This version of the May 2001 issue of is designed to be quickly and easily printed from any printer. It includes all articles in the issue as well as new items listed in such departments as Opportunities for Writers and Friendly Agents and Publishers.

It does not include any information that appears in the yellow sidebars, information on the Current Issue page which provides links to each of the articles, or links, book covers, photos or graphics that appear on any of the pages. Nor does it include listings from “40 Years of Peace Corps Writers: The Tour, ”archived copies of RPCV Writers & Readers, any bibliographic listings or "Links of Interest."

Peace Corps Writers – May 2001

Contents — click on title to jump down to read. Or just print the whole thing.

    The 40th anniversary of the Peace Corps will be celebrated in Washington, D.C. from Thursday, September 20th through Sunday, September 23rd. The National Peace Corps Association (NPCA), the Peace Corps, and Peace Corps Writers are planning a variety of activities, programs and volunteer readings at the conference.

    Panels for writers
    Peace Corps Writers has scheduled nine panels on writing to take place over the long weekend. The scheduled panels are:

      The Peace Corps Novel as Literature
      Writing Your Peace Corps Story (Fiction or Non-Fiction)
      Writing Children Books
      Write! Edit! Publish!
      Travel & Write
      Poetry From the Peace Corps Experience
      Publishing on the Web
      Environmental Writing
      Publishing Translations

    We are still looking for a few published writers to fill out our panels on Environmental Writing, Publishing Translation, Poetry From the Peace Corps Experience, Writing Children Books, and Travel & Write. If you feel you have something to contribute as a panelist, contact me at:

    RPCV readings
    On Friday and Saturday readings by RPCVs will be given. Peace Corps Volunteers can read letters home, journal entries, essays, poetry or prose. All Volunteers and Returned Volunteers are welcome to read for 10 minutes at our venue in the Hotel Washington, the Headquarters of the conference. To schedule your reading, contact Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 1997–98 ) at: Send Joe a one-line description of what you will read.

    Book sales and author signings
    If you have a published book that you wish to be sold at the conference, and would like to schedule a book signing at the Politics & Prose Bookstore booth on-site, please contact me at: I will need to know the name of your book(s) and the publisher. If you would like to read at the conference, please also let me and Joe Kovacs know.

    Nominations for the RPCV 2000 Writers Awards on now being sought. The catagories are:

      Children’s books

         Nominated books must have been published in 2000. Please send your nomination(s) to John Coyne at:

    For more information about the conference including registration, hotels and a schedule, go to the NPCA’s 40th Anniversary web page.
         Marian Haley Beil and I hope to see you in D.C.

    We're now in the schmata business
    You can now buy a “Peace Corps Writers” t-shirt — short- or long-sleeved — or mug. We have set up an account with that handles the entire operation — printing, selling, shipping. Go to to see what is available. Hey — how about wearing our t-shirt to the 40th?

    In This Issue
    For this issue of Peace Corps Writers, we interviewed Joe Cummings (Thailand 1977–78) — another successful travel writer who has turned his Peace Corps experience into a full-time writing career.
         Daniel Buck (Peru 1965–67) is back with another Travel Right. Dan gives us background information on British writer Bruce Chatwin’s well-known and controversial book In Patagonia.
         Roger Landrum (Nigeria 1961–63) and Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962–64) remember the creative contributions made by film director, editor and writer, musician, and songwriter David Schickele (Nigeria 1961–63) in two essays.
         A Writer Writes is actually by three writers — all poets — Bill Coolidge (Bolivia 1966–68), Kinney Thiele (Sierra Leone 1985–87), and Meagan Pfeltz (Dominica 2000–01),
         The legendary Deputy Director to Somalia in the early days of the Peace Corps sends us a Letter Home that he wrote in 1965 from Hargeisa.
          And we received two wonderful Letters to the Editor. One from Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965–67) and another from John Taylor (Turkey 1968–70) in Australia, recalling his tour in Turkey. Both letters are in response to pieces that they read on our website.
         And in addition, we have four new book reviews, Literary Talk, and some very useful new email addresses for writers.
         Readers — start your engines.

    John Coyne

To Preserve and to Learn

    Making David Schickele’s Peace Corps Film

by Roger Landrum (Nigeria 1961–63)

A COUPLE OF YEARS AFTER WE SERVED together as PCVs in Nigeria, David Schickele asked me if I would be part of a film project he was proposing to the Peace Corps. The basic concept was to capture the adventure of crossing into another culture and the rewards gained from escaping the cocoon in which Americans living abroad typically enclose themselves. It is an experience common among many PCVs to one degree or another, and for the Peace Corps, this film could be used to recruit the next wave of Volunteers, focusing on its two mandated cross-cultural goals rather than the more commonly publicized development assistance goal. Our personal experiences in Africa had been a revelation to us in numerous ways, and David wanted to make a documentary providing Americans with a new perspective from inside the Volunteer’s Peace Corps and a different view of Africans.
     The Peace Corps was jittery about the proposed project. In 1965, David was unknown, at the beginning of a career as an independent filmmaker and musician. These were still the early years of the Peace Corps, and facing a lot of Congressional skepticism, the agency was sensitive about its image both in Washington and with the American public. This project did not fit the preferred style of hiring a powerful PR firm to shape the Peace Corps message and conducting recruitment campaigns under tight agency control. But as things often happened in those days, Harris Wofford got behind the project and convinced Sargent Shriver to take a chance, despite strong objections from others within the Peace Corps.
     At the time, I was a Peace Corps employee, a program officer in the Division of Training, and I soon got a taste of the obstacles David and Harris had overcome. In preparation for our filmmaking party’s departure, my passport had to be sent, with Travel Orders, through the General Counsel’s office for final approval. There they were confiscated and declared “lost.” It took a confrontational hubbub to pry them out only a short time before the party’s scheduled flight to Nigeria. That was just the beginning of our troubles.

Starting with only an idea
I have to admit there was not much of a plan for the film, except in David’s mind. There was no written script. And I had never been in a film before and was fairly nervous myself about what role I was expected to play. The general plan was to meet up with four Nigerian friends — former students of ours at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka between 1961 through 1963 — and David would capture the ensuing reunions and take things from there. Our friends had not even been notified we were coming. The idea was to take them by surprise.
     The Peace Corps country director, David Elliott, could not have been more helpful. He had a Peace Corps vehicle lined up for us along with the Nigerian driver requested by David — a trusted colleague from our Volunteer days. But the Nigerian government had to approve letting an American film crew loose in their country at a time when they were even more sensitive about their image than the Peace Corps was. After fruitless visits to many government offices in Lagos to obtain the proper documents, we finally got another break when we ended up before the Minister of Culture. The Minister turned out to be Cyprian Ekwensi, a famous Nigerian novelist whose most popular work, Jagua Nana, was the story of a celebrated Nigerian prostitute. Minister Ekwensi was not stuck on propaganda. He and David hit it off and we soon had the necessary documents to deal with policemen or other government agents who might spot our film crew at work.

The filming crew
The crew was David, with a hand held 16 mm camera, a second cameraman, a soundman, the Nigerian driver, and myself. As I remember, we had five weeks to locate our Nigerian friends and get enough footage for David to create his recruiting film. This is something of a blur to me, and not only because this all happened many years ago. Being surrounded by a film crew is more than a small distraction from returning to your Peace Corps site.

The script
The centerpiece of David’s “script” turned out to be trips back to the home areas of the four Nigerians, in far-flung parts of eastern Nigeria — in one case by dugout canoe up the Cross River to a tiny village. David wanted to include as a part of the film the journey this new generation of university-educated Nigerians were making from their ancestral ethnic roots. In many ways it was a greater epic than anything PCVs faced.

The cast — the RPCV
For years afterwards, I kidded David that he had cast me as himself in the film. This was more of a paradox than you might think. David and I were the best of friends and remained that way until he died a year and a half ago, but we were also quite different. For lack of a better phrase, David had a beat generation interest in culture and the arts. He found the preferred Peace Corps brand of idealism cliché-ridden and the political drama of Nigeria’s early independence discomforting. When we first arrived in Nigeria as PCVs in 1961, I think he was a bit afraid of Nigerian students, who were not only profoundly African in manner (this was well before today’s slick globalizing influences) but zealously outspoken about neocolonialism, which kept all of us somewhat on guard. The students demonstrated against the Peace Corps upon our arrival on campus where we had been thrown — sink or swim style — into their dorms to live with them, adding to the normal tensions of adjustment to another culture. We also had our classes to plan and conduct in these somewhat volatile circumstances. It was months before David left the university campus to get out and mix it up with Nigeria and Nigerians. Some in our group never really did this. I, on the other hand, was excited about the Peace Corps mission and was determined to spend most of my time with Nigerians, and so I began making excursions into the countryside as soon as we arrived in Nsukka. Curiosity soon got the best of David, and, before long he joined in. We spent a good deal of time together exploring Nigeria, but in the end, David made his own personal journey into Nigeria, as I did. I have always thought that my outgoing approach with Nigeria and Nigerians got David out of his shell, and, to that extent, inspired David’s film project. In watching him make the film, it became clear that he was far more reflective than I was about things I often took for granted. At any rate, my role in the film, as cast by David, became that of an interlocutor with the Nigerians.

The cast — the former students
One by one, we found our four Nigerian friends — each astounded to see us appear at his doorsteps. They had graduated and now were at their jobs in various parts of eastern Nigeria. Two were teachers, one was with an oil company, and the other was a government district officer. We proceeded to become reacquainted — Nigerian-style, with lots of parties and long conversations.
     Pol Ndu, a teacher and published poet, appears briefly in the film to host one of those wonderful Nigerian small-town parties with local friends, gossiping and dancing. Not many years after making the film, Pol, a sweet and refined young man with a wife and two kids, was killed in an automobile accident.
     Paul Okpokum — a teacher who turned out to be a natural actor — is seen in the film with his class at a girl’s school, where he pushes me into making a guest appearance for a lesson about Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart. He later leads an excursion to his ancestral village on the Cross River where I meet his family. Masks and drums are brought from the Sacred Forest for mascarade dances to celebrate his return home.
     Paul came to the US in the late 60s to star in Bushman, a feature film David made about the adventures of an African in San Francisco. That film won awards at independent film festivals and is in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as an early example of cinema verite. Paul also got arrested during a race riot at San Francisco State University, allegedly for carrying a homemade bomb on campus in his jacket pocket. That event became the conclusion of Bushman. Paul was briefly imprisoned and then deported to Nigeria where he resumed his career in acting and theatre management.
     Manze Ejiogu appears in the film conversing with me at length about Nigeria and translating at an Owerri village celebration. He has had a long career in the oil business and was installed as a traditional chief in Owerri. Manze visited David and me in the States a few years ago and has corresponded with us over many years, often about Nigeria’s descent into political darkness.
     Gabriel Ogar is the man many women seeing the film most wanted to meet. Gabe married his fiancée, Josephine, who appears briefly in the film as well. As far as I know, they lived happily ever afterwards. His career has been in local government. We heard about him through Paul but not from him directly.
     The film focuses mostly on these people but some of the most beautiful parts are quiet scenes of a rural village waking up in the morning, yam fields, and Nigerian music.

Give Me A Riddle
As for the film itself, Give Me A Riddle — named after a scene about Ibo proverbs and riddles — lives on, especially with Nigeria RPCVs.
     It was utilized a bit in Peace Corps recruiting, although the agency was never comfortable with the “behind the scenes” look at the Peace Corps. By the time the rough-cut was prepared from over 25 hours of footage, Shriver was gone. The new Peace Corps director, Jack Hood Vaughn, told David that scenes showing bearded PCVs drinking with their Nigerian hosts would have to go because this “image” made it too hard to defend the Peace Corps on Capitol Hill. It turned out that President Johnson had called Vaughn to complain about PCVs. For years, David quoted with relish Vaughn’s account of the phone call: "Gawddammit Jack, here’s another picture of a Volunteer with a gawddamn beard. What you got over there, a bunch of gawddamn hippies?"
     The Peace Corps banned showings of the film in southern states out of concern that it would inflame race relations — which probably meant offend southern politicians. The Peace Corps leadership feared the American south in the 60s — probably for good reasons. There was a Shriver policy that PCVs could not be trained where they might face racial discrimination, which eliminated southern colleges and universities. As a program officer for training, I arranged the first training program at a black college — Morehouse in Atlanta. The Morehouse president and I had to promise Shriver that there would be no trouble. Then a carload of trainees, training staff, Nigerians and I were mistaken for civil rights workers, and arrested and jailed on phony charges in the small town of Roberta, Georgia. It was Morehouse and the Nigerian Embassy that got us released, not the Peace Corps. David would have loved to film that.
     Today, when I see Give Me A Riddle, I am always a little surprised by how bold we were in those early years of Peace Corps. It is an emotional experience to see again how generous our Nigerian friends really were and to revisit David’s take on the Peace Corps. At one level, Riddle is about friendships, talks, trips and a sense of place. It is true to those dimensions of the Peace Corps. David prized the film as a historical document capturing the spirit of Nigeria in that halcyon time between independence and civil war. With David’s death, from a brain tumor, Riddle has become infused — at least for me — with his sense of spiritual journey and of finding delight in unexpected places.
     The film is long forgotten by the Peace Corps but is sometimes shown at RPCV conferences. I hear about it fairly often. Harris Wofford called a few months back after showing it on video to the founder of City Year, who wanted to talk about it. A few weeks ago some Peace Corps friends of mine insisted on seeing it. Parts of the film were shown at the Memorial Service for David in San Francisco in November 1999. The RPCV group Friends of Nigeria has asked to show it during their gathering at the 40th anniversary conference. David took the film back to Nigeria for a showing in 1972.
     Unfortunately, the Peace Corps doesn’t make films like this anymore, but RPCVs still tell their stories in books and in other ways. When I meet young people who I think have the right stuff to join the Peace Corps, I always shown them the film. They usually sign up and, I am happy to report, usually have very similar experiences in places as distant from Nigeria as Hungary and Ecuador.

After the Peace Corps, Roger Landrum founded and directed three nonprofit organizations. The Teachers Inc. recruited, trained and supported a corps of teachers for inner-city public schools in New York City, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Atlanta. Youth Service America, by leading a nation-wide expansion of youth volunteer programs in schools and higher education and youth corps in states and cities, laid the program and policy foundation for the federal National and Community Service Acts of 1990 and 1993. Youth Service International, is developing service programs for young people in Central and Eastern Europe. Landrum served as volunteer president of the group RPCV/Washington and the National Peace Corps Association, and organized and chaired the RPCV Coalition that created the 25th Peace Corps Anniversary Celebration in Washington, D.C. in 1986. Landrum lives in Washington, DC.

A Closer Look —

You Can’t Break My Window Mister — David Schickele’s Music

by Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962–64)

    AT A MID-80s PEACE CORPS REUNION in Washington, D.C., I met up with David again after some 20-odd years. I hadn’t seen him since a Free Biafra/Committee of Returned Volunteers meeting in 1969. He mentioned his music. Like everyone else I knew, I had seen and used his film Give Me A Riddle, so I was interested. A week later he sent me a 45 RPM with “Jack” on the A side. In 1986, “Jack” helped me transition my career back to freelance consulting as I wore out the little 45 playing it every morning, steeling myself for the lone life ahead. A piece of “Jack” :

      Jack is true as the day is long
      an honest man in his hooves
      he don’t tell lies he just takes what
      little the lord bestows you
      and folds it under his cap
      flap your innocent angel wings
      hosannas sing
      it don’t mean nothing to Jack

      so say your prayers if you must do
      keep those beads in spin
      but when he crooks his finger
      just give him your
      watch and wait by the window
      fold your hands in your lap
      he take everything his hand can hold
      but your heart your soul
      but won’t take none of your crap
      cause it don’t mean nothing to Jack

         Beyond that 45, one of my life treasures is a 1987 cassette of Volume Four (of five), entitled “Everything.” The songs on it all have complex orchestrations with multiple tracks, David on leads with harmony vocals, reeds, drums of all kinds, pedal steel guitars, cello, harmonica, etc. Professionally recorded. But, as you can tell from “Jack” above, how tuneful they are! And some really, really swing, hosannas sing, in a mighty big way. I whistle them when I am out riding my Spanish pony. Accessible.
         The songs grew from David’s richly poetic lyrics, often written for his friends. They’re filled with heroes, outlaws and mavericks, death and danger, lovely and lonely women, weird strangers, ramblin’, horizons and away places, blues and aloneness, portraits of old friends, and one about a magical saloon:

      . . . the place just made me feel at home so
      it’s kind of hard to explain
      unless you’ve spend a night in old Ibadan
      at the West End Café
           Studying his lyrics now, I see how David melded his old yen for cowboy honky-tonkin’ music with the Western-romantic-grail-questing of the Peace Corps (which quest few of us abandon). From “Under the Baobab”:

      when the bastards wear you down
      and your love life’s all undone
      when you feel like skipping town
      with a suitcase and a gun
      when you’re beat to your soul
      wend your way down to the riverside
      where the waters roll
      sit you down under the baobab
      where the hippos play. . . .

      Hippo Rob will pull you through
      make you see the world anew
      so dry your tears and tie your shoe
      Hippo Rob will pull you through.

         Such merry music was a family affair. David’s brother Peter Schickele tells listeners of his Public Radio series “Schickele Mix” about how he and his brother started presenting these weirdly funny family musicales which later grew into his satirical classical music and the character of P.D.Q. Bach. (David was also a serious viola player.) Here’s David’s maverick self in “You Can’t Break My Window”:

      you can’t break my window mister with
      BB gun
      the clouds will beat you to the draw
      they’re drawn with fingers finer than your
      trigger’s ever known
      you’ll need a wrecker’s ball
      you can’t break my window mister cause it’s
      painted on the wall

      you can’t break my window mister cause it’s
      made too strong
      its glass is spun of songs that echo round in
      Hildy’s eyes
      clear songs of longing hiding in these
      desert skies
      I feel the wind a-scraping on my
      stubble chin
      the clouds they change like Hamlet’s whale
      you gotta
      stare down the valley, till it lets you
      till it lets you in
      you need only heed the call
      you can’t break my window mister cause it’s
      painted on the wall

         And lastly, from “Sophie Sleeps”:

      The moon wears black pajamas
      with buttons made of stars
      moonbeams stroll the avenues
      strumming cheap guitars
      so turn down the lamplight
      now is the hour
      Sophie’s sleeping . . . .

         Last November phone calls and e-mails asked, “Did you know David Schickele just died?” Damn! But we do got his songs. David’s sleeping.

    Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962-64) worked with the USO in Vietnam and Bahrain after the Peace Corps. He was involved with emergency relief work in Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War, and was a consultant with Antioch College and the State University of New York at Old Westbury. He has written three books about innovative American training and education and spent eight years with TVA. He lives now in Pendleton, Oregon and is a consultant to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, developing a Tribal horse program. His article on David Schickele appeared in Friends of Nigeria Newsletter, Winter 2000 Vol 4, No. 4. We thank FoN for permission to reprint it here.

    All lyrics copyrighted by David Schickele and reprinted with permission.

Letter from Somalia

      Bob Blackburn was the legendary Deputy Director — aka Regional Representative — from 1964 to 1966 in Hargeisa, Somalia. Here is a letter he wrote home eight months into his tour in the Horn of Africa.

April 1965

      To friends, as usual, through the mimeograph (darkly):

      Well, the next thing we knew we were at the other end of the world, then at the edge, then OFF. (The edge is quite sharp, as the early geographers knew.) Over and around we tumbled for what seemed like seven months. Then to rest somewhere — your world winking eons away — in a land called S-O-M-A-L-I-A. Those who dwell here are strange indeed. Neckties and Living Bras do not bind them, and David Suskind never slept here. Of “cultural deprivation” they know not. Vehicles are for going someplace. The nearest thing to a national sex symbol is a species of fat-tailed sheep, and they wouldn’t know a foundation grant from a camel grunt.
           They do know about Selma, and Lt. Col. Aleksei Leonov, and U.S. arms to Ethiopia. And John F. Kennedy, and Ray Charles’ "Hit the Road, Jack," and, more and more. And the “Peace Corpse”— whether as friend, alien agent, or sponsor of the strangest creatures on two legs.
           Sixty teachers and assorted staff are scattered over twenty-five communities. Most are in school compounds in the bush set up by the British or Italians in the decade prior to independence in 1960. They teach in English at the intermediate level, with students ranging from the early teens to late twenties. A few teach the police, or in village elementary schools. History, science, geography, mathematics, English, sports — everything in the curriculum except Arabic. They teach well, live simply, and so far, none in the project have succumbed to the problems of existence in a barren, isolated Moslem culture. In their spare time and on school holidays, they take on additional projects: sports facilities, Boy Scouts, libraries, film showings, windmills. This summer, through the School-to-School program managed by Peace Corps, we will help build a girls’ elementary school in Gebileh, a village 50 miles from Hargeisa. Students at Upper Darby [PA] High have contributed over $1000, and this amount has been matched twice over by the villagers, who will join the Volunteers in the construction work. Would that Add Anderson were still around. A complete school for three thousand dollars!
           As for the Blackburns, we’re thriving. One of us, in fact, is blossoming with child. Barbara’s comment, soon after arriving, was that Somalia is at once more primitive and more civilized than she’d imagined. At least she’s decided it’s a fit place for offspring — which is more than she was apparently willing to concede about the Philadelphia WE Love and Left.
           Christopher is mostly elbows, knees and teeth these days. The television separation trauma has disappeared, but, as normal parents, we are anxious over a new development, an avid interest in books. We are comforted by the thought that like thumb-sucking or spitballs, it must pass. We wouldn’t want him to return maladjusted.
           As for the breadwinner, the work is exciting and exasperating. One Peace Corps staffer once wrote, “To the Volunteer, the Representative is too inaccessible for a companion, too harried for a confidant. . . . To the foreign service compatriot, the Representative is too youthful for equality, too idealistic for acceptance, too busy for golf. To the counterpart, too new for sharing ideas, too alien for sharing problems . . . ” A little overblown, but suggestive. My responsibilities are the forty PCVs in the Northern Region, former British Somaliland. Working with me are an educational advisor from the training university, the Peace Corps physician, and a Somali clerk/assistant. We cover an arid area somewhat larger than Pennsylvania, where there are no paved roads. Land Rovers take us over rough bush roads, and the wear and tear is considerable. One’s luck varies. I recently returned from a two-week visit tour, a part of which took me along the northern coast. For one hundred miles the route runs right along the water’s edge, and once when I was mired I had to dismantle the vehicle part by part and then persuade nomads to help lift out what remained. We beat the tide by minutes. But in 1100 miles, I had no mechanical problems, and one flat. The physician returned to Hargeisa this week after a trip, which was graced by twelve flats, loss of brakes, electrical failure and broken shock absorber mounts.
           Yet the real problems, unsurprisingly, relate to people: Volunteers who are taking this occasion to, among other things, grow up; officials reared and educated under colonialism, upset and distrustful as Volunteers move away from the roles formerly assumed by white foreigners to seek close associations with Somalia; the few lingering expatriates (advisors, business people) who watch with revulsion as Peace Corps people do things Westerners simply do not do, not the least of which is removing the color bar in the remaining “European” gathering spot. But mostly, it’s the Volunteers. Time was, several hundred years ago, when I was twenty-four with notions about things. I try and draw on those faded memories.
           Hargeisa is temperate, cool and dry. Nights are black, black. Soon — after eight months — the afternoon rains will come. Prices will go down for water and kat, the mildly narcotic leaf chewed by educated and illiterate alike. The great herds of camels and sheep will move out in caravans from the wells to freshening grazing lands. And Barbara’s garden, like everything else, will respond to the change in seasons.
           Our home is a comfortable stone government cottage, surrounded by low bushes and thorn trees. (You are invited to help me make Somalia rich by devising commercial uses — other than holding letters together — for its thorns. They come in all sizes, shapes and colors, and number, by my latest reckoning, just under seventeen trillion. Entries will be judged on originality and aptness of thought.) It is really quite nice.
           There are a number of small things one does here that are different, but they have slipped into unnoticed routine: the need to boil and filter the scarce water; soaking greens in iodine solution; tenderizing the camel steaks and mutton; mosquito nets; toilet facilities which do not include those porcelain thrones that permit great comings and goings of water, but are rather more like those of bygone rural America (in other words, a Pop Art john); and the African practice of day and night watchmen (We tried to get by with a day guard and were broken into at night. We switched the old gentlemen to night duty, then had our pet cheetah was stolen during the day. We surrendered.)
           Barbara, the delicate Cuban transplant, moves about with equanimity and style. The other day while shopping with basket in the magaala (the open market unvisited by white women until the Peace Corps), a youth threw a stone at her. Undaunted, she found the same stone and threw it back. Those who know of her attitudes towards fauna would only stare to see her striding up to the house, a plump and somewhat dispirited rooster under her arm, a rooster who knew full well from the firmness of her grip and the determination of her step that he is bound for the block and pressure cooker.
           So our days pass. Tensions in the preoccupations of never-ending tasks, in the dilemmas of deepening involvement in a perplexing culture. Release in the pleasures of family, in the satisfactions of seeing others on their way towards progress and accomplishment.
           Eons away, you may be, but we often find ourselves crossing the distance and picturing the busy lives. Can it be that you look rather better from a distance?

Warm wishes to all.
Bob, Barbara and Christopher
Box 341
Somali Republic

Letters to the editor —

Remembering Africa

    Upon reading the moving description of the many meanings of women carrying 40 pounds of water on their heads several times a day, [“Water” by Rachel Schneller (Mali 1998–98)], I thought back to the time I traveled overland from Buea in Cameroon, to Lagos, Nigeria.
         At the slave-trading town of Calabar, I had to get from the ferry dock to the train station. I didn’t know the distance was fifteen miles. My suitcase was full of books, naturally, and I got about ten yards when I admitted to myself I had trouble. I took a shirt out of the suitcase, made a doughnut with it, put it on my head and then hefted the suitcase and dropped it on the doughnut. I balanced it with two hands and started walking — half drunken sailor, half woman-with-broken-neck.
         On the road were several people: women carrying pots of water, baskets of produce, a baby goat, legs dangling to either side, and one man with one of those four-foot long saws with handles on both ends which bounced and twanged with each step he took. They all revolved their bodies carefully so as not to disturb the balance of their loads to stare at me. First they smiled, then they used their free hands to cover their mouths which was only polite since they didn’t want me to see them laughing. When my suitcase slid off my head and fell to the ground, they couldn’t help themselves — they had to put down their loads so they could let loose great peals of laughter.
         And then I was surrounded by volunteers all offering to carry my suitcase to the train station. Instead (being in no hurry since I didn’t even know if there really was a train station), I said, “Teach me.” The attempt was half-hearted at best since we were all in stitches. I kept asking them about the neck pain and they kept saying I hadn’t found the correct balance. We all could see I would never find the correct balance.
         Finally, a woman came to me who was going to the train station to meet her sister. She had nothing to carry since she’d be helping her sister
    carry her stuff on the way back. The woman didn’t count the baby on her back as something to carry. So I insisted on a trade — I would carry the baby in my arms if she carried my suitcase on her head. She protested. She said, “But he will urinate on you.” What’s a little urine among friends?
         So she carried my suitcase on her head, I carried sweet baby Acquinas in my arms and the people on the road dried their tears, rubbed their
    laugh-ached ribs and put their loads back on their heads. We all went on
    our way.
         Acquinas’ soft hair, shining with a vaseline rub, smelled the way the
    breeze does when the honey harvest arrives at market.

    Thank you with all the gratitude a recovered memory elicits.

Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965–67)

John Taylor wrote: I found your site by accident, putting my former wife Ginger’s unique name into a search engine, pretty much on a whim. [“For Love of Ankara” by Ginger Taylor Saclioglu (Turkey 1968–70)]. I have found your site very interesting and have now a short list of books I want to read. I will be looking at it from time to time.
     I am enclosing my reflections on Turkey. I hope you will post it on the site. You are free to attach my Email address ( or to provide it if there are any enquiries from old Peace Corps acquaintances.

Remembering Turkey

    I wasn’t, actually, a conscientious objector. I was strongly opposed to our government’s involvement in the Vietnam War, but where I should be as an individual was a more difficult question. The Peace Corps was partly a way of delaying a difficult decision. I also shared some of the idealism, and, more than anything, a sense of adventure, of wanting to see the World without joining the Navy, and without leaving my wife behind.
         So we arrived in Ankara, and were met with the sight of the women lining the second story window of the airport building, rode the whining busses, overtaking each other around the uphill curves into the city, to find the damp, coarse sheets in the concrete student hostel on the dusty street where there was a shooting the night of our arrival. I, too, remember the peaches, the black goat hair in Ginger’s first glass of ayran, the city lights seen from the hilltop in Cankaya, and the sea of red roof tiles from the citadel. I remember the sour dough bread. I also remember catching the share cabs from the city center to the leafy quiet streets where we had our digs in the district of Bachelievler (Houses with Gardens). And we could afford on our allowances to eat in restaurants almost as often as we wanted. I remember the smells and the call from the mosque one street away, and — after twenty-five years — I almost still remember the voices. The adventure was sumptuous.

    Life with Ginger
    In all this my wife was my companion and my very good friend. It was just the marriage that wasn’t working.
         Ginger’s only serious complaint at the time was that she didn’t get to use her Turkish. She loved and studied and learned her Turkish as well as I did, probably better, but I was the husband. According to the Turkish custom the conversations we picked up travelling across the city or across the country were addressed mostly to me. Ginger was not allowed to interrupt.
         For instance, the frosty morning in the huge tin shed which was the bus station in Erzurum when I spoke to an old man and insisted he take my seat, and that small Turkish courtesy earned us courtesies in return and treats of food and conversation all the way to Kars. The next day we climbed over the mountains in a minibus, stopped for a lunch of hot, rich chicken soup and bread at a long wooden table in a mountain village surrounded by forests of fir and oak trees, and on over and down the one-lane mountain road without guardrails to Hopa and the Black Sea just at dusk. We waited for the three a.m. departure of the ship we had booked for Istanbul in an upstairs tea house, the night watchman stopped in, men sat smoking, drinking tea and talking, the only place open late, where Ginger was allowed because she was with me, her husband, and because she was a foreigner. The news came through on the radio that night that the first man, an American, had walked on the moon. I had a conversation with the local school teacher who wanted me to help him convince the others it was true. They couldn’t believe it.
         Ginger sat quietly and listened. I had the conversation. It wasn’t fair. That isn’t why she left me, though.
         She would have preferred first class tickets on the ship, but I booked second. The cockroaches were too many and too big. That isn’t why she left me either. We got off at Rize and took another minibus along the coast, through the hazelnut fields where the driver stopped and begged the pickers for nuts for us, for the guests, and got enough for the whole bus.

    Two visions of myself
    Goethe, the German scientist, poet, philosopher, said that you don’t really know your own language until you know another. Turkish is not an Indo-European language. Not only its vocabulary, but its grammar and even its logic, it seemed, was different from the English. There is a suffix which attaches to any verb, meaning “or so it is said!” It is used for rumors and gossip, and sometimes for passing on official explanations. Like, “were we really ‘peace-helpers?’-mish.
         I even dreamed in Turkish for a while. And until I knew another culture, another country, I didn’t really know my own. Before I left the Midwest, Time Magazine was pretty much my window on the world. In Turkey I read an article in Time Magazine about Turkey, and it seemed that the writer hadn’t been in Turkey. I discovered that the Turkish press had better coverage of international news than I had found in America. I noticed that back home if I’d seen a black person down the street, my first thought was “a black,” and now in Turkey when I saw a black person down the street, my first thought was, “an American.” I came to see America with two visions at once — I saw it as an American, and I saw it as an outsider.
         That never went away. A couple of years ago I was back in the States for three months, with my two sons, after twenty years away. I still felt I was American, and I felt joy in seeing and touching the land and seeing some of the faces, and joy in some of the changes. I was back in the fairly racist Midwest city where I went to high school, where all the blacks’ school lockers had been together at one end of the building and where the only blacks’ names I knew were those of the basketball stars and where I never saw a black man touch a white woman, not even in the movies. I was back there after twenty years, and I went to the ice skating rink, and I saw a five-year-old white girl fall on the ice in front of a speeding black teenager, and he scooped her up with his hands and held her until he had slowed and set her on her feet, and everyone thought it was cool. In Chicago I took the same bus ride down the South Side that I’d used to take in tolerated silence, and this time I had conversations. No doubt I had changed, but America has been changing too.

    The changing conditions
    While we were in Turkey, from 1968 to 1970, things were happening and changing in America. The Vietnam War protests and demonstrations, Woodstock, the whole thing. But I was better off in Turkey. I was a child of a rigidly Protestant Midwest 50’s, and one of those revolutions would take longer to move me. Me — and Ginger too. I think that had something to with her leaving me, but we never talked about it in the end.
         In Turkey, too, there were protests and demonstrations. I saw the American Ambassador’s limo burned by Turkish students while the Ambassador visited Middle East Technical University where we were assigned to teach. Some of the Volunteers in our contingent were released early after they joined a protest against the War in front of the American Embassy. I kept in my drawer under my socks a pistol and a hand grenade given to me for safe keeping by a student from Palestine. They were better in my hands than his, and if I had taken them to the police or to the American Embassy without an explanation, I would have been going home. With the protests, the University was closed for a while, and when we returned, we saw the marks of machine gun fire on the concrete walls of the dormitories. Some of those Volunteers who left early were those I liked best, but I don’t remember their names now. We saw them later where they were living in Beirut. That other War hadn’t come yet to Beirut. Eventually, we were all sent home early, in case the protests might have turned against us.

    Gifts from Turkey
    Turkey gave me a second life, a second vision, a second knowledge of myself and of the world. It also gave me a vocation. A job where I can hang on to a measure of the old idealism. I would have accepted any assignment the Peace Corps offered. They put me in a university to teach English. Some of our students had only one year of English before they began their university studies, and since the curriculum was mostly in English, their success in English was crucial. The students were motivated and hard working, but as the course progressed a few would fall behind, further behind, and drop out. You could sometimes sense when someone had reached the point of no return. While I led a drill in class one morning, a student seemed to reach that point. He did not take his turn, and I thought that if he didn’t take this turn he would not take the next, and that would be the beginning of the end. So I backed up a step and told him quietly that he must respond. The class went completely silent, and now it was all or nothing, because his erkeklik, his honor, was on the line. He did respond, and then I put him through the entire drill on his own, in front of the class, and when he finished, the whole class breathed a great sigh of relief and of congratulations for both of us. He finished the course, and though I have left teaching a couple of times, I am still doing it.
         Now I’m in Australia, and I see the occasional Turkish film on Australia’s multi-cultural TV station. Australia has given me another life — again. Once in a while I feel this echo inside, this feeling that Ginger was my first wife, and Turkey was my second home.

John Taylor (Turkey 1968–70)

A Writer Writes — Three Writers & Three Poems

        Che Guevera
        (A True Story)

by Bill Coolidge (Bolivia 1966–68)

Che Guevera walked into town today.
He flew out the next, mangled body
tied to the bottom of a helicopter.
He came to town tired, winded, looking
for comrades. Speaking Spanish
he appeared briefly in the plaza.
My neighbors speak Quechua or Aymara, and some Spanish.
Did they need him, this Cuban revolutionary?
These urban campesinos working the mines for a dime a day?
Maybe Che needed them. More than he knew. Than they knew.
He, out of breath, out of time, and out of life
lingered too long.
“Hide out Che!” I would have yelled out
across the plaza. “Go to where your brothers are!”
Descend, into that hell.
Silver, gone, shipped to Spain.
Remnants of tin, that’s what left.
But you knew that, didn’t you Che?
The mine only takes, doesn’t give back.
These urban Quechua speaking fathers die,
when their 30th birthday rolls around.
Like you they are gasping, but they
don’t know, unlike you, what is
killing them. They are haunted.
No word for silicosis nor black lung.
No health insurance. Their comrades
and brothers die. The next day I welcome their children.
Into the ‘hogar.’ The home for miners’ kids.
You are hunted. Haunted too?
What is your connection to them?
What’s behind the fire in your eyes?
Tell us!
Both of you die today.
You and the Vision.
This vision of a South American revolution
does not go full circle.
Your death takes away
its first crack at life.
Stand in line. Che.
Your lofty phrases
here in the mountains
at 12,000 feet.
Found no perch, no catchbasin.
Like ashes now, floating
just floating, aspiring fragments.
Like you, too late,
with no homebase.
“Comrades, brothers.”
You said. But you missed them.
Only students and taxi cab drivers in that plaza.
You missed them, standing on that platform,
They were down below,
chewing cocoa leaves. Lunch.
Cool moist cave like mine.
Comrades and brothers, pausing
for breath, for a little euphoria.
Each day they go down,
until breath runs out
or the canary dies. Either way
Che, you missed out.
Broken connection. Until the end.
Until the end of your day. This day.
The day your breath ran out.
Like them you were lifted up.
Taken away. But they didn’t
know you, didn’t miss you.
Broken connection No circle..
I knew you were in town.
The older boys told me.
These orphan boys. They knew the scoop.
They knew you were here.
But they said to me, “demasiado tarde.”
Too late for their fathers
Too late them for them. Oh
yes, they were learning Spanish,
but they want me to teach them
Escape clause, out of the mine.
They don’t want to go with me
tonight to the plaza.
University students said,
“Bring a candle.” But my
boys say, “Do these students
light a candle for our papas?”
Who was that Che anyway?
“Demasiado tarde.” For him, for us.
These orphan boys heads’ have have already turned,
away from the Plaza, from the
Bolivian Altiplano, from Cuba.
They turn toward me:
“Senior Willy, tell us again how to say
Los Estados Unidos” in English?

Bill Coolidge is currently living on a sailboat, working at St. Vincent’s Day Hospitality Center for the homeless, and writing a memoir, as well as publishing essays about the connection between the homeless and endangered species. This poem comes from his time in Oruro, Bolivia, the altiplano [high plain], and Che Guevera's visit followed by his dying the following day.
     Coolidge's Peace Corps training group had been originally assigned to Tanzania, but Peace Corps was kicked out of the country and his group was quickly converted to a Bolivia mines project. Unfortunately the Bolivian union and miners were in brutal conflict and the PCVs never got to the mines. Coolidge landed in Oruro (with his then wife) and worked at co-ops, a
hogar (a home for orphans of miners) and taught English to Bolivian railroad engineers trying to make sense of British manuals.

    by Kinney Thiele (Sierra Leone 1985–87)

These equatorial evenings
I end in a hammock
listening to drums accompany neighbors
through wakes.
Owls and bats fan the darkness —
ancestors, it’s said, visiting the living.
Anonymous stars and the familiar moon rise
while sweat meanders
down temple, cheek, neck, and breast,
soaking into cotton
as formless as this easy boredom.
No other light.
No lover.
Only a frog splashing in the dishpan.

Kinney Thiele has done over 200 talks, exhibits, media interviews and stories about her experiences as a health and rural development Volunteer in Sierra Leone. By day she works for SRI International (formerly the Stanford Research Institute) in California in corporate communications and marketing. After hours she writes, gardens, and attends public lectures and book talks several times a week

    The Air Is . . .
    by Meagan Pfeltz (Dominica 2000–01)

Sultry too hot and lazy breeze
Making my own skin moist
Clothes sticky
The sun and the salt
And the sand
Stinging my eyes like fine grains of sugar
Sweet and cloying
On my tongue like mangoes
Plump and juicy
A rooster practices (smoldering)
Trash (crows) in the dust-choked weeds
Church choirs (bleat)
Goats (sing)
Mama-children cry-Mama
Mountains lush primordial amazons
Leafy ferns graceful
Razor grass stained with blood from my
palm (trees swaying)
Ocean gleaming azure womb
Brilliant coral stunning
Angel fish flying, darting, their fins are
humming (birds longing for nectar)
Their songs are more quiet than
Hello, good night, you okay
Psst!, I like to see you, and Hey Baby
Not quite comfortable
Perched on the edge here of
Not quite home
But more real
Than the Technicolor land of the free
And the brave and Purple Mountains
Before and friends and family and we and us
Now and he and she and they
(and me)
No one has frozen like caterpillars
Cocooned waiting for butterfly birth
Coveted moments-shared in limbo long distance
Letters now and wishes on stars
The same stars here as there
And the moon
Time here passes slow and fast and slow
Dizzy living these days
The air is . . .

After unexpectedly finding herself "medically separated" due to a knee injury that required reconstructive surgery, Meagan Pfeltz has spent the past five months alternately wistfully reflecting upon her Peace Corps service and attempting to properly demonstrate her increased appreciation for non-starchy foods, air-conditioning and hot running water. Following a long and arduous job search, she will begin employment as an Administrative Assistant to the Director with the Population Leadership Program, an international project of the Public Health Institute.

Literary Type – May 2001

    “Kariuki’s Notebook” by Rick Gray (Kenya 1988–90) had a successful run at LaMaMa E.T.C. Playhouse in New York City from February 22 to March 11th. Reviewing the play for New York Theatre Wire, Melinda Given Guttmann’s wrote, “‘Kariuki’s Notebook’ is a profound, imaginative structuring of an autobiographical ‘peak’ experience.” The play, which is a finalist in the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, was directed by Sonoko Kawahara, a Japanese director and a classmate of Gray’s at the Hammerstein Theater Center at Columbia University. The chorus from the Harlem School of the Arts performed in the play.
         LaMaMa, located on the Lower East Side of New York has, for 39 years, been home to the innovative expressions of cross-cultural experiences. Among those who have worked at LaMaMa in their formative years are Bette Midler, Robert DiNiro, Sam Shepard, and Billy Crystal. Gray’s play was dedicated to Ellen Steward, the artistic director at LaMaMa, who opened her theatre in 1961.


    The National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Samuel Goldberg and Sons Foundation Prize of $2000 for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers has been won by Simone Zelitch (Hungary 1991–93) for her novel Louisa. The award includes a one week residency at Ledig House Writer’s Colony.


    Endangered Species: Writers Talk about their Craft, Their Art, Their Vision, by Larry Grobel (Ghana 1968–71) with a foreward by Robert Towne and interviews with such writers as Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and Neil Simon, comes out this June from Da Capo Publishing. This is Grobel’s 6th book to come out since November of 1999. Besides doing interviews for such publications as Playboy, he is teaching a course in the English Department of UCLA on how to survive a BA in English.


    Rob Davidson (Grenada 1990–92), who served with his wife on the island of Carriacou, and who is now a doctoral candidate in American literature at Purdue University, just published his first book, a collection of stories entitled Field Observations. A number of these stories have appeared in literary magazines over the years. “Inventory” appeared in Hayden's Ferry Review and won the 1997 Intro Journals Project Award from the Associated Writing Programs.


    In the June issue of Harper’s Magazine is a new short story “Sabo” by Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 1975-76). Schacochis is a contributing editor to Harper’s.
         In the May issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Jeffery Tayler (Morocco 1988–90; PC Staff/Poland 1992, Uzbekistan 1992–93) writes in an article entitled, “Russia Is Finished” about the Russia he knows, “I made Moscow my home. I married a Russian. My life — as much as it can be, given that I carry an American passport — is Russian. . . . But having devoted half my life to this country, and having lived . . . through most of its ‘transition,’ I have arrived at a conclusion at . . . odds with what I thought before: Internal contradictions in Russia’s thousand-year history have destined it to shrink demographically, weaken . . . economically, and, possibly, disintegrate territorially. The drama is coming to a close, and within a few decades Russia will concern the rest of the world no more than any Third World country with abundant resources, an . . .  impoverished people, and a corrupt government. In short, as a Great Power, Russia is finished.”.

  • On June 12th, Jim Toner (Sri Lanka 1988–90) begins an extensive reading tour of the U.S. to promote his book, Serendib. Part of Jim’s summary of the book:

      Serendib is centered around my two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer . . . . While I was there my father, a retired judge from Cleveland, decided on a whim to come pay me a visit. At that time Sri Lanka was the world’s deadliest country and the second poorest, and even more daunting to me was that, as the youngest of seven children, I had never been alone with this man in my entire life. And so he came, and there we were, face to face for 700 uninterrupted hours in this exotic and terrifying country.

    Check out his schedule — most likely his is coming to your city or town!


    The May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine carries a long essay by poet, editor, and freelance writer Ethan Gilsdorf entitled, “The Expatriate Writer in Paris” and quotes Shay Youngblood (Dominica 1981) about living and writing in Paris. Says Shay, “Paris seemed to be the kind of place that, if you were a writer or artist, there was something in the air that could transform you.”


    Paul Theroux’s (Malawi 1963-65) latest novel, Hotel Honolulu, is his 24th book of fiction (he has also published 13 books of nonfiction, all in the three and a half decades since his Peace Corps years.) Reviewed in The New York Times Book Review on Sunday, May 13th by Sven Birkerts and in the May 16th “Books of the Times” section by Richard Bernstein, who writes, “As always, Mr. Theroux writes with both energy and grace. He is like a figure skater who amazes his audience with the Mozartian ease of his twirls and jumps. Even when he is not at the top of his form, his stylistic brilliance, his knack for absurdist, targeted entertainment and his extraordinary ear for a brimming basket of idioms make him one of the most impressive living American writers.”

  • River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler (China 1996–98) continues to get great reviews. In the Washington Post on Sunday, April 15, John Byron wrote on the book, “In language that is by turns lyrical, reflective and dramatic, Hessler describes a segment of Chinese society that is marginal to the history of contemporary China and yet typical of much of the country.”
         Hessler continues to write about China, most recently in the May 28th issue of The New Yorker with an article about one of his students in Fuling who moved to Shenzhen and started on her own way to independence.

  • The cover story of the June 11th issue of U.S. News & World Report is on the changing face of Las Vegas and features in a sidebar, Richard Wiley (Korea 1967–69), who helped make Las Vegas America's first “City of Asylum,” to support writers who have had to flee their home countries. Wiley is a friend of Glenn Schaeffer, president of the Mandalay Resort Group, and the two are trying to spark a literary renaissance in LV. They met at the University of Iowa’s famous Writers’ Workshop where they both were students. Wiley went on to becoming a successful, award-winning novelists. Schaeffer gave up writing and became rich.

Travel Right —

Sequels to a Patagonian Journal

by Dan Buck (Peru 1965–67)

    WHEN HE FIRST LAID EYES ON Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia in 1996, Adrian Giménez Hutton had been visiting southern Argentina for more than two decades. “I was very impressed with Chatwin’s narrative style, with his way of mixing fact and fiction, little personal anecdotes with larger histories,” said Giménez, a Buenos Aires lawyer and travel writer.
         When a friend surprised him by saying that the work was completely fictional, implying that Chatwin had never set foot in Patagonia, Giménez thought it was impossible, that the book must reflect actual experiences. But prompted by his friend’s declaration, he decided to go see for himself. So on and off over the next couple of years, Giménez jeeped around Patagonia, tracing Chatwin’s footsteps, visiting towns and estancias where he had been and interviewing the people he had interviewed. Giménez’s narrative – as he put it, “the journal of his journal” – aptly titled La Patagonia de Chatwin, was published in Argentina in 1998.
         Chatwin had ventured to this remote zone of Argentina and Chile’s southern latitudes because of the skin of a giant sloth, a mylodon, found in a cave on Last Hope Sound by his grandmother’s cousin, Charley Milward, a merchant-ship captain who had settled in Punta Arenas after a shipwreck. Milward had mailed a scrap of the skin back to the family in England, and although it was later lost, Chatwin’s sight of it – “black and leathery, with strands of coarse, reddish hair” – in a cabinet in his grandmother’s dining room had lodged in his mind. At least, that’s how he recounted it in the opening page of his first book. Elsewhere he added that he had gone to Patagonia to free himself from the strictures of life in London and to realize an unfulfilled desire to be a writer. Above all, he wanted to explore not a place but an idea: nomadism.

    Some background on Chatwin
    Born in England in 1940, Chatwin studied architecture and made a stab at acting. At age eighteen he joined Sotheby’s auction house in London where he had a meteoric career, rising from porter to director in a few years. He left Sotheby’s to study archaeology but soon signed on with the London Sunday Times magazine. Before he died of AIDS in 1989 at age forty-eight, Chatwin had gone on to write three novels and The Songlines (1987), in which he returned to the theme of wandering, recounting his excursion to the real and dream worlds of peripatetic Australian aborigines. (Two collections of his essays and one book of his photographs have been published posthumously.) During his entire life he traveled incessantly — to the obvious countries, like Italy and the United States, and the not so obvious, like Afghanistan and Benin. Chatwin was a compulsive mover.

    We are all nomads
    Susannah Clapp, who edited In Patagonia, writes that nomadism was “the biggest of Bruce Chatwin’s big themes.” His friend Salman Rushdie says that Chatwin’s desire to write the book on nomadism was “the burden he’[d] been carrying all his writing life.”
         Chatwin posited that nomadism has been in our DNA from the very beginning — that we are instinctively restless. At one point, he declared, “All our activities are linked to the idea of journeys.” (Lest anyone miss the point, he entitled the essay “It’s a Nomad Nomad Nomad NOMAD World.”) He also suggested that nomads survive because they have an “irreverent and timeless vitality.” This ideè fixe suffuses In Patagonia, the spiritual warm-up to The Songlines.
          In Patagonia portrays individuals at the edge of the earth. (The original title was At the End: A Journey to Patagonia.) “Once you get to Argentina,” he said, “you’re pretty well there, aren’t you.” But it was the people, not the landscape, who beckoned Chatwin. His Patagonia was not the wild, distant land of icy mountains and wind-scoured steppes populated by graceful guanacos and cute penguins that adorn Sierra Club calendars. It was the last stop of the roamers, the final destination of ancient indigenes migrating south from the Northern Hemisphere and of a latter-day diaspora – Spanish anarchists, Welsh devotees, Boer refugees, and American bandits who arrived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from around the globe. Chatwin underscored the nationality of the people he met. Whether he named them or not (in a few cases he gave them aliases), he pegged their ethnicity – Yugoslav, Galician, Russian, Chilote, Scot, Canary Islander – to remind readers of the urge to move, an urge that fevers mankind.

    Travel book? Travel writer?
    Whether Chatwin’s readers picked up on his fascination with nomadism or not, they did notice his writing. They couldn’t help it: In Patagonia was not your ordinary travel book. Spanish Nobel Laureate Camilo José Cela coined the word vagabundaje, for the picaresque travel book, though for Cela, the traveler is front and center, whereas Chatwin evaporates. In Patagonia, an almost plotless, loose skein of ninety-seven numbered sketches or episodes, displays elements of the picaresque novel. (There is no table of contents or index, though an appendix lists a couple of dozen sources for aspects of Patagonian history touched on in the book.) Chatwin did not recommend hotels with fluffy pillows, pass on the names of favorite restaurants, or suggest scenic routes. What he did was to sketch portraits, and like all artists, he subtracted and added. The pictures he created are vivid. Recalling his visit to Sonny Urquhart’s farm near Bahía Blanca, for example, Chatwin wrote:

      The Scot called the dogs off and led the way down a narrow green corridor into a tall, darker green room lit by a single bulb. Round the fire were some Victorian easy chairs with flat wooden armrests. Damp whisky glasses had bitten rings into the French polish. High on the walls were prints of willowy gentlemen and ladies in crinolines.
           Sonny Urquhart was a hard stringy man with blond hair swept back and parted in the center. He had moles on his face and a big Adam’s apple. The back of his neck was criss-crossed with lines from working hatless in the sun. His eyes were watery blue, and rather bloodshot.

    Ernest Hemingway was one of Chatwin’s favorite writers. Like him, he had a knack for capturing snapshots, lean and quick, of places he had seen:

      Las Pampas was twenty miles on from Río Pico, the last settlement before the frontier. To the north towered El Cono, an extinct volcano of bone-white screes and brighter snows. In the valley the river ran fast and green over white stones. Each log cabin had a potato patch, barricaded from cattle by stakes and thorns.

         Chatwin dubbed his book “cubist.” He traveled and observed, making sardonic, witty, and occasionally moralizing comments as he went. He narrated, but he was not necessarily telling the literal truth in every instance; he was creating his own Patagonian journal, written as if he had seen it all.
         The eighteenth-century post-road inspector Concolorcorvo wrote in El Lazarillo: A Guide for Inexperienced Travelers Between Buenos Aires and Lima (1773) that if “the words traveler and liar are synonymous, then the reading of fables should be preferred to that of history.” His point was that much history is based on the accounts of travelers. “Granted, then, the uncertain nature of history,” he continued, “I say again that the reading and study of fables ought to be preferable inasmuch as, being the offspring of free and unfettered imagination, they offer more inspiration and pleasure.”
         A traveler and a fabulist, Chatwin might have agreed. Responding to a query about his book, he said, “As you can read into the text of In Patagonia: this was not serious history!” When an interviewer asked where “the division between fiction and nonfiction” lay in his work, he replied, “I don’t think there is one. There definitely should be, but I don’t know where it is. I’ve always written very close to the line. I’ve tried applying fiction techniques to actual bits of travel. I once made the experiment of counting up the lies in the book I wrote about Patagonia. It wasn’t, in fact, too bad; there weren’t too many.”
         One critic called him “the best travel writer of his generation,” but Chatwin perversely denied that In Patagonia was a travel book, although that’s where bookshops invariably shelve it. “It always irritated me,” he complained, “to be called a travel writer.” His obituary in the New York Times identified him as a “one of his generation’s ranking travel writers,” adding that he was also “an elegant literary craftsman and storyteller.” He was all three.
         Whatever the validity of his nomadic theory (many of the people he met found themselves in Patagonia as a result not of their DNA but of wars, economic travails, and religious upheavals in their homelands), Chatwin’s In Patagonia impelled many a traveler to venture into deepest Argentina and Chile.
         But, when In Patagonia, first published in England in 1977, made its way to Argentina and Chile it met a chilly reception that had nothing to do with the climate, but everything to do with his penchant for mixing literary fancy with historical facts: He highlighted the strange and the unconventional — sometimes inventing the strange and the unconventional, and describing a few locals in less than handsome terms. In a few cases, he gave his subjects thinly veiled pseudonyms.
         Patagonian ire was still in evidence when English journalist John Pilkington came calling some fifteen years after Chatwin. The descendent of one English estancia owner, whom Chatwin had implied had participated in the hunting of Indians in 1900, reported having considered suing the writer. The hunting of Indians by estancieros, of course, was not unheard of, so Chatwin might have been close to the mark.
         In her 1997 memoir, With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer, Clapp explains that Chatwin’s sketches are idiosyncratic short stories:

      Nobody reading In Patagonia could mistake it for an attempt to give a comprehensive or balanced view of its characters: it is a series of quick-fire, impressionistic pen-portraits written by someone who is clearly drawn to the unexpected, the self-contradictory, the sharp edged — and who likes to turn a tale in a small space.

    In an 1980 interview, Chatwin told Argentine journalist Uki Goñi that his “temperament” was towards “being entertained and seeing an opportunity when you met one of these characters and pursue it. The whole of this journey was like a sort of pursuit, not only for this ridiculous piece of skin . . . but as it developed it became chasing one story, or one set of characters, after another.”
         By the time Giménez got on the trail, some of the characters Chatwin had sketched had died. Among those still living, some had strong opinions about In Patagonia, even if they’d never read it. But Giménez sensed a mellowing on the subject of Chatwin’s sparky imagination because, the gospel truth or not, it was generating tourism. He was not such a blackguard after all. In any event, Giménez found that though Chatwin’s poetic license-takings had attained almost legendary proportions, they were not as frequent as was believed. (As Chatwin himself put it, “there weren’t too many.”)
         Giménez believes “what harmed the most was not what was written but how it was written . . . a description of a person in one or two paragraphs — as occurs in the majority of cases — is always partial, and then it would be very difficult for someone to conform to what was written about them.”
    Whatever the Patagonians may think, Chatwin’s book is the most widely read work about South America’s bright-skied south. Judged on its own terms — that is, as a collage of personal, highly charged, and sometimes invented impressions of the people and places of the zone — it is a literary triumph. And it has won a permanent audience, remaining in print almost a quarter century after its first appearance. Dusty sun-burned backpackers troop Patagonia like breviary-toting pilgrims, clutching Chatwin’s now classic nontravel book. If Chatwin’s Patagonia is not precisely there, that’s beside the point.

    POSTSCRIPT: Adrian Gimenez Hutton died in a plane crash in April 2001, en route from Buenos Aires to Patagonia.

    Daniel Buck, is a contributing editor of South American Explorer and a contributor to Américas. "Sequels to a Patagonian Journal" was originally published in the March 2000 Américas.

Talking with . . .

Joe Cummings

An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    I FIRST READ ABOUT JOE Cummings in the March 1993 issue of Outside magazine. It was a feature on him entitled “Farang Correspondent,” part of which also appeared later in Travelers’ Tales Thailand, the first book in the Travelers Tales series, as well as in Michael McRae’s book Continental Drifter. Joe got in touch with me when he read the Talking With interview with Tom Brosnahan (Turkey 1967–70), another RPCV travel writer for Lonely Planet.
         Joe has been an extremely productive writer, especially on South East Asia, and later, Mexico. He is winner of major travel writing awards, including the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Gold Award 1995 (for Lonely Planet Thailand); the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Gold Award 1993 (for Travelers Tales Thailand); and a Thomas Cook Guidebook of the Year finalist in1991 (for Lonely Planet Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia) and 1984 (Lonely Planet Thailand). We caught up with him, via e-mail, several months ago.

    Where were you a Peace Corps Volunteers and what was your job?

      I served as a PCV from early 1977 to late 1978. My assignment was teaching English at King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology in Bang Mot, a couple of hours southwest of Bangkok.

    How did you get started writing — really publishing — your material?

      My first professional break came when I started writing the “Asia in Print” column for the monthly Asia Record in 1979. I wrote for them through 1982 while I was a student at UC/Berkeley. At UC I wrote a paper on tourism in South East Asia, as seen through the eyes of communist insurgencies in Thailand and Malaysia. During that period I read every book published in English on SE Asia, including travel literature and guidebooks. My first travel feature, on Ko Samui, was published in 1982 in the San Francisco Examiner, and my first guidebook (Lonely Planet Thailand) was published that same year. It was an exciting moment for me because this was the first Thailand guide written in English and devoted entirely to Thailand since the 1928 Guide to Bangkok with Notes on Siam by Erik Seidenfaden. There were a couple of French and German guides available in translation, but they were very much geared towards hiring your own car and driver and staying in first-class hotels all along the way — culturally insulated travel.
           I just complete the 9th edition of the Lonely Planet Thailand guide, which has remained in print for 19 years now.

    What’s important about a travel guide book? Really accurate information? Obscure facts? Or a good prose style in the narrative?

      A good guidebook strikes a balance between all these elements. A competent writer ingests mountains and mountains of information about a place, then evaluates and filters it on behalf of the reader for usefulness and accuracy, and finally organizes it into comprehensible text. It’s sort of a cross between writing a how-to manual (“here’s how Thailand works”) and a restaurant/hotel review-and-rate guide (“for the best green curry, go to Thanom’s”).

    Did you travel much while a PCV?

      I traveled every chance I got. When I first had to write a sample guidebook entry for Lonely Planet, I wrote about one of my favorite PCV getaways, a little-known island near Bangkok called Ko Si Chang.
           I don’t know what policy might be these days, but when I was a PCV you weren’t allowed to leave the country except for emergency reasons. Then once you finished your service you had to leave the country within 72 hours. I stayed in Thailand a month or so afterwards, so Peace Corps staff came by my house one day and took away my no-fee passport. Luckily I had another passport with me — albeit without a Thai visa in it — so I was able to continue on to India and Nepal, then back to Thailand. I didn’t return to the US until three months after completion of service.

    What’s the worse mistake that you made as a travel writer?

      Once I got a letter from a reader praising some sumptuous mural paintings inside a temple in northeastern Thailand, one that I’d never been to. I took his word for it and recommended the temple in the next edition of my guide. Later when I finally visited the temple myself, the murals were terrible, like bad cartoons! I learned a valuable lesson from that experience, and I always check readers’ recommendations personally before writing them up.

    Do you read many travel writers? If so, who?

      My favorite travel writers are the novelists: Jean-Louis Ferdinand Celine; Joseph Conrad; Graham Greene; Paul Bowles; Alvaro Mutis. Of contemporary travel essayists my favorites are Bill Bryson, P.J. O’Rourke and Rolf Potts.

    How do you gather material? Do you do all your research and then once you’re home, you write? Or do you keep a journal as you go?

      When I’m on the road, I do research, period. I know some travel writers do the writing on the road — to keep it fresh, I suppose. Me, I like to be out there getting more info for my readers rather than sitting in my hotel room writing. That’s for writers who are prose-heavy, data-light, i.e., most contemporary travel writers!
           However I can't say I necessarily write at “home” because home is usually a temporary spot where I rent a house or apartment for a month or three, and that’s where I write the material up. I do have a home, or rather two homes (one in Thailand, one in Mexico), where I do a fair amount of writing, but at least half of my work is done at temporary digs between homes.

    What would you suggest to someone who wants to be a travel writer?

      Read a lot, write a lot. Take courses in travel writing — they can really help. The most successful travel writers are those who are driven to do it and who don’t give the money much thought. Which is just as well, since there really isn’t much money in it for 99% of most writers! Rolf Potts has some excellent tips for would-be travel writers on his website, Rolf is one of the best new talents out there, and may become the next Paul Theroux.

Recent Books by Peace Corps Writers — May 2001

      Pearl Harbor Ghosts:
      The Legacy of December 7, 1941
      The 60th Anniversary Edition – Revised and Updated
      (Trade Paperback Edition)
      by Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968)
      Ballantine Books, $15.00
      400 pages
      May, 2001

      Touching My Father’s Soul:
      A Sherpa’s Journey to the Top of Everest
      by Jamling Tenzing Norgay, with Broughton Coburn (Nepal 1973–75)
      Harper San Francisco, $26.00
      304 pages
      April 2001

      Field Observations
      (Short Stories)
      by Rob Davidson (Grenada 1990–92)
      University of Missouri Press, $17.95
      200 pages
      May 2001

      Teaching Right from Wrong:
      40 Things You Can Do to Raise a Moral Child
      Arthur Dobrin (Kenya 1965–67)
      Berkley Publishing Group, $13.00
      212 pages
      May 2001

      The Internet for the Typewriter Generation
      by Dan Fingerman (Malaysia 1970–72)
      Ten Speed Press, $14.95
      216 pages
      (Buy this book from Ten Speed)

      State of Decay:
      An Oubangui Chronicle

      by Robert E. Gribbin (Kenya 1968–70)
      Infinity, $13.95
      156 pages
      January 2001

      The Road Builder
      by Nicholas Hershenow (Zaire/Congo 1985–87)
      BlueHen Books, $ 25.95
      528 pages
      May 2001

      Experiencing Peace Corps as a Volunteer over Age 60
      by Bob Hugins (Nepal 1984–86, Lesotho 1991–92)
      unknown publisher, $16.00
      (To purchase, write Bob at 3965 Laura Rd. Colorado Springs, CO 80906)

      Families As We Are:
      Conversations from Around the World

      by Perdita Huston (Staff: PC/W 1978-81, CD/Mali 1997-99, CD/Bulgaria 1999-2000)
      Feminist Press $25.95
      320 pages
      May 2001

      Dick McNabb, Private Dick
      by John McCafferty (Russian Far East 1996–98)
      Xlibris, $16.00
      199 pages

      For the Good of Mankind:
      A History of the People of Bikini and their Islands

      by Jack Niedenthal (Marshall Islands 1981–84)
      Micronitor/Bravo Publishers, $12.00
      180 pages
      March, 2001

      Last Children of Earth
      by Dennis Ogden (Guatemala 1987–91)
      Xlibris Corporation, $16.00
      112 pages
      January, 2001

      Oddball Wisconsin:
      A Guide to Some Really Strange Places

      by Jerome Pohlen (Belize 1986–88)
      Chicago Review Press, $12.95
      242 pages
      May, 2001

      The Orange Curtain
      (A Jack Liffey Mystery)
      by John Shannon (Malawi 1968–70)
      Carrol & Graf, $24.00
      240 pages

      Fresh Air Fiend:
      Travel Writings 1985–2000

      (paperback edition)
      by Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963–65)
      Mariner Books, $15.00
      448 pages
      May, 2001

      Hotel Honolulu
      by Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963–65)
      Houghton Mifflin, $26.00
      352 pages
      May 2001

      Pilikia Is My Business
      by Mark Troy (Thailand 1972–75)
      LTDBooks, $5.00 ebook download
      300 pages
      March 2001
      (Download book) Click on “LTD Books Links” and enter author’s last name in search field.

      In Search of the Elusive Peace Corps Moment
      Destination: Estonia
      by Douglas Wells (Estonia 1992–96)
      Xlibris, $16.00
      264 pages
      May, 2001


Intercultural Services: A Worldwide Buyer's Guide and Sourcebook

by Gary Wederspahn (Staff: Ecuador1967-73, Guatemala 1973–76 , Country Director Guatemala and Costa Rica 1973-78)
Gulf Publishing Company, $37.95
346 pages

Reviewed by Laurette Bennhold-Samaan (Staff: PC/W 1995– present)

    BUSINESS GLOBALIZATION AND cultural diversity in the workplace have created both significant challenges and opportunities for many organizations. And, the range of services, programs, products, materials, and tools that are available to support both the private and public sector to deal with these changes can be overwhelming. Intercultural Services: A Worldwide Buyer's Guide and Sourcebook by Gary Wederspahn helps purchasers of intercultural services understand what is available.
         The subject matter is sufficiently in-depth to intellectually engage the reader yet simple and straightforward enough to not require previous knowledge in the field. The topics are presented in a logical sequence with the first few chapters discussing the need for intercultural services followed by ones dealing with techniques, tools and resources for meeting the cross-cultural challenges and leveraging opportunities in the international environment. 
         Topics in the book include: a discussion on trainer ethics; how to interpret marketing materials; how to establish and manage effective relationships with service providers; cautions for evaluating intercultural learning; ways in which culture affects the outcomes of relationships between organizations and the people in them; the new role of the global manager as a “driver” and facilitator of a company's globalization process; and ensuring successful expatriate assignments.
         A unique aspect of the book — the end of each chapter includes:

    1. a set of focus questions to facilitate reflection on the significance and implications of the topics.
    2. practical recommendations on how to use the content of the chapter.
    3. lists of references for further self-directed learning and for locating resources.     

    Ourstanding references
    Without exception, the list of references is the most extensive and comprehensive published in the intercultural field in the last few years. These references — found in print, on-line and on CD-ROM — enable the reader to explore topics further in non-technical articles and books, links to sources for additional information, and surveys and scholarly works to validate the content of the book. All of the resources Wederspahn lists have been published within the last 10 years. Listed in a bibliography at the end of the book are “classic” works published prior to 1990.

    A few caveats
    In the description of the history of the intercultural field, the author inadvertently states that it was not until the establishment of the Peace Corps in 1962 that systematic cross-cultural training was designed. The Peace Corps was established in 1961. In addition, in discussing domestic diversity training, the author claims that it has its roots in the US legal environment. Others would argue that domestic diversity has had its roots in the civil rights movement. I do agree that domestic diversity training has been oriented toward Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action legislation, sexual harassment and racial prejudice.

    Convincing argument for intercultural services
    In his last chapter, Wederspahn provides the most compelling rationale for using intercultural services from both a business-oriented and humanistic perspective. He outlines numerous concrete examples, research findings and "best practices." Using his 30 years of experience as a purchaser, user, manager, evaluator, designer, provider and seller of intercultural services, his great depth and breadth strengthen the convincing argument for providing intercultural services.

    Laurette Bennhold-Samaan is the brilliant first cross-cultural specialist with the Peace Corps, and the co-author with Craig Storti (Moroccoa 1970-72) of Culture Matters: The Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Workshop. Prior to working at the Peace Corps, she served as a Senior Associate for Expatriation and Repatriation Programs for the World Group.


La Comida

by Jeff Westbrook (Peru 1973–74)
Electron Press Inc.

Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 1997–98)

    WITH THE Y2K CENSUS TALLIES now available, and with Americans left to consider the new ethnic identity of the United States, Jeff Westbrook’s novel La Comida opens on a note that seems both promising and timely. A bomb explosion, which rips apart a grade school classroom in Costa Mesa, California, is attributed to the controversial Proposition 1, an immigration initiative, which seeks to prevent the children of undocumented immigrants from enrolling in California schools. This brave opening segues into an introduction to Greg Martin, a frustrated thirty-eight year old vice president of construction management for a nationally renowned fictional food franchise.

Central characters lacking in appeal
Throughout La Comida, we are meant to support Martin’s struggle to escape from a soulless corporate culture and gain financial independence to follow his dream of painting. But unfortunately, Westbrook portrays only an egotistical individual whose unhappiness motivates him to play fraternity-boy pranks on his colleagues, exploit the availability of ready immigrant labor, and chase a physically attractive woman for the important reason that — well, that she’s physically attractive.
     While not all of these elements scream of Evil Incarnate, what the author might like us to read as humor in the character does not come across that way; Greg Martin is simply crude. The novel makes constant overtures toward the hostility between immigrants and the culturally insensitive elements of the United States; but in the end, the subplot of the mysterious bomber does not deliver any final, definitive statement in this novel of surfaces.
     On the day the book opens, Greg is up to his old shenanigans at the office. This time — since he’s already sabotaged the air conditioning, why not try something original? — he hires an unemployed immigrant to act as his butler and tease the curiosity of his colleagues. The well-named Guillermo Villa DePaz arrives at work with Martin and a delicious homemade lunch of alto plana rellenas. The South American recipe had been passed on by his father, and it catches the eye of an ambitious marketing executive. Marilyn Long has been seeking a new product for the Beanie’s food franchise, and she thinks the rellenas could be it. A pointless and contrived romance develops between Greg and Marilyn for the ostensible purpose of protecting Guillermo and his interests from a greedy Beanie’s executive who would steal credit for the recipe. But the couple makes a weak and unconvincing duo.
     Marilyn builds a marketing campaign to sell rellenas to the American public, and it is obviously the success of her career-making campaign that motivates her, rather than her relationships with Greg and Guillermo. In fiction, such superficial characters do little to earn readers’ interest or sympathy. And Westbrook would have us believe that Greg Martin is a hell of a guy since he shells out rent money and other expenditures in support of Guillermo. But Greg lacks the inner thought that could prove his benevolence to us. On the other hand, his crude exterior and desire for the financial resources to quit his job to paint full-time makes it entirely plausible that his interest in helping out Guillermo is really an interest in helping himself out. Just play the nice guy, and cash in on your protégé’s windfall.

A well-developed and appealing character
Surprisingly, improbably, gracefully, and thankfully, there is Guillermo Villa DePaz, a soft-spoken, confident, and well-developed character. The rellenas may be a symbolic pot of gold for his “friends,” but for Guillermo, the recipe represents the memory of his father who was a restaurant-owner until his untimely death in an accident four years ago. Unable to support the restaurant, Guillermo and his family are forced to move out, and the government converts their home into a hotel. Guillermo’s dream is to find enough money to return home and open a new restaurant. But he’s not stupid and understands the prejudice he suffers as a consequence of his Mexican heritage in southern California.
     When the Border Patrol prevents Guillermo from leaving Mexico late in the novel, he quietly returns to bussing tables at a Tijuana restaurant, thus subtly opening to readers the social dynamic in place for young men such as Guillermo — discrimination perpetually stands in the way of their dreams and is not worth fighting against. But Guillermo knows what he is about, and when Greg rescues him a few pages later, readers continue to hope that he will sell his rellenas so that he may return home and fulfill the reality of his dream.

A failure to draw a distinctive setting
Despite the constant movement between southern California and Tijuana, the novel fails to draw readers convincingly into a distinctive setting. The landscapes provided in La Comida are slapped on, carelessly and hastily confessed, experienced as from a distance. Here is one description of Tijuana: “The streets pulsed with traffic and the sidewalks surged with pedestrians.” This could be any city. “The city resonated with culture clash, Third World survivalist versus first world tourist.” This isn’t an image — it’s an idea. “Tijuana was a major tourist destination, drawing millions of visitors a year, and the locals never missed an opportunity to sell something.” And here we have the writer’s faux pas of telling, not showing. Each of the sentences might be forgiven had it been part of a larger, more apt structure, but they ultimately combine to create a paragraph that is as crude and impenetrable as Greg Martin’s personality.

Opportunities missed
It’s too bad the Proposition 1 controversy is not more deftly handled. Guillermo is tangentially involved in the scandal, but Westbrook fails to offer any effective or compelling statement about the sensitive arena of southern California where white Americans and Mexican immigrants seek to live harmoniously. Few of the novel’s characters are engaging, the dialogue is disjointed, and the elements of intended comedy lapse into farce or crudity. We don’t really care who bombs or gets bombed.
     My advice to Guillermo Villa DePaz is this: find yourself a way out of La Comida and take your alto plana rellenas with you. You deserve a more sympathetic book than this.

Joe Kovacs is coordinating the sponsored readings by RPCV writers at the Peace Corps' 40th anniversary celebration in Washington, DC. If you are an RPCV interested in reading about your Peace Corps experience, contact Joe at


On the Brink of Paradise: From Tetons to Tropics

by Kim McMahill (Solomon Islands 1994–95)
Infinity, $12.95
115 pages

Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964–65)

    WE NEED TO CONCEAL THIS SMALL BOOK from the new administration in Washington. Otherwise, funding for the Peace Corps might shrink even more. Criticism of Volunteer programs lies smoldering deep beneath this personal diary-style recording of visits around the Solomon Islands. Not until page 75 do we learn that Kim McMahill and her husband are “working on various small projects, visiting nearby islands, and living in the rest house.” Two-thirds of the way into this short 115 page travelogue we don’t even know what their “job” was in the Solomon Islands. And these “various small projects” are not explained.
         Only on page 103 does McMahill reveal openly that “Our boredom and frustration with our lack of work soon overtook us and we became increasingly disgusted by the misrepresentation of our volunteer organization.” Might we assume that McMahill is referring to the Peace Corps here? Nothing went right — “no grant money,” no “natural resource management workshops, World Health Organization Malaria Control Projects, adult education or extension service duties.” Something is amiss when PCVs spend most of their tour touring.
         McMahill writes that they kept “normal office hours” at their final destination, Gizo, a provincial capital. For what, it’s impossible to determine. They did help with the provincial monthly newsletter, gave advice occasionally to the area council members, fixed broken-down typewriters, and, McMahill admits, “volunteered for any activity being done by any organization.”
         Beneath the extensive travelogue, McMahill’s account exposes the folly of the volunteer program there. Whether intentional or not, she has exposed the entire Solomon Island political system as corrupt by American standards. The leadership expected one thing from Americans: money. Labels such as the Peace Corps meant nothing.
         This book might have rattled some policy-makers in Washington if only McMahill had passed this book through two more stages of editing before publication. One editor should have been a political scientist, who would have read between the lines and converted the prose into a clear presentation of McMahill’s frustrations. The second should have been a literary editor who would have converted into standard English expressions such as “storying,” as in “the men sat around the butterfly lantern storying and chewing betel nut.” McMahill could have avoided many awkward errors, such as “Honiara was changing so rapidly during our stay the city under went a great deal.”
         I’d recommend this short book to anyone who is curious about failed programs. But the reader should skip to page 103, where the substance of this book begins. McMahill writes, “No one, including us, had a good grasp on what we were to be doing. The volunteers from other countries had specific jobs lined up before coming to the country.” Furthermore, I’d strongly recommend that we include what did not work as an essential part of the Peace Corps’ 40th Anniversary program. McMahill’s Solomon Island experience would be an excellent opening to the session.

    Tony Zurlo’s West Africa (launching the Indigenous People of Africa series) and Life in Hong Kong (The Way People Live series) will be published in the fall by Lucent Books.

Editor’s Note: Kim McMahill started Peace Corps training on November 2, 1994, and was sworn in on January 6, 1995. She served for 4 and 1/2 months as a Community Development Generalist. She ET’ed on May 23, 1995.


Saying Secrets: American Stories

by Christopher Conlon (Botswana 1988–90)
Writers Club Press, Inc.
146 pages

Reviewed by Karl Luntta (Botswana 1977–80)

    EARLY ON IN SAYING SECRETS, it is evident that Christopher Conlon is — in the best tradition of writers of any genre — an honest writer.
         Conlon’s carefully crafted collection emerges from the premise that we’re all in pain, mind, body, and soul — life as a gestalt of suffering — and in some cases we’re pained more than a human being should have to think about. There’s a near religiosity at work here. It’s as if we’re all born with a snarling, sentient original sin, a heat-seeking original sin, sin that must, eventually, enter our lives. When it does, sometimes it’s bad, and sometimes it’s worse. Yet, as with all proper sinning, redemption is always at hand. That redemption, — sometimes nothing more than the will to live — must come from within.

Five stories of pain
The mostly young people who populate the five stories of Saying Secrets indeed seem to be cursed — often by secrets. In “The Map of the World,” a young black girl, assaulted by drunken racists, is raped and burned beyond recognition, yet she finds redemption in her medical care facility with another burn victim named Daniel, whose “skin was no color skin was ever meant to be.”
     In “Loving Anne,” a young boy in high school, whose mother is in a mental institution and whose father is gone, becomes fascinated with the life of Anne Frank. He later befriends a similarly lonesome girl from the other side of the tracks, whose drunk father does “things he’s not...not supposed to do.”
     In “Margins,” a young boy withdraws from his drunken parents and simply, tragically, stops talking.
     In “The Face of History,” a black boy on his way to ruin through drugging is saved by a friendship with an elderly white woman — a woman with a murky past.
     In the strongest story of the group, “Whispers,” a young girl living with her gentle but often drunk father, a father who loves to “say poems” to her, reaches adolescence with bad skin, low self-esteem — and a place in her father’s bed.
     One finds a thread beyond the pummeled souls who move through these vignettes, although looking for commonalities in a short story collection is not always fair. But just about everyone who is a mess here is a mess due to parents or adults in their lives who are drunk, absent, mad, or morally missing in action. The narrators — all the stories are told in the first person — are wounded by lack of elemental love, or just plain wrong love.
     We can all identify with crippled interior lives and personal histories that are chaotic, and Conlon has a deft touch portraying the travels of the savaged human soul. He succeeds in reaching us largely because there’s not a sentimental bone in this body of writing. His young burn victims, his incest victims, his killers, speak with simple and honest eloquence, inviting readers into their darkness, but never to feel sorry for them.

The real star
The writing is the book’s real star. Conlon moves between voices skillfully, from male to female, from black to white, from abused to amused. He reminds us that the best writing is lucid writing, just as the most vivid horror is ordinary horror. In this passage from “Whispers,” a grown daughter has escaped her childhood incestuous relationship with her father, and when he shows up at her apartment drunk and homeless, a victim of his own remorse, the simple scene is so agonizing it’s terrifying:

    I suddenly realize that his voice is coming from under me, that his head is near the floor, he’s whispering at the crack under the door. Not wanting to, I crouch down. We’re no more than three inches apart. “What?” I whisper. “I — I’ll say you a poem,” he whispers, “that’s what I’ll do. I’ll say you a poem, darlin’” There’s a long silence, a jingling sound, but I hardly hear it. I’m crying, my tears dropping silently onto the carpet. “Dad, go away, just please go away, I’ll have to call the police.” “No, wait, I’ll say you a poem.” Softly whispered. “I’ll say you a poem. Now — now, just wait — lemme — lemme think of one- — lemme think of a poem —”
         Silence. Slow breathing. Silence. is a print-on-demand Internet publisher, and while the realist in me knows that publishing is a tough business, the traditionalist in me hopes that mainstream publishing houses will sit up and take notice. Saying Secrets deserves it.

Karl Luntta’s fiction has appeared in International Quarterly, North Atlantic Review, Baltimore Review, Talking River Review, and the anthology Living on the Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Volunteers. His first novel will be published this year.

Resources for Writers
Geting a Job in Publishing

The New World of Internet Publishing

    by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    CASTLES IN THE AIR need solid foundations. Every year Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) come home thinking that — after having spent two years reading every book and magazine they could find written in English — they’d like to start a career in publishing. However, most of them lack “publishingese,” the insider’s special blend of vocabulary, knowledge, skills, and manner of doing business that conveys a cosmopolitan, confident, can-do attitude worthy of an entry-level position. Most PCVs lack information about the range of opportunities available. And most of all, they don’t realize how many jobs and careers there are in publishing. Here’s a quick course on publishing both books and magazines, And how to find a job. It’s the shortest graduate course you’ll ever take.

    Jobs in Book Publishing
    Most book publishing companies are broken down into several departments: editorial, publicity and promotion, marketing and production. No matter which of these words your first job designation begins with, it is likely to end with the word “assistant.”
         Common to all assistants everywhere, regardless of their department, are certain inescapable duties that define the position: “assisting” superiors; handling their correspondence, answering the phones, writing their memos and generally carrying out whatever administrative duties are needed. There are ways, however, in which the assistant position differs from department to department.

      Editorial Assistant
      An editorial assistant, in addition to performing the universal assistant-duties mentioned above, might be called upon to review incoming manuscripts and provide reports to his/her boss; to go through the “slush” pile of unsolicited queries from hopeful authors, and bring anything worth a look to the editor’s attention; and to work with agents and authors to ensure that contracts are handled and processed correctly. Editorial assistants go on to become assistant or associate editors; then senior editors; each position brings with it more direct responsibility for the overall concept behind, and presentation of, a new book. The pinnacle of any editor’s career is to have his or her own “imprint” — a line of books to be determined completely by the editor’s own tastes.

      Publicity Assistant
      A publicity assistant sends out galleys (early bound and typeset copies of a book) to select book reviewers at newspapers and magazines; maintains and updates lists of reviewers who should receive free copies of the published book once it’s out; works with his/her boss to arrange radio, print and television interviews for authors; and may work to organize book release parties and signings at bookstores. Publicity assistants go on to be publicity directors — and because good publicity is so important to book sales, the best publicists sometimes move on to the corporate marketing and executive publishing levels.

      Production Assistant
      A production assistant will work with copy editors, typographers, binders and designers to help with the actual construction of a book. As more and more publishers realize that an unusual design or arresting cover art can help sell books, this area of publishing is getting more fun and inventive. Of course, good copy editors have always been and will always be essential to publishing of any sort.

    Jobs in Magazine Publishing
    Magazine staffs are usually broken down into two divisions: editorial and advertising.

      Editorial Assistant
      Editorial staffs are usually subdivided departmentally, depending on the focus and structure of the magazine. Again, the duties of the entry-level editorial assistant are largely administrative and/or clerical — but in addition to these, the assistant may also review manuscripts, give opinions on story proposals, line edit copy, generate story ideas, and even write for the magazine itself, in some cases. Production cycles are of course much shorter in magazine publishing than they are in book publishing, since most magazines publish monthly or even weekly. Thus the world of magazines can at times seem much more frenzied than the world of books, which moves along at a slower and more deliberate pace.

      Advertising Assistant
      Advertising assistants at magazines help their bosses sell advertising space — and having done that, work very hard to maintain good relationships with advertisers so they’ll continue to buy space. In addition to basic clerical duties, ad assistants will work on presentations; write reports on circulation, demographic distributions and reader purchasing patterns; coordinate promotional functions and activities (breakfasts, parties, etc.); and perform a variety of other duties designed to woo buyers and to keep them happy once they’ve been wooed.

    The Job Hunt
    Mercilessly exploit any and all personal contacts that you have in the publishing industry. Take your PCV buddy’s ex-girlfriend — the one you don’t know too well, but heard got a good job at Simon & Schuster — out to lunch, and hit her up for information. Write a letter to the magazine editor who visited your college class years before and ask him if you can meet him, very briefly, when you come to New York City for your interviews. This is the way it works; this is how people get jobs in the media. If you think you don’t have any contacts, think harder. If you don’t know anybody in publishing, somebody you do know probably does. It’s not considered impolitic to call or write someone as a friend-of-a-friend and make contact that way.

    Contact Lynn Palmer Executive Recruitment
    If you’re hoping to work in New York City, set up an early appointment with Lynn Palmer Executive Recruitment (212-883-0203, email: ). This agency specializes in placing people with magazine and book publishing companies, and they actually have a good track record of finding decent jobs for bright entry-level types. (Note: Know how to type before going, and be prepared for rather brusque treatment.)

    Plan the job hunt
    Give yourself a reasonable window of time to interview and find a job. A week isn’t enough. Two or three weeks might not be enough. If you’re not from the city, and if you don’t have family living in the immediate area, prearrange your living situation by asking a series of friends to let you stay on their couches or futons for a few nights at a time.
         If you don’t have a lot of friends in the city, it can be very tough — but it can be done. Save up some money and get a room in a reputable hotel that books rooms by the week (check tourist guidebooks for a list). Many of these places cater to foreign travelers and transient job-seekers, and aren’t too expensive ($300–$400 a week). The surroundings can be a tad austere, but nothing worse than Peace Corps living.
         Of course you should consult the want ads, and it’s fine to send out cold resumes to personnel departments — but don’t fully expect to find your job that way. Few ever do. Accordingly, budget your time and energy wisely by devoting less time to scouring the newspaper, and more time to either capitalizing on, or making, personal contacts.

    Prepare for the Interview
    Know the background of the company to which you’re applying: How old are they? Who are their “heavy hitters”? Are they publicly or privately held? What are their modi operandi in terms of hiring, acquiring assets, etc.? What books or articles did they publish in the last year that were particularly profitable or notable? It’s not necessary — in fact, it’s probably not a good idea — to volunteer this information apropos of nothing during the interview; but a well-timed, well-executed reference or extremely subtle name-drop can show that you’re that much savvier than the glassy-eyed recent college grads going after the same job.
         Assume that everyone being considered for a given position is Harvard-educated, fluent in four languages, the former editor-in-chief of their school paper or literary magazine, and possessor of a savage, rapier wit that makes perfect strangers admire them instantly upon being introduced. Then assume that the only way to distinguish yourself from the pack is to bring out, within the context of the interview, whatever quality it is that you know you have that they don’t. All the candidates are going to be smart and affable and capable. But they’re not all going to have read the same books you’ve read, or subscribe to the same journals and magazines you do, or hold the same opinions you hold. Or, for that matter, been in the Peace Corps. Don’t be afraid to speak up about a matter or issue that’s not directly related to the job, as long as it comes up naturally in the course of conversation. Remember that in publishing, unlike in many other professions, your intelligence and general ability to think independently will usually work for you, not against you. Books and magazine articles are ultimately conceived and shaped by people who exhibit these characteristics, not simply the ability to say “yes” or to toe a company line.
         If you’re interviewing for any kind of publishing job, you’re going to be asked: What do you read? Have a solid, respectable list of titles and authors, some classic, some contemporary, ready to go. Don’t struggle with this question; it makes you look dull. And don’t just answer with “Your books!” or “Your magazine!” That’s not what they’re fishing around for.
         You know this already, but it must be said: Dress well (which usually means conservatively, even if the place seems casual and informal); smile and look into people’s eyes; keep talking, no matter what. And of course, send a thank-you note. Immediately. I mean mail it that day.

    A Summer School Program Can Help You
    If, after all of this information and help, you still don’t get a job, you might think of taking a summer graduate course in publishing. Three of the most famous ones are at Columbia University, New York University, and Rice University.
         The advantage of these programs is that not only do you get a solid grounding in magazine publishing, but you also meet key people within the industry. All three of these programs are “hands on” and students do projects while in class. For example, one project in all three programs is to create a new magazine, defining its audience, frequency, editorial slant, and artistic feel, while addressing how it differs from the competition. For book publishing, students have to review actual manuscripts and prepare them for publication, including designing the book jacket.
         As you might expect, English majors abound in publishing, but the breadth of the industry accommodates those with backgrounds in other humanities, journalism, business, arts, social sciences, and even the hard sciences. All of them have one thing in common: they love the printed word and the process that brings it to the page and world. If you are that person, then publishing has a place for you. Check out a few of these hot resources which may help you with a career in publishing:

    • Columbia Publishing Course
      (Formerly know as the Radcliffe Publishing Course, in 2001 it became part of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in New York City).

        The Graduate School of Journalism
        at Columbia University
        2950 Broadway New York, NY 10027-7004
        Telephone: (212) 854-4150 Fax: (212) 854-7837

      This six-week summer course is an intensive introduction to all facets of book and magazine publishing.

    • The Rice University Publishing Program

        School of Continuing Studies, MS 550
        PO Box 1892
        Houston, TX
        Tel (713) 527-4803; Fax (713) 285-5213

      The focus of this four-week program is on book and magazine publishing.

    • Summer Institute in Book, Magazine, and Electronic Publishing, at New York Univerisity.    
      2001 Fee: $4,195
      For a brochure and an application, write or call:

        Center for Publishing
        School of Continuing and Professional Studies
        New York University
        11 West 42nd Street, Room 400
        New York, NY 10036-8083; (212) 790-3232.

      This is an intensive seven-week introduction to the complex worlds of book and magazine publishing.