Sweeping the Dirt Floor: Fuego! Fuego!

The Peace Corps has ambitious goals for its programs and participants, though setting a pueblo on fire isn’t one of them. Former Corps member Matthew Baldwin recounts the early days in San Pedro, Bolivia, before his infamy.

‘Sweeping The Dirt Floor’ is a series of stories taken from the Peace Corps journals of Matthew Baldwin.

In 1995 I was stationed in the absurdly idyllic pueblo of San Pedro, Bolivia for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps. Situated in a river valley, San Pedro lacked electricity, phones, and potable water. The village was populated by fruit farmers, and, an hour from anything that could be called a city, San Pedro was as isolated from the rest of the country as Bolivia itself is from the rest of the world. It was, in short, the kind of village you instinctively visualize when somebody mentions the Peace Corps. I lived near the town center, which included a one-room meeting hall, the community’s sole latrine, and the obligatory soccer field. It was terribly romantic for the first 17 minutes; I spent the remainder of my service pining for sausage pizza.

My first efforts to initiate projects in San Pedro failed rather miserably. I had attended the monthly town meetings and pitched a variety of proposals to the bemused and ostensibly eager townsfolk, but a dearth of organizational skills on both sides of the cultural divide usually doomed such projects from the get-go. Occasionally townfolk would offer to aid me in some upcoming scheme—more from pity than desire, I suspected—but when I later visited their homes to firm up plans, the men would politely beg off, explaining that it was planting season, or harvest season, or one of the approximately 400 holidays celebrated throughout the nation. Besides, they would say, you’re a rich Americano—why don’t you just pay to have it done?

By the ninth month I was doing nothing. In the time it takes some people to make an entire baby, I had only accomplished three things: I had learned some Spanish, I had a pretty good tan, and I had raised my alcohol tolerance levels to stratospheric heights.

* * *

One morning, I had an epiphany: I would teach environmental education to the impoverished Bolivian schoolchildren. After all, San Pedro has a school—an adobe affair in the town center with two classrooms, a lunch area, and a student body of about 60 kids—and I had a degree in environmental science. It would be a perfect match, and easy to boot: you stand in front of the kids, you urge them to save the whales—how hard could it be ?

I marched across the soccer field to the school, and pitched the idea to the principal. Much to my surprise, he accepted my proposal on the spot. ‘In fact,’ said he, ‘I teach Earth Sciences every Tuesday at 11:00. Why don’t you take my class next week?’

This took place on Thursday, giving me five days to prepare; my enthusiasm immediately evaporated. Up until this point, no idea I had ever proposed to anyone in San Pedro had ever been put into practice, so having a due-day put me into a state of shock. I spent Friday waiting for my project to implode; I spent the weekend struggling against the inertia of nine month’s inactivity. Finally, on Sunday evening, I dug up the Peace Corps’s ‘Environmental Education Handbook’ we had received during training.

Unfortunately, the manual was devoted to lesson plans—assuming a reader familiar with the fundamentals of teaching—and was therefore of little use to a novice. I was, however, able to glean one important fact: ‘Interactivity,’ the handbook emphasized, ‘is the key to a successful class.’ Since much of the Bolivian education system hinged on rote memorization, anything you could do to engage the children was strongly encouraged.

I settled on a topic that was simple, interactive, and apparent: litter. Lacking any garbage service, the people of San Pedro disposed of refuse in one of two ways: they threw it into burn-barrels or they tossed it onto the ground. The number of people adhering to the latter philosophy left the area lousy with trash—not a huge amount, but enough to make the valley unsightly to an idealistic Gringo raised in the era of ‘Crying Indian’ public service announcements.

After opening their eyes to the very concrete problem of litter, I planned to devote future classes to the ethical and philosophical aspects of environmentalism. Of course, this presupposed that I would survive my initial class.

* * *

Walking to the classroom Tuesday morning, my belly was full of both butterflies and giardia protozoa. I was nervous not only because I had never taught children before, but also about my proclivity for confusing my Spanish when anxious. When I first arrived in San Pedro, for example, I sidled up to the town’s mayor at a soccer game and introduced myself, ‘I am Matthew Baldwin from the Corps of Peace. How many whores do we have?’

A boy loudly announced that there was a huge wall in the United States dividing the north half from the south; when I contradicted him, he insisted it was true because his father had told him so.

I found the entire student body jammed into the classroom. All 20 chairs were occupied and 40 more students perched onto desks, sat on the floor, and leaned against every available inch of wall-space. The excess children explained their professores had graciously allowed them to come see the Gringo in action. ‘Allowed my ass,’ I thought. ‘They’re all taking a two-hour lunch break!’

The students listened attentively for about four minutes and then started throwing paper. Notes were passed. Conversations blossomed. When two boys brazenly started kicking a soccer ball back and forth, I realized it was time to change tactics.

I interrupted my denunciation of plastic six-pack holders and asked if there were any questions. Now requested to speak, the kids fell silent. Eventually, a boy raised his hand, and I called on him, thinking, ‘Thank god someone was paying attention.’

The boy said, ‘Do you know Jean Claude Van Damme?’

And then the floodgates opened: What about Kurt Cobain, did I know Kurt Cobain? Was it true that Cuba was poised to invade and take over the United States at any moment? As I tried to explain these were not the sort of questions I was soliciting, a boy loudly announced that there was a huge wall in the United States dividing the North half from the South; when I contradicted him, he insisted it was true because his father had told him so.

‘Okay!’ I cried. ‘Everybody outside!’

Freed from the classroom, I watched my cloud of students disperse. Eventually I herded a quorum across the soccer field to where a burn-barrel was stationed. ‘Okay,’ I shouted. ‘I want each of you to collect 10 pieces of litter and bring it to me GO!’

While the kids wandered off in search of litter, I lit a fire in the burn-barrel and heaved a sigh of relief. With 20 minutes remaining until lunch, my only concern was that the kids might collect all the available litter, forcing me to hastily cough out some improvised conclusion. Thankfully, the students were aggressively dawdling. Many had simply congregated into small groups to chat or kick around the omnipresent soccer ball.

In fact, a sizable group had assembled about 50 meters away, laughing loudly while playing a curious game of tag involving a white-something that lay on the ground in the midst of the group. Every few moments a student would dart into the middle, seize the white-something, and then hit another child with it or fling it at the nearest girl. The group would then scamper about excitedly before reforming the circle with the white-something again at the epicenter.

‘Hey, what are you guys doing?’ I called, but the gang was too engrossed to pay me any mind. I knew I couldn’t leave the burn-barrel unattended, but I took a few steps in their direction and shouted again, ‘Hey! What’s going on?’

The guilt on their faces sunk my heart. Closer to the action, I squinted to make out what was on the ground. It looked like burlap bag, or maybe some kind of animal…

It was a dead owl.

As dead owls go, this was a pristine specimen. And my first reaction was amazement: There are owls in Bolivia? Who knew? I didn’t even know the Spanish word for ‘owl,’ and now I was faced with a paragon of dead owlhood—surely an ornithologist’s dream—with its only flaw a somewhat ruffled look, having just been used as a weapon.

And then the full scope of the situation hit me: the students—my students, in my very first class ever—have been assaulting one another with a corpse.

‘Who touched the dead bird of night!?’ I hollered. ‘Everyone who carried bird of the night must promptly wash their hands!’ But as I pointed at the river and pantomimed hand-washing, I noticed none of the children were listening. They were instead enrapt by something behind me.

I turned around to find the burn-barrel on its side, with burning garbage strewn about, the nearby brush ablaze.

It was a modest fire to be sure, but sufficient to send me into paroxysms. ‘Oh my God,’ I cried, ‘Everyone get back, it’s a fire!’ When I realized that I was shouting in my mother tongue, I switched to Spanish, barking out, ‘Fuego! Fuego!’ A brisk breeze was fanning the flames, pushing the blaze towards the village latrine that stood a few feet away.

In this moment my entire service as a Peace Corps Volunteer collapsed into a single goal: save the latrine. It was the pueblo’s most technologically-advanced feature; it couldn’t burn down. I took off my jacket and began pounding the flames, but it was a losing battle. The fire creeped closer to the outhouse, fueled by nearby brush and—yes—litter.

Just as the fire was getting away from me, I heard laughter and saw the school’s teachers, armed with blankets and water, moseying to my aid. Within moments the professores had the fire under control. ‘Mateo!’ Principal Clemente shouted gleefully as he dusted himself off, ‘You almost burned down the latrine!’ I knew instinctively that the teachers had watched the entire fiasco while sitting in the lunchroom, munching on empañadas.

Immediately the field became a carnival. Everyone swapped details, polishing the story. Clearly this was the most exciting event in the valley for ages. I excused myself and retrieved my belongings from the classroom, and slunk back to my adobe home. Unfortunately I could see the latrine from my house, and spent the rest of the day watching the students and teachers celebrate on the spot of my disgrace. Apparently they cancelled classes and declared it a field day. I watched people point at the latrine and the owl as they retold the story for those who had missed out.

‘You should have seen it. There was a dead owl! And the Gringo, he almost burned down the latrine!’

* * *

I remained in San Pedro for 15 more months, but the story of my first environmental class spread throughout the river valley. Often, in the months to follow, I would attend a town meeting in village miles away, and my entrance into the community hall would be greeted with calls of, ‘Hola, Mateo! Fuego! Fuego!’