A Writer Writes

    The Loneliness of a Peace Corps Volunteer

    by Bill Coolidge (Bolivia 1966–68)

    “RAP, RAP, RAP, RAP!” I thought it was a campesino, filled up on a Saturday night with sheep brains and homemade chitcha beer wanting a respite from the cold wind swirling along the dirt streets.
         Cathy and I were in bed, dressed in quilted long underwear. The heavy Bolivian blankets pressed down on our cold bodies. Our one room adobe apartment smelled of oil. It was our first winter as Peace Corps Volunteers in Oruro on the Altiplano, about 200 miles south of LaPaz, the capital.
         "Rap, rap, rap, rap, rap!" Insistant. I was tired after working all day at the orphanage with the sons of tin miners. These miners died at the age of 30, their wives too poor to care for their children handed them over to the Hogar para ninos. We played fobito after dinner — a small size soccer match — back and forth we ran along the hard packed dirt court. I dragged home, still adjusting to the 12,000 feet above sea level and shivering. The biting cold of a Bolivian winter in this desert was already taking away my youthful enthusiasm. I didn’t want to open the door.

         Being of draft age in the mid-1960s was like living in a pot slowly simmering. I had signed up for both the Navy and the Peace Corps. I always liked to have options. In a downtown Detroit armory, I shucked my pants, pulled my jockey shorts down to my ankles, along with a few hundred other recruits. First the physical examination, then a “gung ho” lecture and demonstration by a second lieutenant on his way to “Nam.”
         That weekend, I purchased a diamond ring, gave it to Cathy. I told her of my terror. Innocents, we agreed to have commitments now rather than to wait. Wait and see seemed like a deadly option. The television already had pictures of body bags flown back to the United States.
         My draft board surprised me. “If you are married and join Peace Corps, we will count that as service to your country.” The letter of acceptance came in February and I was assigned to what is now Tanzania. A second letter came in March signed by the Director of Peace Corps, Jack Vaughn. “You are reassigned to a new project, Bolivia Mines, training begins in six weeks. The government of Tanzania will no longer be a site for Peace Corps Volunteers.” “Bolivia? Was it in Central or South America?” I picked up my atlas and looked it up.

         “Wham, wham, wham! Hey Bill, open up will ya, it’s Gary, let me in!”

         Forty-five of us who had been invited to be in the project had arrived in Seattle; thirty of us completed the cross-cultural and Spanish language training and were flown to LaPaz. I celebrated my ninth month wedding anniversary stuck in the Panama airport. A few of us were married, most were single, and we were all in our mid-twenties. Our in-country assignments had us scattered up and down the Altiplano, often separated by hundreds of miles.

    PCV at the Door
    Cathy punched me in the arm and shoved me, “He’s speaking English, did you hear him? Go open the door. It’s Gary!” I stumbled into my leather boots and opened the door, just as “Bam, bam” rang out. In barges this tall, bulky man, flamboyant black hair with a mustache. His fiery eyes make me think he has been chased by a bear.
         “Jesus, Gary, are you alright?” Gary went straight for my straw mattress, which served as a couch. He sat there, head in his hands, then he lurched upward and walked around the black trunk that served as a dining room table. Cathy stayed in the bed and watched his circling. I sat down on the mattress and waited. After a couple of minutes, he slowed down and sat next to me.
         “Can’t stand it anymore. No one to talk to, no one to date, no one to drink beer with. Hell, there is no place to drink beer. I can’t speak Quechua and barely any Span . . .” He didn’t finish his sentence. Tears burst out, a rumbling of sobs overcame him, his shoulders started shaking. I put an arm around him; he leaned against me and cried.
         Later, when I headed off toward bed, Gary whispered: “Leave the kerosene heater and lantern on, will you please?”
         In the morning over coffee, the three of us discussed what to do. We had been in-country for only a few months, but Gary’s Volunteer days were over. He intended to take the train to LaPaz and hand in his resignation to the Director, then take the next flight to Los Angeles.
         Gary and I then walked to the train station As we sat against the adobe wall of the station waiting for the train, he reached over, seized my hand, and said, “You saved my life last night.” “Glad I could be there for you,” I muttered, and then we lapsed into silence. The sun was out, the wall was warming us. I wondered if Gary was envisioning the southern California beaches. I began thinking about the northern Michigan lake where I grew up. Summers of intense heat, cool deep waters. Unlike Gary, I was unable to confess to myself or anybody else that I too was unhappy, not yet despairing, but headed in that direction. Unlike Gary I was tethered, I was married. I was being depended on.

    Another Vol in Trouble
    A couple of months later, about dusk, the telephone rang.
         “Bill, it’s Jim. You gotta come here; I’m not doing well. We’ve got to talk.” Jim was a PCV and, like me, from Michigan. He was a nurse and had been placed in Colquiri, a tiny village, another thousand feet up the mountain from me. More than a half-day’s bus trip away.
         I left early on a Saturday morning joining the chollitos. They carried children and market wares wrapped around their back and herded goats and chickens up into the old run down school bus, called a “collectivo.” Suitcases and crates were tied down on the roof. I could hear them move about as we chugged around mountain curves. I sat on an inside seat so I couldn’t look down the steep drop-off, hundreds of feet to a dry riverbed.
         The inside of the bus was colorful and joyful. Brown, sunburned faces, exposed to the sun for a lifetime, the women smiled and joked, their children content to be physically close. On the other hand, the campesinos and the miners slouched, their shoulders burdened, they barely looked up. Even on Saturday nights, drunk, they did not sing nor dance. They wandered out of town with slumping shoulders.
         “You want a cup of coffee? How about a beer? It’s warm but you already know that.” Jim’s feet were well planted, shoulder width apart. His bald head feathered with some wisps of light brown hair. He looked 35 not 25. We started with coffee, murky, mud like, strong. I took mine with leche. We sipped and I looked around his adobe room, much like ours. A Peace Corps bookcase made of cardboard, (called a “locker”) in one corner. A lantern and kerosene heater plus a kerosene enofe (a little burner).
         “Let’s go for a walk,” I suggested. Jim jumped up, startling me, his 5'7" frame blocking the door.
         “I don’t want to go out there. I’ll have to talk with someone. My Spanish is so bad they can’t understand me. I’m practicing hard but being a nurse up here and not understanding them is a joke. Mostly I hide out in my room.” He purses his lips, his eyes focused on mine, challenging me. I move away from the door.

    I gotta go
    Jim’ story was a variation of Gary’s. Sadness crouched in the silent corners of his room, his life. As he spoke about his longing for Detroit, the hospital he had worked at, the waterfront, his right hand whisked away the subtle appearance of a tear or two. But I could see it there — honed deep into his eyeballs — a haunting aloneness and I felt helpless.
         “Can you wait until payday and we’ll all go up to La Paz together to get our paycheck?” His head shook, hands sequestered in his armpits, three long words of closure: “I gotta go now.”
         We stood and watched the shadows fall on the adobe building across the street, the sun heading down the mountain. The dark cool shade expanding, my eyes rested there. I leaned against the door to catch my balance.
         “I’ll see you in a couple of days, Bill.” Jim held my shoulders with his hands, then we shook hands, signifying we were in agreement. He was going to leave Colquiri and Peace Corps. We’d have dinner in Oruro and then he would catch the next train to LaPaz, then home.

         Two good friends leaving within a couple of months shook me up. After Gary left, a Peace Corps psychologist had come to visit the Bolivian Volunteers. I had lied to him. I told him, “Everything is fine, except my Spanish, and I’m working on it.” I didn’t tell him about my long bike rides out into the campo during siesta time where I would stop, get off my bike and stare into a horizon that had no end, no colors, no buildings, nothing. Riding my bike back, I would think of something to tell Cathy about what I saw so I wouldn’t blurt out, “I’m so lonely here! I can’t even tell if the work I’m doing is helping anybody!” I couldn’t imagine uttering the deeper truth: “I’m not happy being married. Something is missing.” Gary and Jim leaned on me while I held tight to this self-portrait: “Doing good, being successful, happily married.”

         The collectivo came at dusk. I climbed on. I walked straight to the back of the bus, unimpeded by goats and chickens. Circling and circling, down and down. Darkness came on fast. I was tired, not from a lack of rest but something more, something draining me. I leaned my arms against the seat in front, cradling my head, much like I had done on the bus home after losing an “away” basketball game. Then I started crying. The coughing, sputtering, backfiring bus hid the sounds of my sobbing. Jim and Gary’s suffering was a ladder down into my own pain. The isolation, the hint of a marriage already growing apart. I leaned into that empty space between my arms and felt the only comfort available, my own.

    Life After the Peace Corps
    I haven’t seen Gary or Jim since 1967. After Peace Corps I went to seminary and became an Episcopal priest, owned and ran a retreat center, lived in an AIDS hospice, became an AIDS caseworker, a manager of a homeless shelter, and finally, after twenty-five years, I managed a divorce. A few years later I remarried, moved to San Francisco then back to the coast of North Carolina.
         Most mornings I sit in my chair at dawn and observe Bird Island, Shackleford Banks and beyond, the Atlantic Ocean moving out to a point of invisibility. The fear of a boundless future occurs infrequently now. The horizon of blue in front of me is an invitation to explore, to dream, to sail.

    Solitude and Loneliness
    Would I do it again? Choose Peace Corps over the Navy? In a time of crisis, get married as some kind of protection, hope? You bet I would. What I learned in that wilderness time on the Altiplano was the necessity of solitude. Even with the fullness of a day: working with a hundred orphans, hanging out with José and Javier, going home for dinner with my wife, solitude could still call, urging me to go for a walk or a long bike ride. But it has taken me twenty-five years to understand the difference between solitude and loneliness.
         This morning, a gale force wind brought a hard rain, sweeping west to east. As I write, the old forlornness grabs me with the same old tired question: “Where is your life going? You’re spending too much time alone; you’re not being productive!” “ Better check the want ads, get a ‘real job,’ stop writing, quit the part-time maintenance position.”
         Gary and Jim taught me that in being vulnerable, often a horizon opens up or a new threshold appears. For many years I have sat in hospital rooms, attended the dying, dug the cold earth for a burial, brought hot food to worn out bodies. There are many ways to be in the wilderness. I am Gary, I am Jim, I am the one sitting next to me in the clinic, waiting for a “t-cell” count. Fear of being alone, fear not being good enough, fear of an uncertain future can still has sway over me.
         “Maybe I better go for a walk or go for a ride on my bike, ” I say to myself. I see a few seagulls and a solitary pelican gliding sidewise, tacking into the wind. I put down my pen and let the anxiety ooze in and through my body. I stay in my chair. The pelican makes her way up to Gallant’s Channel, turning right to the Newport River and flies on until I can no longer see her. Eventually the fear leaves and I am alone. I pick up my pen and write the next word.

    Bill Coolidge has recently moved from his sailboat on the San Francisco Bay to an apartment overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Beaufort North Carolina. There he writes essays and poems, sails and crabs, and keeps track of dolphins, black skimmers and the quality of the water in the Pamilico River Basin.