I recently returned to my Peace Corps community after having been lost at sea for the past six years. I floated along aimlessly after having escaped from captivity on a hijacked Russian cargo ship that was headed south from Ushuaia to Antarctica.
You see, it all started out as a post-Peace-Corps-service celebratory trip. In my almost permanent state of delirium, I drifted east around the world, zigzagging between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle until I miraculously found myself washed up right where I had been six years prior as a Peace Corps volunteer: Bolivia.
This was the story I told my 10 Bolivian godchildren upon my return to Candelaria last month; they really would not have accepted any other explanation for my having been gone for so long. (And for those of you who might try and poke a hole in my story by pointing out that Bolivia is landlocked and doesn’t have access to the Pacific, think again.)
So what does 50 years of Peace Corps volunteers getting to know themselves on the government’s dime really mean? Everything. I’m telling you: John F. Kennedy and Sargent Shriver really outdid themselves. Peace Corps has been the best bang for your diminishing buck in the past 50 years, easily.
My Peace Corps “counterpart” was a group of anthropologists based in Sucre (the first capital of Bolivia) called ASUR (Antropologos del Surandino). Their main objective was to capture and keep alive the stories and traditions of the indigenous cultures in the area. The two indigenous regions at the center of their focus at the time were “Tarabuco” to the southeast and “Jalq’a” to the northwest of Sucre. I was assigned to live with the Tarabuquenos.
My community was called Candelaria and there were about 70 families in all. The women were (and still are) amazing weavers. The first year there I learned Quechua, the local indigenous language, and practiced it as I sat with the women while they wove or as I worked in the fields with the men. I also tried my hand at teaching English, but mostly my efforts just entertained the children.
During my second year in Bolivia, I organized and facilitated workshops with the women artisans on how to better organize their artisan association, how to market their weavings to tourists, understanding the product life cycle, basic bookkeeping and quality control, amongst other topics. It was grassroots micro-enterprise development in the face of real poverty, and I had no idea it would inspire me to do similar work with another “Corps” in the northwestern United States six years later: Mercy Corps Northwest.
Upon my return last month to Bolivia with my Peace Corps volunteer sweetheart (side story: we fell in love at a Bolivian karaoke joint, where I maintain to this day that I had everyone in that place on their knees after a steamy version of “Lady In Red”), we found the continuity we were looking for after having left six years earlier. We wanted to show our beloved Bolivians that we had not forgotten them and we wanted to know for sure if they would still be there with open arms.
It turned out the relationships we had forged from living and breathing that same way of life with our Bolivian friends could never be taken away. It occurred to me that what we created with our time in Bolivia was still very much alive and constantly reminding us of why we’ve continued along the path of service today.