Reviewed by David H. Day (Kenya 1965–66; India 1967–68)
READERS OF STEVEN ORR’S DENSE FARRAGO of his Peace Corps service, global travels, military tours, and work-assignments-both long-term and short-in more than forty countries, should outfit themselves with flak jacket, crash-helmet, insect-repellant and further shield themselves in an armored personnel carrier as they prepare to read The Perennial Wanderer. Orr has been knocked out, taken hostage, nearly asphyxiated by sulphuric fumes from Costa Rica’s Irazu volcano, narrowly avoided mortar shellings in Iraq, survived a near-fatal motorcycle crash, was wounded in Vietnam, and was rammed off the road by communists in Panama. When I finally made it to the end of this brisk, hefty narrative, I had to mop my brow and apply more anti-perspirant. My own two Peace Corps stints in Kenya and India were a walk in the park by contrast. The guy is, indeed, as his title claims, the “perennial wanderer” and he seems to have been blessed with one of earth’s most forgiving and tolerant wives. No grass grows under his feet !
In eighteen chronologically arranged chapters, Steven Orr — now retired — narrates . . . no, at times compels us to follow . . . his experiences in largely conflict-plagued areas of the world; these include occasional rather colorful peccadilloes, which decidedly leaven the frequent hardships he’s encountered. So detailed are all of these accounts that one imagines either a photographic memory at work or the frequent reliance on daily logs, which Orr admits to keeping on and off. His saga at times reads like a string of dispatches from the “front-line” of troubled areas; he’s clearly disenchanted with what he perceives to be hurdles to how the United States manages development assistance around the world and, with considerable experience as a senior-level manager, suggests that “We must take a hard look at what the right-wing elements of our body politic have wrought in the isolationist retrenchment they have led us into for the past fifteen to twenty years.”
“The Peace Corps 1964–1966,” Orr’s initial chapter (following a brief introductory section), finds the author assigned to Panama where, since about 1963, according to the Peace Corps Panama Friends web site, there have been some 3,500 Peace Corps Volunteers. This reviewer would have wished for more than the scant 34 pages Orr devotes to his stay in this lush isthmian nation, given the considerable space devoted to his later post-Peace Corps assignments in other countries. But with the perspective of a retiree, his backward gaze over a life so full of adventure and encounters with the cultural Other, he is perhaps obliged to paint his Peace Corps years with broad strokes and then move on. This is, therefore, only partially a Peace Corps memoir.
One sees clearly, however, the seminal influence that Orr’s Panamanian Peace Corps stint has cast over his subsequent life; notably, his evident multilingualism, a small but tight cadre of friendships he cultivated in Panama — friends who seem to pop up all over the world, and an entrée into various jobs with the U.S. Agency for International Development. Most returned Peace Corps Volunteers will recognize in Orr’s brief Panama chapter the myriad skills instilled in PC training and honed in service overseas that carry over into our later lives: tolerance, flexibility, a certain comfort level in the face of difference, even the value of linguistic facility and, of course, a widened sense of America’s place in the world.
So what happened in Panama? Orr was a member of Panama 7 and first found himself in 1964 with fellow Trainees in Puerto Rico for what he describes on more than one occasion as an”arduous” experience, but he hesitates not a smidgen from admitting he loved the rigors of the groups’ Outward Bound-based physical trials — his repelling accident notwithstanding. This reviewer was reminded of his own training for Kenya 2 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where, one day, we Trainees were escorted to the campus aquatic center, had our feet and hands tied (loosely), and were tossed into the azure pool to attempt to free ourselves. Ah! The old days! Current Volunteers will be amazed that Orr’s group then repaired to a training center in Tucson, Arizona for five months! In-country training as a general PC policy had not yet been implemented.
The Tucson-based phase of training included intensive Spanish-language preparation, but there Orr indulged in some extracurricular activities that were not exactly part of the training script. He confesses that he:
. . . didn’t wind up being de-selected, although if our keepers had known my deepest secret, I’m sure they would have sent me packing. Apparently, they never learned about the pretty Spanish teacher I lived with for a couple of months . . . the teacher and I never let on in classes or elsewhere that we even knew each other, much less that we were amorous. Her job, after all, was at stake and my position as a trainee could easily be jeopardized if the managers and psychologists were to learn of this affair.
Orr’s actual Panama experience seems to have been a mixed bag; excitement and boredom. The Volunteers’ postings had to take into consideration the reigning ill- will many Panamanians harbored at the time for U.S. control of the Panama Canal. There had been riots. Volunteers were thus posted outside the Canal Zone itself and instructed not to let themselves be seen inside it; Orr admits to disregarding this restriction when, on at least one occasion, he and some chums went bar-hopping in the forbidden Zone. “I . . . ever the foolhardy one,” he broadcasts in another section of the book.
Routine community-development projects are enumerated: assisting in the establishment of small local libraries, curriculum development and eventual general oversight management and orientation of incoming Volunteers. These duties became punctuated with escapades that Orr colorfully details. Unfortunately, he ran afoul of the Regional Peace Corps director in the Panama City office when he and a fellow Volunteer, suspecting (on good evidence) that the director was having an affair with a local Panamanian woman, set out to photograph the tryst. Apparently never formally accusing Orr after this event, the boss, as Orr says, “was very, very cool toward me . . . so a certain ill-defined tension grew between us. . .” That did not the end of things, however, as the Regional Director attempted to slug Orr in the presence of several other PCVs and Panamanian friends, who had to wrestle the director down. Orr was subsequently transferred to the Ministry of Health where he selected sites for placement of still more arriving Volunteers.
Further peccadilloes are recounted — being run off the road at night by a Jeep load of communists; and Orr’s near-fatal motorbike collision with a young Panamanian lad who, as it turned out, was able to recover after a short hospital stay. Incidentally, motorcycles were not allowed to be purchased by PCVs. Orr’s brief court appearance for this accident was one of several both during Orr’s stay in Panama, and over the course of his post-Peace Corps assignments. The conflict with his Regional Director, however, was bitter enough that Orr was dissuaded from opting to re-up for another Panama stint.
There is, of course, a by-now-obligatory narrative of trips taken during scheduled Peace Corps leaves, and Orr made exceptional use of this 30-day period by traveling to a number of South American countries. As his term in Panama drew to a close, his group was addressed by a representative of the U.S. Agency for International Development; Orr was enticed by their unabashed eagerness to recruit PCVs and hearing the agency’s courtship call, Orr’s next travel-related job began to take shape in his mind.
Of all the important takeaways stemming from Peace Corps service, perhaps none is more important or lasting than the friendships made across often very wide cultural lines. Emilio Jose Batista Castillo was, Orr writes, “just about my best friend in the world.” And Orr includes in The Perennial Wanderer what is essentially a five-page letter of reference for Emilio,” un hombre extraordinario.” In this heartfelt testimonial, Orr recounts how the two met in 1964 when Orr was a newbie in Panama. His dedication to his friend is quite poignant.
Emilio was a twenty-eight year-old campesino from a poor family in the province of Veraguas, and had approached the Peace Corps office about building a vocational training school focusing on electronics and auto mechanics. With Orr’s help, the two opened their center; the then PC regional director for Latin America, Jack Hood Vaughn was among the dignitaries at the dedication. The Government of Panama then appointed Emilio to a high post in the Interamerican Institute for Community Development. Political developments associated with Panama’s takeover by General Omar Torrijos caused Emilio to be sent into exile. Upon his return to Panama Emilio found his life in danger so Torrijos appointed him to Panama’s embassy in Bogota, Columbia. Later, Torrijos summoned Emilio back and put him in charge of deep-water port management at the Panama Canal. Training for this sends Emilio abroad, to Odessa, Tokyo, London and San Francisco, and subsequently lead to an astounding series of high-level managerial responsibilities under the watchful eye of his benefactor, General Torrijos. Orr concludes this section by describing how he sought the intervention of Senator Bob Graham to facilitate his friend’s entry into the U.S. with his family.
Post-Panama (and therefore post-Peace Corps) chapters take Orr to Vietnam, Republic of Congo, El Salvador, Iraq, and Afghanistan, with other stops in Florida and New York, but these hold perhaps less interest for Peace Corps readers.
It’s clear that Orr has set out to document a life lived fully; brimful of work experience, personalities encountered, sights seen, troubles courted and endless narrow-escapes, an almost lifelong adrenaline rush. And he’s at times self-effacing, at times downright immodest. He’s not averse to tooting his own horn. Orr scans the horizon, trying to assess his place in the bigger scheme, his place in history:
I thought about what Ernest Hemmingway did, what famous authors such as Garcia Lorca, and others have done, over time, and over history, and I ask myself: at what point do I qualify? I mean, I have participated in history at many junctures, and I have reported on those crossroads in history. Does no-one care? Or is there an information overload affecting too many people, with too much information, too much happening, too much in the way of too many experiencing everything, whereas in years past, it was only the occasional oddball such as I who recorded history. A pox on all that. I’ll write what I wish.
Orr now lives in Florida, happily retired, but still keeps his hand in international affairs occasionally escorting foreign guests of the State Department; and was honored as the Jacksonville, Florida Volunteer of the Year. “Looks good on your resume,” concludes the perennial wanderer; his is a friendly, at times riveting story . . . not Hemingway exactly, but, well . . . almost a saga.
Reviewer David Day’s most recent book, Ruffling the Peacock’s Feathers: Stories from Village India is based on his Peace Corps experience in Uttar Pradesh, north India (Xlibris,2010). He has two previous books, A Treasure Hard to Attain: Images of Archaeology in Popular Film and The Life and Death of a Family Farm: Archaeology, History and Landscape Change. He has also published in Sierra Magazine and Ms. Magazine. He lives in Rochester, New York where he is emeritus professor of Anthropology.