Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Walk Good

Well, it's been four houses, three birthdays, two years, and one more item crossed off my bucket list. It's also been an experience, that's for sure. I don't think I'll be able to fully reflect until I'm off the rock (less than 24 hours from now, snap). Looking forward, now I have to find new ways to challenge myself and grow.

About four years ago, I made a resolution to only regret things that I've done, and not things that I wish I did. While the past two years haven't been perfect, and while I had plenty of nights where I really questioned just what the hell I was doing here, I'm glad I took the plunge. Peace Corps is by now means perfect, but I felt it offered me an opportunity to create my own experience, challenges, opportunities, and rewards. Reading through some of my old journals, I see that I'm a different person than when I left, and I'm glad for that. I've always been of the mind that I should be more concerned with where I'm going than where I am, and I'm happy to see my progress.

I guess I learned some stuff here too. I learned that during a four day storm you can dry your clothes in the oven if you're really careful, and that beans and textured vegetable protein are friends to your wallet. I also learned that boarding a plane or signing a contact isn't enough to change who you are. Wherever you go, there you are. Along the same lines, I learned that the idea that tough times build character is bs. Tough times reveal character. Then it's up to you to decide where to go from there. Building character, growing as a person, takes place incrementally over many nights, it takes an infinite amount of commitments and an endless supply of resolve, and even then requires the continual reevaluation of yourself to ensure you're heading in the right direction. When the tough times come again, then you'll be able to see if you succeeded. Someday soon I'll find out where I stand.

One of the benefits of the Peace Corps is that you get to share the experience with dozens of other people who have that similar mental defect that caused them to leave everything they had for two years of stress and dejection and cockroaches. You also quickly find nationals with the same fire inside that makes them show up at 6 in the morning for community work days or stay up to 2 in the morning organizing teaching resources. Some of the people I met here I couldn't comprehend how they manage to do what they do for an hour, but they manage to wake up every day with determination that leaves me in awe. To everyone I worked with these past two years, Peace Corps or Jamaican; it was an honor to work with you all. The experience would have been worth it just to say I served with you.

But enough of this heavy crap. Often overlooked is just how fun Peace Corps can be. Watching two goats butt heads for half an hour, joining in with a whole minibus singing Michael Jackson, watching an 80 year old woman dance in the street during carnival, or chasing the most adorable lizards out of your kitchen are all entertaining as hell. Always remember to keep it Irie.

Walk good.


Silly goat, you're looking for apartment "B-AAAAAA"

The fast-paced limited-spaced Peace Corps workstation.

Clothes dryer


The Jamaican Sears' Catalog

It got a little chilly this winter

The staff prepares to grade the students' delicious final projects

Umbrellas are essential for any type of weather

Gotta be stylin' even if you're just holding a pineapple

My security system

Christmas shopping under the stars (and tarps)

Every workshop should come with a cannon

I'm smiling because I picked enough apples for 60 bottles of wine

Pint-sized kitty

Portland vending machine

Two Michiganders happy to be somewhere else in February

Hehe again

The tropical heat from the painting must be getting to us

The rare combination of cute and badass

Jamaica is a smaller island than you'd think

Hammocks: traps for lazy people

Goodnight Port Antonio, and goodnight Jamaica.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Grand Market

Merry Christmas from Jamaica To Di Wurld!

Just like every Christmas, this one has been pretty crazy leading up to it. I've been really busy getting lesson plans ready for my project starting in January, and working on my wine (We've bottled 5 gallons and have another 6 at the school fermenting, and I have 8 at my apartment. That's 106 bottles total!

A few weeks ago we bottled our banana wine. It came out just a bit sweet, so it makes a great dessert wine once it's chilled. Fly down for a sample!

Today has so far been spent catching up on some housework, then a little shopping in town. The local homeless shelter houses a few dozen residents, and fellow volunteer Jerry and I are going to help out tomorrow cooking Christmas dinner.

The shelter's fearless guard dogs are ready to strike at any moment.

The homemade Christmas tree Jerry made for the homeless shelter.

No snow this year, but the stupid rain wouldn't stop until last week. I was running out of clothes, but thankfully they're all dry now.
Adrian looking festive holding an adorable likkle boy. Adrian works at the internet cafe we like to call "Peace Corps North Regional Headquarters."

Outside the cafe, kids wait to meet Santa

Jerry and I making ox tail soup and pierogi. No farmer's cheese, so we had to make do with goat's cheese, and goats are awesome, so why not? They turned out pretty damn good, and that means I get to have a little Polish Christmas of my own.

The town square with it's Christmas tree. Tonight, this whole place will be filled with people for Grand Market, an annual event where people do last minute Christmas shopping / sell some of their old things / party until late, late, late into the night. I'd like to stop by and try to pick up a gallon stainless steel stockpot (my Christmas present to myself, for my winemaking).

Thanks for the cheese, goats!

Merry Christmas to everyone from the rock. I'll be thinking of you all.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The wine is b-a-n-a-n-a-s

Blouse and skirt, things have been crazy for the past few months. That's how I like it, so really I can't complain. But this is an internet blog, and that's what people do.

Right after my last entry in September, we got an incredible amount of rain from Tropical Storm Nicole. The rains knocked out power in Port Antonio for a few days, so I got to spend my evenings reading and writing by candlelight. I almost felt like a "real" Peace Corps volunteer!

I've never seen the gully in my yard that high, but it would need to swell more than that to threaten my apartment. Here it just annoyed the chickens.

Red Stripe bottles make good candleholders.

Then, right before leaving for Kingston, I was able to bottle the first batch of wine made at my school! The wine was made with nothing but mangoes, sugar, water, papaya peel, limes, and raisins. It turned out like a dry Riesling with a hint of the tropics. I considered it a huge success, and while I'm sorry to say that there is no more (I used the few gallons we brewed as samples to businesses to promote the shcool), I believe it did it's job in raising the overall enthusiasm for the school.

Me and Mrs. P filling old rum bottles with mango wine

Somehow, the rains and wine did not stop my plans to go FOREIGN! (leaving the island, in this case back home to Detroit). I spent a few weeks back home to catch up with family and friends, and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of then senator JFK challenging students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to serve their country overseas for two years (the name Peace Corps didn't come until later). There I met with many returned volunteers, and the current director of the Peace Corps Aaron Williams.

50 years ago to the minute, the spark for the Peace Corps was struck here on the steps of the Michigan Union on State and South University.

Some students show their gratitude

Me and my boss one step away from Obama.

Every time I walk past this thing I need to spin it. They say the president of the university wakes up every morning at 5 and spins it to power the campus.

My old Jamaican cook shop experience before I even knew that cow foot is edible (and tasty)

I think this picture sums of my experience at home well. The old gang out on a field trip to Eastern Market in Detroit, with a dumpster fire in the background.

Home was great, but a little exhausting. This was the longest time I spent away from home, about a year, and you want to get completely caught up with everything that's happened. By the time I flew back to Jamaica, I was welcomed by a musty house and a few dozen lizards, roaches, and spiders. I barely had enough energy to sweep them outside before I crashed for the night.

But then I was back in the swing of things. The world doesn't stop when you're on vacation, and my work was waiting patiently for me to return. Most important of that work was a grant application that I was to complete with my supervisor. This grant would expand our facilities in the school, so I would have better equipment to teach my agro-processing lessons. Just last week I heard that we were awarded our grant, which means yet more work for me to do! Yay!

Now, for a tangent about grants and Peace Corps (with unrelated pretty pictures in-between to keep things from getting boring). Every volunteer has a different opinion on how effective grants are in development, what the volunteer's role should be in that, what the long term effects of grants are, and every volunteer will want to express his or her view. These views run the gambit from "I want to see my organization receive as much grant funding as is available to help their cause" to "I want my organization to become self sufficient and never need to apply for another grant" to some combination of the two.

Students at my school making homemade black currant soda. We made the soda for a charity gala the students helped in catering to promote the school. Oh, and it was very tasty.

There's a lot of talk about the theory of development, and how our current model is not working. A (very brief, biased, and probably flawed) summary of the current model from an economic perspective would be that international development work and charity, like other industries, is a business, and there are suppliers and consumers. The product being exchanged is a sense of accomplishment for assisting where others have failed, or more simply, assistance. Lending a hand. Help. There are players who want to help (wealthy donors, foreign aid offices, churches, companies seeking a better image, etc.) These are the consumers. They want to spend their resources (mainly money, or other resources such as food or medical care) to help the poor or those in need of some type of assistance. Now where there is a consumer and a demand, the market will produce suppliers who wish to meet that demand. Here are where the NGOs come into play.

And here are my products. From left to right: Ribena soda, ginger soda, sorrel sauce, banana wine, and star fruit wine. Yum.

NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations) are a staple of international development. They are intended to bridge the gap between the donor and the recipient, and are tasked with identifying the needs and providing assistance. Some NGOs are focused on promoting healthy living, such as through better nutritional information or through HIV/AIDS prevention programs. Others seek to help promote food security, so in the event of a volatile market the country will have the means to reduce the pressure of rising import costs and keep a large portion of their population employed. Some NGOs receive their own funding, but many are supported with grants.

And Jamaican children are supported by photographs

Billions of dollars are spent globally in international development, and like any industry, there is the potential for fraud, abuse, and other unethical behavior. Unfortunately I have seen unscrupulous spending myself, however it is my opinion that the very idea of Peace Corps isn't to look at a broken system or a struggling organization and silently shake your head. The system exists because there are people who see poverty and want to help and donate their time and money and resources, but don't have the means to distribute it themselves, so they seek others to assist them with this.

Much like how my students assist me in reading the density of our starfruit wine.

The staff at the Peace Corps like to promote volunteers as "facilitators", and that role is what I strive to achieve. When you walk into a school and teach for 2 years, or share a skillset, even if you do a fantastic job, your work will end when you leave. I try my best to listen to the demand and help guide the energy in the most productive direction. It was not my intention to be an "agro-processing specialist" in Jamaica, but that is my current job title. When I walked into the small office at the Michigan Union 3 years ago to apply for the Peace Corps, I told my recruiter "I don't care where I go, but I want to be doing engineering work. I do not want to work in a school." For my first year, I got exactly what I asked for. I was designing schools, developing quality control checks for construction of houses for families in need, planning water systems and helping other volunteers with engineering consultations. But there was a nagging feeling in the back of my head. I felt that when I left, there wasn't going to be anybody to take over my work. I was working closely with my coworkers to make sure they knew what I was doing and how I was doing it, but my projects were my idea, so all the enthusiasm was with me. I couldn't even fully understand this sense of uneasiness until I found my new assignment (at a school. Fate is hilarious.)

Now, I work with staff and students who are excited and eager to learn on their own. I have students asking me for equipment and instructions so they can replicate the food preservation methods at home, and students who are able to explain what I'm doing just by understanding the principles of fermentation or carbonation. In my opinion, the incentive is two-fold. There is the direct economic incentive; if these value-added products can be produced cheaply, they could be readily sold at a profit. But there is also an overlooked, and in my view more powerful incentive; the desire to create, to craft, and to be one's own boss. It is what attracted me to brewing in the first place, and what keeps me interested in my other hobbies such as writing and cooking. I think Jamaicans have this desire in abundance, and it is really the only way to ensure that a project is sustained long after you leave, which is the ultimate goal of Peace Corps. If I leave the skills behind to turn a bumper crop of mangoes or bananas into something new, I succeeded in my Peace Corps goals and will have a good story for future job interviews. If I leave inspiring a few people to become enthusiastic about taking economic and creative control of their own future, then, shit, that's all I really wanted to accomplish. What will I do with the rest of my life?

I mean, who wouldn't look at cinnamon, pimentos, limes, raisins, and 25lbs of bananas and think "Let's turn that into wine!"

Similar views are also presented in The Ugly American, which almost seems to be an idealized roadmap for the Peace Corps 2 years before Kennedy's speech. On a broader scale, there is argument that even aid spent with the best of intentions can still foster a culture of dependency, and stifle private business development that is the real hope for long-term development. This is the school of thought of Dambisa Moyo in Dead Aid, chronicling the failure of the $1,000,000,000,000 (trillian, no extra zeros there) spent in Africa over the last 50 years. This is a powerful argument that deserves serious attention from the politicians and world leaders, and it also inspired me to pursue further education to understand global economics. I'm still not exactly sure what direction I want to go in life, but I know what excites me, and what I can get passionate about. We will not right ourselves with our current outlook on the world, and we can't get an answer if we're afraid to ask the hard questions. I believe our very survival depends on having the courage to change our beliefs when we cannot reconcile them with the evidence at hand.

Sorry, I kind of got off track there. This is both my soapbox and my means for understanding myself and how I've been changing here. "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" Oh, and who knew that beans were such a cheap, easy, and tasty dish? The local favorite here is "Rice and Peas", where "Peas" are kidney beans, and the rice is cooked with coconut milk. It's good, but I ate it just about every day for a year, and I like a little variety in my food. Lately I've been cooking black beans in my pressure cooker with bacon, onion, garlic, habanero peppers, served over white rice. I could eat that for dinner every day for a month before I got sick of it. Then today I found out it's really easy to make your own refried beans as well. Man, is there anything this food can't do?

So back to the grant. This project will help my school and me experiment with different agro-processing methods to develop an easy to follow, affordable instruction guide to anyone who wants to get into the business (I already have some of the website up). Now I'm usually very skeptical about business schemes, but I still haven't found a reason why this shouldn't work. When we bottled our mango wine, I ran the numbers to see how much it cost in time and ingredients to produce one bottle of wine. On a unit scale, it cost about $60J (about $0.75 U.S) and 15 minutes of labor to produce one 750ml bottle of wine. I believe the conditions are right for a new market to develop, one that could keep nearly 100% of the profits in the community. Back when I served on the committee that allocated these grants, we discussed the depressing state of affairs where so much grant money is misallocated, and came to the conclusion that we would do our best to award grants to be spent as investments, not gifts. I believe this grant will be an investment in Port Antonio's economic future.

I have less than 6 months left in my service and will most likely be gone before the first bottle of wine or jar of preserves is sold, but that is just fine with me. This is not my country and I am not its citizen, so it should not be up to me what direction the people of Portland choose to go with the resources I aim to provide. But I'm confident that a few people here are excited enough to continue the idea that some form of it will exist long after I leave. There is still much work to do, but my work is cut out for me. All I need to do is work myself out of a job.

Now, it's time to cook up those beans. To play us out, here's a shot of Port Antonio from the Errol Flynn Marina. Goodnight Port Antonio.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Quick update with a few pictures of some recent winemaking activities I've been working on with the food preparation students.

Here are two of the students watching some yeast hydrate. Much of the wine currently made here is made using standard bread yeast, as it is the only type of yeast easily available in Jamaica. To help make better, consistent wine, I hope to import cheap but specialized yeast strains for better wine, like the ones we are using here.

Here I am with food prep student Damian. We're topping off a batch of banana wine, adding some cool water so the mixture will not be so hot as to kill the yeast (below 104 degrees). Little things like this are just simple instructions to follow, but I've been finding the students are getting increasingly curious as to the reasons behind this and other small aspects of winemaking. I do my best to answer as many questions as I can, and will be reading some more to help myself understand the microbiology and chemistry of winemaking, but frequently I am forced to answer "well, I don't know, but we can go online right now and find out!" I think even this is one of those "good problems", because I'm subtly introducing the students to the concept of independent research to answer their questions, and this will be necessary for future food preservation techniques, especially once I leave.

Pineapple and Passion Fruit Chutney. It was amazing and incredibly simple to make. I'm running into another problem where everything I make to research different food preservation recipes is immediately "sampled" to death, and before I can even ask what people thought of it to improve the recipe it's all gone.

But enough of work, time for some shopping.

Here's a small shop by another volunteer's house. Because lots of these shops carry their items behind the counter to hold more inventory, the customer cannot always see what is for sale. I think this is a nifty solution to that problem. Of course the common method of walking in, shouting "Oy, yu av marina fi sell?" (Do you have any sleeveless undershirts for sale?) is still the method I use, as I find it's most effective.

Lots of the department and wholesale stores get inventory directly from China, which leads to some interesting items. My pressure cooker has instructions in very broken English, so I must remember to "keep safety cap topside for prevent dangerous". Here we have a cool communist executive day planner.

My market. Every Saturday it is jam packed with vendors, locals, and a few Peace Corps volunteers. I guess it might have at one brief moment been open air, but the maze of tarps quickly formed a nice canopy to keep you and the produce from drying out too quickly in the sun.

Mobile carts are the preferred way to go for many venders who only stay for a day or two a week.

Gratuitous adorable picture of Joline, who is showing me her latest artwork. Later she tricked me into helping her make an "O" for her after the yarn began to unravel, and I spent a good 15 minutes working on it just to have her tell me I didn't do a good job. (The "O" was for a 4 letter word beginning with "L". She was amazed when I correctly guessed the word. Again, adorable.

And now it's time for goodnight, Portland. I still need to find a good place away from mosquitoes to set up my hammock in my new apartment. Life is just about 90% perfect right now, and that might just push it a little higher.