Sweeping the Dirt Floor: Life in the Fishbowl

It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes an American to teach him how to armpit-fart. Former Peace Corps Volunteer and temporary Bolivian celebrity Matthew Baldwin remembers his days in-country.

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

Much of our Peace Corps training was designed to prepare us for the cultural shocks we would experience in Bolivia. The pace of life in South America, for example, was a fraction of that of the U.S. Also: market vendors would expect you to haggle. And they didn’t put peppershakers on the table. (Actually, we weren’t warned about this last one, and I had my very first cultural-shock freak-out when I discovered it about three weeks after my arrival. ‘What kind of people don’t put pepper on the table?!’ I recall exclaiming hysterically in the restaurant.)

But the biggest cultural shock that we encountered—and the one that the trainers, despite their best efforts, were unable to adequately prepare us for—was Life in the Fishbowl.

Few of us who were sent to the countryside realized the extent that our lives would now be lived in the public eye. Thanks to U.S. movies and television shows, rural Bolivians viewed Americans as almost mythical figures: obscenely wealthy, outrageously violent, preoccupied with sex and drugs. Consequentially, everything we did was observed and commented upon, every Spanish phrase we managed to hilariously mangle was recounted. By some perverse alchemy we had been transformed into celebrities.

We thought we could handle it since we were already celebrities—in our own minds, at least. Idealistic, naïve, and self-righteous, we considered ourselves to be the main characters in the narrative of life—entering the Peace Corps would just be another exciting chapter in the Story Of Me. But it’s one thing to be young and self-absorbed: it’s quite another to suddenly find yourself in the midst of a community that finds you as interesting as you think you are.

* * *

Volunteers reacted to Life in the Fishbowl in a variety of different ways. Some embraced it, thriving in the spotlight; others wanted to be left alone, and fought the attention with introversion and alcohol. Some viewed it as an opportunity to date every person within 100 kilometers of their site.

In my site of San Pedro, I often rued my decision to live in the village center. Until my novelty wore off, I had an endless stream of visitors, most of whom just popped in to ask what the hell I was doing there. (Sadly, in two years of service I was never able to come up with a convincing answer to this query.)

And because the town center included the schoolhouse, students were my most frequent callers. They would arrive during lunch breaks or after school to see my photographs for the umpteenth time or ask me questions about the United States. One afternoon during the lunch hour, the usual gang of students arrived to inquire ‘¿Que pasa?’ I told them I was eating my lunch and reading, and they eagerly asked to see my book. Since I was reading Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, I decided to use this opportunity to correct some misconceptions the children harbored about Americans.

So I handed over the book and explained Paine and his role in fomenting the American Revolution. As I spoke, the children became quite excited. The boy holding the paperback had become goggle-eyed at the sight of it, and quickly rifled through the pages before returning his gaze to the cover; the others were eagerly looking over his shoulder. One of the boys beckoned to his classmates in the schoolyard, and soon a sizable crowd was jockeying for possession of the book. He spoke animatedly, but too quickly for me to understand what they were saying.

But when one of the teachers wandered over, curious about the hubbub, the book was thrust back into my hands as the boys quickly dispersed. ‘What was all that about?’ the professor asked.

I glanced down at the book and saw the cover. I’d forgotten that it featured a reproduction of Eugène Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People,’ which shows Lady Liberty charging across a corpse-strewn battlefield followed by rifle-toting youths. And as was often the case with paintings of that era, Lady Liberty’s single-minded devotion to egalitarianism prevented her from noticing that her bosoms had, at some point, heaved free of her tattered dress.

‘I have no idea.’ I replied, tossing the book aside.

* * *

The Bolivians also loved to practice their English. Most schoolchildren in Bolivia are taught English in elementary school, but few ever find occasion to use it. And most of the professors teaching the language—at least in the rural areas—don’t know how to speak it themselves. This left most students with an English vocabulary of a dozen stock phrases, which they delighted in using on passing Gringos.

Teenagers would spring out of doorways and exclaim, ‘Hello teacher!’ Men would approach female Volunteers and drawl ‘I luuuuv you.’ Elderly people would stop you on the street with a hearty ‘Good morning!’ and then freeze, their reservoirs of English exhausted. One young boy approached me and shouted: ‘One! Two! Three! Four! Five!’ After a moment’s thought, he added ‘Batman!’

What English vocabulary the Bolivianos knew from school was augmented by what they picked up from American media. When I entered a café one afternoon the proprietor greeted me with a hearty ‘Shut up!’—apparently mistaking it for a salutation. Walking home to my apartment one night I was waylaid by a youth who insisted that I translate all the words to ‘Hotel California’ for him right then and there. He said it was for his girlfriend.

* * *

The attention a Volunteer attracted was magnified if he looked (even remotely) like anyone famous. I was thin and unshaven with dirty, long blond hair, and that was sufficient cause for teens to approach and ask if I was Kurt Cobain. ‘Kurt Cobain is dead,’ I’d reply, and they would stand there, nonplused, the look on their faces saying, ‘Yeah—but are you?’

Of all the Volunteers in Bolivia, perhaps none attracted more attention than Terrence. Lanky, six-foot-three and red-haired, Terrence was the spitting image of Alexi Lalas, an American soccer player known throughout the world (except, of course, in America). The physical similarities between Terrence and Lalas were uncanny to begin with, but Terrence went so far as to cultivate a beard almost identical to the one sported by Lalas at the time. As a result, Terrence became something of a Gringo Pied Piper, and could rarely walk down a street without an entourage of boys trailing in his wake, shouting, ‘Lalas! Lalas!’

Terrence didn’t mind the attention because he loved goofing around with the kids. One time the two of us were walking to the home of another Volunteer to pick up some bee boxes for an apiculture project. After we had arrived at the apartment and knocked on the door, Terrence turned to his groupies, licked his palm, placed his hand inside his shirt, and began entertaining the crowd with armpit farts. The kids roared with laughter and approval. When I went in to retrieve the boxes, Terrence opted to remain outside and continue his performance.

I returned a few minutes later to find Terrence sitting on the stoop and grinning, while the seven or eight boys assembled armpit-farted enthusiastically.

‘It’s a great moment in international relations,’ I said, dropping the boxes and sitting down beside to Terrence to watch the show. ‘I can see the headlines: Peace Corps Volunteers Train Third-World Children in Obscene Noise Generation.’

‘It’s all part of my philosophy, ‘ Terrence said serenely, putting an arm around my shoulder. ‘Armpit-fart for a child, and he laughs for a day. But teach a child to armpit-fart…and he laughs for a lifetime.’

* * *

Near the end of our tour we attended a ‘Close of Service’ conference. Much of the discussion revolved around the cultural shock we would experience when we returned to the States, and here again they placed particular emphasis on ‘The Fishbowl Effect’—or rather the lack of one. ‘Many of you have become so accustomed to being the center of attention,’ they warned us, ‘that you may find it difficult to become just another face in the crowd.’

We all insisted that that our impending lack of celebrity would be nothing short of a blessing. And immediately following our return we even believed it, for a little while. But we had simply left one spotlight and scurried to another. Instead of being the Enigmatic Gringos, we were now the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, back from South America and brimming with True Tales of Adventure.

But as the weeks wore on and as the novelty of our return waned, as our friends grew weary of us prefacing every statement with ‘When I was in Bolivia…,’ many of us found ourselves pining for the days when we were the hottest thing going. One month we were superstars, the next we were unemployed layabouts living with our parents. As many a fish had learned before us, the only thing worse than being in the bowl is abruptly finding yourself on the outside.