Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Peace Corps, part 3

I was never really afflicted with a strong wanderlust per se. If I ever go somewhere, it's usually the prospect of either seeing old friends or making new ones that I'm enthusiastic about, not the idea of traveling itself. (There have been exceptions, of course, most notably our trips to Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii. They were nothing short of magical, and about people only to the slightest degree.) To me, traveling is a lot of work, inconvenience, and discomfort, from carrying heavy suitcases to living out of them for periods of time. Air travel is an expensive form of torture for those of us blessed/cursed with bodies not built precisely to fit the padded stalls the airline industry calls "seats." If you're a picky sleeper, which infortunately I am, it can take almost an entire trip just to get used to new sleeping arrangements and enjoy a full night's rest. I sweat a lot. My clothes get dirty and are never cleaned the way I like them to be.

You'll remember I had a career at the Peace Corps. This attitude towards traveling wasn't what you'd call common there. A very big feature of the job I spent my last five years doing at the Peace Corps, Country Desk Officer (CDO), was the desk trip. For most, it was a big draw and made the position very competitive. When I took the job, it was in spite of the desk trip, not because of it.

The job of the CDO is to represent the interests of Peace Corps staff in a series of countries to Washington headquarters and vice versa. I was the go-between, the conduit for information, the advocate for overseas staff in DC and the explainer of HQ policies and positions to overseas staff. I was the one and only expert in the entire federal bureaucracy on all things Peace Corps as they pertained to my countries, Senegal, The Gambia, and Cape Verde. (I also had Guinea-Bissau for literally a few days before it blew up in a violent coup when I first began the job, and I was assigned Mauritania for a short time later on.) I really loved working so closely with overseas staff. The local Peace Corps Director is an American, usually with a background in development, ideally with strong skills in both diplomacy (for dealing with high-level officials in the insular diplomatic communities in the developing world) and babysitting (for dealing with volunteers). Strong management skills are a must, because Peace Corps missions have large staffs. The administrative unit, which handles the nuts and bolts of the operation--everything from volunteer housing and its procurement to bookkeeping and budgeting--is a feifdom in itself. The people who directly supervise the volunteers in their various projects are called Associate Directors. Some are Americans; most are from the country where the work is being done, and all of them are the hardest working and most dedicated people I will ever have the honor of knowing. I have tremendous admiration for them, especially the host-country nationals, whom I consider patriots of the highest order, working long hours under hard conditions for little money, all to further the development of their countries.

CDOs must have intimate familiarity not only with these wonderful staff people but also with the volunteers, where they work with and how they live. Thus the desk trip. It covers all countries at once, a week per country, and the objective is to meet as many staff and volunteers and travel to as many volunteer sites as possible. For me, it was a forced march, sheer torture.

You are met and greeted and wined and dined royally when you arrive in each country. Peace Corps folk love a party and your arrival is as good an excuse for one as any other. And so I found myself "on" from the moment I set foot on the first tarmac, after a long and sleepless trip. After the party there was a short briefing from the Director, a meet-and-greet with staff, and then I was on my way. Each Director orchestrated his portion of the trip in his own way. In Cape Verde, a series of islands, I was given an itinerary. Volunteers on various islands had been told to meet me at the airport/ferry dock of their island and take me under their wings. In The Gambia I set out with two Associate Directors, one American and one Gambian, and traveled the entire length of that snake-shaped country, meeting volunteers and seeing them at work along the way. And then there was Senegal.

The Director in Senegal was a control freak. A nice guy, but insecure and unable to let go of the reins. He wouldn't have me traveling on my own or with mere Associate Directors. No, instead he piled me, a Peace Corps nurse (who also needed to visit volunteers), his wife and his 17-year-old Lolita of a daughter into a Land Rover, and we became the Peace Corps Senegal equivalent of Monty Python's Flying Circus for a week. We traveled through the east and south of the country, usually on paved roads but often enough in ruts and dried riverbeds to give justification for the tough reputation of Land Rovers (and to challenge my sense of balance and my physical strength, as I fought to remain upright in my seat). We were an excuse for volunteers to party hearty every place we stopped. Lolita was in her element with the young, horny male volunteers. The director monopolized all conversations, never giving me an opportunity for private, serious conversations with volunteers (and who wants to talk business at a party, anyway?); the nurse knew the volunteers and could conduct her business while chatting in the party context (but they were medical conversations and so, private); the wife was Earth Mother to all; I struggled to feel relevant. At the end of that trip I knew more about the dynamics of that family than I'd ever dreamed, much less needed or wanted, but alas, still next to nothing about volunteer attitudes and their realities. (This, of course, was the point.) At the end of that Senegal marathon (The Gambia was still to come), the Director and his wife, whose house I stayed in while I was in Dakar, wanted to take me on the ferry out to Gorée Island, an old slave holding area that has been developed for tourism. I simply couldn't make my body move. Instead I said "no thanks," closed the door to my room, and laid there in total silence. It was the only quiet, relatively comfortable time alone I had in three weeks.

I came home from that trip beyond exhausted, and gladder than I'd ever thought possible to stand on familiar ground. Steve arranged a welcoming party for me at the airport, complete with champagne. I was touched; they couldn't possibly have known how ludicrous a party seemed to me at the time, in the condition I was in. When I finally entered our little house, I thanked them all and went straight to bed.

In my five years as a CDO, that was the only desk trip I managed to take. In 1999 I went to Cape Verde for a month, acting as Director there while the hiring process went on for a new permament one. A month as Director was enough to show me I didn't want the job. I'm not one to live above the store, as it were--the Director in a Peace Corps country can never really "go home"; you're in the country only to do a job, and as long as you're there, you're at work. The buck stops with you, and while your staff has immediate responsibility for situations that arise, you are the final arbiter, 24/7. No, thanks. I need to escape.

My last trip, to a Director's conference in Burkina Faso, was supposed to begin September 12, 2001. I was actually looking forward to that one, staying put in one place for a few days and hanging with my friends the Directors, but given the panic of that time I found myself in no mood to board anybody's airplane. And so my traveling days with the Peace Corps came to an end. Before long, the discouraging realities of the current administration's priorities made themselves clear, and finally, with the advent of the Iraq war, I decided that whatever the Peace Corps was becoming, it wasn't what I had signed up for. Burnout had begun anyway, and the war provided all the oxygen necessary for a full-fledged conflagration. After 28 years, I bid adieu.

Plenty of people wanted me to stay. I was offered other jobs, and people wondered what would become of the Africa Region if I wasn't there to knock heads together. I was hugely flattered, but I reminded everyone: graveyards are filled with indispensable people. I'm grateful for everything the Peace Corps gave me, but I'm also grateful for this life outside it I'm living now.

4 comments:

Kat said...

Ralph,
That would be on the list of ideal jobs for me. I love to travel, enjoy meeting new people and can grab a bit of bureaucracy with the best of them.

Loved the story of Senegal and that horrific family, especially young Lolita. I'm sorry you didn't get to pick and choose your spots. I count it among my favorites in West Africa.

Ralph said...

Kathy, your attitude is of course shared by most people, and I don't think I'd be so negative if those desk trips weren't so extreme. They are very long slogs with hardly any down time. It's travel and adventure, yes, but it's also very hard work.

Zoey & Me said...

Interesting Post. In many ways I felt like you described in that I was a union organizer for AFSCME for 12 years and was sent out to US cities as a crisis communications person to help organize public employees. At least it was in this country but I tell ya, some parts of the US would remind you and other Peace Corps volunteers of third world nations. Tucson comes to mind.

sallreen said...

When traveling we tend to take the most pictures. The savings of development and film costs can offset the cost of changing over to digital. Talking of lost luggage if you are travelling with a friend it's a good idea to each pack a spare outfit in each others cases. That way if your case is lost you'll still have a change of clothes in your friends case.
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Sally
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