A Day in the Life of a Peace Corps Volunteer

17 Mar

Peace Corps Uruguay Juan-Carlos

Yasimara and her Dad and sister. Conchillas Uruguay, 1997 - Photo KV

Since National Peace Corps Day was recently upon us I thought I would write a little about my experience in Uruguay, although one small post won’t and can’t come close to capturing even a snippet of the adventure.  I was a Natural Resources Volunteer sent to a small town in Uruguay (Tarariras) to help with a recycling program and education (instilling the three R’s – Recycle, Reduce, Reuse).  It was kind of comical, considering the amount of trash a family generated there was a tiny fraction of what one generates here and the three R’s were the least of their problems, they reused everything and packaging was practically nonexistent.  Although plastic was becoming an issue (not as easily or safely reused as glass) and trash was scattered around the community.  But the kids were diligent, had fun with it and it led to education on more prescient issues.  Like baseball, a group of kids often pounded on my door with a baseball bat a local carpenter had fashioned for them and wanted to learn how to use it and learn this strange game we play in the United States, which is a story in itself.  And then there were the local dairy factories that were dumping organic waste into the streams which washed into the Rio de la Plata causing toxic blue green algae blooms that were making people sick. But these stories are for another time.

The most profound part of my experience had on me was the change it had on the way I think, and the way people in this small town thought of me and the United States.  Yes, there were a few individuals I was never able to convince I wasn’t a CIA spy sent to keep an eye on them, and if I wasn’t that what was I doing in this small out of the way place in South America.  All issues in this world are about people and people generally want the same basic things that I do not need to list.  The way to solve them is to listen and understand each others point of views and work together to find common ground, whether it’s the economy, healthcare or the environment. It is so complexly simple and I could write for days about it… next time.  In honor of the people of the world and the Peace Corps and its success… here is an entry from my journal while living in the southern hemisphere:

Saturday in Tarariras, by Kevin Varner

Tarariras is a factory town. But you wouldn’t realize it by looking. There is ample work and the people are not in abject poverty, far from it.  Graciana, our Volunteer Supervisor, told me she thought it was a beautiful town while asking me where we could get a “cortado“. There are no real restaurants or cafe’s in Tarariras. We settled for two day old microwaved coffee at the local “Club”.

This morning I’m riding my bicycle to school number 38 to give a “charla” (a talk). The sun is warm but there is a breeze that must have begun in Antarctica. Leaves are burning in the street. I’m tired, but other than that I feel good. The coffee I just had is still warming my belly. The sky is blue, a deep blue with a few white puffy clouds. A little neighborhood kid shouts “Kabeen, que hora es?”. He asks me the same question every time I see him. One time he asked 5 times in the span of three and a half minutes.

I arrive at the school and the fifth and sixth grade classes are waiting for me. They’re crammed into one classroom, which reminded me of lunchtime homeroom sessions during our training. The kids are good, and they’re knowledgeable. They get comfortable with me quickly and they want me to pronounce their names. They like to here my accent and are disappointed when I happen to pronunciate one correctly, without much accent. Luckily, two teachers are there to help with crowd control.  I try to keep the students active and engaging them by asking and taking questions. A little girl in the back keeps raising her hand but each time I call on her she points to herself and shyly says “yo, no” (me… no!)  After I’m finished a group of kids approach me and ask if I can help them with a project they’re working on. They shuffle me into another room where there is a diagram on the board describing a compost project. I notice right away that it’s lacking an objective. We spend the next half hour working on finding one.

Afterwards I walk to the plaza. There’s a group of thirty or forty people gathered around in a circle, most are seated on the grass, others are standing. They are listening to Juan Carlos speak about what it is to be a naturalist and why he doesn’t believe in vaccinations. After being a pin cushion for most of our first few months here I’ve come to have an aversion to them myself.  I sit down to listen.  His daughter comes over with Juan Carlos’ newborn baby. The baby has amazing and tremendous eyes, both in size and in their gaze, almost adult. Juan Carlos notices me and stops in mid sentence to welcome me. Then he continues his talk as though he never stopped.

It’s cold and the sun is setting. The sky is a blue canvas streaked with pastels of orange, red, green, yellow and purple, like an exotic drink in a warm tropical country. I get up to leave and the high school girls wave goodbye (they love the gringo). The streets are busy now. Leaves are blowing in the breeze. A group of people are staring at me as I walk by. “Adiooo”, I say, and they follow suit.

There is a haze over the town, but it’s not fog. It’s smoke from all fireplaces and leaves burning. I stop at a friend’s house and we sit out front and drink mate. I ask him where his “esposa” is. He says back in English, “She’s not my esposa she’s my boyfriend”. My friend Juan, who is sitting nearby, laughs and says in Spanish “she must be a transvestite.”

The bus to Montevideo approaches. I watch it as it passes by and am reminded of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca standing outside of Rick’s Cafe longingly watching as the plane to Lisbon disappears into the night and the prefect of police rhetorically asks him if he wishes he was on the plane.

Later, I stop by another friend’s house. She answers the door without a smile and invites me in. I try to remember the last time someone here greeted me with a smile. It’s not common, the people are open and friendly, but sometimes it’s hidden, they are not openly emotional like other latinos. My friend is sedated because she’s on medication for depression. She’s twenty years old and does absolutely nothing most of the time, but she wants me to help her compile information for a book. They tell me this zone has the highest suicide rate in the country. One time a girl tried to kill herself twice by jumping in a reservoir, both times she was rescued. Her mother told if she really wanted to die she should jump in when there’s nobody around. My friend eyes are glazed and the drugs haven’t seemed to stabilize her, it’s obvious they aren’t helping much. Two days later she attempts suicide by swallowing forty sleeping pills. She survived.

Sometimes on Sunday I go to the disco (at printing time the two discos in Tarariras have both closed). Before the disco I usually stop by the only pub in town, which is only open on weekends. The not-so-fat owner they call “El Gordo” always calls me “Peter”. At the disco they let me in at a discount because I teach basketball at the club.  The conference room turned disco for Sunday night is packed. There is a cage to the left where those of age can buy alcohol. The age ranges from 12 to 45 years old and sometimes the older people bring drinks out of the cage to the kids. The cage does not protect the young girls. They dance in groups on the dance floor while the guys hover around the perimeter like vultures.  This is the disco.

I walk back to my house wondering where I left my bicycle, but knowing it will be safe. A group of school kids walk by and shout out my name, I smile and wave. My dirt street is quiet and has a beautiful rural look on a nice sunny day. Tonight it’s dark and cold and my house is dark and quiet like the street with an added pinch of loneliness. I can see my breath as I try to light my old stove. The wood doesn’t like to burn because it is not “monte indigena” (wood from the local trees which burns nicely), it is scraps from the lumber yard. Electric heaters won’t work in my house, they always blow a fuse. The locals tell me there is nothing I can do about it.  After decimating my recycled paper bin and swearing in five different languages, the fire finally smolders. It’s still “maldito” cold and I’m picturing myself in Ecuador or Costa Rica, but Antarctica keeps coming to mind. I hear in California it has been in the high 80’s and 90’s the last few days.  But tomorrow I’ve been invited to see the gauchos castrate bulls, and I hear there’s a group of people who want to talk to me about the water contamination, and the high school wants help doing concrete projects the director tells me, and my friends here want me to marry an “Uruguaya” so I’ll have to return every so often, and…

Tarariras 1996 – KV

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