Gather the Fruit One by One
|50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories: Vol. 2, The Americas||$18.95|
Pat and Bernie Alter
ISBN 1-609520-01-7 344 pages
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The Americas Share Their Passion and Warmth, Sorrow and Resilience
Gather the Fruit One by One brings together stories from 50 years of Peace Corps service in the Americas. From those first days, beginning with Colombia One, Volunteers began bringing home their stories about living and working with our nearest neighbors. The countries and cultures south of our frontera have since 1961 tested our assumptions and lit up the complex mixture of indigenous, European, and African languages, food, music, dance, and religion that makes up the Americas. What seems familiar often is not. Theses stories take you to journeys to the Amazon basin, to a Honduran village terrorized by the army, and to the playing fields of Ecuador for an unusual game of beisbol. To say “I was there” sometimes catches in the throat like a well-loved old song that aches with history and hope.
This captivating collection of stories—the second in a series of four—once again allows readers to feel the extraordinary power of America’s grassroots peace offering.
"These writings provide a record and a testament to the vision of those who created the Peace Corps and those who have made it such a success."
—Charles Greer, The Jason and Lucy Greer Foundation for the Arts
By JANE ALBRITTON
There are some baby ideas that seem to fly in by stork, without incubation between conception and birth. These magical bun-dles smile and say: “Want me?” And well before the head can weigh the merits of taking in the unsummoned arrival, the heart leaps forward and answers, “Yes!”
The idea for Peace Corps @ 50—the anniversary media pro-ject for which this series of books are the centerpiece—arrived on my mental doorstep in just this way in 2007. Four books of stories, divided by regions of the world, written by the Peace Corps Volunteers who have lived and worked there. There was time to solicit the stories, launch the website, and locate editors for each book. By 2011, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps, the books would be released.
The website had no sooner gone live when the stories started rolling in. And now, after four years and with a publisher able to see the promise and value of this project, here we are, ready to share more than 200 stories of our encounters with people and places far from home.
In the beginning, I had no idea what to expect from a call for stories. Now, at the other end of this journey, I have read every story, and I know what makes our big collection such a fitting tribute to the Peace Corps experience.
Peace Corps Volunteers write. We write a lot. Most of us need to, because writing is the only chance we have to say things in our native language. Functioning every day in another language takes work, and it isn’t just about grammar. It’s every-thing that isn’t taught—like when to say what depending on the context, like the intricate system of body language, and like knowing how to shift your tone depending on the company you are in. These struggles and linguistic mishaps can be frustrating and often provoke laughter, even if people are forgiving and appreciate the effort. It takes a long time to earn a sense of be-longing.
And so in our quiet moments—when we slip into a private space away from the worlds where we are guests—we write. And in these moments where we treat ourselves to our own lan-guage, thoughts flow freely. We once wrote only journals and letters; today we also text, email, and blog.
Writing helps us work through the frustrations of everyday living in cultures where—at first—we do not know the rules or understand the values. In our own language we write out our loneliness, our fury, our joy, and our revelations. Every volun-teer who has ever served writes as a personal exercise in coming to terms with an awakening ignorance. And then we write our way through it, making our new worlds part of ourselves in our own language, in our own words.
The stories in these books are the best contribution we can make to the permanent record of Peace Corps on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. And because a Volunteer’s attempt to ex-plain the experience has always contained the hope that folks at home will “get it,” these stories are also a gift to anyone eager and curious to learn what we learned about living in places that always exceeded what we imagined them to be.
It has been an honor to receive and read these stories. Taken together, they provide a kaleidoscopic view of world cultures—beautiful and strange—that shift and rattle when held up to the light.
I would like to acknowledge personally the more than 200 Return Volunteers who contributed to these four volumes. Without their voices, this project could not have been possible. Additionally, editors Pat and Bernie Alter, Aaron Barlow, and Jay Chen have been tireless in shepherding their stories through the publishing process and in helping me make my way through some vexing terrain along the way. Special thanks to John Coyne whose introduction sets the stage for each volume. Thanks also to Dennis Cordell for his early work on the project.
There are two people critical to the success of this project who were never Peace Corps volunteers, but who instantly grasped the significance of the project: Chris Richardson and Susan Brady.
Chris and his PushIQ team, created a visually lush, techni-cally elegant website that was up and ready to invite contribu-tors to join the project and to herald both the project and the an-niversary itself. He took on the creative challenge of designing four distinct covers for the four volumes in this set. His work first invited our contributors and now invites our readers.
Susan Brady brought it all home. It is one thing to collect, edit, and admire four books’ worth of stories; it is another to get them organized, to the typesetter, the printer, and the team of marketers on time and looking good. Susan’s good sense, exten-sive publishing experience, and belief in the worthiness of this project sealed the publishing deal with Travelers’ Tales/Solas House.
Finally, there are the two others, one at each elbow, who kept me upright when the making of books made me weary. My mother—intrepid traveler and keeper of stories—died four months after the project launched, but she has been kind enough to hang around to see me through. My partner, cultural anthro-pologist Kate Browne, never let me forget that if Americans are ever going to have an honored place in this world, we need to have some clue about how the rest of it works. “So get with it,” they said. “The 50th anniversary happens only once.”
by PAT and BERNIE ALTER
At its core, the Peace Corps experience is a journey of discov-ery. The journey is not a simple or easy one, however. It in-volves a variety of experiences, some anticipated some not. Discovering a new country is the most obvious and least meta-phorical. Discovering a foreign culture is also not unexpected. Then there is discovering personal, physical, and even intellec-tual limits. Finally, there is a rediscovery of the United States after the journey is supposedly over and we return to a country thought of as home. These explorations often change us far more than we change the worlds we travel through. The stories in this volume are attempts to describe the various signposts of that voyage through the countries of the Americas.
The most immediate encounter is with the country itself, confronting often unexpected geography and weather. Along with the sheer physicality of adjusting to a new home is learning and using a new language that does not yet come trippingly off the tongue. There are allusions to these initial explorations sprinkled throughout the stories contained here. But stories like Alanna Randall’s “The Scent of Iris” in Belize, Alan Yount’s “Over the Mountain” in Guatemala, or William M. Evensen’s “The Amazing Jungle Walking Tour” in Peru are essentially tales of the physical environment these volunteers faced. The almost constant struggle to overcome a sense of separation from the local community caused by a lack of initial language facility and by topographical isolation in the rainforests of Panama is also at the center of Jessi Flynn’s “The Easter Bunny’s Culinary Skills.”
Another stage in the Peace Corps voyage is the exploration of foreign cultures and the success or failure of cross-cultural engagement. Dealing with cultures that may not only have had different answers to questions, but sometimes even asked com-pletely different questions, is a theme that also runs through many of the stories found in this volume. Bob Hudgen’s en-counter with breast milk on a Bolivian flatbed truck in his tale “What They Don’t Teach You...” is a good first stop. A more complex account of cross-cultural communication is Ellen Ur-bani’s recounting in “Our Samuel” of the remarkably different yet awfully similar methods the U.S. Embassy and her Guate-malan neighbors used to pass on information. Kendra Lachmiet’s “Little Library of Horrors” describes how three dif-ferent cultures can collide in a small town library in Paraguay. Finally, an example of successful cross-cultural purchasing power can be found in Krista Perleberg’s Ecuadorean “Pretty Woman.”
Part of any voyage of discovery is learning your limitations and trying to work within them or overcome them. As Paul Vitale recounts in “Sink or Drown Proof” for Peace Corps Volunteers, this learning could begin even before a volunteer arrived in the assigned country, which in Vitale’s case was Ecuador. Martha Martin’s “The Danger of Paved Roads” shows how accepting or pushing limits continued after her arrival in Costa Rica. “God and Motorcycles” by Patrick H. Hare, on the other hand, demon-strates that a volunteer’s personal idiosyncrasies did not necessar-ily lead to negative consequences.
When is a home not a home? That’s a question that many a volunteer has dealt with after returning to the United States. Af-ter two years or more of living in a foreign culture, readjusting to U.S. society can be surprisingly difficult. Brandon Louie’s initial encounter with our consumption-oriented society upon his return from Nicaragua, described in his “Homeland Buffet,” attests to that difficulty. For Katherine Jamieson in “Too Much of One Thing Ain’t Good for Nothing,” it appears that her Peace Corps experience will forever set her apart from the coun-try in which she was born and raised.
Even after resettling in the “home country,” a question re-mains: Did the world change us more than we changed the world? That dilemma haunts a number of returned volunteers. Ronald A. Schwarz’s “Kennedy’s Orphans” attempts to find an answer by seeking out many of the sixty-two men who were the first volunteers to enter training for the Peace Corps back in 1961. Wynne Dimock sets out on a similar, though far more personal, quest in “The Making of a Leftist.”
We have previewed quite a few stories for you in this Intro-duction; however, there are many more awaiting your discov-ery. These tales represent fifty years of Peace Corps Volunteers traveling to and through the Americas; learning about new worlds and their cultures; sometimes changing them and some-times leaving them relatively untouched; but always returning with an awareness of what lies beyond our borders.
Read and enjoy!
Table of Contents
PAT and BERNIE ALTER
ON OUR WAY…AND BACK AGAIN
Sink or Drown Proof
The Making of a Leftist
W. W. WALES
Some Never Forget
Too Much of One Thing Ain’t Good for Nothing
Nothing Is Ever the Same Again
Pearl of the Antilles
RONALD A. SCHWARZ
WHY ARE WE HERE?
The Mapping Odyssey
Little Library of Horrors
The Danger of Paved Roads
The Missing Hand
SARA BETH LAIRD
Who Stole My Cheese?
GETTING THROUGH THE DAYS
The Scent of Iris
4th of July
MARY NOWEL QUIJANO
WALTER JAMES MURRAY
Viva la Revolución Telefónica
Christmas Eve, 1963
Letters From the Prettiest Girl
Over the Mountain
The Amazing Jungle Walking Tour
WILLIAM M. EVENSEN
God and Motorcycles
PATRICK H. HARE
Christmas in July
MARY NOWEL QUIJANO
What They Don’t Teach You…
Obituary For Roberto
WALTER JAMES MURRAY
The Boy From “Kill the Cat”
RICHARD R. SITLER
I Am Rich
AMBER DAVIS COLLINS
The Wandering Judia
The Easter Bunny’s Culinary Skills
The Bus Ride
JANETTE K. HOPPER
Fish Pond Justice
About the Editors
Pearl of the Antilles
by MELISSA BASTA
remain ever open to Haitians for their strength and bright smiles.
I was one of twenty Peace Corps trainees sent to reopen the Peace Corps Haiti program after it closed in the 1991 coup d’état. On the flight from Miami to Port-au-Prince in Sep-tember of 1996, there was a collective air of excitement among our group. It was the kind of young, excited energy that comes with new beginnings, new friends, new places, and new projects. I was twenty-six and overflowing with Ameri-can confidence.
As we made our final approach, Haiti looked green and fresh from the air. When I stepped off the plane, that air was hot and thick, the airfield littered with broken-down planes, trucks, and scraps of old machine parts. We were greeted on the tarmac by the Peace Corps Country Director and the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, then whisked through the logjam and chaos at the airport, and taken to a VIP lounge where we were addressed by Haitian government officials. They charged us to begin efforts to break the long-established cycle of poverty in Haiti; their words were endearing, their appre-ciation for our commitment to volunteer, inspiring.
Once I stepped outside this exclusive comfort zone to be-gin my Peace Corps service, I was instantly reminded that Port-au-Prince is synonymous with poverty. Its smell hung heavy in the humidity, the air made thick by exhaust fumes spewing from rundown, battered cars and trucks clogging the roadways. We boarded a small fifteen-passenger bus and began winding our way through Port-au-Prince toward Route Na-tional #2, the beginning of a six-hour drive to Les Cayes.
As we drove through the countryside, the scene played like a silent movie before my eyes: crumbled buildings, washed out roads, overcrowded trucks piled high with people and goods, children without clothes or shoes carrying buckets of water half their size, pigs feeding on top of trash piles, ratty street dogs scavenging. I stared out the window watching in com-plete silence and disbelief. All of my research and reading had not prepared me for the reality of Haiti. My feelings of ex-citement began to fade and flip-flop: from fear to guilt, com-passion to anger, sadness to determination. My senses were overloaded; my stomach in knots. My confidence was shaken. The words “break the cycle of poverty” played over and over in my mind, and the thought of getting off the bus terrified me.
Eventually, the long journey to our training site ended, and I did get off the bus in southwestern Haiti. The next morning, I woke to the sun rising and the roosters cock-a-doodle-doing. In the bathroom, I was greeted by a dead cockroach, belly up by the toilet. I entered the shower where ice-cold water fell straight from the ceiling onto my head, quickly washed away both the dead mosquitoes that had col-lected in the basin overnight and any lingering drowsiness I might have enjoyed.
That was the beginning of many cold bucket baths, dead bugs and early morning roosters. I remained in Haiti for nearly three and a half years where I learned to look beyond the poverty to uncover the treasures hidden in the hearts and smiles of the Haitian people living in the countryside. My Peace Corps experience and time in Haiti was humbling and life-changing. And when it came time for me to leave, I real-ized that I would carry Haiti in my heart forever.
On June 1, 2010, I returned to Haiti, six months after the 7.0 earthquake that destroyed the capital city of Port-au-Prince, crippling the entire country. It was my first time back in eight years. My plane was filled with missionary groups, doc-tors, nurses, government officials, journalists, development workers, and Haitians returning to their homeland to provide much-needed care, to reconnect with friends and family, to make sense of the destruction and understand how to move forward and recover.
The mood was heavy, and the flight silent. As we ap-proached Haiti, I felt weighted down by my own feelings of guilt and disappointment. Guilt for not staying more engaged in Haiti over the years and disappointment that this cata-strophic event would be the catalyst for my return. On our final descent, I stared out of the window, looking down on entire communities reduced to rubble. I could see where the waters of the rainy season ran in rivulets off of the moun-tains into the ocean like weeds spreading from the land and clouding the blue Caribbean waters. From the sky, it looked as though Haiti were bleeding into the ocean.
There was no new beginning to be excited for on this arri-val, no VIP meet-n-greet or air-conditioned bus to shuttle me halfway across the country. Haiti and its people had been shattered into a million tiny pieces. With a heavy heart and a small backpack on my shoulder, I got off the plane, passed through customs and walked out into the street alone, look-ing for the car and driver I hired to meet me at the airport. I stood surrounded by hard Haitian faces casting curious stares. I held their eyes and threw out a “Bonjou, kouman w ye?” and a “Sak pase?”—both common Haitian greetings that softened their faces and rewarded me with bright Haitian smiles.
My car arrived as the rain began to fall, and we sped off into the sea of destruction. Again, I found myself riding through Port-au-Prince staring out a window in silent disbe-lief. My surprise this time, however, was not about the un-usual sites of Haiti that had struck me when I first arrived and then become familiar. Rather it was the magnitude of destruc-tion that surrounded me at every turn. Whole streets that I had known were unrecognizable. And I could only imagine the horror that unfolded during the seconds, hours, days im-mediately following the collapse of every single structure we passed. As we navigated the streets filled with people, rubble, cars and debris, my eyes blurred with tears, and all I could think was Haiti is calling me back, and I will be there for her.
The next morning, I was up before the sun, anxious. I had made plans to meet Jimmy who was a shy, teenage boy in my Haitian family the last time I saw him eight years ago. I was meeting him on a street corner in Champs de Mars, once home to the city’s main park: a beautiful stretch of grassy green open spaces featuring Haitian monuments, the Na-tional Palace and several historic, French-colonial govern-ment buildings. As I approached the corner, there he stood, a grown man, in the heart of the country’s capital city, which lay in piles of broken concrete around him. A sprawling tent city blanketed the park. I jumped out of the car and ran over to him. There we stood in the middle of the morning chaos that spilled out of this makeshift city, now home to some 15,000 people displaced by the earthquake. With tears rolling down our cheeks, we hugged hard and then laughed at how we had both become gran moun, old people.
That week, we visited what was left of the apartment he had shared with six other family members in Port-au-Prince. We stood before the flattened building with its bits of twisted rebar reaching for the sky as he explained how he had been in the street when the earthquake struck and how, at the time, he did not know if any of his family was inside when it col-lapsed. We visited the shell of a building he now lived behind, a small space he and his family and friends share with two other families. On some days the space is home to as many as twenty-one people; water there is available just three days out of the week. Then, we headed home, leaving Port-au-Prince for the countryside following along the fault line all the way to Vialet, a small rural community that sits on Route National #2 just west of the capital, and where I lived as a Peace Corps Volunteer alongside Jimmy’s family for two years.
I have made this drive a hundred times, but never while dodging the wounds inflicted by an earthquake. On this day, however, I could not help but think about how this would be my first visit home without Bos. Bos was Jimmy’s father, my counterpart and closest friend during my time in Vialet. He had died in 2005, and it was Jimmy who had called to tell me the news.
As we entered the front gate, it was like I had never left, except for the tarp tent that had been erected behind the house and a painful reminder that Bos was not there. While the children had grown and people had aged, everything felt the same. The welcome was warm, and like old friends, we picked up where we left off. Madame was preparing food, the girls were busy organizing dishes and setting the table and the boys were getting water for bath time. I sat with Madame while she cooked, visited with the girls in the back, played with the children who came to see the blan and sat on the front porch with the boys talking until it was time to go visiting. Just like the old days.
After a hearty meal of rice and beans, we set out to visit friends and family. When we entered the gate to grandma’s house, I looked up to see a large sarcophagus before me that had not been there before. Jimmy explained that it was where both Bos and grandpa had been laid to rest. I was not pre-pared for the sight, and his words hit me like an arrow in my chest, as I walked across the yard to kiss grandma who could no longer walk or see. Sitting with her, I remembered how her home had been a place full of people, children, and activity. Today, she sat alone on the front porch, staring blankly to-ward our voices, her house now rundown and empty of peo-ple. In that moment, to me, she was Haiti personified. Alone and crippled by years of a hard life.
She told me how Madame still brings her dinner some nights because she no longer cooks, that she has stopped go-ing to church because it is too difficult for her to get there, and how she could use some medicine for her legs to help ease the pain. In the moment, I felt powerless. We left her sitting alone as the sun vanished from the sky.
My return to Vialet left me discouraged and deflated. I thought I would return to find some visible signs of commu-nity development. There were few signs of progress: in fact, Vialet and its people looked as though they had suffered more from the last decade of political unrest, natural disasters, and poverty than any damage caused to the town by the recent earthquake.
After such a long absence, this return would have been hard in any case. But everything—the sights, our emotions—was intensified by the shadow of the earthquake. And yet, while there was so much sadness woven into the fabric of this journey, in the end, I left feeling strangely hopeful for Haiti. I reconnected, and through that connection I was reminded that there is a strength and resiliency unique to the Haitian people. I felt it from the young and old everywhere I trav-elled, from tent camps to schools and from hospitals to mango fields. It is this strength that has given me renewed hope for Haiti, and the belief that with consistent, sustained support, Haiti will one day reclaim its title as The Pearl of the Antilles.
Melissa Basta, who served in Haiti from 1996-2000, lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, with her husband Joe (an RPCV who served in the Dominican Republic) and their two children. Several weeks after the earthquake, she organized a fundraiser and silent auction to which she donated her own collection of beautiful Haitian voodoo banners.
About the Author
Co-editors Pat and Bernie Alter met in Denver, Colorado, be-tween their respective Peace Corps experiences. Peace Corps in its wisdom assigned Bernie, New York City born and bred, to Central India as a Poultry Volunteer from 1967-69 and Pat, raised in suburban St. Louis, to Paraguay as a Public Health Volunteer from 1970-72.
Upon returning from India, Bernie received an M.A. in In-ternational Relations from the University of Denver in 1971 and joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1975. Together, he and Pat have lived in Pakistan, India, Thailand, Canada, Hong Kong and Korea. Pat received an M.L.S. in Library Science during their four-year tour in Toronto.
Bernie and Pat now live in Arlington, Virginia. While Bernie retired from the Department of State in 2006, Pat works as a Librarian at the Arlington Public Library. They are the parents of two sons, one born in Lahore, Pakistan, and the other started in New Delhi, India.
They attribute their lifelong wanderlust and interest in cross-cultural encounters to Peace Corps.