Talking with . . .

. . . Joshua Berman and Randy Wood

    An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64))

    YEARS AND YEARS AGO I was traveling with two PCVs from Ethiopia somewhere in upcountry Uganda after having just spent several weeks on the beaches of Malindi in Kenya, and before heading back to Ethiopia for our second year as secondary school teachers. We had stopped off at a bar and stumbled upon an old Brit who was proclaiming to everyone who cared to listen that there were too many white people in Uganda and that he was heading out for the jungles of Brazil. Then he ordered another beer and sank back in his chair saying that Africa wasn’t like it once was when you went for years and never meet anyone from back home. I thought: Here was an ex-pat who wasn’t leading what we used to call a normal life.
         I hadn’t thought about that incident in years, and then I heard about Randy Wood (Nicaragua 1998–2000) and Joshua Berman (Nicaragua 1998–2000) who write for the Moon Handbooks travel series with Avalon Travel Publishing and have been traveling the world since they were Volunteers. They have written two editions of Nicaragua together and Joshua also worked on Honduras and co-authored, with Chicki Mallan, Moon Handbooks Belize (for which he won a Lowell Thomas Travel Writing Award).
         Randy is an agronomist and engineer, as well as a writer, based in Washington, DC, and he travels frequently throughout Latin America. Randy is married to a Nicaraguan and recently completed his masters degree in development economics and international relations at Johns Hopkins’ SAIS.
         Joshua is a freelance writer, photographer, and trip leader who has spent much of the last 10 years in Central America and the American West. He is currently traveling around the world on an extended honeymoon.
         There have been a few RPCVs who have turned their Peace Corps experiences into travel books and a few have done other books for Moon, and all of these RPCVs are characters with whom I wish I could sit down, share a beer, and ask them to tell me stories of their travels. Since that is not possible — since I’m leading a very normal life — I e-mailed them both and this is what they had to say, responding from various places around the world
    .

    Where are you from and where did you go to college, Josh?
    I was born in Clarksburg, West Virginia where I enjoyed an Appalachian childhood until my folks moved us to Long Island, New York. At 18, I went to Brown University, where I received a B.A. in Environmental Studies in 1995.

    And you, Randy?
    I’m from Westhampton, New York (Long Island) originally, a great beach town out at the end of Long Island with lots of fantastic water and very fun summers. It made an explorer out of me, and infused me with a real passion for islands and travel. I graduated from Cornell University in 1993 with a degree in Environmental Engineering. This year I graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies (SAIS) with a masters in international development. In between, I worked as an engineer and English teacher.

    The two of you served together, right, Josh? What was your assignment?
    Yeah, Randy and I met during orientation in Granada; we were assigned a room together and he was very proud of the shortwave radio he’d brought down. I wound up serving in La Trinidad, Estelí, a town in the foothills of the Segovia Mountains. My primary assignment as an Environmental Education Volunteer was working with teachers, assisting them to use an eco-themed activity book. Of course it took me the first year to realize that only three out of 120 teachers in the district actually wanted to work with me; once this clicked, then we got some good work done.

    What about you, Randy?
    I was placed in a little town of 300 people (that's 5 last names, no more!) called San Diego, but I worked as well in an even smaller town called El Hato. They were both in the mountains northeast of Condega, Estelí (Nicaragua). I was teaching soil conservation, crop rotation, and integrated pest management, and trying to convince families to grow vegetables in home gardens for their own consumption.

    Why did you join the Peace Corps? Josh?
    Peace Corps seemed like the perfect ticket for me to live abroad, learn a language, continue my environmental/service work, and have a life-changing adventure — standard reasons, I’m sure, but I could not have anticipated how the experience would affect my writing aspirations. I pushed Peace Corps back a few times in order to continue working for a magazine publisher in Boulder, Colorado, and finally just had to quit the job and head south, trusting the writing gods that Nicaragua would inspire me. It did.

    Randy?
    For me, probably because I thought the engineering track wasn’t going to get me overseas. I like languages, unlike most engineers (I speak fluent Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Indonesian, decent Thai and Italian), and most engineering firms I worked for had no interest in what languages I spoke. I looked into a lot of organizations but none could really match the experience the Peace Corps promised. So for me, the Peace Corps was a way to break out of the engineering rut and have some adventures overseas. It worked out too — I stayed in Nicaragua for just about 5 years, that’s an additional 3 years post-Peace Corps.

    When did you two decide to write your book? Josh?
    Well, as co-editors of Peace Corps Nicaragua’s quarterly magazine, ¡Va Pue!, Randy and I discovered that we worked very well together, especially on our co-written editors’ notes, which we would bat back and forth between our different styles and approaches until we knew we’d arrived. We experimented with a few travel pieces as well and always half-joked about writing the perfect guidebook to Nicaragua that did not exist, the book we wished we’d had when we first arrived in Managua (in 1998).
         It wasn’t until 7 months or so after COS-ing however, that we resurrected the idea, something which we each did independently of each other on the same day! In fact, our emails, in which I was reporting preliminary research on possible publishers and Randy had roughed out an outline, actually crossed in cyberspace. We hadn’t spoken about the project for months, yet we’d simultaneously begun working together without knowing it — a good sign. We pitched Avalon a month later and soon after that I was on a plane to Managua with a signed contract and a deadline.

    What do you recall, Randy, about getting together?
    The first thing I did when I learned I’d be going to Nicaragua was look for a good travel guide, and I realized there was none. After two years of living down there it occurred to me I could probably write one. Josh and I spoke briefly about it once before we left the Peace Corps and then dropped the subject. About six months later while I was helping manage a two million dollar project for the US Army Corps of Engineers I started to develop an outline of what a book would look like and sent it to Josh. He filled in some of the outline, I began fleshing out another section, and before we knew it we had started writing a book. That’s when we started shopping around for someone to publish it.

    Did you sell the book idea to Moon Handbooks before you wrote it, Randy?
    We got it sufficiently advanced to have something to shop around, and then started identifying companies that might be interested in the book. I was familiar with — and impressed with — Moon Handbooks, because I’d relied extensively on the Moon Handbooks to Indonesia (by Bill Dalton) when I was living there from ’93 to ’94.
         What set the Dalton handbook apart from the Lonely Planet equivalent was the depth of insight into culture and history, something which the Moon Handbook (and the travelers who used it) seemed to care a great deal about. So I suggested we start with Moon and then proceed to other book companies. Turns out, Moon was in the process of evaluating someone else’s proposal for Nicaragua, but when they saw our proposal they put the other guy on hold and paid attention to us. We spent about a month putting together the proposal — sample chapters, outlines, bios for both authors, and an analysis of the competition that made perfectly clear how ready the market was for a book on Nicaragua. So Moon accepted our offer and gave us a tough deadline — full manuscript to be due 4 months later! Everyone talks about the pain of shopping around your manuscript and getting rejection letters, but we were accepted by the first company we spoke to. Serendipitous, perhaps, or maybe the time was just right for our book.
         Meeting the deadline required a day and night effort writing, researching, and coordinating. Towards the end we were working 16 hour days in a dumpy apartment in central Managua (you can check out our calendar for a sense of our timeline, and photos of our crazy living situation.

    How did you go about writing the book, Randy? Did you do separate tasks and then get together?
    I started writing the outline in the summer of ’01 and sent it to Josh. He added to it and sent it back and we were rolling. From there we worked separately until November. I was living in Managua where I was managing this $2M Army Corps of Engineers Hurricane Mitch Reconstruction program, and Josh was in New York. He came back down to Nicaragua to begin researching, and we both hit the road every chance we could to start researching and writing. After awhile we got into a constructive pattern of writing, researching, and swapping documents back and forth. Keeping track of it all was easily as hard — and as time consuming — a process as anything else was. Towards the end (crunch time) we were both holed up in Managua in the PimpTower, writing, editing, and organizing the maps and photos. It was intense and highly fun.
         For our present book, Living Abroad in Nicaragua, we’re trying another approach: Josh has been working while on his year-long honeymoon in Asia and India, while I’ve been writing in my spare time while working for the Millennium Challenge in Washington DC, with an occasional trip to Nicaragua for fact finding and research. Thank God for broadband internet connections!

    Anything you’d like to add, Josh?
    Just that after divvying up the country on a bar-top in old Granada, we set off for our assigned regions, traveling by public transport to every corner of Nicaragua, then meeting back up in Managua to write up our field notes, edit each other’s work, and continue our collaboration on the background chapters. Then we’d repeat the process until we covered the whole country. It was highly intensive, working day and night for five straight months. We also relied heavily on our network of Peace Corps Volunteers throughout the country, which was an enormous mass of collective knowledge and contacts.

    What are you doing now, Josh?
    I’m in the middle of a year-long, round-the-world honeymoon with my wife, Sutay, a Colorado native, registered nurse, and RPCV (The Gambia 1996–98). As we pursue various research and volunteer projects (mostly in Pakistan, India, and Southeast Asia), I am posting scenes from our many adventures on the Tranquilo Traveler Round-the-World Weblog and also freelancing for a variety of publications, including Yoga Journal, Transitions Abroad, and Outside Traveler magazines. In addition, Randy and I are collaborating once again on a new Nicaragua guidebook for Avalon’s Moon Living Abroad series — the book is an expatriate’s guide to living in Nicaragua and will be on shelves next fall.

    And Randy, you’re in the U.S.?
    That’s right. I’m a program officer for the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a US government aid agency whose mandate is to rethink how we provide development assistance. I primarily focus on Bolivia, but I’ve done a bit of work in Mozambique and am about to move overseas again to run the overseas office of the MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation in Benin, West Africa. That position should provide a nice 2 year warm weather break from Washington’s cold winters!
         My wife Ericka is Nicaraguan. She’s currently completing her masters in Spanish-English translation at American University. We got married in 2002 and are happy homeowners in Northwest Washington, DC. We met while she was working for USAID in Managua, Nicaragua.

    So you two are a real Peace Corps success stories. Happily married, writing, traveling, and writing books. Could it be any better?
    Well, the advances could be more and the sales better.

    God, you sound like all writers! Anything more?
    Yes, our website sites. Randy’s is www.therandymon.com; Josh is at stonegrooves.net.

    Thank you both and when you come to New York, I’ll buy the first round of beers.
    It’s a deal.