Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Journal 02- Pre-Peace Corps, Raving While Waiting for Poland

After choosing to decline Guinea Bissau as a post, I turned my focus back to my life in the Washington D.C. area. I had a job that didn’t pay fantastically well, but I liked the people I worked with, was moving up steadily and enjoyed a real renaissance in my social life. Sticking around hoping for another Peace Corps assignment was easy. At this time I was writing for a small local music magazine called Scene (out of print for some time now). It was unpaid, but the free CDs to review and the ubiquitous guest list access made it more than worth while. I had time to skateboard, which I enjoyed. I was a bit sad about having to give up skateboarding had gone to Guinea Bissau. There probably weren’t many paved roads there, much less a skate park.
Work was fast-paced; I dealt with mutual fund trading which isn’t rocket science, but it was a good experience and I had developed a rapport with traders in town and around the country. I would later be quite touched when one of the traders came down from Pennsylvania for my going away party. We’d play trivia games and share jokes to add a hint of variety to the daily trade placements. The morning coffee at the local coffee shop and visiting with work buddies made it a rather pleasant experience.
Things got more interesting after work. I’d go home to the group house where I lived and could hang out with my housemates if I didn’t have specific plans. We’d play variations on indoor baseball. It mostly involved hitting a ball around on the ground floor of the house and induced a good deal of chaos. There was nothing to break but the TV set; which miraculously managed to survive in tact. We would also watch TV when John wasn’t watching football (which was almost all the time) or just hang out on the porch drinking beer.
My room was little more than a crash pad. I had a place to leave my stuff, listen to music, and write articles for the magazine. Sometimes a friend would come over and crash after hitting some after hours joint, about when I was heading off to work on my bike. My girlfriend would spend the night a few times a week. She soon had to return to Spain but we kept up a long distance relationship. My love live was reduced to phone calls and letters for several months until we would reunite in Poland, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The best part about this time was the group of friends I hung out with and the collective we formed around our rave adventures. I’d been involved in the dance music scene since college as a radio DJ, and went to events in Greensboro, North Carolina, mostly to a club called The Edge and then later to a regular warehouse party downtown. At the warehouse, the latest 12 inches and acid house were being played such as The KLF, the Happy Mondays and so on. The vibe was fresh; all of there felt like we were tapping into something new and fresh. It had the collective feel that hippies must have felt in the 1960’s. The sense of community was very strong and I latched on to that immediately. What struck me the most aside form the weekly crowds diggin’ this new scene was the old WV combi bus in the middle of the floor and a skate ramp. We’d skate, dance and drink until early morning. This was my introduction to raving and it could be said that we were having our own ‘summer of love[1]” in 1991.

By 1993-1994, I’d come to really enjoy going to raves. One day, another writer for Scene, and I got to talking about raves. He had previously been a lead singer for a band and was mostly into rock. The conversation turned to raves and I invited him to come along to a party in Baltimore called Rise. A week later, he and I piled into my car along with his friend to head up to Baltimore one Friday night. That night opened a new chapter in my life.
As we headed up to Rise, I told my fellow Scene writer what he might expect. His friend was already tripping as we got onto Interstate 95 North. We began joking around, pretending the German techno tape we were listening to was a Grateful Dead bootleg. The friend was not the wiser. He’d been to a rave before and decided to check it out again.
The benefits of being a music magazine writer paid off. We were on the guest list and ushered to the front of the line to go into a warehouse hear the Baltimore harbor. We went straight in, dropped the backpack on the floor and began dancing. It was a evening of trippy breaks which really set the mood and hit the spot. My friend the Scene writer and his buddy were hooked. This was the first in many trips to Rise and Fever in Baltimore where we partied like nobody’s business.

[1] Simon Reynolds, in his book “Generation Ecstasy” termed the summer of 1991 ‘the summer of love’ because the ecstasy-induced euphoria and sense of community that was spreading across the country.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Journal 01: Pre-Peace Corps Guinea Bissau

It’s been a long time since I left the Peace Corps but the experience still resonates with me eight years later. I am constantly remembering and reflecting on the experience. Most Peace Corps stories begin at the site where the volunteer was stationed, but this one begins before the orientation. I had wanted to go into the Peace Corps for some time. Having lived abroad for much of my life as the son of diplomats, I knew I wanted to go overseas again. I also wanted to give back to the world. I had been brought up in a wonderful, loving, caring environment and wanted to somehow pass that on. I’d done volunteer work since I’d been in college, but they were mostly one-offs, such as a day working on a Habitat For Humanity house, or the DC Soup Kitchen, a non-profit that trains homeless people how to become chefs or food preparers.
In preparation for the Peace Corps, I began volunteering at an English as a Second Language (ESL) evening School, teaching once a week. The personal histories of the students were really interesting. I worked with a small group of students, a group of three for most of the time. Two were from Nicaragua and one was form Eritrea. They all grew up in lands at war; whether they were Sandinistas and the government or a civil war. They were still learning to read and write; each of them left school after the second grade or so to support their families. They were united in their desire to speak English. They wanted to learn the language to try and improve their lot at work and to be prepared to help their children in school. It was an inspiration to see these people who had it pretty rough struggling to better their lot in life. I imagine that this is what it must have been like for many immigrants to this country. I note in passing that when people get upset about jobs going to immigrants, they probably don’t struggle as hard, or are willing to work for less. Much of our country’s success is built on the hard work of immigrants. For there to be prejudice against the latest immigrants is hypocritical; we all were immigrants from somewhere at one point or another unless they were Native Americans.
Other students of foreign descent attended the school. Several au pairs went to the school and this is where I met my wife. She wasn’t in my class, however, so I only got to know her at breaks and then we started dating after school was out.
There were many other reasons for going into the Peace Corps that weren’t as altruistic. I wanted to have another adventure before I really started to grow roots and feel the pull of my comfortable life in the U.S. I also wanted to go to a Spanish or Portuguese speaking country in Central or South America. I figured that I would be a good candidate for those places as I already spoke Spanish pretty well and could have recuperated the Portuguese I learned many years ago in Brazil.
When I first heard from the Peace Corps, they offered me a post in Guinea Bissau, a small ex-Portuguese colony in Africa. This would have been a real Peace Corps experience. I imagined living in some isolated village far away from any major towns and other Peace Corps volunteers. I read in the Peace Corps manual that I could bring 80 pounds worth of stuff with me. I packed a backpack with the books I thought I’d get the most mileage out of: the complete works of Shakespeare, the Bible, (I figured I would finally have the time to read it) and a variety of other books. I was at 55 pounds after a difficult struggle to remove books. I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be happy in Guinea Bissau, becoming Kurtz in the rain-soaked jungle.
Meanwhile, I began studying Guinea Bissau and learned that the nearest metropolis was Dakar. The rainy season made roads impassable in much of Guinea Bissau for several months every year. I read the country report that the Department of State published; the economic data was depressing. The country had a GDP of approximately $6 million and external debt of $36 million. While Portuguese is one of the official languages in the country, I figured out that my chances of learning much Portuguese were pretty slim. I would probably be learning a tribal dialect. I began to wonder what a Westerner would have to offer the country. Would English be an important addition to what the people learned at school? I decided to risk it and decline the post and ask to put on the list for consideration for another post. I was also having so much fun living in Washington D.C. with my friends that it was almost a relief to know I wouldn’t be going off to Africa.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Styrofoam snow

I went out onto C Street SW between 14th and 12th Streets at lunchtime today. It was about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, but it was snowing. I touched the snow that was eddying against the curb and it did not melt on my fingers. The new building going up a block away was the snow cloud. It was pretty to see the snow beginning to accumulate by the curbs and the mulched hedges outside the surrounding building, as snow does when it is windy.

It was Styrofoam. The realization brought back the sounds of construction from the snow cloud. The noisy Styrofoam pollution drowned out the quiet snow that fell before.