Distressful Wishing

I’m in the Peace Corps. And without being all that proud of it, being a volunteer is about as youth chic as it gets. Along with working for Google and, if you’ve gone to Georgetown, getting ten grand at signing to whittle your soul away from Deloitte or Credit Suisse. But for all that, there are times when I’d rather be elsewhere. Not out of the Peace Corps (although I got that response from a staff member at a party during what I thought was a nice conversation). Out of Mexico. Not because there’s anything wrong with Mexico. Kind of the opposite.

I was talking to the famous-within-this-blog Alex Guyton the other day.

You remember Alex

You remember Alex

We just had our first in-service training last week, and we were updating ourselves on Ukraine the whole time, the more internet connected filling in the real rural volunteers and everyone getting updates between classes. I mentioned the Crimea or something to Alex and she more or less says ‘Sure that’s crazy but look at this.’ She hauls the laptop around and I’m staring at grainy, artifacted footage of Gezis building barricades and getting firehosed by riot police all in honor of Berkin Elvan. She turned the camera back around. “General Lamarque is dead!” I say. She laughs and says ‘Pretty much spot on.’ ‘That’s what I’m good for,’ I say, ‘Half-witty commentary from the other side of the world.’ It’s about all I’m good for. I want what Alex has.

Righteous social unrest

Righteous social unrest is what Alex has

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The Good Shit’s at the End

So I’m sitting in my house again without any beautiful view to show you folks because I only manage to get down to this on weekdays when I get home from the office after dark. There’s just always stuff to do on the weekends and when there isn’t I tend to take naps and generally fart around or sometimes even get up to Peace Corps work, but in any case I just don’t sit down to write. And that’s a shame, because as Alex Guyton reminds me, the only cure for not writing is to write. That’ll come up again in a second.

I’m generally feeling pretty good nowadays that I’ve met some folks in town but especially because I’ve taken on a project. Everything you do for Peace Corps is a ‘project,’ somewhy, and unlike the Ecochavos, which irrevocably belong to Chava, this one is mine. Trey, the other guy volunteer in my site, and I are putting together an event for World Wetlands Day (it was the 2nd of February). I didn’t know there was one until a month ago, and we’re doing it for the Presa, the dam-created reservoir in town,  which doesn’t fall under what my understanding of what wetlands were, but it’s a Ramsar site, so it counts, and we’re providing the impetus for the event.

Here's a picture of a mural from the event because of course it's already happened

Here’s a picture of a mural from the event because of course it’s already happened

The first meeting we had was with the local juventud guy, the representative for the bit of the municipal government oriented at the youth. What he proposed, and what was the going plan for all of four days, was to have a rap contest. Hear me out. There are, apparently, in this town of ten-to-twelve thousand, four or five high school age rap groups, and we were thinking of inviting them and some others from the surrounding Sierra to come down and write songs about the Presa. For us to judge. As far as the juventud guy was concerned, this plan was not only plausible but easy.

These are the kids. They're who I do it for.

These are the kids. They’re who I do it for.

Chava wasn’t as enthused, and when I walked into the office the day after, the local turismo delegate was there with him coming up with an alternative plan. I was hesitant to bail on what already sounded like the Peace Corps’ most hilarious project, but they both started by yelling about how we’d put some more traditional bands on a floating platform in the lake and that just about sold me right off. I’m typing from the john now because, well, if you’re been following along you already know I spend a lot of time here. I always said that reading through these situations is what helped me kill my history syllabi in college, and I figure there’s no reason that shouldn’t apply to writing too.

So now we’ve got a floating concert, the expected participation of the municipal president, a mural series and a cleanup campaign all going on one day ahead of schedule so we can throw a Superbowl party with my host aunt the Sunday that’s the actual Wetlands Day.

And have this guy throw a traditional tamale party because he ate a bunch of babies on the day of kings but you know priorities

And have this guy throw a traditional tamale party because he ate a bunch of babies on the day of kings but you know priorities

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Salvador “Chava” Ortiz

Working with Chava starts with the drive. When it’s a long road waiting to some far flung secundaria on a mountain crag, we sail out of Jalpan at seven, when the last night’s fog is just surrendering to the sun in the valleys and the passes. Chava doesn’t drive so much as careen, upshifting into and out of turns, our little red Tsuru doing its best to pick two wheels off the centerline and pirouette over a precipice.

He sits like a latter day Hunter S, smoking and speaking with one hand while the other works the wheel and the shift in turns. Every curve in these mountains could be a hairpin and nowhere is there less respect for yellow paint. Freight traffic is constant and slow and each turn is blind. Passing is an engine-roaring test of nerves against the bastard oncoming who’s likely only half in his lane anyway.

The Reserve covers the most varied ground in Mexico and driving the length of it is like slow revelation. On the trip from Jalpan to the falsely-named Agua Fría the car temperature is ever-changing, first fiery and inescapable coming from the valley heat of my home, too much for open windows to spirit off, and on the climb to Pinal it plummets, tendrils of mist licking their way onto the road and into the car while Chava and I huddle in the pool of sunlight coming through the windshield.

When we pick our way through a gap in the hills to Maguey Verde, the Pacific firs give way in an instant to high desert and badlands of scrubby matorral surround us, pygmy agaves and barrel cacti marking the boundary between the Sierra you come to see and the Sierra you cross to see it. Halfway into the desert we leave the pavement and double back onto a dirt track hewn from the cliffside, littered with old rockslides and every bit as precipitous as the tarmac we’ve left. We rumble through pueblo after pueblo named for water they never had, each a better match for Arroyo Seco than the town that bears the name. But even in the remotest collection of tin-roofed shacks, the kids know the little red sedan and they run up to call ¡profe! and shake his hand.

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Where Have all the Good Friends Gone?

Writing from the new house today, on the terrace, in the dark, wearing hobo finger gloves because Jalpan’s rustled up a bit of a winter. Low forties isn’t that cold in the States, but here it means that my office is low forties, my shower’s low forties, there’s not much relief all around. Trey and I actually first cut these gloves up so we could work on our computers. In the sun at midday it still feels tropical, but in the permanent shade of our office, the temperature never rises. It’s incredibly weird feeling, and as far as I know it’s only available when you start climbing stuff nearer the belt of the world.

Georgetown doesn't count

Georgetown doesn’t count

Volunteer friends I’ve got in abundance—we’ve been told we were an exceptionally close volunteer group for Mexico and given what I’ve seen, not too much smoke was being blown. I’m in touch with a few volunteers out of site, and there are two up in the hills hereabouts if I ever went absolutely stir-lonely and had to see somebody from the outside.

I’m friendly with everyone from the office, and I’d like to think I fall on them well, as the Mexicans kind-of say, but we’re not having sleepovers or anything. When we go out for an office function, like our corporate-80s-in-the-States-level Christmas party last Thursday, I get on as well as any of my native colleagues, but it’s just not developing into the kind of day to day amistad that you look for as a, you know, human, let alone a Peace Corps Volunteer desperate to integrate into his small town community.

That’s certainly a big part of the worry I’m feeling. Based on what I’m hearing from other volunteers, they’re all killing it on site, meeting tons of people, and I’m personally and professionally jealous, given that the two get kind of mixed when you’re a volunteer. Same deal as when an ex goes off and more or less lives your dream of becoming an internationally acclaimed journalist living in a Mediterranean metropolis. Super proud, happy for them, steamingly envious and angry at yourself. Some of them have an advantage there. Jalpan’s a small town but not quite small enough. For at least the few folks I’m talking to, just walking around and being a gringo is enough to get people to come up to you and start a conversation. Jalpan’s a tourist spot, though, so they’re not quite like that. And cold-calling conversations with folks in the street doesn’t get quite the same reception.

Added is that I spent 9-5 and often more in the office, so I’m not actually out and about meeting the people as much as I’d like to be.

I'm writing radio shows, alright

For example, here’s me typing this post at 7:40pm with the last few hangers-on

Most other volunteers are doing exactly that, just presenting themselves for the odd encounter. And for the first three months or so, that’s more or less our job—just getting to know the community. The idea is that you’ll find the projects the community most needs by becoming somewhat a part of it. Not I. I’m happy to have work to do right off the bat, but I’m looking for a little more,especially since Christmas vacation is just days away.

I want to be clear that I’m not worried about my ability to make friends. I’m confident enough in my Spanish, and I can converse pretty freely about anything as long as hasn’t got too specialized a vocabulary. I was at a Corn Fair the office put on the other weekend, and as I was standing around talking to a co-worker, a guy walks up to me and asks, in English, “So where’re you from?” After I complimented him on the language skills, he let me know that he’d grown up in Lansing and that he’d decided to go to college down here. He and some friends were doing their yearly two weeks of social service in the town down the road and they were looking for something to do.

So I hung out with those folks all afternoon, drove back to town with them, got a beer with them. Seemed like I hit it off pretty well with the first guy and one of the two girls, him because we were both from Michigan and her because she was an International Relations major and I’m one of the Arsenault cabalistas from Georgetown. I mean we sat there for two hours and talked about Morgenthau and structural realism and the virtues of democracy versus benevolent dictatorship and the Roman Republic and the state of philosophical education—I mean I really discoursed with this girl.

I'm waiting


When we got up to go, he got my number and she and I traded Facebook info, all excited to hang out the next day, and the next day came…and I never got the call. I don’t know why. Maybe they were busy or maybe something else. Personally, I think maybe it was that, as far as I could see, none of the five guys were with these two very nice girls and maybe didn’t like it that I got off so well with one of them. I mean we were talking about Kenneth Waltz for heaven’s sake, but maybe I’d feel the same way in the States. Who knows. The point is that it was a little crushing, for two reasons.

First, their social service is only going to last eleven days, so last Sunday was probably the only other chance I was going to have to hang out with them. Second, this is the only group of people my age that I’ve met here. When I say ‘my age,’ I’m speaking literally, but I’m also excluding folks that are either married or have kids, and that’s important. I’ve met a bunch of cool high school kids in my work, folks that I’d like to hang out with four years in the future, once they’ve got some life under their belts. The problem, though, is that this is small town Mexico, and it’s like small towns everywhere—kids turn eighteen and they get married and have kids.  Those of them that go to college, when they go, don’t come back and loiter around the town looking to meet a foreigner.

The other day I was at the birthday party of another volunteer’s host mom, and I met a guy, unmarried, twenty one years old. We had a couple beers, struck up a conversation, all going well and me ecstatic to have found somebody my ageish. Buuut then it came out that he’s engaged with his girlfriend because they’re expecting and it’s his second marriage. I’ve got no beef with folks that want to get married and have kids, it’s just that life, rightly, takes on a different perspective once you’ve procreated, and all these parents aren’t quite as down with friend-making and slumber-partying as they once were, since I’m making that my friendship metric, apparently.

I’m worried about how I’m going to spend the just-over-two-weekds of Christmas break, and I think that’s a legitimate preocupation now that I’m out of my host-mom’s house and living alone. It’s definitely a situation in which a volunteer could enter into the wrong kind of mindset, which is something we’re all watching ourselves for in these first three precarious months. But the whole friend thing is also serious business. Once I’ve got the office stuff nailed down, I’m supposed to be and I want to be getting myself involved with all sorts of secondary endeavors. For my own sanity and because it’s a big part of what I’m doing here.

More than that, personal relationships are a big part of navigating this society. Firstly because the best way to get to know someone is by knowing someone else. If there’s some other polisci nerd or whatever living across town, the only way I’m gonna find that out is to meet somebody who knows about him. No subreddits here (though who’d get into that anyway). Secondly, the luxury that is googling places to go, things to do, where to buy, that does not exist here. Not even in the city, for the most part. Even before the internet in the States, I assume the Yellow Pages were good for something once.



Here, if I want to find a carpenter or who’s got a desk for sale, I’ve just got to ask, and if the people I know don’t know (the ones I know don’t know where to find a good desk), then I’m shit out of luck. Today for example I’m sitting on an upturned PVC bucket because I’ve gone to the three furniture stores that my folks know about and nobody has a simple wooden chair. So here I am.

So I’m worried. I’m worried about not making friends and about not having anything to do over what could be two very lonely holiday weeks, I’m worried about being mortified at early in service training when everyone’s waxing about their wonderful new compadres, I’m worried about never being a journalist, and I’m worried that I’ll be sitting on this bucket forever.

I’m going inside. It’s fucking cold out.



Pack, pack

Porch time. NPR tells me that the heat wave has broken, but I suspect their offices just have better A/C than mine.

It’s going to become obvious, I think, that this is (will be) as much a personal blog as a Peace Corps travelogue. One because no matter what they have me doing, there’s no way it’ll be worth two years of regular updates, and two because I have other stuff to write about that nobody’s going to pay me for, and this is as good a repository as any. Especially since nobody (excepting the faithful-to-a-fault Alex Guyton) will be reading it regularly, and I won’t have to worry much about who sees what, an ixnay from my country director aside. So in the coming forever, be aware that there will be (may be) off-topic posts, although I’ll try to keep the categories straight for the benefit of literally no-one.

Anyway, packing. I am not excellent at it. In Scouts, Dad and I spent the first thirty minutes of every camping trip on the road, figuring out if what we had forgotten was nonessential or if I’d be spending my week giving new life to a pair of increasingly fungal socks. I don’t know if I’ve packed sober for anything in recent memory—the stakes have never been high, and I usually haven’t started before the night-before sendoff. This time around, I’m looking to put my life into one large hiking pack, one medium rolling duffel, and one typewriter case that weighs more than my mom.

It's more fun than it looks

It’s more fun than it looks

I managed it for Spain for five months, but I can’t say I did much planning or paid heed to the ‘you won’t be able to get this or that abroad’ advisories. Whether or not I could get this or that over there, I lucked out and forgot only what was readily available. This time, I’ll be packing glasses and backups, ten pounds of flouridated teeth products that my dentist assures me I’ll need to keep the meth mouth away, one suit and more businesswear than I’ve ever packed before, a space-taking camera, a bunch of electrical converters, every English-language books I want to be sure I can access for the next year, and a fucking typewriter.

I'm a smart one

I’m a smart one

I figure that I’ll be able to take about half my clothes and virtually none of my shit. As far as the peripherals I am bringing alone, it’s typewriter, laptop, camera, and fly rod. My dad’s big on it, I might be able to show some folks the benefits of clean rivers or supplement my diet or whatever (not likely). By and large, I’m pumped. To divest, to reduce my life to irreducibles. I don’t imagine the initial purge catharsis will get my through my term, but right now I’d lose the laptop too if I wasn’t packing a digital camera and a worthless blog. If I end up with a computer or at least periodic access through work, I might try to ditch even that, since with the fans shot and a keyboard shorted into uselessness by a Georgetown slumlord’s faulty A/C waterfall, the setup’s a bit of a goddamned mess.

Wave of the future, right here

Wave of the future, right here

Plus since I’m a video game nerd, it weighs what the British call a stone, and if I can avoid throwing my downtime into Total War, I’ll be one step ahead of where I was in Spain. By the by, I just slapped what I though was a mosquito but was apparently a tiny wasp. Puta fucking madre, man.

My preoccupation with English language books might seem misplaced since I’m not moving to Uganda or the southern United States, but if Mexico is anything like Spain, I can forget about finding the King’s in a bookstore. And while after a semester at University got me ready for straight history texts, Spanish literature is as hard as it ever was, and I can’t imagine that as good as my speaking and technical grasp gets that work will put me any closer to Marques or Borges. Double that if I cant call up SpanishDict at a moment’s notice. Although if anyone’s got a handy dictionary of idioms and aphorisms that spans a middle, Caribbean, and South America’s worth of Spanish, let me know. Anyway, I think I’ll cut it short for today. I’m not working off stored material anymore, so my posts might find themselves looking like they actually belong on a blog from now on. Saludos, friends.


I broke down, largely thanks to the personal writing of our friend Gebeily, and reactivated my WordPress account. Now I really am a Peace Corps Volunteer. My paperwork was in, my vaccinations done, all that was left was to start typing into the ether. Not exactly yet, though. My process, longhand to digital, has always been a little absurd, and it has recently gotten more(or less?) so. The first draft of this post was put together on a typewriter; there is no good reason for me to own one, but I do, and it looks like I’ll be trying to cart it down to Querétaro and beyond. If I really do end up in the sticks, there’s a chance it might come in handy, but I’d probably be fine with pen and paper. Either way, I’m trying to acclimate. I’m typing this shirtless on my porch in DC, letting July in the city sink all the way in. There’s at least one advantage of the Olympia  no glare on your screen. That and the machine is way over 100 degrees, and there’s no worry about overheats.

I'm an asshole

I’m an asshole

At this point, the blog is writing for the sake of writing. There were a few moments in June when I thought I had become unspeakably behind on my medical paperwork (and I had), but those are over now, and all that’s left is to buy my plane tickets, condense my life into a packpack, and wait for staging in DC on the 26th. Which at time of writing is 41 days away. Lent plus one.

I’m getting to be more excited about the trip. Those of you who know me, which is ostensibly all of you, know that my PC app happened on a bit of a whim, and that it was initially a match of convenience more than anything. But being placed in Latin America was a plus, especially since Mexican is an accent I’m familiar with. And the Mexico program has the option to stay with a host family for the whole term of service. Without exaggeration, my second host family was probably the best part of my stay in Spain, and I hope I’m lucky enough to get a group of people as loving on site.

For all that, it is weird to think that after next month, it will be more than 810 days before I can expect the convenience of a ready drink, and easy pack, or an available English voice. The first two will hit first, but I know that the last will be the hardest. I never quite got homesick in Spain, because I haven’t quite got a home, but the nearest I ever came was during a showing of The Artist (which is ridiculous, because nobody was speaking), when all that I wanted in the world was to heard somebody talking the mother tongue. Even the mild relief of my fellow students won’t be around in Mexico, although I imagine my colleagues on site will be industrious enough to pick up a little English, unlike my monolingual Spanish friends (Raúl Almendroval excepted).

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