Friday, March 23, 2018

Peace Corps Volunteers Separated by 10,000 Miles and 39 Years

On the ferry boat to Ometepe Island with Jasmine & Nati
We're glad we got to experience the beauty, geographic wonders, people, and culture of Nicaragua.  But as friends and family asked, “Why Nicaragua?”  We wondered, too, as we thought nothing could top our Tanzania trip last month.

It was never on our bucket list, but it should have been.  The main reason we went to Nicaragua was to make good on a promise we made to 27-year old Nati Zavala from Salem who said he joined the Peace Corps because of us. 

We said we’d visit him after he’d been there for at least a year. A promise is a promise, and with 60-pounds of requested school supplies, hot sauce, herbs, spices, maple syrup, and Trader Joe’s cookie butter, we headed SE to Nicaragua. 
60 pounds of School supplies & special food requests
for Nati and Jasmine

We’re so glad we went!  Visiting him, his co-workers, three of his PCV friends, and Jasmine—his girlfriend he met on their way to Peace Corps training—were the absolute highlights of our trip.

Frankie (Jasmine) Williams in her
small & very hot bedroom in
southern Nicaragua
We met him through a Rotary mentoring program when he was a six year old pip-squeak at Richmond Elementary, and we stayed with him all through secondary school, Willamette University, and his brief work world.  He said the stories and photos we shared about our experiences as PCVs in Malaysia 1978-80 inspired him to join.  But we think he would have joined just because of who he is.

Dinner in Managua with Karen and Airlie,
PCV friends of Nati
We are so proud of him and his fellow volunteers!  Most are involved in education in one way or another.  It brought back a lot of good (and not so good) memories of our experiences 38 and 39 years ago, 10,000 miles away in Malaysia.

They seemed interested in our stories and intrigued by the lack of technology back then, but mostly we were just awestruck by them and what they do, and the difficult conditions in which they do them.  The heat, dust, humidity, bad roads, loneliness, language, insects, and Peace Corps ethos were our common denominators.  And still the main question among all PCVs is "What are you going to do afterward?"  
With Denise Hollingsworth, a fascinating retired patent
attorney, Now working with English teachers

Since 1961, 230,000 PCVs have served in 141 countries.  Today 7,376 serve (or are in training) in 65 countries, and 63% are female.  The average age is 28.  Each year about 23,000 apply, but only 3,600 are accepted.  Many elite colleges have better odds! Nicaragua currently hosts 162 volunteers.  Malaysia, where we served 1978-80, hosted over 4,000 from 1962 to the late 1980s.  

So, what's it like being a volunteer?  You'd probably get 230,000 different answers.  The most enduring PC slogan remains "The toughest job you'll ever love."  About 11% don't make it through the first year.  For us it was a love-hate relationship that keeps getting better with each passing year.  We were in a predominately Muslim country, and it was very hard for Kathy.  We'd say that Nati, Jasmine, and their fellow volunteers really love it, despite the hardships.  And we believe that Nicaragua needs them far more than Malaysia ever needed us.  Malaysia's schools 40 years ago were much better equipped, funded, and staffed than are Nicaragua's today.

Nati's newly painted home in
Postegales, northern Nicaragua
His back yard with shower, sink, and
outhouse.  He gets water between
5:00-10AM each day

Proud of his stifling-hot kitchen.  Constant dust every
day is a challenge.

They have much more structure and support from the PC HQ in Managua and from the US ambassador, and perhaps more HQ  oversight than we had. They are all issued simple Peace Corps cell phones and required to carry them at all times.  We can't remember how big the PC HQ is, but we were surprised to know how many regular and medical staff it has, compared to ours in Kuala Lumpur.  PC also has several vetted taxis on contract for volunteer use in Managua, which is fairly crime-ridden.  

Their living conditions seem very hot, dusty, and claustrophobic.  They often toggle back and forth between two or three other schools training teachers to teach English, plus do community volunteer projects outside their jobs.  

Walking to one of his schools.  Sometimes the
river crossing is hard to cross in the rainy season.
His other commute is more scenic
One of his three schools
 Money seems to be a struggle, with an income of about $250 per month--similar to what the lower middle class earns.  Rent consumes much of that.  Unlike our diverse and dispersed training group of about 25, they seem very tight-knit and well connected to home and each other by social media.  Our hats go off to them (but not too long in this hot sun), and to PCVs everywhere.  

Yet another way to a third school through a typical village

Jasmine's home near Rivas.  She rents a small room
and shares the family's kitchen

Our termite & ant-ridden
home 1978-80

In many ways, we had it easier during our service, except for the very first month with language dialect difficulties, finding a place to live, and a couple of night-time police 'visits' (or raids?) at our temporary hotel housing until we befriended the local Raja, who pretty much became our protective godfather.  Perhaps it was our ambiguous job with lots of freedom and the higher rank we held in the Malaysian hierarchy as bureaucrats in the morning and village development organizers in the afternoon.  

Being married opened a lot of doors for relationships with other Malaysian couples, but it also kept other single locals from reaching out to us.  We were lonely, but at least we had each other and Voice of America broadcasts every night at 7:30.  We missed the seasons and our privacy.  I'm not sure if either of us would have made it the whole way by ourselves.

Our weekly splurge of barbecuing a
chicken on our back porch 

Kathy hard at work on our morning
office. Our motorcycle and the
villages were our "office" in the afternoons.

Kathy in our kitchen.  We ate very well.

The PC HQ in Kuala Lumpur and the cabinet minister overseeing us pretty much left us alone, which was fine with us.  Our boss (then the economic development director, and now governor of our province) was a big supporter of our program and viewed it as a tool for his political advancement.  

As a couple we could pool our expenses and weren't always broke, once we got our home furnished.  We had a motorcycle (purchased with our own funds) and could get around, even going to Southern Thailand or Penang now and then.  Other PCVs were long distances away.  We had no phones, and never called home in over two years--it was too expensive and technologically difficult--even calling the PC office in KL.  At least the US and Malaysian postal services were excellent back then.

Sometimes you feel like your on the top of the world.
(Nati near rim of Volcano Telica at sunrise with us)
Both then and now, Peace Corps volunteers were generally (but not always) held in high esteem by their neighbors, co-workers, and host countries.  A former Kenya PCV and a good friend we knew warned us that we should "get used to being weird for the rest of our lives," and that nobody back home will really understand what it was like, nor care about it for more than a few minutes. He was right.  We’re weird and see things with a global and developing world perspective. Just about any returned PCV will tell you that coming home was a bigger culture shock than going. 

Our experience is a good part of who we are and why our marriage has endured for nearly 41 years.  We’d do it again for the first time, but not again for a second time.  After running our own business for 35 years, we just have a problem with large organizations, no matter how effective, well-intentioned, and organized like the Peace Corps is.  That said, we’re proud of our service and our roles as ambassadors of the United States and its values.

Sometimes you feel hung out to dry. (Village at Ometepe)
Again, it was a pleasure and an honor to hang with Nati and Jasmine, and to have dinner with Karen and Airlie in Managua, and Denise in Leon.  You make us proud.  Thanks for making it a most memorable and heartwarming trip!  We love you we and get a little emotional just thinking about you.  Hang in there!
Logo of Peace Corps


  1. What a beautiful recap and PC testimonial. I hadn’t realized you were married during your service. All this time I thought you MET while volunteers. Reallly enjoyed the photos—past and present.

  2. It reminds me of my time in Bolivia. Thanks