|Peace Corps Writers January 2005
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Peace Corps Writers January 2005
On-line Writing Workshop set for March
The third Peace Corps Writers 10-lesson workshop for RPCV writers is scheduled to run from Tuesday, March 15 to Tuesday, May 17. Five RPCVs have already been accepted. The minimum enrollement is 6 and the maximum is 8.
This class is only being offered for RPCVs who are serious about writing a book (fiction or non-fiction) on their experience. If you are interested in participating, read the Workshop 3 Announcement and the Q & A, and if you would like to apply, I must receive the requested materials by February 25.
Peace Corps Writers awards
It is time again to pick the best books written by writers from the Peace Corps community. Books published in 2004 by a PCV, RPCV, or Peace Corps staff member are eligible. Please recommend your candidates for the following categories (you may nominate your own book):
- Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award
- Maria Thomas Fiction Award
- The Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award (for best short description of the Peace Corps experience)
- Award for Best Poetry Book
- Award for Best Travel Writing
- Award for Best Childrens Writing
The awards will be announced in the July 2005 issue of the Peace Corps Writers. Each winning author receives a framed certificate and $200.
Send in your nominations for the best books published in 2004 to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peace Corps Writers imprint
Peace Corps Writers has been approached by several P.O.D. (print-on-demand) companies to create a special line of Peace Corps Books, both fiction and non-fiction. These books would be selected, edited, and designed by Peace Corps Writers and be promoted through the usual P.O.D. network, as well as via our website, book fairs, and NPCA conferences. I am debating whether I want to venture into the book publishing business, but having seen many P.O.D. books done by RPCVs, we would want any books we produced to be better edited and better designed. If Peace Corps Writers decides to create an Imprint it would cost the author approximately $1000 for the editing and design and printing. This is much more than the usually fee of just printing the book that is now done by P.O.D. companies. I am not sure if there is within the community of Peace Corps writers enough interest for such a special line of book, but if you think it is a good idea, please let me know. If there is enough interest, we will seriously consider creating a line of Peace Corps Writers books. Email me what you think: email@example.com
Conrad writes about reverse culture shock
Last month my son, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, emailed me this:
Daddo, just finished Heart of Darkness. Near the end, theres a quote, which I think applies to your description of returning PCVs discomfort. The passage implies a heightened level of seemingly haunting, disarming awareness, along with a mix of condescension, awe, and despair.
I found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams. They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretense, because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew. Their bearing, which was simply the bearing of commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety, was offensive to me like the outrageous flaunting of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend. I had no particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some difficulty in restraining myself from laughing in their faces, so full of stupid importance. I dare say I was not very well at that time. I tottered about the streets there were various affairs to settle grinning bitterly at perfectly respectable persons. I admit my behavior was inexcusable, but then my temperature was seldom normal in these days. My dear aunts endeavors to nurse up my strength seemed altogether beside the mark. It was my strength that wanted nursing, it was my imagination that wanted soothing.
The writers world
A word about literary agents
The Wall Street Journal offers a piece on this theme: literary agents also assume roles of editor and marketer. The thesis: Literary agents once functioned primarily as salespeople. Today, theyre taking on the additional roles of editor and marketer. The shift reflects the consolidation of the once-clubby publishing world into an industry dominated by global media companies. With fewer editors forced to handle more books, agents must do more to promote aspiring authors. And you thought it was tough getting an agent before . . .
In their December 20th issue The New York Observer had a piece on how publishing companies are outsourcing the job of editing manuscripts they have accepted. The days when Schribners editor Maxwell Perkins turned F. Scott Fitzgeralds sheaf of scribbles into This Side of Paradise appear to be well and truly over, writes Sheelah Kolhatkar. Writers, for their part, are hiring their own editors. And the going rate? It ranges from $10,000 to $20,000, although it can spike upward of $40,000 for a free lance editor to line-edit down to the last comma a full length book.
The POD firm PublishAmerica is under the gun from the Maryland Attorney General, the FTC, and news organizations like the Washington Post, as well as some of their clients, who are complaining, via the Internet that the company fooled them into thinking that being paid an advance of one dollar so that the author and their friends can be solicited into buying high-priced finished copies actually makes true the companys claim that they function as a traditional publisher. PublishAmerica estimates its annual sales at $4 million to $6 million, and last year it issued 4,800 titles. Who has time to read that many books?
In this issue
When Joseph Blatchford was appointed director of the Peace Corps in May of 1969 he brought with him a set of New Directions to improve the agency. He wanted skilled Volunteers in the agency, i.e. blue-collar workers, experienced teachers, businessman and farmers and came up with the idea of recruiting married couples with children. One of the couple would be a Volunteer and the other usually the wife would be, in Peace Corps jargon, the non-matrixed spouse.
A few of these non-matrixed spouses came home to tell wonderful tales based on their Peace Corps experience. Perhaps the most famous writer from this ill-conceived experiment was Maria Thomas (Ethiopia 197173). She never wrote about being a non-matrixed spouse, thought she did write a wonderful story about being married overseas, entitled Come To Africa and Save Your Marriage.
Another gifted writer, Susan ONeill (Venezuela 1973-74), has recalled her days as a non-matrixed spouse for us.
This issue has 6 book reviews, 17 recently published books, 23 Literary Type tidbits, and 2 wonderful and very different essays from RPCVs writers. Joshua Abrams (Kazakhstan 199698) tells us about harvesting onions in the freezing cold while Jason Boog (Guatemala 200002) remembers a rainy season in his village where he read Joyces Finnegans Wake, learned to dance to the mariachi beat, and thought of a woman he loved.
We continue our Vietnam stories by Volunteers who were in both corps, with Tony Zurlos (Nigeria 196466) account of becoming a man in the Sixties. There is also a new book in our booklocker of forgotten Peace Corps books that need to be read. It is the last book published by Maria Thomas.
There is a lot to read.
Recent books by Peace Corps Writers: January 2005
(Moon Handbook; 6th edition)
by Chicki Mallan & Joshua Berman (Nicaragua 19982000)
Avalon Travel Publishing,
God Lives in St. Petersburg
And Other Stories
by Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 199697)
A Country Boys Dream Comes True
Travelling the World
by Edward Franklin Burkett (Micronesia 198687)
by Martha J. Egan (Venezuela 196769)
by John Isles (Estonia 199294)
University of Iowa Press,
By Sandra Meek (Botswana 198991)
by Bill Owens (Jamaica 196466)
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
by John Perkins (Ecuador 196871)
Things Are Different in Africa
A Memoir of Dangers and Adventures in the Congo
by Frederick Edward Pitts (Congo/Mali 199293)
A Novel of Iran
by Jennifer B-C Seaver (Iran 196668)
Dancing Trees and Crocodile Dreams:
My Life in a West African Village
Journals from Two Years
as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali
by Marcy L. Spaulding (Mail 20002003)
Poppy Lane Publishing, January 2005
The Bush Survival Bible
250 Ways to Make It Through the Next Four Years without Misunderestimating the Dangers Ahead, and Other Subliminable Stategeries
by Gene Stone (Niger 197476)
Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat and Camel
by Jeffrey Tayler (Morocco 198890; PC Staff/Poland 1992, Uzbekistan 199293)
Me Here in Kenya I am Fine:
Walking the Peace Corps Road
by Maxine Valdez (Kenya 198081)
Winlock Publishing Co.
My Bones are Red
A Spiritual Journey with a Tri-Racial People in the Americas
by Patricia A. Waak (Brazil 196668)
Mercer University Press
Burn My Heart In Wet Sand
by George Wallace (Korea 1975-77)
Leicester, UK: Troubador Publishing, Ltd.
Rise Up The Phoenix
by Michael J. Wood (Ukraine, Turkmenistan)
Publish America, $19.95
Literary Type January 2005
Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 196264) recently sold one of his gay detective novels, Third Man Out to the movies. Filming started on January 21. Lipezs central character, Strachey, is being play by Chad Allen, who played the oldest son on the TV show Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Allen was also an autistic boy on St. Elsewhere, and has appeared recently in NYPD Blue. Im told, Lipez writes, that Chad Allen can act, which, of course, is more than I can do! But thats okay. Lipez can write!
The extremely funny Peter Lefcourt (Togo 196264) has a novel coming out in February entitled The Manhattan Beach Project. It is a satire about a desperate third-place network that starts a skunkworks in Manhattan Beach, California, to develop, in secret, extreme reality TV shows and winds up producing a big hit about a ruthless Uzbek warlord. Peace Corps Writers will be interviewing Peter for the March issue.
Poet John Isles (Estonia 196264) who lives in Alameda, California and teaches high school English in Union City, California has won a $20,000 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant for his first book of poetry, Ark. John did not begin to write poetry until he was in the Peace Corps and living on the island of Saaremaa where he taught English as a Second Language. John is one of 45 writers around the country to receive a Literature Fellowship from the NEA. More than 1,590 writers in 2004 applied for the fellowships.
P.F. Kluge (Micronesia 196769) teaches American literature and fiction writing at Kenyon College, one semester a year, and spends the rest of the year traveling and writing. He is a contributing editor to National Geographic Traveler and Island magazines, and over the last few years, he has published some wonderful pieces in small literary magazines. Breakfast in Ohio came out in the Spring 2004 issue of The Antioch Review [volume 62, number]. Coming out in the upcoming Winter 2005 issue of the Review is Kluges essay, Remembering Saipan based on his Peace Corps experience.
Kluge wanted to go to Turkey or Ethiopia, but he was picked for as the Peace Corps propaganda put it then Peace Corps Goes to Paradise. The paradise was Micronesia, the U.S. administered United Nations Trusteeship which covered the northern Marianas, including Saipan and Tinian, as well as the scattered Caroline and Marshall Islands. Well, it wasnt paradise, but Kluge has been going back again and again and writing about the place where he was young.
In a special issue of The Kenyon Review (Summer/Fall 2003, Vol 25, No. 3/4) titled Culture and Place Kluge wrote about growing up in New Jersey as a first generation German in the years following World War II when he spoke German at home and went to school with a German accent that caught the attention of the schools speech therapist who thought he had a learning disability and made him endlessly repeat, washing machine.
Southwest Review published God, the Disc Jockey (Vol. 88, No. 4) on how music has influenced his life going back to Buddy Hollys True Love Ways recorded shortly before Hollys death in a plane crash forty plus years ago.
Besides these publications, the 20th Anniversary Special Issue of National Geographic Traveler that came out in October, 2004, has his article on Tasmania, the last spot before Antarctica.
Besides all this, he has a novel coming out in March from XOXOX Press of Gambier, Ohio. The novel Final Exam is set on a college campus, not only Kenyon College. As Fred recently wrote me: The novel has been a struggle. I wanted to revisit, without repeating, some of the themes and some of the territory I addressed in Alma Mater, (published in 1993), a non-fiction account of a year in the life of Kenyon College. I decided to write a thoughtful thriller if that can be, in which the villains intent is not to murder this or that person but to slay, and transform, a certain college. Though there are crimes committed, suspects considered, solutions offered, the book is unconventional. And . . . from where I sit . . . engaging.
Paul Theroux (Malawi 196365) has an essay about his mother in Granta 88, an issue that is all about mothers.
Therouxs next novel, Blinding Lights, will be published here in June, and earlier in England from Hamish Hamilton. The novel is about a writer, a one-book wonder, who wrote a cult classic about his travels through dozens of countries without benefit of passport. With his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend Ava in tow, he sets out for Ecuadors jungle in search of a rare hallucinogenic drug and the cure for his writers block.
Gene Stones (Niger 197476) The Bush Survival Bible got a tremendous push from Dwight Garners TBR: Inside the List column in The New York Times Book Review when Genes book appeared on the Times extended paperback advice, how-to and miscellaneous list at No. 7 on Sunday, December 12, 2004.
HarperCollins in the United States and John Murray in the United Kingdom will be publishing Peter Hesslers (China 199698) next book in January/February 2006. The book is a study of five people caught in a strange cultural no-mans-land between their Chinese and American identities. It examines the ways Chinese and American identities mingle in a girl working in a factory making products for the U.S. market; an archeologist studying ancient Chinese writing whose American links once got him in trouble during the Cultural Revolution; a Chinese Muslim in Washington; and others.
In 1982 Charlie Ipcar (Ethiopia 196567) organized the Portland (ME) Folk Club and then the folk group Roll & Go (in honor of sea music collector Joanna Colcord) specializing in traditional and contemporary songs of the sea, all accessed from their website: RollandGoSeaSongs.com.
Last year, Charlie released his first CD, Uncommon Sailor Songs, songs he composed or adapted from poems. They are available from his website: home.gwi.net/~ipbar.
Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 199697) author of Chasing the Sea, a travel narrative, and God Lives in St. Petersburg, a collection of short stories published this January by Pantheon, had a Letter from Vietnam entitled, War Wounds: A Father and Son Return to Vietnam in the December 2004 issue of Harpers Magazine.
The agent for Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965-67) has sold two of her Poppy Rice mysteries, Love Her Madly (Poppy I) and She Smiled Sweetly (Poppy III) to Robert Hale Publishers, a small independant press in England. Her novel Shes Not There (Poppy II) is coming out in March from Pinnacle.
Mary-Ann has also just sold her memoir of growing up in Hartford, CT. Mary-Ann writes to Literary Type:
My neighborhood was representative of small town America; in one square mile we had our school, church, branch of the library (my refuge), drugstore, 5 & 10, grocery store and tavern. A trip on the bus to downtown Hartford was not unlike an excursion to a distant planet your mother took you there to buy your Easter outfit. In this mix, add my autistic brother, a savant who grew up during a time when no one ever heard of autism (pretty hard to imagine since today its all the rage). The story goes that when my mother sat with a doctor in Boston at the childrens hospital she listened patiently to his speech about how important it was to accept the fact that her child was retarded. When the doctor finished, my mother asked, How can he be retarded? Hes reading Winston Churchills, Arms and the Covenant. . . . My rather rambunctious tiny corner of the country was tipped over on its ear when I was nine; my fifth-grade friend and classmate was snatched off the street, her body found the next morning in a back yard five down from mine. Shed been raped and strangled. I pretty much suppressed this tragedy and its aftermath until I was asked, a few years ago, by the book editor of the Hartford Courant if I would write an essay for a literary supplement she was planning: Something like, How Hartford Impacted My Life as a Writer. (Then she said, Or whatever you feel like writing, Mary-Ann.) So I listed snips of memories starting with my uncle accidentally shooting himself while working the Colt line, and so on. But then, an image appeared in front of me, the face of my old pal, Irene. I ended my essay with a few words about the tragic loss we all had suffered. After the supplement came out, the Courant editor called me to tell me that Irenes brother was on her line and wanted to speak to me. Oh.
Among other things, Freddie told me that he didnt think anyone remembered his sister and the fact that I was out there actually thinking about her was a great comfort to him. That image I had of Irene refused to dissipate and I started writing . . . . This past September I finished Girls of Tender Age.
Mary-Ann also reports that she recently won a $5000 grant from the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism to support the creation of her next book.
Another Connecticut RPCV writer to receive a grant from the Commission on Culture and Tourism is Tom Hazuka (Chile 197880.) Hazuka received a $2,500 grant. He teaches English at Central Connecticut State University and has published two novels and a series of short stories. The Road to the Island, published in 1998, is set in Connecticut and is about a marathoner who gets killed and the son who seeks his fathers killer of his father. In 2000, he published In the City of the Disappeared, set in Chile during the dictatorship of August Pinochet. The protagonist is a PCV.
Writing from Salida, Colorado for an op-ed in The New York Times on Saturday, December 25, 2004, novelist Kent Haruf (Turkey 196567) recalls, in a charming and touching essay entitled A Life on the Plains, his father who was born in 1905, and raised in the badlands of North Dakota, the sixth of 13 children.
Childrens book author Karen Lynn Williams (Malawi 198084) and Catherine Stock will be teaching a workshop in Rignac, France on Writing for Children this coming Summer. The 2-week course will run from Saturday July 2 to Saturday July 16, and will cover all aspects of writing and illustrating books for children.
Rignac is a tiny village in the Lot region in southwestern France with plenty of trails for hiking and nearby rivers for canoeing, opportunities for shopping in village markets and exploring castles and caves as well as sampling French cuisine.
Course fees are $600 US for the two weeks. Housing in nearby rustic farm houses and meals will cost approximately $1200 US. A deposit of $150 US is necessary so that rooms can be reserved in the area.
Karen and Catherine have collaborated on a number of picture books, including the award-winning Galimoto, as well as Painted Dreams and Tap-Tap. Karen wrote When Africa Was Home based on her experiences in the Peace Corps with her husband and two children. They have also published separately picture books, chapter books and young adult novels.
For more information check www.CatherineStock.com or contact Karen Williams at Williams.Writes@verizon.net or 412-422-1165.
Joan Richter (PC/Staff Spouse Kenya 196567) has a new short story in The Ellery Queen Centenary, just published. Joans story is entitled, Love and Death in Africa.
Joan was a student of Fred Dannay, one of the cousins who wrote as Ellery Queen and Dannay recognized early on Joans talents as a mystery writer.
Festival and Ritual, from a collection of short pieces called Donkeys, Dervishes and the Borderline: Sketches of an Americans Experience in Pre-revolutionary Iran by Steve Horowitz (Iran 196871), appeared in the January 2005 issue of The Glimpse Magazine
( www.theglimpse.com). This piece describes the wriiters experience witnessing the Shia rituals performed in Iran during the month of Moharram. Another piece, Double Decker Donkey is expected to be published in The Glimpse in the near future.
Steve served for one year in Maragheh, Azarbaidjan, then transferred to the city of Rasht, near the Caspian Sea. Today, Steve is Director of the University English as a Second Language Program at Central Washington University. In addition, and for the last 7 years, he has hosted a weekly world music show, The Blue Planet, on KCWU in Ellensburg, Washington.
Clearing Customs is a work of fiction by Martha J. Egan (Venezuela 196769) that takes on the real issues of the Patriot Act. Martha, owner of Pachamama, a Latin American folk arts store in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been fighting the federal government since the Reagan Administration and its War on Drugs. According to Martha, Customs officials clearly suspected that small mom-and-pop import operations like mine were fronts for drug smuggling . . . [and] seemed intent on running us out of business. Then along came the Patriot Act. To fight the harassment, Martha decided to write a novel. I wrote Clearing Customs because I wanted to make something positive and entertaining out of a grossly unjust experience. Id like to believe that someone in power will finally see fit to call off his dogs. But that may be like hoping the Easter Bunny is real. You can read all about it at: PapalotePress.com, and we will review the book in the March issue of Peace Corps Writers.
Jeffrey Taylor (Morocco 198890; PC Staff/Poland 1992, Uzbekistan 199293), whose latest book, Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat and Camel is reviewed in this issue, is an Atlantic correspondent and wrote Russias Holy Warriors in the January/February 2005 issue of Atlantic. The article focuses on the fervently Orthodox, anti-Islamic, and proudly militaristic Cossacks who are on the rise in Vladimir Putins new Russia.
On Saturday, January 15, in the New York Times, Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968) had an Op Ed on John F. Kennedys 1961 inauguration address entitled Ask How. Clarke who has just published his book, Ask Not wrote about what makes a great speech, writing, It is possible that a future president will evoke a similar reaction with an inaugural address . . . . But to accomplish this, he must do more than others have done: simply paraphrase or echo Kennedy. Instead, he will have to deliver an inaugural that so clearly engages his emotions, and so convincingly represents a distillation of the spiritual and philosophical principles guiding his life, that it will, in the end, awaken a deep emotional response from the American people, too.
Eric T. Stafne (Senegal 199496) will be holding two book signings for his novel The Wretch Unsung to coincide with Peace Corps Week. The signings will take place at the University of Arkansas bookstore on February 28 and March 1 from 2pm to 4pm. Also on display will be memorabilia from his service in Senegal. Eric will also present a seminar entitled Living and Writing the Peace Corps Experience on March 16, also on the University of Arkansas campus.
After publishing Moon Handbooks Nicaragua, co-authored with Randy Wood (Nicaragua 1998-2000) the 440-page guidebook that has sold over 12,000 copies Joshua Berman (Nicaragua 19982000) was asked by Avalon Travel Publishing to take over Moon Handbooks Belize, a best-selling guide formerly by Chicki Mallan, who wrote the first five editions. Joshua began his research by crashing Thanksgiving dinner at the Peace Corps Country Directors home in Belize City, tapping into a country-wide network of kind, friendly, and talented PCVs, several of whom contributed text and photographs to the book.
Joshua and Randy just submitted the manuscript to their second edition of Nicaragua, which will be out Fall 05; in the meantime, Joshua is plugging away at his Peace Corps memoir and a book on his fire fighting experience with the National Park Service. Josh has fun links, photos, tips, and random travel stories are available at Stonegrooves.net.
In November, Algonquin Press will publish a golf novel by Roland Merullo (Micronesia 197879) that has a spiritual twist, as many golf novels do. This is the story of a former club pro in heaven who gets called upon to help God with His game. The novel is still untitled.
George Wallace (Korea 197577) has been named the first poet laureate of Suffolk County, Long Island, NY. Wallace is editor of Poetrybay, and recently was selected by Stanford University for its international LOCKSS archiving project. His new book is Burn My Heart In Wet Sand, published in September by Troubador Publishing in England. He is the author of eight other chapbooks of poetry, including the bi-lingual Swimming Through Water, published by La Finestra Editrice in Trento, Italy.
The story The Clattering of Bones, by Clifford Garstang (Korea 197677) appeared in Volume 10, Number 1 (Spring 2004) of The Timber Creek Review.
Talking with . . .
An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
I met Gene Stone (Niger 197476) by chance at a party in Thurston Clarkes (Tunisia 1968) apartment on the upper West Side of New York years and years ago. He was just back from the Peace Corps and working as an editor, and I was trying to write fiction full time. We eyed each other with equal amounts of suspicion. Editors are always (and I know this from being married to one) cautious of would be writers they stumble upon at parties, leery that the writer might try to slip them a bulky manuscript along with the canapé. Gene, as I recall after all these years, was friendly and open and willing to help any RPCV. However, this was the only time we met though from time to time I would spot his name in news about book publishers. Then this fall I came across his name again, this time in connection with the publication of an instant book entitled The Bush Survival Bible with the subtitle of 250 Ways to Make It Through the Next Four Years Without Misunderestimating the Dangers Ahead, and Other Subliminable Strategeries. The book has been as high as number five on the New York Times extended paperback advice, how-to and miscellaneous list, and is already in its seventh printing. Seeking advice myself on how to survive the election and wanting to learn what happened to him, I got in touch with Gene Stone, and found him still living on the West Side of New York.
Where were you as a Volunteer, Gene?
I was in Niger, from 19741976, and was assigned to teach English at the just-established University of Niamey. The second year, weirdly, I was co-chairman of the English Department. Sounds impressive, but of course, there were only about 15 students and no buildings.
What was that like? Niger? Your job? Do you remember fondly anything from 74 to 76?
Those are some pretty big questions, could go on for pages but I wont! Mostly I loved my Peace Corps experience. Niger was a warm and hospitable country, the people were unusually open to Americans, and having a job teaching at the university meant that my students were often my age or older. I taught English to them but they taught me a lot of lessons about life that I needed to learn my students were, for the most part, considerably more mature than I was. Sometimes I look back and feel embarrassed for not having been wiser, which I know they noticed, and I hope theyve forgiven me.
I also miss the Peace Corps camaraderie making friends with people of all types and backgrounds just on the basis of being in the same country. Most of them werent people I would ever have met. I still have several close friends from the group and occasionally hear from others just a few months ago my old friend Dave Campbell called me from Eugene, Oregon, where he is running a small winery called Casablanca. I hadnt heard from him in twenty years. But the Peace Corps bond is strong enough that you can just pick up a conversation from that long ago and start talking again.
I miss Niger, too the people, the desert, the music in the streets, the food in the marche, the political discussions at all hours of the night. I dont miss the illnesses, though I once had malaria, parasites, ringworm, and dysentery at the same time, and dropped 30 pounds from my already skinny 160 pound frame. The malaria visited often, six times in two years. Maybe thats what keeps me from returning.
This may sound like a recruiting advertisement, but the Peace Corps was the single greatest experience of my life. I recommend it to everyone, and no one I know who has gone has regretted it.
Lets talk about your book. Where did you get the idea for The Bush Survival Bible to be published within days of his election?
The book had an odd history I didnt come up with the idea until after the third presidential debate. I then called someone at Random House who put me in touch with Jon Karp, the editorial director; he liked the idea but gave me only five days to write the book, so they could publish it right after the election. And, of course, it was only to be published if Bush won. So although I was a die-hard Kerry supporter, I had to work on the project knowing that it would only come out if Kerry lost. I wrote it. Bush won. The book came out.
You came up with this idea and sold it to a publisher, but how did you manage to write it so quickly, and how did you get the other writers to contribute to the project?
I was able to write the book in five days because I have an odd capacity to speed up my mind when needed. However, after I finished, my mind fell into a deep dull slumber from which I do not think Ive recovered. The writers who were willing to contribute to the book did so mostly because they felt, as I did, that a Bush victory would be a very difficult situation to tolerate, and that wed all need every bit of help we could get.
When we met, you were living with Thurston Clarke in his apartment on the upper West Side of New York City. How did you meet up with Thurston?
When my best friend from high school, Andrea Schweitzer, heard that the Peace Corps had posted me in Niger, she told me about her current boyfriend, Thurston Clarke, who was writing a nonfiction book set there so she introduced us. (The book was titled The Last Caravan and, I believe, your wife was Thurstons editor.) Thurston and I became friends overseas and saw each other frequently while I was stationed in Niamey. When I returned to America, still not sure about what I wanted to do with my life, Thurston told me that his last roommate had moved out and invited me to move in. So I did. Thurston also helped me find my first job, as an editorial assistant at Harcourt Brace.
Thurston went to Yale and then into the Peace Corps. What about you?
I went to Stanford as an English major, then to Harvard for grad school. I got a masters but never finished the Ph.D. Thats when I jointed the Peace Corps. I knew that academia wasnt the right place for me and I had no other ideas of what to do with my life. I also felt that this might be the only time I could just pick up and do something unusual. Id like to say that it was also predicated on my desire to help other people, but in reality, at some level, it was probably more about my desire to help myself. I dont know if I did much to improve Niger, but Niger did me a world of good; I matured more in those two years than in the previous twenty-two.
What led you into writing full time?
Well, I was a book editor at Simon and Schuster, Bantam, and Harcourt Brace, then a magazine editor at Esquire, a newspaper editor for the Los Angeles Times but after I was fired from my last job, as editor-in-chief of a California magazine, I thought: why do I keep editing when Id rather be writing? So, thanks to having no debts or responsibilities, I made the switch. It was very difficult at first, because as an editor I had developed the skill of writing/editing in other peoples voices. I had no voice of my own. Thats probably what lead me to ghosting the lack of a prominent voice doesnt do much for you when writing your own book, but its a great help when writing someone elses.
Have you ghosted many books?
Ive ghosted over 20 books, but I cant talk about some because I signed confidentiality agreements barring me from disclosing the collaboration. Other projects have included books with Steven Hawking, Gail Evans (the former exec VP of CNN and now, of course, best selling writer), the medical directors of Canyon Ranch, and many others.
How do you go about ghosting a book with another person?
Each book is different. Some people are controlling and want to be included in every part of the process. Others dont care as much, and some dont even read the book once its done. Mostly, though, its a process of coming up with the right idea, drawing up an outline, writing a proposal, selling it to a publisher, and then doing hours and hours of interviews on tape until weve accumulated enough material. Then I usually go off on my own and write the book. When done, I show it to the co-author and we go back and forth and up and down until something approaching a finished manuscript results.
When you ghost a book, are you hired by the publisher or the subject of the book?
Ghosted books usually come through an agent. I have worked with several throughout my career. But sometimes they come through word of mouth, where one author refers another to me, sometimes through friends whove met someone who wants to write a book but needs help, and sometimes through publishers who have signed up a personality and need a writer.
What do you find most interesting: the research, writing, or something else?
Each book is different, some arent interesting at all, some are amazing. I once did a book with a political figure who told me rather shocking stories about some of the people in the present administration, but then he got cold feet and decided to keep it all out of the book, and I was left with all this great knowledge that I cant reveal to anyone. But all in all the best part of the ghosting experience is being able to move into another persons life for a year, learn more than you ever could think possible about another human being with whom you have no other connection, and then have the option of departing gracefully. Most of the people I work with are truly wonderful people, but a few arent. Some end up becoming close friends, and some disappear forever.
As we try to guide RPCVs into writing careers what advice would you give to people trying to get into publishing and writing? I realize we are talking about a lot of different careers within publishing, but based on what you know, what would you suggest to someone who has just come back from two years overseas and wants to work in publishing?
I try to avoid those questions because I have no answers. But, if I had to, I would say think about other options besides traditional publishing. The latter is waning as the primary source for the written word. The Internet is just beginning, and places like Salon.com and The American Prospect.com etc. are much more exciting and offer more opportunities for those interested in non-book careers. But for someone who is determined to enter book publishing: The best way to do it is to use every contact you can think of, write every person youve heard of, and knock on every door you find. There are jobs available all the time, but they tend to go quickly to someone who knows someone who knows someone. Its not fair, but its just the way it is. You just need to get one foot in the door, somewhere and that can mean a small house, a university press, or an academic publisher. Once youre in, you can start making the contacts to get you where you eventually want to go.
For those who want to write non-fiction full time, someone like Thurston Clarke or yourself, what advice do you have for them?
Again, there are no set rules. If you look at the careers of writers like Thurston or me youll see few similarities. Many of the most successful writers I know happened onto their careers by accident, and many of the most determined would-be writers I know never got a chance and are still trying to find a way to break in. Sometimes its luck you happen across a great story that no one else knows about; sometimes its connections my break was meeting Thurston in the Peace Corps and his being nice enough to recommend me for a job; sometimes its pure hard work I know one very successful writer who had a more-than-full-time job while he wrote his first book and managed to do both extremely well. But I would say this: for the most part, the people who succeed tend to be those who 1) are most determined to succeed, and 2) have skin thick enough to take all the rejection letters every writer accumulates.
Have you written or published anything about your Peace Corps experience? Do you have a Peace Corps novel waiting to be written?
Never written about it, nor do I have a Peace Corps novel in mind. No, the experience was so intense, theres no way I could ever get down on paper. I dont know how to write that well.
Okay, then . . . lets look at it from your editorial experience. Thinking as an editor what advice would you give RPCVs who want to write about their service? Should they just plan on publishing their own book (P.O.D.) or do you think that there is a market still for books written about third world countries?
One of the first books I published as an editor at Harcourt Brace in 1979 was called Fantastic Invasion by Patrick Marnham. Everyone told me not to do it, but I loved the book, and Marnham is a great writer, so I got permission (and paid almost nothing as an advance), and the book got glowing reviews and is still selling today. So no matter what conventional wisdom tells you, remember that its usually wrong. Theres always room for a good book on any subject. That doesnt mean it will be easy to sell sometimes it takes incredible strength to deal with rejection after rejection, but if you have faith, and the book is good, it should eventually find a home.
Also keep in mind that fashions and tastes change, and so does the American fascination with other countries. In the 1980s, you could sell just about any book on Central America, because of the unpleasantness in Nicaragua. In the 1990s, Central and Southern Africa was a popular topic. Now all the media seems to care about is the Middle East. That will change. So what I would say to a journalist: If you cant sell a book now, dont give up wait until the timing is better. Or if you can, restructure your book to give it a news hook; any time you can help the publisher figure out how to get your work publicity, youve taken a step forward. The publishing business isnt pretty, but it does have some basic rules that arent hard to learn.
One final question. Whats next for you?
Im waiting for a few ghostwriting projects to get off the ground, but Im not really sure what I want to do next. And I will probably struggle with a novel this year. Also, I wouldnt be surprised if I end up doing another political book, perhaps under my own name. All in all, however, I have no idea. Thats one of the charms, and the terrors, of being a writer. You just dont know whats around the bend.
Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat and Camel
by Jeffrey Tayler (Morocco 198890;
PC Staff/Poland 1992, Uzbekistan 199293)
JEFFREY TAYLERS Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat and Camel is the most absorbing travel book I have ever read. Tayler combines the objective eye and toughness of the seasoned African traveller with a personal need to determine what lies at the root of the myriad problems in this part of Africa.
Tayler journeys through the Sahel the southern coast of the Sahara Desert in order to hear out the people of the Sahel, to record and transmit their grievances, and to learn their views on the conflict between the West and the Islamic world. He begins his journey in Ndjamena, Chad, and continues on to Cameroun, Nigeria, Niger, and Mali. His trip ends in modern, salt-aired Dakar, Senegal, a biting contrast to the ravaged countries he has been through. His journey takes several months, in which he covers 4,000 miles. It is apparent from the first pages of Angry Wind that Tayler is a near-scholar on the Sahel, in particular its history. He combines this knowledge with interviews and observations, thus educating the reader on the past and present, the politics and religion of each region. Among the places Tayler visits are:
- Kano, Nigeria, once one of the greatest emporia of the Sahel, a rival of Timbuktu and Gao.
- Zinder, Nigeria, supplier of slaves to North Africa, the Middle East and the Americas.
- Ndjamena, capital of Chad, whose name is an African version of the Arabic irtahna, meaning We rested. We had a good time.
- Ile de Goree, Senegal, and the House of Slaves, in which fifteen million slaves waited for the boats that would carry them to the New World. Poet Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye described the House in this way:
De cette petite porte
Pour un voyage sans retour
Ils allaient les yeux fixes
Sur linfinie de la souffrance.
Tayler describes the miserable Bella, a tribe enslaved by the nomadic Tuareg till this day. He feasts on camel and finds it to be perhaps the tenderest flesh he has ever eaten. He stays in Niger, the second poorest country in the world, where the unluckiest survive on tree bark and leaves. He attends the Muslim Feast of Tabaski in a Tuareg camp and witnesses dancing and rituals that are among the most beautiful he has ever seen. On his route, Tayler encounters much suspicion as a post 9/11 American, narrowly escapes violence at the hands of desperate teenage thugs, and witnesses the mind-blowing poverty that ravages the Sahel. He also recounts the many acts of generosity shown him and describes vividly the stark beauty of the desert and sky. Throughout the book blows the Harmattan, the powerful dust-wind from the Sahara that rages for days over Central and West Africa, de-foliating vegetation and causing sickness and misery for humans and beasts.
Taylers vocabulary is very impressive, and this command of English entertained me in an otherwise saddening book. He is also fluent in French and Arabic, which facilitates his travels a great deal. His writing flows easily from narrative to dialogue to description. Like many travel writers, he has the detachment necessary to continue his travels and render a public narrative, yet he also transmits his frustration with the poverty and despair that permeate the lives of the Sahelians. Tayler writes that the problems of the Sahel are caused by humans and could be solved by humans, but his pessimism that this will happen is clear.
In his search to understand how once-great Sahelian empires have fallen to their current state, Tayler focuses on the false boundaries imposed in the Scramble for Africa, the tug of war between Islam and Christianity, and economies hampered by corruption and lack of infrastructure. He points out that the West in particular the United States has virtually forgotten the Sahel since it is not considered economically important.
Angry Wind should be on the reading list of everyone interested in the history, politics or religion of the Sahel, and concerned about the future of Sahelians. It is a compelling book not an easy read by any means but worth your time.
Jeffrey Tayler is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and a contributor to Condé Nast Traveler, Harpers Magazine, the Smithsonian, and National Geographic Magazine. After studying in New York, Florence, and Madrid, and receiving a Masters Degree in Russian and East European history, Jeffrey served with the Peace Corps in Morocco as a Volunteer, and worked in Poland and Uzbekistan as a staff member. In 1993 he moved from Tashkent to Moscow and traveled across Russia and Ukraine for his first book, Siberian Dawn. His second book, Facing the Congo, recounts his ill-starred attempt to descend the Congo River in a dugout canoe. It received the Peace Corps Writers 2001 Award for Best Travel Writing. His third travelogue, Glory in a Camels Eye, describes his journey across the Moroccan Sahara with Arab nomads. He is currently working on a book about descending the Lena River in eastern Siberia. His writing is currently featured in the January 2005 issue of National Geographic, in an article about the mountain Berbers of North Africa entitled A People Apart. He lives in Moscow with his wife, Tatyana.
Darcy Meijer has taught English composition and ESL since her Peace Corps service in universities all over the U.S. She now edits the Gabon Letter, the quarterly newsletter of the Friends of Gabon, and lives with her husband and three children in Maryville, Tennessee.
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
by John Perkins (Ecuador 196871)
JOHN PERKINS WANTS US TO think hes an economic Luca Brazi the big guy who helped Don Corleone make someone an offer he couldnt refuse. Perkins, a PCV in Ecuador, gives us his life story including how he was recruited to work at Chas. T. Main (MAIN), an international consulting firm that handles World Bank and other donor agency projects. His mission was to facilitate large international loans to developing countries that, in turn, would spend the money with MAIN and other U.S. companies such as Bechtel, Halliburton, etc. through giant engineering and construction projects. Perkins was also to make sure that the countries receiving the loans would not be able to repay them, so they would forever be in debt, both literally and figuratively, to their creditors, and continue to have to borrow more money, for more projects, to generate even more profits for the companies that carry them out. In other words, Perkins was to be an agent of the foreign aid practice in which developed countries assist lesser-developed ones via loans with conditionality. Such conditionality may include a change in recipient country policies including privatization of key services such as water, electricity, road construction, etc.; the easing of bureaucratic obstacles for foreign investors; and a proviso that almost always insists that foreign advisors be part of the loan package. So Perkins helps a number of countries borrow the money, tells them how to spend it through his company, and then when the money runs out, helps them borrow some more for additional projects in a never-ending cycle.
Perkins almost succeeds at convincing us of this sinister plot, with a mixture of financial intrigue, mysterious assassinations and luxurious globetrotting. We meet along the way the exotic Claudine, who seduces Perkins into the ways of becoming an Economic Hit Man (EHM). And then there is Uncle Frank, who works for the National Security Agency and encourages Perkins to join the Peace Corps in preparation for his future EHM role. The author resembles another cinematic figure in financial guise during his adventures an astute Forrest Gump showing up in meetings at significant points in the history of developing countries. He encounters, among others, the Shah of Iran, Omar Torrijos, President of Panama, Prince W an influential member of the House of Saud, Robert McNamara then President of the World Bank, and during a literary interlude, Graham Greene, who encourages Perkins to write a book and make it about things that matter.
Part diatribe against what the author calls coporotocracy; part venting guilt about convincing developing countries to take the giant loans and spend them through his consulting firm, making Perkins rich in the process; and part international thriller, these confessions have all the right elements of things that matter, but the formula doesnt quite work. Perkins gets it mostly right when he describes the system of tied foreign aid, in which recipient countries are obligated to spend the money they receive on goods and services from the donor country. Such policies lead, in the case of the United States for example, to silly rules at USAID whereby travelers on USAID contracts can only fly on US flag carriers even though other carriers may get them to their destination faster and cheaper. Recent news about bidding practices among United States firms such as Halliburton working in Iraq, echo Perkins description. The policies of international banks in the 70s and 80s, giving endless loans to Latin America and leading to a series of structural adjustments, in which new loans were issued, are further evidence of the practices Perkins points out. And finally, for those of us who have had to struggle mastering the likes of Thai, Tagalog and Sinhala, Perkins is linguistically correct when he says Bahasa Indonesia is one of the easiest languages in the world to learn.
But the implication that there is a grand cabal of construction and consulting firms, donor agencies and recipient country leaders with EHMs wielding their ways through boardrooms and bedchambers, tests the readers credulity. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man might have worked as an investigative analysis of foreign aid/loan practices and their shortcomings, with recommendations on how to improve the system. It also might have worked as a piece of fiction, as was suggested by one publisher who saw an earlier draft of the work. We could market you in the mold of John Le Carre . . . the publisher states in Perkins preface. In the end, however, the book reads more like a screenplay, with Perkins as the bad-guy-turns-good-guy financial action hero.
Perkins could have produced an important book had he been clearer in his purpose and structure. But for us, we suggest you wait and see the movie.
Howard Schuman is a former VP at Citibank and former Senior Manager at Price Waterhouse, based in Indonesia. He has worked on projects for the World Bank, the UN, the Asian Development Bank and USAID. He currently is advisor to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. His latest book is Human Resources Toolkit for Financial Institutions in Developing Markets.
God Lives in St. Petersburg
And Other Stories
by Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 199697)
TOM BISSELLS SECOND BOOK, a collection of short stories called God Lives in St. Petersburg, offers the reader an extensive travelogue through the bleak, barren landscapes of central Asia, a struggle for human decency and responsibility in the face of foreign troubles and, most thematically and uncomfortably, an experience of existential angst to which Mr. Bissell offers no real solution. These six tales introduce an array of Americans whose lives intersect with the various nation-states reborn following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet failure is a fitting, and one assumes, intentional backdrop for Bissells characters who battle personal weakness but who continue life beyond the framework of these stories in troubling circumstances.
Mr. Bissell served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan for a year, from 1996 to 1997, an experience which undoubtedly, like many other Peace Corps writers before him, provided ample fodder for his stories. Thankfully, these tales offer portraits of such varying personalities that any suggestion of barely disguised autobiography can you say Paul Theroux? is fortunately absent. What Bissell does do however, and this is no bad thing, is stylistically position himself as the benefactor of several well-known post-war writers who came before him, most notably Ernest Hemingway and Paul Bowles.
The most striking similarity with Hemingway is in the triangular relationship in Expensive Trips Nowhere between an American couple traveling across the rocky plains of Kazakhstan and their hale, rugged guide, Viktor, who served with the Afghani mujahideen against Soviet forces. The husband, an ineffectual coward living off his parents trust fund, is marginalized by a series of such hapless blunders that by the end of the story the reader assumes the masculine Viktor will sexually possess his wife. The story title indicates the couples desperate struggle to discover excitement in an otherwise hollow matrimony and the tale is a self-acknowledged reflection of Hemingways tale The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, another story of male emasculation. This same spirit is evident throughout Bissells other stories as well. One recalls Hemingways protagonist Nick Adams who, traumatized by military service and a physical injury in the Great War, struggles with psychological demons. Bissells characters and the post-Soviet states they inhabit fight for value and meaning beyond the angst of personal failure and national identity.
The specter of Paul Bowless literary masterpiece The Sheltering Sky haunts in particular Bissells first story Death Defiler. It is the longest and farthest reaching tale and, we are told in an Authors Note, the most recently written, which may imply a developed maturity on the part of the writer. Death Defiler begins with a freak road accident that leaves two war journalists stranded in the Afghani desert. Graves aptly named suffers from a severe strain of malaria whose symptoms grow more apparent as he is exposed to the natural desert elements. Eventually Graves and his companion Donk are given sanctuary, according to local customs, by a warlord , but who shows no concern for Graves deteriorating condition. Donk struggles to convince his host to retrieve antibiotics from nearby Mazar and finally, with no option left, sets off himself in search of a reputed grass he is told, but which he does not believe, will save his friend. Such life-and-death struggles for affluent Westerners depending on the inadequate assistance of culturally distant people echo the abandonment encountered by Port and Kit Moresby in The Sheltering Sky. The outcome in Bissells tale is as dire and tragic as in Bowles tale of post-World War Two ennui.
The post-9/11 war in Afghanistan of Death Defiler benefits from Bissells adroit use of indirect allusion. Osama Bin Laden is only referred to as he, while the rumble of fighter jets piloting overhead is audible but never visible. In fact Graves and Donk argue over whether the fighter planes might be American or British. This hints, as in The Sheltering Sky, at an unstable grasp on objects and realities. The wars effect on these characters is indirect, impersonal and experienced from the shadows. They may not die from flesh wounds but residual emotional scars may prove equally fatal.
Bissell would not mean for the reader to indict the Afghani or any central Asian culture for the Americans weaknesses in these stories. At least, as a returned Volunteer, one would hope not. In a poignant monologue from Aral, Bissell allows the voice of Central Asia to speak in its own right and on its own terms. A KGB agent presumes to speak without due formality to an American biologist visiting Uzbekistan on behalf of the United Nations. You have no tragedy and forget that such things exist, accuses the agent. And if you know they do, you blame those whom tragedy befalls. Americans are a people whove let their souls grow fat. While the speaker acknowledges the problems of his own land, he similarly brings to light the ideological, narrow-minded mistakes of well-meaning Americans whose presence in his land and whose dubious contributions may prove more hurtful than helpful.
In one respect and in hindsight, this reviewer has been unfair in comparing Bissell too closely to other post-war, existential writers. Each scribe worthy of his salt attempts singularity in the face of all pens that have come before, and should therefore stand judged by his own merits. To this lone fault, then, Tom Bissell stands guilty: that his experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer provided such a wealth of useful material that his contribution to the worthy literary tradition of post-war fiction was both intentional and ambitious. In the collection of stories that is God Lives in St. Petersburg, the writer reinvigorates in todays readers the despair and pain of those who have ever sought respite and peace in the benighted days following war. For Bissells readers in the early 21st century, the attacks of September 11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are the issues we contend with. Failure, fear and struggle are neither here or there, but currents we tread in daily as tragedy, bloodshed and terrorist acts abound. Our experience is to stand witness to our political leaders myopic pronouncements and the suffering they bestow upon both the worlds guilty and innocent. Will we ever be the same again?
Bissell does not write to answer this question. He writes to ask it again and again and again . . .
Joe Kovacs lives in Washington, DC. He writes for WorldView, the quarterly membership publication of the National Peace Corps Association, and is currently editing his second novel.
Horses Like the Wind and Other Stories of Africa
by Baker H. Morrow (Somalia 196869)
University Press of Colorado
SOMALIA, THAT EASTERNMOST African country jutting into the Indian Ocean like an arrowhead, has been in the news again. Not, this time, for its wars, assassinations, drought, famine, chaos, anarchy, or other grotesque sorrows, but because of the tsunami. The wall of water that recently wreaked havoc in Indonesia took its toll on the coastline of East Africa, too: A U. N. assessment made in early January showed that some 54,000 people in Somalia were badly affected by the disaster. More than 300 people have been reported dead. Coastal villages and towns are now submerged in water. Sadly, this is the latest chapter in Somalias ongoing tale of woe.
But there was a time, in the 1960s, after it gained its independence, first from Italy and then Britain, when Somalia was a promising place, according the author Baker H. Morrow, who served there in the Peace Corps in 1968 and 69. As he describes it,
The Somali markets teemed with local and imported foods. There were new wells for the nomads, new seaports for an expected surge in commerce, new airstrips, and new roads. Oilmen sank holes everywhere. The Red Chinese set up experimental farms and staffed them. So did the Russians and the Americans. A trickle of doctors, nurses, teachers, and lawyers appeared from half the countries in the world. Livestock exports boomed. For a time, it seemed that something novel and wonderful was about to take place in this fabled country renowned in ancient Egypt for its pungent frankincense and myrrh.
Morrows stories of Africa, Horses Like the Wind, take place during this brief interlude in Somalias history when hope ran high. Each of the nine, beautifully crafted chapters gives us a slim slice of life then: the Italian schoolboys in their stucco classroom who had no inkling from the sisters that Italy had lost Somalia first to the British, then to the United Nations, and finally to the Somalis themselves; the 24-year-old woman from Oregon who came to Somalia for solitude; the troubled history teacher from Britain who disappeared, leaving only his poetry behind; and the gallant Arab horses, kicking up dust in their wake, the way the wind does.
Morrows prose is spare, elliptical, lyrical devoid of the extreme pitfalls Peace Corps writers are prone to romanticism and cynicism. His writing sweeps you up and carries you away to another place, another time:
Borama was a picture-postcard place, all stone, strewn out along a hillside at the edge of the Amoud Range. At times in the early morning, shreds of fog lingered on the rocky fields, leaving dewdrops on the blades of grass that glimmered in the sunlight. A little east of the town there was a wide valley, with a string of trees along the donga, or dry wash, that defined its middle. Older chapters in the story of the human race than perhaps anyone imagined had been written in the sand of that watercourse and washed casually away by the years. Our genus, different species. Older genus, unknown species. You had the feeling that Africa would always be ancient and enigmatic here.
In another story, a beggar boy asks the young white man for a shirt.
Nothing doing, the young man answers unsentimentally, I only have three of them.
Mr. Morrow, a widely published author, landscape architect and professor of landscape architecture at UNM-Albuquerque, is, in addition, an accomplished artist. His black-and-white illustrations, as haunting and evocative as his writing, enhance every chapter.
Like a volume of poetry, deceptively slim, Morrows African stories deserve to be read again and again.
Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996-68) is the author of Somewhere Child and was a writer, editor, and caterer in New York City before joining the Peace Corps. She now lives in northern New Mexico and teaches English at UNM-Taos.
Journeys in the Wake of Global Warming
by Tom Pollock and Jack Seybold (Brazil 196667)
IMAGINE VAST ICE SHELVES plunging into the waters around Antarctica causing major increases in ocean depth and triggering massive under ocean earthquakes and volcanic eruptions which in turn create tsunamis beyond our current comprehension. This is the grim picture Tom Pollock and Jack Seybold paint as they describe the future of an over-heated earth in the first two parts (Book One and Book Two) of their novel The Rising. They also provide a human face to the more dire scientific predictions of the consequences of global warning through the reactions of a variety of protagonists to the unfolding of a series of natural disasters. (Their approach echoes John D. MacDonalds effort in Condominium to make obvious the folly of massive construction on Floridas hurricane prone shore line.)
Books One and Two follow the lives of two separate but ultimately interconnected groups of people as they struggle to deal with worldwide catastrophe. This is not a simple book to read. When one combines the scientific complexity of the effects of global warming and the twenty-six principle characters listed at the beginning of the book (and dozens of minor characters), the effort to keep everything straight can be challenging. However, Pollock and Seybold have done an excellent job of describing sequences of natural disasters that could be caused by global warming in laymans terms that are both accurate and understandable. (They provide a website: RisingGlobalWarming.com, for readers looking for additional explanation of the scientific data on which they base the flow of natural events in their novel.)
Their choice of major characters provides both a personal and global view of the consequences of the multiple disasters caused by global warming on diverse individuals. They open with a gripping description of life in San Quentin as seen through the eyes of convicted murderer, Eli Barnes. Elis unintentional escape coincides with the collapse of the Ross Ice Shelf. Other characters include a mother and daughter with ESP powers, doctors, a senators aide, scientists, farmers and others from all walks of life. A global view is provided by a real estate dealmaker from California caught in Russia as natural and human environments deteriorate worldwide. His efforts to return to his wife and children in California in the midst of widespread natural and man made disasters are reminiscent of parts of Charles Fraziers Cold Mountain.
In Book Three the authors describe the coming together of most of the major characters in the remote mountains of California and their efforts to develop a near utopian community. This section of the novel may remind readers of nuclear war survival novels that were popular before the collapse of the Soviet Union. A small group of gifted individuals come together in a remote, protected setting and quickly mesh into a productive community while much of the rest of the World is controlled by brutal military dictatorships or is collapsing into anarchy.
The Rising provides readers much to ponder. Are the natural disasters of the type described a realistic or even possible result of global warning? The recent tsunamis in Asia and the series of hurricanes in Florida in the 2004 season though not attributed to global warming do provide convincing evidence of the power of nature to overwhelm efforts of human control.
How would our government react to climate change and natural disasters of the type described by Pollack and Seybold? This question might keep you awake at night based on what happened before and after 9/11. I would have to agree with the authors implicit prediction that we could expect first denial then overreaction from our leaders. One of my favorite images in the book is the President of the United States declaring a War on the Forces of Nature, in a televised address to the nation as the government secretly prepares to declare martial law and move to Texas.
What would life be like in these United States if indeed we faced climate change and natural disasters as described in this book and the government reacted as predicted? I like the idea of a near utopian community but I dont think I would qualify for membership.
Heavy stuff, indeed, this is not a beach book. But the authors have done an outstanding job of providing a good story with interesting, well developed characters. I like novels that provide provocative information and also entertain. The Rising does both. If you like purpose novels and/or just want to give more thought to the possible consequences of global warming, I highly recommend reading The Rising.
John C. Kennedy is the author of Last Lorry to Mbordo, a novel set in West Africa. He was a Volunteer in Ghana (1965-68), and then returned there with his wife, Frances Healing (Ghana 1966-68), in July of 2004. While there, they met with former students and teachers and current students from the secondary schools where they taught, and they are currently working on a slide and lecture presentation, Ghana Then and Now. John is also writing a second novel about the travails of RPCV readjustment to life in the US.
The Way They Say Yes Here
by Jacqueline Lyons (Lesotho 199295)
Hanging Loose Press
PABLO NERUDA BEGINS HIS POEM Memory with the line, I must remember everything. That sentiment and its urgency could be the motto of Jacqueline Lyons record of her three years in Southern Africa, as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Record, however, is inadequate, as it fails to convey the artistry and shaping intelligence everywhere on display in the books pages.
Part of her strength as a poet resides in her commitment to a broad aesthetic, one that, in the Pound-Williams tradition, allows into the work such things as economic facts (about mining) and passages of prose that include Whitmanesque catalogues of the sights and sounds of her Lesotho world. Her poems eschew the poetic in order to be true to the lived lives of the many people she came to cherish and respect as a Volunteer, yet her love of language its music and formal possibilities always partners in her work with her role as witness.
Her poem Playing Scrabble in Lesotho, for example, is a tour de force of both wordplay and cultural portraiture, the various combinations of letters on the board all mirrors of her environment. Scrabble has never been so seriously evocative. Auden said that a poet is, before anything else, someone passionately in love with language, and Lyons exemplifies that truth, whether shes thrilling to the names of people or places Tele Bridge, Maseru, Wepner, Zastron or, in Speaking the Language, discovering a rhythmical pattern that runs through many multi-syllabic Sesotho words.
Along those lines, Now, Here constitutes a high point of the book. In this five-part poem she investigates the Sesotho words for those of the poems title, as well as there, sensitively and smartly exploring all that a Mosotho (a person from Lesotho) means by them. At the same time, always rooting Lyons linguistic excursions is her focus on the senses; shes learned Wallace Stevens famous lesson, that the greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world, and grounds every poem in such a world. Even when she writes a sestina Sunday Uneven a form notorious for its potential artificiality and preciousness, Lyons turns it into an earthy paean celebrating the spectacle of various Sunday activities in her town.
The book concludes after she has returned to the United States and receives letters from her students and friends, whom she honors by quoting at length in her final poem, I Am Missing Your Voice, which in turn is enriched and validated by their words. The books final chord, including the name of a Lesotho friends newborn, is a poignant mix of pride, loss, connection, and hope.
As a returned Volunteer reading Lyons book, I am painfully aware of all I have forgotten over the years; only a small portion of my experience in Nigeria in the Sixties remains. I envy Lyons her ability to preserve so vividly and effectively her intense and steady engagement with her Volunteers local world. As a writer, Im impressed by her managing the difficult task of meeting the necessarily contradictory demands of her material and her medium. Throughout her book, shes open and receptive while also holding her own as a strong center of individual responsiveness.
Philip Dacey is the author of The Mystery of Max Schmitt: Poems on the Life and Work of Thomas Eakins and seven earlier collections of poetry, including The Deathbed Playboy and Night Shift at the Crucifix Factory. He co-edited Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms with David Jauss.
He recently moved from Minnesota to Manhattan.
A Novella and Stories
by Maria Thomas (Ethiopia 197173)
Maria Thomas first went to Ethiopia in 1971 with her husband and four-year-old son. It remained her favorite place on the continent. African Visas, a novella and stories, is the last of three books that Maria wrote about East Africa and Ethiopia. Her only novel is called Antonia Saw the Oryx First, and another collection of stories is entitled Come to Africa and Save Your Marriage, both published in 1987.
African Visas was published by Soho Press in 1991, though several of the pieces in this collection had been published earlier in magazines, including The New Yorker and Harpers.
In this collection is an essay entitled simply, Ethiopia. There is one paragraph in the essay that rings tragically true to all of us who knew Maria Thomas:
If you ask people who have ever lived in Ethiopia, they tell you that you never put it behind you. During Peace Corps training there in 1971, the word was that Ethiopia had the highest dropout rate among trainees, but it also had the highest extension rate of any country in the world. Which meant that if you stayed, you never wanted to leave. And after you left, all you wanted to do was go back, and when you couldnt get there, you found Ethiopians on the outside, or they found you, or you found each other across the world like this, as if it were magic.
After some seventeen years of living and working in Africa, she and her husband, who was then with USAID, returned to Ethiopia. There, in the summer of 1989, Maria was accompany her husband on a mission headed by Congressman Mickey Leland to refugee camps on the Sudanese border. The plane carrying this party crashed in the mountains; there were no survivors.
A Writer Writes
The Onion Harvest of Kazakhstan
by Joshua Abrams (Kazakhstan 199698)
THE WALK TO ALEXS HOUSE has become a familiar ritual. The bus drops me off on the wide two-lane street, potholed and empty of traffic. I cross the street and climb up a cracked road bordered by walled courtyards and fruit trees. At the corner with another narrow lane I greet the old Kazakh woman who sells sunflower seeds and chewing gum from an abandoned concrete block.
I turn the corner and walk past mortar-and-straw houses. The Muzhiki, the Men, are already at their places, arranged around a bench in front of one house, grizzled and middle-aged, already drunk at ten oclock in the morning. I stop and greet them, shaking hands with each. I put my hand on my heart and refuse a shot of vodka and excuse myself.
Alec is almost ready to go when I knock on his courtyard door. Its about time, he says, smiling. I am half an hour late. We shake hands, my soft palm crushed by his calloused paw. He is shorter than I but wiry and strong.
We finish hitching the wagon to his horse. Alec lays blankets on top of the wagon for us to sit on. He brings out a lunch of fresh bread and a bag of boiled potatoes for us to eat on the road. I take out two bottles of vodka and a box of cigarettes from my backpack and hand them to him. He tosses them into the wagon. We climb aboard and set out for the fields.
Alecs wagon is hand-built of wood with two rusty metal wheels rolling on a wooden axle. We sit on either side of the rim on blankets, twisting our bodies to face the road. Alec holds the reigns loosely, whistles and clicks his tongue tchk tchk at the horse to keep her on track.
The horse takes us to the towns edge and we exit the village. We climb over a rise and an empty, rolling expanse stretches over the horizon. The late October sky is a uniform gray. My hands and nose are cold but the slow bob of the wagon, the chilly air thick with smells of earth and sod, distract me from the chill. A soggy wind passes over us. In the far distance to the south, the jagged silhouette of mountains is visible.
Other people are out today, other wagons trotting along the rutted paths through frosty vegetable fields, on their way to buy winter supplies or on their way home, wagon beds stacked with sackfulls of vegetables. It is onion-harvesting season and we are on our way to buy our winters supply. Alec invited me to come along with him last weekend, the last time I was visiting from the city. Its cheaper than buying them every week at the bazaar, he explained, and youll have onions all winter long.
No matter that I live in the city and have no place to store a seasons worth of onions. I will keep my sack here in the village, in a shed with my friend, Aaron, another American, and bring some back with me every time I visit.
Alec and I are friendly through Aaron; we are not close but he is an easy man to be around and I always enjoy his company. Whenever I come to visit Aaron Alec is there, helping him to chop wood or dropping by to watch television in the evenings. We are the first foreigners he has ever met but he accepted us right away with a shrug and a smile, viewing Aaron simply as his neighbor and me as his neighbors friend, without the undue giddiness that many here show before the Exotic.
The horse walks at a slow trot around a small hill. We pass fields of cabbages. We pass fields of carrots. We pass barren apple orchards, peach and pear orchards, many of the trees reduced to stumps, chopped down for firewood. The whole of southern Kazakhstan is close to bankrupt, unable to pay its bills. Gas has been turned off; blackouts plague the cities and villages. There will be no hot water this year and no heat. The villages are a little better off, with their wood-burning stoves left over from the days before municipal gas was piped in. Back in the city we suffer in cold apartment houses, families forced into the courtyard to cook over open fires. As people search for fuel, the orchards suffer.
We turn the hill and a chill breeze hits us. Its getting cold, Alec says, pulling a wool hat out from his coat pocket. Thats bad.
Alec points past the hill, to the distance in the Northwest. I have some land over there, he says, smiling. I got it when the collective farms shut down a few years ago. Im dreaming about the day when I can start farming it.
Why cant you now? I ask.
I cant afford it, he says, unperturbed by his hard luck. I dont have the equipment. And I have to help my family with their land. And I still need to get married.
I thought you were engaged. Alec has been courting his girl for some months and will marry her as soon as she turns eighteen.
I am. Im negotiating with her family right now. Were thinking that I might just steal her. That way we can avoid an expensive wedding. Stealing brides is coming back into fashion in Central Asia, an old practice banned under Soviet rule. A girl who worked at the local state store was kidnapped a few weeks ago and has not been seen since. One day she was there, the next day she was gone. Shes married, now, the old, gold-toothed Tajik woman who worked with her giggled, when I inquired where she was. She put up a good fight, she added. If a man kidnaps a woman and forces her to spend the night in his home, thats it, theyre married, and her family would refuse to take her back if she refuses. If a girl is unlucky enough to attract the wrong kind of suitor, she can find herself grabbed and thrown in a car, forced into marriage, her life in an instant changed. Alecs version is more civilized, a kind of eloping, a romantic, practical form of marriage agreed to by the woman. Others, like the girl from the store, are not so lucky. Consent, while ideal, is unnecessary.
We werent always poor, Alec muses, gazing at his land in the distance. Were poor now, but when we lived in Georgia we were rich. He turns around to me and retells a family history that he only knows from childhood stories. Our house is still there, in Georgia. Its a big, beautiful house in the mountains. It has grape vines hanging over it and fruit trees, the best land around. My grandfather was the richest man in the region. The whole family lived there before the deportations. Alec swings his arms to demonstrate the houses proportions, to portray the vines, the trees. I wonder what sort of mansion he imagines when he thinks of his familys lost home.
We lost it during the exile. We had to give up everything and move out here. But our house is still there. My uncle traveled back to Georgia a few years ago and saw it. Georgians live there now.
Alec was born here, in this village in southern Kazakhstan, but his family comes from the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia. They are ethnic Turks, part of a minority deported by Stalin after World War II. The entire community of Turks was exiled to Kazakhstan for reasons no one can comprehend. Stalin labeled many ethnic groups enemies, accused of aiding and abetting the invading Nazis, and had them deported en masse from their ancestral homelands. Of those who survived, most were settled in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The whole country is filled with deportees and their descendents Greeks and Germans, Koreans and Estonians, the occasional Japanese, the ubiquitous Jews. Alecs people settled here, where he was born. They became collective farmers and integrated into the rural community, never forgetting where they came from but letting history grow into myth.
A light, misting drizzle begins to fall. Its starting to rain, Alec says, looking up at the sky. Thats bad.
I put my hood over my head and we lapse into an easy silence. We bob along together peacefully, each in his own world, until one of us has something to say.
The wagon bumps along over rutted ground. From a distance a horse whinnies.
The drizzle stops. A ray of sunlight peaks out from a break in the clouds. The suns coming out, Alec says. Thats good! He pulls the hat off his head and clicks at his horse tchk tchk!
Straight ahead I catch sight of an encampment. Three or four tents rise in the middle of the fields. We draw closer. The tents look improvised, flapping canvass sheets tied to metal poles, barely able to fend off the wind, sagging pyramids struggling against gravity. Institutional metal-frame beds stand within, piled high with thin mattresses and blankets. Campfires smolder in makeshift brick flumes beneath black kettles outside of each tent. Dark, amorphous shapes sit pod-like in the fields. As we near the pods flesh out into human forms, men and women, bundled in patched overcoats and woolen hats, sitting on the ground on large canvas mats, digging onions out from the cold ground by hand. Spades in hand, some dig, others rub dirt from the onions with their cracked, bare hands, piling them around themselves on the mats. Men and women, but mostly women, harvest the onions in browns and reds, the browns of their heavy clothing, the reds of their cheeks.
We reach the camp and shake hands with a wide-smiled Kazakh, his young mans face nearly hidden beneath a large fur hat. We hand him the bottles of vodka and box of cigarettes, we pay him the equivalent of five dollars, and he escorts us to a patch of land where we may select as many onions as we like. Alec brought three large rice sacks with him. I brought one. Each sack can hold twenty kilos of onions.
After an hour of bouncing on the wagon it is good to walk around on the ground. We jog around the fields, tossing onions back and forth, catching them in our sacks, rushing around in the brisk autumn air, the pod-people on the ground staring at us as if weve lost our minds. The onions are firm, brown little balls the size of my fist. We move to another field with carrots and pick a few dozen remainders, whatever is still in good condition after the first frosts. Alec collects a motley collection of carrots and beets, green onions, and a few tomatoes that survived the recent frost. We spend an hour gathering our harvest and then we are done, our sacks are filled, and we pile them up in the wagon and head home.
The ride back is as slow and ponderous as the ride out. Alec and I chomp on boiled potatoes and bread, spit-shining and consuming the new carrots and tomatoes. We drift into our own silences, absorbed into the ozone and hay-scented air, the lope and lurch of the wagon. We watch the birds flying overhead and the horse fertilizing the ground in front of us. The clouds part and close, the wind picks up and dies down, rain drizzles and stops. Alec comments on each change: The suns coming out. Now Im warm. Its starting to rain. Thats bad. Oh, the rain stopped. Thats good! And in such a way are natures various phenomena, cycles, and mysteries all classified into good and bad, dark and light, hot and cold, with no intermingling of black and white into gray, except for the gray of the overcast sky.
Later, sitting in his house, Alecs mother prepares a hot meal for us. We stretch out on mattresses on the floor, around a low table in the kitchen, a spacious, whitewashed room, the wood-fired hearth warming us from without, green tea warming us within. The room is thick with the smell of baking bread and spices. Pots rattle and hiss over the fire. Alecs mother offers us fresh bread, homemade feta cheese, and a potato puree with sautéed onions and herbs. She is a round woman with a large nose and ravens eyes, dressed in black from head to toe. She does not address me directly but speaks to Alec in Turkish, which he translates into Russian for me, asking him if I want more food. We consume our meal and then lean back on large pillows, legs sprawled out, shoes off, hot tea in our cups, the heavy-lidded contentment that comes when, after a day spent in chilly discomfort, ones seat is finally soft and warm and ones belly full.
If youre interested, Alec says, eyes sleepy, Ill be heading out for winter potatoes next week.
After his Peace Corps tour in Kazakhstan Joshua Abrams returned several years later to Central Asia. He is currently working in Tajikistan as Deputy Director for International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), an USAID/State contractor.
A Writer Writes
The Rainy Season in Guatemala
by Jason Boog (Guatemala 200002)
I shredded paper snowflakes into a bucket of water: Guatemalan newspapers, Peace Corps newsletters, embassy safety bulletins and the Catholic magazines that my mother mailed me each month in care packages. Then I stuck a bean grinder into the word-soup, twisting the plastic knob until the bucket filled up with purplish pulp. I was all alone outside a church in Guatemala.
It was May 2001, midway through my first year in Peace Corps. I had walked two hours to get to a wood-shack village called Buena Vista, planning to teach a youth group how to make recycled paper. The project looked so sensible in the Youth Training Manual they gave me, just memorize the script in Spanish and follow directions.
I sketched out my future the same way: follow the steps for two years, amaze the villagers and bring my life-affirming experiences back home. Writing this story a couple years later, I still cant tie up the story in admirable platitudes.
Peace Corps assigned me to a cluster of villages that sprawled between mountains in eastern Guatemala. Buena Vista rested at the very end of my area. Each trip I crisscrossed two valleys and inclines, land so steep that I had to claw my way up. The village sat so far from the world that they didnt have electricity, so I used a bean grinder instead of a blender to pulp the paper.
I had planned to teach the youth group how to make recycled paper and invite them to a big, inter-village talent show in the summer. But nobody ever came. I watched rainy season storm clouds creep along the sky, casting shadows the size of movie spaceships across the valley. Down there, a patchwork quilt of farm-plots shimmered between Emerald City green and space blue.
After a few hours, I crammed the crayons, markers, plastic sheets, homemade paper press, posters, and scripts back into my backpack. I walked home.
That night, the sky rumbled and crackled like tornado season in the Midwest, and the rainy season broke open with a whoosh of high-pressure rain. The thunderclouds and noise dissolved into a foggy gray roar outside. After an hour, the dirt chicken yard outside my room flooded and spilled muddy paste across my concrete floor.
I used my bucket from the recycling project to catch rain leaking through my flimsy roof. The rain pounded my roof all night, and I buried myself underneath four blankets to stay warm inside that blanket cocoon, the rain sounded like an ocean splashing at the bottom of my mountain.
I stared at my bookshelf, listening to rain on top of rain, and I thought of Amy back home. Amy had sandy hair that she dyed blazing red most of the time, she stood tall enough to wrap up my whole skinny body when she hugged me. We met as editors at a college newspaper, both of us carrying around the same robin-egg blue copy of T.S. Elliot poems. We matched each other, both of us disheveled and anxious from being stuck in books for too many years.
I knew her five years, but we spent what amounted to months of time in smoky coffee shops telling stories and trading books. Years before, we had promised each other that we would read James Joyces book, Finnegans Wake. That book stood between us, the ultimate literature-majors dream that we could unravel like compulsive kids.
The last time we spoke on the phone, Amy had been sick for months. Her doctor diagnosed pneumonia, but never noticed the two blood clots stuck in her lungs like sputtering firecrackers. She lay in bed with her mysterious illness while we talked long distance. Oh, by the way, she said, I had some free time, so I read the Wake.
You heartless bitch! I yelled, and she giggled back.
Read it yourself, she said.
And so I did. The first week of the rainy season, huge chunks of eroded fields washed out and my usual paths slicked with mud. I didnt see the sun for a week, so I hid out in my bedroom like a monk and read Finnegans Wake in heroic sessions. I went a whole week without speaking English, while reading the craziest book ever written in English.
Midway through that reading marathon, my neighbor Manuel stopped by. The 16-year-old from my youth group was just bored after hours of rain. Is that the Bible? he asked me, scrutinizing the 900-pages of English gibberish. I tried to explain, but he wasnt very interested.
People used to speak the same language, you know, Manuel said. Man decided to build the Tower of Babel, a tower tall enough to go to heaven. Then God smashed the tower and made all men speak different languages. Thats why you speak English and I speak Spanish.
His impromptu sermon shocked me. Joyce kept talking about that same Bible story in Wake, he wanted to stir all the languages together in a word soup, a dreamy story built from echoes of different tongues. Manuel had stumbled on the secret of the book. You should read more, I said, I think you could be a teacher, maybe.
Primero Dios, he said, I want to be a minister someday.
Primero Dios. That Guatemalan cliche means God first or God willing, and it stuck in my head after he left. The countrys long civil war and bad leadership had left public education in shambles. Manuel might have been the smartest kid for miles around, but school ended at sixth grade in the village. The richest kids moved to private schools in the city, but most villagers never made it that far. Too often Primero Dios glossed over sad realities that no Peace Corps Volunteers could ever fix.
I finished the Wake, and wrote Amy a huge letter about the rain, Manuel, and the book. We both loved writing stories within stories like that. Stories within stories make a magical circuit, an echo chamber with a little life bouncing around inside forever. Somewhere in this story, Amy is still waiting for my letter and Im still buried under blankets in Miramundo.
My Bicycle Crash
On June 14, 2001, the blood clots burst and Amy died on an operating table. Before anybody could tell me that she was in the hospital, I rode my bicycle down my mountain. I left my emergency beeper at home, thinking Id ride the bus back up later that afternoon.
Halfway to the city, I ran over a scrawny puppy. He dashed off screaming into the bushes and I wobbled around a steep curve. The dirt road was a minefield of rainy-season potholes. My tire caught a rut, and I flipped over the handlebars and skidded across the gravel. The crash tore a hole ten-stitches wide in my face.
I stumbled into the first house I saw, trailing gobs of blood behind me. An old lady was working in the yard, and she helped me tape a bloody rag on my face. I rode the rest of the way down the mountain in a shaky daze. At the hospital, a doctor sewed up my face. Doped up on painkillers, I drooled all over his rubber gloves. I spent the rest of the weekend in a hotel, swallowing pain pills.
On Monday, I found out that Amy died and that I had missed her funeral. By nighttime, I was drunk and spending a fortune on phone calls home at a tourist cafe. I called Amys mother, and rambled into the telephone. I sent her a letter two weeks ago. Did she read my letter? I begged her to answer me.
A Picture of Me Dancing
Ven, ven al gran show de talentos, I shouted, a full month later, into a rusty P.A. system. Theres something tremendous about hearing your words beamed through a scratchy microphone and booming over a mountain; your voice lingers and feels tangible.
We had built a plywood-plank and cinderblock stage in my neighbors lofty garage. We pumped recorded mariachi music through the amplifier to attract more people to the party. The rainy season rain held off for the whole night. Just before I opened the show, a red and white striped chicken bus rumbled outside.
In one of the happiest moments of my life, I watched more than 50 parents, grandparents, kids and a whole mariachi band spill out of the bus like circus clowns the youth group from Buena Vista had come back. They knocked off the recorded music and pounded out the real thing on their tubby instruments. People danced and sang along, and the crowd swelled to 300 by the time I opened the show.
The youth group did the rest, performing all the skits they had planned. Veronica sang a country duet with her husband, the 17-year-old girl wailed out the love song. By the time I left, she would have her first baby. Marcella dressed up like a ditzy farm-girl, skipping around the stage. She left for high school on a scholarship that Christmas.
Towards the end, the Buena Vista leader stuck a cowboy hat on my head and dragged me onstage. Dance, he ordered, Dance and well dance with you.
The band struck up that lilting mariachi beat, and I hopped from one foot to the other, following the beats in my invented gringo dance. Each time I landed, the wood planks banged out the beat beneath me; Freddy and his friends laughed and bobbed beside me, our footsteps booming even louder. I laughed and laughed, I was dancing fast enough to fly.
Somebody took a picture of me dancing, and I still keep it on my wall. I see a younger me: Im high-stepping like a Vegas showgirl in dirty jeans and a cowboy hat; for one pristine moment Im lost in my crazy march-step, I danced so fast that both my feet hovered in mid-air; for one moment, I left the ground and I floated, close to Amy as Ill ever be . . .
Jason Boog joined Peace Corps after graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in literature. He recently graduated from the journalism program at New York University, and hopes to return to Central America as a journalist. His work has appeared in The Revealer, Newsday, and Street Level.
War and Peace Corps
Becoming a Man in the Sixties: The Peace Corps and the Army
by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 196466)
FOR THOSE OF US who emerged from our teens in the 1960s, passage into adulthood was especially tumultuous because of the profound social upheavals that rocked our nation during that decade. We began the decade with trim, prim hair styles and ended it with hair down to . . . [our] knee; we entered wearing properly pressed, three-button suits and calf-length skirts with flowered blouses and exited in tie-dyes, ripped jeans, and sandals.
Sprinting into the adult world and grasping for our niche in life, we were overwhelmed by the moral authority of movements: Civil Rights, Feminism, Free Speech, Anti-War. We reacted with a new permissiveness of free sex and drugs. We experimented.
We also volunteered. Working with groups to promote peace and education and civil rights became my generations informal initiation rite into adulthood. Millions of young men and women joined organizations, especially those with links to JFK and LBJ. We became the foot soldiers for the Great Society, carrying our weapons of pens and notebooks and idealism on our backs. When we finished our Peace Corps tour, we volunteered for VISTA, Head Start, or Upward Bound.
Millions of young men served in the U.S. Army. Military service had always been one of the more common initiation rites that transformed teenage boys into men. We registered with Uncle Sam, and when our number was called, we went willingly because we trusted the fashionable mantra that The Army will make you a man.
For most young men, serving in the peace-time military had many attractions, including free overseas travel, free housing, and free food. During our tour of duty, we would learn some self-discipline. The military also guaranteed the G.I. Bill, which would pay for a college education when we finished our tour of duty. Not a bad deal, except that at the time, ours was not a peace-time military. By the time Uncle Sam caught up with me, the U.S. had nearly a half million soldiers fighting in Vietnam. The same government that was sending out VISTA volunteers to serve poor Americans and Peace Corps Volunteers to teach the worlds illiterates and heal the sick was also sending the American war machine to Southeast Asia to destroy villages in order to save them.
We returned from the Peace Corps thinking we had completed our duty to our nation. Many draft boards, however, saw us as scheming draft dodgers and pounced on our eligibility for the military. Some RPCVs felt betrayed, as if they were being subjected to a kind of double jeopardy. Others scrambled for draft exemptions through marriage or strategic jobs. In my own case, the pressure in my home state of Texas for young men to serve if called on was intense. In general, the Peace Corps was seen as a pleasant diversion, but the honorable path for someone who wanted to prove that he was a man and a patriot was accepting Uncle Sams call to military service.
I will never know how I would have reacted in combat. I do know that by the time I was being drafted, I strongly supported the policy of Vietnamization, turning all the fighting over to the South Vietnamese army. My personal goal was to stay alive by avoiding combat. One way to accomplish this goal was an assignment to Germany or Korea. Then I learned that most of the Armys tank units were stationed in these two countries, not in Vietnam; so I decided to enlist in Armor Officer Candidate School (OCS).
After I arrived for OCS at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, the Army closed down the school. For my training, the army transferred me to Infantry OCS at Ft. Benning, Georgia. I entered the barracks expecting to find mostly militant, brain-washed war-mongers, but the 150 or so candidates I trained with turned out to be highly intelligent and honorable young men. We all expected to be leading an infantry platoon in Vietnam soon after being commissioned. What followed was nine months of psychological and physical stress. Every time we maneuvered in full gear, I packed so much equipment that the edge of my back pack left track marks on the trials. But I survived, miraculously, and the Army honored my armor commitment and sent me to Germany as a tank platoon leader soon after the Russians sent tanks into Czechoslovakia.
I was a whiz at reading maps on maneuvers, but I never did understand much about tanks. They were colossal, ugly, greasy, loud dinosaurs. And when I entered the army, I understood nothing about guns, either. I had never even held a real gun. Real men didnt need guns, I always argued. Everything about the culture of guns distressed me. So, when American troop strength in Vietnam was at its peak of a half million, I was figuring out how to avoid firing any guns in Germany.
The battalion commander, a colonel I grew to respect deeply, was a lifer who shaved his head bald each morning and came to work in his card-board starched fatigues early just to harass me: Repeat after me, Z [his nickname for me]. This is your weapon. That is your gun. He nagged me daily about my sideburns that reached mid-ear level. But in his profound wisdom, the colonel would transfer me out of combat positions so I wouldnt have to fire a tank in the European theater gunnery competition and screw up his chance to be battalion champion. I served short tours as company and battalion maintenance officer and battalion executive officer. However, whenever the battalion went to the field for combat maneuvers, he restored my combat status as platoon leader or company commander because I was one of the handful of men in the entire battalion who could read topographic maps. In the meantime, I bribed my weapons sergeants so I wouldnt have to qualify on any of the required weapons in person. They would enter passing numbers on my record in exchange for an extra day or two of leave.
As a tank battalion, my unit was assigned a defensive position about a hundred miles from our base. Just in case the Soviets decided to invade West Germany, our unit was supposed to race to the border and contain the Russians until reinforcements arrived from the U.S. We all knew we would be annihilated within hours by superior Soviet forces, but nobody I knew seriously expected the Russians to upset the Cold War balance of power in Europe. A couple of times a year we rambled out of our maintenance buildings onto the German autobahns, clipping a few private fences and gardens along the way a five-mile trail of clumsy dinosaurs inching our way toward the border to scare off the Ruskie war machine. We had to pull twenty or thirty tanks to the border each trip because we could never get enough replacement parts to get them running.
Those of us from OCS were an eclectic bunch of Cold War warriors. I met a handful of dime store philosophers like me, with liberal arts degrees. But most of these men were college graduates in engineering, science, and technical fields. My roommate in Germany, was a Clemson ROTC graduate and consummate wheeler-dealer with an encyclopedic memory for mechanics. He tried to pose as a free-thinker by hanging a Ho Chi Minh photo in our hallway. But he ended up going to Nam. His goal was to serve a tour in a non-combat slot. This would look good on his resume for the future. So as I was heading home, he reenlisted and got his wish. We never exchanged letters, so Ill never know if he spent his months there behind the lines as a maintenance officer or was assigned to front line combat or even came home alive.
After my discharge, I completed some graduate courses, marched a little against the war, and wore armbands especially after the 1970 Kent State shootings. But mostly I moved on with a full-time job teaching on Long Island and campaigned for George McGovern.
The bold truth is that the Army did not teach me to be a man.
That lesson was imprinted on my soul while working with the Peace Corps, a year before I ever thought of joining the Army.
For me, the year 1966 will forever mark my giant leap into adulthood. For the Igbos living in Northern Nigeria, 1966 marks the end of decades of dreams. The country was about to explode into a tempest of stunning slaughter. As many as fifty thousand Igbos were killed in the Northern region during that year. Tens of thousands of Igbo families abandoned their possessions and fled from dozens of cities and villages. Throughout the year, mobs of Northerners attacked systemically, going from house to house killing the Igbos who had remained. Many of my friends, who sent their wives and children to the Eastern Region so they would be safe, stayed on in Yola to run their businesses. Whenever I asked them why they refused to leave, these men replied, Everything is in Gods hands. I will leave when the time comes. Most of these men were killed.
On a dry, sunny day in October 1966, I stepped out of Barclays Bank and ran abruptly into a rag-tag mob of young men and teenage boys screaming with hate and chasing a middle-aged Igbo man. The man stumbled onto the ground between the bank and a small shop. The sun reflected off of the Benue River in the background. I learned later that an Igbo man at that same time had been hiding in the river grass for almost a week waiting for a friendly boat to come by and take him down river to safety.
I ran over to the Igbo man and found him unconscious; I could see only the whites of his eyes. When I tried to lift him, I noticed fresh blood oozing from the crown of his head. The leader of the mob shouted out to me, Batuuree [White man], what you want? This man be your brother?
I shouted something Ive long forgotten, and the mobs leader answered, Go away, Batuuree. This is our business.
While I was trying to get help from onlookers to get the man to the hospital, the mob edged closer. Some held rocks and clubs; others swung machetes. I realized that they were not as disorganized as they looked. I also matured a hundred years in those five or ten minutes. I knew I could not save the man. What I could do, I realized, was to look for some Igbo friends in other parts of the town and drive them to safety.
For about three hours, I raced around on my Honda 50 looking for friends. I only managed to transport three people to the airport so they could escape by plane to the northern capital of Kano. One of those I took to the airport was Israel, the young Igbo who worked for me at my house. Unfortunately, the newspaper headlines the following day read that Northern army troops had mounted planes at the Kano airport and killed all Igbo passengers.
My own three years in the Army, after my experience in Nigeria, seemed almost a mockery of the suffering and agony I saw in Nigeria while teaching with the Peace Corps. Although I know that my experience does not rival the heroism and tragedy of Vietnam, the life lessons are similar. The Nigerian tragedy taught me that I couldnt change the world. For the first time in my life I began to understand that I am only accountable to my own conscience. And becoming an adult means living with the anguish of our personal limitations and failures.
This article appeared in the Winter, 2005 issue of Writers Against War at WritersAgainstWar.com
Tony Zurlo is a writer/educator living in Arlington, Texas. His poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction have appeared in dozens of journals, magazines, newspapers, and anthologies. He has published books on Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Japanese Americans, West Africa, and Algeria.
To Preserve and to Learn
The Non-Matrixed Wife
by Susan O'Neill (Venezuela 197374)
When Joseph Blatchford was appointed director of the Peace Corps in May of 1969 he brought with him a set of New Directions to improve the agency. Whether these directors were new or not is endlessly argued, but what was clear was this: Blatchford wanted skilled Volunteers, i.e. blue-collar workers, experienced teachers, businessman and farmers.
While the Peace Corps has always found it difficult to recruit large numbers of such skilled Volunteers, Blatchford and his staff came up with the novel idea of recruiting married couples with children. One of the couple would be a Volunteer and the other (usually the wife) would be in Peace Corps jargon the non-matrixed spouse. The kids would just be kids. It would be in this way, Blatchford thought, that the Peace Corps could recruit older, more mature, experienced, and skilled PCVs. And the Peace Corps would stop being just BA generalists like the majority of us!
This idea proved to be unworkable, costly, and for the Peace Corps, an administrative nightmare, and by the early 1980s recruiting families had ceased. The biggest problem with the scheme was that the non-matrixed spouse had no valid role in the country and without that, he or she, felt useless.
A few of these nonmatrixed spouses, however, came home to tell wonderful tales based on their Peace Corps experience. Perhaps the most famous writer from this ill-conceived experiment was Maria Thomas Roberta Maria Thomas Worrick (Ethiopia 197173) who first went to Ethiopia in 1971 with her PCV husband, Tom, and their four-year-old son. Maria Thomas and her husband would live and work in Africa for over seventeen years and then in the summer of 1989, when they were again living in Ethiopia, and Tom Worrick was the deputy director of the Ethiopian mission of USAID, they accompanied U.S. Congressman Mickey Leland on a visit to refugee camps on the Sudanese border. Roberta went along because she was fluent in Amharic and the mission needed her language skills. During this trip their plane, a two-engine de Havilland Twin Otter, crashed in the western mountains of the Empire in stormy weather and all nine passengers were killed.
Maria Thomas never wrote about being a non-matrixed spouse, thought she did write a wonderful story about being married overseas, entitled, Come To Africa and Save Your Marriage.
Now, another gifted writer has recalled her days as a non-matrixed spouse for us. Susan ONeill (Venezuela 197374) was a young mother when she and her husband joined the Peace Corps in the early 1970s, after she had already spent time in Vietnam as an army nurse. Here is her account of being a non-matrixed spouse.
DONT UNDERSTAND, our neighbor said in Spanish. Her face brightened, an Aha! moment. Oh. You are spies?
I sighed. I launched, again, into my stock explanation of what the Peace Corps was, what we my husband and I and our three-year-old daughter were supposed to be doing in Venezuela as volunteers with the Peace Corps Family Program. She nodded dubiously; I could see she wasnt buying it. It was a matter of the money.
In Venezuela, asking money questions how much do you make? what do you pay for this apartment? questions that would horrify my mother was not only okay, but de rigueur. And in the University town of Merida, in 1974, when money was abundant and a middle class was emerging, U.S. professors were paid well.
We were not. Why, then, were we there? If not for the pay, what was our higher call to service? From what our neighbor could see, we spent our time checking our mail and drinking café con leche.
This was toward the end of our truncated tour, right before the 1974 Venezuelan elections, and we were indeed doing little more than checking mail and caffeinating ourselves and writing to our Peace Corps representative in Caracas, begging him to assign us to somewhere we could be of use. Our neighbor didnt witness the writing part, but she knew that her country was rife with spies: all the presidential candidates said it was so. She knew the U.S. had recently killed Allende in Chile even if we didnt yet know, and she wasnt blind to the Yanqui-go-home campaign signs painted on the stucco walls of the stores downtown, including that four-story-high, full-color painting by the Socialist candidates artists of a dog eating a steak thrown to him by Uncle Sam while a starving kid looked on. The dog of the rich eats better than the child of the poor, it said in man-tall Spanish script, and it was undoubtedly true. So . . . we were CIA, right?
In Viet Nam
Four years earlier, I spent a great deal of time trying to explain why I was in-country to people I met in Viet Nam. In that case, my job was fairly straightforward: this was in 1969 and 70, during what the Vietnamese call The American War, and I served as a nurse in an Army hospital. But I still had to explain why I, essentially a pacifist, was participating in a heart-wrenching war half a world away from my home especially since women didnt have to be there.
In truth, I was in Viet Nam because, at 21, I was young and dumb. I had believed a recruiter who plied me with money and the chance to forsake my native Indiana for some exotic place like Germany, Japan, perhaps even Hawaii (but, he promised me, never, ever Viet Nam). I was there because I, who sang protest songs in coffeehouses, had this weird desire to play against type. I had this incipient would-be journalists urge to be Where the Action Is. Perhaps I was there because if I was going to be a nurse, I wanted to do something dramatic with it. Hell, I was a kid, only 19, when I enlisted during my senior year in nursing school. Who knows why a kid does anything?
Once I got to Viet Nam, I was helping to save lives. I opposed the war, but I was supporting the troops, which is not, as todays politics would have it, mutually exclusive.
I met my husband Paul in Viet Nam. Both of us were Army lieutenants: I worked in the Operating Room, and he was the hospital registrar, an administrative job that involved the logistics of transporting patients in and out.
Okay, lets try the Peace Corps
Our decision to join the Peace Corps in 1973 had much to do with Viet Nam. We both disagreed with the war; we both wanted to travel and use our skills in a different cultural setting, in a country whose people didnt consider us the Bad Guys. And then, there was Pauls attitude toward Richard Nixon.
But Im getting ahead of myself. We married shortly after we got back from Viet Nam, and Paul entered grad school in Educational Administration at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. We both held down odd jobs and took classes, and we gave birth to our daughter Kym in 1971.
Paul served a semesters internship in an alternative school without walls in Chicago during the winter of 1972. One frozen day, he stepped into a Chicago Peace Corps office; that night, he came back to our apartment clutching a sheaf of application forms for the Family Program.
New directions for the Peace Corps
Records indicate that the Family Program was introduced by the Peace Corps in September of 1969, as a new measure to increase the pool of skilled Volunteers. The Peace Corps would recruit one parent usually but not always the man, the literature said to fill an important professional position. The family would come along. The parent without the hot-button job the non-matrix spouse, in PEACE CORPS jargon would also be trained as a Volunteer, and was expected to find some non-specified type of employment in-country.
We filled out our paperwork, delivered it back to the office and waited.
Paul graduated, and we struck out for Boston to find real work. We heard nothing more from the Peace Corps. I worked as an operating room nurse and Paul found a position as a caseworker for the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind. The job proved to be a dead-end affair. We grew restless. Paul ranted regularly about Nixons Viet Nam politics and grumbled that he wanted to leave the country until the bastards out of office. One day, on his lunch hour, he stopped in a Boston Peace Corps office to ask about the status of the application wed made nearly a year before.
Bingo. Within two months, in mid-March of 1973, we found ourselves in language and cultural training in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Paul had been selected, because of his Army healthcare background, for the Venezuela Hospital Program. And Kym and I were along for the non-matrix ride.
How can I describe our Peace Corps experience? I wrote a long, bad novel based on it years ago; its in a trunk in the attic. Its a comedy. Its dark. I titled it Weavers In the Fields because I didnt think I could sell something called Teats on a Bull.
Teats on a bull
Allow me this disclaimer: I know many RPCVs who give value to their programs and the countries they served. I really wish I could count myself among them. Both Paul and I really, really wanted to be of use. But, singer/humorist Kinky Friedman (Borneo 196769) claims that during his Peace Corps hitch, he introduced the natives of Borneo to the Frisbee. I can truthfully say he accomplished more than we did in Venezuela.
Maybe our expectations were unrealistic. Consider our background: its hard to find a place more organized, productive and useful than a wartime combat hospital. Paul and I were purposeful cogs in a well-oiled machine. Perhaps, in spite of the Peace Corps manuals admonitions to adjust our expectations to the political realities of our new culture and adapt to its leisurely pace, we still expected organization, productivity and usefulness in our PEACE CORPS experience.
The timing of our placement militated against this idea from Day One. Venezuela was, by virtue of its petroleum, the richest country in South America, and it had begun to chafe at U.S. control of its oil production and distribution. We arrived during presidential elections, an every-five-year exercise in democracy that had begun in earnest in 1959. Election years were exciting, crazy, with every building of any size painted with slogans and party-sponsored beer blasts packing the plazas. This year, in addition to the usual politics, all major candidates harangued the public with grand plans to wrest the oil industry from the clutches of evil U.S. companies. Neither the sitting government nor its challengers dared look kindly upon Yanquis, even in Merida, our lovely Andean mesa town. And so Venezuela demonstrated no great love of the U.S. Peace Corps.
People were not openly hostile to us; Venezuelans tended to avoid overt hostility except for our first landlord, but he was pretty much insane (more on that later). Face-to-face confrontation was a cultural no-no; if you wanted to find out how someone really felt about you, you might discreetly pose an indirect question to that persons cousins buddys cleaning ladys daughter. Even so, we could feel an undercurrent of suspicion. It had much to do with our pay, which, as I said up front, was fair game for discussion.
So youre a spy, our neighbor declared.
You are with the CIA, yes? the arepa seller at the café asked. Only a spy would be crazy enough to work for so little.
We were amused. We explained. And explained.
People made quiet inquiries about us to North American professors at the university. And the professors, our friends, would vouch for our humanity but they were careful to establish that they were not professionally involved with us. They didnt want to appear guilty, by association, of working for the U.S. government.
Working. That was another matter.
Pauls hospital administration specialty was in high demand, we were told. So high that he was called into the country early, before we finished language training. We rushed off to Valencia, to discover that the job he was needed to fill didnt really exist.
So Peace Corps/Caracas offered us a posting at the Hospital Universidad de los Andes in Merida.
The Peace Corps manual suggested that each Volunteer attach himself to a local counterpart, someone in the Volunteers professional field who could introduce him around and help him find how he might be of use. Paul chose a hospital engineer named Manuel, an outgoing, popular guy who spoke very good English. This was particularly important, because our aborted training had sabotaged Pauls shaky grasp of Spanish.
For a couple of months, the pairing worked well. Paul enjoyed the open friendliness of the hospital administration, who applauded his plan to design a fire and emergency safety program a handy thing for a hospital that sat at the end of the towns sole, and alarmingly short, airport runway.
Then one day, Manuel disappeared, and the head engineer locked Paul out of the office. Discreet inquiries made to his cousins buddys cleaning ladys daughter yielded distressing news: Manuel was suspected of fencing stolen hospital equipment.
There was absolutely nothing in the Peace Corps manual that covered this, and it came at a difficult time, when we were searching for a new apartment because our landlord had evicted us.
Housing in Merida was tight and expensive because the town had to absorb so many university professors and students. When we first arrived, the only affordable place we could find was a converted garage in our landlords house. Converted meant, essentially, that he had removed the car. It was a bay with oil stains on the floor, a genuine garage door and a tiny bathroom. Our landlord lived with his wife, children and mother in the attached house, a two-story building that fronted a small, scruffy plaza. The Morellis were Merideñans born and bred. The wife was shy, the children polite. The mother was a warm, dear soul who stopped by now and then for tea; when all three of us suffered amoebic dysentery, she made us herbal belly-soothers and green-banana soup.
Señor Morelli was a wire of a man, thin and tightly-wound. He avoided direct eye contact and spoke very loudly to us so we could better understand his Spanish. He promised that we would move into the house, into the apartment above his, as soon as the present renters bad, noisy people who stayed up until obscene hours moved out. No, he couldnt show us the apartment, but it was very nice.
The garage was not nice. It was cramped and cold and rattled every time a car passed, but we were living among the people, as the Peace Corps manual had recommended, and we told ourselves it was rather quaint.
A couple of months later, the bad, noisy people upstairs moved out. And we moved up to find the place filthy and in poor condition. Morelli promised he would paint it and make repairs. Soon; very soon.
We stayed up late our first night scrubbing the place down. Two days later, Morelli called us into his office. We were, he informed us loudly, bad, noisy people who stayed up until obscene hours. I had such hopes for you, he shouted.
We were cleaning your apartment, we said.
He waved his hand dismissively. Furthermore, he had seen us talking with a neighbor who was a bad person, most likely a thief and possibly a murderer, because She is not like us, not from Merida, which is the City of Gentlemen; her people are from Caracas. We were not to be friends with her, he shouted.
Two weeks later, we tiptoed downstairs to ask him about the paint and the repairs.
Morelli told us that Kym had, that fatal very first night, run over the hard floors with her shoes on, and he was a nervous man and couldnt take it. Forget the paint and repairs; we were to leave, because we were bad, noisy people.
Leave? I was flabbergasted. I apologized for Kyms shoes and told him we needed time to find an apartment during which, I vowed, we would be as quiet as the cockroaches that swarmed the bathroom. I handed him his rent money for the month.
He threw it on the floor. I dont want your dirty money. I just want you out.
So while Paul tried to rectify his working experience, I dragged Kym around the town looking for apartments that fit the Peace Corps stipend. We spent as little time as possible at Morellis. His wife avoided us; his dear mother hung her head and sighed when we passed.
Eventually, we found an impersonal flat in an inconveniently-located four-story building. It wasnt exactly living among the people, but it was clean and spacious. We later ran into a Canadian professor who told us that he and his family would be renting the apartment we had left. We havent seen the place, he said, but Señor Morelli has told us its very nice.
About that time, the professor who tutored us in Spanish came to me with a young mother of five who desperately needed work. The Peace Corps allotted us a small child-care stipend, if needed, so I hired Irma to watch Kym so I could find a job of my own.
I couldnt work officially as an RN; Venezuela didnt recognize my registration. Still, I was eager to be of service; I thought that perhaps I could give the operating room in the hospital the benefit of my Army training and experience free, as a volunteer.
The head of the OR received me cordially and gave me a proud tour of the surgical area, and I determined I could help by writing a manual of Standard Operating Procedures for them. This is a notebook that details such necessities as the special tools each surgeon likes to have in his sterile instrument set-ups. Every OR in which Id worked relied heavily on its SOP manual; a busy nurse need only glance at it to know what to bring into the room for each particular case.
So I watched surgeries and took notes for the book, and people seemed proud of their work and happy to see me appreciating it.
Then I made the mistake of reacting when a nurse dumped an instrument straight from a cardboard product box onto a sterile instrument table.
It took me by surprise. In nearly every way, this operating room seemed like any OR back home. Staff scrubbed, gowned, masked and gloved. They assiduously avoided contaminating sterile things. But here was this nurse, carefully holding her body away from the table, with its glittering sterile instruments, opening an un-sterilizable cardboard box and dumping a contaminated instrument on top.
She later showed me a little white pill that, when dropped into the box, would render its contents sterile. The pill was indeed a solid form of a chemical we used back home in a special gas device to sterilize delicate instruments that couldnt stand the more corrosive steam under pressure. But dropped in a box, it had about as much power to sterilize as an aspirin. She needed the machine to make it work.
I said nothing, but my stomach dropped into my feet. This was my dilemma: If I were to try to requisition the sterilizer and teach the staff how to use it, I would be insulting them because they were the trained professionals, and I was a gadfly from a foreign country who by law was not even allowed to work in the field for pay.
Whatever plan I mightve made, I had already sabotaged it. I had reacted, however involuntarily, to the dropping of that instrument. The insult was there already, lurking in my raised eyebrows.
I humbly went back to my notes, to the SOP book they would surely find useful. But the atmosphere grew frosty. Within a week, I didnt have to ask anybodys cousins buddys cleaning ladys daughter where my self-assigned project stood.
The Five Year Plan
By this time, Paul had regained access to the engineering department, thanks to a hospital board member, who had leaned politely but pointedly on the head engineer. Our cousins-buddys-cleaning-ladys-daughter source informed us that the head engineer had despised Pauls erstwhile counterpart, and was simply showing his disdain for Manuel by locking Paul out. I had free time now, so I joined Paul in Phase One of his project.
The hospital was a victim of Venezuelas peculiar five-year election syndrome. It had been planned eight years earlier, on a promise from a newly-elected president. But after an election, it was an informal custom that nothing momentous happened for three years so it had been left to languish. Then, two years before the next election again, according to informal custom the ruling party demonstrated its intent to improve life in Venezuela with a building frenzy. The hospital was hastily and partially slapped together. But the ruling party lost, so for the first three years of the new leadership, the hospital again lay not-quite-finished. Then came the frenzied preparations for the current election, and it was completed with little regard for the original architects plans and opened as proof of this governments good will.
Pauls fire and emergency system would require those using it to know where all the exits and equipment closets and traffic paths were, and they were not where theyd been on the original blueprints. So Phase One meant redrawing the plans. For this, Paul carefully measured the hospitals corridors, doors, stairwells and so forth. It was a good job for two people, because he needed someone to hold the end of the measuring tape. He then took the days notes to Town Hall, where he could use a fellow Peace Corps Volunteers architectural table and tools to redraw the blueprints on big rolls of tracing paper.
I had been helping for a week or so when our former landlord showed up. His manner was surly, offended; he refused to look Paul in the eye as he demanded his rent.
Morelli had rejected our payments not just once, but three times Irma the babysitter told us this was intended to be a great insult. Paul told him that he had tried in good faith to pay, and that was sufficient; he was not going to pay now.
Another week passed, and we received a letter from Morellis lawyer that informed us we were being sued for three times the amount we owed.
Once we deciphered the arcane Spanish legalese, we were terrified. A lawsuit! Could we be imprisoned? Deported? We hurried the letter to a Venezuelan friend who tsk-tsked over it and gave us a lawyers name.
The lawyer looked us over solemnly, then called Morellis lawyer. They chatted for a half-hour, enquired after each others families, laughed, traded jokes. He hung up and informed us hed managed to winnow the price down to the original rent.
Paul and I continued to work on the hospital plans. Lawsuits aside, things seemed to be looking up; perhaps, after all, we were going to be of use.
And then one day, Irma didnt show up to babysit. We had no phone and didnt know where she lived; we were worried sick that something might have happened to her. Kym had grown to love her and she, too, was frantic.
That evening, Irmas 12-year-old son knocked on our door. His mother, he told me, was taking part in a barrio invasion and might be gone for many, many days.
In Venezuela, land or property left unoccupied may be claimed by invasion people simply squat on it and refuse to leave; eventually, it becomes theirs. There was a housing project that had remained not-quite-finished due to the vagaries of the election syndrome, and Irma and some of her neighbors, who lived in a very poor part of town, decided to claim it. In an election year, someone would surely promise them running water and electricity, if they remained long enough. Long enough could mean months.
And so we lost her. I took Kym to the office when I could to help with the few remaining touches of Phase One. Soon, the new true-to-the-building plans were finished.
They looked wonderful. Professional. We were both proud of them. Paul presented them to the hospital CEO for his inspection. The CEO received them with great ceremony, and Paul left the office feeling that he had done something positive and meaningful, energized to move on to the Fire and Emergency logistics of his project.
The next day, the janitor who worked the offices a man Paul joked with whenever they crossed paths brought him the rolled-up floor plans. He had found them, he said, in the hospital CEOs waste basket. He knew Paul had put a lot of work into them, so he thought perhaps he might want them back.
Peace Corps flexibility
By now, we were finding it hard to remain amused. We contacted Peace Corps/Venezuela. We had tried, we said; the political situation was growing more unhelpful by the day. Wasnt there someplace, anyplace, they could send a hospital administrator and a nurse where we might actually be of use?
Wait until after the election, they told us. Things would open up then.
So we took Kym to the zoo and hiked the mountains and checked our mail, visited other Volunteers, drank Polar beer in the tents set up in the plaza by one or another of the political parties, or café con leche in the local coffeehouse. The times were exciting; it was not a bad life. But we were not useful. I found myself making unfair comparisons between this flojo Peace Corps existence and the efficiency of the War Corps, and concluded unhappily that, if Venezuela was any example, the War Corps was far more effective at what it did.
Sadly, our lack of productivity was not unique. In Merida alone, we had a Sports Program Volunteer who taught English occasionally to a nun, while his wife taught dancing to one of the nuns students. Another Sports Program man had moved seven times, trying to be of use; he now spent his remaining four months mountain-climbing, playing banjo and weaving hammocks. An engineer also taught nuns English it seemed to be the one job that would accept Peace Corps Volunteers, perhaps because we did it for free.
A town away, there lived a couple who had trained to teach farmers how to farm more effectively. They had learned via the cousins-buddys-cleaning-ladys-daughter route that local farmers didnt take them seriously they were too young, too inexperienced. We were griping about our situation with them when they suggested a use for Pauls blueprints: they needed decorations for their living room wall. So . . . what the hell. For all I know, those plans might still be hanging in that little farmhouse in Ejido.
We were off touring Colombia in December, when Venezuela elected its new president Carlos Andres Perez, whose party was not the one previously in power. We returned and again spoke to Peace Corps/Caracas. Wait, they told us. Things will improve. Also, they would check with Peace Corps/Washington to see if we could transfer to another country where Pauls skills could be used.
So we waited. We threw a terrific Christmas party for our friends, neighbors and fellow Volunteers, where our Sports Program friend played the banjo. We hiked, drank more coffee, wrote more letters. January came and went, but there was no new posting.
In fact, to our amazement and despair, more Volunteers had come to Merida. Eight of them, including an arts and crafts guy, a sociologist working in agriculture, an urban planner, an architect the only replacement in the group, he was to take over from our friend at Town Hall, whose table Paul used for his project and The Bear People, so nicknamed because their project was to track some kind of bear in the mountains (The Sports Program banjo player said, Theyd better pitch their tent in the zoo and get a good look at the one they got there. Ive been trekking all over these hills for months, and Im sure thats the only damned bear theyre going to see here.).
February brought Kyms third birthday, but no new posting. Another party, more hiking, coffee, letters. Wait, said Caracas. Staff changes are coming; things will improve. If not, theres still that transfer. And we waited, bored and restless.
March arrived, and the Peace Corps/Caracas staff came to Merida to meet with all us Volunteers. It was an acrimonious session, the Volunteers accusing the staff of unresponsiveness, the staff pleading for patience from the Volunteers. We asked about our transfers and this time, when they told us to wait, we decided we had waited long enough. And sadly because we really had wanted to be of use we left Venezuela.
Nixon, I might add, was still in office.
In, Up, and Out!
That was 30 years ago. Venezuela has not prospered since those heady days when it took back its oil industry. It has fallen prey to massive currency inflation. The rich remain rich; the poor have gotten poorer, and the middle class that we saw emerging has slipped away. It suffered a coup attempt, and the current president who led the coup is a controversial figure. The Peace Corps left for good in 1977, fifteen years and 2,134 volunteers after it first arrived in 1962.
We, on the other hand, have prospered. Paul holds a good job in the Healthcare field, and I write which may or may not be considered of use. Kym is an adult with her own family now. All of us, Paul and I and Kym and her two post-Peace Corps brothers, are responsible citizens and ardent world travelers.
For Paul and me, and perhaps for our kids, this will to travel is a legacy of both the Peace Corps and the War Corps.
My time in Viet Nam, while harrowing, made me desperate to see the world beyond my borders precisely because we were allowed to see so little of it there. We were cloistered from it, tantalized by it, justifiably paranoid about passing through it. Build a fence, and you give people the compulsion to climb over it.
Our time in the Peace Corps gave us a good, long look at a different culture from ground level, if not truly from inside. The good, the bad, the silly, the political, the downright weird (often indistinguishable from the political) we swam in it every day, hiked its mountains, drank its coffee, spoke its language and hobnobbed with its people. We didnt help Venezuela, no. We were teats on a bull but what a fascinating bull. It taught us, a family of white, privileged Yanquis, how it feels to live as a not-quite-trusted minority. We learned often from someones cousins buddys cleaning ladys daughter how we appeared to others, how we did indeed represent our government even when we might have preferred not to.
Looking back from this distance, I can say that what I got out of our less-than-productive experience was, as the commercial says, priceless. It is a part of me; it colors my appreciation of the complexity of my fellow man, the way I see my small position, and the larger position of my country, and the still larger position of my government, in the world.
For that, I am tremendously, if belatedly, grateful.
Susan O'Neill has been an RN since 1968, an Army veteran since 1970, and a writer since she could hold a pen. She is the author of Don't Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Viet Nam, published by Ballantine and, now in paperback, by UMass Press; it has received only one bad review, which called it "M.A.S.H., with lots more sex and cursing." She has published in magazines, some of which pay in money and some in copies, and has an epic novel currently being rejected by major publishing houses.
She and her husband Paul live in Andover, Massachusetts in loving fear that one or more of their three children will move back into one of their spare bedrooms.