Peace Corps Writers
The Non-Matrixed Wife (page 5)
The Non-Matrixed Wife
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Peace Corps flexibility
By now, we were finding it hard to remain amused. We contacted Peace Corps/Venezuela. We had tried, we said; the political situation was growing more unhelpful by the day. Wasn’t there someplace, anyplace, they could send a hospital administrator and a nurse where we might actually be of use?
     Wait until after the election, they told us. Things would open up then.
     So we took Kym to the zoo and hiked the mountains and checked our mail, visited other Volunteers, drank Polar beer in the tents set up in the plaza by one or another of the political parties, or café con leche in the local coffeehouse. The times were exciting; it was not a bad life. But we were not useful. I found myself making unfair comparisons between this flojo Peace Corps existence and the efficiency of the War Corps, and concluded unhappily that, if Venezuela was any example, the War Corps was far more effective at what it did.
     Sadly, our lack of productivity was not unique. In Merida alone, we had a Sports Program Volunteer who taught English occasionally to a nun, while his wife taught dancing to one of the nun’s students. Another Sports Program man had moved seven times, trying to be of use; he now spent his remaining four months mountain-climbing, playing banjo and weaving hammocks. An engineer also taught nuns English — it seemed to be the one job that would accept Peace Corps Volunteers, perhaps because we did it for free.
     A town away, there lived a couple who had trained to teach farmers how to farm more effectively. They had learned via the cousin’s-buddy’s-cleaning-lady’s-daughter route that local farmers didn’t take them seriously — they were too young, too inexperienced. We were griping about our situation with them when they suggested a use for Paul’s blueprints: they needed decorations for their living room wall. So . . . what the hell. For all I know, those plans might still be hanging in that little farmhouse in Ejido.
     We were off touring Colombia in December, when Venezuela elected its new president — Carlos Andres Perez, whose party was not the one previously in power. We returned and again spoke to Peace Corps/Caracas. Wait, they told us. Things will improve. Also, they would check with Peace Corps/Washington to see if we could transfer to another country where Paul’s skills could be used.
     So we waited. We threw a terrific Christmas party for our friends, neighbors and fellow Volunteers, where our Sports Program friend played the banjo. We hiked, drank more coffee, wrote more letters. January came and went, but there was no new posting.
     In fact, to our amazement and despair, more Volunteers had come to Merida. Eight of them, including an arts and crafts guy, a sociologist working in agriculture, an urban planner, an architect — the only replacement in the group, he was to take over from our friend at Town Hall, whose table Paul used for his project — and The Bear People, so nicknamed because their project was to track some kind of bear in the mountains (The Sports Program banjo player said, “They’d better pitch their tent in the zoo and get a good look at the one they got there. I’ve been trekking all over these hills for months, and I’m sure that’s the only damned bear they’re going to see here.”).
     February brought Kym’s third birthday, but no new posting. Another party, more hiking, coffee, letters. Wait, said Caracas. Staff changes are coming; things will improve. If not, there’s still that transfer. And we waited, bored and restless.
     March arrived, and the Peace Corps/Caracas staff came to Merida to meet with all us Volunteers. It was an acrimonious session, the Volunteers accusing the staff of unresponsiveness, the staff pleading for patience from the Volunteers. We asked about our transfers and this time, when they told us to wait, we decided we had waited long enough. And sadly — because we really had wanted to be of use — we left Venezuela.
     Nixon, I might add, was still in office.

In, Up, and Out!
That was 30 years ago. Venezuela has not prospered since those heady days when it took back its oil industry. It has fallen prey to massive currency inflation. The rich remain rich; the poor have gotten poorer, and the middle class that we saw emerging has slipped away. It suffered a coup attempt, and the current president — who led the coup — is a controversial figure. The Peace Corps left for good in 1977, fifteen years and 2,134 volunteers after it first arrived in 1962.
     We, on the other hand, have prospered. Paul holds a good job in the Healthcare field, and I write — which may or may not be considered of use. Kym is an adult with her own family now. All of us, Paul and I and Kym and her two post-Peace Corps brothers, are responsible citizens and ardent world travelers.
     For Paul and me, and perhaps for our kids, this will to travel is a legacy of both the Peace Corps and the War Corps.
     My time in Viet Nam, while harrowing, made me desperate to see the world beyond my borders — precisely because we were allowed to see so little of it there. We were cloistered from it, tantalized by it, justifiably paranoid about passing through it. Build a fence, and you give people the compulsion to climb over it.
     Our time in the Peace Corps gave us a good, long look at a different culture from ground level, if not truly from inside. The good, the bad, the silly, the political, the downright weird (often indistinguishable from the political) — we swam in it every day, hiked its mountains, drank its coffee, spoke its language and hobnobbed with its people. We didn’t help Venezuela, no. We were teats on a bull — but what a fascinating bull. It taught us, a family of white, privileged Yanquis, how it feels to live as a not-quite-trusted minority. We learned — often from someone’s cousin’s buddy’s cleaning lady’s daughter — how we appeared to others, how we did indeed represent our government even when we might have preferred not to.
     Looking back from this distance, I can say that what I got out of our less-than-productive experience was, as the commercial says, priceless. It is a part of me; it colors my appreciation of the complexity of my fellow man, the way I see my small position, and the larger position of my country, and the still larger position of my government, in the world.
     For that, I am tremendously, if belatedly, grateful.

  

Susan O'Neill has been an RN since 1968, an Army veteran since 1970, and a writer since she could hold a pen. She is the author of Don't Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Viet Nam, published by Ballantine and, now in paperback, by UMass Press; it has received only one bad review, which called it "M.A.S.H., with lots more sex and cursing." She has published in magazines, some of which pay in money and some in copies, and has an epic novel currently being rejected by major publishing houses.
     She and her husband Paul live in Andover, Massachusetts in loving fear that one or more of their three children will move back into one of their spare bedrooms.

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