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Kossacks are everywhere, and as a resident of Perote, Veracruz, Mexico, I thought I`d offer a view of what is happening here, the spot being investigated as swine flu ground zero. In fact DailyKos is directly responsible for my being here, as I`ll explain after the fold.

(Mandatory disclaimer: I am a Peace Corps Volunteer, not staff.  What I share here are exclusively my own views and observations, and do not represent official Peace Corps positions, policies, etc. I speak only for myself here.)

I attended a dKos meetup in DC at a time I was trying to find work in the non-profit arena. Despite my education and experience, the only looks I was getting were for entry level positions. Arriving early at the meetup, I decided to burn a few minutes by walking around the block, where I came upon the Peace Corps headquarters building. Long story short, they needed professionals with advanced degrees and lots of experience to join their Mexico program. I am now a Peace Corps Volunteer in the municipality of Perote, working to strengthen the link between environmental protection and sustainable livlihoods.

Perote is both a municipality and a town, with a total population of around 65,000. Though high in the mountains, most of the population and towns of the muni are spread along a valley, (or perhaps more accurately, a "volcano alley"), at about 8,000 feet msl. The highest point in the muni is Cofre de Perote with a peak at over 14,000 feet. It occasionally get`s snow.

The economy here is based mostly on timber, surface mining (for a mineral used to make cinder blocks), subsistence farming, and Granjas Carroll de Mexico, the pork producer that is by far the largest company in Perote. GCM, as it is known, has Confined Area Feeding Operations, (CAFO), scattered across the valley floor. Standing on the mountain at night, you can see clusters of white or yellow lights dotting the valley. The yellow light clusters are towns. The of white light clusters are GCM`s CAFOs. They are far more modern than the rest of Perote, which was founded eighty three years before Jamestown, VA.

My project is meant to establish a model demonstrating how sustainable environmental practices improve the economic benefits for forest-industry businesses. The idea is that such a model can be followed by businesses and business groups across Mexico, thereby improving both the environment and the economy.

Out and about

Things in the town of Perote are surprisingly normal. I`m happy to see that a high percentage of people are wearing masks. I suspect the percentage would be even higher, but there are no more available to buy.

• Schools and some government buildings, (e.g. the library and the cultural center), are closed until May 6th.
• A few businesses are staying closed.
• The general activity level in town is lower than normal. People seem to be staying home more.
• Among the people who are out, there appears to be a high level of awareness of good prevention practices, and many business owners appear to be requiring their staff to wear masks.

How I have chosen to respond

• I am just trying to set an example by modeling healthy behaviors: wearing my mask; not shaking hands, (I shake the wrist, which isn`t uncommon here), washing my hands often and thoroughly, etc.
• I gave out masks. I went through the central park where the food vendors set up their carts at night, and gave masks to all the vendors who weren`t wearing them already. A lot of folks saw what I was doing, so I think it brought attention to basic prevention. I also gave masks to various business owners, and to the library for their patrons before it was ordered closed.
• I talk about it. I make sure the people are aware of what is going on and what steps they can take to minimize the risk to themselves and their families.

I had a conversation with a supermarket owner who also happens to have an M.D. I asked him why he didn`t have a mask on. He started to explain about viral transmission and personal hygiene, but I interrupted him. I told him that as a business owner, (let alone and MD), he needs to be a leader in the community. Being a leader means setting the example, not just in words, but in actions. I gave him a stack of masks and asked him to be a leader, and to pass those masks out to his customers as well. He called his whole family over and told them what I said. They put on masks and started giving masks away while we continued to chat. I even got invited back for dinner on Friday.

The Peace Corps in Mexico

The Peace Corps has three missions, and only one of them relates to sharing my technical expertise. The other two goals relate to both sides of the cultural exchange taking place: Mexicans meeting an American as a neighbor and a co-worker, and folks back in the U.S. learning about Mexico from PCV`s, (Peace Corps Volunteers). Think of it another way: two thirds of my responsibility here is to experience Mexico outside of work, and share stories of my experiences with folks back home. Such as I`m doing in this diary.

PCMX is trying to establish a new model of working with the host government to support solutions higher on the problem chain. Almost all PCVs in MX are experienced professionals with advanced degrees. Most projects aren`t just to solve a problem, but rather to set precedents and establish models that can solve the same problem across Mexico. For example, my project works with a diverse group of 20 companies to make environmental protection part of their business process. There is a growing market for products that are recognized as part of the solution rather than part of the problem, so that is the kind of business group we are trying to be. If successful, businesses around Mexico will be able to follow our lead, using the same process. Over time, this could create a significant impact on both the environment and the economy.

What you can do

Don`t wait for the swine flu to reach your town before you prepare. By the time word got out in Perote, all flu medications, masks and anti-virus had been sold out across town. I was lucky because I had bought masks before the crisis came, so I had enough to give away.

But the question of how you respond to the potential pandemic is no different from how you should choose to respond to the many other crisis that are threatening our health and welfare. The answer is the same; decide to be part of the solution, then align yourself with that decision. It can be as simple as setting a good example in your choices and practices. Or it can be as radical as changing careers and joining the Peace Corps. Ah-hem. Regardless, once you have made the decision, every step you take to follow through is a step in the right direction. That means something.

The dKos community is helping align our national and personal priorities to reflect responsible, informed decision-making. So the fact that you are reading this suggests you plot somewhere on the solution continuum.

As a business person, I encourage you to make every purchase a reflection of your values by only buying responsibly produced goods and services. When there is money in being green, businesses become green. Be the market we seek to serve.

Finally, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I encourage you to give serious thought to joining one of the national service programs. I cannot tell you how much I am getting out of my service here in Mexico, and my experience is far from unique. But the program here needs more retirees and mid-level professionals, which are not the traditional audience for Peace Corps recruiters. Add budget cuts, and the Mexico program could stumble simply from not being able to find enough volunteers. Two words Kossacks: free healthcare! Please put Peace Corps service on your radar.

I will head to an internet café to follow comments and answer questions for an hour or two. Thanks for reading. And thank you for getting me to Mexico!!!

(Mandatory disclaimer: I am a Peace Corps Volunteer, not staff.  What I share here are exclusively my own views and observations, and do not represent official Peace Corps positions, policies, etc. I speak only for myself here.)

Originally posted to Peace Corps Mexico on Thu Apr 30, 2009 at 10:47 AM PDT.

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