A Special Gift

One day, in my 55th year, my son Devin, his friend and I were painting a condominium we jointly owned. My son’s friend Stephen Harwood had recently returned from service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Jamaica. I was curious about his experience and started asking questions. When I asked if the Peace Corps accepts people of my age he said yes and went on to relate stories about volunteers in Jamaica of my age. My interest returned.

In October 1991, a year and a half after the condominium conversation, I was on a plane bound from Miami to Guatemala City. The journey was taking me to training as a Small Enterprise Development volunteer in the Peace Corps. I was initially turned down but persisted in showing my interest and was finally accepted. My three months training was in a charming little mountain farm town—Santa Lucia Milpas Altas—near Antigua, Guatemala. After training I was assigned to Jutiapa, an agricultural trading center of 15,000 inhabitants in the arid Oriente region. A perfect place for a native of Southern California.

I was assigned to the Guatemalan agency that administered the cooperatives throughout the country. It was not an agency famous for efficiency. The national counterpart with whom I was to work seemed like he was very interested in learning and doing a good job. The first months of my service were exciting. Finding a place to live; getting used to the shops and marketplace; meeting my neighbors; practicing my newly acquired Spanish; made each day interesting and eventful. I was so engrossed with my site that I didn’t leave it for the first three months. I thoroughly enjoyed the new experiences. Chance meetings developed into great friendships. I began to patronize a local pasteleria (pastry shop). The husband of the shop’s proprietor was an administrator in the local school district. As I really enjoy Guatemalan pastry I made a lot of visits. During these visits I had many conversations with the school administrator. These conversations led to an invitation to dinner with the family. Thus began discussions of both the joys and frustrations of my host’s life and work. Each meeting provided me with a greater knowledge of Guatemala and the challenges faced by a Guatemalan professional and his family.

An order for business cards led to a revelation of some of the dark history of the local area which is known as a conservative bastion. The delivery of the cards took much longer than I was led to believe. I made many trips to the printing shop to check on the progress of my order. My visits led to the development of a trusting friendship. My new friend began to feel comfortable talking about a particularly traumatic event that had occurred in his life. It seems that years before his young and pregnant wife, a politically active liberal, had been murdered by “the military conservatives.” Apparently both the printer and his wife were involved in trying to bring political change to their country. The “military conservatives” decided to eliminate the young wife as a warning and a lesson. When I talked with him my friend despaired for his country. Before I left my site my printer friend found political asylum in another country.

As the months went by I began to get slowly frustrated with my work. The office administrator where I worked rarely showed up for work, and when he did, did nothing discernable. My counterpart, a man in his early 20s and given to a very short temper, apparently became frustrated with having to work with a volunteer of my age and showed it with his conduct. In his favor he also wanted to do more but was hindered by the ennui of the office head. My counterpart and I grew increasingly estranged. Slowly my initial enthusiasm began to fade. My comments to my Guatemalan Peace Corps supervisor about my misgivings were, I felt, brushed off as being a part of the usual adjustment a Peace Corps volunteer goes through early in service. With the passage of time my dissatisfaction heightened. Nine or ten months into my service I started thinking about early termination. To my mind I was not doing what my background and training had prepared me for: helping small businesses develop. After serious and very conflicting thought I terminated my service. The Peace Corps administrators took serious notice when I decided to leave. They generously offered to send me to any site I desired to finish my service. But it was too late. The rose had lost its bloom. I returned home after barely more than a year as a Peace Corps volunteer.

I made many friends in the Peace Corps and continued to maintain the friendships after returning home. In 1996 a fellow Peace Corps volunteer from Guatemala called me one morning. She asked if I was interested in going to Bosnia. I said, ‘Bosnia, are you kidding? No way!’ My friend went on to explain that the Peace Corps was recruiting volunteers for the U.N. to work as election supervisors in the first post-war election in Bosnia. I thanked her but declined. I spent a sleepless night wondering if I had done the right thing by not pursuing the opportunity. By morning I had decided I was going to call back and volunteer. I was accepted and so began an almost ten-year adventure that has changed my life.

In August 1996 I deployed to Givinice, a small town near Tuzla, Bosnia, as an election supervisor. The assignment proved fascinating. I enjoyed meeting other internationals and learning their perspectives of the world political situation. The Bosniacs were very welcoming and appreciative and we had interesting discussions about our countries and the future. I was hooked. Shortly after I returned to San Francisco from the first assignment I was asked if I wanted to return to Bosnia to work on the next election. I immediately said yes. That mission was followed by another. By the end of 2001 I had worked on eight missions in the Balkans. Since 2001 I have managed IDP (internally displaced persons) camps in Herat, Afghanistan; done development work in Kandahar, and worked elections in Russia and Ukraine. I have another international assignment in the near future. None of these experiences would have occurred had I not been in the Peace Corps.

As I look back on my Peace Corps experience I often wonder what I might have done differently to help me finish my two-year commitment. Obviously the work I have enjoyed and done successfully since my volunteer days shows my interest in humanitarian work. I believe there are two major steps I could have taken. One, I should have been more assertive about my increasing unhappiness with my work, or more importantly, lack of work. I knew that my unease was more than an adjustment and I should have been more adamant about a need for a change. The second thing I could have done was to develop my own programs and work independently within the national organization. I have noticed that the volunteers who accomplished the most set their own agendas. They identified needs and pursued them rather than waiting for their assigned government agencies to lead. I was very deferential to the national organization and did not want to ruffle feathers. Many individual entrepreneurs came to me for help but I wasn’t able to assist them because they were not members of cooperatives. I missed an opportunity to foster economic independence. Perhaps I could have arranged with the Peace Corps administration to spend half of my time with entrepreneurs.

In the end, despite my original less than fulfilling service, I cannot emphasize how important my Peace Corps background has been to me in my life. When I became a volunteer I had been to four countries in the world. In the last nine years I have added thirty-one countries to my passport. I now correspond by e-mail with friends from England to Kosovo to Serbia to Afghanistan to Sudan to Guatemala. To have the opportunity to live in other cultures; to learn different languages; to be able study history close up and personal; has enlivened and broadened my life beyond measure. If I have learned one particular lesson in my travels it is not how different we are as citizens of the world but how close we are. Most of us want the same things in life no matter where we live or what our cultural or religious background. Whether living in a goat-hair tent in Afghanistan, a dirt-floored adobe in Guatemala or an apartment in Kosovo, most of the world wishes for peace, economic security, and happiness for family and friends.

I received a special telephone call recently. It was from Leti in Jutiapa, Guatemala. I first met Leti in 1992 when I was a volunteer. She was a neighbor and a student at the local high school. Her determination to learn about the United States overcame her touching shyness. We became friends. I even had the honor of being invited to her quinceniera. Leti is twenty-eight now, married and the mother of a handsome three-year-old son. Over the intervening years we have preserved our friendship in spite of the fact that our difference in age is measured in decades rather than years. She doesn’t speak English and my Spanish is weak but we communicate. Our continuing friendship signifies to me the essential gift of the Peace Corps – people coming together and touching one another’s life in a meaningful and lasting way. That gift from the Peace Corps has changed my life.

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