Forty of us newly-minted Volunteers were marshalled into a Bogota conference room, where an  official stood in front of a huge, wall-sized map of Colombia, and gave us an inspirational lecture on extending knowledge on small farming projects to rural campesinos. It was 1966, my agricultural expertise consisted of growing up on a hobby farm, and as soon as I heard of the Peace Corps, I had joined immediately.

The official finished his inspirational talk, gestured to the giant map behind him, and said, “ladies and gentlemen, please find your assignments.” The entire group rushed up to find little pins with their name tags attached, stuck into various towns and villages. There was much shouting and laughter as people found their assignments in villages near Bogota, others near Medellin, and still others near the coastal cities of Cartagena or Barranquilla. I didn’t see my name anywhere. Most of the population centres of Colombia are ranged along the central spine of the Andes Mountains, so I scanned the various cordilleras, looking in vain for a pin with the name Gayton attached. The crowd in front of the map finally thinned out, so I started over with a methodical search of the country, first the Llanos to the east, then the Andes again, then the Caribbean coast, and on to the Pacific Coast, still without finding my name. Finally, in a remote corner of jungle, way up near the Panamanian border, an arm’s length from any other pins and far off of the national road network, I found my name.

The village underneath my pin was called Riosucio. Other than rivers–lots of them–there was nothing else on that part of the map. Riosucio. Dirty river, I repeated to myself over and over, as I stumbled away from the map, feeling completely and absolutely alone. Was this some kind of a cruel joke?

Now I had been somewhat of a troublemaker in the Peace Corps training program, refusing to take a battery of bizarre psychological tests, and trying to talk Spanish in language class when we were supposed to be studying the preterite subjunctive. Perhaps that was why they were sending me to Riosucio. Well, to hell with them, I thought, I’ll bet Riosucio is actually a fine town, and I’ll fill it with so many small farming and gardening projects that the residents won’t know what hit them.

Two days later, after a fourteen hour bus ride, I was on the docks of the grubby little Caribbean port town of Turbo, where an impatient regional Peace Corps supervisor handed over a leaky 14-foot aluminum boat, a 25 horsepower Johnson outboard motor, and a waterproof map. To get to Riosucio, he explained to me, I simply had to cross a shallow saltwater bay, find the main channel of the Atrato River, and ascend the river for about four hours, and bingo, I’d be there. Amazingly enough, I did just that, because I was twenty years old and mortality had not yet entered my mind.

The three thousand souls that made up the town of Riosucio, mainly ex-gold slaves from West Africa, a few mestizos, fewer Indians and a couple of Palestinian merchants, conducted their lives on a narrow strip of land between the Atrato River on one side and a dark, tree-filled swamp on the other. The heat and humidity were amazing, and the people were very tolerant of my fractured Spanish. I soon realized there was no Spanish equivalent to Donald, so I went by Vicente, as Vince was my middle name.

Riosucio had no roads. All travel was by canoe, or by the occasional motorized launch that travelled up and down the Atrato, picking up bananas and the dried skins of a small local crocodile. There was no phone and no doctor, but they did have a telegraph office.

I threw myself into small farming and gardening projects, with the enthusiastic assent of Riosucio’s mayor, the town councillors, the policeman, the priest and the schoolteachers. A public demonstration of raised-bed gardening, right near the mayor’s office, was my first project. There was a small sawmill in town and lots of reject slab wood was available, so I built a nice bed, filled it with a mixture of muck soil and sawdust, and planted it with a combination of Beefsteak and Early Girl tomato seeds, taken from my Small Farming and Gardening Projects kit. Everyone in town thought this was a capital idea, and greatly admired the young gringo’s expertise. The young gringo, for his part, was quite pumped up by this, and barely noticed the fact that the local population was actually extremely healthy and well-fed already, having a steady diet of fresh fish and fresh fruits, as well as daily exercise paddling their graceful dugout canoes. The young gringo somehow failed to notice that most of the men had physiques like heavyweight boxers. The young gringo did actually notice that all the houses were on stilts, but just assumed that this was done for reasons of ventilation and cooling.

The next Small Farming project was chickens. At great expense, I imported two dozen Rhode Island Red chickens, the first ever chickens to set foot in Riosucio. I carefully raised them in a pen until they were old enough to be placed with two or three of my more progressive small farmers and gardeners.

About that time, I began to notice a change in Riosucio’s weather. By noon huge clouds would build up, and around one o’clock, it would rain so hard that if I happened to be on the river with my boat, I would have to head to shore to avoid being swamped. The rain episodes grew heavier and longer. If I took shelter inside a building, the sound of raindrops pelting down on tin roofing was simply deafening.

I began to get concerned about my Small Farming and Gardening projects. The Rhode Island Reds glared at me as I made my daily rounds, and I had to drill special drainage holes in my raised bed garden. Then, one fine, bright morning, disaster struck.

Overnight, the river had risen dramatically, and the whole town was suddenly flooded with three feet of water. I was horrified, and sloshed over to my raised bed garden. The corner posts were still visible, but the inside was a slowly swirling, foul black soup of sawdust and dead tomato plants.  I sloshed back to the Mayor’s office, and in my best and most official Spanish, demanded an explanation. “Que horror, don Vicente,” said Don Efrain, the mayor.  “This has never before happened in the history of our fine community. Such a calamity must be the act of an angry and vindictive God, but I’m sure that if we all pray mightily, the waters will go back down in twenty-eight to thirty-three days.”

As I left the mayor’s office, I noticed a few spidery little walkways had been erected above the water, using the same slab wood from the sawmill. Over the next few days this walkway network slowly expanded, first connecting the bar, then the Palestinian merchant’s store, then the houses of the more prominent families, then the mayor’s office, and so on. I never actually saw anyone erect them, they just appeared, and they were always just high enough out of the water that someone in a canoe could just pass underneath if they bent over.

The hubbub over Riosucio’s milennial flood settled down remarkably quickly, and as it did so, several parallel realizations began to dawn in the young gringo’s head, several basic extension lessons that would never be forgotten. The first lesson was that it flooded every year in Riosucio, always has, and always will, and if it weren’t for the flooding, and the subsequent soil deposition, that narrow strip of land Riosucio sat on would cease to exist. The second lesson was that when you are trying to help a polite group of people who really don’t need your help and actually know a lot more about their world than you do, the simplest, most economical way for this polite group of people to handle you is to indulge all of your overseas development fantasies.  The third extension lesson was: take a long, hard look at indigenous food and indigenous crops first, before reaching for the technology-intensive genetic whizbangs in your Third World Development kit.

So the whole town had played an elaborate joke on me, and everyone knew it. For my part, I had no choice but to work my way slowly up and down the narrow boardwalks while people laughed uncontrollably, and I had to grin and bear it. There I was, the gigantic blond gringo idiot, balanced on a boardwalk, undergoing a humiliating rite of passage, and an entire Colombian village was helping me get through it.

Nacianceno, one of my promising young farmers that I had entrusted some Rhode Island Reds to, felt sorry for me and invited me to his shack for a beer one afternoon. A few neighbors, who were networked to Nacianceno’s house by the boardwalks, came over too, and we all sat on the porch, talked, drank beer and watched the swollen but placid Atrato river slide by between the houses.  In the midst of our conversation, one of my prized Rhode Island Reds appeared on the porch, in some distress. The whole group fell quiet, watching the sickly bird, which was a far cry from the proud, majestic animals pictured in my agricultural manuals. Its feathers were ruffled and dull, its wings dragged, and it seemed to be gasping, like it was trying to say something.  My first thought was to grab the bird, take it back to my office, and check to see if it’s symptoms matched any of the ones listed in my manuals, but I resisted the impulse.  The bird seemed to get over its gasping spasm momentarily, and took several more wobbly steps towards us.  Then it stopped, and with a theatrical gesture, spun around, threw its head up in the air, gasped once more, and fell face down on the porch.  Nacianceno began to laugh but then clapped his hand over his mouth, looking sheepishly at me.

I knew this was my final lesson. My rite of passage was almost over and I could now begin to learn real extension. I put my beer down and began to laugh. Relieved, Nacianceno and his neighbors joined in. I laughed until my stomach hurt, and tears rolled down my cheeks. Then, just to make sure things were perfectly clear, I stood up, and with a theatrical gesture of my own, swept the dying chicken off the porch with my boot, allowing it to meet its maker, or more likely a local crocodile, on the millennial waters of the Atrato River.