I wrote this article in the middle of my Peace Corps service. It was never published. But I like it more than any of the other articles I published. So here it is. Two years late.
The Muslim prayer chants are broadcasted from the mosque near my house every evening. The sound bounces off the mountain I live near. I love this sound.
My friend, another volunteer who lives a few hours away, found a nest of baby rats sleeping in his mattress. Rats are a problem here. He drowned them. Then he bought rat poison, which was a ball of tar, and put it in the kitchen. When the rats try to eat the tar their face fur burns off and they scream, which signals for neighboring rats to come and assist, then they go for the tar and the cycle continues until you have all the rats screaming and burning in your kitchen. Then you have to kill them. He didn’t realize this when he bought the poison; he just thought they’d die. He killed the rats in his kitchen with a machete.
I made a joke that his rat problem reminded me of a recent terrorist attack in the south. The five most southern provinces bordering Malaysia are called “the restricted zone,” in Peace Corps jargon and I’m not allowed to go there. The closest province to my house is a couple hours away. There are bombings or shooting almost daily. It’s been going on for the last few years. It has to do with Muslims and Buddhists and the Malaysian border. I’ve never fully understood the root of the conflict.
Anyway, a couple days ago a man shot a noodle shop owner, the police came, and then a bomb went off. It had been hidden in a motorbike. The whole thing was a set up. Lure over as many people as possible and then detonate the bomb.
“Just like your rat poison,” I said.
“I don’t like killing them,” he said.
I was bit by a stray dog a few weeks ago and have had to bicycle to the local hospital every day for cleanings. It’s a deep puncture wound. I sit in that hot, outdoor waiting area for hours sometimes. I watch the poor, old, crumpled women that are pulled out of the backs of pickup trucks with their big, elephant feet twisted in awful directions.
Yesterday I was sitting on a plastic stool outside my house watching a half dead lizard being devoured by ants and wondering what I was doing here. The sun had just set. I was wondering why exactly I had volunteered to be tossed across the world. I wondered whom I was trying to impress—as if I had gone on a giant, two-year rollercoaster to awe a date.
I wasn’t feeling particularly altruistic that evening. The day before I had succeeded in sealing tens of thousands of dollars to be donated to one of my schools by a private donor. –“Whatever you want,” the donor said, he was an American. He had retired and now divides his time between philanthropy and golf. “Whatever you think this school needs, let me know.”
I couldn’t think of anything tangible. The teachers and students need motivation, inspiration, something that will lift the bar around here, lift the standards. Donating the money, I thought then, is the easiest part of charity. I thanked him graciously. Then we posed for pictures.
The old grandmother who lives next store came to my house. In her flowered sarong and oversized button up shirt with the baby at her hip. I love this baby. I took her from the grandmother and walked her to the dumpster down the street where the bony cats loiter. The baby and I like the cats. We watched them paw through the garbage. The Muslim prayers started chanting from the megaphones into the early evening, long scratchy wails and cries. The baby touched my face and I turned to walk her back home.