Monday, September 04, 2006

Barrio Silvestre

You don’t have to be a PCV for long before you discover that there are certain aspects of Peace Crops life that are indisputably distinct from your former existence. My “Treaty with Urban Wildlife,” as I have come to refer to it, is a good example. It runs something like this: Spiders are welcome in the house although physical contact is highly discouraged. Webs are left in tact except when erected in high traffic areas. Cockroaches are prohibited within the house and trespassers are swept outside. The occasional toads that wander in from the rain and are gently escorted to the nearest exit. The presence of mice and ants is also banned but compliance is erratic at best and negotiations continue. I am rather proud of my harmonious co-existence with the barrio creatures. I sometimes think of myself as the “Ghetto Goodall.” I am significantly less interactive and amorous with my wildlife subjects than the renowned primatologist but I am living with nature… sort of.
However, in the past few weeks, rodent treaty negotiations have intensified and are putting into question my “Goodall” status. Gnawed masa bags and nocturnal scampering escalated negotiations to full combat operations. I had resorted to setting out poison after my efforts of dissuasion and bartering had gone unheeded. The poison was only out a short time before my Buddhist sensibilities began to get the best of me. (Interestingly enough, my Buddhist sensibilities have not evolved to the point of vegetarianism, although I have developed a personal policy of not condoning the killing of any creature I am not personally willing to eat.) I finally decided that I did not want to be responsible for the karmic repercussions of destroying a living creature, even if it is a vile living creature. All illusions of having avoided butchery come to a halt when I walk onto my back patio and discover a dead rat lying under my sink precisely where I place my right foot to brush my teeth. My immediate reaction is a jerky, disjointed spastic dance. Once that is accomplished, I reassess the situation. It holds that there is a dead rat under my sink precisely where I put my right foot to brush my teeth.
I live alone, so this is not a problem I can ignore and hope it goes away. At some point I am going to have to brush my teeth. What exactly is the Standard Operating Procedure for rodent carcass removal? I check the PCV Handbook and find no answers. I figure my best bet is to burn it with the trash. Cremation sounds karmically acceptable; ashes to ashes, blah, blah, blah… I need a shovel to transport the corpse from beneath my sink to the trash pile. I look around and I’ve got nothing at all shovel-like. Then it hits me…BAM! I am a woman living alone in a machista culture. I so don’t have to deal with this. Granted… I don’t have a father, brother, husband or boyfriend BUT no importa, I can borrow my neighbor’s. Suddenly tolerating all of Fat, Nasty Bar Owner’s catcalls will pay off. I go next door and with all of the innocence and feminine docility I can muster I ask how one goes about removing a dead rat from under a sink. The marido takes the bait.
I show him the carcass and he exclaims, “¡Hue’pucha! ¡Qué grandota!” He kinda makes a face and I can tell that he really has no desire to remove my rat carcass either and is probably wishing “que no me hubiera dejado el tren.” He looks around, and then, apparently not finding whatever he is looking for he picks up the rat by the tail and holds it away from himself exactly as if he were holding a dead rat by the tail. I am thinking about rodent diseases and am about to remind him to wash his hands when he swings the thing down and then tosses it like a horseshoe over the concrete wall and into the neighbor’s yard. I stand, mouth agape, and as I watch it tumbling through the air head-over-tail over head-over-tail and then disappearing from my life forever I can’t help but feel like my entire plan has backfired.
Okay, let’s make the best of this situation. What I have now is an opportunity to teach, to challenge the status quo and instill higher values. That’s what I’m here for anyways, isn’t it? I ready myself to explain that “out of site” is not “out of mind,” that we need to work together as a community to solve these pressing concerns, that environmental and sanitation issues especially require collaboration and cooperation. We can’t just toss our problems into our neighbor’s yards and expect that we won’t experience repercussions. I take a deep breath and say:
Well…. it was implied.

Herein lies the problem, somewhere between intention and execution. Apparently all that first world, liberal-educated indignation with which I watched the rat fly over the wall was significantly overshadowed by a stark sense of relief. In reality, my number one priority was removing the carnage from my dental hygiene staging area. Punto.
Puro Peace Corps. We arrive full of bright-eyed idealism. There are answers. Take my hand. I’ll show you. We’ll do it together. We begin and there is buy in. There is energy. There is excitement. There is cafecito. Then it starts to crumble. There are obstacles. There is conflict. There are excuses. There is pereza. We think we’ve failed. We think we’ve failed because we have failed. The problem is not failure. Human beings are a flawed species. Our collective failure and frustration are born not from our inability to realize the Utopia we’ve imagined but from trying to escape the fallibility of the human condition. One day one may travel thousands of miles from home to “make the world a better place,” and the next toss a dead rat into a neighbor’s yard.
In regard to a treaty with the untamed human barrio creature…negotiations continue and are conducted, as often as humanly possible, with patience and compassion.

(The above is the article I wrote for La Cadena, the CR volunteer newsletter.)


Mike Sheppard said...


I just came across your journal about your adventures in Costa Rica. I added a link to your page to a database I collected of Peace Corps Journals and blogs:

Worldwide PC Blog Directory:

1. Contains over 1,600 journals and blogs from Peace Corps Volunteers serving around the world.
2. Official rules and regulations for current PCV online Journals and blogs. Those rules were acquired from Peace Corps Headquarters using the Freedom of Information Act.
3. The map for every country becomes interactive, via Google, once clicked on.
4. Contact information for every Peace Corps staff member worldwide.
5. Links to Graduate School Programs affiliated with Peace Corps, along with RPCVs Regional Associations.
6. And each country has its own detailed page, which is easily accessible with a possible slow Internet connection within the field.

There is also an e-mail link on every page. If you want to add a journal, spotted a dead link, or have a comment.

Thanks for volunteering with the Peace Corps!

-Mike Sheppard
RPCV / The Gambia (’03-’05)

Anonymous said...

Good job with the rat and the article (not necessarily in that order).
You seem to have it figured out. If you ever have doubts, you can just refer back to your own words.
Love Dee

ladyslonic said...

Do you know how amazing your writing is getting?