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  • Writer's pictureCullen Heater

Oranges and the Mind-Altering Power of Vitamin C

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

Cullen's Peace Corps Journal

Monday, August 6th, 2018 @ 15:45

How did I get here? What was I thinking? Nobody ever warns you about the psychological difficulties of life in the Peace Corps. I knew it was going to be hard; I assumed I would get some rare tropical parasite. But I wasn't prepared for the isolation. Here I am, sitting on my porch, alone inside my head, watching as the light blinks red on my satellite phone. The constant nagging of my own expectations driving me insane. "You're not doing it right! Do it better." Do what better? I don't understand what's expected of me. I'm not necessary; my community doesn't need me. I'm so fucking lost. I don't know what to do... Hang on, someone's calling my name...

Monday, August 6th, 2018 @ 21:57


The chiquillos and muchachitas came over to my house around 4pm. The six students in eighth grade had an assignment for science class about organic fertilizer and their younger siblings had tagged along to climb the orange tree in my front yard, and harvest as many oranges as they could reach. I got very excited that someone wanted my help with something, so I brought all of my agriculture books out onto the porch and we flipped through the pages together, looking at the pictures. I could've talked to them for hours about Rodale's Book of Composting; but, I know it would have gone over their heads. As I started thinking out loud about macro and micro nutrients and the importance of the carbon/nitrogen ratio, I could see that I was going beyond the scope of their assignment.

"¿Que es nitrógeno?" Yarelis Flores, the one who had been diligently taking notes the whole time asked. Oops. You only realize how little you actually know about something when you have to explain it in your second language to a child. I had to backtrack a little bit. It is hard to know the depth of their understanding of science. I also realized that trying to explain the periodic table of elements to these kids was tougher than I thought. But I did my best. We talked for two hours until I ran out of things to say. The chiquillos had gotten bored long ago and were climbing the trees, tossing oranges down to each other.

I taught them about composting and they taught me how to peel an orange with a machete like a true Panamanian; it has been a year and I still can't do it right. I always take too much of the peel off and the juice sprays everywhere when I squeeze it. Fortunately, there were practically infinite oranges all around my house. I could just reach up and pick another one. We sat there on my front porch as the sunset began to turn the sky this momentary rose-gold that reminds you of the fleeting beauty of nature- like God winking at you before She disappears into darkness. I can't explain it; It's only a moment but it lasts forever, frozen in time.

Johnny and the chiquillos ran around, farting and laughing; the girls sat serenely on the bench peeling their oranges; Lingo, my host brother, tried to play it cool and impress them. There must have been 40 oranges. And as we sat there and ate all of them, I began to feel better. The breeze drifted by. The rivers roared in the distance. The perfect spiral snakeskins of orange peel lay scattered on the porch. And the soft sucking sound of fresh orange juice was punctuated only by the spitting of seeds.

The best part of my Peace Corps service is this orange tree in my yard and how thrilled the boys are to harvest the slowly yellowing oranges. It reminds me that the world is beautiful. It reminds me of who I am and why I am here. Food brings us together. It's that simple. I came here for that reason, and I couldn't find it for a while. These kids showed me, reminded me. And it was perfect.

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