||I DIDN’T KNOW.
We live in America. A place apart. Insulated by an affluence that is unprecedented and unimaginable to those in a place known as the Third World.
John Kennedy had called me had called all who joined during the Peace Corps in the 60s to service. He had suggested that we ask not what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country. Gladly, happily, without reservation. The torch had been passed to a new generation, he said on a bitterly cold day in January, of 1961, and I had reached out, wanting desperately to place my hand where his had been. To take the offered baton. It was as if Kennedy had hit a chord and his moving words reached countless young people who resonated to the idea of being of help, of traveling to a remote corner of the world and not merely passing through but staying. Of making a commitment.
Then it all began
When I received a large white envelope from the Peace Corps, in the spring of 1967, I tore it open and the words congratulations took my breath away. I had been accepted. I would be stationed in Colombia. Training would begin early that summer. I would notify my draft board. Vietnam was raging, hundreds of thousands of men my age were involved. I was on the cusp of being called up. Protests against the war, against “the system,” against LBJ had rippled across college campuses for four years. Draft cards were burned. “Hell no, we won’t go!” became a mantra for students, fists raised in defiance.
Of course, going to Colombia was an abstraction, an idea. A perfect thing. I didn’t know. How could I? My life had been surrounded by dishwashers, dryers, cars, thermostats, electric lights. Water, potable water, sluicing from the tap, hot and cold. Plush carpets. Central heating. Closets of clothes. I often stood in front of the refrigerator, the door open, a nimbus of yellow light bathing the room, the shelves filled with cold milk, lettuce, meats, fruit, vegetables. If we feel poorly, our pharmacies are veritable cornucopias of remedies. The supermarkets were fluorescent bright, filled to capacity with a stunning array of foods and produce and goods. Ubiquitous weight loss programs peppered the sated. Doctors were a phone call away. Everything was supersized in America, our cars, our houses, our lives.
Finally, we arrived in Bogota and the first days were a haze. Assignments given out, endless meetings, allowances and I.D. cards issued. Later, walking the streets of the capital, not unlike tourists, absorbing the newness of it all, the language, the frenetic movement of people and buses and cars, while surrounded by other Volunteers, a buffer of conversation and support that kept alive the idea that this was an adventure as well as a mission. The caveat was one long night spent sitting on the toilet while puking into the sink. A street vendor, perhaps, with chicken on a stick, succulent and tasty, eaten in great bites, only to return with a vengeance.
Nothing could have prepared me for those first weeks and months in Colombia. Being there was everything.
Life lived on a precipice. Everyday tentative. For many an exhausting scramble for survival. No one has a lifestyle. No one has a career or has been to college or possesses a credit card. No one has ever walked through a mall, or bought food at a drive-through or wandered the aisles of a monster department store. No one has had an MRI, or stood in a new car showroom, or been vaccinated or bused to school or stood in line at a school cafeteria selecting from a plethora of food. All of it, every aspect, viewed from a great distance, is surreal and seemingly unattainable.
A small boy, naked from the waist down, stands on a dirt road in front of a small shack, his face a smear of dirt and snot, clusters of flies gather at the corners of his eyes. A ditch filled with a rancid mixture of sewage and garbage and foamy water borders his house.
His mother kneads cornmeal in an aluminum pan, dropping flat cakes onto a blackened grill, a plastic jug of water nearby, filled early that morning after standing in a long line, the barest hint of sunrise on the horizon. Her husband is gone. No one knows where. She barely manages to stay above life’s Plimsoll line.
Breathe. Remember to breathe.