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September 2011

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How My Peace Corps Experience Changed Me


First vignette:

In the early weeks, while living and working in Bogota, I recall going to a "farmacia" to buy some bath soap. On the way along the busy Bogota sidewalk, being careful not to trip in a hole, I was trying to recall the word for "soap". My Spanish was still "spanglish" so I was a bit nervous. When I arrived at the drugstore and got to the counter, a clerk came up and asked: Can I help you? (“En que le ayudo?”). My mind was working hard to make sure I understood while at the same time formulating my question with the correct grammar and, of course, words. So, I smiled faintly when I thought I had it down and before the guy started looking anxiously for help from an older clerk, I said, "Ustedes venden sopa?" He sort of tilted his head to one side looking at me a bit oddly (so I knew I screwed up this one!), and without skipping a beat, raised his arm pointed out the store window and responded: "Se vende sopa en la tienda por la esquina" (Soup is sold at the store on the corner).


Second vignette:

Somehow my pocket comb got broken between the time I went to my work site and returned that evening to the room I was sharing with Steve Florsheim at a city "pension" (boarding house). That was Friday. On Saturday morning, after a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast and "cafe con leche" (coffee with milk -I never liked "tinto" — black, espresso coffee) served by the German proprietor, I moseyed down to the "farmacia" (drug store). When I walked up to the counter, a young girl with short dark hair, big brown eyes, and a cheerful round face stepped up to help me: "Buenos dias, Senor. Como le puedo servir?" (Good day Sir. How can I serve you?). Confidently, I responded: "Necesito un peine, por favor." She stepped back a bit with a troubled look on her face. She looked around anxiously and said: "Un momentito Senor". (One moment, sir) At first, I had no idea what had gone awry. I assumed she just panicked because she was talking to a "gringo, muy guapo" (a very handsome gringo). She disappeared through a door and, after a few seconds, out walked the pharmacist or owner. He approached me with a rather quizzical, somewhat scowling look on his face and asked what it was that I needed. I repeated my request in perfect Spanish I was certain. His eyes softened, he smiled and said: "Ah, si Senor, le entiendo. Usted necesita esto!" (Ah yes Sir, I understand. You need this!) and reached for a pocket comb. I paid him and we exchanged expressions of appreciation and I walked out totally puzzled that the young girl didn't know what I wanted. How much clearer could I have been? Then it hit me. "Peine" is one of those words whose EXACT pronunciation is required or you get, I got, into deep (but funny) trouble. I realized I had asked the girl for a "penis"! Which in Spanish is "pene". So lesson learned: pronounce comb with a "long a" and a short, brief "long e" — pe-in-e... almost three syllables. “Pene,” among other things, is two syllables.

Third,

I was still living in and working out of Bogota as 1964 was coming to an end. It was also the beginning of the bull fighting season in Colombia. My good friend Jay Hersch was in town from his site in rural Colombia to see the Peace Corps Doctor. He had to stay the weekend so we decided to go the Plaza de Toros and see our first bull fight. Since we only made $75/month or so, and thus lived somewhat "like the Colombian working class", we could only afford the "cheap seats" which put us in the "sol" (sun) section but pretty high up. So we felt proud, "orgulloso", that we were with the "real people" (la gente). We had brought a "bota" bag (goat skin lined with…I was never quite sure) to hold our wine and rum combination. I suppose it held about 30 ounces. I recall that we raised it over our heads many times to "practice" squeezing it and directing the thin stream of pretty good stuff into our mouths. At first you have to make sure your mouth is wide open which got a few amused looks from our neighbors on the concrete stadium benches. There were a few sips lost on our cheeks and chins but that was more fun than embarrassing. Being "trained observers", we noticed that the "gente" could direct the refreshing juice into their mouths with their lips nearly closed. We concluded that this was the mark the most skilled "bota" users. Soooooo, of course we had to work to that goal. Didn't quite make it by the end of our first bull fight; but progress was noted.

As we became more comfortable in this strange cultural mix of splendor, tension, ballet, and death, our neighbors (“la gente”) became more comfortable with us. I suspect that as the "botas" drained our collective inhibitions did also. We both engaged more and more with the folks around us. And botas passed back and forth. Laughter increased and we felt more "como si fueramos la gente" — as if we were the people! I felt so comfortable that toward the end of the fights and as we were waiting for the last toreador and bull to enter the ring, my attention was drawn to a large flock of vultures that were passing overhead. Perhaps, no — certainly, by this time of day they had smelled the blood and were checking out the scene to see where they might get their next meal. As I pondered their grim reaper majesty, I pointed to them and yelled:

"Mira! Aqui viene la Fuerza Aerea Colombiana!" Those that heard me burst into laughter and I got a number of pats on the back. (Look, here comes the Colombian Air Force!).

Peace Corps Logo

The fourth vignette was an evening I recall as a transformative moment whose thread has been woven into my life ever since.

You may recall that after I left Bogota, I went to my "real" Peace Corps site and assignments. The first assignment in Pasto (a city of over 100,000 people) I will skip over and go to my work with the Cooperativa Morasurco. The handicraft co-op was taken on by Peace Corps about 18 months before I arrived and was ably guided — better said "run" — by an excellent PCV from an earlier group. The co-op had been floundering after its birth following a lock out by the local furniture maker. These skilled craftsmen, about 20, had nearly gone under. Simply, they lacked the business skills to make it work.

After I became the advisor, I settled into a fairly well-organized set of practices and procedures established by the former PCV along with innovations I created. His legacy was strong and his effectiveness a great, but difficult, model to follow. He was simply idolized by the co-op members. I continued the long hours of work doing all the major "business" tasks they needed to be done and expected I would do. Things like: doing the books; communicating with customers; taking orders; checking, assuring inventory; shipping; visits to customers in three cities (Cali, Medellin and Bogota — tough duty) to get orders and feedback on the products; getting loans to buy equipment and materials; designing new products. This all went along swimmingly but I noticed I was starting to be more tired and worried about the amount of work I had to do. The burden of responsibility grew heavier. I began to worry about what would happen to them if I wasn't replaced when I left in about seven months. Would they find someone they could afford to pay or who wouldn't steal them blind? Were any of the members ready to take over? The only guy who was close to being a business manager and who was learning the book-keeping quickly was not trusted by the other members or me, for that matter.

I'll never forget the moment of "ah-ha" or breakthrough that transformed the rest of my work with the co-op and, unknowingly at the time, my professional and personal life.

After a long and difficult day at the co-op I headed home along the dark streets of Pasto. "What will happen to them?" pounded in my mind like a jack-hammer. I started to feel my neck grow tense and a headache seemed to be setting in. I tried to divert my attention. I looked up into the Andean sky over the mountains and volcano surrounding the city. The air was crisp and clear at 5000 feet. The stars were magnificent! The sound of barking dogs caught my attention and at that moment the answer came to me like a meteor in the Andean sky.

"You have to figure out a way to teach them more rapidly what you know about running a business successfully! You're already doing it for them as did the other volunteer. Modeling and watching you is not enough. They have become dependent on the Peace Corps much as they were dependent on their ’patron’ (master, boss, owner) at the furniture factory." It was like a weight was lifted from my shoulders. The tension subsided. I think I was mumbling with glee at my revelation. I felt light as a feather.

From that moment to the end of my time with them, I found ways to have them "learn by doing" and gradually turned over complete tasks to one or pairs of the members. I took them on sales trips. I had them do quality control. And all the things mentioned above plus more that I can't recall. While I removed myself from all the main business functions and left them to learn from their successes and mistakes, I was also there to review their work or when asked.

You would think that it would be easy to "step aside" and give them more responsibility. But remember: they lived in a culture where the old structure was perpetuated by most workers being dependent on the "patron". A tradition the "patrones" prefer so they can maintain their dominance. The co-op members were not necessarily happy with my new strategy at first. It involved them taking more risks and letting go of their dependency — not an easy task for any of us.

To end on a humorous — if embarrassing — note, the fifth vignette occurred during an open-house celebration at the Cooperative.

We had invited leaders and supporters in the community to come by and see the workers products as well as observe demonstrations of their craft and skills. We had gotten new machinery, paid for by loans from the Bank of the Republic, for manufacturing our handicraft, wood products. This was quite a leap forward for many of the craftsmen. It certainly opened design and production options. The loan itself was proudly received by the co-op members as a big step forward in growing their business. Perhaps the most important group to come by was the city leaders led by the Mayor. He and many others brought their wives. This had me a bit anxious as were the “socios” (co-op members) who likely had never spent time in close contact with this “class” of people. Remember: Pasto was then a city of over 100,000. As the President of the co-op and I were showing them around and letting them engage with the workers at their stations, the Mayor’s wife seemed duly impressed and enthusiastic about what she saw and heard. Toward the end of the tour and before refreshments, she turned to us and exclaimed “Estos Senores son verdaderos trabajadores!” Loosely translated: “I am truly impressed by these workers!” To which I agreed and responded, “Si Senora, ellos trabajen como verracos!” There was some nervous laughter and quick glances exchanged between husbands and wives. I noticed a couple of the members smile nervously it seemed. We continued the tour and answered questions, had refreshments and thanked them for their visit. All seemed to leave on a positive note.

Before more guests arrived I asked the members who were there at “the moment” if I’d said something funny or what had happened? I was told that my choice of “verracos”, which I thought was a colloquial expression for “damned hard workers” really meant “they work like stud pigs!”

-Ralph Bates, Peace Corps Volunteer, Colombia Cooperatives Group, 1964-1966



 

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