Friday, August 31, 2012

A Mountain of Time

Sierra Gorda de Queretaro, MX
Oh how I’m fighting time, in both directions – counting the days down to November 5, my now officially declared COS date, and grasping for time to get it all done, smashing activities of work and play, clean-up and celebration, into a calendar of 8 tiny weeks, well-aware that, regardless of planning, things will happen on Mexican time.

And somewhere in between the two extremes is a sense that it’s the right time, perfect timing, just enough time to get done what gets done. 

Can I hold on to that sense of acceptance, meditate on it each day ‘till I turn blue with knowing – or time simply runs out?

And funny, too, how just as you are preparing to go, trying to close doors, others start cracking open. Last night, at a little fiesta de cupleaƱos for my neighbor Lalo, the Tenedor hamburgesa man, I met Saul. Turns out he’s the son of the carpenter that’s frequently in our office getting permissions to cut down mesquite trees.  Father and son have the same round face, santa cheeks and sparkly eyes.
Saul, I discovered, is one of two Couchsurfers in the pueblo – the other is a Frenchman – I didn’t know there was a Frenchman in Green River.  They open their doors to visitors from all over the world – in attempts to open up their small world here.  

Saul was intrigued with my Peace Corps service.  As we sipped Victorias in the hot, crowded hamburger shop he asked:  What made you do this – leave your business and life in United States for filantropia?  

I was surprised by his question; so few people over my two years have actually asked me what I was doing here, and I’d gotten used to being the mysterious gringa-possibly-spy. What’s more, now that I was on my way out, the question seemed almost irrelevant. 

Still, I was happy to answer, curious whether it was the same story I told when I began my Peace Corps journey two summers ago:  To escape the marble halls of Washington, DC, I replied.  Get my hands dirty – have a chance to work with real people on real problems.  Understand what it means, en verdad, to be sustainable.

Yep, it was the same story, no revisionist history there. And I could say it in Spanish now!  What’s more, all of it had come true.  I’ve been covered in tierra from head to toe working with the Zama Mamas on their sustainable vivero, campo dust in my hair, mouth, eyes – between my toes – bucket baths and latrine toilets with the pig tied up on the other side of the curtain – unsure where the smell was coming from, him or me. 

Saul got it – his sparkly eyes got serious and he said he wished he’d met me sooner – dos meses es muy poco tiempo.  He’s an agricultural engineer and teaches at the tech university in the pueblo and he says he wants to change the world too.

Two months es una montaƱa de tiempo, I told him, a ton of time.

As I’m letting go, I’m also holding on, telling myself:  Mexico is not China – I don’t have to cross an ocean to return. And as pure luck would have it, I was born on that side of the frontera, not this one.  So I don’t have to swim a river come back.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sustainability Starts with Me

This week we volunteers of Peace Corps Mexico Class 9 celebrated our 2-year anniversary in Mexico. Out of an initial class of 40, 30 have gotten to and through the official Close of Service (COS) conference; of the 10 that left early, half of them recently departed to start grad school or new jobs.  Not a bad survival record in all, especially given it was the biggest class in PC Mexico’s 8-year history.  And apparently our record will stick:  management has decided to never do that again– never that many vols and never again a combination of tech transfer and environmental specialists in a single class.  So we’ve left our mark.

Now we prepare for the important transition:  from PCVs to distinguished members of the club of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). It’s feels like just yesterday that I was scrambling to make the transition out of my Park Road rowhouse, flipcharts full of to-dos plastering my dining room walls; AND it seems like a decade ago.

Needless to say, it was a busy week of closure activities in Queretaro, where PC Mexico is headquartered, and where we started our journey as trainees.  We were pricked and needled by doctors, given the complete battery of bodily fluid lab tests. We participated in Webex workshops broadcast from Washington on how to conduct a job search and leverage our new Non-Competitive Eligibility status.  We filled out mountains of paperwork that would transition us off the Government dole and into the ranks of ordinary citizens – paying for our own health insurance.  We drew pictures of ‘what we contributed to Mexico’ – time, funding, energy, ideas, expertise as teachers, scientists, and managers, and lots of friendship and love – and ‘what we got from Mexico’ – topping the list, parasites, patience, friendship and love (you often get what you give), lots of learning, and a bonus:  our gas stoves and dorm fridges that the Peace Corps doesn’t want back! 
We practiced our elevator pitches with a 2-minute time limit so that we don’t bore family and friends to tears with our trials and triumphs.  We took final group photos. And we celebrated at our favorite PCT haunt, the Aleph bar, drinking michaladas in liter mugs, shooting pool, and shooting the crap about where we are all going from here, some with more definitive plans than others.

But for the San Luis Potosi crew of volunteers, YO included, amidst the bittersweetness and goodbyes, it was more drama and adrenaline. The latest incident of cartel violence in the San Luis Potosi capital did not go unnoticed by the US State Department powers that be. The week before the seven of us volunteers still standing in SLP got the bold, underlined email from Director Dan RE:  Situation in San Luis Potosi.  It said:
I had hoped that the situation in SLP would remain calm and allow all of you to complete your service without further problems.  Unfortunately, there was a shooting Thursday, Aug. 9th, in the city of SLP.   The incident occurred between police/military and criminal elements
I wasn’t keeping count, but I guessed this was the fourth or fifth time over the two years that we’d gotten such emails. The first big one was came in February 2011, just three months after we’d arrived in our sites.  An INS official had been shot and killed on the highway between the SLP capital and the state of Queretaro.  It was alarming news; and the State Department summarily issued a high-security restrictions in the state, putting us SLP volunteers on stand-fast until they decided what to do.  Week after week we awaited word while the powers that be analyzed the situation – and after a month they finally determined that it was an isolated incident; and while the state was still on high-alert, we PCVs would be allowed to stay.

Several months later two volunteers were pulled from their site in a small pueblo called Gogorron over a kidnapping threat, a relative of one of the volunteer’s host family, in hindsight apparently gossip – but nonetheless the volunteers were transferred to another state.  Several months later two others were temporarily pulled from KM58, for what I cannot remember – then returned after things appeared to be calm again. 

In February of 2012 out of the blue, perhaps in honor of the 1-year anniversary of the incident on the highway, we SLP volunteers received an email from the Director saying the State Department was declaring the entire state off limits to all US government officials:  unless they were transported in armored cars, they could not enter the state. 

Sitting at my desk at my Semarnat regional office, that message left my feet numb. After a year plus in-site, I was finally making some progress – I had a few real friends, a decent apartment, a thriving bucket compost pile, I led an English salon at Amore Cafe and an abs class at the gym. On the work front I’d managed to create a meaningful project, building upon the investments of my Semarnat counterparts to create sustainable community small business. I discovered in the women of Zamachihue my real counterparts. 

But with nine months to go in my service, here I was again on emotional stand-fast, hijacked by the swirl of emails, calls and negotiations with Washington to treat us as an exception, not knowing whether to continue my work heads-down or put it on hold until we all knew more. I postponed my session in Zamachihue. 

When we finally received word that, yes, we could stay, for now, we were considered a grey area, I wasn’t sure whether to rejoice or lament.  The postscript was that there was no guarantee that would continue through the end of our service – at any time, Washington could change its mind, if it had a mind to. 
I knew I had to regroup and refocus on my work in the communities. I’d lost a week in the drama; the women of Zamachihue were counting on me. I’d just secured a USAID grant and I had a huge to-do list of capacity building sessions, business planning, and sales activities to help the Zama native plant nursery to become sustainable. Plus the mesquites were growing and almost ready for market!

To add to the pressure, we were advised by our program managers to do our best to accelerate our process and get our projects done – just in case there was another incident. 

Anyone who has worked in development, in Mexico or otherwise, with red-taped up government agencies and marginalized communities knows this much:  the more you try to push the process, the more resistance you get, and the slower the process goes, to spite you.

I knew by now that my own attitude, my own sustainability, was essential here – I had to find a way to ride the emotional roller-coaster without throwing up.  I meditated daily – I tried to keep up my running routine despite the desert heat – something to elevate the endorphins.  One entire wall in my kitchen was gradually filling with inspirational Post-it note mantras that helped me keep my eye on the ball. 
And the Pyramid model of sustainability began to emerge in my mind:  sustainability starts with me!  Before I can hope to help the women of Zama, I had to help myself. This pyramid had become the basis for my work in Mexico, integrating my tools and philosophies as an organizational change consultant with the realities of on-the-ground development.

But here I was again, made it to COS unscathed, less than three months to go to closeout my projects in Rioverde and in my communities, complete my paperwork, transition leadership to the Presidenta, speak in two conferences on sustainability, pack-up my stuff, find homes for my plants, my bucket compost, my stove and refri, my beautiful furniture custom-made by Alejandro, go to the Feria San Luis with my friend Rita, say my good-byes, maybe even throw myself a fiesta despedida, knock back some tequila shots with my friends at El Fenix, take a final bike ride to Media Luna…and I might have only a week!?

I had to give myself a serious talking to: I’d gotten good at talking to myself by now. I had to let go, trust the process; but more than anything, I had to trust myself. Whatever happened, things will work out.  One of the mantras on my kitchen wall: Things always worked out in Mexico.

When the Director went around the table to ask each of us: did we want to take the early COS or stay, I said stay.  Four of us said stay, and four, all the young men in rural communities, said go.  They would present this to Washington, make the argument for the four of us, and see what happened.
It did not look good for us. In the final headcount, 14 people were shot and killed in the capital around the corner from the Ipycyt center where two of the vols worked; and on the other end of the state in Matahuala where we had one volunteer, the mayor-elect was assassinated – all in the same week. Rioverde was sandwiched in-between the two.

So I did have to imagine the worse-case scenario, and my Plan B became clear:  if Washington decided it was too dangerous, if they decided it was time for us to go home, with three months left, I could accept that.  I would close my service, in compliance with the guidelines, and return to Rioverde to finish out gracefully, and under my own auspices and with the help of my local counterparts. 

Luckily I did not have to make that decision.  On Thursday, the night before the final day of our closing conference, we got the news.  The four rural volunteers would be sent home – and maybe that helped create space for the other four of us to stay through our COS in November.  After that, the state would be closed to Peace Corps volunteers until further notice.

There was a collective exhale in the conference room. 

While the Uncertainty for us as PCVs has been a constant underlying challenge, eventually we get to leave.  The biggest heart-breaker in all this violence and insecurity is that the Mexicans must endure it.

Now I’m on the late-night bus back to Rioverde, trying to regroup again after the drama.  I’m typing up a to-do list as long and daunting as the Rio Grande – I could use another year to finish it all! And I’m wondering:  why DIDN’T I take the early COS, escape while the gettin’ was good?

Then I remember Abuelita from Zamachihue, with her flip-flopped shuffle and grey braid down her back. She always greeted me with widened eyes and a hug: You’re here! But on my last visit to the community she pulled me aside in the garden, before our session started, and with her blue-eyed penetrating gaze she said: Ana, siempre vienes cuando tu dices, you always come when say so.  It’s a 3-hour trip from Rioverde by bus, through the desert, on some of the worst roads in the state, no AC, windows wide open, billowing dust…she knew it wasn’t easy for me to get there.  And in a rare moment (for a Mexican), she acknowledged it. It was a painful reminder of how seldom the government has lived up to their commitments to these people.

So I have a visit scheduled this week to finalize the business registro with Angelica and the women. And I’m going to be there…because sustainability starts (and ends) with me.

Note:  All the opinions in this post are those of the blogger, and all information provided regarding the safety and security incidents are a matter of public record.