Reviewed by Kitty Thuermer (Mali 1977–79)
So let’s pretend I’m fresh out of college and that I’ve wanted to join the Peace Corps ever since the 7th grade. I make an appointment with a recruiter, who is a clean cut guy named Grigsby Crawford, back from serving in Ecuador. We meet in Adams Morgan, Washington D.C.
Me: Hey, one of my burning questions - I’ve been reading a lot of scary stuff about safety in the Peace Corps. Did you feel safe in Ecuador?
Grigs: Safe?! (Laughs) …well, to be honest… I was sent alone to a dangerous outpost in the Wild West of the country and …um, things deteriorated and my host family was threatened - because of me - and armed thugs with machine guns were out to get me. And I’ll never forget the sound of the women and kids in my host family hiding upstairs in a room, weeping hysterically, absolutely terrified.
Grigs: Yeah, but the good news is that all of this was not just my own paranoia; the Peace Corps security officer checked out my story and pulled me outta there. I was sent to the other side of the country, to the jungle, to finish out my service.
“You should have more guns on your property to protect yourself,” the cop said. As he spoke he was waving his machine gun around nonchalantly. I kept backing out of the way of the barrel, so most of the conversation took place with me ducking about, trying to avoid an accidental discharge.
“Sure, I said. “More guns. Got it.”…
I told Juan goodnight and went into my room. It was the first time in my life I slept with a machete next to my bed. I kind of wished it were a gun.”
Me: Wow, that’s pretty wild. Uh… OK…Another thing I worry about is weird tropical diseases. How was your health in the Peace Corps?
Grigs: My health?! (snorts) Jesus, you want to know about my health? Let’s just say that for about a third of my service, I was in and out of excruciating pain - pain from a condition of unknown origin so that I had to invent a generic name for the areas it affected: my “man plumbing.”
The spermatic cord was no longer infected, but the rest of the testicular ultrasound and the (harrowing) rectal ultrasound were inconclusive. So after a trip to Quito and multiple things getting shoved up my ass, I still didn’t have any real answers on how to ease the pain.
Me: Holy… Your…what?…OK… Well, let’s see - another thing people always ask about - did you get lonely out there?
Grigs: Lonely? Was I lonely in the Peace Corps? Honey, we are three for three: Once I was so lonely that I jumped on a bus and rode 11 hours to make a booty call to another volunteer I didn’t even like. Talk about depressing!
Walking back along the highway in the pressing heat after a day of interviews, I experienced my first true bout of loneliness. It began in the pit of my stomach and reached out into the rest of my body. It felt as though the life had been sucked out of every one of my muscles. Everything seemed to be piling up; It was hot, it was dirty, and now even my internal organs felt lonesome.
Me: Jeeze. But surely somewhere in there you had to have some fun, right? I hear Volunteers can be pretty crazy partyers. What did you do for fun?
Grigs: You mean the time we drank that putrid black tea made from the cactus that contains mescaline?
I am losing my mind. Someone from across the room: “Grigs, man what do you want to talk about that would cheer you up?”
“Who the hell is Tom Wolfe?” They all laugh like hyenas sucking on helium.
Darkness. Vines. Washington, D.C. Amsterdam. Africa. Ocean liner. Oil. Dictators. Bananas. Mustaches. All the mouths you’ve ever kissed. All the drinks you’ve ever drunk. All the steaks you’ve ever sliced. All the sidewalks you’ve walked. All the swear words you’ve ever said. All the people you’ve hurt. All the times you’ve cried.
Me: You know what? This has been really interesting - but I really have to get to my next appointment. Great meeting you! Ciao!
So J. Grigsby Crawford isn’t the poster child for Peace Corps. Nor is he a recruiter. And certainly his memoir, The Gringo, isn’t being distributed — along with condoms and Larium — in the Peace Corps survival kit.
But the guy can write. And that’s a good thing. For he somehow manages to capture that elusive love/hate cocktail of emotions that invariably swirls and erupts in many Volunteer’s experiences, an experience he calls his alternate universe.
That alternate universe was not all dark — it did have touchstones that would bring satisfaction to a real Peace Corps recruiter. The Grigster made Ecuadoran friends. He got participation from a community to help write a grant, secured some funds and built a greenhouse and environmental curriculum to go with it. He learned. He tried.
There are hikes into the jungle at almost every opportunity because your friends in town nearly all have a parcel of land out there and the parts that aren’t deforested for grazing are exquisite. There are clear creeks and tall trees and giant green leaves and gullies and caves with bats and rock walls and birds and monkeys in the distance. And there are waterfalls where you can take your clothes off and jump into water so cold that it takes your breath away.
There are walks around town in the afternoons, with you spitting sunflower seeds and stopping in to talk with the old ladies and single mothers who make up your friends.
There are rides in the back of pickup trucks with all the jungle around you. You look at the water rushing by and the lush plants shooting up out of the red dirt and you pass by old men on the road waking back to town in their rubber boots and overalls. You hit the potholes, stop for the cattle, and hear the cumbia music blaring from the car speakers and you think, Now, NOW I’m in Latin America.
So yes, for sure, Grigsby Crawford will come back to Ecuador.
Reviewer Kitty Thuermer is currently at the National Association of Independent Schools in Washington, D.C., and never met a plane ticket she didn’t like.