Tuesday, June 2, 2009

This Is The End

I've said it several times before. I don't think that I can fully process, appreciate, wrap up, or realize how my time in the Peace Corps has affected and will affect me. Like any so called "life changing" experience, the aftershocks will reverberate for a long time, and the residue will never fully wash off.

I think about Ecuador all the time. Every glass of water I drink out of the tap in the US comes with the thoughts, "Wow, I wish I was able to do this for the last two years!" and, "Man, how much different would people's lives be in Ecuador if they all could get a clean glass of water when they wanted it?". I have to stop myself from bringing Ecuador into almost every conversation I have. Its just that that's all I know and everything is so different here that it almost doesn't seem real.

I'm sure that it will take some time to adjust, but the transition hasn't been that hard. My Brother, Mother, and Father hosted a Welcome Back party in St. Louis at the same bar that they threw my Going Away party. It was great to catch up with a lot of my friends that I haven't seen since I left in 2007, and since it was at the same bar, it really closed everything up nicely. Thanks to everyone who attended either of those parties.

I also want to take a moment to say thank you. To everyone who kept up on my life by reading the blog, to everyone who sent me a package, an email, a text message, a card, wished me well, or said a prayer...THANK YOU. My first couple months away from home were hard and I don't think that I could have done it without the support of my friends and family. You guys have all been great, and I appreciate how lucky I am to have such great friends and to be part of such a loving family.

So, now I'm back in the United States of America living at my parent's house for the first time in years and starting the job search. If you happen to be swinging through St. Louis and want to hear some stories about eating grubs and Guinea Pigs, pooping worms, getting drunk with corrupt cops, acting as the laughing stock of an entire community, and being one tiny cog in a huge government bureaucracy, feel free to give me a call.

My new phone number is.... (314)766-2289

Again, thank you so much to everyone. This has been an amazing two years. Hopefully jayinecuador has helped you to understand a little about the Peace Corps and the beautiful and diverse country of Ecuador. And, to end on a funny note. On the flight back home, I sat next to a dentist from St. Louis. He was a nice guy with his family and since the turbulence was bad, he was good enough to talk to me for most of the flight (to take my mind off my irrational fear that the wings are going got fall off the plane). About 5 minutes into the conversation he starts to talk to me about my "energy". He then measures said "energy" without touching me and then raises my "energy" by meditating (all the while he is sucking back a rum and Coke). Then he tells me that in 2012 a large asteroid/comet called Planet X is going to pass near the sun and thereby cause intense devastation worldwide. Fortunately, a select few will be chosen to survive by living in the large underground bunkers that the Federal Government is building. He finally measured my "energy" again and confidently said that I'll be among the chosen few.

I just tell that story as a reminder that for all the messed-up stuff I did and interesting characters that I met in South America, we still grow 'em crazier up here.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The month of Jay - Part 4: Isla de la Plata

Sitting 25 miles off the coast of Ecuador, Isla de la Plata is known as "The poor man's Galapagos" because it has a lot of the wildlife that can be found in the Galapagos, but is a lot less expensive to visit. We caught a small boat in the coastal town of Puerto Lopez and spent a day walking around the island and then did a little snorkeling before heading back. We didn't get to see as many animals as we would have in the Galapagos, but for $35 you can't expect too much.

Plata in Spanish means silver. It also is used as a slang for any type of money. Therefore, Isla de la Plata means Silver Island or The Island of Money. There are several stories why the island is called that. Some say that Francis Drake buried treasure there and that's why they call it Isla de la Plata, but I believe the other story...that all the bird droppings on the island give its cliffs the appearance of silver from afar.

The biggest attraction of the island is its Blue Footed Boobies. These birds are endemic to the Galapagos and a few other Pacific islands. Humpback Whales also mate near the islands, but the peak season is in July and August, so we didn't get to see them.

This short trip to the coast was the final event in the Month of Jay. It was a fantastic way to end my time in Ecuador.

I really can't describe how cool it was to see all the different types of birds up close, so I'll let the pictures do the talking.

A pair of Boobies

You can see here how close you can get to the birds
A Nazca Boobie and its chick

This is not a Sea Lion

The fish we snorkeled with

Th Month of Jay - Part 3: Adentro

Almost a third of Ecuador lies in the Amazonian Basin. This area called the Oriente or Adentro, Inside, is populated by several indigenous nationalities. The Shuar, Achuar, Waorani, Andoa, Shiwiar, and Zaparo peoples consider themselves members of their nationality and only recognize Ecuador as the country that has political control over their lands...they are NOT Ecuadorian in their minds.

They have their own languages, cultures, traditions, and only recently have been in contact with the Western World. Missionaries have Christianized the population to a certain extent and the Ecuadorian government assists them with medical issues. I was lucky enough to be invited on one of the government's trips adentro to help with a medical survey.

Like Peace Corps Volunteers, the Ecuadorian Department of Health needs to figure out where problems are and what are the needs of the community before they can begin working. To this aim, the Department of Health sends doctors and sociologists to jungle communities to talk with the residents about what their health problems are, when these problems are worst and what they think could be done to alleviate these problems. I was there doing some research for another PCV who will be working with community gardening in these communities. I wanted to find out what the farming practices were for the Achuar people, what plants they cultivated, and anything else that would be helpful for the PCV.

We flew about an hour in a small 5-seater plane from Puyo to the small Achuar community of Charapacocha or Turtle Lake. The view from the plane was amazing as we flew deeper into the Amazonian Rain Forest. We could see small and large rivers snaking down from the mountains and tiny communities consisting of a few houses surrounding a small landing strip.

When we arrived at Charapacocha we set up tables in a large open building that was recently constructed by the community for the Achuar Nationality Congress. The doctors with us were gong to have people from 8 surrounding communities draw community maps, make calendars of typical diseases and the months when they are most prevalent, and had them draw pictures of they way life used to be and the way they would want it to be. The sociologist with us was then going to compile everything and present the data to the heads of the provincial health department so that future programing could be planned and communities with the most problems could receive the most help.

It was interesting to see how the Achuar communities saw themselves and their future. I didn't really help too much with the diagnostic, but it was worth the trip. I told the PCV who will be working with the Achuar that she will have to focus on very small family plots that will hopefully fortify their typical diet of plantains, yuca, and taro root. Fertilizer will be a big problem, so dry toilets that can be designed to use human urine as a fertilizer may be an option. I'm sure the PCV will have a lot of problems getting the communities to change their ways, but it will surely be an adventure.

The plane we flew in on...God help us
Creating a community needs assessment
Looking at the finished product
The house where we stayed...nicest room in town (you can see the building where we worked in the background)
Eating lunch
More drawings
This is a fish they caught in the river. It is called bagre and we had it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for three days.
A small indigenous community from the air
Notice the airstrip to the pilot's left

Puyo as seen from the air

The Month of Jay - Part 2: Jumandy Caves

During the war in the 1500's between the invading Spanish Conquistadors and the many indigenous tribes of Ecuador, several leaders emerged. One of the most famous was a man called Jumandy. Jumandy led the indigenous Quichwa of the Amazonian Basin against the Spanish who were slowly moving down from the highlands into Quichwa territory. Jumandy burned the towns of Baeza and Archidona (now these two towns are Peace Corps volunteer sites) and moved the local populations into hiding. This was done to prevent the Spanish from stealing supplies and manpower. Jumandy was able to unite the tribes of the Oriente for a common defense...basically he was the William Wallace of Ecuador.

Jumandy attempted to get the indigenous tribes of the Sierra to help him, but when he went to their lands, they double crossed him and told the Spanish where he was. Jumandy retreated to his strong point, the caves now named after him. Unfortunately for Jumandy, the Spanish captured him at the caves, transported him to Quito, and executed him there.

Today the caves are a major tourist attraction and you can take a guided tour for $4. I had taken the Trainees who went on the Oriente Technical Trip to the caves, but it was worth going back. The coolest thing about the caves is that you can go anywhere. its not like the US where you have to stay on the path. We climbed in with our guide, Ramon, and hiked around for about an hour. We took a swim in a hole carved out by the stream that flows through the caves, bathed in a small waterfall, rubbed "medicinal" mud on ourselves, watched the bats flying all around, and generally had a good time.

The Month of Jay - Part 1: Quilotoa

Between my COS on the 4th of May and flying home on the 28th, I had some time to visit parts of Ecuador that I haven't been to yet and to say my final goodbyes to my friends. It was a great month and so busy that I didn't have time to publish posts as I traveled. To keep from boring you with a giant post on the whole month, here's the first in the series...

The month started with a visit to the Quilotoa Loop south of Quito. I'd hiked the Loop and visited Quilotoa Crater last year (see post "Happy Old Year!"), but some friends wanted to check it out, so I figured I'd act as a guide. The weather was about the same as the last time I went, but we didn't get nearly as lost on the hike because we ran into a local. He was walking home and I talked to him for a couple minutes. He said that we could walk with him to his town which was near where we were going. It worked out well and we got to the hotel right before it started to pour down rain. Here are some pictures.

Another good thing about going to Quilotoa is that it is nearish to La Libertad. After the hike I went to visit my old neighbors and friends in La Libertad. I had dinner with one family and spent the night at my neighbor's house. It was good to see them one more time. I don't know if I'll ever see them again, but I hope I do. (My plan is to visit them in 6 years when their oldest daughter turns 15. A girl's 15th birthday, or Quinceanera (the n should have a ~ over it, but my keyboard doesn't have Spanish letters...sorry) is very important in Latin culture, so they want me to come.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Jay Verhoff - RPCV

As of May 4th, 2009, I am officially and forever a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV). It took two years and three months to get that “R”, but it was worth it.

The Close of Service (COS) procedure was relatively painless for me seeing as I hadn´t had any health problems during my service. I had to go to the dentist and doctor for exams (all went well…no cavities, no HIV), close my bank account, turn in my cell phone, get almost everyone in the office to sign a sheet saying that I had concluded all work with them, talked to the nurses about post-Peace Corps health care, and finally had an interview with the Country Director to go over my Description of Service (DOS) document and give her any feedback I had about my service.

Here is my DOS if you´d like to see what I did (or at least said that I did during my two years in Ecuador)…

Jay L. Verhoff
PROGRAM No. 518-07-01 - ECUADOR

After a competitive application process stressing applicant skills, adaptability and cross-cultural understanding, Jay Verhoff was invited into Peace Corps service in Ecuador. Jay Verhoff entered training on February 5, 2007, participating in an intensive 12-week program of community based training in Cayambe, Ecuador which included intensive instruction and field work in Spanish, cross-cultural studies, personal health and safety, and the technical skills required in the Sustainable Agriculture Program.

Jay Verhoff successfully completed training and was sworn in as a Volunteer on April 20, 2007. During his service in Ecuador, he was assigned to the Asociación de Mujeres (Women’s Association) - La Libertad, Cotopaxi, where he served as a technical consultant.

During his two year service, Jay Verhoff acted in a wide variety of work roles and responsibilities. The first and often hardest of these tasks, was to integrate himself into a small mestizo community high in the Andes Mountains. Faced with such difficulties as adapting to the cultural norms, building trust and confidence with an entire community, and perfecting a new language, Jay not only survived, but in fact thrived. By the end of his two year service, Jay had fully integrated himself into the fabric of La Libertad and was considered not as an outsider, but as a community member. He even was asked by his neighbors to be a co-Godfather to two of their daughters, a great honor in Ecuadorian society.

Working with his counterpart agency, the Asociación de Mujeres, Jay was able to participate in the daily operations of a local community bank. The bank was started in 2004 with US Government funds in the form of a PL-480 loan and with the help of a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). Jay’s tasks included helping with computer problems and maintenance of their accounting system. Jay spent several days a month helping the women manage client payments and report the bank’s financial status to PL-480 officials. With over $130,000 in capital from the original loan and accrued interest, the bank stands as a great example of a successful Peace Corps project and demonstrates the sustainability and inter-volunteer cooperation that Peace Corps stresses.

Jay also assisted the teachers at La Libertad’s grade school and high school. Although Jay never received any formal training in the teaching of English as a second language, he successfully completed two years as an English professor at the local grade school. During his first year in La Libertad, Jay worked with the school’s oldest two levels. During his second year, he was asked by the principal to expand his curriculum to be able to work with four grade levels. Jay also taught nutrition, health, and agriculture classes at the local high school. Outside of a classroom setting, Jay taught computer and cooking classes to members of the Women’s Association and to any adults who asked for these courses.

One of the biggest problems facing rural Ecuadorians is the rising price of food. According to recent studies, up to 80% of Ecuadorian children already suffer from slow growth rates and an inability to concentrate at school due to Anemia. The problem of under-nourished children will only worsen with Ecuadorian inflation at close to 9% in 2008. In order to help alleviate in a very small way some of the pressures placed on Ecuadorian families by rising food prices and to improve childhood nutrition, Jay started school and community gardening projects at 15 locations near la Libertad.

Most of the communities that Jay worked in did not have a strong agricultural tradition and did not maintain any small gardens for household consumption. Jay consulted and planned with teachers and parents to determine the best method for implementing the school gardens. With the input of local communities, Jay and another PCV were able to work with students, teachers, and parents to clear land, plant, manage, and harvest their crops. In many ways, the actual gardening was the easiest facet of this project for Jay. What proved more difficult was that, because he was working in communities where he did not live, Jay had to build new relationships and show the community members that he was there to help and not to exploit them. After over a year of working, several of the communities took the initiative to plant gardens on their own at the schools or at individual’s homes. Now that the communities have confidence in Peace Corps’ commitment, Jay has passed this project on to his successor to begin expanding the program to include composting, soil erosion prevention, and pest management.

While in La Libertad, Jay also started a small scale yogurt project whose aim was to increase family incomes. Most families in La Libertad own cows and have a small amount of milk production that is sold for a very low price. Jay constructed a fermentor and researched the process involved in converting milk into yogurt, which would be much more profitable for the members of his community. Jay produced many sample batches and taught several of his neighbors how to produce yogurt. Although, the project did not reach the point where product was being sold, he did arouse interest in many women from his community and his successor will be able to build on that success, insuring that Jay’s efforts will continue to have an effect after he leaves.

Not all Peace Corps projects are successful, and Jay worked hard on one project that was finally deemed unfeasible. Many of the women that Jay worked with showed interest in starting egg production in their homes. Jay visited similar projects, researched costs and procedures, and performed market and feasibility studies. After analyzing the proposed project, Jay realized that it would not work as designed. Jay and the women made many changes to the proposal and their concept of what the project would entail. Finally, Jay wrote and presented a detailed study of their proposed project to Peace Corps officials. Unfortunately, the project was rejected because of the inability of the women involved to dedicate the sufficient amount of time to the management of the project due to their numerous domestic and work commitments.

The last four months of Jay’s service were quite different from his first 20. Jay applied for and was offered the position of Peace Corps Volunteer Technical Co-Trainer for the group of Trainees that arrived in Ecuador in 2009 to replace Jay’s Omnibus. The Co-Trainers provide a first-hand view for Trainees of Volunteer life and role of the Volunteer in development work, and assist in cross-cultural adaptation, the community entry process, safety and security aspects, and other job and Volunteer life-related issues. They also assist Technical Trainers in the design and execution of technical training, in collaboration with the other training components.

Prior to the arrival of the newest group of Trainees, Jay and the other Co-Trainers prepared and planned technical sessions, technical trips, reviewed technical materials, and advised other staff members on ways to improve the training plan. During training they assisted in the implementation of the training sessions, and after training, assisted in the final reporting and evaluation of the training program. Participating in training allowed Jay to pass on much of his knowledge, insights, and experiences to future PCVs. This was a rewarding and enjoyable way to end his 27 months in the beautiful country of Ecuador.

Pursuant to Section 5(f) of the Peace Corps Act 22 U.S.C. 2504(f), as amended, any former Volunteer employed by the United States Government following his/her Peace Corps Volunteer Service is entitled to have any period of satisfactory Peace Corps service credited for purposes of retirement, seniority, reduction in force, leave and other privileges based on length of Government service. That service shall not be credited toward completion of the probationary or trial period of any service requirement for career appointment.

This is to certify in accordance with Executive Order 11103 of April 10, 1963, that Jay Verhoff served successfully as a Peace Corps Volunteer. His service ended on May 4, 2009. He is therefore eligible to be appointed as a career-conditional employee in the competitive civil service on a non-competitive basis. This benefit under the Executive Order extends for a period of one year after termination of Volunteer service, except that the employing agency may extend the period for up to three years for former Volunteer who enters military service, pursues studies at a recognized institution of higher learning, or engages in other activities which, in the view of the appointing agency, warrants extension of the period.

Everything went well that day, but it took forever. It was a strange feeling to walk out of the office and know that I completed what I had set out to do so long ago. It was late in 2005 when I resigned from my job in Chicago with the intention of doing the Peace Corps. Now, all that is behind me and I´m ready for the rest of my life to begin.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Century

As you all know, I’ve had a lot of time to read while being in the Peace Corps. I recently reached a goal I had set for myself two years ago…to read 100 books. Some of the were long (War and Peace), some of them were boring (anything by Proust), and some of them I loved (The Lonesome Dove series). Here is a list of all the books I read…

1) The Civil War; A Narrative. Vol. III. Red River to Appomattox – Shelby Foote
2) The Devil in the White City – Erik Larson
3) Walden and Civil Disobedience – Henry david Thoreau
4) Galápagos – Kurt Vonnegut
5) The Brothers Karamazov – Fydor Dostoyevsky
6) Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
7) Guns, Germs, and Steel – Jared Diamond
8) A Room with a View – E.M. Forster
9) Collapse – Jared Diamond
10) The Mousetrap – Agatha Christie
11) The Panama Hat Trail – Tom Miller
12) Airframe – Michael Crichton
13) Frankenstein – Mary Shelly
14) The Conquerors – Michael Beschloss
15) The Communist Manifesto – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
16) Murder in Three Acts – Agatha Christie
17) Blackhawk Down – mark Bowden
18) Mayflower – Nathaniel Philbrick
19) Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut
20) Pudd’nhead Wilson – Mark Twain
21) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce
22) Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
23) The Prophet – Kahlil Gibram
24) Poirot Investigates – Agatha Christie
25) The Iliad – Homer
26) The Odyssey – Homer
27) Ulysses – James Joyce
28) Ulysses Annotated – Don Gifford
29) Jurassic Park – Michael Crichton
30) Sleeping Murder – Agatha Christie
31) The Hunt for Red October – Tom Clancy
32) The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad
33) War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
34) Goodbye Columbus & Five Short Stories – Philip Roth
35) A Dollhouse – Henrik Ibsen
36) A Bridge Too Far – Cornelius Ryan
37) Grant and Sherman: the Friendship that Won the Civil War – Charles Bracelen Flood
38) The Book of Useless Information – The Useless Information Society
39) The Lost World – Michael Crichton
40) The Great Adventure of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
41) Remembrance of Things Past: Swann’s Way – Marcel Proust
42) Remembrance of Things Past: Within a Budding Grove – Marcel Proust
43) Remembrance of Things Past: The Guermantes Way – Marcel Proust
44) Remembrance of Things Past: Cities of the Plain – Marcel Proust
45) Remembrance of Things Past: The Captive – Marcel Proust
46) Remembrance of Things Past: The Sweet Cheat Gone – Marcel Proust
47) Remembrance of Things Past: The Past Recaptured – Marcel Proust
48) The Anatomy of Fascism – Robert O. Paxton
49) The Carolina Way – Dean Smith
50) Beyond Belief: Islamic excursions among the converted peoples – V.S. Naipaul
51) Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling - Ross King
52) The Ultimate Book of Useless Information – The Useless Information Society
53) Women in Love – D. H. Lawrence
54) Bush at War – Bob Woodward
55) The Best American Short Stories: 2001 – Various Authors
56) Girl with the Pearl Earring – Tracey Chevalier
57) Top Secret Tales of World War II – William B. Breuer
58) Private Parts – Howard Stern
59) Great Book of Whodunit Puzzles – Falcon Travis
60) The Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger
61) I Am America ( And So Can You!) – Stephen Colbert
62) The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan
63) Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
64) Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry
65) Peter the Great: His Life and His World – Robert k. Massic
66) The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
67) Nemesis – Agatha Christie
68) Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle – Moritz Thomsen
69) As I lay Dying – William Faulkner
70) Diary: A Novel – Chuck Palahniuk
71) The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America – Joe Posnanski
72) Exodus – Leon Uris
73) Dead Man’s Walk – Larry McMurtry
74) The Shining – Stephen King
75) The Devine Comedy: Hell – Dante Alighieri
76) Alexander Hamilton: American – Richard Brookhiser
77) An Enemy of the State – Henrik Ibsen (Adapted by Arthur Miller)
78) Comanche Moon – Larry McMurtry
79) Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs – Chuck Klosterman
80) God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater – Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
81) Confessions – Saint Augustine
82) The Tin Drum – Günter Grass
83) The Last of the Mohicans – James Fennimore Cooper
84) East of Eden – John Steinbeck
85) The Bourne Identity – Robert Ludlum
86) The Devine Comedy: Purgatory – Dante Alighieri
87) Villa Incognito – Tom Robbins
88) Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh
89) Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic – Tom Holland
90) Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith – Jon Krakauer
91) The Conscience of a Conservative – Barry Goldwater
92) Operation Shylock: A Confession – Philip Roth
93) The Devine Comedy: Paradise – Dante Alighieri
94) Stolen Season: A Journey Through America & baseball’s Minor Leagues – David Lamb
95) An Ordinary Man – Paul Ruseabagina
96) Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton
97) Sanctuary – William Faulkner
98) Resurrection – Leo Tolstoy
99) True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey
100) Scoop – Evelyn Waugh
101) Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis
102) One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Training Terminated...Almost

I know that I just wrote about my Sister being pregnant with twins and that she was due in June. Guess what? I’m an Uncle already! A couple weeks ago I was on a bus heading home, when I got a phone call from my Sister saying that she had delivered two boys that morning. Ryan, Owen and my Sister are all doing well, but the twins are going to be in the hospital for a while. If you would like to read more about the twins, you can check out the blog that my Brother-In-Law, Matt, is doing. The site is http://www.carepages.com/carepages/TheMcAvinTwins

It has been pretty hectic for the last couple of weeks with Training. We have had a bunch of Technical sessions to plan and implement, and from April 12th to the 20th we were on the Technical trip (my favorite part of Training). The first three days of the Tech Trip were in Puerto Quito which is about four hours west of Quito near the coast. It was hot as Hades down there and we all got bitten a ton by the bugs. We spent those days working at an organic farm near where we were staying. It was interesting and fun to get our hands dirty, but the heat was almost too much. We’d work from 8:00 to 5:00 and then jump in the pool, cool off, and then play soccer until it got too dark. After soccer, we’d have dinner and pass out in bed and spend all night sweating.

On the 15th we (by we, I mean myself and all the Trainees who are going to be living in the Oriente) left Puerto Quito. Here is our itinerary…

Wednesday, April 15th
- Breakfast in Puerto Quito
- Travel to Puyo via Quito (Lunch in Quito)
- Check-in “Gran Hotel Amazonico”
- Dinner in Puyo at O Sole Mio – meet with Volunteers from the Puyo area who can talk about their experiences.

Thursday, April 16th
Natural Resource Trainees
- Breakfast at Hotel
- Visit CERFA Orchid Park – take a tour of and speak with the owner, Omar Tello, about how he constructed and maintains his park and conducts tourism operations.
- Lunch in Puyo
- Visit Estación Biológico Pindo Mirador – discuss native tree species
- Dinner in Puyo

Sustainable Agriculture Trainees
- Breakfast at Hotel
- Visit CERFA Orchid Park – take a tour of and speak with the owner, Omar Tello, about how he constructed and maintains his park and conducts tourism operations.
- Lunch in Puyo
- Visit sugar cane processing facilities at El Vallecito
- Dinner in Puyo

Friday, April 17th
- Breakfast at hotel
- Go to Centro FRATES
- Visit La Libertad – do Abono charla with community members. Learn how to build a cobertizo and learn about sugar cane cultivation, organic agriculture production, and agro forestry in the Oriente.
- Lunch
- Go to San Pedro for a charla by PCV Jason Kamisky and community members on how to build and maintain fish ponds, as well as, how to raise fish.
- Visit the Reserva Hola Vida
- Dinner at the Centro FRATES

Saturday, April 18th
- Breakfast at the Centro FRATES
- Return to Puyo and check in to Gran Hotel Amazonico
- Visit Waorani store and Manuela Ima (President of AMWAE) about artesenia and maintaining a small business
- Lunch
- Visit Parque OMAERE – Take a tour with Chris Canady (Vice President) of the ethnobotanical park. Receive charla and work with Chris on composting toilets, trail maintenance, and soil erosion prevention.
- Dinner in Puyo

Sunday, April 19th
- Breakfast at hotel
- Travel to Tena
- Check in Hotel Los Yutzos II
- Travel to Archidona
- Work with the Association Ruku Kausay on cacao, fish ponds, small animal management, and eco-tourism
- Traditional lunch prepared by the Association Ruku Kausay ($3.50/person)

(These Pictures need a caption - We are eating Chonta Curos, or grubs...delicious!)
- Visit Jumandy Caves ($3.00/person with tip)
- Return to Tena

Monday, April 20th
- Travel to Quito/Cayambe

As you can see, the trip was packed with interesting and fun stuff. The Trainees said that they learned a lot and really enjoyed themselves. This trip was the biggest thing that I had to plan for training, so I’m glad that it went well. After we got back, the Trainees gave presentations on their trips. The kids who went with me gave a nice presentation and even wrote a poem to thank me. That meant a lot to me.

Now that the Tech Trip is done, the Co-Trainers are pretty much done too. We were supposed to help out with the final evaluations and reporting, but they decided that they just wanted to PC staff to do that. The Trainees Spear-In on Wednesday the 29th, so that will be our last day of “work”. I have to do my final medical stuff before I can COS (Close Of Service), so next week I’ll be spending most of my time at the Doctor, Dentist, or talking to the PC nurse. My COS date is on May 4th, so I’ll be in the office that day to have all my bosses sign me out, turn in my cell phone, and finish up any other paperwork that I have to do. One more week and the Peace Corps will be behind me.

I also recently found out when I’m going to fly home. I have a flight booked for May 28th at 9:15am. I should be arriving in St. Louis that night around 9:00pm. I can’t wait to see everybody and to meet my nephews. First though, I’m going to do some traveling. I plan on going south to some of the cities in Ecuador that I’ve never been to and also to go to the Isla de la Plata (otherwise know as The poor Man’s Galapagos).

It’s going to be a fun month, hence it’s new name…The Merry Merry Month of Jay

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Response to a Comment

Anonymous said...

"It's kind of strange to think that in two hours we decided the next two years for 20 PCVs, but I guess that's how things go in a government gig."

And probably disturbing to those whose loved ones are in your hands.

This was the comment that was posted on the blog after my last post "Un-Zamboined Ice and Impropperly Oiled Lanes". The quote is directly from my post, and the commentary was added by "Anonymous".

First off, I want to thank everyone again for reading my blog. I know that at times it can get a little boring or repetitive (I try to keep it interesting and funny), but writing this all down helps me to process all the emotions that I´m going through, and your reading it helps to fulfill one of Peace Corps´ objectives, to increase American´s understanding of foreign cultures.

I also want to thank those who go through the effort of posting comments. There haven´t been that many, but I do take them seriously. I´m not sure who posted this comment, but I wanted to take a little time to clarify things. I´m assuming that whoever posted this was either a family member of one of the current Trainees, a concerned party, or just someone who thinks that I shouldn´t have taken so jocular a tone with that issue.

Because they are taking this seriously, I´m going to take it seriously too.

I need to remind people of the disclaimer that is at the top-right of the blog, and at the very bottom as well. This blog represents MY OPINION ALONE. I´m going to talk a little bit about the inner workings of the PC later, and I want to make sure that this is clear.

I would like to respond first to the commentator using the phrase "whose loved ones are in your hands". I need to say that the responsibilities of the Technical Co-Trainers is very limited. We assist in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of the Technical session, we have planned the Technical Trips, and we act as extra resources to assist the PCTs in cultural and professional adjustment in Ecuador. To say that their lives are in our hands is a gross overstatement.

I also hope that this comment is not insinuating that the Peace Corps takes its responsibilities lightly when it comes to the health and safety of all PCVs. From Washington all the way down, everyone at Peace Corps is committed to the PCVs and puts this factor first in all the decisions that they make. That being said, the person most responsible for the well-being of the PCV is the PCV themselves. Everything that we do during training is to ensure that the PCVs will be able to handle life at the future work sites, but if they do not follow the instructions given to them, they may put themselves at risk.

Instead of giving a short one-liner about the site determination process, I´ll now give a fuller explanation. Before the PCTs arrive in country, we are given access to their resumes and aspiration statements. By reading these, we (and when I say we, I mean relevant PC staff) are able to get a feel for the Trainees skills, abilities, and personal goals. When the PCTs arrive, we are constantly watching them to see how they interact with fellow PCTs and PC staff and noting their participation levels during training sessions. We then have introductory interviews where we can talk face to face with the PCTs to clarify their background and find out what they would prefer in their site (for example hot vs. cold climates, city vs. rural, working with a NGO vs. a community). We also do a skills assessment and have frequent individual conversations to get to better know the PCTs and if they are having any problems adjusting.

Training is an intense period where the PCTs learn a large amount of material on a multitude of subjects very rapidly. It is almost like cramming for an exam in college. For the staff it is the same. We are trying to get to know 45 PCTs in the weeks before the sites are determined.

When it comes to actually picking the sites, first we can assign the married couples to the few sites that can accommodate them. Then we assign PCTs who have special skill sets (computers, animals, business, chemicals) to the sites that have specifically requested a Volunteer with these skill sets. We are able to place the majority of the PCTs without much discussion because they are clearly a good fit for a certain site.

Several of the remaining PCTs were assigned based on their desire or ability to learn a third indigenous language.

The rest of the PCTs were placed based on a combination their site preferences and abilities. At the end of this process there were only one or two PCTs whose sites we felt could have been changed.

After the Co-Trainers and Technical Trainers had created this list, we submitted it to our boss. I have to be honest here. I do not know what decisions or meeting take place at the HQ level on site assignation. I would assume that the PC nurses and Safety and Security Coordinator have a say in the site determination, but because of privacy issues, we are not, nor should we be, privy to that information. In the case of the current PCTs, the final site assignments were the same as what we had decided.

We are faced with difficult decisions and have a limited amount of time to make them, but I feel that we did a good job getting to know the Trainees and made the right choices with the information that we had. I´ve heard the other countries make this determination before the Trainees are even invited to join the PC. When I received my PC invitation it just said "Ecuador", but I think they feel that if the PCT knows from day one where they are going, they can be better prepared for their service. Another model would be to give the PCTs their sites at the very end of training so that we can use as much time as possible to get to know the PCTs. I think our system of assigning sites at the middle of training is the best option, but each of them has its benefits and down sides.

So there is the real story. We do take this very seriously. As I said, I think we did a good job placing the PCTs, but the reality is that the Peace Corps experience is what the Peace Corps Volunteer makes of it. They will be put in a variety of situations and all have the opportunity to use (or not use) their skills where they feel they can be productive. Sometimes its scary, and often you may hate your site at first only to grow to love it.

It is a crazy two years, but what do you expect from a government gig!

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Un-zambonied Ice and Impropperly Oiled Lanes

Where to begin?

First off, Training is still going good. It's hard to believe, but we are already halfway through. As I write this, the Trainees are all at their future sites. Things have gone great so far, but the real problems will beginning after they get back from their sites. That will be when they start to complain if they don't like where we put them.

It was sad last week because we said goodbye to seven members of my training group who all flew back to the USA. A couple of us who weren't leaving came in to Quito to give them a nice send off. We let one of my friends decide how to celebrate, and she picked...bowling and ice skating! It was fun, but the bowling alley lanes were drier than your grandady's scalp and the ice was gouged up. I know I shouldn't expect too much, but I was disappointed that I couldn't show off my patented spin-ball and triple axel.

After that we went out for a bit of dancing.

I went to the airport at 6:00 am the next day with some friends to say goodbye. I don't know if it was the headache or the heartache, but it was hard. I think a lot of it was realizing that my time is soon to come to an end as well.

One good thing about a friend of mine leaving was that he gave me a couple bottles of Guinness that he had just received, but wasn't going to drink. I shared them with the other Co-Trainers. It wasn't like a good draught pint, but good enough.

After seeing them off, I went down to La Libertad for the day. I wanted to give the new PCV who is living there, Russ, some contact information for the schools that I worked with and also to attend the La Libertad grade school "Sports Day". As it turns out, Russ wasn't there that day, but the "Sports Day" was fun. When I showed up, all the kids from the grade school and high school were in the center of town watching the grade school teachers playing the local police in volleyball. As I walked up to the court, a ton of little kids came running out to greet me. They all were yelling my name and asking if I was coming back to teach them more English. It was nice to know they remembered me, but I think that I'd have to teach them "some" English before I could teach them "more" English. I said hi to all the parents and teachers and got a sore hand from high-fiving all the kids.

After saying hi to my neighbors, one of the teachers asked me to be the referee for the next game. I tried to get out of it, but was unsuccessful (as always). The game was a basketball game between the female teachers at the high school and grade school. As soon as they started to play, I knew I was in trouble. They were fouling and double dribbling all over the place. I decided that since I would either have to blow the whistle every 15 seconds, or not at all, I'd go with option two. Most of the male teachers watching started to yell that I should call more fouls, but I stood by my guns and only called two fouls in the first half. I don't know how many I would have called in the second half because they fired me at halftime and let someone else do it...fine by me.

The best part about going to La Libertad was seeing my neighbor's kids. They were all doing good, and Karla, the middle girl, won the "Sports Day" beauty contest. The youngest daughter was confused to see me again. I think she couldn't quite remember me, but when I picked her up and asked her my name she said "Jay" right away, and then it all seemed to come back. Overall it was nice to be back for a day, but one day was enough.

Last week we had a session on small animal management. We did some work with chickens and cuyes. I think the Trainees enjoyed the hands on experience, but they were a little grossed out when yours truly castrated two guinea pigs. I don't have a lot of experience doing this, but it's not that hard. I'll be more than happy to give lessons when I come home.

Here is a picture of some of the guinea pigs with their babies (these were un-castrated of course) and a picture of Mount Cayambe that I took from near the farm.

The biggest thing we have done recently with training was assigning the sites to the Trainees. As I said, they all seemed happy with their sites, so Mary and I are pretty happy. We sat down for a couple of hours two weeks ago and put together a list of where we thought the Trainees would work out best. We gave the list to our boss expecting that he'd make some changes, but he kept them all the same. It's kind of strange to think that in two hours we decided the next two years for 20 PCVs, but I guess that's how things go in a government gig.

-I finished my taxes for 2008 recently. Surprisingly I owed Uncle Sam nothing again. That is one nice thing...the taxes on nothing are very low.

-I also wanted top say thanks to everyone who sent me a card, a phone call, or an e-mail on my birthday. THANKS !!!!!

-I haven't made a big deal about it on the blog, but I wanted to finally write about something that has been very exciting for my family. We found out in December that my sister was pregnant...with twins!! Everything has gone well so far and she is due to deliver in June. Here are some pics of babies and mother.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Hear That Training a Comin’

The Trainees finally arrived on February 25th. It has been a fun and intense two weeks since then. The other Co-Trainers and I have been preparing, implementing, and evaluating most of the technical aspects of the training. I have to admit that working in the office before they got here was pretty boring and I wasn’t too motivated, but now things are a lot better.

From the moment they got here, I have been living in a cloud of déjà vu. Almost everything that the new trainees are doing, we did two years ago. The night they arrived, we sat at the Airport waiting for them. I remember when we walked off the plane. There were so many thoughts and worries going through my head all mixed in with excitement and curiosity. I remember the Co-Trainers for our group meeting us and telling the baggage handlers in Spanish where to move our bags. I was impressed to see Gringos speaking so well, and being so organized. Now, I was one of those Gringos. It was a good feeling, but a little weird.

We spent the first couple days in Quito listening to presentations by the Country Director, PC staff, and some representatives from the US Embassy. We didn’t have a lot of stuff to do, but it was good to see the Trainees and answer their questions. We also spent those days finishing up the plan for the first week of training. There are 45 Trainees from all over the US, a couple of them are older, and there are two married couples. It is a lot like our Omnibus. The difference is that these guys “seem” a bit more low-key than we were. I used quotes around seem because it is impossible to say how they act when the training staff isn’t around, but I don’t think they drink quite as much beer as we did.

After getting them prepped in Quito, we moved all the Trainees bags to their home-stay families around Cayambe. It was a lot of work, but we were able to move our stuff as well (that was a lot better than moving all our crap in buses again). It was nice to move out of the house in Quito, but as a parting gift, the owners of the house I lived in only charged me $180 for repairing the Kohler faucet I broke. It was only a small piece of plastic, but repairing anything from the US costs an arm and a leg down here.

The new house we are living in is huge (except for my room). The three girls have big rooms that are all the same and mine is on the small size (small enough that I can touch all four walls at the same time). I worked out well (for the girls), but I can’t complain (outside of parenthesis).

The good news that we all received was that the Peace Corps will be giving us a 9% raise effective in March. The inflation has been pretty bad down here, so that extra $28 a month will really help.

In Cayambe we have had a couple technical sessions where we have had to present to the Trainees. Some of it is stuff I know well, but some of it is on topics that I haven’t had to work with since our training. Its nice to review those topics and now that I understand Spanish, I’m learning a lot of things that I didn’t pick up on the first time around.

I had to give a short session on grafting and pruning the other day. I hadn’t done anything with trees in La Libertad, so I had to do some research. I think I did a good job, and one of the other Co-Trainers asked me afterwards, “Wow, I didn’t know you knew so much about trees!” That was the good, the bad was when one of the Trainees asked, “Jay, how many grafts have you done during your service?” I answered that including the six demonstration grafts I did during the session, I had done six. He looked at me and said, “That’s what I thought”.

Another interesting thing is the La Libertad already has its replacement PCV. One of the Trainees has been a Peace Corps Volunteer several times, starting in 1984. He has been in Ecuador as a PCV and even worked in the office. Since he knew almost everything already, they decided to let him skip training and go right to his site. They decided that la Libertad was the best fit for him due to his small gardening experience and desire to work with a woman’s group in the Sierra. I hope it works out for Russell and I plan on heading down there soon to give him my contact lists and advise him on projects I tried, what I had hoped that he would continue, and the basic logistics of La Libertad. Its crazy to think of him sleeping in my bed, but its his bed now.