Monthly Archives: January 2017

Jobs I Have Done

I looked over my resume and saw that, although all the information there is accurate, it does not adequately present the full scope of my employment history.  I am now a quarter-century old, and I realize that work has been the driver for many of my experiences and adventures over the last few years.  In the interest of context, here is a list of Jobs I Have Done that don’t necessarily appear on my resume.

2011-2012: Hustler.  My mate JW came back to college from Christmas break with a great idea: he, myself, and PM would start a franchise of a textbook buyback company to compete with the bookstore.  Textbooks are heinously expensive, and basically useless after the course is complete, so there’s a significant market to buy popular textbooks in good condition and resell them at a markdown as used books the next year.  We signed ourselves up to be buyers for the Haverford branch of BT Books, and a week before finals started Sal showed up on campus to train us on the business.  If you imagine a guy named Sal who runs a textbook purchasing business covering Eastern Pennsylvania out of the trunk of a beater Toyota Camry, you can visualize him pretty well.  He showed up on campus, gave us bar code scanners, canvas bags, and a wad of $5000 in small bills, and told us to get to work and hit our quotas.  Throughout finals week we were constantly on call: people would take their finals and then call us to come, scan their books to figure out the price, and then pay cash on the spot.  Cheerfulness and flexibility were the hallmarks of this company, and at one point I was called to hike off-campus to buy a stack of economics textbooks from a lacrosse player so that he could duck into a liquor store and convert Principles of Free Markets into Beer.

The job was exhausting but we got paid a lump sum.  We signed up again to do it, and the next year Sal was driving a white Cadillac Escalade with big rims.  Halfway through finals week the Haverford bookstore, which ran its own buyback program, got wind of the fact that we were competing with them for sales.  We were summoned to meet with the director of the bookstore, who was polite yet furious; a terrifying combination.  We called up BT Books to explain the situation, and the first thing they told us was that we should keep buying—if the school tried to intervene again, they would sue.  “Look, guys, you don’t understand,” we said, “this is a small school.  We have to live here.   I gotta buy my ramen noodles and pencils at this bookstore.”   We quit after that.  I calculated afterwards that I made roughly $3.50/hour doing this job.

2011: Medical Lab Technician.  After my sophomore year of college I received a grant to go to Uganda and do good works there.  I got an internship working for a non-profit that did HIV/AIDS testing, counseling, and medical treatment.  On my first day there I was told that I would be most useful working in the medical lab: performing AIDS tests, drawing blood samples from HIV-positive patients, and making microscope slides to scan patients for malaria and tuberculosis.  I pointed out that I was 19 years old and had no medical training at all, but I was assured this wasn’t a problem.  The head doctor rolled up his sleeve, I drew a vacuum flask of blood from the crook of his arm, and I was pronounced proficient.  Clinic days were on Mondays and Wednesdays, and I estimate that I drew blood from over 700 people that summer.  On Thursdays we packed into the back of a Land Rover to do clinical outreach, and I bounced along laterite roads deep into villages to do the same work on tables wobbling on the gnarly roots of the mango trees we sheltered under.  “Hey,” I thought to myself, “How cool is this?  This might be the life for me.”

2012: Microfinance Operations Manager.  In 2012 I applied for another grant, and was sent to Senegal to work for a microfinance operation that was establishing itself in Dakar.  My only coworker was a bodybuilder from North Carolina who lectured me on the importance of maintaining proper amino acid ratios during the dry season, but didn’t give me a whole lot of insight into evaluating, monitoring, and collecting loans.  Every morning I woke, ate a greasy fried egg with bitter coffee, and hailed a beater taxi to meet with the aspiring entrepreneurs of Pikine, Parcelles Assainies, Mermoz, Yoff and Grand Dakar.  During this job I was blessed by a witch doctor, mugged on the edge of a cliff at machete point, doubled the number of borrowers subscribed to the NGO, and learned how to take care of myself.

2014-2016:  Goatherd.  In 2014 I worked on a goat farm in France on the German border, and loved the experience so much that I returned there in 2016 with my friend PM.  The two of us were backpacking through Europe, and had recently been robbed by a Hungarian taxi driver, stayed in a hostel called the Jetpak Alternativ in Berlin, attended a party of 5000 people with inflatables and strobe lights in a natural hot spring, grown appropriately scruffy beards, and climbed across an avalanche zone to a chalet perched in a col of the Swiss Alps.  The goat farm seemed like a change of pace, and we told my friend the owner, GS, that we were willing to do whatever work needed doing.  We rose at 6h30 every morning and after feeding the goats, shoving them into the milking stocks, and changing their straw we did a different assignment every day.  We drove a Bobcat to shift 500 pound haybales, used sledgehammers to sink splintery fenceposts into the mountainsides, squeezed chunks of whey into molds to make cheese, and built a trapdoor in an attic.

One day GS told us that the electric fence had shorted somewhere in the lower meadow, and we were to herd the flock of 100 goats down there, stuff them in the pen, and then fix the fence.  It took us an hour to flog the uncooperative goats down the hill and shove them into the pasture.   Neither of us had ever worked with electric fences before, and a single trailing wire touching the ground or a wet branch could damage the system.  It began to rain sideways as we checked the fence perimeter for the problem, and each of us was convulsively shocked several times.  The goats figured out that the current was flickering and began to slither under the wires, stampeding up to the barn.  PM and I were flipping out: soaked, electrocuted, and trying to control a flock of rowdy goats.   Before my eyes I saw a bleating goat fall into the root cellar of a long-abandoned over grown cottage: it was like the apocalypse, panicked livestock being pulled to the center of the earth.  I had driven a utility truck down the meadow with our fencing equipment, and the wheels spun in the mud for ten minutes before I finally got the tires to catch and the truck to churn up the hill.  We wrangled the goats back up to the barn and told GS that we’d look at the fence the next day.  His house smelled of cookies; his wife had been baking.  “Come on guys,” he chided us, “Is it really so difficult?”  For this job I was paid in pork chops and sausage, and I enjoyed myself enormously.

2015-2016: Cross-Country Ski Instructor.  I’ve always loved cross-country skiing, and I took a winter job teaching skiing at a groomed course 15 miles outside of Boston.  During the days I waxed and repaired skis, boots and poles, and when called upon I went out to teach lessons.  My students varied enormously from day-to-day, from hour-to-hour even.   I taught a pair of 5 year old Swiss twins who only spoke French.  I taught rangy young racers honing their technique to qualify for the state team and beat our perpetual foes, Vermont.  I taught tourists from India who came in groups of twelve or more and wore jeans, two parkas at a time, and no gloves.   I taught a family from New York who skied down a shallow slope, took their skis off at the bottom, and then hiked up to repeat the cycle again, leaving deep dents in the carefully groomed parallel trails.  I taught a 60 year old woman who took three breaks for hot chocolate in a one hour lesson.  I taught a weekly series with a group of kids from the Boys and Girls Club of Dorchester who had grown up in Boston but never done a winter sport before.   I loved it.

I’ve learned the most from jobs where I’ve earned very little money and worked long hours.  A lot of these positions don’t appear on my resume.  I’ve been told to present a coherent career arc that demonstrates my aptitude for my desired post; a string of continuous achievement that leads directly to the exact job I seek today.  The experiences above were all vivid and meaningful to me, and instilled me with a sense of adaptability, curiosity, and hard work.  I’ll have more jobs in the future, but I’ll always carry these jobs with me.

A Line in the Sand

A team of auditors came out to the project site to visit some of our community investments in the field. We had installed shipping containers in project-impacted communities that they could use as social and educational spaces, then came with soda and paints and paintbrushes for community members to paint the containers and make them their own. I was asked to take the auditors on a tour of the containers, so we packed into the truck and were on our way.

There are no paved roads within 20 miles of the site, and what remains are only roads in the sense that people don’t actually plant crops on them very often. Sometimes the road takes odd doglegs if someone has decided to build a house on this flat, pre-hardened stretch of land, and several times I’ve seen pits sunk a meter deep into the path because someone’s metal detector beeped as he crossed the road. At different times of the year the same stretch of track can be a pit of gluey mud, a tunnel between walls of eerily whispering grass, or a sandbox that boils into dust at the slightest disturbance. When I left the site six weeks ago the terrain was lush and people were harvesting their crops, but now the land is prickly, dusty and dry. I knew where all the sites I wanted to visit were except for one, and I asked my colleague to refresh me on the directions. “Just drive past the mango grove on your right and turn left after the village counselor’s compound.” he said. “You can’t miss it.”

Well he was wrong, because I could miss it. We drove past farms that looked like all of the others in the area; scattered karité and cashew trees standing alone in fields coated with delicate black ash from where farmers had burned off groundcover. I suddenly had the feeling that I didn’t recognize these trees and we were in the wrong place. I checked my satellite GPS and sure enough our little blue arrow had nudged over the border of Côte d’Ivoire. We had overshot the village by a kilometer and ended up in a foreign country. We did a quick K-turn and returned to Burkina Faso, and the rest of the trip passed without incident.

Even though none of the airlines will ever allow me into their executive lounges, the fact is that I fly a lot. Crossing the border in an airport or an international ground checkpoint is a big deal, and the situation is handled with appropriate gravitas. You fill out a waxy ink-resistant form with your place of birth and occupation, the border control agent frowns at you through the glass and checks your passport, yellow fever vaccination and visa, and finally with a satisfying CHUNK she stamps your documents and sends you on your way. Often there’s a line painted on the ground, and as you cross it you feel the air become thicker or thinner or lighter or warmer or heavier, somehow DIFFERENT, from the air of the country that you have just technically left.

This time I felt none of that. One moment I was traveling through the sooty cotton fields of one nation, and the next moment I was in another sovereign state. As we visited the sites on the checklist I reflected on the fact that the border I had just crossed had been drawn by some unknown Frenchman in the 1800s—both Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso are former French colonies, so the line between them is recent and arbitrary. If his hand had quivered as he laid the ruler on the page to draw a line I may never have entered Côte d’Ivoire at all, or perhaps I would have driven 2 kilometers into foreign territory before realizing my mistake. The people native to this region hardly make a distinction between the two nations: they cross the border at will to attend markets or visit family on the other side. Six months ago I spent an 14 hour stretch in the Abidjan airport sleeping on a bench under fluorescent lights because I had an unexpected layover and no visa in my passport to pass through the sliding doors where good food and hotels awaited me. Same country, different border crossings, different result.

The solution is simple. Burkina Faso must build a beautiful, tremendous wall on its southern border. This will be unprecedented for Burkinabé engineering, because it will come in ahead of schedule and under budget. Send the bill to Mexico.

 

img_0039

This is how the container looked when I found it…

img_0041

…and this is what I found inside.

The View from Ground Level

img_3743

Selfie with my wheels

img_0015

Concert in Ouaga

img_0031

Burning brush on the road to the village

img_0036

Standing room only to watch Cameroon vs. Burkina Faso in the African Cup of Nations