Peace Corps Writers November 2008
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Peace Corps Writers: Front page 11/08
Good News Is A’comin’
OUR PEACE CORPS WRITERS that we have been publishing since 1989 in print through 1998 and on-line since 1999 is moving to a new website www.PeaceCorpsWorldWide.org in January. Our publication will no longer be a bimonthly, but will publish news and information about Peace Corps writers, reviews of new RPCV books, essays by RPCVs, interviews with published writers and information on getting published as it becomes available.
Here is a list of the columnists who will be featured on www.PeaceCorpsWorldWide.org:
- Shlomo Bachrach International Music and Horn of Africa Issues
- Laurette Bennhold-Samaan Bridging Cultures
- Joshua Berman Travel
- Leo Cecchini Money and Finance
- Ralph Cherry Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual issues
- John Coyne Writing Your Peace Corps Story
- Karen DeWitt International Cooking
- Sharon Dirlam Travel
- Barbara Ferris Non-Profits
- Matt Losak News from Washington
- John McCafferty Humor
- Sandy Miller Peace Corps Parents
- Susan Musich Jobs and Employment
- Susan O’Neill Humor
- Doane Perry Peace Corps Film
- Mike Tidwell Environmental Issues
- Catherine Varchaver Health
As we develop the site, we will add other columns and columnists of interest to Peace Corps writers.
Need holiday gift ideas?
How about books by Peace Corps writers! Check out our listings if children's books, books about the Peace Corps experience, and recently published books. We have links to buy them at Amazon, and Peace Corps Writers will receive a small percentage of each purchase to help support our efforts.
In this issue
We have a list of 22 new books and 6 reviews of recently published books all by Peace Corps writers . This issue also has three A Writer Writes pieces: the humorous “Eco-Bore Takes the Good Old Days Back to Tonga” by Tina Martin (Tonga 197071); the insightful “Drowning” by Chris Honore' (Colombia 196769); and the reflective “My Memories of Moritz” by Dennis Bangs (Ecuador 197072).
Our “Talking With” interview is with Marcy L. Spaulding (Mali 200002) who wrote Dancing Trees and Crocodile Dreams: My Life in a West African Village, Marcy’s journals from two years as a PCV in Mali published in 2004.
A note from the publisher: Things have been a bit hectic for me lately as is exhibited by the lateness of this issue. The September issue also came out late and some of you may have missed it. If you did, you can catch up on what you missed at PCWSeptember 2008 and In this issue September 2008.
Recent books by Peace Corps writers: November 2008
by Karen Brody (Belize 198889)
A Memoir of Love Without Bounds
by Isabel Washington Powell
with Joyce A. Burnett (Mauritania, Mali 198991)
DBM Press, LC
Humming the Blues
Inspired by Nin-Me-Sar-Ra, Enheduanna’s
Song to Inanna
by Cass Dalglish (Colombia 196768)
Drinking From the Saucer
by Charlene Cecilia Duline (Peru 196264)
The Cocheta Trilogy
by Jeffrey Austin Faust (Ukraine 200507)
Africa in Europe: Volume One
Antiquity into the Age of Global Exploration
by Stefan C. Goodwin (Nigeria 196567)
$29.95 (paper); $70.00 (cloth)
Africa in Europe: Volume Two
Interdependencies, Relocations, and Globalization
by Stefan C. Goodwin (Nigeria 196567)
$38.95 (paper); $80.00 (cloth)
Africa’s Legacies of Urbanization
Unfolding Saga of a Continent
by Stefan C. Goodwin (Nigeria 1965-67)
Holiday Stories All Year Round
Audience Participation Stories and More
by Violet Teresa deBarba Miller
contributor: Charles Kleymeyer (Peru 196668)
by P.F. Kluge (Micronesia 196769)
Titanic’s Last Secrets
The Further Adventures of Shadow Divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler
by Brad Matsen (Niue 19992000)
by Sandra Meek (Botswana 198991)
My African Horse Problem
by William F. S. Miles (Niger 197779)
University of Massachusetts Press
The Failing American Intervention and the Struggle for Afghanistan
by Nick B. Mills (Colombia 196566)
by Joseph Monninger (Burkina Faso 197577)
Front Street Publisher
New and Selected Poems
by Edward Mycue (Ghana 1961)
by Alice R. O’Grady (Ghana 1961-63; Nigeria Staff 1964-67)
The Race to Save the World’s Rarest Bird
The Discovery and Death of the Po’ouli
by Alvin Powell (Kenya 198385)
The 12-Step Bush Recovery Program
A Lifesaving Guide to Shaking Off the Horrors of the Last Eight Years, with Practical Advice on Relapse, Remission, and Recounts
by Gene Stone (Niger 197476)
Along the Grapevine Trail
Vineyards and Wineries in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska
by Starley Talbott (South Africa 2001)
Pierre SD: State Historical Society Press
In These Latitudes
Ten Contemporary Poets
contributor: Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 196466)
edited by Robert Bonazzi
The Best of Italian Americana
edited by Carol Bonomo Albright and Joanna Clapps Herman
contributor: Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 196466)
Fordham University Press
Literary Type: November 2008
John Flynn (Moldova 199395) has a wonderful piece in the Istanbul Literary Review about an incident in Russia that occurred while he was a Volunteer in Moldova called “Boss Visa.”
Bill Barich (Nigeria 1966-67), who has a series going on the New York Times blog, got me thinking about Peace Corps writers at the New Yorker. Bill Barich wrote many, many pieces for the New Yorker back when William Shawn was the editor of the magazine, as well as Bill’s editor. Then Charlie Michener (Ethiopia 196264) became an editor there and was Peter Hessler’s (China 199698) first editor. George Packer (Togo 198282) came along and appears in the magazine at least once a month writing about Iraq and now the political campaigns. In the November 3, 2008, issue Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 1996) has a piece on video games. Tom is the author of Father of All Things, and a collection of short stories God Lives in St. Petersburg. He is writing a travel book now about the tombs of the Twelve Apostles (I kid you not.) Tom’s Peace Corps book was Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia.
So, who says you can’t go into the Peace Corps and still make it at the New Yorker?
Eve Brown-Waite (Ecuador 198889) has hit the jackpot with her Peace Corps book, First Comes Love, Then Comes Malaria. She signed a six-figure contract with Broadway Books, a division of Random House for her memoir that will be published in April ’09. The book sold at auction, [five publishing houses were bidding for it] while Eve and her husband, John Waite (Burkina Faso 198386), waited out the day of tension at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City, taking calls from her agent, and turning down offers.
Eve, who was recruited out of the New York Recruitment office [then located at Times Square] by the same John Waite. “I fell in love with him during the interview. I wasn’t sure about the Peace Corps, but I was sure about him.” Eva did go off to Ecuador only to be sent home early for medical reasons. “I didn’t think he’d marry me then since I wasn’t a Super Vol.”
So, she went and earned a master’s degree in public health from Hunter College and he got his master’s in International Affairs from Columbia University. They married and John took a job with CARE in northern Uganda. It was in Arua, Uganda that she began to write down her stories, beginning with her work with street kids in Ecuador, her life in Uganda, and later in Uzbekistan from 1993 to 1996 .
Their tour in Uganda was during a time of guerrilla warfare and tense days both were held hostage in their home at one point but Eve also adds, “Most of the time it was beautiful and peaceful. We had a lovely time, and the people for the most part were tremendously friendly and helpful.”
Her memoir begins and ends in Uzbekistan, but it is really about “following John a Peace Corps poster boy through the Third World.”
You can check this all out at:
www.EveBrownWaite.com and www.TheDebutanteBall.com
Iranian Jahanshah Javid sent Peace Corps Writers the following message:
I wanted to share my blog with you. I wrote about the importance of sharing stories and photos about Iran in rebuilding relations between Iranians and Americans:
RPCVs especially those who served in Iran should visit Jahanshah’s blog entry, and maybe even leave a comment?
Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 196466) has his short story “Marco’s Marcoroni” in the newly published anthology Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian Americana.
Talking with . . .
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
DANCING TREES and Crocodile Dreams: My Life in a West African Village, has the subtitle: “Journals from Two Years As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali.” The book was published in 2004 by the small California Press Poppy Lane Publishing. It was written by Marcy L. Spaulding (Mali 200002).
We have had Marcy’s book listed on our site since it was published, but I did not have it reviewed. I remember it coming to me, and seeing that is was “just” journal entries, decided to let it pass. Then a few months back, Bonnie Black (Gabon 199698) emailed me that she had read the book and found it to be extraordinarily good. Bonnie’s opinion was enough for me. I got in touch with her, asked her to review the book and it is reviewed in this issue and then got in touch with Marcy for this interview. Marcy today lives in San Francisco and I emailed her a few questions.
Marcy, tell us something about yourself.
I was born and raised in Fresno, California, where I lived until I left for Vassar College when I was 17. I am the youngest of 4 children. I have 2 brothers, 1 sister, 2 nephews, and 2 nieces. My parents are both in California, but the rest of my family is all over the world, from Canada to Sweden.
What have you been doing since you left the Peace Corps?
I have lived in San Francisco for the past 5 years, almost since I returned from Peace Corps. I have been a registered nurse since 2006, and I work part time as an obstetric nurse. My primary occupation at the moment is as a master’s student at the University of California, San Francisco where I am studying Advanced Community Health and International Nursing.
Let’s go back to Vassar. When you finished college, why did you head off to the Peace Corps?
When I went back east to Vassar, I knew for sure that I wanted to study abroad for a semester, and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to go to Cameroon. I fell in love with that part of the world. I was interested in people and cultures and new experiences. I was also interested in health, particularly the influence of culture on health. I had thought about the Peace Corps since I was in high school, and there was nothing I wanted to do more after graduating. So, I applied and became a health Volunteer in Mali.
Editors note: When I was the manager of the PC/NY office, we would recruit at Vassar, a lovely campus near the Hudson River. Vassar women are famous for being bright, articulate and political. When we did an Information Session on campus, a question that was always asked was: is the Peace Corps part of the CIA? The recruiters made bets on how fast that question would be asked in the Q & A.
You studied Anthropology and Sociology at Vassar. How did that academic background influence your Peace Corps experience?
Well, my choice of major was of course influenced by my interest in people and cultures, and that interest also led me to the Peace Corps. But I do think my studies helped me to gain a deeper appreciation for what I saw and experienced when I was in Mali, and led me to much of the reflection that you see in the book. I studied cultural influences on health, and in Mali I had the chance to experience that first hand. People joke that you can’t do much with a degree in anthropology, but I felt (and still feel in my present career) that it was just the right background to have!
You say in your book that you used your journal to “write the roller coaster” of your Peace Corps experience. What do you think about the therapeutic uses of journaling?
For me, journaling was very therapeutic. I was lucky to have fellow Peace Corps friends not too far away they were my best therapy, but I only saw them every couple weeks or so. I had great friends in my village as well, but there was a language and cultural divide between us. As much as I loved life in the village to an extent I found it very difficult to go for days on end without being able to communicate with anyone in my own language (actual or cultural). So, my journal became my outlet. It was a place where I could express my frustrations and my joys, and try to make sense of everything that was going on, around me and within me. I tended to write more often when I was sad or angry or confused which was often, but certainly not all the time. So the book does not reflect my entire experience, it actually leaves out a lot of the good aspects of my time in Mali.
Would you recommend that all PCVs keep a journal?
I would definitely suggest giving it a try, though I don’t think it’s necessarily for everyone. Each person has to find his or her own way to process the experience. But I do think it is crucial to find a way to process it.
Did you think that while you were keeping your Peace Corps journal that you would actually share it (publish it) one day?
Yes and no. I’ll admit that the thought was in the back of my mind at times, but I didn’t think it would actually happen. For the writing to be truly useful, though, I had to be able to write anything and everything on the understanding that it would never be seen by anyone but me. My actual journal is still private not everything is in the book. Also, I kept two separate journals: one for just writing, and one for more creative expressions poems, drawings, quotes from things I had read, etc. The book is made up of pieces from both.
Do you think of yourself as a writer?
To be honest, not really. I’m glad I had the opportunity to do this project, but it was unexpected and, other than writing papers for school, I’ve never really written anything else.
Are you planning to write another book?
No plans yet, but if I am truly inspired by something I might consider it. The Peace Corps was a very inspirational time in my life, which made the writing easy.
Your publisher did a really fine job of producing your book; it is well edited and designed. How did you come across this company?
I have Bette Peterson of Poppy Lane Publishing to thank for that. She is a long-time family friend who was on my email list while I was in Mali. She liked what I had written in my emails, so when she approached me about the possibility of publishing my journals through her company, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Marcy, thank you for your time.
The Book of Sleep
by Eeanor Stanford (Cape Verde 19982000)
Carnegie Mellon Press,
Reviewed by Eric Torgersen (Ethiopia 196466)
INCLINED AT FIRST to resist The Book of Sleep by what seemed, for poetry, a formulaic title (Book of Dreams, Book of Nightmares, Book of My Nights), I was won over first, as I browsed, by its smallest poem, the lovely five lines of “Fontanel”:
door. I cannot be
“The Book of Sleep (XXIX),” almost as short, gives the same pleasure at seeing everything done exactly right.
Reading more systematically, I was drawn in further by the book’s second poem, “Self-Portrait, Cape Verde,” which opens with an epigraph from Simone Weil: “It is better to say, ‘I am suffering,’ than to say, ‘this landscape is ugly.’” Here’s the poem:
How dare you say the plow is beautiful?
Or the gnarled fist of manioc, the kerosene burned down
to a scorched wick.
The first person in Creole, you don’t open your mouth:
N. N ta. N ta bai
How heavy this body has become.
The child who died of fever.
The velvet dress, earthen dance floor. Cigarette. I’m so tired
Xan xinta li fuma nha cigarru
It was never my knuckles against the washboard’s ribs.
Or my grief, when the rain came,
and carried the pigs and goats into the sea.
What RPCV does not know the guilty feeling of being exempt, and the fact beneath it that we go home from this place of (among other things) suffering, and they stay? I value too the way the epigraph adds complexity to the thought. This referentiality, this bringing her reading to bear on a poem’s core of felt experience, is a frequent feature of Stanford’s work, and to me a real strength. Another characteristic is the inclusion of untranslated text from several languages, which works here because it enacts the numbness of “I’m so tired / of translating.” In “The Refugees” there’s even a bit of overheard Amharic to please this old Ethiopia hand.
The book’s center is not the Peace Corps experience, but that of new motherhood: the wonder in “Fontanel,” the various small intimacies shared with the new son Ezra, sometimes through a fog of sleeplessness and exhaustion. This is “Changing Ezra, 2 a.m.”:
The map above the changing table
holds him in its thrall. His scream
hovers, then dissolves, a squall
dissipating over the South Pacific.
All he sees is contrast: one country
blurs into the next.
The plates are shifting.
They drift toward each other,
away from that mutable ocean
where once he swam so fluently.
Remember the garbage barge that left New York
and sailed halfway around the world,
only to return to harbor?
Even Haiti couldn’t be convinced to take it.
Geography is finite, that’s the problem.
But night its borders are permeable, his cry
the coyote that ferries me across.
I’m not perfectly sure that the introduction of the garbage barge here is necessary rather than merely ingenious or unexpected, but the poem is resonant and ends well.
Here, finally, is “February, Mid-afternoon: Nursing Ezra”:
The still water of his face:
the way expression
passes over it, his brow ruffled
by some distant storm. Next door
someone practices scales
on the trumpet, each note
a luminous balloon let go
above the neighborhood.
Where is the poem without ambition?
Even the trees preen
against the sky’s flat mirror.
Even the glass of water on the table
As a first book, The Book of Sleep delivers much and promises more. It has plenty of skill and ambition. Stanford brings both intelligence and feeling to bear on meaningful subjects. Always polished, the poems are rarely content to be mere exhibitions of technique. As yet, it is most compelling for its content; if there is, at this point, a Stanford signature, it lies in the fullness and complexity of her response to experience. The formal toolkit she employs so skillfully is by and large a standard one, and I don’t hear, as yet, a distinctive voice by which we could recognize a Stanford poem on an unfamiliar subject. But developing these is what the rest of a poet’s life is for.
Eric Torgersen has retired from teaching writing at Central Michigan University. His newest book is the novella The Man Who Loved Rilke, reviewed in the July 2008 issue of Peace Corps Writers. His other books include two more novellas, four books of poems, and the study Dear Friend: Rainer Maria Rilke and Paula Modersohn-Becker. Torgersen lives in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan with his wife, the quilt artist Ann Kowaleski.
Dancing Trees and Crocodile Dreams
My Life in a West African Village
by Marcy L. Spaulding (Mali 200002)
Poppy Lane Publishing
Reviewed by Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 199698)
“KEEP A JOURNAL,” I urge my creative writing students. “Share with it as you would a friend, a confidant, even a therapist. ‘Talk’ to it every day, for at least ten minutes, preferably in the morning. Use it to write out your thoughts, plans, worries, fears, observations, hopes anything you wish. Keep it to yourself, though. Don’t show anyone. Not even your mother. Especially not your mother.”
Journaling, in my view anyway, has always been something meant to be private, akin to piano practice not intended for an audience. But RPCV Marcy Spaulding’s book, Dancing Trees and Crocodile Dreams: My Life in a West African Village, which bears the added subtitle, Journals from Two Years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali, has changed my mind, and for the better.
Spaulding’s memoir weaves selected (and presumably undoctored) chronological journal entries spanning her Peace Corps service in Mali with mass-mailings (letters and e-mails home), a handful of her own poems, plus short, poignant essays, called “Retrospectives,” in which she shares her thoughts in hindsight. (See “Balance” excerpt.) The success of this literary tapestry lies in Spaulding’s authorial voice honest, unpretentious, clear, highly intelligent, personal, yet universal.
Spaulding’s thoughtful and thought-provoking journal musings are not your typical egocentric navel-gazings. The questions she wrestles with especially her favorites, “Why am I here?” and, “Can I really do this for two years?” will ring utterly true for most RPCVs, regardless of where or when they served. Her grappling will help PCVs’ families better understand what their loved ones in remote villages are going through. Most of all, Spaulding’s forthrightness will help prepare prospective PCVs for the realities that lie ahead of them. Spaulding uses her journal, as she admits, to “write the roller coaster ride,” and readers of this book will want to join her on that ride.
As I did when I served in the rainforest of Gabon, Spaulding frequently uses her journal to make lists, pro and con. On May 10, 2001, just one year after graduating from Vassar with a degree in Anthropology and nine months into her Peace Corps service, she writes from her Malian village, Bendougouba,
“How is it that I’m crazy enough to stay here? [given the fact that]
- It’s REALLY HOT
- I have to fight daily battles with termites and cockroaches
- I’m always dirty
- My body has become a home for several internal parasites
- I’m an object of endless amusement and ridicule . . .
- I’m in a constant state of having very little idea of what’s going on . . .
- I’m forced to suspend, in part, my own culture and values . . .
- My family and friends are thousands of miles away . . .
- I’m here in part to help, but I often feel helpless . . .”
But to balance the scales, she quickly adds
“the reasons why I am here and why I do this job:
- For the immeasurable and invaluable learning and experience derived from immersion into another culture
- For friendships that transcend difference and make ‘the other’ no longer the others, but my brothers and sisters
- To defy and challenge stereotypes and preconceived notions of whom I am and where I come from
- To know another way of living . . .
- Because my work is interesting and important to me
- Because 9 to 5 in an office is not my thing
- Because I’m young and free.”
Spaulding was indeed young just 22 when she went to Mali and her youthful exuberance sometimes shows up in too many exclamation points in her journal entries. But on the whole, her Peace Corps memoir is one of the best I’ve read yet, the only one I’ve happily read twice because I so enjoyed spending time with her and listening to her voice. From now on, when I advise my students to keep a journal, I’ll point to excerpts of Marcy Spaulding’s memoir to prove journaling’s potential.
Retrospective: Balance and Self
Balance is a recurring theme in my life. I need balance to feel whole, to be at peace. It’s no wonder, then, that finding balance became an important and constant goal for me in Mali. It was something I became aware of each and every time I went to the pump to get water. I’d fill the bucket, place a rag on my head for cushioning, and ever so carefully position the heavy weight in just the right place on my head with both arms stretched high. If it wasn’t quite right, I’d either compensate with the way I held my arms, or I’d have to try it again. Then, once I was satisfied with the positioning of the bucket, I’d begin the careful walk home, one foot in front of the other, grounded by the liquid weight above me, and wholly aware of the importance of balance. If I lost my concentration, a cool and wet reminder would tell me to be aware.
I found being aware of balance was extremely important to my life in Mali. I needed to find balance between cultural integration and preservation of self. Between being the way others wanted me to be, and being myself. Between work and play, public life and personal life, being led and leading, learning and teaching, socializing and being alone. All of these things pulled me in different directions, and I discovered that although all of these things were important, to be happy and sane I needed to set limits. I discovered that in order to be respected in the community and to do my work without also losing my self, I needed to find balance . . . .
And, if I ever flew off center, which oftentimes I did, I always had my buckets of water to ground me.
Bonnie Lee Black teaches English and Creative Nonfiction Writing at UNM-Taos.
Danger in the Desert
True Adventures of a Dinosaur Hunter
by Roger Cohen (Mongolia 199698)
Flying Point Press
Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 197577)
ROGER COHEN’S BOOK about adventurer Roy Chapman Andrews will make any boy smile. It includes tales of snakes, battles with bandits, towering sandstorms, and even managing camel caravans. You might enjoy it too since there is a little boy sleeping in many a grown man you’d call sensible.
The subject of this young adult biography is a man who organized scientific expeditions for the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Hired as a recent college graduate to sweep floors, Andrews learned quickly, and over the subsequent thirty-six years he was sent to remote parts of the world for various studies. He also wrote a series of his own books about these adventures.
Cohen’s book concentrates on Andrew’s first (1922) of many expeditions into the forbidding Gobi Desert during the waning days of China’s first experiment with a republican government under the elected president Sun Yat-Sen. China was anything but modern and the Gobi was considered one of the most inhospitable and inaccessible places on earth with temperatures fluctuating between summer highs of 145 degrees and winter lows of -40 degrees; it was a land of screeching blizzards and smothering sandstorms. Mounted bandits roamed. Poisonous snakes abounded.
Revolver on his hip, Andrews led the expedition that not only recovered countless dinosaur fossils, but also revolutionized scientific theory when his men uncovered dinosaur eggs. Until that moment, the scientific community had assumed that dinosaurs were mammals born alive.
One reason that the expedition was so successful was the ingenious use of the automobile. Andrew’s explained, “We’re going to do it the Mongolian way. We’ll hire a camel caravan to carry fuel for the cars and other supplies. The caravan will meet us at certain points along the route. We’ll be able to stay mobile and explore a huge amount of territory.”
Even so, the exploration was not easy. After getting lost, they discovered that their old Russian maps were inaccurate. They faced apocalyptic sandstorm, and as temperatures dropped they had to battle vipers. One night alone, they killed forty-seven snakes that had slithered into their warm tents.
Like Odysseus, Andrews displayed guile. While driving through a Mongolian mountain pass, armed and mounted bandit sharpshooters literally shot the steering wheel, forcing Andrew’s vehicle to the side of the road, stuck. Since Andrews and his sidekick had not had time to return fire, the bandits thought them unarmed and approached casually, talking. Andrews and his friend then shot two of the bandits, and the others fled. Later near the Chinese border, Andrews faced four mounted bandits. “Each wore a thin dust-covered dell and had a long musket slung across his back.” Andrews drew his ever-present pistol and gunned his car’s engine, heading straight toward them. The engine’s roar spooked the horses “throwing two to the ground. The other two men dropped their muskets . . ..”
The book also digresses to important moments in Andrew’s life; his childhood experiences in the wild, his introduction to the museum, and his early studies of whales. This is a fascinating story about a man who is generally believed to have inspired the cinematic Indiana Jones character. In an age of robotic astronauts, it is refreshing to read about an individual, cut off from his homeland, who adapts and succeeds much like a Peace Corps Volunteer. The author, Roger Cohen, served in Mongolia, traveled through the Gobi Desert, and met locals who still speak “of the richest sites of dinosaur bones in the world” and their discoverer, Roy Chapman Andrews
Lawrence F. Lihosit works as an urban planner. Several of his books and pamphlets are available on-line at www.abookcompany.net. A regular contributor to Peace Corps Writers, he may be contacted directly at LawrenceFLihosit@gmail.com.
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar
by Paul Theroux (Malawi 196365)
Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 200002, Madagascar 200203) )
PAUL THEROUX’S LATEST addition to his oeuvre, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, is a thoughtful, meditative book in the tradition of the very greatest travel writers, a gallery to which Theroux of course has long since signed his name. Now isn’t that a typical opening to a Theroux review?
But it’s true. This review which I’ve uncharacteristically missed my deadline on has been languishing on my desk for months and proven exceptionally hard to write for a couple of reasons. The first one being that I have a brand new baby on my hip, my first, my daughter, the light of my life to which I am drawn like a moth to the exclusion of all other sensation or labor. And the main one being the esteem I hold for Theroux, for his novels, for his language and reasoning and verbal luminosity. How can you write about Theroux without also attempting to reveal your own “glittering eyes”?
Serendip is a nation Theroux visits on the long railway journey he takes in this book, from Paris to Tokyo and back again, and I’ll use serendipity as an ersatz opening. I was in St. Augustine, Florida, a few weeks ago where I heard the pretender to the Poet Laureate of Florida throne, Peter Meinke, read his poem “The Night Train”. To quote his dark poem about a nighttime voyage in a tight compartment with strangers, “. . . this closed anonymous world inside a train/a nothing sort of place For God’s sake/get on with it: there’s nothing much at stake.”
I immediately thought of Theroux’s book. For all the recent commentary about how Ghost Train is a reflection of that famous travel book he wrote all those years ago, this book also is not. Ghost Train would exist even if Bazaar had never been written. Ghost Train is less a book about a voyage than it is about a place in life. A place in life when one realizes that life has mostly been lived, that the great acts have happened, that to look out on the world again from the window of a train is to see the world as it will be when you leave it, a world that is largely the same. To quote Meinke, “For God’s sake get on with it.” Neither Meinke nor Theroux are talking about the trip.
On the surface, this is a book about traveling on trains. About the people you are forced to rub elbows with, about the stations on the siding in the middle of nowhere with a single bulb burning in the darkness. Early in the book, Theroux writes,
This the closed compartment on the old train to Azerbaijan was something else. Travel means living among strangers, their characteristic stinks and sour perfumes, eating their food, listening to their dramas, enduring their opinions, often with no language in common, being always on the move towards an uncertain destination, creating an itinerary that is continuously shifting, sleeping alone, inventing the trip, cobbling together a set of habits in order to stay sane and rational, finding ways to fill the day and be enlightened, avoiding danger, keeping out of trouble, and, immersed in the autobiographical . . . writing everything down.
But this is also a book about living in the world, about keeping vast stretches of it familiar, even if they were only visited once thirty years ago, and only for a few hours. Theroux seems to be searching less for the vistas he passes on his trains and there are many, many of them than he is searching for something essential in himself: “What did it mean?”
One unfortunate aspect of Ghost Train is Theroux’s constant seeking out of prostitutes. Not to sleep with them, but to speak to them, to understand their existences, their motives, their pain. The first encounters are with Eastern European whores in Turkey, but they come again in Thailand and throughout Asia. Again and again, he offers them money “just to talk.” Invariably, and unsurprisingly, the prostitutes do not want to. The book’s most awful moment comes in Singapore, when Theroux is led to a cell full of prepubescent girls. He writes into his prose the requisite disgust. But the repetitious return to the topic begins to beg a question: “‘Don’t you know the answer to this already, Paul?” As a traveler in this book, Theroux likens himself to Odysseus, his wife at home to Penelope. But where there is smoke, there is fire. In this one flaw, it seems that Theroux hasn’t traveled very far at all.
Ghost Train is a writer’s book. Though he travels at that level we all did once: the cramped quarters, the midnight flashlights and demands for the passport, the smoking, the peasants drinking, Theroux also leaves the train and enters the literary heights that belong to him. Orhan Pamuk offers a tour of Istanbul, Pico Ayer plays a non-fluent host in Japan. And in by far the book’s strangest, funniest, most voyeuristic moment, Theroux spends a day with an aged and extraterrestrial Arthur C. Clarke at his home in Sri Lanka, which is a disturbing mausoleum to himself. Theroux also manages to shake hands with Prince Charles.
The changes Theroux notes in the world, the explosion of Bangalore, India, for example, due to call centers and IT, he always balances with observations of the constant beggars in the gutter. His conscience gets the best of him in Myanmar, where he gives enough money to the one “friend” he makes on the trip, Oo Ng Nawng, a helpful “tour guide” we all have met, to buy himself a rickshaw and substantially better his life. In Singapore, Theroux is accosted by an unfriendly media in the city-state he one called home, and in Turkmenistan, he offers a truly careful examination of a nation wholly in the grip of an insane dictator.
In all the things he is supposed to do in this book: offer us historical contexts, paint the color of the landscapes, record the sounds of the languages, introduce us to individuals, Theroux lives up to his name.
But what is most worthy about this book is that which was clearly intentional: Theroux’s portrait of himself. Ghost Train is a startling trip, a trip to make any traveler jealous. But it is also a voyage into Paul Theroux’s stage in life. While I can easily say the book is necessary reading, as a youngish man who has traveled widely and begun to note with fear the passage of time, what I wish most is that I could also say Ghost Train is happy. It’s not.
Theroux will always be a Peace Corps writer; whether the wider world knows that or not, we always will. It’s a precise language we speak, a precise way we judge one another. What is so special about Theroux is that while most of us return home from those strange corners of the world where we became ourselves to resume our mostly anonymous lives here, Theroux has long been what we wish to be, the good man on the stage. Does he use it still to teach people how to wash their hands, splash bleach into their wells, crap in latrines, roll on condoms, be better than they are, even when he knows it’s ridiculous? Yes. A bit more acerbically than most of us, but yes. To read Ghost Train is to read a story of our own.
“Most of the world is worsening,” Theroux writes late in the book, “shrinking to a ball of bungled desolation. Only the old can really see how gracelessly the world is aging and all that we have lost. Politicians are always inferior to their citizens. No one on earth is well governed. Is there hope?”
“Yes,” he simply concludes.
How dare you, Paul? How dare you?
Tony D’Souza novels are Whiteman and The Konkans. He’s contributed fiction and essays to The New Yorker, Playboy, Esquire, Outside, Salon, and is a 2008 Guggenheim fellow. He lives in Sarasota with his wife and infant daughter.
by P.F. Kluge (Micronesia 196769)
Reviewed by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 196567)
GONE TOMORROW, PF. Kluge’s latest gift to readers begins with an introduction written by Mark May, who is a young English professor at a small midwestern liberal arts college. In its initial pages, Mark proceeds to tell us about the late George Canaris, recent victim of a hit-and-run. Canaris had just retired from a thirty-year career teaching writing, a job he landed because of one of his two novels was included in a list of the one hundred greatest novels of all time. Mark, recently arrived on campus, is way out of Canaris’s league and barely knew him. But Mark has been named in the great writer’s will as his literary executor. Shouldn’t be too hard as Canaris only published three books altogether decades ago, but here’s the rub: Canaris had once been given a very large advance for a new novel, The Beast, that he purportedly had been slaving over, and his long-suffering editor under pressure from the publisher wants to know where the hell it is. Does it even exist? Did it ever?
The conceit Kluge uses to begin the novel is unorthodox. It’s not easy to have a reader accept that there exists a go-between setting things up before allowing you to read the actual book. My heretofore favorite example of the master-of-ceremonies character is the “translator” who opens Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden. I love this. (Confession: I am presently writing a fictional memoir introduced by a professor who found the memoirist’s papers along with a couple of other goodies in a zinc-lined box. Please god, between Kluge’s book and the publication of my own, do not let another writer attempt this.)
I’m around ten pages into the book when I am no longer laughing to myself but rather aloud. Mark is bitching about a new edition of Shakespeare that offers a guide to teachers to encourage their students to think, graciously relieving the professor of this duty which is, of course, why we have professors in the first place: “Was King Lear a little too proud? If so, was it a father’s pride or a king’s? Is there anyone in your family like King Lear?” I immediately felt a need to respond, “No, but my older sister likes to watch old guys get their eyes gouged out.”
All relaxed by Mark, the reader sits back to enjoy George Canaris’s discourse on his life which began in Karlsbad, Czechoslovakia in 1938, and how he ended up astonishinglyat the little Ohio campus where he will remain till he dies. (P.F. Kluge has been writer in residence at Kenyon College forever, not that we should presume that this book demonstrates what it’s really like at Kenyon since it’s a novel.) He serves up great flashbacks to his family’s history and flight from Europe, his time in LA; the death of the love of his life. The academic life would seem an ideal situation for Canaris: secluded campus without distractions to his writing; just a few classes to expound on writing; summers off to sightsee with prostitutes as an attraction whose services he pays for while he gets over the lost love until he finds a couple of women he likes a lot and whose travel expenses he pays for; a few talented students; a zillion mediocre ones who don’t particularly tax him, none driven by the passion and psychotic drive necessary to bring about publication and maybe even money beyond the joke known as an “advance.” (The public perception of an advance is of an amount that only goes to writers like Canaris.)
But with his cushion, Canaris is perhaps wasting his promise (here today, Gone Tomorrow) because The Beast does not raise its head. Beyond Girlfriend A, and later Girlfriend B, and a few friends who are more boring than television game show panelists elderly professors with their small-town gossipy takes on various administrators and a couple of townies, that’s his life. Meanwhile, an anonymous former student leaves Canaris a threatening note and a hundred pages later someone appears parked on his street late at night with the headlights left on and throws something. Why Kluge wanted to have this particular gun in the drawer, I couldn’t figure out. Canaris carries on, leaves the reader clues as to where The Beast might be, interacts with characters who may or may not know the mystery behind the book, and then as we learned in Mark’s introduction, he’s killed.
So all of the above answers the question: What’s this book about? Which a reviewer is required to answer since a review is a consumer report, unlike literary criticism. But what a book is about has never interested me. Gone Tomorrow, like all really good books, isn’t about anything. Who said it should be? It is a revelation a window into human nature what you get when a terrific writer peels back life as we know it and shows us we’re all blind as bats.
I met P.F. Kluge, also known as Fred, in DC at the 30th (35th ?) Peace Corps anniversary party. I sat next to him at a lunch hosted by John Coyne for former Volunteers who came to be writers. I would have flirted with Fred but my husband was on the other side of me and John was directly across. There were two people at table who said they weren’t writers. We didn’t know who they were. Maybe they weren’t even former Peace Corps Volunteers. It was getting a little surreal (just the way Kluge’s new book can get), except for the waitress who was a bit testy. She didn’t like us. Someone ordered a glass of seltzer and she said, “Seltzer. What might that be?” So I hooked a thumb at Fred and said to her, “Ya know, this guy wrote Eddie and the Cruisers and it was made into a movie.” With that, she fell all over us and gave us whatever we wanted without griping. Lucky us to have had Fred there. Lucky everyone to have his fabulous body of work and now a new novel to devour. No, nibble at. No, devour.
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 196567) has written eight novels including the Poppy Rice Mysteries, an acclaimed memoir, Girls of Tender Age, and perhaps the first Peace Corps novel, Lament for a Silver-Eyed Woman. Her new book, Dirty Water: A Red Sox Mystery, written in collaboration with her son Jere Smith, came out in time for the 2008 World Series. She is working on a Civil War novel.
by Robert Balmanno (Botswana 197375)
Reviewed by Paul Shovlin (Moldova 199698)
THE WORD AMBITIOUS best describes Robert Balmanno’s entrance into the distinguished domain of the science fiction dystopia with his book September Snow, the first book in his planned four-book The Blessings of Gaia series. With this series, Balmanno offers a unique and timely approach to this subgenre with his focus on a climate out of control and a state religion based on nature worship, which, counter-intuitively, offers a framework for totalitarian control.
September Snow focuses on the experiences of the anachronistic Tom Novak, an old man and a writer from the years 2051 to 2097. By the end of that span, Tom is one of the oldest persons alive and probably the only writer. A relic of the past, Tom’s memory holds the only unmitigated record of events from before, during, and after cataclysmic events, such as the worldwide Eleven-Years-War, climate change, and a radical and totalitarian government, that have irrevocably affected modern life. Society is composed of the few who have money, power, and everything, and the masses at the bottom who are exploited. Much of the population, except the poorest of the poor and the few who resist, live in domes which offer protection from the fall-out of a breakdown in the earth’s climate, particularly from the scorching sun, but make people dependent on the totalitarian theocratic Gaia government.
In the early parts of the novel, Tom works within the system, basically as a PR dupe, enjoying the few privileges afforded him as a result of his status, but, for the most part, he is soul dead. That is, until he is liberated, literally, and later spiritually, when he is mistaken for a VIP and kidnapped by a resistance movement led by the namesake of the book, a woman named September Snow. September, wife of the scientist who orchestrated many of the advances that the Gaia government uses to enforce its rule, is especially equipped to search for and attempt to strike at the government’s Achilles heel.
Writing science fiction is a risky business. Fans, such as myself, can be persnickety when evaluating new works, because of the kinds of expectations we sometimes have. Balmanno is not writing so-called hard science fiction, science fiction characterized by an extrapolation from the technicalities of real science. For example, technologies like nuclear fusion and nuclear powered wind machines capable of changing the weather exist, but are not theorized in detail. Further, while political issues surrounding economic inequality, government control, climate change, and human interference with the natural world are certainly relevant to the arc of the novel, they do not take center stage like they might in Orwell, Huxley, Zamyatin, or the like. This book is about character and characterization. And while it’s easy to compare it to the seminal texts in the genre, 1984, Brave New World, We, and others, such as Logan’s Run, in my opinion it does Balmanno a disservice and risks a misreading of the novel and, perhaps, estranging oneself from it. To me, Balmanno’s work is not so much about competing with Orwell and the rest, but more in the tradition of the homage or, in modern terms, a mash up which uses different characteristics from these masterpieces as touchstones aligned to a polarity of Balmanno’s own. The strength of the novel ultimately lies in its accessibility. It isn’t just for science fiction readers, but is more attuned to a general audience, especially one concerned with issues important to us today and their implications for tomorrow.
There are certainly some aspects of the novel that were problematic for me. Elements like the prologue may feel like they tell too much, rather than show. Also, there is a tendency for repetition in places. A close reader may feel the repeated phrases and description are unnecessary, while it might serve other readers well in keeping them informed with what’s going on. Also, some characteristics felt either too gratuitous or stereotypical, for example, Tom’s talent for weather prognostication being possibly connected to his Native American heritage, or the description of the Yoda-like Native American Shamans who train Iona Snow, September’s daughter, in the desert at the end of the book.
But, the scope of the novel and Balmanno’s relentless focus on his characters have the tendency of ameliorating any shortcomings. This novel is big in a couple of ways. First, it covers nearly 50 years of time in 346 pages. Second, the action takes place all over the earth, from Antarctica to the Himalayas to the American-Mexican Sonora desert. While Balmanno might not go in depth in many aspects of the state of the future, the breadth he offers results in a feeling of a fully realized world. While I can’t say I identified with the main character Tom Novak, I found myself keenly interested in what was going to happen to him next. Balmanno has a knack of nurturing that kind of curiosity. Further, the end of the novel is strong. Iona’s development and the rest of the story that follows September’s last desperate attack on the Gaia government are compelling. Also, the end paves the way for the next in the series, which focuses on Iona’s struggle, and left me looking forward to book two.
Paul Shovlin is completing a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition at Ohio University and serving as Assistant Director for the Center for Writing Excellence. He specializes in new media and writing technologies. He lives in Athens, Ohio with his wife and son.
A Writer Writes
My Memories of Moritz
by Dennis Bangs (Ecuador 197072)
AT MY TRAINING for Peace Corps Ecuador in Montana during the summer of 1970 I started hearing about Moritz Thomsen who, at the age of 54, had been a Volunteer in Ecuador from 1965 to 1967. I can’t remember if I read the account of his Peace Corps experience, Living Poor, that summer or just heard about it. I have since read it many times so my memory of the first time is a little fuzzy after these 38 years. The book was published in 1969 and was required reading for a number of Peace Corps Latin America training programs, so I may have read it that summer.
I was preparing to work at a cattle project near a town called Santa Domingo de Los Colorados, which was close to where Moritz had bought a farm and settled down after his Peace Corps years. He recounts this experience in his second book, The Farm on the River of the Emeralds.
On my arrival in the Santa Domingo area I had forgotten about Moritz because I was dealing with my own challenges of being a PCV. At that time, the fall of 1970, the Peace Corps had a big presence in Ecuador with many established and respected programs. I had the good fortune to work in a successful cattle program where we worked with local cattle producers. In the beginning it distributed purebred Brahma bulls into the local farmer’s herds. Our job was to establish an education program for the prospective recipients of these bulls.
At the same time, another program just a few kilometers away, and on the same road, had a similar program working with pigs. Because Moritz was a pig farmer in California, and pigs were an integral part of almost any new farm in the jungle, he had a lot of pigs, and a lot of problems with his pigs. I didn’t know him as well as the Volunteers who worked at the pig farm, but I did see him a few times. I also visited with these Volunteers who told me about Moritz, what he was like, and what he was up too.
As I remember, no one was quite sure whether Moritz kept coming to the pig farm to get “expert advice” on pig farming or he was just hungry for contact with fellow Peace Corps Volunteers and North Americans and a chance to speak English. Regardless of his motives, he spent quite a bit of time with some of the Volunteers in the pig program, entertaining everyone with his intellect, sarcasm and cynicism.
Moritz was a fascinating character. He was trying to create a place for himself in the jungle in between Santa Domingo and Esmeraldas, but was facing frustration at every step. In a way he seemed almost as much an Ecuadorian farmer as a North American writer. The frustrations he faced with the farm seemed to roll off him like many of the farmers we worked with. If something didn’t work and all of his pigs got sick he would shrug his shoulders and say something to the effect of “asi asi,” a local expression meaning, “well that is just the way it is.” One of his other favorite expressions was “todo esta jodido” or “everything is fucked.”
I do remember one story more than the others. It is a story that turns up in The Farm on the River of the Emeralds. He liked to tell stories of his own failures, and this one was about trying to find a good inexpensive source of protein for his pigs instead of buying expensive feed. He discovered peanuts grew in the area of his farm so he thought he had an answer. He would grow his own pig feed.
The problem was that when he converted his pig’s diet to an exclusive diet of peanuts many of the pigs got sick and a few even died. He ended up with sick pigs and a mountain of useless peanuts. This was one time that he had to turn to the Peace Corps pig “experts” to solve his problem.
After he figured out how to nurse the pigs back to good health, he decided he could start a peanut butter business. He found a way to create peanut butter from his piles of peanuts, but then he couldn’t find anyone to buy his butter. I’m not sure how all of this turned out, but this story does demonstrate his dramatic flair for failure.
The trouble was that Moritz really didn’t want to be a farmer. He wanted to be a writer. He wanted his friend Ramon and his family to run the farm. He would then have a comfortable place to hang out in the jungle and write his books. As his story in The Farm on the River of the Emeralds demonstrates, his plan didn’t work out.
When I met Moritz in 1970 or early ’71, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the old man. Partly this was because I was young and cynical and I wasn’t easily impressed. Moritz appeared to me like one of the numerous crazy gringos living an unrealistic dream in the jungles of Ecuador.
It was only after I left the Peace Corps and started to travel and read, and to read and reread Living Poor, and then River of Emeralds, that I came to understand how great a writer, and how great a man, Moritz Thomsen really was.
In 1980 and 1981 I returned to Ecuador to see how things had developed in our projects in the Santa Domingo area. After a month or so in Ecuador, I travelled to Peru and Bolivia to see more of South America, and on my way back from Peru, in the spring of 1981 I had a chance encounter with Moritz on the plane back to Quito.
I was waiting in the departure lounge and saw a white haired, tired looking gringo who looked strangely familiar. When we got on the plane the gringo was seated right behind me, and I suddenly realized who he was.
At the time, I was keeping a journal, and scribbled down some notes about that chance encounter.
Friday, May 6, 1981: I met Moritz Thomsen, the author, and he seemed his old sarcastic self. He said he was in a bad way because he was trying to quit smoking . . . but I never saw him in a good mood about anything. We had a little conversation about him living in Brazil part- time and the trouble he is having with his last book, and the problems he was having trying to get his new book published. He actually looked pretty good for a harried ex-pig farmer, ex-Peace Corps Volunteer and ex-writer of about 70 years old. His hair was pretty white but his gaunt look was still that of a fighter. He was thin but looked strong and determined in a hopeless sort of way. He has the look of someone who knows that everything is all fucked up, but is going to hang in there anyway. One comment that he made really confirmed this. When asking me about trying to quit smoking I told him that my dad had quit after the doctor had told him to after his heart attack. Moritz said that wouldn’t work for him because he would smoke just to prove the doctor wrong . . ..
One other thing I remember him telling me though I didn’t write about it my journal was that he really was mad at his publishers because he had just written the best book of his life and they weren’t smart enough to recognize what a brilliant piece of writing it was.
The book was finally published under the title of The Saddest Pleasure. It is a fascinating travelogue recounting a trip up the coast of Brazil and part of the Amazon River, along with an intriguing introspective look at his life and philosophy.
I never saw Moritz again, but have over the years heard more and more stories about him, and read his posthumously published book, My Two Wars. He was a remarkable person, a remarkable writer, and one of those legendary PCVs whose story is passed on from one generation of Volunteers to the next. I am honored to add a few tales of my own to the life and legend of this famous pig farmer from Ecuador.
Dennis Bangs recently retired after owning and operating a Spanish language school in Missoula, Montana for 12 years. For over 15 years he has been involved with the local National Peace Corps Association affiliated group in Western Montana and is currently the president and newsletter editor for the group.
A Writer Writes
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.
And then Cartagena, a city of colors and textures: the deep blue of the midday sky broken by massive billowing clouds; white buildings, shaded by umbrella trees that cast long shadows across rococo balconies and narrow streets; the barrios a sprawl of sepia houses and dusty roads; the ocean on all sides a milky mix of blues and greens. Cartagena, a city of shimmering, sultry heat, the sun scorching the days, the air a tangible thing, a gauzy curtain to be parted as a misty rain falls in the late afternoon, covering the streets and sidewalks with a glistening, steamy wet.
Many of the people living in Cartagena are black, the decedents of slaves brought by Spain’s colonists to labor in the fields and build huge coral walls and revetments with square openings for canons. Surely it was these same people who built the ancient houses that surround a lovely tree-filled plaza where an ornate fountain sprays arching fantails of water, marked by luminescent rainbows.
The port, seemingly ad hoc and running for blocks, just outside the city wall, teems with life. Wooden boxes, filled with bananas, are stacked three or four deep. Fishing nets hang on listing poles, drying in the sun, and men sleep in colorful hammocks on board fishing boats, shaded from the harsh midday sun by heavy canvas canopies. All is redolent of decaying fish and fruit, motor oil, tinged with an astringent metallic odor that seems ever-present.
Out on the tip of a finger of land, a truncated peninsula called Bocagrande, stands a grand three story, wood frame hotel called El Caribe. Colonial in style, from another time, it faces the Caribbean. Large windows, framed by wide, green shutters, look out over an expansive patio with a swimming pool and round tables and an elliptical bar with high bamboo stools. The languages spoken around the pool are international and only enhance the sense that Cartagena is a remote, exotic destination.
A frequent guest at El Caribe was a tall German man, deeply tanned, who often sat at a table with two lovely dark-haired young women. They laughed and spoke Portuguese in staccato sentences and sipped drinks and swam in the pool. His back was pock marked, as if shrapnel had exploded near him. He would be absent for days, a week or more, then reappear at the same table. From the first moment I saw him, his silver hair combed severely over his balding pate, I assumed he was a Nazi officer living in exile, one who must surely have Israeli agents on his trail. One who when Germany fell had escaped on a tramp steamer to South America and made his way to Brazil a suitcase filled with gold bars and a painting by Van Gogh.
I had been in Cartagena for just a few weeks and had spent my days trying to absorb its beauty and its poverty, the contrasts stunning and sobering.
A man sat at the entrance to the hotel, his back against a white pillar, and held out a large tin cup, often banging it on the sidewalk. Look at me, he seemed to say. His face was ravaged, deeply lined, burned walnut-brown from the unrelenting sun, his clothes rags. His gnarled hands were dark, blackened by the grime of the street, his nails broken.
Often, I would wake in the dead of night, covered in a sheen of sweat, tangled in my sheets. The fan overhead moved slowly, the air in the room stale. I walked to the truncated balcony and stood looking out over the street and a small park nearby. I was dreaming. I was home. Everything was familiar. My parents were in the kitchen and the sounds of dishes and pans being moved reached me. So real, so tangible and I heard my mother’s voice. But now, looking out into the darkness I couldn’t remember what she was saying.
This city, I thought, this place steeped in history and violence and exotic people, had been as it was for centuries. I had come for two years. What could I do in two years that had not been done in the hundreds before? Coming here, was it excessive hubris? A pebble dropped in a vast lake. Could idealism, good will, a wish to make a difference be tempered by a stunning reality and still survive? I turned and went back into my room and turned on the small lamp by the bed. I began rereading Time magazine, the international edition, looking intently at the black and white photos, reminded of where I had been and where I was now.
The frustration of it all
Initially, during those first weeks, I felt overwhelmed, frayed, as if the culture, the language, all manner of transacting the business of living would be forever elusive, just beyond my reach. The Spanish I heard was not the Spanish I had learned. Words were swallowed, pushed together, falling one after the other, all meaning lost to me. Everyone was a stranger. Nothing seemed familiar.
One late morning I was walking along the street with John, a fellow Volunteer. He was assigned to a small town in the campo. As we stepped off the curb, a taxi pulled to a stop directly in front of us. John hesitated for only a moment and then rather than walking around the cab, he crawled across the hood, looking at the driver in defiance. The man was stunned. I was stunned. John glared at the driver, as if defying him to say something. Anything.
John could rage against everything that was beyond his understanding, all the customs, the impenetrable customs, the ordeal of simply getting your clothes washed or ordering a meal or waiting in nonexistent lines or crowding and shoving to get on a bus.
One late afternoon I got on a bus, the sweltering heat enveloping me, and sat just behind the driver, leaning close to the open window hoping for an errant breeze, waiting as the bus slowly filled. I watched out of the front window and saw a man speaking insistently to a young woman who was carrying a net bag of groceries and holding the hand of a young girl. The woman, shaking her head adamantly, saying no, hurriedly pushed the girl into the back seat of a taxi, then got in and closed the door. The man stood there, stunned, watching the taxi pull away. He raised both hands toward the sky, a gesture of helplessness, then turned and for a long moment looked at the bus and back at the taxi that disappeared around the bend in the road.
Suddenly he ran and jumped onto the bus. “Senor, please,” he said to the bus driver. “My fiancée’ is in that taxi. Please follow. Hurry.”
I listened to this exchange, some words escaping me, but the essence of what he was asking was clear. Our bus, filled with people and bags and boxes, should chase after the taxi.
The man turned to the passengers and repeated his appeal, ending with, “I love her.”
Stunned, I heard the people urge the driver to follow. “Hurry,” some shouted. “Quickly.”
And we did. The engine roared, the door closed, and off we went, in hot pursuit. People cheered. I watched in silent amazement as bus stops passed by. My bus stop one of them. I looked out the window and recognized nothing. Then I glanced up ahead and there, stopped at the curb, was the taxi, the young woman and girl standing on the sidewalk. The passengers let out a cheer. The bus slowed, air brakes hissing, and the man jumped off. The last I saw of the woman, the girl, and the man, they were walking down the street in animated conversation.
I got off the bus and looked around. I was somewhere on the outskirts of Cartagena. Exactly where, I wasn’t sure. An outdoor cantina was across the street and a few of the passengers who had also gotten off the bus walked over and sat at square wooden tables shaded by expansive, arching trees and ordered beers and discussed the vagaries of love and using buses to pursue taxis. Everyone felt wonderful.
On occasion, I saw Paco, a fellow Volunteer, who was nearing the end of his tour. Where I was taut, filled with expectations and uncertainties, Paco was slow moving and accepting. Whenever he saw me, he always called out, “Como sigues?” How’s it going? And I would call back, “Poco a poco.” Little by little. He was tall with dark hair, wearing ever-present sunglasses and I often thought how rare it was to see his eyes.
Paco had endured. He had thrived. He had lost himself in the city, the language and the people.
Late one afternoon, I had passed a bar on the way to my residencia and saw Paco sitting at a table with a group of local men, laughing, drinking from long neck bottles of beer. The sounds of brassy music and banging dishes wafted through the high, open windows. He saw me and smiled, lifted his chin in greeting, but made no move to invite me to join him. I smiled back and walked on.
Often, in no hurry to return to my room, with its small window and slow moving ceiling fan, I would stop at an outdoor cafe and order a small coffee and a glass of water which were brought to me by a waiter with a large white apron wrapped around his waist and a towel over his shoulder. I knew the coffee, served in green plastic cups, the size of a demitasse, to be strong, very strong. Hence the water, which always gave me pause. I had heard the hyperbolic stories, told with gravitas and grim certainty: there were invisible bacteria in the water that could send the healthiest Volunteer into days of cramped and retching misery, the stomach and colon filled with creatures called amoebas, requiring a cure of horse pills taken twice daily, said to be an awful purge, on occasion turning the skin a bit orange. And all caused by a simple, clear glass of water. It had only taken a few weeks, however, for the “what the hell” syndrome to take hold, and, even for me, given to moments of intense hypochondria, a glass of water became simply a glass of water. As did a glass of milk or a fruit salad.
I would linger at my small Formica table, nursing my coffee, and watch with interest as men sat in small groups talking, smoking, some holding up newspapers like small white sails, reading and sipping their coffee. Most were dressed in dark business suits and narrow ties, leather briefcases nearby. In one corner a perpetual game of dominos was underway, with much discussion and gesturing. I tried to make out the conversation, but the words and sentences were lost, indecipherable.
One afternoon I noticed, across the street, a small boy walking with his mother. She held his hand tightly, almost lifting him off the ground as she hurried along. He had a small metal airplane in his hand and he extended his arm, watching the propeller turning slowly. She said something to him that he ignored, moving the airplane up and down.
I sat thinking of my family, so far away, and tried to decide what time it was in California, and what my mother or father might be doing at that very moment. From my seat I could see a wedge of ocean in the distance and then looked up at the pale blue, washed-out sky and sighed deeply. I had bought a local newspaper and sat looking at the headlines, trying to decipher subjects and verbs and having a rough go of it.
The task at hand
I was going to teach at a normal school, a high school of sorts that would prepare young women to work in the elementary schools both nearby and out in the campo. A group of severe nuns ran the school, each completely covered in blindingly white habits, cinched at the waist with heavy leather belts. It was August and school would start the first week in September. I was terrified, my Spanish ever elusive, the countless hours in language training suddenly glaringly insufficient. My inadequecy was made more real when I had to spend one long morning with the Mother Superior, struggling to understand and be understood, all the while trying not to take her looks of skepticism personally.
During that month of waiting for school to start I began walking the beach between the school and my residencia. I grew to love that stretch of sand. If I walked its entire length, a mile or more, I would end up in front of the El Caribe. Most evenings, the sun sinking below the horizon, the sky turned a bruise of yellow and purple and blue, and shafts of final sunlight would fan the sky and then fade. The sudsy, scalloped waterline was dotted with small hermit crabs running back and forth and then disappearing down small holes. The trade winds blew steady, heavy with the odor of salt and drying seaweed and damp wood. White seabirds rode the wind currents, and small gray sand pipers ran across the wet sand, darting into the foamy water on delicate, pink stems, their long, sharp beaks searching for small shrimp.
On one of those languid, late afternoon walks, as I neared a park some blocks from my residencia, I stopped. In the distance not close, but not far I watched several young men running out of the surf, a young woman being carried and pulled toward shore. There was a sense of desperation about the men as two of them laid her on the sand. I hurried toward them. One grabbed her by her shoulders and shook her vigorously, his cries of despair carried to me, heavy with panic and pleading.
As I approached, I saw that the girl lay very still, her arms and face covered with sand. She was wearing a white blouse and black shorts. Without thinking, I kneeled down at her side then glanced up at the three looking at me intently. “Can you do something?” asked one of them. “I don’t know,” I said. “I’ll try.”
I leaned over her, seeing her eyes half open, vacant, her lips parted. I grasped her nose and placed my lips over hers and exhaled. I did this over and over. Each time I blew air into her lungs, her chest would rise and the men and the small crowd that had gathered became hopeful, saying, “She’s breathing. See. See.” And so it went. The minutes passing. I heard a siren in the distance and kept pushing air into the girl, waiting, and trying again. One of the men walked away and dropped to his knees and leaned forward, his forehead touching the sand, his fists clenched.
Finally I was aware that a doctor and men in uniforms had arrived and they took over, and I grimly stood up. A stretcher was brought down to where she lay, and I watched as they took her away.
The next morning I went to the hospital and asked about her, already certain that none of it would have a right ending.
A nun in black and white robes, sitting at a large desk covered with papers and stamps, looked at me and shook her head. “When she arrived at the emergency room, there was nothing to be done,” she said. “It was too late. You knew her?”
“No, madre, I didn’t.”
I still walked the beach after that, and often thought of the young woman, seeing once again that afternoon and the three men pulling her out of the surf. I thought of this place, its people, and turned and looked back, toward town, and saw lights blinking on, a gloaming glow settling over the rooftops. and I listened to a dog barking in the distance, and a woman calling out to someone and a door slamming.
And then I breathed in the warm air and looked toward the horizon and walked on. Still I didn’t know. That would come later. But it was a beginning.
After his tour in Colombia, Chris Honore’ earned a PhD in Philosophy of Education at the University of California at Berkeley. He is a freelance journalist, married with one son, and lives in Ashland, Oregon. He is a frequent contributor to Peace Corps Writers.
A Writer Writes
Eco-Bore Takes the Good Old Days Back to Tonga
by Tina Martin (Tonga 197071)
I HAD THOUGHT of my village in Tonga as my Walden Pond though David Thoreau might not have recognized it. It was in the South Pacific instead of in New England, and while Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately, my woods had coconut trees. The pond was the Pacific Ocean or maybe my lawn every time it rained, since my hut had been built in what appeared to be a ditch. Still, it was deliberately that I went to live in a hut with no electricity or running water. For two years I used a kerosene lamp and kerosene stove, drew water from the well, and bathed by soaping myself and pouring a quart or two of water over my body for the first and final rinsing. Everywhere I went, I took my hand-woven basket, and when I wanted a pound of sugar, it was poured onto a piece of recycled newspaper, which was wrapped into a package and placed in my basket.
For almost forty years I told people about Tonga, where nothing was wasted. Tonga, where I had come of Eco-Age.
Then, about the time that San Francisco banned plastic checkout bags at supermarkets and the mayor banned plastic-bottled water at City Hall, I heard that plastic had attacked, invaded, and occupied Tonga, and I flew off to rescue the island that I loved.
Granted, there were other reasons for going. There was a coronation coming up, a Peace Corps reunion, and some Tongans I really wanted to see again, but I had a mission: Taking the good old days back to Tonga.
Four decades earlier, one of my jobs in Tonga was at a teachers re-training center, where I taught methods of teaching oral English to children. Now I would be re-training them to do what they’d taught me: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
Now, before I go any further, I should mention that I’m cursed by a passion for all sorts of things that produce gaping yawns in others. My office mate, Bob, whose imagination soars so high that he was hoping the coronation was mine, gives his students writing assignments allowing them to be Koko the gorilla and explain how frustrating it is that Dr. Penny and her Stanford-educated staff can’t learn one word of gorilla. Meanwhile I’m asking my drowsy students to write about the evils of bottled water. I was going back to Tonga as Eco-Bore bearing a message, boring the people. But there was no stopping me now.
I packed green shopping bags and Wrap-n-Mats, (squares of cloth with plastic centers to wrap around sandwiches to keep them fresh and then, once opened, to serve as mats for the sandwiches) something that appears to be modeled after the food packages Tongans put in the ‘umu, their underground ovens. Tongans used banana leaves and taro leaves instead of cloth and plastic for the food packages they put in ‘umus, and they tied them up with the rib of coconut leaves instead of Velcro’s, but the principle was the same. I would give these bags and Wrap-in-Mats as gifts. I packed other things, of course. Nick-knacks from Walgreen’s San Francisco Souvenirs aisle and pictures of Tongans and me, 19701971, which I’d made into collages and laminated like placemats. I also threw in something to wear to the coronation and something to wear every other day. Like the Tee-shirt, I would say, “I Recycle. I wore this shirt yesterday.” And the day before. And the day before that.
Once over the International Dateline, where we dropped Tuesday and got right on to Wednesday, I was taken to a house in my former village of Ha’ateiho, where I found electricity and running water even hot as well as a microwave, and, gulp (or not) bottled water! Lots of bottled water with the Tonga label. The son and daughter-in-law of ‘Ana, who was hosting me, were watching “Lawrence of Arabia” on television, an invention that had never been seen by most villagers back in the 1970s, when we could see English-language movies in coconut sheds that had electricity and translators with good imaginations or in Nuku’alofa, where we paid 10 sentini and once saw “Romeo and Juliet” with the reels reversed, so that the lovers killed themselves for love of each other before they met. Now there were DVDs and TV. I was given a towel, a washcloth, and a cell phone, which doubled as my clock. I peeked out the window and saw a van under a canopy of net and soon noticed that in a village where people went by foot or by horse and cart back in my time, there was now a car on almost every lawn, and most of the cars were big. Well, Tongans were king size, and so were their families, but considering the price of gas, I suspected that Tongans were earning more than my 1970 living allowance of thirty-two dollars a month. I soon learned the word “Remittances.” They are now the main source of income in Tonga, it turned out, where relatives living in other countries send money back for SUVS and the other fine things in life. People also hire entire shipping containers to send home things like furniture and clothes. Some of the people living abroad had been deported back (recycled?), and Tongans were concerned about this. In the US, they’d learned “bad habits” like crime, and now they were back to teach those still at home what they had learned. (Re-used?)
I quoted the headline from the SF Chronicle: “Gas prices turn drivers from gas guzzlers to gas sippers,” but I benefitted from the big bad vans. By my third day I had contributed quite a bit to global warming, making round-trips into Nuku’alofa to see the Kava ceremony where the King was presented with about a hundred ‘umued pigs, another to go shopping at every market on Tongatapu to get food for the coronation feast, another to see the coronation itself, which turned out not to be mine (Sorry, Bob), and still one more for the Tutupakanava, the traditional torch-lighting spectacle around the wharf in honor of the newly-crowned king. I went shopping with the driver, Finau, and we must have driven to every market and store on Tongatapu to get the food that would be prepared for our village’s contribution of ten tables. Everyone in the village was contributing twenty pa’anga. I “treated” at the counter whenever they’d let me. And I put what I could into the green bags.
On the day that I decided to support the bus system, after an hour of waiting I decided it wouldn’t support me, and when a van full of policemen drove by, I hitched a ride back to Ha’ateiho, only I wasn’t quite sure just where in Ha’ateiho the house was once we got off the main road. Didn’t the police know? After leaving our carbon footprint all over the neighborhood, I called ‘Ana on my cell phone, and she walked outside to where we were making the call about three yards from her door.
‘Ana, who had already told me about the bad effect of deportees sent back to Tonga, told me, “We kept seeing the police drive by, and we thought they were looking for someone who’d committed a crime.”
“That was me,” I said, thinking of my carbon footprint. “They found me and deported me from Nuku’alofa.” I gave her another green bag.
It turned out that a shop in town, near the Café Escape and just yards from empty blocks where buildings had stood before the 2006 riots, sold green bags that said “‘OUA ‘E TALI TANGAI MILEMILA.” Don’t use plastic bags. But everywhere I looked people were using them.
When I gave a green bag and a Wrap ‘n’ Mat to Vika, ‘Ana’s daughter-in-law and a doctor at the Vaiola Hospital on Tongatapu, she told me, “I remember the days when my mom would take us shopping and she’s always say, ‘Go get the basket.’” Were those days over?
My thoughts soon turned to water the subject of water, that is. I found out that ‘Ana and her family had had to go to their other house to get water because their tank no longer had any. I didn’t understand this business of tanks. When I was in Tonga in 19701971, I drew water from the well and poured it a bucketful at a time into a Gerry can, and when I needed water, I scooped it out a cup at a time. But how did tanks work, and why did the house I was in still have enough? I wondered, too, if I was depleting the water supply. I visited the school where I had taught in 1970, and it seemed unchanged except for the cell phones in the teachers’ hands and the vans that picked up the children who in past ages had walked to and from school; and, while there was a water tank, there wasn’t enough water for the children, who were asked to bring water from home. Back in the 1970s, the children had lined up to brush their teeth. They didn’t do that anymore. Water was too scarce.
I stared at the bottles of water on the kitchen sink the bottles ‘Ana had provided for me. I could see through them to the grassy lawn and the coconut tree. But where did they come from? Who were the bottlers? Did they deplete the water supply? What was this about ground water? Rainwater? Tanks?
I went to a beautiful new home owned by a family who had lived in a hut forty years earlier. It was a mansion. But there was no water for the toilet.
Then my persona of Eco-Bore could feel an assignment coming on: a research paper for any students unfortunate enough to sign up for my class instead of Bob’s, where they could be writing from the point of view of Koko the Gorilla or advising George Bush on the difficulties of learning their native language if he thought English was too hard. But, hey, my students were finding web sites like tapping.com, giving not just three reasons not to consume bottled water but twenty, including that it would give you smoker’s lips: those unsightly fine lines and wrinkles from constantly wrapping around an object.
THEN CAME SUNDAY, when the Tongan Constitution makes it unlawful to work. (Article 6: “The Sabbath Day shall be kept holy in Tonga and no person shall practise his trade or profession or conduct any commercial undertaking.)
Before church I got to watch every step of the ritual of the ‘umu, the underground oven, at ‘Ana’s home. I’d never seen such a labor-intensive task, but since I wasn’t among the laborers but did get to eat what came of it, I can say it was worth all the effort and art, and it was one hundred percent natural (if you don’t count the cans of corned beef) and nothing was wasted.
Here’s the recipe for an ‘Umu Casserole
All morning before church on Sunday.
Serves: 50 palangis (non-Tongans) or 15 Tongans. (I should add that I’m a Tongan in this case.)
Mackerel (or corned beef, beef, chicken or nothing)
Prepare the 'Umu: Dig a two-foot hole. Put firewood in the bottom of the pit (smaller pieces in the bottom and larger pieces on top. Wood used must be hardwood, otherwise the stones will not heat properly.) Once fire is well lit, put volcanic rocks on top. (Too many and the food will burn to a cinder and too few will mean uncooked food.)
Make 'Umu dishes (for food packages): Clean and de-rib banana leaves. Soften banana leaves by warming them over the fire.
Assemble food packages: Place taro leaves on each banana leaf.
Add about 1 1/2 cup of canned mackerel or other filling (corned beef, fresh fish, beef, chicken, etc).
Add chopped onion and coconut cream.
Sprinkle with salt.
Wrap up taro and banana leaves.
Secure with a rib of banana leaf.
Identify with aluminum or other marker.
Once firewood burns down and stones are white hot, remove remaining big pieces of wood from the pit, and spread stones evenly on the bottom and sides of the pit.
Put taro, breadfruit, and yams on top of stones.
Put thin pieces of wood on top of food to ensure air circulation.
Put in food packages on top of these pieces of wood.
Cover with banana leaves.
Cover banana leaves with a flour sack or blanket.
Cover with dirt. Let bake 1/2 hour.
Serve after church.
The next day the Peace Corps Reunion took place to celebrate the fortieth year of Peace Corps Tonga. It was at the country director’s home so close to the ocean that I had the impression of being in a houseboat under a floating palm tree. There six of us were interviewed by a reporter from the Tongan newspaper Talaki, and I, as the oldest Return Peace Corps Volunteer, was also interviewed for Tonga TV. I made a point to thank ‘Ana Taufe’ulungaki for hosting me and even spelled her name down to the glottal stops. Then I resumed my Eco-bore spiel.
Two days later when I went into the Vanuatu ABC Book Store in Nuku’alofa, the salesclerk said, “I saw you on television last night!”
“Oh, really?” I asked. “What did I say?”
“You said that we should go back to taking our baskets to market and not use plastic.”
I had gotten my message across!
I then went to the Post Office, where I passed through a door with an ad for the commemorative stamps of the coronation of Kingi Siaosi Tupou V on one side and a flyer with Barack Obama on the other, saying “U.S. President Obama? Good for Tonga?” Following it was “Commentary by Michael G. Horowitz, Ph.D., University Dean.” But it was scheduled for Monday evening August 11, the day I was leaving Tonga.
When I approached the window to buy stamps, the postal worker, not disgruntled, said, “I saw you on television last night!”
“What did I say?”
Her report was much the same, but she added, “You said you were glad we still had the ‘umu.”
My message had been heard! I had returned to Tonga what Tonga had given me.
Then the Talaki came out, and there were six of us with our pictures Question Man style, responding to a question about the “hilifaki kalauni,” which is the coronation. (Kalauni is crown, not clown, in a language that has no r, no consonant clusters, and where every word ends in a vowel sound.) Under my pictures was “Tina Martin, 62.” And on another page, there was a report on our impressions of Tonga, translated so that it looked as if we were speaking fluent Tonga the way we should have been.
“Oku ou faka’amu ke foki pe ‘a e kakai Tonga ki he 1970 ‘o ngaue ‘aki ‘a e kato ‘oku lalanga mei he louniu ke fa’o me’akai ai kae tuku atu ‘a e milemila.”
In other words, “Don’t use plastic bags!”
Eco-Bore had struck again. And now it was time for a few reunions with the people whose wise ways I had recycled.
Tina Martin is a teacher who writes. She has taught on four continents (Oceana, Africa, Europe, and North America) and in the past three years has traveled back to Tonga, to South America, China, and on a cruise around Turkey with three other RPCVs from Tonga. Her hobbies include her Meque (MEjor Que Un Esposo), writing new words for old melodies, writing letters to the editor, listening to Sarah Vowell, and being an Eco-bore. She is an instructor at City College of San Francisco.
A Letter from Romania
Going Home to Mama Ana’s Pauca
by Andy Trincia (Romania 200204)
SEVERAL PEASANTS STOPPED working the fields and waved as we pulled into Pauca, a colorful Romanian village in the heart of Transylvania. Mama Ana’s “kids” were back from America, they noticed, eager to spread word across the little village faster than wild fire.
As picturesque as any of the scores of villages I’ve seen across the region, Pauca is a typical Romanian hamlet, inhabited by 300 or so hardy families who live off the land. Time seems to have stood still for more than a century, and the simple yet tough life is not unlike other corners of rural Europe, especially the former Eastern Bloc.
But this place is anything but typical for us, for it is where Mama Ana, my wife’s grandmother, was born and still lives, and where my mother-in-law was born and raised. My wife, Oana, spent summers playing there and is incredibly close to Mama Ana, a sweet-souled woman of 78 years whose head is always shrouded in a batic, or head scarf, a modesty common among older Romanian women, especially in the countryside.
As we entered her gate, several hens pecked away in the courtyard, right near the small pigpen and wooden outhouse. The house, built by Oana’s great-grandfather circa 1900, is a pretty brick structure painted in a blue-with-green-trim scheme found in the German-influenced villages that dot Transylvania, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Seeing Mama Ana and Oana embrace, shedding tears of joy, made the Easter time journey from our home in California worth every ounce of effort. I always enjoy visiting Pauca too, save for conducting business in the outhouse. I’m a city boy but a few days in the rustic environs puts things in perspective, be it chatting with the gentle, muddied locals as they head home from the fields on their horse-drawn carts, or Oana and me lugging a wagonload of drinking water from the village’s central well uphill to Mama Ana’s house (I can’t imagine doing it daily as she does). No stoplight here, but the town’s main road is paved, the side streets hardened with dusty gravel. Everybody knows everybody.
It was good to return to Romania, a country where I lived for more than three years this decade, including my two-year Peace Corps service in Timisoara, a large university city, and later as an expatriate executive working in Bucharest, the bustling capital. Both are several hours away and light years ahead of Pauca.
During my Peace Corps service, I wrote home frequently about my experiences as a Volunteer business educator and consultant. Sometimes I ranted about Romania’s bureaucratic headaches, corruption and mentality left over from Communism. Other times, I exulted because of small victories with helping students, special cross-cultural moments, or meaningful friendships, including the romance that blossomed with my Romanian girlfriend who is now my wife.
I always urge people to visit Romania, especially those who are patient travelers, have enough time, or at least a sense of off-the-beaten-path adventure (qualities not always applying to American tourists). The country hasn’t solidified its tourism promotion yet, but there are many worthwhile sights castles, monasteries, mountains, beaches, museums and historical legacies from Communism and the liberating 1989 Revolution. Agro-tourism, in which tourists can experience village life, is thriving.
Romania is now four years after I completed my Peace Corps service and always will be part of my life. My wife’s entire family is there, along with our godparents and many friends. We own an apartment (and a car) near Oana’s parents, about two hours from Pauca, keeping a connection there that is important to Oana and her family, but it also makes a great base when we visit. Our small flat is furnished comfortably with belongings we shipped over from America during my expat stint, but it also has nice Romanian touches.
On our recent vacation, Romania still found a way to gnaw at times, a sort of love-hate relationship, though those words are too strong. I would say many Romanians feel the same way about their own country. It can in the same day, or even hour, be a wonderful, warm place, then it can drive you mad with frustration (for example, when getting a new license plate then again, American DMVs can be a pain). But through it all, there’s just something about Romania. My wife and I jest that if you could only blend Romania and America because some things are better or worse in both countries.
Most rewarding is going back and seeing tangible progress. Stepping off the plane in Timisoara, I saw a huge banner ad showcasing the latest BlackBerry. I smiled when I saw the new European Union stamp in my passport, now that the country is a full EU member. The streets have more cars some would say too many, at least in the cities while cranes and construction equipment are visible across the urban landscape as new offices, apartment buildings and important infrastructure projects take hold.
It’s not all fun and games, however, as most people continue to struggle with the rising cost of living and the same low salaries despite EU accession. Corruption isn’t going away anytime soon. And while many young families have more disposable income, people are on an American-style, borrow-then-consume frenzy that could spell trouble down the road.
In places like Pauca, though, very little changes. Maybe that’s a good thing.
Andy Trincia lives in the Sacramento, Calif., area, where he is a vice president with a public affairs firm.