t get a huge amount of use out of the Bug Hut or the Thermarest, but when I need them, man am I glad I have them. I’m definitely glad I brought everything on this list.

What I wish I had brought:

  • Clothing: Quick-dry long pants that aren’t jeans. Yeah, you feel like a tool at first, but they’re a lot easier to wash, they’re cooler, and you’ll be glad you have them. I actually had a minor pants crisis my first few days because of this. A couple of quick-dry long-sleeve shirts, for much the same reason. I also wish I had brought a better memory, since I lost 2 of my 3 pairs of sunglasses in stage.
  • Books: If you don’t own a Kindle/Nook, buy one. Load it up. If you don’t know how, find someone who does. If push comes to shove, look me up in country: at last count I had ~4500 books, and I can download any others you may want. I’ll show you how.
  • Personals: I’m picky about my toothpaste, so I wish I had brought two more Mentadent refills. However, most personals are better sent by care package later on, since they’re bulky. Especially mouthwash, fancy shampoo, etc.
    • Electronic: I really, really, REALLY wish I had sprung for that second 1TB external hard drive. I have about 500 GB of films and music, and I’m out of space. Everyone here has a boatload of movies, so try to bring mostly new stuff; you can get the old here, and we rely on you to bring our libraries up to date. Downloading new material is possible in the transit house, but it’s slow.
    • Other: I wish I had brought more AAA batteries. Africa is dark at night, and your headlamp and bike light will burn batteries like a beast. This is especially important in stage, when that headlamp is your very best friend in the whole world. Mine were dying by about week 6, because I didn’t bring enough. I wish I had brought binoculars, to see the stars with. I wish I had brought a good knife sharpener. You can buy functional kitchen knives in Ouaga (if you’re a foodie/picky, bring one, they’re only about on a par with what you would buy at Target), but sharpeners are not to be found anywhere. Finally, I wish I had brought lots and lots of drink mix. Stage is a thirsty time, and the water is terrible.

My recommended packing list (boy’s edition)

This is the sum of my experience, taking all 3 of the above categories into account. All errors are my own, mileage may vary.


  • 2 pairs of jeans: yeah, they’re a little hotter, but they’re indestructible, you can get many wears out of them between washings, and a nice coating of dust just makes them look sexier. Go with darker colors, to hide the dust stains longer. Buy them a tad tight; unless you’re in impeccable shape, you’re going to lose 20 – 30 lbs in stage.
  • 2 pairs of khakis/cargos (long)/dockers/quick dry. You have to wear long pants every day in stage, and you have to mix your look up a little, right? Right. A lot of guys like convertibles for this. Remember to size down.
  • At least 2 polos. They’re your “professional” short-sleeve salvation. You have to dress at least business casual every day of stage, and it’s 95+ on average. You do the math.
  • At least 2 long-sleeve button downs. At least one should be pretty nice (as in, you might only wear it once or twice in country, but you’ll be glad you have it when you do). Yes, you can buy them here, but they’re pretty poorly cut. Remember to size down for weight loss, or they’ll look like a sail on you in 3 months.
  • A nice slew of t-shirts. But nothing you’re fond of; everything is hand washed here, and that’s brutal on thin cotton and synthetics. Light colors are cooler, dark colors look cleaner longer. Pick your poison.
  • BLACK socks. I went with smart wool, but cotton works too. Remember: everything instantly turns orange/red here from the dust, and white is almost impossible to keep clean for long. Black can be worn 2 – 3 times between washings, if necessary (which it may be in stage). As a bonus, you don’t have to bring a special pair of dress socks. I choose the low-ankle cut, but that’s your preference.
  • EX OFFICIO UNDERWEAR. Seriously. Do not buy any other type. Yes, it’s $20/pair. Buy 4 pair and call it a day. The stuff is dry, indestructible, easy to wash, comfortable, and even looks pretty good. I went with boxer briefs, but again, that’s a personal preference. I made each pair a different color, so rotating and washing is easy.
  • 1 pair of sandals. Chacos are popular and 50% off through the company (check out the PC Wiki for info on this – Google it). I’m allergic to the rubber they use so I went with a different brand, but most volunteers swear by their Chacos.
  • 1 pair of flip flops. If you don’t mind cheapies (I do, due to the aforementioned rubber allergy), they’re plentifully available here, and you can pass on this.
  • 1 pair of athletic shoes. Good ones. Think “trail running shoes”. Mine are Adidas Kanadia II’s, and I swear by them.
  • A good leather belt. Mine has a zipper on the inside that makes it very useful for hiding money. I think it’s meant for drug mules, since I bought it in Juarez for $5, but any belt will do. Yes, you can buy one in country, but with all the weight you’ll be losing, this is not something you’ll want to wait on (you’re very poor in stage, and won’t want to spend $$ on a belt).
  • A good hat. It doesn’t matter what style you pick, they’re all going to label you AMERICAN!!! I went with a baseball hat. They’re useful for keeping off the sun, and for hiding your hair on those mornings when you just don’t want to take a bucket bath before class…
  • A good pair of sunglasses. Again, you can buy them here, but they’re crap. The sun is intense here, and I can’t recommend a nice pair of polarized shades enough.




  • At least 3 toothbrushes. Forget your Oral-B Sonicare, there’s no way to use it here. Think “ye olde standard non-vibrating head”, or the ones with the AAA battery in them. You can buy more here, but quality is…variable.
  • Toothpaste. Bring a lot or have more sent if you’re picky. You can buy Colgate here for 700 CFA ($1.20 – cheap).
  • Multiple sticks of deodorant. I’m not terribly hairy or sweaty, so 3 should see me through my service. You won’t find it here though, so if you don’t bring it or have it sent…good luck.
  • Shampoo & conditioner. 3 months supply.
  • Soap. One bar/bottle of body wash.
  • Lots of razors/replacements & shaving cream. I only have to shave about twice a month, so I’m not really the expert on this, but razors here are fucking cher. Like 12,000 CFA ($24) for 3 replacement heads. Also, I hope you like cold water shaving.
  • 2 pairs of glasses, if you need them.
  • Contacts & lots of solution (optional, but if they made me give up my contacts I would ET today, no joke. I hate glasses, and I’ll be damned if I go two years of suffering the things needlessly).
  • Cologne (optional, but the ladies might appreciate it one day).
  • A travel bag for all of this. You’ll be doing a lot of travelling in country, and it’s nice to be able to have all of this in one compact package without a lot of fuss.
  • Remember: most medical supplies will be provided early on free of charge by the PCMOs, including aspirin, Tylenol, advil, vitamins, floss, immodium, and pretty much any other OTC medicine you might want or need.


  • A computer. I personally brought a netbook, but lots of other people brought full laptops/macbooks. Those who didn’t bring anything usually wind up having one sent. Bring a charger. A backup battery is nice, but optional.
  • An iPod/Zune. Bring 2-3 pairs of headphones, and 2-3 cords.
  • A smartphone. I would consider my iPhone to be the best thing I brought. I use it as a phone, a camera, and for internet, and it is my constant companion. I get a solid signal almost everywhere (Burkina is very flat and has few trees, so the signal goes a long way), and this is without a doubt the #1 thing you should bring in my opinion. Just make sure to jailbreak it BEFORE YOU COME.
  • A Kindle/Nook/ereader on your smartphone. You will be doing a lot of reading in the Peace Corps. All of these devices are easily charged via solar chargers, so you’ll be using them regardless of how far en brousse you are.
  • 1 or even 2 external hard drives. You do almost as many movies and games as you do books.
  • A good travel converter/surge protector. I bought mine from Brookstone for $25 in JFK on the way out. Yeah, it’s bulky, but it has a replaceable fuse, so when the highly variable current here fries it (everyone has something fried here), I can replace the fuse and not the whole unit. I suggest a set type and not one of the convertible ones, just because fewer moving parts = less shit to break.
  • The best camera you can afford and are comfortable bringing. If I had had an extra $900, I would have brought a much better camera than I did. Africa is the land of amazing photos. Even if it dies or gets stolen after 6 months – which probably won’t happen, because let’s be honest: you’re going to baby that thing like nothing else – you still will be glad you brought it. Don’t think twice: bring it.




  • A Bug Hut Pro II. Accept no imitations or lesser compromises. If you do, prepare to regret it when you’re being eaten alive during the hot season because you have to sleep in your courtyard and you cheaped out on yourself.
  • A good Thermarest mattress. You’ll use this in stage. You’ll sleep on it when you visit friends. When you travel in country. And when you have to sleep in your yard during hot season. This is your friend. Buy a good one.
  • A good hiking backpack. Mine is a Kelty. Go to REI and get sized properly. This will be the best luggage decision you’ll ever make. DO NOT BRING SUITCASES – AFRICA IS TERRIBLE FOR THEM.
  • A good day pack. Mine is the REI Traverse. I literally use it every day. A good day pack is also essential.
  • At least one Nalgene bottle. At least one Camelbak (mine is sized for my day pack, which is setup for one). Both are invaluable.
  • Binoculars. The stars here are amazing. You’ll want to look at them closer. Bring the means to do so.
  • A travel pillow. Pillows here are terrible chunks of foam rubber.
  • A bike helmet. Yes, PC will tell you 37,000,000 times DON’T FORGET YOUR BIKE HELMET. They mean it. Don’t forget it. The ones here are crap, and you’ll be wearing it a LOT. Multiple hours per day.
  • A Leatherman. Mine is a Wave. I love it. DO NOT GET ONE OF THOSE PATHETIC MINI LEATHERMEN. They’re great for the States, but they just don’t hold up here.
  • A good pocketknife (yes, the Leatherman has a knife, but I don’t think it’s very good for some tasks).
  • A towel. There aren’t any nice fluffy terrycloth towels here. I brought one, and I loooooove it. I also brought a swimmer’s towel, for when I travel. Somewhat optional, as everyone else seems to get by fine using pagnés
  • Some good pens. Optional. All you can get here are cheap-ass Bics, and I like fine ball-point pens. Also bring Sharpies. They’re highly useful.
  • AAA batteries. At least 20. You may not think you’ll use them (I didn’t), but you will. Trust me.
  • A stopwatch. Optional. But useful for timing workouts, cooking boiled eggs, etc. Sometimes, you just want a stopwatch instead of a cellphone.
  • A deck of cards. Maybe more than 1. Also, a travel chess board/Monopoly Deal, any other compact games that you enjoy. If nothing else, they’ll get you through the flight.
  • A good kitchen knife. Optional. But you won’t regret it.
  • A good knife sharpener, of the pull-the-blade-through-the-notch variety.
  • A frying pan. Also optional. Personally, I bought here.


Things others brought that I bought here


  • Everything kitchen oriented. I bought knives & pans here (Target quality, slightly higher prices), and had spices mailed. Some people really wanted them though.
  • Cleaning supplies. Although I do recommend bringing a couple Magic Erasers.


Things I brought that others bought here


  • Flip-flops. But I’m picky.
  • Cellphones. If you don’t bring a phone, you’ll buy a Nokia stick phone on your first or second day in country.
  • Pens.


One last thing


Before you leave, put together a care package. Then mail it to yourself. Load it with drinks mixes (Kool-Aid, Gatorade, lemonade, etc), candy (m&m’s don’t melt), and your preferred source of protein (beef jerky, protein bars, protein powder, NO PEANUTS). Also put in lots of spices and hard-to-pack odds and ends like kitchen knives or mouthwash or extra toothpaste. Drop it in the mail on the day you leave for staging. It will arrive in Burkina somewhere around your second week of stage. It will be the best present you ever sent yourself.


I promise.

Giardia (?) and Mooré lessons


21 Février 2012
FN: 6
Giardia (?) & Mooré lessons
There haven’t been any posts up for the past few days for the excellent reasons that:

21 Février 2012

FN: 6

Giardia (?) & Mooré lessons

There haven’t been any posts up for the past few days for the excellent reasons that:

  1. I was sick, and nothing takes your mind away from writing like severe nausea and stomach cramps.
  2. I was sick while away from home – I’m in Ouahigouya to study Mooré for my language IST – and being sick in a hotel especially sucks.

I’m not sure exactly what it was that I had. My symptoms were horrible gas, stomach cramping, and a constant feeling of being 5 seconds away from shitting myself, but I never actually had diarrhea or a bowel movement. The PCMO thinks it might have been giardia, but so far as I know that almost always involves both diarrhea and a fever so I’m skeptical. My best guess is it was a bad egg: I ate hard-boiled eggs for the first time a day before my symptoms fired up, and some of the volunteers here had bad reactions as well after eating hard-boiled eggs on a salad.

But who cares, as long as it’s gone, right?

For the record, language IST is pretty much useless. The LCFs (language trainers) are amazing as usual, but since I barely use Mooré at site (everyone speaks French, even to each other), this has basically been yet another week away from site[1], studying all the time to duplicate poorly what I can already do easily in French. At the end of this week, I’ll be able to greet people a little better, make purchases, and maybe place an order in a restaurant. Yes, I know a working knowledge of the local language is important, but I just don’t think the cost – being away from site – outweighs the benefits. I could do everything I’m doing now with a local tutor at 1/10 of the cost and twice the effectiveness. Plus, I could have been sick in the comfort of my own home instead of on the road in a hotel.

This is a more serious complaint than it sounds like. Language is a huge deal here. If I lived en brousse, the Mooré lessons would be badly needed, and it’s true that this fits the bill for the majority of our stage. However, shoving the exceptions[2] in with the rest for no other apparent reason that because seems silly to me. I genuinely need help with my French, especially with regards to business terminology. I also need help sorting out formal grammar from local usage. I need this to do my job, because how do I explain “you’ve got too much capital tied up in inventory, and it’s hurting your ability to adapt to customer needs while staying liquid” in French that my promoteurs can understand? I can guess, but I’d rather know. And since I don’t especially need to be able to say “y gaafara, mam rata yoobe gεba” instead of “je veux six tomates, s’il vous plait” (in some villages, you’ll go hungry if you don’t know Mooré), I’m a little miffed right now.

Oh well…c’est la vie, et certainement c’est la vie dans la corps de la paix.

Regular posts will probably begin tomorrow or the day after. Thanks for your patience.

[1] The volunteers who live en brousse will think I’m crazy for complaining about this, but at the close of IST I will have been away from site for 5 out of the 12 weeks of my etude – a period in which I am theoretically supposed to stay put as much as possible in order to get to know/blend in to the community. So much for that theory…

[2] Another volunteer lives in a Gourounsi-speaking area. She uses Mooré so little she turned in her manual, and she’s desperately trying to learn Gourounsi ASAP. But what does PC give her more training in? Mooré. Yeesh.

Rock N Roll in the Peace Corps, or How I Learned to Stop Worry and Love Downloading

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16 Fevrier 2012

FN: 8

Rock N Roll in the Peace Corps, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Downloading

Note: Piracy is illegal. The RIAA is an agglomeration of technophobic assholes who are addicted to an outdated business model and idiotic lobbying campaigns. It would cost $10,000+ to legally fill an average iPod’s storage. Intellectual theft does real harm to creative industries. iTunes is an overpriced, bloated, resource-hogging piece of crap. PCVs aren’t paid, but they all seem to have large music libraries. Every time you illegally download a Metallica song, Lars Ulrich loses $0.15 from his next airplane payment. Lars Ulrich is a self-centered douchebag who probably deserves a little comeuppance[1]. SOPA and like-minded legislation are non-starters, designed by the most incompetent Congress in American history.
Nothing gives you escape and calms your shattered nerves like some familiar music, played in the sanctity of your own house. Right and wrong depend on where you’re standing.  I leave it to you tomake your own decisions as to the morals of the issue. I advocate neither one position nor the other. But I do enjoy calling some of them extravagant names.

If I had to pick the biggest difference between Peace Corps service today and Peace Corps service for the first 40 years of its existence, it would be the iPod/iPhone/Zune/Android/etc. Since the proliferation of portable rechargeable high volume data storage in the early 2000’s, it has become commonplace for people to take a vast library of music, films, and ebooks with them wherever they go. Furthermore, since the advent of the smartphone, people have begun to have all of those things with them all the time, on a device that also allows them to talk to whomever they want, whenever they want.

I know this sounds to a reader in the US like “NEWSFLASH: Water wet, sun hot, 13 year old girls addicted to Justin Bieber”, but stop and think about it for a second. Even as late as the 1990’s, service in the Peace Corps meant a truly remote lifestyle that was entirely devoid of all modern trappings: there were no cellphones, there was no internet, and calls home were insanely expensive and only possible in national capitols. Sure, volunteers may have had a Walkman and a few mix tapes, but even those who invested very heavily in AA batteries didn’t have anything approaching the kind of comfort that we do today. I mean, for God’s sake – I’m listening to a nice mix of Vivaldi, Handel, and Telemann as I type this on my iPhone. When I’m done, I’ll use the internet connection on said phone to post it on the internet, and you will read it in the US, all in the same day. Heck, some of you might even comment, and then I’ll comment back, and we’ll have had a discussion to boot. That’s so far beyond the imagining of a volunteer from the 60’s or 70’s as to be inconceivable, and even in 98 or 99 that would have been science fiction.

Now it’s nothing remarkable. The world has changed, and in my opinion[2] for the better.

At any rate, the wonders of modern communication aside, one of the biggest comforts that volunteers can have is access to the entirety of their personal (crappy) music collection. Do you have a deep and abiding love for Wisconsin polka? You can have it. All of it. Can you just not go more than 10 minutes without firing up some 2 Live Crew? Rest easy, my friend. The early 90’s are right there in your pocket. Do you start to go through withdrawal if your ears aren’t continually kissed by the atonal screeching of Yoko Ono? Seek hel—I mean, you can have that too.

Thanks to the iPod, PCVs today are bathed in their own music. They listen to it at home, on the bus, in the transit house – hell, when they’re in restaurants and clubs with crappy mixes, they find the DJ, hook up an iPod, and viola! better music on demand! Where the PCV of the 60’s was just happy to hear any music of any sort, then PCV today is a critic: I’m so sick of this Akon song. Don’t they have the new Nikki Minaj single yet? I mean, hello…it came out last Tuesday. It’s already been 4 days, how can they not have it[3]??

But seriously. Bad musical jokes aside, the ability to play music on demand that is exactly tailored to both your taste and mood is a HUGE comfort. If I’m having a bad day, I don’t want to listen to your Ke$ha, and I damn sure don’t want to listen to whatever Malian rap the neighbor has blaring – I want to listen to something quiet and depressing, like Radiohead. And I do. And the result is that, instead of my bad day being ratcheted up another notch by noise pollution, it’s instead soothed away. Yes, it’s a form of escape – who doesn’t go to another time and place when they listen to a particular song – but it’s a constructive one. My sorrows have to be drowned, dammit, and if I can do it in music instead of alcohol, peyote, or the village chief’s oldest daughter, then that’s a good thing, right?





[1] I. Love. This. Word. New challenge: to use it in every blog post for the remainder of my service…

[2] There are definitely those former volunteers who think we today don’t even really qualify as PCVs, since we don’t live in a one-room closet 600 miles from the next volunteer, eat raw sheep’s eye and salmonella-infested dirt for dinner every night, speak a tribal language consisting only of consonants and irregular cases, sleep indoors on bare concrete in 130 degree temperatures, have malaria and guinea worm 24/7/365, and not see another white person for 2 years. According to these folks, if you COS with your health, sanity, or even a dim memory of what English sounds like, you weren’t really a PCV. They can all cordially bite my ass.

[3] Sadly, that’s an almost verbatim quote, from a speaker who wasn’t being ironic or humorous in the slightest. Point in fact, it wasn’t a PCV, but it could have been. We’re that current anymore.

Drugs in the Peace Corps

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15 Février 2012

FN: 9

Drugs in the Peace Corps

Note: Drug use is both illegal and against Peace Corps policy. I am in no way advocating or supporting it, and I want to make it very clear that if you are caught using drugs while in service, you will face both immediate administrative separation and criminal charges upon your return to the US. Peace Corps takes all drug violations extremely seriously, and if you intend to use drugs while in service you are, frankly, an idiot. Here endeth the disclaimer.

Drugs, youth, and overseas adventures: regardless of what the law may or may not say, in today’s culture the three go together hand in hand. Given this, it’s only reasonable to wonder what, if any, drug culture exists in the Peace Corps today. I’ve received a number of queries on the topic, and while I have not responded to any of them to date, now seems as suitable a time as any.

Before I begin though, I feel I should note: I have never been a drug user. I generally think they’re a selfish waste of money, and I don’t have much patience with people who consistently use them. High people are even more annoying than drunk people, with the one redeeming virtue that they tend to puke less often. If you want to light up every now and then, fine; I’m not going to judge. That’s your prerogative. But I don’t want to hear about it, I don’t want to talk about it, and if you try to do it around me, one of us is going to be leaving very shortly[1].

That being said, on to the discussion at hand.

Although both I and Peace Corps would like to pretend otherwise, there’s definitely some in-service drug use by volunteers. I would call this a problem, but given the sheer size and geographic scope of the Peace Corps (~8,000 current PCVs, 60-some countries) it’s probably more accurate to call it a demographic inevitability. If you take 8,000 people from all walks of life and send them to some of the most remote spots on Earth and leave them there for two years, some of them are going to at least try to use drugs. How successful they are varies from country to country – for example, I imagine that it’s probably cheaper and easier to find certain *ahem* pharmaceuticals in places of origin like Thailand or Peru than it is in remote areas like Tonga or Mauretania – but there’s inevitably some everywhere.

As for the drugs being used…well, I haven’t exactly had the opportunity to do extensive field research on the matter, but what little rumor and comments I’ve heard reflect what I would have thought: marijuana is far and away the most common drug used, with various party drugs and pills coming right after. Hard drugs like cocaine, heroin, etc are all but unknown (at least here in Burkina). There’s probably some prescription drug abuse as well, but since all of our drugs come through the PCMO our opportunities are limited.

Happily, I can definitely report that Burkina is not one of the Peace Corps countries with a major drug problem. When it comes to volunteer[2] drug use, I’ve heard rumors and comments, but I’ve never seen it, heard it, or even been in a situation where I suspected it[3]. Given the demographic realities mentioned above, I’m sure it has happened from time to time, but I would not be at all surprised to learn that it happens a lot less than you might think. It’s not so much a matter of virtue as of economics: PCVs aren’t paid much to begin with, and Burkina is one of the poorest countries in the world. The locals are too poor to have a habit, and we’re not much better off. We just can’t afford it[4].

And that’s to say nothing of the problem of logistics. I have no way of knowing for sure, but if the drug supply here is like everything else, you can only buy them in Ouaga or Bobo. So you won’t be doing much in village. Besides…if you’re using drugs at home alone, well…that’s just sad. No, people tend to use drugs in company. That’s not going to happen in village, on account of there being no money, availability, or secrets. And when you’re in Ouaga or Bobo, there’s not really any place to go. You’re either at the transit house, which has a guard, or at a hotel, which has your passport. In short, they’re hard to get hold of, and there’s no safe place to use them.

Which is just as well. After all, drugs aren’t just illegal in the US, they’re also illegal here. Massively. As in go-directly-to-a-jail-you-do-NOT-want-to-go-to-and-there’s-nothing-the-Embassy-can-do-to-help illegal. Think “Locked Up Abroad: The Really Crappy Edition”.

Consider: Burkina can barely afford to pay its bills. Food security is an issue here even for the free and extremely hard working. Life is hard even for us relatively coddled and cosseted PCVs. Knowing that, how well and frequently do you think you’ll eat in prison here? How hot and dirty do you think you’ll be? You think figuring out Mooré is tough in your village? Try learning the prison slang. You think your latrine sucks at home? I bet the ones in prison make it look nice enough to eat off of.

I’m not a drug user, but even if I were, just the thought of possibly maybe going to prison here would be more than enough to put me off of my habit. No amount of “stress relief” is worth that. And I’ve seen Locked Up Abroad; almost every one of those “misunderstandings” starts off with some American who is used to a life of privilege finding out that nope, they mean what they say there. And then the Bad starts. Nor is it just here in Burkina; I wouldn’t want to go to jail in Panama, Peru, Jamaica, Morocco, Jordan, Thailand, China, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Albania, Madagascar, etc. either. Peace Corps goes to a vast array of countries, but one thing they definitely have in common are grim prison systems.

I don’t know. I’m sure right now there’s someone reading this who thinks I’m being a whiny conformist, someone who thinks I don’t know how to relax and hey man, it’s no big deal, I know what I’m doing. And maybe you’re right; maybe I’m just old and boring, and you know exactly what you’re doing. But I’ll be honest: given how poor the people are here,  I can’t help but see any and all drug use as a beyond criminal extravagance. If you want to blow your money on pot in the US, fine. Go ahead. I could give a damn. But here…to take what amounts to a child’s food money for a month and literally set it on fire because “you had a stressful week”…that’s just beneath contempt.

And that’s all I have to say about that.


[1] It’s not the drug use, per se. It’s the obsession. I feel the same way about chain smokers, heavy drinkers, compulsive eaters, obsessive gamblers, etc. All things in moderation

[2] I’ve been offered party drugs on the street, and been propositioned by prostitutes who offered to get high with me. Both happened in Ouaga. I imagine that even hardened users can’t get anything outside of Ouaga or Bobo. That’s just how supply works here in Burkina.

[3] Although admittedly, given my outspoken and unpopular stances on the matter, it’s possible that I’m just…in invited…to the sorts of parties that might end in drug use.

[4] Besides, alcohol is cheap, socially accepted, and legal, so why bother?

Sex in the Peace Corps


14 Février 2012

FN: 9

Sex in the Peace Corps


We all know it, we all love it, we all like to talk about it, and we especially like to read about famous people having it[1]. If my information is correct, the most current studies indicate that every American thinks about sex at least once every 0.016 microseconds, and they attempt to engage in it at least 37 times per day[2]. And that’s on a bad day.

Here in the Peace Corps, we have lots and lots and lots of sex. We do it in the fields, we do it in the trees, we do it standing up, riding bikes, hoeing fields, and cooking dinner.  We do it covered in mud, drenched in sweat, fully clothed in traditional local garments, and wearing nothing at all. We do it in pouring tropical rainstorms, beneath thundering tropical waterfalls, and in front of vast desert panoramas. It’s lusty, busty, fun, sweet, charming, romantic, and beautiful. That’s right: we are some tropical-living, sex-loving fiends, and you should be immensely jealous. No one has ever had more or better sex than we here in the Peace Corps are always having. That’s why the locals love us so much. In fact, I’m having sex right now. And let’s be honest – you’re immensely jealous. And probably more than a little aroused, you dirty little monkey you.

Oh wait.

That’s right.

Most statistics and claims about sex are absolute bullshit. Including those about sex in the Peace Corps. Sorry ladies, he’s not 11 inches long and able to go for hours. Sorry guys, she’s not a lady in public, an absolute whore in the bedroom, and yet somehow still STD free and a virgin. Sorry everyone, but while sex certainly happens during most volunteers’ service, it just isn’t as interesting or romantic[3] as people seem to think.

I’m not going to name names, but I have gotten more patently absurd questions about sex in the Peace Corps than I’m entirely comfortable admitting. From what I can tell, when people think “sex in the Peace Corps”, they think “two impossibly beautiful young people making sweet passionate love that is a perfect and romantic expression of the ardor that they share, set against some incandescently breathtaking tropical backdrop (and there’s probably some orchestra playing music that swells to a mighty crescendo just as they kiss as well)”. What they don’t think (but should) is “two sexually active former band geeks with ragged hair and bad skin who haven’t had a real shower in 2 months rutting vigorously in 100 degree temperatures with no shower or air freshener to use afterwards”. There’s sex here alright, but it tends to be more…visceral…than your average bored housewife’s fantasies.

Let’s look at the logistics of it[4].

To begin with, most volunteers are willing and able to have sex. Only about 10% are married and therefore dead below the waist[5], and only about another 10% are over 50 and therefore permanently banned from –EWEWEWEWEWEWEWEWEWEWEW!!![6]

This means that about 80% of volunteers are willing and able to have sex. Some are more willing, some are less able, but hey, viva la difference, non?

The problem is, where and how?

When you first get in country, you spend 3 months in training. You also don’t really know anyone. So if you want to have sex then, you’re probably just looking for a quick hookup since you are surrounded by people you only met a few weeks ago. Go you[7].

But where to do it? Where can two aspiring lovers make sexy time whilst serving as lowly trainees? In your volcanically hot one-room oven hut that’s the size of a closet and zealously watched 24/7 by your host family? In the open-air classroom at the training center that’s almost always populated by at least one volunteer? Perhaps in some field or hidey-hole, in the .073 seconds when you aren’t being eaten alive my mosquitoes or chased by local children demanding money, candy, and your shirt? Maybe in the latrine?

You can see the problem here. Sure, sex happens in training, but it ain’t easy. In fact, I suspect that PC takes especial delight in making it extra tough. I don’t know how many people in our stage had sex – nor do I want to know – but let’s just say I strongly suspect that it was not the 1/3 – 1/2 of all volunteers that PC implies has sex during training. Or if my stage did pull it off, props to them for 1) not letting on at all, and 2) definitely being more determined about it than me.

But then you go to site. Surely at site you can have all the sex you want without any problems? I mean, you have your own house and your own bed and everything. Heck, they even give you unlimited free condoms!

Mmmm…sort of.

It’s true that once you get to site, your sexual opportunities broaden somewhat. If nothing else, you do in fact finally have a house, with a door that you can close, and even a bed of sorts. But that isn’t as liberating as you might think. Most volunteers still live in a courtyard with a host family, and their comings and goings are still sharply watched. Also, it’s still mind-numbingly hot, your bed is a crappy cot that tends to break, there’s still no shower to freshen up with afterwards, and local children have a depressingly consistent habit of going through your garbage, finding your used condoms, and using them as balloons[8].

And then there’s the singles scene, or relative lack thereof. In the US, it’s common to casually date and casually have sex. Here, that just doesn’t happen that much – or if it does, I’m entirely unaware of it. From what I can tell, by and large most PC sex happens within the context of at least a temporary dating relationship, and those relationships involve one of 2 options: dating another volunteer (with whom you have a lot in common, but whom you rarely see), or dating a local (whom you see all the time, but may not have much in common with). It’s a real toss-up. I would say more volunteers date other volunteers or people from the States, but not by an overwhelming margin. Sure, some play the field or just go for random hookups, and those that do tend to stick to volunteers or NGO workers[9]. Some seek prostitutes, but not many[10]. There are gay and lesbian volunteers here as well, but I’m neither, so I can’t really comment on their subjective sexual experiences. I bet they’re challenging though.

Happily for the voyeuristic tone of this post, the human need to breed is strong, and all sorts of people do in fact make the beast with two backs once they’re at site. Sometimes, they even manage to do it several nights a week, with several different partners. Go them. But they overwhelmingly tend to do so within the context of an established relationship, and that’s just not very interesting, is it. Either they’re dating someone from back in the States, they’re dating another volunteer, or they’re dating someone they met at site. In all three cases, they’re dating, and their sex lives tend to be about what you would expect from dating couples. Sorry, but there’s just nothing especially exotic or romantic about “girl has sex with long-term boyfriend in monogamous relationship”, even when that boyfriend is African[11][12][13].

So there you have it: yes, we have sex in the Peace Corps. No, it’s not really all that different from sex in the US. Yes, we probably have more of it on average, but that’s more a function of the relative youth of the organization and the copious amounts of free time that we have. I would say your average volunteer has slightly less sex than they had in college. But I’m old, so what do I know?

PS: Happy Valentine’s Day!

[1] At least the pretty ones. “BRAD PITT CHEATS ON ANGELINA WITH ANNE HATHAWAY” = immediate magazine sales. “ROSIE O’DONNELL SEEN RAVISHING GARY BUSEY” = immediate vomiting and a screaming need for therapy.

[2] And that doesn’t include teenage males masturbating at relativistic speeds. They skew the numbers so badly that they’ve been put in their own category.

[3] Big R. As in “beach scene in From Here to Eternity”, not as in “beach scene from anyone else who has ever attempted to make out with sand up their shorts”. I’m sure there’s lots of love and romance, but not much Romance. Or at least, not as much as people’s imaginations seem to think it involves.

[4] All of the following commentary concerns PC in Burkina Faso, which admittedly has a fairly unique set of cultural and physical conditions. Maybe sex is really easy in Bulgaria or Mexico or Jamaica or China. I can’t say. All I can comment on are the conditions here.

[5] What? Everyone knows people only get married once their libidos have withered and died within their breasts, and they have given up the will to go on having happy exciting single lives.


[7] Yes, I’m sure it was love at first sight for some of them, blah blah blah. I’m speaking broad trends, not specifics.

[8] Seriously. It’s a major issue here. You have to remember to save and burn those things, or this will happen. They’ve even been known to dig them up.

[9] It happens, but more rarely than you might think. I can’t say why, but I think the perceived fear of AIDS probably has something to do with it, even though the rate is extremely low here.

[10] This is a post on sex, not dating. I’m just covering all the options.

[11] Interesting side note: the overwhelming preponderance of volunteers dating locals are female. I have no idea why this is, but it’s an observable phenomenon. Actually, that’s not entirely true – I strongly suspect the fact that 17 is the traditional age of marriage for females here has a lot to do with there being no single women for guys to date. By 22 – the minimum age for most volunteers – they usually have 2 – 4 kids. Not much dating can go on then, hmm?

[12] Another interesting side note: I’m told that because excision (female circumcision) is so widely practiced here, local men frequently have literally no idea what to do with certain lady parts. As in, none. To quote one volunteer “he kept touching random things…I went along with it until he stuck his finger in my ear, and then I was like…um…no, that’s not it”. Also, apparently local men are accustomed to just lying there, with no visible expressions of interest or enjoyment, and it takes training to make them get into it. Putting those two anecdotes together makes for an eye-crossing mental image.

[13] Also, I didn’t know you can put footnotes together like this. Fun!

Encyclopedia Abe and the Mystery of the Perpetually Flat Tire


13 Février 2012

FN: 6

Encyclopedia Abe and the Mystery of the Perpetually Flat Tire

I love my bike. It’s amazing. It’s a Trek 3300 with Shimano components, Boutanger tires and rims, and a front fork by Rock Shox. No, it’s not the finest thing money will buy, but it’s damn good[1]. And here in Africa – the land of the crappy Chinese one speed – it’s definitely the Maserati of bicycles. It gets me where I want to go, and it does so with speed, efficiency, verve, and damn good looks.

But even the best bike still needs air in the tires to work properly. And that’s a condition that’s harder to maintain here than you might think.

It’s a three-part problem. First, almost none of the roads are paved. Second, there’s no trash collection. Third, it never rains except during the monsoon, when it REALLY rains, so instead of getting a nice soaking there’s a lot of runoff – that naturally flows down the roads and leaves them heavily rutted. Consequently, every road has a kind of open gutter running down the middle of it, wherein all the loose trash tends to accumulate. Of course, metal is heavy so it doesn’t always make it into the rut. As a result, the roads are something of an obstacle course of old razor blades, used sardine cans, nails, rusted wire, and ten thousand other tire-hating sharp things that you can never see but can always be depended to run over.

Maybe that’s harsh. Maybe I’m being too critical. But let’s just say that, based on the performance of my sturdy rubber tires, there’s not enough money in the world to pay me to go barefoot in this town.

Since I’ve moved to site, I’ve had no less than 15 flats. I’ve patched tubes, patched tires, replaced tubes, replaced tires, and even broken a pump. I’ve run out of patches twice, used up all my rubber cement once, and tried experimenting with using motorcycle tubes – they’re heavier and they slightly throw off the wheel balance, but they’re much more durable – just to try to be able to go a few more days in between patching and pumping. Hell, if there were a god of flat tires, I would consider sending a goat his way, just to have some rest.

Seriously: hardly a day goes by where I don’t have tire issues of some sort. Usually it’s the back tire, but right now it’s the front – and I’m sure that some day soon it will be both, just for variety. Try though I may, I just cannot seem to keep air in my damn tires. Most days, this is just an annoyance, but when it’s über-hot or I have to go meet with a promoter on the faaaaar (read: 12k away) side of town, it’s more than just an irritation. Then, it seriously compromises my ability to do my job.

So…how can I keep my tires from going flat so often? It’s a mystery that I’m dying to solve. If anyone has any clever tips for how to keep my tires alive just a little bit longer, I’m down. I’ve got good tires, and I’ve got tough tubes. I can’t stay off the roads, and I can’t ride less. Any help would be appreciated.


[1] In fact, I wish I could buy it and take it home with me. And if it turns out that I can, I will. I love my bike that much.

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