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
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
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.