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The Peace Corps Experience on Steve Iams in Nepal
The Peace Corps Experience on Steve Iams in Nepal
The Salt Shaker
November 10, 2003
I awoke that day like I do most days, startled and confused. This time, someone was out on the balcony in front of my room, banging on the window three inches above my head. Banging, in fact, with such brute force that I thought surely the house was on fire. Or maybe an earthquake had been spotted rumbling along the fault line leading right up to our house. I illuminated my wristwatch: 4:45 a.m. Panic stricken, I rushed to the door. When I opened it, there was Mukti, the shopkeeper from downstairs. He looked panicked, too. 'Do you have any baking soda??' he asked. 'What?' I said. What you meant to say was 'Wake up! Wake up! We're all gonna die!' right? Otherwise, you wouldn't be waking me up at 4:45 a.m., not to borrow baking soda, right? Alas, Mukti just needed a pinch of baking soda to fluff up his sel roti, a fried circle of dough Nepalis enjoy with their morning tea.
I wasn't totally surprised. This wasn't Mukti's first violation of the Morning No-Fly Zone: one day his gas tank ran out, so he came up and borrowed mine at 5:15 a.m.; another time, he appeared at 5:00 a.m. - just checking to see if I might like some tea. On those occasions, I was able to laugh off Mukti's lack of common courtesy; after all, he always came knocking with good intentions. If you run out of gas, ask your neighbors. That's normal enough. But the baking soda incident was different. This time, the tolerance level in the Someone's Waking Me Up At 5am department had been exceeded. This time, I felt like reaching for the proverbial Salt Shaker.
In Pre-Service Training, during an emotional health session, we heard the story of the original Salt Shaker. Some years ago, a nameless Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal was at the end of his rope. His project was giving him numerous frustrations and headaches, the harassment he received on a daily basis was grinding away at his positive attitude, and on top of it all, he had been battling a stomach virus for the better part of his service. Although he'd met his share of obstacles, he was surviving, toeing the precarious line between the sane and the insane.
Until one day, that is. After a particularly long day in his village, he returned home and prepared himself a scrumptious meal of - what else - rice, lentils, and vegetables. After the first bite, he decided his meal needed a little more flavor. He reached for the salt shaker and, with one fateful shake, the loosely screwed top slipped off the shaker and a whole shaker's worth of salt avalanched down onto his meal. We've all experienced what happened next: It's the 'I'VE HAD IT!!' moment, where regardless of how small the latest problem was, it is the straw that broke the camel's back, the shit that overflowed the toilet. Our Peace Corps friend could put up with lazy counterparts, occasional harassment, and minor stomach cramps, but throw a little salt on top of it all and it's just too much to handle. The next day, he was on a plane back to the States.
The Salt Shaker incident, as it's known in the PCV community, is a moment none of us hope to encounter ourselves; yet we're aware that it can happen. Let's face it, it could happen to you, too, wherever you are. I sat down with a Peace Corps friend last week in Kathmandu who had just decided to head back to the U.S. I couldn't resist the question. 'So, what was it?' I wanted to know. 'What was your Salt Shaker?' She paused for a moment, and then responded: 'You know what, I'd like to say that it was the Maoists, that they blew up the Village Development Office, or that someone broke into my house and stole all my stuff. But, truthfully, the other morning I was jogging, and a dog ran up to me out of nowhere and barked at me until I threw rocks at it. When I got home, I thought to myself, 'I don't feel safe, I'm outta here,' and that was it. The next day, I was gone.'
A barking dog, screaming children, a rusty pipe, a saltshaker. Our psychological stability: threatened by household furnishings, moody babies, or unruly canines. How to protect ourselves? Awareness, says the friendly staff at Peace Corps Medical; it's best to be aware of those moments, people, and things that have Salt Shaker potential. Otherwise, we might one day find ourselves pulling strands of hair from our scalp and screaming 'THAT'S IT!! I CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE!!' while a confused Nepali named Mukti stands in amazement that asking for a pinch of baking soda could elicit such a response. In an effort to raise my own awareness, and incidentally the awareness of those people in my village who happen to be reading my web journal in their cyber-huts, I hereby present my own Most Likely to Cause a Salt Shaker Moment.
The Bus: Oh How I Hate Thee
The bus has come so close to becoming my Salt Shaker, I'm hesitant to even write about it, as even thinking about how much I hate the bus may cause a Salt Shaker in itself. Imagine if you will a peaceful village in Nepal: you are surrounded by terraced rice fields, misty hills, majestic mountains, and the hum of insects and worker humans from the nearby forest. Now that you are relaxed and at peace with yourself, have a dose of this: (use your imagination here, use an air horn as an audio aid if possible ) HONK! HONKHONKHONK! HONKHONK! HONHONHONKHONK! (and just when you think it's over) HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK HONK!!! To sum up the greatest threat to my mental well-being in one word, HONK!
It's a daily battle, me vs. the bus, and I suppose that, because I'm still here fighting, I'm winning the battle. The battle begins at 4:30 a.m., when the public bus, which actually looks more like a stumpy UPS truck, airs its horn to signal to the local milkmen that it's time to ship out for Kathmandu. The bus parks itself under the large tree at the center of the village, which marks the end of the bus route from Kathmandu through Bhaktapur and up into Dadhikot. My bedroom, as it turns out, is just above the giant tree/ bus park. The milkmen, up at four to squeeze fifteen to twenty liters out of old Bessie, emerge from their barns and load their metal buckets into the bus to be transported to and sold in Kathmandu. A warning honk I cannot argue with; these men have to sell their milk. But, repeated honking I cannot tolerate. One morning I decided to count: 112 honks. Loud, air-horn-esque honking, just outside my window.
At first I tried to wage my own subversive, grass-roots movement against the bus and the bus driver, starting with gentle whispers on the street. 'Our village is so peaceful, don't you think?' I'd start, 'That bus is ruining our peace - have you ever heard of noise pollution?' Then I began personally slandering the bus driver, issuing subtle threats to his life through village folk and tea shop goers. 'If that bus driver doesn't cut it out,' I said to one guy, 'I'm gonna cut him out, if you know what I mean.' He didn't know what I meant. I had trouble recruiting any followers, as no one seemed to care, or even notice the obnoxious honking. 'How else will the milkmen know it's time to go,' was the common response I got. I also launched a mini-campaign against the barking dogs of the village: 'Those dogs should be put to sleep,' I proclaimed. Again, people generally responded by saying the dogs were just protecting the village, that without their barking, we'd be overrun by thieves in the night.
Part of my problem was that no one wanted to listen to the foreigner complain. I'm good for one thing in the village, telling stupid jokes and entertaining people with broken Nepali; as an activist against noise pollution, I found my audience to be a lot smaller. But there was one man willing to hear me out: Bhola joined my campaign against the bus a few months ago. As a tenant in the same house, Bhola is also subjected to the routine blasting of the bus horn every half-hour from 4:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. It was important for me to get a Nepali on my side; unfortunately, we soon discovered that as a twenty year-old college student transplanted from another village, Bhola was branded a local carpetbagger. A sign he put up in the tea shop protesting Over-Honkage was first laughed at, then summarily ripped down by the bus driver and his lackeys.
One day, as I was sitting at my desk planning lessons around 8:00 a.m. the bus went off on a honking rampage. By 8:00 a.m., the milkmen have already sent off whatever they have to sell. This was pure joy-honking, and it was tearing me to pieces. After a few deep breaths, I thought I'd suppressed the rage boiling inside. But, three honks later I lost it. I jumped up from my chair, stormed out the door, through the hallway to the third floor balcony, which overlooks the dirt road where the bus begins its descent down to Kathmandu. The wave of rage compelled me to pick up a few pieces of scrap wood, which turned out to be materials for a bee-keeping project my host-mother is working on, and hurled it off the balcony along with a few expletives towards the bus idling on the road below. My right arm still wrapped in a cast, I had to use my left hand, which meant there was little hope of actually hitting the bus. I'm not even sure if anyone noticed me, up on the balcony, cursing and swearing at the bus driver like a madman, but it felt good all the same. I felt like I'd done something to combat the problem instead of just sitting in my room getting shelled by the incessant honking.
Last week, I finally did what I should've done from the beginning: in a moment of rationale calm, I noticed the bus driver sipping tea at the shop downstairs. And instead of ripping his head from his shoulders as I'd so often imagined doing, I politely asked if there was any possible way that, when he sounded his horn, he might only do it two or three times, not 112 times. I made sure to refer to him as my 'big brother' a few times, which he seemed to like. And since then, I'm pleased to report that Over-Honkage has been reduced by nearly 50%, which means I'm only half as angry, half as close to the Salt Shaker moment that I was one week ago. Crisis averted, sanity restored. Nothing like tackling a problem head on.
p.s. - I still plan to buy several air-horns in the U.S. and bring them aboard the bus one day and honk it in the driver's ears until a fist-fight ensues - I've played out the scenario in my mind multiple times and the revenge is ultimately too sweet to pass on. I can't wait to see the look on the rat bastard's face when I'm giving him a dose of his own medicine.
p.p.s. - My rage is under control, no need to worry. I'm taking Anger Management classes, where I learn to breathe properly, 'take a step back from conflict' and visualize a realistic solution. The solution I'm envisioning is something along the lines of me smashing the bus driver's head repeatedly into his own horn. Sweet revenge will be mine.
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November 17, 2003
Now that the Salt Shaker crisis has narrowly been averted, let's take a closer look at stress and its causes. Stress, or 'the time that you hurled a bee-keeping workshop at a bus driver' as it's commonly referred to in the Peace Corps, can originate from a variety of sources: Work, home life, relationships, barking dogs, and large piles of buffalo dung are just the ones we hear and talk about all the time. But what about Other People? Sometimes our stress really isn't internal; rather, it's being caused by people whose sole purpose for living is seemingly to annoy and cause grievances to others. It is this source of stress, Other People, that all too often goes unnoticed and should be examined more closely.
Sometimes Other People aren't aware that they're causing stress to others; in fact, they think they're being helpful when in actuality they are just one more comment away from receiving the proverbial 'face in the gravel' treatment. These types of Other People are all too common in Nepal, where it is very difficult to discern between Randy Helperton and Johnny Know-It-All. Randy Helperton, for those of you who have yet to read last quarter's groundbreaking study in the New England Journal of Medicine, truly has your best interests in mind when he is offering suggestions or making a recommendation based on his own past experience. Randy possesses a rare but genuine empathy for others that allows him to be of service to anyone in need. Despite his vast wisdom and abilities, Randy is not pushy or preachy with his advice, allowing those who speak with him to feel comfortable in either accepting or rejecting what Randy has to say.
Johnny Know-It-All, on the other hand, is a wolf in Randy Helperton's clothing. He offers suggestions not for the purpose of helping others but instead to demonstrate his mastery of trivial knowledge and in the process belittle the person whom he purports to be helping or informing. Johnny Know-It-All suffers mainly from an insecurity complex, and proffering useless bits of information is his way of elevating himself above others. What makes Johnny Know-It-All a source of aggravation and stress to our well-being is the fact that typically his advice comes unsolicited. We may not have wanted to know why the current farming subsidies are bad for global trade, but Johnny Know-It-All will tell us anyway. What exacerbates the situation further is that sometimes, despite his self-serving intentions, Johnny Know-It-All is right, and when his information has been validated by a reliable news source, we are sure to hear about it. 'See, told ya so,' is a common phrase uttered by the Johnny Know-It-Alls of the world.
This particular exploration into the stress caused by Other People will mainly focus on how to respond to the Johnny Know-It-Alls, although as mentioned earlier, it is often hard to separate the Johnny Know-It-Alls from the Randy Helpertons. According to some recent literature published by Nepal's Peace Corps medical staff entitled 'Twenty Tips to Live with Stress,' one strategy in dealing with Johnny is to avoid going to battle with him. The pamphlet states: 'Sometimes we get so irritable that we wind up fighting with everyone. If life has turned into a battleground - stop and try agreeing with someone (i.e. Johnny Know-It-All). Let them have their way, even if you really don't agree. Feeling like you are besieged by an army of enemies and idiots hurts you more than it hurts anyone else.'
So, I should agree with Johnny Know-It-All? In theory, if you have skin as thick as a whale's, perhaps you can let Johnny's unsolicited wisdom roll off of you like water over rocks. But in practice, allowing Johnny to disseminate his crack-pot theories and bunk tips feels like a crime in itself. Take, for example, yesterday's minor episode I had with a Nepali Johnny Know-It-All while riding the bus. I was talking to another Nepali man who asked me which part of America I was from.
'Ohio,' I said.
Johnny, who had been eavesdropping on our conversation, suddenly piped up. 'That's in Japan,' he stated authoritatively.
I guessed that he was confused, that he was thinking of the words for 'Good Morning' in Japanese.
'Ohayo Gozaimashita is Japanese for 'Good Morning,' but I live in a state called Ohio,' I said, attempting to be gentle so as not to inflict upon this man what Johnny Know-It-Alls hate most, a public shaming.
'You're saying it wrong,' Johnny Know-It-All said, missing the point, 'It's Ohayo Bragaymass.'
'Ohayo Gozaimashita,' I said again.
'NO! It's Ohayo Bragaymass,' Johnny insisted.
How the hell did I get myself into this argument, I thought, and was it worth it to continue fighting for what I knew to be the proper pronunciation of 'Good Morning' in Japanese? I wanted to tell him that I'd lived in Japan for a year, and while I didn't speak much of the language, I knew quite certainly that 'Ohayo Bragaymass' was incorrect. This time, I put to use my new strategy of letting the idiot win, and allowed 'Ohayo Bragaymass' to maintain its stronghold in this corner of the world. Although it would've required more stress and energy to continue fighting a worthless battle, I arrived home feeling angry that I'd let a Johnny Know-It-All get the best of me.
Breaking my arm and bruising my hip in October made me especially vulnerable to a separate, highbrow breed of advice-slingers: Dr. Johnny Know-It-All. Dr. Johnny Know-It-All, not surprisingly, is not a doctor at all; in fact, Dr. Johnny has had no formal medical training or education whatsoever. Yet, Dr. Johnny, as he'll readily tell you, has had his share of bumps and bruises and knows a thing or two about home remedies. When I arrived back in my village wearing a plastic, lightweight cast as opposed to a heavier, itchy plaster cast, the first challenge I faced was convincing the local Dr. Johnnys that I'd broken my arm. I probably had the same conversation about a hundred times during that first week:
'What happened?' Dr. Johnny calls out from his seat in the tea shop.
'I fell off a camel in India and broke my arm,' I say.
Dr. Johnny walks over to inspect the damage, begins to nod his head in suspicion, then offers his diagnosis: 'No, no, no. This is not broken. Make a fist with your hand - ah yes, see, you can move your hand - not broken.'
'Oh really?' I say, 'But I saw two doctors in India and one in Kathmandu, and got an X-ray, and all the evidence seems to say that it's broken.'
'Fingers are moving - not broken. And this isn't a real cast,' says Dr. Johnny.
OK, whatever. How to argue with these people?
Another local Doctor noticed me walking along the village path with the assistance of my cane. 'Why are you using that cane?' he wanted to know.
'I can barely walk, that's why,' I said.
Again, the disapproving head nod. 'No, no, no. You don't need a cane. You must go to the local apothecary and he will give you some cream to rub on your hip. You apply that cream before going to sleep and after two days, the pain will be gone.' Hmm, yes, thanks for the advice, I said, Ben Gay will put the spring back in my step in no time.
The next day I hobbled past the same tea shop, still clinging to the assistance of my cane, where the same Doctor sat smoking a cigarette. 'Did you buy the cream? You don't need that cane.'
No, I thought, I didn't buy the cream. And I will never buy the cream. Because you, Dr. Johnny, haven't the first clue in how to treat a camel injury. You sit in front of the tea shop all day, doing nothing, smoking cigarettes, and offering advice to anyone who walks past. Of course I didn't say this, because deep down I'd like to achieve Omnipresent Oneness, where I'm not bothered or irritated the slightest bit when the army of idiots is bearing down on me. Instead, I took a deep breath, and nodded my head in agreement. 'Yes, you're absolutely right, I should buy that cream. In fact, I'll do it right after school. Thanks a lot.' This of course pleased Dr. Johnny to no end, made him feel bigger and smarter, even made him feel good for helping out a crippled man.
When I was injured and everyone wanted to offer their advice, I listened and told them that I'd do exactly what they'd recommended. I didn't need to add emotional stress to my physical pain by allowing myself to be baited into stupid arguments. Besides, part of me really thought that these people, despite going about it in a really annoying way, just wanted to help in whatever way they could. Perhaps to them, seeing a man in pain and offering no advice at all is considered rude.
However, when it comes to performing simple tasks, I'd prefer that Johnny Know-It-All keep his oceans of wisdom to himself. After noticing a small cut on my neck, a man told me I didn't know how to shave and proceeded to give me a five-minute demonstration in the proper up and down strokes. 'You also used an inferior razor,' he added. The hell I did; I used a Gillette Mach-3 razor, the Cadillac of razor blades, a brand-new one at that. Another day, a teacher at my school stopped me as I was creating flashcards to inform me that I was using my Crayola markers wrong. 'No, no, no,' he said, grabbing the marker from me, 'Press to the side.' Did I not graduate from Elementary School?
And I could go on. The army of idiots is real, and everyday they're stationed at tea shops, teaching at schools, riding on buses, idling away in cubicles, waiting to launch their arsenal of knowledge on those who will stop to listen. So maybe that's the solution: just don't stop to listen. But, this strategy could backfire. If I never stop to listen, I'll have to figure out everything on my own. And if I have to figure everything out on my own, maybe I'll just end up with more stress. Who will I turn to thenů.?
|By jm (200.washington-13rh15-16rt.dc.dial-access.att.net - 126.96.36.199) on Friday, April 29, 2005 - 7:46 am: Edit Post|
Muji, it's incredible you had that much contempt for the people in Nepal you were supposedly there to help. If you were that unhappy, you should have ET-ed (early-terminate, i.e., to quit Peace Corps before your two years are up).