Reviewed by JIM HEAVILY
My daughter, at some point during her undergraduate studies at Guilford, a small liberal arts college located in Greensboro, North Carolina, entertained the idea of joining the Peace Corps, probably as she neared her junior year. I think she even went so far as to send off for some kind of informational something-or-other. She’s always been interested in service & volunteerism, having volunteered at a Planned Parenthood office in Raleigh during high school; she also served on several committees with various agendas at Guilford, one of them being, as I recall, a get out the vote campaign. Her enthusiasm & energy is unquestioned, but after having read J. Grigsby Crawford’s first book, The Gringo: A Memoir, I think it all to the better that Kate let slip her dreams of serving in the Peace Corps, given the desperate conditions & situations, the poverty & privations that Crawford unflinchingly describes. I’m not sure she would have been up to the challenge, especially given that her regional choice was Africa.
The Peace Corps, launched in 1961, was the brain child of John F. Kennedy & his administration. Kennedy “announced he would send Americans to the poorest parts of the world to alleviate poverty and create inter-cultural understanding” (218). Crawford is quick to add that “[t]hese parts of the world, the third world, also happened to be vital grounds for the Cold War raging between us, the first world, and the Communist Soviets in the second world …” (218). Apparently, beneath the soaring rhetoric of Camelotian idealism lay a greater geo-political truth.
Crawford’s regional choice was Latin America & he was eventually posted in Ecuador. He takes us on his journey, from his first interview with the Peace Corps in Washington D.C., to a nine week training in Olmedo, Ecuador, his first, harrowing (& short-lived) posting in La Segua & on to his second assignment in Zumbi where he stayed for the remainder of his two year commitment. Along the way, there are many seminars, orientations & more training sessions, along with several visits to various clinics & infirmaries in the jungles of Ecuador & to hospitala in Cuenca & Guayaquil. He writes of the training session in Olmedo as
a mixture of chaos and bureaucratic battles among program managers, program officers, program specialists, training specialists, training managers, logistics coordinators, and volunteer trainers. I’m still not sure what any of their specific roles were. They all desperately wanted to seem in charge and taken seriously. (14)
Before he left the States, Crawford had a chance to talk with a Peace Corps volunteer who had served in Central America in the 80s & who outlined the rigors of the “boot camp” volunteers would have to endure: “…trainees had to repel [sic] down three-story buildings, take aerobic endurance tests and do simulated drowning exercises…” in addition to “…being timed in the mile run or learning jujitsu…”
Instead, Crawford found
that training in the twenty-first century Peace Corps had about as much in common with boot camp as did a chapter meeting of the local Cub Scouts. The gradual pussification of the Peace Corps in recent decades had caused a 180-degree turn that took training from a genuinely rugged ordeal to something like college orientation, only lamer.” (19)
The Gringo: A Memoir
J. Grigsby Crawford
Wild Elephant Press
225 pp. $15.95 (paper)
This is not to say that once Crawford was on site, he didn’t suffer; what he endured was more psychological & medical in nature than being a test of physical strength & endurance. He writes about his trials, the self-doubt, ennui, the waves of loneliness & disaffection, & his troublesome bouts with what he refers to as “epididymitis-prostatitis” in vivid, nuanced detail. Tellingly, he cites Exodus 2:22 as the epigraph for the book.
His motivation in joining the Peace Corps is given early on in his typically frank & somewhat wry manner:
… I really went to test myself. I knew it would be dirty and rough and lonely—and I wanted to see how I’d react. I figured that I’d learn something about myself—some romantic truth I wouldn’t be able to get by sitting at a desk somewhere. This last part was perhaps a bit naïve, but probably no more so than the entire premise of young Americans moving to poorer countries to show the people there how it’s done. (10)
These sentiments are echoed or re-visited much later in the book as his time in-country is winding down, questioning the wisdom of the colonial or imperialistic impulses that seem an unspoken element of the Peace Corps’ mission:
There’s a time to help and when you do it, it’s virtuous. But what is perhaps more virtuous is having the wisdom to know when it’s time to step back and let humans do it themselves, their way, after all the years of training. A half century of gringos giving health seminars and planting trees and teaching to recycle—how much longer must it go on, I wondered. Apparently forever. When I first arrived in Ecuador, about 130 volunteers were there; midway through my service, that number ballooned up to around 200. (219)
Grigsby Crawford had his first interview with the Peace Corps in January, 2009 during his last semester in college &–because of the various snafus & bureaucratic hiccups that ensued, which he regales the reader with in the opening pages–didn’t ship out until February of the following year. He was then sent to Olmedo, Ecuador (near Quito) for nine weeks of training. Subsequently we posted to La Segua, “…a strange place with strange stories…” near thePacific coast where his assignment was (ostensibly) to help the locals try to develop a trade in eco-tourism in the surrounding wetlands (formerly referred to as a swamp, a translation of La Segua). Crawford has this to say about the growing eco-tourism industry:
White people from rich countries do like to spend lots of money to visit poorer countries, where they stare at things and climb to the tops of places and wear fanny packs and overpay for stuff, and then return home and tell all their friends so they can do the same. I’ve been to many of those places.
His stay in La Segua was to last only eight weeks.
His next site assignment was to the outpost of Zumbi in Zamora Chinchipe, Ecuador’s most isolated province “hidden away in the southeast corner of the country against the Peruvian border…in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and it looked exactly the way I thought the South American jungle should.” For all his expectations, altruism & high hopes (& the stated mission of the Peace Corps), he spent a lot of time in Zumbi doing nothing, except eating a lot of chicken & rice and coping with a severe & excruciatingly painful bout of epididymitis-prostatitis. His treatment required several trips by bus to Loja (the provincial capital), Cuenca, Guayaquil & Quito. During the final six months of his posting he was able to apply for & attain a USAID grant that enabled the people of Zumbi to build a greenhouse behind the local high school.
Grigsby Crawford’s debut memoir joins a select group of former Peace Corps volunteers who have chosen to write about their experiences abroad. The “classic” Peace Corp memoir, Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle by Moritz Thomsen (1915-1991) published by the University of Washington Press (1969), is also set in Ecuador. There are others.
As a memoir, the book reads almost as if it were written as a novel—the narrative is engaging & heartfelt & true. Chronological in nature, Crawford skillfully writes of landscape & geography, bureaucracies & petty nuisances; his insights into the confounded range of human nature & the vagaries thereof, from Peace Corps apparatchik, other Peace Corps volunteers, local bureaucrats & the characterization of the numerous Ecuadorians he meets & lives with & with whom he is supposed to work are brazen, unblinking & forthright. He does not preclude himself in this poignant vision, which I found refreshing.