Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Day in the Life of a Peace Corps Volunteer

Mud huts. Goats. Hot, sweltering, mosquito infested jungles. Cutting the heads off of chickens just to have a little meat to eat with your rice. Day-long hikes to get to the nearest market; another day to get back. This is what Peace Corps is. This is what a day in the life of a volunteer is like.

I'm now almost an entire year into my service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mexico. It is an exotic, developing country, where everyone speaks Spanish, and most people speak some Nahuatl. When I look at a map I realize that I live further south than the Yucatan. My city, Puebla, is surrounded by active volcanoes and is home to the world's largest ancient pyramid. But something just doesn't feel right.

I wake up every morning at about 8am, roosters calling from the nearest neighbor's house. I make a traditional Mexican breakfast; 'confle' con leche. I bought it the day before at one of the world's largest indoor markets, where peddlers sell local crafts and fine linens and spices from as far away as the Orient.

If I want a hot shower I have to go outside and start a fire to heat up some water. But before I go outside, I make sure the tiny but ferocious beast of legend that guards the gate - known locally as the chupacabra - is still asleep after its night of terror. All too often, 'she' has awoken and I must prepare for a battle.

It's going to be a long day of field work. Mud, bugs, manure... It starts with an uphill walk, several kilometers through a dusty, treeless plain. It's a dangerous walk. Wild dogs are common. There are deep holes and cracks in the earth along the sun-baked pathway. I must avoid being stampeded at every turn. I pass through Juarez Canyon, whose high walls block out the sun. In the middle of the canyon is a village called "La Paz." I've heard rumors that this is where the ruling class hides their silver and gold.

At least, this is how my day might appear through Don Quixote's eyes. My breakafst of 'confle'? That's just what some people here call cereal. Its Spanglish for "Corn Flakes." I normally eat a bowl of organic sugar-free granola, or Trix. The world's largest indoor market, the one with the fine Oriental products? Well that's Wal-Mart of course. There are at least ten in Puebla. But it could just as easily be a Sam's or BJ's, or a Mexican subsidiary of one of the above.

To take a hot shower I do have to start a fire; we have a natural gas hot water heater that we turn off at night to save money. And our shower has great water pressure. The chupacabra? We live in a nice apartment complex, with a beautiful garden in the central courtyard. Unfortunately, our upstairs neighbors, who are also our landlords, own a little white fluffy poodle named Fifi. I don't like the little rat dog too much. It won't shut up and never stops nipping at my ankles. Being that it is the landlord's dog, I can't do all of the nice things to her that I really want to do to it.

My walk to work? It is treacherous. There are a lot of stray dogs in Puebla, although the strays are usually friendlier than the ones guarding a house. The sidewalks are poorly maintained and uneven, full of holes and cracks that could swallow up - or trip - an untrained tourist. Crossing the street is a nightmare. Motorists wouldn't think twice about running you down, and would consider it your fault even if you were in a marked crosswalk and the car blew through a red light or a stop sign. I think the problem is that there is no word in Spanish for "the pedestrian has the right-of-way." The lack of trees? Too much concrete and pavement.

Of course, La Paz is just Puebla's international banking district; HSBC, Scotiabank, Swiss Bank, Banamex, and Banorte. The canyon is formed by the numerous modern glass-enclosed high rise office towers and condominiums that line Avenida Juarez with new ones shooting up every day. Avenida Juarez reminds of L.A., lined by palm trees, full of fancy fusion restaurants, night clubs, and boutique shops. And I don't do a lot of field work. I actually work in an office. A big, air conditioned office. I spend most of my 9-5 (9-6, really) workday in front of a computer, trying to figure out ways to get around the internet filter to access Facebook and YouTube.

At the end of the day I take off from the office and head home. When I get there - and escape the guard dog untouched - I flip open my 17 inch lap top. I'm lucky; the wireless broadband internet in my apartment is working perfectly. I go straight to my America Online homepage and read news about the U.S. Man, that country is in chaos. Its economy is about to fail, its politicians are fighting with each other in the streets, and it’s still at war, starting new ones monthly. Its cities are dangerous, with higher drug-use, theft and murder rates than in Puebla. It's hard to imagine how people could live there, with so much instability. But there are some great "Groupon" deals. Could someone tell me wtf a Groupon is? Then I watch some local TV. Friends, Seinfeld, American Idol, America's Got Talent, and at my weakest moments, America's  Next Top Model.

The truth is that many Peace Corps volunteers do spend their time in small villages, in mud huts, herding goats. It’s just a little different for me. Puebla, in many respects, is more modern than where I came from. No offense, Buffalo. Try not to be so self-conscious... Puebla has three outdoor ice skating rinks during the winter, although I wouldn't call what the people do here "skating," in the true sense of the word. There are more fancy European car dealerships in Puebla than in Buffalo. There's even still a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts; those all closed in my hometown when the Atkins Diet became popular.

Of course, there is still some craziness here. The BUAP is a university in Puebla, a private university. It's one of the largest, most renowned universities in the entire country. I work with several students from the BUAP every day. They tell me that they pay 1,500 pesos per semester on tuition, which is equal to just about $120 US dollars. When I think of that, a nearly free, quality higher education, I think to myself wow, now that is backwards and old fashioned! Get with the times Mexico, get with the times.


  1. Time to appreciate what you had and where you are now. Time to not like what you had or how things are where you are now. Regardless it's good to appreciate life as a whole and compare... The difference strives in what you make out of it regardless of where you are living. Enjoy life!

  2. Hi, I really liked this entry. I am from Puebla. Just a clarification: the BUAP (Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla) is NOT a private university, but the state government university. Sort of like the University of Texas in Austin, the Univ. of Georgia in Athens, the Univ. of Tennessee in Knoxville, or the Univ. of Florida in Gainesville, where I work.
    Also (I read this in another entry), a person with a Bachelor's Degree is not called a "licenciaturo", but a "licenciado". "LicenciaturA" refers to "Bachelor's Degree" (e. g. "tengo una licenciatura en contabilidad" = "I did accounting for my undergraduate".



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