Reviewed by Dennis Grubb (Colombia 1961-63)
“This was life. This is why he joined the Peace Corps .The could be danger ahead, but the possibility was what made it interesting …..Maybe I am no longer the kid I used to be. Maybe I am becoming a different person ….But what would the Peace Corps brass think about all this-if I they ever found out. No matter, he told himself. I am here to help Colombians; that’s what I am doing.”Colombian settings in books written by former Peace Corps Volunteers, or RPCVs as we are known are few and far between. Paul Mathes, an RPCV , Colombia 1964-66, self-published ”To Know the Rainforest”, is an action /adventure novel incorporating the three well-worn Latin America and Colombia themes: poverty, land and putas. The novel turns this reviewer, a Colombia RPCV, back to his memorable experience in Colombia 52 years ago.
Meanwhile fast forward to The New Yorker, April 22, 2013, an article A State of Nature, Life, Death and Tourism in the Darien Gap, by Jenneie Erin Smith describes the rainforest on the border between Colombia and Panama, suspiciously near the setting of Mathes novel. Smith’s article describes the Darien Gap and, like the Mathes novel its inhabitants —the Embrea Indians, the colonizers fleeing from the poor barrios of Medellin, the prostitutes and the FARC. Mathes is either a seer, or the rainforest story has been incubating as his novel for decades.
I’ll tell you what the Peace Corps brass would do in, 1964 or today, if they found out a PCV aligned himself with the paramilitaries or drug dealing human traffickers…The Peace Corps Director would send his ass home especially after receiving a call from the US Consul General having been tipped by the CIA station chief that an American oil company drilling in the rainforest met a “gringo” messing with their drilling plans. Although sixties volunteers were pretty much on their own, as the Peace Corps rule book was a work in progress, advising the People’s Liberation Army and cooperating with a known notorious drug and human trafficking smuggler was certainly off limits.
The novel is quick paced in the first half, slows mid-way for the remainder of the read; however, Mathes peppers his narrative with familiar, translated, Spanish expressions, known only to Spanish speakers, in Italics such as “cacajuetes“ which means peanuts in Spanish. This slow action/adventure non page turner puts, Peterson, the Peace Corps Volunteer, midway through his two year service, into a situation not easy to believe, although the characterizations are believable, like the prostitutes and drug smuggling chief Trujillo, the rainforest Embera Indians, his a poor urban dweller companions who are colonizing the forest under the government supported land reform program, known as INCORA and sponsored by JFK’s Alliance for Progress.
The novel timeline is the period 1964-1966, the early years of Peace Corps in Colombia but two years after the first group of Volunteers, known as Colombia I, were sent to Colombia by JFK at the request of his friend President Alberto Llamas Camargo. Lleras Camargo was the former President of the Organization of America States in Washington and was acquainted with the Massachusetts Senator and after Kennedy was when elected President, Lleras requested the first group of Volunteers be sent to Colombia. Mattes writes a about the early years of Colombia Peace Corps experiences characterized by little home office supervision, and JFK’s mandate “do what you can the world is watching, and stay out of trouble.’ Peterson, boring of his urban community development project assignment, asks his supervisor for permission to travel with some Medellin barrio residences to the rainforest to homestead free land offered up by the Colombian government. In today’s Peace Corps, Peterson, a volunteer, would be denied the permission and it most likely would not grant in the years of the Mathes Peace Corp experience.
Mathes technical novel sticks to the persistent Latin America and Colombia themes of poverty, land rights, human rights and human trafficking. Mathes action/adventure novel is unlike the other Colombian Peace Corps book written by Paul Arfin. The Arfin book “Portrait of a Peace Corps Gringo“, self-published in 2009. In Paul’s nonfiction book, Arfin served at the same time as Mathes, he describes his work in Colombia, but is more a catharsis on his middle class life before and after the Peace Corps.
It is Peterson, who carries the story. Mathes prose is steady and quiet and falls back on a trail of italic clichés (in Spanish). The action begins when Peterson, obviously the pseudo name, for Mathes and his Colombian friends from the barrio in Medellin, hatch a chivalrous plot in an attempt to save a young woman prostitute who is trying to escape from her abusive drunken companion on a chive ride. The chiva is an open air bus mounted on a truck body used for intercity travel. Peterson and his companions are traveling to the departure point for the colonizers adventures to establish a finca in the untamed Colombian rainforest.
In the early years of Peace Corps in Colombia volunteers were not stationed in the rainforest, but a few were assigned and worked on the fringes. ….For Colombia I PCVs, rainforest lore consisted of the rescue and search party stories related by several volunteers who tried to hack their way to the site of an Easter plane crash that claimed the lives of two volunteers. The first two volunteers killed in Peace Corps service, Larry Radley and David Crozier, for whom the Peace Corps training camps in Puerto Rico (former CCC camps) were dedicated. Radley’s brother, Gordon, RPCV Malawai, found closure in 2011 when the Colombian military helicoptered him to the crash site atop a mountain in the rainforest to place a marker.
Despite the title this novel, Mathes shifts amongst multiple perspectives to examine with constant references to floor, fauna, jaguars, rare birds, snakes found in the rainforest as Paterson, as his party trek their way through the action scenes. Lucky for the travelers, Peterson is packing his Peace Corps issued medical kit to treat wounds and snake bites. Here the novel reads like a Boy Scout guide to the rainforest.
Midway through the novel Mathes shifts between the mores of Eagle Scout Peterson’s Berkeley, California youth culture and the difficulty of the colonizers to tame the forest, and the plight of the Indian girls pressed into servicing the vaqueros of the drug cartel and FARC. Peterson’s mission includes helping liberate the prostitutes and dreaming of making love between clean sheets. He scores with Yolanda, his barrio buddy Dario’s sister, after being married by the Indian chieftain in the rainforest, and exclaims “it’s going to be impossible to do this…without going all the way.” Its 1964, the pre “hook-up” college and Peace Corps generation!
The adventure/action novel ends at a recruiting dinner/meeting with the Commander of the FARC. Lidia, the chiva bus liberated hooker explains that girls are being held against their will at the Trujillo Ranch. Yolanda recounts how the folks from the barrio in Medellin came up to rainforest to start a finca on the free, government INCORA land. Dario explains, he is Yolanda’s brother and then Miguel speaks. “I am a gringo, an Americano. Peterson continues “I am a Peace Corps volunteer. “There are about 400 of us in Colombia. Has anybody met one?” A few hands shot up. He continues.” I came because the Peace Corps like the People’s Army is in favor of land reform, freedom, education. The Peace Corps hopes to accomplish this without violence, but I have seen that sometimes force is necessary.
Peterson is a lovable and peculiar figure. Mathes struggles, as an aging RPCV, to sort out what his life could have been like as a Peace Corps volunteer in the rainforest. Honestly, the action story bores after a while as the adventure is fictional including the arrival of a gringo named McAlister, saying “We work for the US Government. We are not here to harm anyone. We have heard good things about you, Mr. Peterson. Basically, we want to offer you a job.”
Did Peterson take the job? Read the novel!!
Dennis Grubb, an RPCV (Colombia 1961-63) is an Eagle Scout like Paterson, the protagonist in Paul Mathes novel” To Know the Rainforest.” In June 1961, Grubb finished his sophomore year at Penn State and was working his summer job as a theatre production assistant when he was called by Sarge Shriver to train at Rutgers University beginning June 25, 1961 for service with Colombia I, the first Peace Corps group to train and the first Peace Corps group to serve in Latin America. After graduate school at American University and the London School of Economics, he has been an international banker/broker and is the founder of InvestAsia, Ltd, a development finance consulting firm working in some 25 developing countries.