Saturday, August 21, 2010

Not really a blog post ... Three articles I wrote for our Peace Corps Ecuador volunteer magazine

Hey everyone ... yes it has been a long time. I do plan on writing some blog posts in the future, but until then I´m going to post three articles that I wrote for our in-country volunteer magazine El Clima. One is a point-counterpoint I did with a female volunteer discussing whether it is easier to be a male or female volunteer in Ecuador (it´s much easier to be a guy, but I wrote the opposite.) The second is a fake advice column I wrote, and the third is a profile on Ecuavolley, and how it helped me integrate into our site. Anyway, enjoy.

Point Counterpoint

After deep consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador is much easier for women. I have tons of reasons why, but I’ve boiled my argument down to the most important aspects of volunteer life.

First, there is the issue of bathroom breaks over long bus rides. Now, I know what every female reader is thinking: what is this guy crazy? Sure, on the surface, it might seem like women get the shit end of the stick here. I mean, bathroom breaks are few and far between and more often than not entail a fifteen second stop along the side of some road somewhere. Not exactly a viable option for those of us who can’t pee standing up.

But these limited pit stops are exactly why it sucks to be a guy. What am I supposed to do on a fifteen second break? That’s entirely way to much pressure for me to relax and let go. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred I’ll be way too bladder shy to get any sort of a flow started. And when the bus starts moving again and I haven’t even produced so much as a few drops, well the pain just gets worse. To be so close and yet to achieve so little … it’s maddening.

At least women know that they don’t even have the option. They have time to mentally prepare before a long bus ride. And if nature calls during the journey? Well at least they are positive in the fact that they have basically no options. The worst part of being a guy is the crazy notion that maybe this time will be different, although deep inside we know it never is. Still, I might as well try right?

Second: the catcalls. Again, you might be wondering how this could even be perceived as a problem for men. Unfortunately, it’s this type of narrow-minded thinking that leads us hombres to suffer in silence. Did it ever come across to anybody that maybe guys would like to be complimented every once in a while? Hey I just shaved and put on a clean shirt … where’s my validation here? Would it kill anyone to say, “Hey Rob … looking good!” every now and then.

My fellow brothers, hold your heads up high. You are looking good. Just because random people don’t make a verbal show of complimenting our better features, doesn’t mean that we aren’t looking fantastic.

Which brings me to my third point: the reina competitions. Now I know I’m not the only guy that wants to parade around in a tight little bathing suit in front of my whole community, competing for the title of queen. Sometimes I feel like a reina victory would be the crown jewel in my service as a volunteer. Think of all the doors I would be opening to men across the country!Sure, I haven’t heard of any female PCV’s actually entering any of these contests, but what’s important is that they at least have the potential to do so. Why is it that only the women get the opportunity to fight for the crown?

Lastly, there’s the issue of drinking. As a guy, sometimes I might not want to get blackout drunk on a Tuesday afternoon. But if I walk by a group of men passing around the bottle, it’s like all of the sudden all of them are overcome with the need to call me over and make sure I start drinking with them.

Maybe I should have stronger willpower and just say no thanks, but when a group of people starts shouting “Roberto!” I feel like a celebrity! This is probably the same feeling that Norm from that TV show Cheers got every time he walked into the bar. And look how that guy wound up: a morbidly obese alcoholic that spent all of his free time at some dive bar in Boston. My wife never gets called out drinking, and I think it’s totally unfair.

In some arguments, both sides might have valid points that make for a strong case. To be honest, not everything can be decided right-or-wrong, black-or-white. In this case, however, I think the facts speak for themselves. It’s much easier to be a female PCV in Ecuador. To my fellow men I say this: stay strong. Life isn’t always fair. Just try to imagine and hope for a future where, someday, somehow, maybe male PCV’s will have an equal footing, and all the advantages that go along with being a female volunteer.

Ask Rob

Each issue I’ll be answering volunteer questions covering every aspect of volunteer life.

Rob, why doesn’t my counterpart like me? He never returns my phone calls. I’m starting to think that this won’t be a fruitful working relationship.

-Triste en Tunguraghua

Cheer up Triste! I know just what you’re dealing with here. Sure my counterpart came over and said hi during my site visit, but after that I felt like I was left high and dry.

The problem is you! You’re not spending enough time earning his time and attention. The truth is, every single Ecuadorian wants nothing more than to spend all of his or her time with you. They just feel bad that they’re not sharing you enough with everybody else. These “distant counterpart” problems are often a symptom of your counterpart actually feeling like he doesn’t deserve to spend all of his time with you.

You have to be the one to make the effort and show that you’d like nothing better than to work with him. Get in his face! Try going to his house every day, early in the morning, and waiting there until everyone goes to sleep at night. That’s one sure way to get his attention.

Think outside the box! We had this brass band come to town for a fiesta once, and you know what I did? I paid that band fifty bucks to play outside my counterpart’s house until he came out and talked with me. He was so excited!

Dear Rob, I’m having trouble budgeting my living allowance from month to month. Do you have any advice on how I can reign in my spending without sacrificing my weekly beach getaways?

-Chiro en Chimborazo

Chiro, thanks for writing in. Most volunteers go through exactly what you’re talking about at one point or another during service. The most common advice deals with spending more time at site as the easiest way to save some cash. Others have suggested spending more time cooking in rather than eating out. Not only will you develop some serious skills in the kitchen, but you’ll also get a little more variety than your standard chicken and rice almuerzo.

But lucky for you, I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to give up a thing! Apparently I had some distant uncle who just died in a mysterious plane accident. He had been living in Nigeria for the past thirty years and he was seriously loaded. Cha-Ching! One of his associates told me that that they are having trouble finding any next of kin, and I can help out. He has millions that I can get my hands on, as long as I help his friend and give him a cut. All he needs is my bank account routing numbers and I should be seeing the cash in no time! Can you believe my luck?

Anyway, let’s meet up in Quito … drinks are on me!

Rob, how’s it going? Listen, I have all of these sores running up and down my arms. Plus, when I wake up, the left side of my body is always numb. Should I call the PCMO?

-Enferma en El Empalme

No way! Enferma, I used to be just like you. Every time I felt a little off I’d go running to the Peace Corps doctors. I found out that there’s a much easier way!

First of all, you’re sores are obviously because you opened your refrigerator too fast and were standing a little too close. When the door of the fridge is opened this way, a vortex of cold air rushes over the arms and throughout the body. I’m guessing you had some fish in the fridge. When fish mixes with refrigerated air, it causes bacteria that, when sped up fast enough, cause sores over the affected body parts. Fish germs plus cold air plus you opening it too fast and there you go, sores. Always leave fish out on the counter!

As for the numbness, my guess is you have been soaping up in the shower before you shampoo. While this might be normal in the northern hemisphere, down south everything is backwards … just watch the water drain down the toilet if you’re skeptical.

The solution is simple. Just hop on the Macuchi that goes from Quevedo to Quito. Halfway outside of Santo Domingo, look for this guy who will be selling these herbal remedies on the bus. You’re going to want to buy a lot, because you have to take like three pills at least three times a day. But you’ll be good to go!

Dear Rob, I’m having a lot of trouble at town fiestas … especially the bailes. I just can’t seem to dance. The worst part is, everyone dances, so I’m afraid that I’ll look even worse if I don’t give it a shot. What should I do?

- Avergonzado en Anconcito

I hate to break it to you, but there’s only one solution: never dance. I’ve found that it’s simply impossible for gringos to learn how to dance. At bailes, when someone asks you to dance, simply refuse, adamantly. Just say over and over again in a really loud and obnoxious voice, “Yo no bailo!” Then just stand against the wall all night with you arms crossed against your chest. You’re sending a strong message here. It might seem rude, but in no time nobody will ask you to dance anymore.

Volleyball Article

Aside from my stunning good looks and devil-may-care attitude, when I first arrived at site, I felt like I had little to offer my new community. While speaking Spanish amongst all the other gringos during training gave me a sort of linguistic confidence, I quickly grew frustrated, struggling to make connections and clearly in dire need of further study. When I did manage to have a somewhat decent conversation with a vecino, I quickly ran out of things to say once I finished the basic, “I’m from the US, blah blah blah …”

And then volleyball came along, and my life got so much better. Like I’m sure as at most of our sites, volleyball is a big f’n deal here. Even more so, I was delighted to find out, than soccer, at which I suck.

I never really played volleyball much back in the States. In fact, my only experience with the sport was being immediately cut from the team during high school tryouts (along with rejections from the basketball, hockey, wrestling, and girls’ badminton teams.)

Lucky for me, volleyball here is a completely different sport. As I’m sure everybody already knows, while we play six-on-six back home, they do it three-on-three here. That’s not the only difference: the net here stands at a monster 2.8 meters, almost the size of a basketball net. Also, instead of those soft white balls used back home, Ecuavolley (yes, the people here actually call it Ecuavolley … look it up) bruises the wrists with a number-five soccer ball. That’s the kind the pro’s used during the World Cup.

Anyway, after I realized that my size – I think I’m currently the tallest person living in Cotopaxi – would be of great asset, I started begging people to let me play with them.

My road to volleyball stardom had a rocky start. Part of it was me not knowing how to hit a ball with my wrists, but the main obstacle lied in the very way games are started here. Say a bunch of guys want to start a game. Ok, so first everybody stands in a circle. Then, instead of just pairing up and playing, everybody fights for about half an hour or so about who should play. After a tentative six people are chosen, each player has to agree that the teams are fair. Usually, one person backs out last second, and the proceedings get reset to the initial rounds.

This matchmaking is probably the most frustrating aspect of the sport. Teams aren’t made based on how well three players can play together; the emphasis is on making sure that a player is of equal skill to whoever he will be playing against on the opposing team. To make things more complicated, there is always more than one group of people trying to get a game going. The general rule is whoever has teams selected first gets the cancha. So there have been plenty of times where, after endless negotiations, I’ve been this close to playing, only to be beaten to the turf by different teams.

Also, and not to put too fine a point on this, but I really didn’t know how to play volleyball at first. I couldn’t do anything with the ball, and my attempts to spike left me feeling like my hand-eye coordination hadn’t improved at all since high school. Still, I kept showing up every afternoon, hoping I’d get a chance to learn the ropes.

Sure enough, poco a poco, I took to the sport. I still can’t serve, but I at least know what to do with the ball when it comes my way. Where my technical skills of the sport are lacking, however, I more than make up for it in spiking. Getting the timing down was pretty straightforward, and after that it was only a matter jumping as high as I can and hitting the ball, also as hard as I can.

Call me a one-trick pony, but it totally works. A highlight for me was winning a tournament in La Maná behind the cantón police station. There were actually men betting and shouting at us from behind bars as we played. Surreal is definitely the word.

Volleyball facilitated and made possible my cultural integration. Hopefully I would’ve found some other way without it, but through this sport, I improved my Spanish and stayed active during those initial months of some serious downtime. Most importantly, I got to know basically everybody in town. Well, every guy at least. Unfortunately, at my site anyway, it’s a pretty gender segregated event. But in an effort to get to know the women, I’m currently trying to earn a spot as a candidate for reina. Those sixteen-year-old girls have nothing on me.

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