Peace Corps Writers January 2008
This print version of Peace Corps Writers does not include information from the Current Issue page that provides links to each of the articles, any information that appears in the yellow sidebars, links, book covers, photos or other graphics that appear on any of the pages. Nor does it include newly archived or resource material including copies of RPCV Writers & Readers, bibliographic listings, or Journals of Peace material.
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HERE AT LAST is our January issue of Peace Corps Writers. Sorry that it is late. I had some medical issues that have kept me away from the computer and from gathering information on our writers. In this issue we have four book reviews, eight new books listed, Literary Type, three new opportunities for writers, and examples of some great writing in “A Writer Writes.”
Recent Book: January 2008
The Butter Man
(Children ages 48)
by Elizabeth (Letts) Alalou and Ali Alalou, illustrated by Julie Klear Eskalli
Adventures in Service with Peace Corps in Niger
by James R. Bullington (staff: CD Niger 200006)
by Tony D’Souza (Cote d’Ivoire 200002; Madagascar 200203)
The Complete, Definitive, Madman’s Guide to Distance Running and the Marathon
by Ethan Gologor (Somalia 1962-64)
Chicken Soup for the Soul Love Stories
Stories of First Dates, Soul Mates, and Everlasting Love
Paul Karrer (Western Samoa 196880), contributor
A Little Peace
(Children’s picture book: Ages 48)
by Barbara Kerley (Nepal 1981-83)
The Old Lady of Vine Street
The Valiant Fight for the Cincinnati Enquirer
by Richard K. Mastain (staff: Nigeria 196567)
The Federal Government: The Legislative Branch
Creating America’s Laws
(Children ages 912)
by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1962-64)
Literary Type: January 2008
A new publication from Quito, Ecuador, is out with a scholarly look at Moritz Thomsen (Ecuador 196466). It is the online publication LiberArte, from the Universidad de San Francisco de Quito. The link is: www.usfq.edu.ec/liberarte/04/english.html
There is also a call for papers for a conference on Thomsen to be held there in May. If anyone is interested in presenting, please let them know and they will do all they can to help with logistics. Comments and critiques are also welcome. The editor is Martín Vega at email@example.com.
Bill Moseley (Mali 198789) and Paul Laris (Mali 198789) have just published an article in Geographical Review. The article speaks to a literature on environmental narratives in West Africa (mainly in geography, history and anthropology) and explores the potential role of volunteer development workers in perpetuating such ideas. More specifically, it examines the factors that led to the questioning or non-questioning of environment-development discourses and their influence, if any, on the actual work undertaken by Peace Corps Volunteers in Mali in the late 1980s. The writers also explore the role that the development volunteer experience subsequently had in shaping their own research as academics. While some interpret this article as a critique of Peace Corps, they actually see it as an endorsement of Peace Corps’ bottom-up philosophy as, at the end of the day, villager perceptions were given priority. The reference is: Moseley, W.G. and P. Laris. 2008. “West African Environmental Narratives and Development-Volunteer Praxis.” Geographical Review. 98(1): 59-81.
Paul Karrer (Western Samoa 197880) has had another story published in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. This time in Love Stories. His story “Vegetable or Fruit” is about a little Korean confusion regarding the status of tomatoes and breakfast cereals.
Paul was also be filmed as a panelist on January 27, 2008 in Santa Cruz, California for a pilot TV program called Treasures. This first show will highlight five local writers as they reveal the process of submitting and reading their short stories and editorials over radio station KUSP an NPR affiliate 88.9 FM in Santa Cruz.
On February 6, 2008, George Packer’s (Togo 198283) play “Betrayed” about a group of Iraqi translators opened at the Culture Project in SoHo in New York City. The play was adapted by George from a 16,000-word article he wrote last year for The New Yorker. In the article George detailed the ordeals facing Iraqi translators, who have been hunted, tortured and killed by insurgents. And he showed how their pleas for help were met by indifference from the very American officials for whom they were risking their lives. [In 2007 the U.S. admitted about 1,600 Iraqi refugees, a small fraction of whom had been American employees. At the same time, Sweden, who is not involved in Iraq, admitted 20,000 Iraqi refugees.]
In an article in the New York Times Theater Section on Sunday, February 3, 2008 written by Dexter Filkins, who has worked and traveled with Packer in Iraq, George is quoted: “I wanted to do something with the material I had that I didn’t think journalism could do, which was to go deeper into the experience of the Iraqis. . . . To explore them as human beings in this incredibly complicated and heartbreaking situation. Loyalty between friends, hope and betrayal these are universal themes.”
The play opens in the Palestine Hotel in the center of Baghdad, where two close friends Adnan and Laith one Sunni, the other Shia, have agreed to meet. It’s Baghdad at its spookiest, some years after the American invasion, Filkins writes, and the two friends begin to reminisce, taking us back to April 2003, when they felt the thrill of deliverance from their fearful, wasting lives. “The faith and enthusiasm from the United States expressed by Adnan and Laith may surprise some in the audience,” writes Filkins, “but it should not. In April 2003 Iraq was filled with people who saw hope and joy in the arrival of the Americans; many Iraqis expected them to modernize and humanize their broken country in one easy swoop.”
As Iraq begins to disintegrate and the Americans lose control, the two translators find that they are now seen as traitors by their own people. And so begins their double lives. “I fell in between heaven and hell,” one translators says in the play. “The Americans didn’t want me, and the Iraqis didn’t want me. Where will I go? Help yourself by yourself, that’s the best way. Find a solution for yourself. But I can’t see any solution. I am, how do you say it, hung out to dry.”
The early reviews of Tony D’Souza’s (Cote d’Ivoire 200002; Madagascar 200203) novel, The Konkans, have been great: a starred review in Publishers Weekly, a starred review in Library Journal, and now a full-page lead rave review in Entertainment Weekly. The book and Tony get a full page in EW and a grade of A-. The reviewer writes, “What he has created with an appealingly unfashionable simplicity of language is a rich, warm, personal yarn, bright with a pride and love . . .. THE KONKANS is D’Souza’s own roar in the crowd, an affectionate exploration of personal identity in order to make sense of conflicting parts and thus become whole in a multicultural world. In this Age of Obama, the search couldn’t be more timely, nor the result more gratifying.”
Fred Kluge (Micronesia 196769) arrived in Saipan in 1967. He was a 25-year-old PCV and went to work as a Volunteer editing a magazine called the Micronesian Reporter. “I traveled freely and interviewed people. I suppose you can say that I got hooked. And I swore, when I left, that I would come back.” He was back last month and spoke on January 25th at the Visitor’s Center Theater of the American Memorial Park. Over 100 people came to hear him talk about Saipan and the islands where he was a Volunteer. He has been to the Commonwealth several times over the years. Kluge, now 66, talk was entitled “Writing on Saipan, writing about Saipan.”
“Once you get into a conversation with a place like this, you don’t walk away. You find yourself writing an article or two, then a book or two, but you always return to find out what is going on,” Fred said.
He said many things make him come back: The camaraderie, the scenery, and the weather are a few.
“When I’m not here I find myself thinking about the place so a part of me always stayed here.“
He said he could be sitting in his office in New York when he used to write for the Wall Street Journal or Life Magazine, and he would get a faraway look in his eyes, his mind drifting to what is going on in this speck of rocks in the middle of the Pacific.
“I write about the place whenever I can,” he said. His first novel, The Day That I Die, was set on Span. He is now working on a novel that is also set on Saipan.
Kluge, who has a PhD from the University of Chicago, is currently teaching at Kenyon College in Ohio. His next book will be his tenth.
Talking with . . . Nita Noveno
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
I MET NITA several years ago when working with the Peace Corps Fund. She was writing then and just beginning her successful Sunday Salon held at Stain, a bar in Brooklyn, NY. A great organizer, she has been all writers in the New York region, and has certainly helped RPCV writers, inviting them to read and discuss their work. Finally I caught up with Nita to ask her about her writing and her salon.
You grew up where, Nita?
I grew up in Ketchikan, Alaska. I went to Whitman College in eastern Washington where I majored in French language and literature.
And you were in West Africa as a PCV?
Yes, I was a PCV in a French-speaking village in Cameroon where I taught English as a Foreign Language to middle and high school students. I was there from 1988 to 1990.
What happened after the Peace Corps?
After the Peace Corps, I spent a year decompressing back home in Ketchikan. Then I moved to Seattle for another year before attending graduate school in New York. I graduated from Teachers College, Columbia University in 1995 and got a degree in TESOL and taught in the New York City public school system for over nine years.
Have you published much writing?
Much? I’d say not much, but I’ve been published in a teachers’ anthology, the National Peace Corps Association magazine WorldView, and a webzine (www.ducts.org). I’m still working on a collection of related nonfiction pieces, sending out to literary magazines, and receiving a healthy amount of rejection letters. Did I say healthy? I mean ridiculous amount.
When did you start Sunday Salon?
I started Sunday Salon in 2002, the summer after I received my MFA in Creative Nonfiction from The New School. One of my instructors, the poet and essayist Honor Moore suggested I start a reading series when I asked her what I should do next (that is, besides to continue writing). As the series took off, I realized how important it was for me as a writer working in isolation to have a community to connect to on a monthly basis.
How does it work?
Writers submit to us on-line or are recommended to us by other writers (or literary folks), and if we like their work, they read at the Salon.
What well known writers have read at the Salon?
Some well-known writers who’ve read at Sunday Salon are Alison Smith (Name All the Animals), Jonathan Dee (The Lover of History), David Gates (Jernigan), and David Treuer (The Translation of Dr. Appelles).
One of the latest developments of Sunday Salon (now in it’s fifth year!) is our newest “sister series” in Nairobi, Kenya, which started after I connected with some literary enthusiasts during my participation in the Summer Literary Seminars in Nairobi in December 2006. There’s also a Sunday Salon in Chicago and you can check to see who’s reading on our new and nifty website SundaySalon.com. We’ve started a webzine, so keep an eye out for some excellent writing.
How does an evening work at the Salon?
The evening readings go like this. Four writers read their prose for about 15 minutes each with a short intermission between the first two readers. Occasionally, we’ll have a musician open up and/or play during the intermission. Stain has a casual, cool atmosphere that displays artists’ original work on the walls and that changes monthly, and Krista Madsen, the bar owner and fellow writer, serves all New York wines and beers.
Tell us more about SundaySalon.com?
Well, we’ve got a whole new look thanks to my talented bro-in-law web designer, which includes the blog and interview section as well as the new webzine. You can see who’s read at the Salon and who’ll be reading and check out everyone’s bios. There’s also a photo gallery of Salons and writers. And, there’s a link to our sister Salons in Chicago and Nairobi.
What is your “day job”?
I’m a curriculum consultant for the Student Press Initiative (SPI) out of Teachers College, which promotes student publication. Basically, I support teachers and their students in the writing process and by the end of the year, their work is published in a book. As a writer and educator, I think it’s a dream job!
Finally, the specifics about Sunday Salon?
Every third Sunday of the month; 7 p.m.; Stain Bar, 766 Grand St. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn 718.387.7840.
The Arrow and the Olive Branch
Practical Idealism in US Foreign Policy
by Jack Godwin (Gabon 198284)
Reviewed by Dick Irish (Philippines 196264)
GODWIN HAS PLOWED through presidential addresses, speeches, and White Papers from George Washington through George W. and discovered a thread of continuity he names “practical idealism.” He attaches the idea to many of our presidents’ utterances “no entangling alliances” [Washington]. . . “. pay any price, bear any burden” [Kennedy], the Monroe Doctrine [Monroe!], the self-determination of nations [Wilson], George W. Bush [preemptive war]without explaining just what the notion of practical idealism means. The author is better at giving examples of it than defining it.
His title is clearer: The “Arrow” represents American strength and our option to use it; the “Olive Branch,” America’s commitment to liberty and our desire to spread it. Hear Jack Kennedy at his inaugural: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” The result was Vietnam. Now listen to George W. Bush no less idealistic: Advancing the cause of democracy in Iraq “is the calling of a new generation of Americans.” Hey, guys, too much idealism, too little pragmatism.
Godwin doesn’t mention “Manifest Destiny.” I checked the index and found no mention of the doctrine that has dominated American imperial discourse from our founding fathers era to our times. In a word, America was and is an expansionist nation: First we violated countless treaties with the Indian nations, then we bought up Louisiana and points northwest, followed up a generation later by the absorption of Alaska. A trumped up war by Polk with Mexico netted a huge swath of the southwest. Not to forget the Spanish-American War in which the Philippines Islands fell into our lap. I almost forgot Panama and what became the Canal Zone, which we stole fair and square from Colombia. For a nation unwilling to be entangled in European affairs, ours was a helluva an appetite for any territory South or West of Bethesda. After WWII, we turned our sights on the continent: Postwar Europe is now an abject protectorate of the United States.
Am I faulting Godwin for a book he didn’t write? Yeah, kinda. His credulous reading of presidential orations as the meat and potatoes of American foreign policy scants those that had at least as much to do with the making of national security and diplomatic policy as, say, Chester Arthur. For starters, the idea of Manifest Destiny was Senator Henry Clay’s idea; Senator Borah made of isolationism practically a national creed; Senator Cabot Lodge, along with Borah, kayoed the idea of the League; William Randolph Hearst may have started the Spanish-American War, and Senator Joseph McCarthy terrorized the Democratic Party; his insane anti-Communist rant haunted liberals for twenty years. Not to forget the neo-conservative cabal at the Pentagon who cooked up the Iraq debacle. My point? Presidents don’t so much make foreign policy as rationalize it using the language of ideologues, advertising, think-tank intellectuals, and demagogues. De Gaulle put it well years ago:” The Americans,” he wrote, thinking particularly of Roosevelt in 1942 and his Vichy policy, “approach great affairs with elementary feelings and complicated policies.”
People everywhere, Godwin thinks, are lusting for liberty. His is a touching faith in democratic institutions. The idea of universal democracy ballots, not bullets is the answer. Well, it’s an answer, but not THE answer. He faults some of us for being “demagogues of peace,” i.e., someone who advocates peace at any price. But Putin in Russia, Chavez in Venezuela, and Mugabe in Zimbabwe make democracy demagogues, if you’ll pardon the expression, look to the middle distance and change the subject.
Godwin writes well; his book is a neat and compact survey of presidential declarations. Speechwriters, policy wonks, and campaign staff should find it useful grist for this season’s imperial rationalizations. Peace [“the olive branch] through strength [“the arrow”] or “practical idealism” is not going to cause any great quarrels this campaign year. Wilson wanted to make the world safe for democracy, but I wish our next president would make it safe for diversity “pragmatic realism.”
Dick Irish is a graduate of the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University ; he worked for thirty years in international executive search. He is the author of three books [Anchor Press] and various magazine articles on management subjects, and co-founded of TransCentury Corporation. He is currently working on a biography of Charles de Gaulle.
by Martha Egan (Venezuela 196769)
Reviewed by Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 197678)
HOW DOES THE PEACE CORPS experience burrow its way into the writing of returned Volunteers, even if what they write isn’t explicitly about Peace Corps? Coyota, the second novel by ’60s South America Volunteer Martha Egan of New Mexico, suggests some possibilities.
For example, one of the most appealing aspects of Egan’s short fiction only half the size of her award-winning first novel, Clearing Customs is its unselfconscious bi-cultural dimension. Its main character, Nina Herrera-Casey, moves with linguistic ease between English and Spanish and between countries the Southwestern U.S., her home, and various locales in urban and rural Mexico. She says things like “ay, gato,” loves café de olla, and listens to Linda Ronstadt’s Canciones de Mi Padre.
And even the affectionate nickname given to Nina by her family works on several levels: Egan makes Nina a coyota the youngest child in a family and the offspring of a mixed Anglo-American Indo-Hispanic marriage, according to a dictionary definition of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish that the author provides.
Further, Egan’s story, like her first novel, is rooted in robust skepticism of government bureaucracy and what she depicts as its untrustworthy agents a suspicion certainly not unknown in Peace Corps circles.
And finally, like any well-trained RPCV, Egan’s protagonist uses her cross-cultural acumen to survive. After accidentally overhearing a conversation she wasn’t supposed to hear while waiting at customs, Nina, a handicrafts dealer and part-time Spanish teacher in Albuquerque, gradually realizes she is being stalked by two corrupt Drug Enforcement Agency agents.
Not to be undone, she stalks them in return, with a coyote’s wiliness, and exercises her bi-cultural resources (her ability to drive in Mexico City, her relationships with highly-placed Mexican functionaries, her fluent Spanish) to trick, mislead and trap them. Nina is an appealing protagonist not without fear but basically plucky and imaginative, with a lusty sex life and good sense of humor.
As in a critique of Egan’s first novel by Peace Corps reviewer Brian Kane, Coyota suffers from clichéd and one-dimensional characterizations in this book, particularly and painfully in Nina’s love interest, Cal (Caldwell Oates Banner III, actually) a pompous professor reluctantly dragged to Mexico with her. His dialogue is so stilted and his prissy responses to traveling in Mexico are so predictable that they provide grist for an intro creative writing class of what not to do. He drives a BMW, hails from a private school, teaches medieval European history, and because he is an ass, can’t or won’t manage to pronounce “Guanajuato” correctly. Yet he says things like au contraire, serves her paupiettes and wild rice pilaf and gives her “pouty” kisses. I thought this cliché of a closeted guy was about to be outed but he never was, except as an ignorant imperialist and supreme wuss.
However, the book’s plot is well focused and briskly paced, and although Coyota is not great literature, I found it diverting company for a three-hour-long flight across the country.
Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 1976-68) is trying to stop writing about her Peace Corps experience, now that 30 years have passed and she’s finally discovered there’s no money in it. Her 2006 Peace Corps novel Night Blind has sold a “respectable number” of copies, she says, meaning “more than Thoreau sold of Walden before he died.”
Life’s A Campaign
What Politics Has Taught Me About Friendship, Rivalry, Reputation, and Success
by Chris Matthews (Swaziland 196870)
Reviewed by Ken Hill (Turkey 196567)
CHRIS MATTHEWS ENJOYS an advantage over most of his peers; he was a practitioner before he was a pundit. When he returned from Peace Corps service, Matthews worked on Capital Hill for several years and actually ran for Congress on a unique platform no contributions please . . . idealism didn’t carry the day.
His experience is apparent as he weaves his tales and makes the points in his new book, Life’s A Campaign. Matthew’s sense of humor, insights and experience in the political arena serve him well as a pundit. They inform and enrich this book as well as his television programs “Hardball” and “The Chris Matthews Show.”
His fans will find Life’s A Campaign a fun read. Political junkies, especially “inside the beltway” types, are likely to keep it on their shelves. (In the spirit of disclosure, I am a fan.) This book is pure Chris Matthews gobs of anecdotes, tons of personal memories (including Peace Corps), homilies aplenty (“Lie with dogs and you’ll pick up fleas”), and ample generalizations (“The folks who win elections are big listeners.”) * Oh, really?!
Matthews delves into the “how to” realm of much of his life, career and mentors, using anecdotes grouped around themes to draw life lessons. Sometimes they’re spot on, sometimes quite a stretch. The twenty-five of them constitute Matthews’ vision of politics as life. It may seem he’s feeling his age a bit (still young by my standards).
Page by page, Matthews makes assertions and draws conclusions, often quoting his mentors and heroes. His frequent and almost reverential referrals are to Tip O’Neill, such as “Loyalty is everything in this business whatever the business.” One might well question the assertion; loyalty can hardly be revered as a singular virtue, witness its disastrous impact via the current Administration.
Nothing if not courageous, Matthews relates a story about Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the Senate to make a point about “listening.” In it, he mentions the Senator, Evita and Machiavelli together in sequential paragraphs, then groups them again on the next page. (He’ll be lucky if she doesn’t read it.)
Matthews asserts “The biographies of leaders who lack a ‘rite of passage,’ whose public lives begin and end in politics, lack punch. There’s a career there, but no story. When the heroic arc you see in the saga of Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, of Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy, is absent, you get only the flat line of ambition.” ** One of Matthew’s rites of passage is clearly his Peace Corps experience referring to it frequently. It’s clear this experience had a profound effect on him, shaping his values and his vision for life.
Life’s A Campaign is written like Matthews speaks; bits of bravado, clever mischief and much fun. At various junctures it transcends, becoming more serious. But, taking this too far would detract from the fun and, I think, miss the real value of the book. I recommend it as a good read, with some interesting observations about life.
I plan to buy some copies and send them to my “political” friends, especially in Utah, my home state. They shouldn’t miss Life’s A Campaign!
* page 45
** page 145
After his Peace Corps service Ken Hill was a staff member who left the Peace Corps in 1975 to pursue personal business interests. In the mid-90s he and his wife Winnie (Nepal 1966-68) returned to Peace Corps where Ken was Country Director first for the Russian Far East, then Bulgaria and Macedonia. In 1999 he became Chief of Operations for Peace Corps programs in Europe and Asia and was appointed Chief of Staff of Peace Corps during 2001. Ken is now retired and engaged in numerous volunteer and political activities. He is active in Virginia politics, on the Board of the Bulgarian-American Society as well as the Friends of Turkey and chairs a Sister Cities Committee between Alexandria, Virginia and Gyumri, Armenia. He is a former Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Peace Corps Association.
Taxi to Tashkent
Two Years with the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan
by Tom Fleming (Uzbekistan 200305)
Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 197577)
SOME TRAVELERS PINE for more 19th century British-styled travel narratives from Americans. Remember those? Men filled with the powerful thoughts of superiority and such puny limbs that they had to hire half a nation to carry their baggage? Men who wrote about the glorious empire and yet were too ignorant to even tip their hat and say, “Excuse me,” in the local tongue. Some folks got no more conscience than a cow in a stampede.
The only American author I have read who emulates the British is our own RPCV Paul Theroux. He never admits to hiring porters but he manages to spit his tobacco juice on just about every living room floor he visits. ’Course, he manages to brag himself out of any place to lean on the bar too.
Tom Fleming’s book A Taxi to Tashkent is an American travel narrative, lean and honest without the barbed wire wrappings. It is the best non-fiction Peace Corps book I have ever read. Published only two years after he left Uzbekistan, it is one of two western first-hand accounts of life in a nation traveling through its own Age of Aquarius, reshaping itself after a sixty-eight year Russian occupation. His journalism background serves him well for he does not try to impress us with ten dollar words or opinions as outdated as the British crown and the notion of the Divine Right of Kings. Fleming is one American who relishes our everyman role of just being curious about our neighbors while trying to get along.
You do not have to be a RPCV to appreciate this wonderful book. Travel alongside Tom across the strange borders where you could still outflank border guards by slipping through a farmhouse, listen to the disappointment when his hosts are told that you cannot bribe policemen in the United States, explore the ruins of cities along the fabled Silk Road, and listen to the people like the taxi driver’s wisdom of the heart, “It doesn’t matter if you are Christian or Muslim as long as you believe in God.”
If you happen to be a not so exemplary RPCV like myself, you may be relieved to read about silly bureaucratic rules that invite the American can-do etiquette to undo them. You might even smile at a faux pas that sounds very familiar, regardless of where or when you served. American government employees dressed in clean, pressed clothing with expensive labels and seated behind huge oak desks surrounded by manuals filled with rules for our Volunteers should take heart: it’s easier to catch a horse than break him.
Lawrence F. Lihosit works as a city planner. His latest book is titled Across the Yucatan (2007), a humorous travel narrative available through A Book Company at abookcompany.net. He can be contacted directly at LawrenceFLihosit@gmail.com.
A Writer Writes
The Book Locker
by Chris Honore’ (Colombia 196769)
WHEN THE PLANE TOUCHED DOWN on the tarmac in Colombia, the contingent of PCVs on board let out a cheer. We’d arrived. After months of training, discussions, evaluations, countless hours of language instruction, we were ready. Or so we thought. What we didn’t understand was that we were about to be tested in ways we could not have imagined our idealism, our belief in service, the words of JFK, all would be dropped into a crucible of culture and custom and language, compounded by levels of poverty and deprivation that had to be lived to be understood.
I sat in a tired, damp smelling hotel room looking at a pitcher of water. The light was fading and the sound of birds chattering in the lush trees filled the open courtyard below. I glanced out the window then back at the pitcher. Tearing open a packet of pills, I dropped three into the water that turned a murky brown. Were there microbes in the benign looking water? Who could know? I filled a glass, and using my toothbrush I stirred slowly watching the pills dissolve, the water turning a rusty brown. Was this necessary? I had turned on the tap in the bathroom. It looked fine. I thought about showering with my mouth and eyes tightly shut. Could I do this for two years? Could I do this for two weeks?
Earlier I had spent the afternoon sitting in a corner cafe’ sipping a bottle of beer and trying to read the local newspaper. Failing, I took out a well-thumbed copy of Time Magazine International and slowly turned the pages. People and cars and buses passed by, and, for a time, unable to look away, I watched a man, balanced on a square wooden platform with wheels, his desiccated legs tucked under him. He held blocks of wood in his hands and pushed himself along, stopping to beg spare change from pedestrians who barely slowed. His clothes were ragged, his ravaged face deeply brown, his hair matted and uncombed. He had a tin bowl, and he banged it on the sidewalk, then held it up, pleading, blocking the sidewalk. I was riveted by him, his aggressive efforts, his hands calloused and gnarled and blackened from the street. He was unwilling to yield. I couldn’t imagine what had brought him to that moment, to that place and I shuddered.
The bus ride to San Antonio would take the better part of the day. With ticket in hand, I stood outside the station looking at the buses, trying to sort out which one would take me to the small mountain town. Each was painted a riot of colors red, yellow, white, blue and fringe framed the front windows. On the dashboards were small plastic Madonnas and blinking bulbs of colored lights hung from the rear view mirror. Brassy music played harshly in the distance and one bus, pulling away, filled to capacity, let out a whoosh of air and rolled slowly down the street, the brake lights blinking briefly. A child, his face pressed against the window, stared at me with large, dark eyes. Seeing a bus that said San Antonio I boarded, giving up my ticket, and with a small duffle in hand walked toward the back. Dust seeped up through the floorboards and the smell of diesel gasoline and people and luggage and bags of food filled the still air. I had heard of horrible crashes. I had seen crosses clustered on the side of roads. The bus rides were the stuff of urban legends among Volunteers, the drivers kamikaze pilots who embraced blind curves, horns blaring, the shoulders of roads falling away into deep ravines.
Several days before I had tried to call home. I needed to speak to someone, if only to reassure myself there was still a there there. I went to a public exchange, a large room with wooden enclosed telephone booths against one wall. There was a window where a clerk took the telephone number to be called and a few pesos. I sat down on a long bench to wait. It was not unlike a bus station and people came and went, many sat silently, some reading the day’s newspaper, a few women with children sat patiently. I had a paperback book that I carried with me, one of many that I had received from a Volunteer, and I sat and read, trying to concentrate, and it was a struggle. The novel was Cannery Row, and I longed to be on the Monterey coast, welcoming the gray days and early morning fog. Or north, near San Francisco, looking out at the bay and the bridges and the ubiquitous sail boats, their white sails bleached against the deeply blue water, and long tankers, stacked with containers, slowly made their way past Alcatraz Island, heading toward Oakland. It had not been that long since I had looked at the bay and the two bridges and the San Francisco skyline, but now it seemed far away. Would it be there when I returned, I wondered, smiling at the thought. How could it not be?
When my name was called I was told to go to phone booth five. “Numero cinco,” the woman said, and pointed to one of the booths. I stepped inside, pulled the door closed, and picked up the dull black phone and said hello. Twice. Then a third time. Vaguely, indistinctly, I heard a familiar voice. “Dad, is that you? Dad?” The humming and static overwhelmed me, and I began to yell into the phone. Finally, filled with frustration, cursing the phone line that traveled from that building across Colombia and ever northward, up the coast of Mexico, then baja, up to California and finally to my house. Hearing only a crackling hum, I yelled that I would call again. I hung up the phone and for a moment stood looking at the black box and the thin cord that was connected to the receiver and then left, trying not to look at the people on the benches, at the men who peered over their newspapers, or at the woman in the window who had called my name.
As I stepped out onto the street the midday heat enveloped me, the sounds and strangeness of it all a gauzy curtain. A woman stood holding the hand of her small son while he urinated into the gutter. Across the street several men were seated at an outdoor table, coffee cups and flasks of water at hand, their newspapers open, smoke rising from their cigars. They sat silently, barely taking notice of the incomprehensible drama that ebbed and flowed and swirled around me.
The bus arrived in San Antonio late in the afternoon. Jim, the Volunteer who was leaving Colombia shortly, had given me his address and directions to his flat over a cantina. I walked from the small bus station, an office with a dusty plate glass window and one scarred wooden desk, and crossed a wide plaza of stone and grass, a waterless fountain in its center. The church, its square steeple topped with a cross, wide doors open to a dark interior, bordered the square. To the left was the casa corral, a white, flat building, home of the local priest.
I stopped an old man and asked him in halting Spanish if he could tell me where the Cantina Azul was, the Blue Cantina. Smiling, his teeth the color of tobacco, a white rectangle of cloth folded over his shoulder, a long machete hooked on his belt, he nodded and said, “Si. Si, senor,” and pointed to a corner across the plaza. “Esta’ alla.” It’s there. On the corner. “La Cantina.”
I thanked him and with my bag in hand walked past the fountain, the sun low in the sky. What struck me was the quiet and the absence of people. A dog barked in the distance, and two small boys ran across the plaza, kicking a ball. They slowed, then stood looking at me, squinting into the harsh light. The taller nudged the other and they ran on, pushing the ball in front of them. A woman stood in a doorway folding a towel, and then reached down and picked up a watering can and went back inside. Small red flowers grew in a lone pot on the abbreviated stoop.
I watched a nun, her habit startlingly white, leave the casa corral and walk up the steps into the church, her face obscured, her hands buried deep in the full sleeves of her robe. A black cross, tied to a knotted rope around her waist, swung back and forth. She never glanced in my direction. A man, leading a donkey, stopped at the edge of the plaza and waited, taking his hat off then putting it back on.
Months later, stationed in Cartagena, on the Caribbean, I would, one long afternoon, sit on an ellipse of beach under a cloudless blue sky and watch a black man come around the point leading a group of nuns, all in full habits. Their high voices reached me, lifted and carried by the soft breeze, their laughter captivating. In disbelief, I saw all of the nuns follow the black man into the ocean. Some turned slow pirouettes, their robes flowing around them, creating a nimbus of white and milky blue, the easy waves lifting and falling. I sat very still, under the leaning palm trees, the birds restless above, and told myself that I should never forget that moment. Never.
Standing on the landing I knocked on Jim’s door, hoping he was in, knowing he could be out in the all of it. I knocked again. I could hear music from the cantina below. The well of the stairs was redolent of fried food and stale beer. People laughed, their voices loud, then fell away into silence.
The door opened. “Hey, Jaime,” I said, using Jim’s Spanish name.
“Hola, Cristobal,” he said. “You made it. Nice bus ride, huh.” It wasn’t a question, rather an understanding of what was involved.
“Yep, quite a ride. Only passed on curves, never on straight-aways. Other than that, poco a poco,” I said. I looked around his flat a narrow bed pushed against one wall, a wooden table and two chairs, the bathroom with a sink, a spigot sticking out of a concrete wall for a shower, the water always cold, I learned. His clothes hung from pegs on the wall. In one corner sat a Peace Corps book locker, filled with paperbacks, and books were stacked on the table, next to a writing pad and an empty bottle of beer with a candle pushed down in the opening. The electricity was unpredictable, he said.
Jim went into the bathroom and from the toilet tank took two beers, dripping water on the unfinished wooden floor. We sat until darkness filled the windows and the sounds from the cantina below grew louder, raspy music mingled with voices and laughter. He talked of his two years in San Antonio, of his friendship with the padre, of the many meals they had shared in the casa corral, and of his long rides backcountry.
I told him about walking in downtown Bogota not long ago with a fellow Volunteer, John, who had just come into the city from his small village near Cali. He was frayed, distracted, uncertain about his assignment and about remaining in Colombia. We stepped into the street and a car pulled in front of us, narrowly missing John, and stopped, waiting for the light to change. Cars always had the right of way and gave no quarter to pedestrians. John stood there, looking at the dark sedan and the driver, then crawled up on the hood of the car and slid to the other side. The driver was astonished, then outraged. He opened his car door and yelled a string of Spanish words not found in any dictionary. John just kept on walking down the street, his shoulders hunched and never looked back.
Jim and I both laughed, for there was a truth in that story that even I, being only a short-timer, recognized. “Hell,” said Jim, as if he understood all that I was feeling without my having to say a word, “it isn’t just the language. It’s a completely different view of the world, us and the locals. Things look familiar and then we realize they’re not. When I first arrived, I thought I had dropped off the edge of the world. The silence up here haunted me, especially at night. Good thing they gave me that book locker.”
I glanced at the locker of books and Jim smiled then shook his head at the memory of it all. “For days and then weeks, I sat right here in the Cantina, reading books, drinking too much beer, looking out the open door at the folks walking by, an occasional car. Life like I never could’ve imagined. At first I was terrified and damned lonely. But then things changed. I read less and began talking to the people, all these amazing people, met the padre, became good friends with a doctor who visited once or twice a month who spent most of his time sewing up machete cuts. The capesinos come into town, drink too much beer and start disagreeing, then pull out their machetes.”
Jim shook his head and looked at me for a long time. “Don’t worry. You’ll get the hang of it. Just don’t go home. More than a few in my group have. Some in your group will too. But stick with it. May take a year, but then it’s more than worth it. You won’t believe how worth it. Help a few people, do a little good. Become a different person. Hell, I’m worried that when I get home it’ll be like reverse culture shock. Being back there in the world, probably it’ll make my head ache. Or something.”
The next day we said good-bye. I never saw him again. Strangely, he was from Texas. From a much larger town called San Antonio. I often wondered how his life turned out.
I returned to Bogota’ on the behemoth yellow and red and blue bus, the driver with a death wish, the passengers stoic, the small radio on the dashboard playing salsa music. I never returned to San Antonio. I did take with me more than a few books from Jim’s book locker, books I read and reread, along with others I begged and borrowed from Volunteers, and I did stick it out and the second year was more than wonderful and every day was worth it and more. You can’t believe how worth it, being out in the all of it.
Chris Honore’ is a freelance journalist based in Ashland, Oregon.
A Writer Writes
by Roderick Jones (Nicaragua 199296)
HE HOUSE IS ALONG the highway, just a few miles from the nearest town. It sags at the top of a cliff so steep that it can’t be seen until I’ve come out of the bus and hiked up a slanting path. There are no trees, and the Nicaraguan dry-season sun beats down.
In helping the local health authority establish child-health outposts in each hamlet, my days are filled with these home visits. Inside, the house is dark except for the light beaming through gaps in the adobe. After inviting me in, Doña Senovia goes back to stand over a sooty cauldron on the mud stove. She stirs with a rectangle of wood as small bubbles burp at the surface. The green-grey muck is corn that’s been mixed with ashes to soften the kernels that will later to be ground into masa and flattened into tortillas.
Doña Senovia brings her hands to her chest and fidgets with the top button of her blouse when I ask about the teenage daughter’s health. “Me podía morir anoche,” she says. She could have died on me last night.
Coming to stand in the kitchen with us, Tánia’s leg twitches and bounces. Her face glistens a waxy shade of grayish green, the color of the boiling corn-ash mixture.
I rest my elbows on the table and listen. Doña Senovia runs her palm up and down a groove in the tabletop as though polishing it. She describes her daughter’s nighttime convulsions. She can’t even walk across the room without pain, Doña Senovia says. “Pero no hay reales.” But we’ve got no money for treatment.
Doña Senovia begins to weep. It is a choking cry.
Tánia’s little sisters and her younger brother, Alonzo, are in the next room sitting on folding cots, watching.
ON THE DAY AFTER Tánia dies, I ride the bus out and make my way up the path. Alonzo is standing outside, looking down at me with reddened eyes. I walk toward him, thinking that this undersized twelve year-old boy has always been there with her. Always. I’d see him, barefoot, sitting on the front steps of the Red Cross in town. His heavy black hair jutting out like paintbrushes from his frayed Coca-Cola cap, his neck and clothes coated with dust from the long walks along the highway. Once, he took my hand and not bothering to ask the nurses for permission led me to Tánia’s bedside. She lay on her back, body thumping up and down against the bare mattress. Alonzo and I knelt, and he rested his hand on her temple, slowly stroking her hair. I stared down into her eyes, the only part of her being that was still.
Doña Senovia invites me into the open room where the cots had been before. Now there is a wooden coffin, painted gray, resting on two chairs. Flowers are spread out over the floor and across the top of the casket. I follow Doña Senovia, feeling as though I’d cut to the front of the line of mourners.
Would you like to see her? She asks.
“Pues, yo no sé.” Well, I’m not sure . . . .
But Alonzo and Doña Senovia have already begun to pick the flowers off the coffin and lay them on the floor.
Doña Senovia and Tánia’s father, a slow-moving, vacant man, take opposite ends of the wooden coffin lid in their hands. As they lift it, the father loses his grip and an edge drops on Tánia’s forehead. It slides across, from eyebrow to eyebrow, until he raises it again, and together they lower it to the floor.
Alonzo goes to stand by her, brushing away the flies that try to rest on her face. I watch him run his hands across her neck and along her forehead, pausing as though to assess the texture with his fingers. Seeing him standing by her resting body, where he had always been, I start to feel less uncomfortable.
Doña Senovia leaves the room and comes back with a plastic bag. She pulls out a bridal veil and a pair of new, bright-white athletic socks. Two of Tánia’s friends arrange the veil, lifting her head, tilting her to one side, and fitting the headband around her forehead. When Doña Senovia lifts Tánia’s foot to put on the new socks, the whole leg goes up, from the hip.
The father and the younger siblings have come together in the room. “Rodrigo,” Alonzo says to me. “Pudiera sacarnos una foto?” Could you take our picture?
Roderick Jones is an infectious disease epidemiologist in Chicago. He served as a health PCV in and around Somoto, Nicaragua during 1992 to 1996. He is a frequent contributor to Backstreets: The Boss Magazine.
- Jane Albritton (India 1967-69) writes: In three years the Peace Corps will be 50 years old. A group of current and former volunteers have organized Peace Corps at 50 to honor that event in writing. We are now actively seeking non-fiction stories to include in a four-book 50th anniversary project.
The editors of the Peace Corps at 50 Anniversary Story Project are looking for well-told stories that reflect the entire range of experiences in the Peace Corps whether rosy, uplifting, scary, or ethically murky. -
Complete information on the project, the editors, and writers' guidelines is available at www.peacecorpsat50.org.
- Jim Bildner is a writer who has turned to helping other writers with the Literary Ventures Fund (LVF), a foundation “whose mission is to provide financial support for individual books, regardless of who is publishing them.” Since May 2005 when he set up the foundation, he has helped twelve books, including Kris Holloway’s (Mali 1989-91) memoir, Monique and the Mango Rains, published by Waveland Press in Long Grove, Illinois.
Bildner calls what he does, “venture philanthropy” that is a “partner-in-risk” with its clients, i.e., publishers and writers, and LVF acts like both an investor and consultant. As investor, the LVF puts capital into books of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction in the hope of earning money. The money can be used by the publisher to print more books or by the author to help defray the costs of spending more time writing.
As a consultant, LVF offers assistance with public relations and marketing to help authors, publishers, and booksellers get more books in front of as many readers as possible.
When Kris Holloway heard a presentation about LVF in 2006 she wrote a proposal to them and they accepted her book. They helped market it by reaching out to independent booksellers and setting up a regional tour for Kris. They also developed a media kit and reading group guide that could be downloaded from the foundation’s website. So far, Monique and the Mango Rains has sold over 15,000 copies which is tremendous for this type of book.
If you are interested, and have a book that you think can be helped by LVF, check out their site at www.literaryventuresfund.org. And you can also read about LVF in the Jan/Feb 2008 Poets & Writers.
- Over50andOverseas.com is a resource for people over 50 years of age who are interested in international volunteering. John Dwyer (Guatemala 199192) is looking for articles for the site from 500 to 3000 words that relate or describe international volunteer experiences of folks over 50 years of age. The articles can include tips that may help a prospective volunteer choose organizations and programs, prepare for the trip, manage expectations, enjoy the experience, etc. Photographs in a digital format are also welcome. As the site is new, he is unable to offer compensation at this time. Articles and photos should
be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org