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Thursday, September 03, 2009

10 Questions (and Answers) about Peace Corps

I was recently asked by the Peace Corps Press office to answer 10 questions about my Peace Corps service. This is the information they will use to put together a news release to different news organizations about my service.

A couple of the questions prompted me to talk about some things that I’ve not mentioned on this blog before, while a couple of other answers may sound familiar to regular readers.

Here are the 10 questions and then the answers.

1) What one particular experience/moment highlights your Peace Corps service?

2) How have your values shifted, if at all?

3) What have you accomplished for the Tongan people?

4) Have you made local friends? Share a ‘friendship’ moment.

5) What local customs drive you crazy?

6) How does technology fit into your experience?

7) Why should more Americans apply for PC service?

8) Describe your village site….in detail: what is attractive/difficult about it?

9) When were you most frightened?

10) How will you move your service forward upon your return to the US?

1) What one particular experience/moment highlights your Peace Corps service?

I’ve helped more than 300 Tongans in both workshops and one-on-one learn new skills to help their business be more successful. In some cases, it was helping them learn how to start a business. In one case it was both. I worked with a Tongan business owner who had run up a TOP$20,000 (About $10,000 US) overdraft at a local bank and was on the verge of having to close his business. He kept no records and was giving away too much stuff from his store to friends and family and also for his own consumption. I went in, examined his records and made suggestions on ways to turn his business around. He immediately did everything I suggested including tracking what he was giving away. Once he realized how much he was giving, he was able to reduce that. He started paying down his overdraft and started keeping records for the first time.

He even started writing down all of the cigarettes that he was taking and smoking. He told me that once he saw on paper how many cigarettes he was smoking each day, it forced him to cut back on his smoking.

He has now paid his overdraft down, his business is doing much better and he has now started a new business…running a taxi cab service. His mother is sick and he has been able to afford to hire an employee to run the store so he can be with his sick mother. That employee continues to keep good business records for him.

When I think about success stories, this is the one that jumps out at me. All he needed was a little push and he did the rest on his own.

2) How have your values shifted, if at all?

I think that by putting yourself into a culture that is so completely different you can’t help but get a better understanding of the world. As a person, who spent most of his life in the news media and living in a multi-cultural place like South Florida, I always thought I had a pretty good “world view” of things, but coming to Tonga, I realize that I didn’t really have a clue. It’s not so much that I understand the world better, but I think I understand people better. Living in a foreign culture you really do learn that people are much more alike than they are different.

I’m not sure that any of my “core” values have changed, but hopefully I understand the world a little better now because of my Peace Corps experiences.

3) What have you accomplished for the Tongan people?

See answer #1 above…Hopefully some of the business people with whom I work now have the skills to do better and perhaps be successful.

4) Have you made local friends? Share a ‘friendship’ moment.

I went fishing one Saturday with two Tongan friends. Both have a lot more experience fishing than I have and I was keen to get out and enjoy the day. As it turns out, I caught the only fish of the day, a small grouper which I landed shortly after we threw our lines in the water.

However the trip was a great Tongan experience. My two friends, like most Tongans don't have rods and reels. They have fishing line, some fish hooks and some weights. My weight was a small piece of rebar with the hook tied about 12 inches above it. We used pieces of smaller fish as bait.

I felt a tug on my line, but didn't really think I had a fish, but when I pulled it up, there was a fish. Six hours later and it was still the only fish we had caught but we did do a great job of feeding the fish underneath us because they kept eating the bait.

The fish weren't the only ones eating. When we first got out on the water, my friends pulled out a big container of sandwiches, probably 20 sandwiches for the three of us. Then once we got to the spot where we dropped anchor, out came more food. A big can of fatty meat and a huge bowl of root crops. Tongans love to eat and even when fishing, we had more food than the three of us could eat.

As we headed back to shore, we ran out of gas. We were near the shore, but still a good distance from where the car was parked. We ended up spending more than an hour swimming the boat back.

5) What local customs drive you crazy?

Probably funerals. The Tongan word is putu. When someone dies, the family is expected to throw a big feast and feed everyone who shows up. While it is also customary for people to bring a gift to a funeral, the family responds by giving gifts to everyone who comes. The family of a loved one never comes out ahead. At the bank where I work, we have people come in immediately after a loved one has died seeking to take out a loan to pay for the funeral. In some cases, a family will go in debt for years just to pay for the funeral.

This all seems crazy to me. It is certainly important to pay your respects to your loved ones, but not to this extent.

I was out visiting bank clients one day when we happened to drive by a funeral. One of the bank’s employees asked me if I was hungry. I knew he meant that he wanted to stop and eat at the funeral. I asked him if he knew the person who died or the family. He said no, but it was okay, because at a funeral, you feed everyone who shows up. I told him I wasn’t hungry and suggested we go back to the bank. I didn’t feel right about sitting down and taking free food from someone who just had a relative die.

It seems to me the money spent on a funeral would be much better spent paying for the school fees of a family member than on a lavish feast and gifts.

Because there is often free food, when someone dies, people will take an entire day off of from work to attend the putu. Certainly that is fine for family members but is it necessary for an entire village. This means you might go to the grocery store and find it closed because the staff is all attending a funeral that day.

6) How does technology fit into your experience?

On my second day as a volunteer in Vava’u, I introduced myself to the manager of ANZ bank here. As we were talking, she asked me if I knew how to program a cash register. I had never done that before, but I figured I would be able to do it, so I told her that I could. Within a week, I was programming a cash register for that business and training the staff how to use it. Next I did the same for a bar. A month later, another business called and wanted me to help with their cash register and train their staff and then a month later, a restaurant that was under new ownership called asking for the same assistance. In all four cases, these were businesses that had a cash register, but didn't know how to use it. Not only are the businesses now using the cash register, but it is helping them improve their record keeping.

The same thing has happened with computers. Once I was able to help one person with their computer, then another would call. Then I helped a computer lab, and then I built a website and then another website. Once the word got around that I could help, I started getting lots of calls. When possible I try to show people how they can do some of the things themselves, but often the people I help barely know how to use a computer so it’s hard to teach them how to repair one.

In the case of the websites I’ve built, I’ve tried to design them so that the Tongan staff can easily update them without the help of a web person. All of the sites are for tourism related businesses. Hopefully that will help them attract more customers from overseas.

The funny part of technology has been helping Tongans with their digital cameras. Many now have either cell phones that take photos or digital camera but they have no idea how to use them. It’s amazing to see their faces when they take a picture for the first time and then get to see it right away.

7) Why should more Americans apply for PC service?

I think all Americans should have a chance to live in a foreign culture. Whether it is Peace Corps or some other program

If more Americans had the chance to be exposed to different cultures, I think we would be a much more accepting society. When you remove yourself from all the things we consider normal, your realize what an “American centric” view we have of the world.

Joining Peace Corps is also a chance to do something rewarding. I don’t think many volunteers get to “save the world” or do huge major projects, but I think most, if not all, make at least a small difference in the lives of the people in their host country.

I will say the Peace Corps is NOT for everyone. If someone is thinking about joining, they should research it thoroughly and make sure it really is right for them. It’s pretty easy to find the contact information for many volunteers online. Find some volunteers who seem to be similar to you and start up an e-mail exchange with them. Ask questions and get a lot of different opinions. I think most volunteers will be happy to tell you about their experiences and some have had bad experiences while others, like me, have had a great experience.

8) Describe your village site….in detail: what is attractive/difficult about it?

I actually live in the town of Neiafu and it’s not really what you would imagine as a typical village. I live on the property of my landlord, Kepu Tupou and his family. In addition to Kepu’s house, there is the house where I live and right next to it, is another house where James Barbour, an education volunteer lives. James and I live 10 feet from each other, but each has our own house. Our situation is unique in Peace Corps Tonga because no other volunteer lives that close to another anywhere in the country. For some volunteers they have to take a boat to see another volunteer.

I like my living situation a lot. Kepu and his family are great and they feed me Tongan food almost every Sunday. That’s a big part of the culture here, not only sharing food, but having a big meal on Sunday after Church. It’s also nice to have another American so close and I’m thankful to have a person like James right next door.

I’m also very close to work. It’s a 10 minute walk down the hill to my job at the Tonga Development Bank. That walk home isn’t quite as nice as I have to climb back up the hill and it is a steep walk. However, the road offers a great view of the harbor so the view helps make up for the steep climb.

9) When were you most frightened?

Only once was I really frightened. The story is a bit long and it happened just one month after becoming a volunteer. One Thursday, my friend and fellow volunteer Craig and I had lunch together at the Catholic Basilica in Nuku’alofa. They have a small restaurant in the basement of the Church and I had eaten there a few times previously. I usually order the special and on this day it was fried tuna. I would have preferred to have it lightly seared, but was just happy to get tuna, as it is one of my favorite meals. Craig did not order the fish and ate something else which I don’t remember. When I got back to work, I wasn’t feeling great and told my supervisor at the bank I was going home. I told Craig that lunch didn’t sit well with me. He was surprised that I was feeling bad so quickly after we ate, even mentioning that normally food poisoning takes a while to be noticed after you eat.

I went home and stayed in bed the rest of the day and called in sick on Friday. I did not eat anything at all either Thursday night or all day Friday. I never vomited but just felt bad. Not really nauseous. I think queasy would be the best way to describe it.

I woke up early Saturday morning, reached for my water bottle and discovered I did not have the strength to pick it up. My first thought was that I was weak from not eating, but I quickly realized this was much more serious. I couldn’t lift anything with my left hand and I couldn’t even raise my arm and hand over my head. For all practical purposes, I had lost use of my left arm and hand.

This terrified me as you can imagine. Clearly this was not the result of something I ate. It was a much more serious problem. I called the Peace Corps medical office and the Assistant Peace Corps Medical Director came over. She checked my blood pressure and pulse, which were both normal. She asked if I was in pain to which I replied no. I had numbness in the fingers on both hands and also had numbness on my tongue but I wasn’t uncomfortable. She told me that she would get me to a doctor first thing on Monday, but there wasn’t much she could do for me on a Saturday unless things got worse.

On Monday when we got to the doctors office, I was unable to write or sign my name. (I write left-handed). Jacinta Tonga, the nurse who is the Peace Corps Medical Officer had to fill it out for me. Once I got into the exam room, the doctor diagnosed that I had just 1/5 of my normal strength in my arm. In other words, I had lost 80% use of my hand and arm. The doctor thought I might have had a stroke but thought it could also be something muscular. She even checked me for diabetes. I really didn’t believe I had suffered a stroke.

The doctor was an Australian Doctor, probably in her late 50’s. After examining me, she suggested acupuncture to see if that would help my arm. While Jacinta, the Peace Corps Medical Officer who accompanied me to the doctor was skeptical and wasn’t sure I should have it, I agreed to give it a try. I figured it certainly wouldn’t do any harm.

At the clinic, there is only one exam room, so the doctor moved me into the clinic pharmacy which opens onto the waiting room and has a big open window between the rooms. She stuck six needles in me, one in my head, the rest in my hand, arm and shoulder. I asked for a glass of water and was left alone in the pharmacy. After about five minutes, I started to feel faint. I screamed for help and a stampede of people came rushing in, including other patients who were waiting to see the doctor. They grabbed me before I fell and put me on the floor. I spent the next 20 minutes lying on the floor of the pharmacy with these needles sticking out of me. I can only imagine what would have happened if I had fallen on top of one and jammed it into my body. Afterwards the doctor told me that about 1 out of every 50 people get faint when they get acupuncture. It’s hard for me to imagine that those little needles could cause that.

Peace Corps was now making plans to send me to Brisbane, Australia for a full exam and an MRI. Jacinta told me: “Steve, I know you really love Peace Corps, but if you have to be sent home, it’s because you need to take care of your arm. That is what is really important.” Of course she was right, but just hearing someone say out loud that I could be sent home and medically discharged from the Peace Corps was pretty scary. I went home and spent the rest of that day and night wondering what I would do back in the US, especially with no use of my left arm and hand. I couldn’t even type or use the computer easily. However, the practical side soon kicked in and I decided I would go back to the US and find to the very best doctor and hospital for treatment of problems like I had. It didn’t matter to me where it was in the United States, just that I would go to the best place possible. Peace Corps would be paying for my treatment and I figured I could easily absorb the costs of living somewhere until I got better. And there was always the chance that the hospital was near my home in Florida or near my family in Virginia.

On Tuesday, my arm was better. Not normal, but I had more use of it and could almost bend my elbow into a right angle. I called Jacinta who told me she still did not have an appointment for me in Australia, but that she was happy to hear I was doing better. She told me I was to stay home for the rest of the week and didn’t even want me to go out of my house.

Two days later, my arm and hand were doing much better and Jacinta called and said “You were poisoned”. That was the official verdict from the Peace Corps Medical office in Washington, DC after reviewing my case. I was skeptical at first. I couldn’t believe that everything that had happened was the result of eating fish. But after reading the Peace Corps medical handbook and looking online, I came to believe that it probably was a proper diagnosis. I was probably suffering from Ciguatera Fish poisoning, Paralytic Shellfish poisoning or Scombroid Fish Poisoning. And it probably was not anyone’s fault that I got sick. All three of the poisons mentioned above are impossible to detect and the fish comes out of the water that way.

Because I was getting better everyday, I no longer had to take a trip to Brisbane, Australia and I had no need for any further medical attention. I went back to work the following week and two weeks after I had first eaten the poisoned fish, I decided my arm was 100%. However, it does still scare me to think how much poison I had ingested to have that kind of impact on me. It also changed my perspective and made me appreciate the fact that I was still in Peace Corps.

10) How will you move your service forward upon your return to the US?

As I mentioned early, I think I have a better view of the World, or at least people because of my Peace Corps experience. Ideally, I would like to continue with Peace Corps in some capacity. I’m pretty passionate about helping small businesses and would love to find an opportunity where I could so that within the Peace Corps organization.

I’m also fully prepared to talk about my Peace Corps service with anyone who is interested. I’ve been writing a weekly blog about my experiences since I applied to join the Peace Corps and I’ve been amazed by how many people read it each week. Since I’ve started the blog and through July 8, 2009, I’ve had 32,621 page views and 18,152 visits from all 50 US States and 132 Countries and Territories. While I plan to stop writing my blog once I return to the USA, I intend to leave it online for anyone who is interested in learning more about Peace Corps and Tonga. (The blog is at http://blog.stevesadventure.com)

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