I Was a Peace Corps Volunteer: Lost and Found in Micronesia
By Heather Kaschmitter (Micronesia 2002-04)
Create Space, $12
Reviewed by David H. Day (Kenya 1965-66; India 1967-69)
Age 25 and fresh out of college in Washington State, and newly-accepted in the Peace Corps, Heather Kaschmitter found herself in Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia, a vast string of islands and coral atolls sprawled across tens of thousands of miles of Pacific ocean. The islands stretch in an arc from Palau in the west, southeast to Kiribati north of Fiji. Today, largely on the margins of our consciousness, it’s an area well-known to the U.S. military, to artists and writers like Melville and Gaugin, and to a slew of anthropologists beginning with the pioneering visits of Bronislaw Malinowski, Margaret Mead and numerous others who have documented island cultures.
When offered a chance to review Kaschmitter’s book, I jumped at the chance, despite having only a vicarious interest in Micronesia. After completing my own Peace Corps service in Kenya (1965-66), I spent time in Washington working in the Peace Corps passport division. Wanting to reenlist, I was initially offered a chance to join the training program for Micronesia 1, which was ( as I was told) to be peopled solely by former PCVs such as myself. After some reflection, I accepted an assignment in India instead, as I had known many Asian Indians while in East Africa. Had I in fact, signed up for Micronesia 1, I might have met Eric Lax, author of a definitive book on Woody Allen and a more recent beautifully-crafted memoir, Faith Interrupted: A Spiritual Journey (2010) in which he describes his Peace Corps stint on the Micronesian isle of Chuuk (formerly Truk). His was the first of many subsequent PC groups to land on the Micronesian islands.
Kaschmitter joins a fairly long list of RPCVs who’ve written of their assignments in the South Pacific. Combing the Peace Corps Worldwide website, I found at least six other volumes recounting service in the Marshalls, the Marianas, the Carolines, Palau and other Pacific islands. Some PCVs had well-defined jobs in high places, like P.F. Kluge, who assisted the President of Palau in 1969-70, others, carrying out more routine Peace Corps assignments.
Ms. Kaschmitter’s assignment from 2002-2004 seems plainly to have been of the routine variety, with a job in that tried-and-true PC catch-all rubric of ” youth and community development.” After in-country training in Kolonia Town, evidently a sort of district headquarters, and, bedecked with a welcoming crown or mwaramwar of local ylang-ylang flowers, she is shown to her house where, for almost 26 months, she is surrounded by curious adoptive Pohnpeian relatives, the predictable litany of tropical insects and her often drunken, homesick , disillusioned or depressed fellow volunteers. Of the latter, she provides copious details. Their peccadillos, their complaints about Peace Corps service and island deprivations punctuate her narrative, serving as correctives to our stereotypes of idyllic south-sea island life. Her first task in community development entails helping to organize a fledgling library at Nanpei Memorial Elementary School in a small village of 200 . She hopes to train a librarian, though later, back in the States, she learns that the library, sadly, “fell apart” after she left.
Noteworthy are Kaschmitter’s descriptions of the frequent kava rituals, which seem to narcotize participants for days. Its mucus-like consistency derives from a mixture of pepper plant roots and hibiscus.
…there is no way I will ever be able to understand or appreciate the
importance of this beverage completely. I did have many sakau-drinking
experiences, quite a few in which I was the only woman-white or
Pohnpeian-in the circle. I want you to understand where I come from
when I write about sakau….With sakau, the more you drink, the slower
and quieter you become and the quieter you want everyone else to be…
it makes you less defensive…to listen a while before speaking…I had
plenty of so-so or even disgusting experiences with sakau. (72-73)
She’s eager, too, to embrace her hosts and displays apparent ease with which she ingratiated herself into the web of kinship on “her” island. I appreciated the many references to ways in which mainland American culture has affected -often negatively-island life; loss of traditional occupations and skills, crime and unemployment and the penetration, at least on the bigger islands, of ACE Hardware, Wal-Mart and shopping malls. Suicide rates are high, more on Pohnpei, the author declares, than on any other island in the Federated States of Micronesia. Dismaying, also, are PC volunteer rates of attrition on Pohnpei, which are awfully high. The reader wonders what this says about PC training. She alludes to the many rapes and assaults on island PCVs. And she is brutally honest in her no-holds-barred use of vernacular expressions and expletives when sharing with us the after-hours pastimes of fellow PCVs, and her personal frustrations. As her caveat on the book’s back jacket screams, “Warning: this is not a brochure for the Peace Corps!”
I wanted badly to like this Peace Corps memoir. The biggest problem lies with the disorganized material. Despite Kaschmitter’s generally chronological narrative, there are some 37 chapters (excluding an additional four written as a Stateside postmortem) and some of the 37 are a mere two or three pages in length. While I found her style breezy and explicitly confessional, each chapter reads like a diary, journal entry or blog, with much by- now- tiresome venting about illness, boredom, problems with air-conditioning (!!) and all the other deprivations familiar to almost any PCV. As a further sign of authorial inexperience, (and lack of editing), occasional pages are peppered with observations like “…there’s roach shit in my ramen” , …”that sucked,” and “Oh, shit!” The overall effect renders the volume a rather awkward and jejeune patchwork of memories.
I found this especially odd given that Kaschmitter states near the end of her book, that she is a writer, now with an M.A. in Teaching from Columbia. When looking up “Micronesia” in the World Book Encyclopedia (do people still use this?) she is horrified to discover less than one column devoted to Micronesia. “My sister is an artist,” she writes, so she’d probably think nothing of devoting 60 pages to painting in an encyclopedia, but I’m a writer. The amount of words and space devoted to a subject in a book indicates its importance to the author, editors, readers, etc. I’m bothered by this.”
To the author’s great credit, she goes on to urge readers to bone up on how many of our tax dollars go to sustaining our U.S. military base(s) in the area, and to better educate ourselves about the vast territory. She has clearly felt deeply about the islands, her host family and many island friends. “Micronesian hospitality is one of the things I miss most about the place,” Kaschmitter writes, “Many of the people had seemed eager to share, so eager to make you feel welcome and comfortable.” She’s also appreciative of the many nuances of Micronesian culture and respectful of practices she finds truly exotic. Among these are the elaborate sakau (or kava) rituals and local beliefs about death, spirituality and funeral traditions.
There’s much in Kaschmitter’s brutally frank jottings that might turn off some of those contemplating applying to the Peace Corps. Notable here is the author’s admission to serious bouts of depression and intoxication; the latter, fueled by the easy kava ritual, takes a personal toll.
I was sick a lot. I missed home almost daily. I even felt guilty for my
homesickness sometimes…It’s an unwelcome shock when reality finally
sinks in…I was an educator in a school without soap or toilet paper in the
bathrooms…My counterpart, a nice enough man, was often absent, hung over
from sakau and often ill…I was learning about another culture without
understanding a word. Instead of sunsets on the beach, it was drinking
sakau in the nahs with rats at my feet. Instead of learning Polynesian hula
dancing, I was watching DVDs with my host family…I felt guilty…I found it
very difficult to accept the requirements of my job (pp.190-193)
Culture shock, that inevitable element of almost every Peace Corps experience, (and so well-known to anthropologists), abides with Kaschmitter daily. “I could go crazy listing all the things I don’t miss about Pohnpei,” she writes at the book’s end. After her group’s close-of-service conference in Guam and her return to life in Washington State, she admits to some of the things she misses, now at age 35:
…how there’s always twelve hours of light during the day…the smell
of tropical flowers. I miss how a good cold beverage tastes on a
jungle-hot day…the singing voices of the people at church. I miss fresh
fish…eating fresh mangos all the time. I miss the buzzy chew of betel
nut…the beautiful views of the ocean and the smell of water on the
wind. I miss some of the people. (284)
But she’s “pretty certain” she’ll never return to the islands. “And you know,” she writes, “there are snippets in time when you do sing and smile and hold hands, an American hand in a Micronesian one. And those times are unbelievably awesome.” In a refrain familiar to many volunteers reentering the States and trying to carve out a new niche for themselves, “The person you were, the friends you had, the things you did-it doesn’t feel like your home anymore.”
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, northern 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 and lives in Rochester, NY. where he is emeritus professor of anthropology.