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MARCH 28, 2014

‘Pops, Patriots and Fireworks’

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Fox Laner makes his mark in Peace Corps


By DON HEPPNER
PHOTO COURTESY BEN WAGNER


Villagers in Nepal celebrate Holi, a two-day affair on the first day in the hills and the second day in the plains. It’s a particularly fun day for youths, who travel from home to home with colored powder and water balloons challenging anyone within range to share their fun.

 

Ben Wagner’s interest in the Peace Corps began during Wellness Day, a Fox Lane High School event devoted to students learning about the world. He was in the 12th grade when his math teacher Jim Koloski showed Ben’s class a slideshow from his time in the Peace Corps in Fiji.

Ben graduated in 2009. Three years later, as a junior at Middlebury College, he met Dr. Brad Armstrong, who had served in the Peace Corps prior to entering medical school.

Ben was intent on studying medicine but couldn’t face the thought of diving into the additional years of schooling required.

The Peace Corps was an attractive alternative for many of reasons. “I wanted a different perspective on health than the narrow biomedical doctrine touted by much of the American medical establishment,” Ben wrote in an email. “I wanted to feel the satisfaction of helping people that I’d experienced before getting sucked up in the whirlwind of college.”

He wanted to travel and learn about the world and try something new and maybe uncomfortable in the hope of discovering and developing new facets of his character.

“Dr. Armstrong’s existence proved that such a path would be possible, and his nature suggested that one would be preferable for the kind of person I wanted to become,” Ben said. “I sent in my application in September 2012, jumped through all the Peace Corps’ hoops, and in May 2013, just a few weeks before graduating, received my invitation to serve as a food security volunteer in Nepal.”

Food security addresses the availability and use of nutritious foods. Food security includes agriculture, nutrition, sanitation, small-business development and more, according to Ben.

He said that Nepal is extremely difficult to characterize. “It is home to over 100 ethnic groups and over 30 languages,” said Ben. “Luckily, most people speak Nepali, which is what I learned during my initial three-month Peace Corps training. The part of Nepal I’m now in is pretty far from what you might picture: it’s extremely flat, with a subtropical climate that never sees snow.”

He lives in a rural village with a host family that includes a 60-year-old host mother, a 30-year-old sister and a 35-year-old brother who lives in a nearby city and works for a cable company.

“Most of my neighbors are farmers, many of them merely subsisting on the fruits of their labor,” said Ben. “My family is one of the wealthier families in the community; we have a television, motorcycle and several cellphones, yet we lack ‘basic’ things like running water.”

Ben said he totes drinking water home in a bucket from a well behind a neighboring home. He gets around mostly on foot, but for longer distances he bikes or “when I can’t avoid it, I ride in cramped jeeps or buses.”

He has become accustomed to his adopted way of life and said that he forgets the things that initially made him uncomfortable or that he found surprising or even upsetting.

“It’s hard to describe a typical day here,” Ben said. “Certain details, like meals and chores, are pretty much always the same, but my social and work interactions vary a great deal.”

He wakes up with the sun, about 7 a.m., and drinks a glass of hot milk from his family’s water buffalo, which is milked every morning and evening. After milk he has milk tea and a piece of baked flatbread. Nepalis don’t eat breakfast until around 10 a.m., which gives him a lot of time before starting his day.

“I usually use the mornings to study Nepali, read for pleasure, plan my day, call friends from home — the East Coast is currently 10 hours and 45 minutes behind Nepal, which is pretty confusing,” he said. He might work on his garden, which is a plot of four 1-by-4-meter beds next to his house, which he dug and planted himself.

Around 10 a.m., he eats his morning meal with his adopted family. The traditional Nepali meal consists of lentils and steamed white rice, lentil curry, curried vegetables and chutney. Sometimes that menu is supplemented with meat — typically chicken or goat — or with a boiled or fried egg. In rural areas, Nepalis still eat this meal twice a day. They don’t use silverware but eat strictly using their right hand, because the left hand is seen as impure.

“After breakfast, my day varies a great deal,” he said. “Nepal has a six-day work week, with Saturday being a day off.”

He said the week is not as long as it sounds as the government office hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Some days he works with a doctor “counterpart” in the nearby primary health center, which offers free services such as birthing, medications, and lab testing.

“There, my main role is giving weekly nutrition and HIV/AIDS education to pregnant mothers,” Ben said, “but much of my work has more of a community development focus, so I’m trying to get out into the community more. I’ve spent much of my first three months here getting to know my community, attending various meetings of mothers’ and farmers’ groups.”

He plans to spend the rest of his time in Nepal working to improve nutrition, sanitation and agriculture.

“Other days, I may travel as I did today and yesterday from house to house conducting a survey about improved cook stoves, a brick-and-mud stove with a chimney that practically eliminates indoor smoke, cooks faster and uses less wood than the indoor open fires that most people use to cook,” Ben said. “In the upcoming week, I’ll be giving a compost training to a group of farmers. I’m planning on promoting mushroom farming and beekeeping with village groups as a way to generate income and improve nutrition.”

He said that he is learning about health and agricultural technology, including how to make organic pesticide and preserve fruits and vegetables, and how to counsel pregnant and new mothers on their feeding practices.

Some afternoons Ben occupies himself playing volleyball with the local girls’ team, while other times he works in his garden.

“Cultural events also consume much of my time,” Ben said. “Sometimes I attend local weddings or festivals and, with a bit of prompting, dance for the crowd of guests.”

His evenings are more routine. After his evening meal, about 7, he spends time with his family or retreats to his room to watch a movie or read a book. “I usually fall asleep around 10 but some nights crash as early as 8,” he said. “Spending my whole day speaking a foreign language, assimilating to a foreign culture and engaging in exchange is extremely rewarding, but it’s also pretty exhausting.”

He said the Peace Corps sends people to countries needing assistance but also focuses on cultural exchange for promoting peace and understanding.

“I spend a lot of my time casually conversing with community members over tea, fielding questions about American food, climate, dress and even girls,” Ben said. “I operate a blog, beninthepeacecorps.blogspot.com, where I share my experiences and reflections of Nepal with friends, family and others back in the states.”


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