I am quite proud of my two years of national service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Brazil. But since that time I haven’t had much contact with the organization or my fellow volunteers. We all lost track of each other shortly after finishing our assignments. Possibly, if the internet had been around back in the late 70’s, more of us would have stayed in touch. I know there are Returned Peace Corps groups all over the US, but that never interested me. I may have even worked in countries where Volunteers had assignments, but not once did I ever think about checking to find out.
For some reason, before I left on this trip, I thought I might see what the PC had going down in the Dominican Republic. I wasn’t thinking about that at all when, during my first week in Santo Domingo, I walked into a small museum that I passed on a small street, intrigued by the sign: 100th Anniversary of the Loss of the USS Memphis.
While I was looking at the pictures and reading the narrative about the ship that was sunk by waves from a hurricane right there in Santo Domingo, I noticed a man, with a load of fancy camera equipment, documenting the exhibition. We got to talking and he told me that he was the one who had set it up through the US State Department. It was also the final day before they took everything down.
I’m not sure how it came up, but I mentioned my PC time in Brazil. He replied that he had been PC Honduras, two years before me. And even more astonishingly, he told me that one of his best friends was in PC Brazil when I had been there. When I got back to the hotel, I looked up his friend’s name and sure enough, he was in the group that arrived six months after me. And although I knew lots of people from that training group, I can’t say I really remember him. We probably did meet one crazy Carnaval week up in Salvador, but a whole lot of cachaça and rum may have slightly blurred my memory of those four days.
What are the odds that I would just happen to be at a small exhibition far from home, on its last day, at just the right hour, to run into a former PCV who was best friends with another PCV who served in Brazil at the same time as I did? Clearly it was a sign that I should drop by the Peace Corps office in Santo Domingo, just to see how things were these days.
A few days later, the taxi dropped me off at the PC office and I walked up expecting to simply go in and chat with anyone who was around. I got no further than the glass enclosed guard post with three State Department armed guards sitting inside. I leaned back, looked around, and tried to see if maybe I was not where I thought I should be. The guards were not making any effort to let me through.
I quickly realized that they were local hires so began to speak in Spanish. My first question was if I had made a mistake and that maybe this was actually the embassy and not the PC office. When they assured me I was in the right place, I explained that I was ex-PC and wanted to see their set-up and maybe talk to the director. I couldn’t hear exactly what was being said inside the glass office, but they called someone down. Maybe it was the director. It was not. Someone else was called and at this point I was beginning to think I would never be allowed in. This was worse than any embassy security I’d ever been through.
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Finally, about ten minutes later, a man – obviously a PC volunteer or staff member, came down and let me in. I had my bag searched, my passport taken, and I can’t remember if there was a metal detector or not. When I was finally cleared to go in, I must have looked as shocked as I felt. The nice Peace Corps guy smiled. Apparently, ex-PCV’s of my era have similar reactions.
It was just a teensy bit different back in the day, I told him. Generally, when any of us would make it all the way to one of the offices, which might have meant a 24 hour bus ride without air conditioning, we walked in the front door – usually open because of the heat, lit a cigarette and grabbed a beer out of the refrigerator.
My host then took me inside the sprawling former house-now-office. I saw a few volunteers and heard them talking of others who might be by. It was not like that in Brazil. You never just “dropped in” to an office; it took major planning. Mostly, it’s because there is quite a difference between the size of the Dominican Republic and Brazil. My first year was in Salvador, Brazil, and we had a small, two person run office in town. My second year, it was a 7 hour night-bus trip to get there. The closest other volunteers, were a day-or-two bus ride away. Basically, I spent the entire second year without running into many other volunteers at all. Obviously, I never once talked to any of them on the phone.
There are a lot of differences today from what it was. Volunteers can actually call each other 24 hours a day, they can Skype home, and they’ll never have to rely on Time magazine – with pages blacked out by state censors, for their weekly news updates.
I think all of us who served back in the pre-tech era would agree that we were the lucky ones. Being totally immersed in a country and its culture is no longer possible in the age of iPhones. I couldn’t do that now, but that’s because I know instant communication is possible. Just look how frustrated I have been over the past month because I haven’t been able to get an internet connection for most of my time here. The thought of having to wait three weeks to three months to get a letter with the latest news from home, and then knowing the return letter might take just as long, (as it did back then), makes me break out in a cold sweat.
Although times have changed, the Peace Corps Volunteers haven’t. They are still fighting the good fight. They still believe that what they do can make a difference in the world, even if that difference is for only one kid in one small town. But I have to believe it is never just one person who benefits from our volunteers. Generally, it’s an entire little community. I, for one, believe that I gained more than I ever gave. I’m fairly sure that the Volunteer’s of 2016 will also appreciate just how much they have taken away from their two years of service.
More power to the Peace Corps. It is America’s best export.