Experiencing the Peace Corps as a Volunteer Over Age 60
by Robert W. Hugins (Nepal 198486, Lesotho 199192)
Reviewed by Hayward Allen (Ethiopia 196264)
THERE WERE I IMAGINE very few PCVs who did not try to capture and articulate their Peace Corps experiences in letters home. Some of us wrote columns for the local paper or did interviews after coming back. Only a small percentage moved on to become professional journalists or authors, and not many wrote about the Peace Corps.
We all recall, though.
Robert W. Hugins has chosen to join the small cadre of those who have published books about their overseas lives. The big difference RPCV Hugins was eighty-years-old when he published his memoirs.
In the early 1980s his teaching career in the US began to erode as one after another private school headmaster found his age a handicap. The primary reasons given were his approaching retirement and the academic need to hire young teachers who could coach athletics.
This news was truly a blow, the math teacher recalls. I did not feel old, but I surely did feel worthless.
After doing a cursory parachute color check, he realized that the years he had spent working overseas as an insurance underwriter after the end of WWII was a valuable time. Three years in the Philippines, three more in Pakistan, and two years in Venezuela added up to nostalgic, productive recollections. Then one day he saw a Rhode Island newspaper ad announced that there was the need for math and science teachers in the Peace Corps.
Immediately I knew that becoming an overseas Peace Corps Volunteer was my destiny, the recruit writes in his preface to Experiencing Peace Corps as a Volunteer Over Age 60. To be precise, Hugins was 64.
On September 15, 1984, Hugins and twenty-three others flew into a rainy Kathmandu, Nepal, to begin their training as math and science teachers in Bhaktapur, and in October, the trainees were sent into the country to try out their Nepali. From there they went on to the next stage of training, and Hugins discovered that he had broken his ankle three weeks earlier on an outing. It was the first of a series of medical problems.
During his Peace Corps service, he would lose thirty pounds, suffer hernias, have an amoebic cyst, continual diarrhea, scabies and a series of bad colds. He endured these and many discomforts that would have discouraged much younger PCVs from staying at their jobs and prompt their going home. Hugins resilience, as well as his determination to do well as an educator, must have inspired his colleagues. Although he doesnt mention it, there is a sense of I told you so
aimed at the administrators of those pricey, Stateside schools who thought he couldnt handle teaching any longer.
The book is not a textbook for aspiring writers. Hugins taught math, not English. There is the feeling that most of what he published is based upon the letters he wrote years ago. The use of exact dates and times of day is sometimes frustrating and superfluous, yet the timeline is often lost, so the reader doesnt exactly know where Hugins is in his two-year service. At other moments, there are missing details that are important to the narrative.
Toward the end of the autobiography, Hugins gets into some relatively serious subjects, such as cheating and student strikes, communist bombings that keep Americans off the streets, plus the arrest of his Headmister these need more elaborate analyses.
What happens after two $20 bills fall from a PCVs letter from home is something many RPCVs will understand the story travels grapevine nationally and a rash of mail thefts subsequently occur. The ensuing sadness and complications are almost defeating, diminishing the role his group felt about serving others through the Peace Corps.
His service simply ends, and Hugins flies into the rising sun. His epilog, which has him visiting Nepal two years later is more tangential than illuminating. What deserves respect, I believe, beyond certain literary criticisms, is the fact that in this 41st year of the Peace Corps, many of us RPCVs are entering the age when Robert Hugins began another life as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
This is a rhetorical question: how many of us, at an advanced age, and knowing what we know, would go to the local Peace Corps recruiter today and sign on that dotted line?
Hayward Allen (Ethiopia 196264) is author of two travelers guides to Native America and is currently the editor of Ethiopia & Eritrea RPCVs news magazine, The Herald. He lives in Pittsford, New York.