NPR’s All Things Considered runs a popular program called “Three Books” where authors are asked to describe three worthy books on a single subject that may have been overlooked. This past Friday, Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-02, Madagascar 2002-03) contributed, “Three Criminally Good Reads.” The segment is four minutes long, and you can hear him discuss crime novels by John Dos Passos, Magnus Mills, and Christopher Isherwood. D’Souza is the author of his own crime novel, Mule that recently was sold to the movies.
Peace Corps Writers
Reviewed by Leo Cecchini (Ethiopia 1962–64)
READING What Do I Do Now? is akin to watching one of those 4 am TV shows with a self-made millionaire pitching his plan for how to make a fortune. The pitch always starts by promising that you will make lots of money, and ends with selling you a program or system for selling a product or service.
The author tells the story through a character, Luke. based on his personal life starting as a Peace Corps Volunteer through becoming a successful “social entrepreneur” selling “wellness” products. Luke in turn tells the story in the form of reflections on his life as he prepares to go to the Peace Corps’s 50Th Anniversary Celebration in Washington DC this past September. Luke recalls returning from his life transforming experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala to his beloved Portland, Oregon where he marries the girl of his dreams and lands a good job with a lumber company. All goes well until Luke loses his job when his company is sold to new owners. He engages in a frantic campaign to find new employment while depending on his wife’s modest income and his dwindling savings to make ends meet.
At a low point in his job search Luke meets Daniel who befriends him and guides him to a better understanding of who he is and what he wants to do with his life. He encourages Luke to set a goal to make lots of money — a goal with which Luke is somewhat uncomfortable. Gradually Daniel brings Luke into his business. The most revealing statement made in the book is when Daniel assures Luke that he is not talking about a “pyramid scheme.” But he then goes on to introduce Luke to a “multilevel” sales business which many view as closely associated with, and often nothing more than, a “pyramid scheme.”
While the book does not describe the exact nature of the enterprise Luke is about to enter I am very familiar with “multilevel” sales schemes since my mother was quite successful selling products through “multilevel” schemes. The way it works is for you to first sell a product or service. As you progress you recruit others for your sales “team” who you train and help get started. In return you take a percentage of your team member’s sales commissions. Then your team members recruit their own teams of sales people, whom they train, and from whom they take a percentage of their commissions. You also take a percentage of the percentage your team members take from their team members. The ultimate goal is to reach a position where you derive an income from the “pyramid” of sales people under your leadership sufficient to allow you to “retire” from selling and simply collect on your “pyramid.”
Luke squares his concerns about making a profit by viewing his new endeavor as being a “social entrepreneur.” ” Social entrepreneurship” derives from the basic idea of conducting a business, you provide a need for, or answer a desire, for consumers for a profit. The “social entrepreneur” focuses on providing the need while the traditional entrepreneur supposedly focuses on the profit. Of course all entrepreneurs are a blend of both approaches, since one who does not answer the needs and desires of consumers, or one who does not make a profit, will soon be out of business.
Luke also improves his “social entrepreneur” credentials by using some of his profits to build orphanages in his Peace Corps country of service, Guatemala. The idea is to give back to those who helped you on your way to fame and fortune.
The book is useful as an insight into, and guide to, being an entrepreneur. The buzzwords “wellness” and “social entrepreneur” will appeal to those who are somewhat uneasy with simply making money, e.g. RPCVs. As for myself, I will confine my interest in the world of “multilevel” sales schemes to watching 4 am TV shows with pitchmen telling me how to make a million as a cure for my insomnia.
Leo Cecchini was an Ethiopia I Volunteer and taught geography at the secondary school level in Asmara, Ethiopia. From the Peace Corps he joined the foreign service and served around the world for 25 years, and after his retirement worked successfully in business, beginning with the public relations firm of Hill and Knowlton in Turkey. This initial venture was followed by a consultant assignment to American companies doing business in Southern Africa from a base in Windhoek, Namibia. He returned to the USA to manage a South African venture in Orlando, Florida, then worked for a Wall Street brokerage and trading foreign currency in New York City. Next he was the manager of a small fashion industry business in London, and then built a wine importing business in Washington D.C. before moving to Florida where he sold real estate until the housing market collapsed. He is a contributor to peacecorpsworldwide.org where he writes on the “new” economy, the environment and wines. He spends his summers in Mallorca, Spain and his winters in Ft Myers Beach, Florida.
Concord ePress has republished John Givens (Korea 1967–69) novel,
Concord ePress: http://www.concordepress.com/a-friend-in-the-police/
The plot goes something like this: A middle-aged American businessman arrives in an unnamed Southeast Asian country to retrieve his wayward son. George Bates finds himself confronted by a climate and culture more bizarre than he could have anticipated, and by the mysterious Detective Sergeant Xlong, whose own background is even more tangled than the Americans and whose fecund language reflects the lush ambiguity of the tropical rain forest. Bates is soon lost in a complex, hallucinatory world that resembles a rewrite of The Heart of Darkness by Franz Kafka.
A Friend in the Police is often spoken of by veteran authors as the book they wish they had written. Newly revised by the author, this Concord ePress ebook is the first widely available edition of an admired cult novel.
Here’s what other writers have to say about the novel —
A Friend in the Police suggests a parody of Conrad and Graham Greene by Nathanael West: its an exhilarating novel, an important satire, a comic vision phrased in energetic and constantly surprising prose. — John Hawkes
Somehow, John Givens moves from Waughs world to Conrads. That he could do so without visibly changing gears, or without forsaking his highly charged language, seems to me a very neat trick indeed. — Peter S. Prescott, Newsweek
The jungles of Southeast Asia, sleazy bars filled with B-girls, and Communist guerrillas form the backdrop of John Givenss A Friend in the Police. Givens evokes a fresh and powerful sense of the character of the place and its people. — John Thomas Stovall, Chicago Tribune
Jane Albritton (India 1967-69) who conceived and also edited with other RPCVs four volumes of Peace Corps literature will be at the Tattered Cover Book Store on Friday, December 2, 2011, at 7:30 p.m. She will be signing books.
The Tattered Cover is at 2526 East Colfax in Denver. It is famous as an independent bookstore that has survived much chain competition. In the ‘days of e-books’ this is an amazing store with millions of real books!
Jane, who earned a master’s degree in English, taught freshman composition at Southern Methodist University, then served as the writing specialist for the SMU School of Law created in 1980 Tiger Enterprises, a company for writing, editing, and instruction. Several years ago, she came up with the idea of publishing stories from the Peace Corps. All the books are published by Travelers’ Tales, an Imprint of Solas House, Inc. in Palo Alto, California.
Africa-One Hand Does Not Catch A Buffalo edited by Aaron Barlow (Togo 1988-90)
The Americas - Gather The Fruit One By One, edited by Barnie Alter (Paraguary 1970-72) and Pat Alter (India 1967-69 & Paraguary 1970-72)
The Heart of Eurasia - A Small Key Opens Big Doors, edited by Jay Chen (Kazakhstan 2005-08)
Asia and the Pacific - Even The Smallest Crab Has Teeth, edited by Jane Albritton (India 1967-69)
The intention of these collected stories, according to Jane, is not to trap the Peace Corps experience in a pretty piece of amber. Rather, bringing the world home in many voices, responding to an implicit question that President Kennedy might have liked: What can our combined stories offer our country as a guide in a world where people are closer, tensions higher, and the importance of understanding each other greater than ever? Now is a good time to find out.
Check out Jane’s site at: http://www.peacecorpsat50.org/
Tattered Cover: http://www.tatteredcover.com/event/2011/12/02/day
The Lima Bear Stories
Thomas Weck (Ethiopia 1965–67) and Peter Weck
Illustrated by Len DiSalvo
How Back-Back Got His Name
The Cave Monster
Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-02, Madagascar 2002-03)
THOMAS AND PETER WECK, along with illustrator Len DiSalvo, have created a series of children’s books for 4–8 year olds called The Lima Bear Stories, three of which, The Megasaurus, How Back-Back Got His Name, and The Cave Monster, I have had the pleasure of reading to my two and three-year-olds over the past week. The stories, about a kingdom of lima bean-sized bears and a number of regular-sized animal friends of the bears, are based on stories Thomas told his children.
The books are handsome and beautifully illustrated, and knowing what my children would do to the books (rip them apart) if I left them within their reach, I planned to keep them on a high shelf for a few day. But when my daughter saw them as I opened the box and spotted the cute bears on the covers, she began an incessant chorus of, “Dad, I want dat book.” Dad, having other work to do put the books on the shelf, and said what Dad says 99.9% of the time to his wild-as-two-dire-wolves-tearing-apart-the-house-all-day children — “No, no, no.”
Daughter, incessantly for four days while tirelessly pointing at shelf : “Dad, I want dat book.”
Dad, mind-numb since he stays home with the kids and is usually trying to type something at the same time: “No, no, no.”
Daughter, like a tiny, pigtailed robot programmed to say exactly one thing: “Dad, I want dat book.”
Dad, like pleading: “Tomorrow. Go watch Dora or something would you?”
In any case, Dad soon found himself propped up against a pillow on the floor with two heavy heads resting on either of his shoulders and breathing hotly on him as he entered the world of The Lima Bear Stories.
Before I get to writing about The Lima Bear Stories, I’d like to make a few comments about being an author for adults who suddenly finds himself pretty much only reading children’s books: I had no idea how intensely competitive the world of children’s books is. I think that every author, no matter what genre he works in, believes he has it the roughest, that the battle for reviews, sales, recognition, and prizes is most savage in his field. But I now know that children’s book publishing is by far the winner of the cutthroat award. At our library, all the moms (yes, it’s all moms in this world I live in now, plus me) are always talking about which book won the Newberry, which one won the Caldecott. We get one free kid’s book a month in the mail from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library literacy program, and as I guesstimate how many bazillion copies sold that must mean for children’s book authors, I imagine they pine after being anointed by Parton the way the rest of us hallucinate about Oprah calling.
Into this world of discerning, capricious, and avaricious moms and the occasional stay-at-home dad, i. e. me, come the Wecks’ The Lima Bear Stories. Having read, I-kid-you-not, at least 500 children’s books over the past couple of years, I now know what to look for. A children’s book should certainly be geared towards the alleged audience — which is children — but the fact of the matter remains that the actual person who has to deal with these books and the stories and pictures contained within is really the parent who must spend half his life reading said books to his children. The parent therefore wants the story to be engaging, the illustrations attractive and distracting, and more than anything, the parent sincerely desires that the book will stand up the 40,000 or so readings back-to-back-to-back that the children will demand if they like it without making his brain leak out his ear, as a surprising number of the books do. Seuss, let me tell you, was so successful because his books keep your brain in your head; there is always something new for the parent to see in those psychedelic images, even at reading 70,000 of Hop on Pop! Eric Carle, author and illustrator of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? sold over 100 million books because his illustrations are so beautiful, despite the fact that his writing is as repetitive as Gregorian chanting.
In any case, The Lima Bear Stories, I am happy to report, are winning books, as engaging for children as they are for the parent. It’s a different and interesting world that the Wecks create, along the lines of the Smurfs, Care Bears, or Disney’s wildly successful Tinkerbell fairies. Ruled by a bumbling, if kind, King Limalot, Beandom is populated by the aforementioned very cute tiny bears, among whom a hero arises, a servant’s son named L. Joe Bean. Just like the age group of children these lively books are intended for, diminutive L. Joe Bean is always underestimated in a world that towers over him. He’s also the one who ultimately saves Beandom from all sorts of trouble, including finding a creative way to foil the bean bear-eating Megasaurus. When a bevy of King Limalot’s owl advisors fail to stop the monster in a tale that echoes The Three Little Pigs, plucky L. Joe Bean saves the day not through brawn, but wits.
These stories, it must be admitted, are darkish and have moments that are wonderfully frightening. Len DiSalvo’s illustrations are rich, his landscapes full of detail, his monsters scary. I’m not a parent who shies away from scaring the kids, in fact I prefer it to mindless Brown Bear, Brown Bear sing-song dullness. The children’s attention span at these ages is not great, and it takes a truly engaging story to keep them as riveted into place as the Wecks’ tales do. I asked my daughter, “Are you okay?” at the appearance of the Megasaurus, and later, of the Cave Monster, and for a child who has to leave the room whenever one of Disney’s villains in friendly-disguise finally reveals herself for the witch that she really is, Gwendolyn wanted to know what was going to happen to the tiny bears, who she cared about. I felt her being tested to explore her boundaries as we read, which is what I want.
I especially enjoyed the tale How Back-Back Got His Name, which focuses less on the bears, and more on their animal friends: Maskamal the raccoon, Whistle-Toe the rabbit, and Plumpton (later dubbed Back-Back) the possum. Lots of times when reading children’s books, you realize after a few pages that the story is derivative, a hurried copy pumped out by the publishers to ride the success of some Caldecott winner (there’s a book about a ‘little loon, little loon’ in particular that I’m taking to the skeet shooting range with me the next time I go). But the world of tiny bears the Wecks’ have created here is original and new, wholly realized, populated by characters who are caring and funny, and who parent and child alike enjoy spending time with. I like Maskamal the raccoon especially. He’s earnest in his desire to help his friends, though he’s hapless. The illustration of him standing in a field covered in mud and pretending to be a tree when everyone can see that he’s obviously not a tree, made me laugh aloud.
Thomas Weck is an award-winning author of children’s books. Along with his son, Peter Weck, and illustrator Len DiSalvo, Weck has created a series of children’s books, The Lima Bear Stories, about a kingdom of bears the size of beans who metaphorically confront and overcome many of the issues that small children do. The stories are based on the ones Weck told his own children. Lima Bear Press, Weck’s imprint, publishes “children’s stories that are engaging, imaginative, and humorous while each carries an important life message such as tolerance, honesty, and courage.”
Reviewer Tony D’Souza’s third novel, Mule, released in September to praise from Vanity Fair, Gawker, and the San Francisco Chronicle, has been optioned for film. He has a recession feature in the current issue of Mother Jones, and has been covering Occupy St. Louis for the Riverfront Times. His website is: TonyDSouza.com .
Here on Earth: Radio Without Borders is a live one-hour weekday global cultural affairs program with a focus on the future. It is broadcast from Wisconsin Public Radio and hosted by Jean Feraca. Its mission is described on the website (http://www.wpr.org/hereonearth/aboutus.cfm).
Yesterday’s broadcast focused on Peace Corps writers Sarah Erdman (Cote d’Ivoire 1998-2000), author of Nine Hills to Nambonkaha, and Peter Hessler (China 1996-98), who wrote River Town and two other books on China.
To listen to the program, go to:http://wpr.org/hereonearth/archive_111115k.cfm
This program is an hour long and several RPCVs ‘call in’ so the discussion goes beyond books to the Peace Corps experience, and what has happened to all of us! It is terrific show. Sarah and Peter did a great job talking about their books and their tours.
In true Peace Corps spirit, Sarah calls in to the program from Brussels where she is at the moment, and Peter was on his cell phone from downtown Cairo.
Thirty years ago P.F. Kluge (Micronesia 1967-69) published a novel entitled Eddie and the Cruisers about a New Jersey rock band. The book was turned into a cult movie. (Kluge also wrote the WSJ article(s) that were the basis of the movie Dog Day Afternoon.)
Cruisers was (is) a terrific book, published by Viking in 1980. Now comes another ‘rock band’ novel by an RPCV! This one is the first novel by Tyler McMahon (El Salvador 1999-02) who served in Palo Grande, in the Rosario de Mora municipality, and who is now an Assistant Professor at Hawaii Pacific University. His novel, How the Mistakes Were Made, was published in October by St. Martin’s Press.
The story is about Laura Loss who comes of age in the hardcore punk scene of the 1980s, the jailbait bassist in her brother Anthony’s band. Now, a decade after tragedy destroyed Anthony and their iconic group, she finds herself serving coffee in Seattle.
While on a reluctant tour through Montana, she meets up with Sean and Nathan, two talented young musicians dying to leave their small mountain town. Nathan proves to be a charismatic songsmith. Sean has a neurological condition known as synesthesia, which makes him a genius on lead guitar. With Laura’s guidance, the three of them become the Mistakes-accidental standard-bearers for the burgeoning “Seattle Sound.”
As the band graduates from old vans and darkened bars to tour-buses and stadiums, there’s no time to wonder whether stardom is something they want-or can handle. At the height of their fame, the volatile bonds between the three explode in a toxic cloud of love and betrayal. The world blames Laura for the band’s demise. Hated by the fans she’s spent her life serving, she finally tells her side of how the Mistakes were made.
Born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area., Tyler studied at the University of Virginia and Boise State, where he earned his MFA. Besides the Peace Corps he has spent time as a surfing instructor in California and a waiter in Montana. He also edited the anthologies Surfing’s Greatest Misadventures and Fishing’s Greatest Misadventures for Casagrande Press.
Of the novel, Kirkus Reviews writes, “McMahon never strains for effect or tries to sell his characters as myths, as much as they may resonate with the Kurt Cobains and Courtney Loves of the world. His female narration is so good, there is a Lorrie Moore-ness to Laura’s intelligence, self-awareness and self-deprecating wit. And the descriptions of the performances give you a feel for why fans went crazy over the Mistakes. A rock novel good enough to wish you had an accompanying soundtrack.”
RPCV novelist Tyler McMahon is the real thing. You heard it here first.
Ashley Hardaway (Ukraine 2006–08) has never been able to sit still. It progressively got worse. Far away universities. Backpacking trips. Solo vacations. It wasn’t any big shock when she announced she was joining the Peace Corps - leaving for Ukraine a month after graduating from college.
Afterwards, upon moving back to America, Ashley would continuously find herself saying “In Ukraine this one time…” To everyone’s great delight and/or horror she got a publishing deal for a travel guide to Ukraine — Ukraine: Discover the Real Ukraine. Traveling around the county again and writing about it would either rid her of all her thoughts regarding this country, or provide her with even more stories to torment people with at Christmas time.
So far, all signs point to the latter.
Ashley Hardaway now lives in Florida where she continues to write - about other things besides Ukraine.
However, for our site, she wrote a piece on Cherobyl. As we all know, on Saturday, April 26, 1986, reactor number four of the Chernobyl plant underwent a systems test. During this routine test a sudden output surge occurred and an emergency shutdown was attempted. This caused a series of explosions which soon ignited. This fire sent a plume of radioactive smoke fallout up into the atmosphere and cascading over the area, including Prypiat, and went further into the western Soviet Union and Europe. 60% landed in Belarus. A level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale it remains the worst nuclear power plant accident in history. Now the city of Prypiat lies in abandon and a 19-mile radius “exclusion zone” has been established where catastrophic radiation contamination remains.
Naturally, Ashley, decided to visit the site and here is her story.
Dark Tourism Comes to Ukraine: Chernobyl
THE CAMERA’S WERE ALREADY STARTING to go off - click, click, click - as we passed through the first checkpoint. Barely in the 30 KM zone Chernobyl, so far, resembled any former large soviet-town after the fall of the empire: deserted buildings, tress growing up through the concrete, a few men smoking on the sidewalks. My camera remained in my lap. The guy next to me asked if I was saving my batteries. “I don’t want to say this, because it might come off as snide,” I said, “but this all looks remarkably similar to the Ukrainian village I used to live in.” Since we had spent the two hour bus ride here exchanging life stories, the way people seemingly only do with complete stranger, he knew my background - Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine turned travel writer - “Ah yes,” he quipped, “already a pro”
I smirked as the bus pulled into the final checkpoint. We exited and presented the surly guard with our passport which he checked against his official documents. Taking a tour of Chernobyl - you can only go by tour or private escort - is absurdly expensive. Part of the reason they can charge so much is the fact that you have to get permission to enter and civilians by themselves cannot gain it. When I told my Ukrainian friend, Natasha, where I was going, and more importantly how much it cost, she replied with what would translate to: “why in the hell would you pay so much to go there?” The irony of the situation caught me off guard at that moment: People couldn’t escape here fast enough and now here come the Western tourists paying to get in.
After being cleared, we got back in the bus and made the short drive into Chernobyl’s center. Like most soviet work towns this one was clustered around a main city-center which had a cafe, movie-theatre, post-office, bank and park: some of which still seemed to be operational. Chernobyl, much to the contrary belief, is still an active area with many people working within it every day. Most commute in daily, but some residents have taken up housing on the outskirts of town. They are mostly elderly citizens (children cannot live within the perimeters) who left and returned when the government allowed them to again. When the group scoffed at the notion the concerned bus driver told us “they have no family elsewhere. Or money. This is their home. They are old. Why would they leave?”
The bus stopped and we were escorted into a two story, wooden office building. Inside photos of the town, maps of the radiation levels and outlines of the blocked-out zones covered the walls. Our guide, Igor, pointed to a map in the far corner that looked like a paint ball had been pelted against it - smatterings of red going out in every direction. The red markings, he explained, showed the different radiation levels throughout the city. Some parts were heavily effected, but twenty feet away it was possible to find stretches where there was virtually no radiation remaining at all. He explained that the people working in Chernobyl carefully heed this guide and work only within “the safe” perimeters.
Igor, who wore thick military boots that he threw away monthly, then handed out the infamous Geiger counters. Immediately the group began regarding them with infinite interest, mildly gasping with every click that registered a higher number. Now it was a measly 0.12. I wasn’t nervous before, but looking out the window of the office, towards the bombed out edifice of reactor #4, I began to wonder if I was doing something incredibly stupid. “Think of your future children!” Natasha had warned. Igor reassured us that the amount of radiation we were going to be exposed to would be the same as one would experience on a transatlantic flight. He added; “plus, you go through at detector at the end of the tour that will tell you if you are clean or not.” When asked if anyone had ever set if off, he chuckled and rattled off a line reminiscent of a carnie at a fairground horror ride trying to scare the children: “Only one. A Dutch photographer who wandered off the path and stood on the moss for too long-” The moss being like a radioactive sponge. In my mind I finished his sentence with and we never saw him again.
Later we began the journey to what I suppose is the morbid “highlight” of Chernobyl: the town of Pripyat. The Geiger counters started clicking up: 0.17, .022, 0.23, on the drive there, creating a cacophony of mad beeps throughout the tiny bus. We stopped to take in an overgrown field where the skeletons of abandoned Soviet tanks could be seen through the brush. Having been exposed to immense radiation they couldn’t be moved or recycled, so here they laid for I suppose the rest of eternity. A sign on their frame warned against touching them, but some of the group - having that brash arrogance that seems inherent to international backpackers - disregarded the caution and leaned up against them for a photo-op anyways. Igor moaned as he slammed his boots on the sidewalk; attempting to get some of the soil off of them. He went to say something, but lit a cigarette instead.
Reactor #4 is so large it practically eclipses the horizon. Coming up upon it, it looms like a post-apocalyptic behemoth, all concrete and collapsing steel. Construction had already begun on the building’s sarcophagus, which aims to seal off what radiation remains by constricting it like one of Houdini’s straight jackets and hoping for the best.
We parked across from the reactor, a place that at one time would have given us a view of the river that once flowed through here. But that too had been patched up; dammed off so that the water wouldn’t contaminate nearby water sources.
The group was already starting to switch “on” their photography gear when Igor instructed that we could take pictures facing the Reactor only and not in the other direction – a gated off factory of sorts. “They are watching us,” he whispered. An attempt at dry humor? Occasionally beat-up trucks would drive past us and up to the gates of the factory where men in Hazmat awaited them.
This somewhat eerie sight was undercut by the sound of a leaf blower. Looking to my right I saw a young guy, in civilian clothes, jamming to a disk man while cleaning up the streets. He stopped to gawk at the group which was rotating having their pictures taken in front of the bombed-out edifice. I’d like to say that I was above the whole scenario and scoffed at having my picture taken: but I did. Click. Officially a tourist.
The bus continued driving to the “Red Forest” where the trees are unnaturally eerie shades due to the tremendous radiation they were exposed to. Coming up upon them the Geiger meters started beeping wildly: 0.70, 0.97, 1.14, 3.23, 8.12. At one point you couldn’t hear Igor speak over the violent warning clicks. Igor stopped the bus and jumped out, his thick boots hitting the highly contaminated moss. He held up his Geiger counter and it flashed 11,000, beeping like mad. The only other girl in the group clicked a photo and asked him to smile. Igor snapped “I will not smile here. This is not a happy place.” She sheepishly apologized and we carried on.
The sign for Prypiat is oddly merry, making me think how great a place this would have been to live in its heyday. With a school, gymnasium, hotel, restaurants, and even a small amusement park for the kids — this town would have been special in any country; Let alone Ukraine where most villages are thankful if they have 24hr running water. The pride of the Soviet Union, Pripyat was shown off to foreign leaders and international dignitaries as the example of how great communistic forms of industrialization could be.
Now before me it was nothing but deserted piles of ruble and rusted reminders of the lives that were led here. Walking into the center suddenly became an obstacle course: all uprooted trees, collapsed walls and dried up fountains. Glass was everywhere. Every window in every building of the central square had been broken out in an attempt to aerate them and now glass made up the city’s foundation. The ever-present crunch of it shattering below feet was all that could be heard.
The city’s House of Culture loomed in the distance, lending the grey horizon its foreboding centerpiece. Walking into it felt like entering a doomsday movie soundstage: faded murals of soviet glory and deteriorating flags clung to the walls. Rainwater cascaded through the holes in the ceiling and puddles accumulated in glassware that looked like someone had been drinking out of it when the explosion happened, only to be dropped and never touched again. People in my small group began clicking away, crouching lower to get a better shot. A few rearranged things for a better angle only to be told “Do not touch anything! It’s not good…” but they didn’t seem to care (click).
We walked under the overhanging trees, the leaves of which we are warned to avoid, to the school where the second floor library contents seemed to have exploded throughout the building. Books, many of which were probably the last print, were everywhere. School desks were overturned and on some chalkboards you could still make out the faint outlines of that last day’s lesson. In the third floor hallway a gas mask hung from one of the collapsed support beams. No doubt planted here as a photo-op prop; it still made for an eerie-slight.
The Theme Park, where the now excessively symbolic Ferris-wheel lingers, is behind the school. Scheduled to open the day of the accident, the park is now nothing more than weed eclipsed metal objects. “You can do anything but sit on the rides,” Igor tells us. Immediately the group scatters like children in some sort of zombie-themed amusement park. Strange to be in a place where it looks like the world has ended and hear laughter.
In a cafe on the outskirts we are served a large meal “all of which was imported from outside the region.” The American table, yes even in post-apocalyptic territories people still divide themselves by regions, is remarkably the quietest. I eat very little and the woman serving it to us assumes it’s because I think it’s unsafe. “Eat!” she tells me with a smile. I oblige her, but I feel a remarkable heaviness. My sudden melancholy making me lose my appetite.
We all passed through the radiation detector without incident on the way out. Entering back through JFK later that month I set off no alarms; not to say I wasn’t affected. For days afterwards I thought about that town. Standing, even now, isolated, forgotten about, abandoned.
For more travel information on Ukraine check out Other Places Publishing Ukraine Travel Guide on Amazon.
Tours to Chernobyl are costly and will run will at least $110 per person for groups and rocket up in price if you want a private tour. A number of reliable tour companies offer them in a variety of languages. You should register in advance with them for a tour to Chernobyl. Same day reservations are not allowed.
Chernobyl Tour Companies Hostels and hotels in Kyiv generally have businesses they recommend for Chernobyl Tours. The following businesses can book individual or group tours, or can put you with a group; thus making your trip cheaper.
Solo East Travel (This is the company I used) email@example.com
Tel: +38 (093) 239 77 67
Tel: +1 416 763 4256
Photos by Ashley Hardaway
JUST NORTH OF THE PROVINCIAL CAPITAL of Dessie in the Debub Wollo Zone of Ethiopia is a small road-side town called Haik (or Hayq), wedged between low range hills and Lake Hayq. It is famous for being the home of the Coptic Church’s Istifanos Monastery, and for being the Peace Corps site where Tom Weck taught 7th and 8th grade English and math from 1965 to 1967. Tom was the only PCV in Haik, though a dozen or more PCVs (including his future wife) were stationed in Dessie, 28 kilometers south on an all-weather gravel road that bisected, north and south, the Empire of Emperor Haile Selassie.
Haik was a town through which everyone — from missionaries, tourists, lorry drivers, and the Ethiopian government officials — raced. There was nothing in Haik, beyond the monastery and a 1930s Italian graveyard for the bodies of dead Blackshirt soldiers of the brief Italian occupation. But I always stopped in Haik when I was the Peace Corps APCD in Ethiopia. I stopped because of Tom Weck.
I’d usually spend the night in Dessie sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor of John Hoover’s chakka home, or go on to Haik to stay with Tom as he had a spare room in his small house. These were the days when I’d drive my Land Rover north and south on the two main roads of Ethiopia visiting PCVs in some 20+ towns over the one-thousand miles of my APCD territory.
I liked visiting Tom as he was an interesting guy, and also, I felt a little sorry for him being off by himself in his one-man town. The thing about Tom was that everything interested him. He was great with getting down the facts and figures and knowing the details. I remember a particular night sitting at his small kitchen table while he lectured (and entertained me) on the particulars of his Coleman Lantern.
Clearly Tom felt a great fondness and affection for his Coleman Lantern. (It was, after all, what he needed to read or write after six p.m. in Ethiopia.) And while he didn’t give a “name” to his lantern, he nevertheless handled the Coleman with great respect, giving it his full care and attention.
Over the years I wondered what happened to Tom, and recently at the 50th Reunion while talking to another RPCV — Steve Crabtree — who had attended Harvard Graduate School with him, I asked, “Where’s Tom?”
The answer surprised me. He was a book publisher. A publisher of children’s books. Having retired from corporate life, he was now living in Delaware.
Steve told me that after graduating from business school in ‘69 Tom went with Louis Berger & Associates, a consulting firm, and ran the business as president for the last 12 years. Now he was publishing books.
Wanting, of course, to publicize his work, I wrote Tom and was happy to hear back about his life and his business, and I asked him a bunch of questions.
Here’s what he had to say.
How did you start publishing children’s stories, Tom?
It was my son Peter who prompted me to start Lima Bear Press, LLC. He felt my stories were so good that they had to be shared with others.
These were your stories?
Yes, you see, when my children were very young, I told them bedtime stories. I told a lot of stories as I had four children (David, Peter, Kathryn and Andrew.) And I made up stories. I made up a clan of beans, the size of lima beans, that lived in the forest with regular sized animals.
When children are born, they come into a world that is not sized for them. It is sized for adults, and this presents many problems and challenges for them. It is the same thing for the bean-clan. I found that my children identified with these beans as they listened to (or read) about the size problems these beans encountered. To make the beans very likeable, for the two main bean characters, I gave them endearing qualities. Lima Bear is the essence of goodness, and his cousin, L. Joe Bean, is the cleverest animal of the forest. It tickled my children pink that this tiny bean was the cleverest.
When my second son, Peter, was in his 30s, one day he came to me and said: “Dad, you remember those Lima Bear Stories you used to tell us. Those stories were so good and had such good messages, which I still remember, that you really need to share these stories with others. They can’t just disappear with you.” He prevailed upon me to launch a publishing company, Lima Bear Press, LLC, with the two of us as partners.
With our joint memories, we were able to reconstruct the stories almost exactly as I first told them (Peter’s memory is phenomenal). We planned a series of 10 Lima Bear Stories. Our national distributor (one of the best known distributors in the country) has released three of our stories: The Megasaurus, How Back-Back Got His Name, and The Cave Monster. Four more stories have been written and fully illustrated. The last three stories have been written and are in the early stages of illustration. Our distributor wants us to release only three stories at most per year — therefore we have three more ready to go in 2012.
To what age group are the Lima Bear Stories targeted?
In the market, it is called the 4-8 year old age group. We have found, however, that our effective audience ranges from ages 3-10. A three-year old can understand the story and a ten-year old is still laughing at the antics of the characters.
What is the mission of Lima Bear Press?
Summarized in the few words: Our mission is to help children become life-long readers. By engaging children at an early age with wonderful and very funny stories, beautifully illustrated, containing great messages, we hope to encourage them to make reading an important part of their lives.
So is there an overriding message within each book?
Yes, we consider it essential to incorporate an important life-message in each story. The message is woven into of the fabric of the story. It is integral to the entire story. For example, in the first book (The Megasaurus), the message is: Stick to your convictions. In the second book (How Back-Back Got His Name), the message is: Have tolerance for the differences in others. In the third book (The Cave Monster), the message is: By cooperating, you can often accomplish things that alone you would never be able to accomplish. Each of the seven remaining stories has an equally important message. These messages are delivered to children in their very formative years with the goal of instilling these messages into the essence of who they become as adults.
Have you incorporated any special features into your books?
Yes. We see the stories not only as stories, but also as platforms from which further learning and development can take place. At the end of each book, we have two sections: 1) Extend the Learning; and 2) Activities. We consider these to be very important sections. Each section engages children by firing up their creativity and imagination. In this way the children become active participants in the story, and this presents an environment where a great deal of learning and development takes place. These two sections are different, in fact unique, in each story. Therefore in each book, these two sections become as aspect of the book that children look forward to as they read more and more stories in the series. These two sections are ideal for teachers, librarians, parents, grandparents, and others to bring learning and excitement to young minds.
Can you tell me about the main characters?
There are five main characters (and many other characters who come and go depending upon the story). The first two characters are the tiny beans referred to above. Then there is Back-Back the Opossum, Maskamal the Raccoon, and Whistle-Toe the Rabbit. Each character has what we call a throughput personality — that is, their essential personality traits hold true in every story. In this way, we believe the children come to know and to like each character and take a kind of “ownership” of each one. Children have no idea how a new story might unfold, but they have a pretty good idea of how each character will act given a particular problem, challenge, or decision. We believe this helps reinforce the main message of the story.
Have you set any special objectives for your illustrations?
The illustrations must be beautifully creative and illustrative gems in their own right. While the text gives the verbal rendition of the story, the illustrations give the visual rendition. There are therefore between 28-30 full color illustrations in each book. We have found that a child of three years old can often “tell” the whole story from just the pictures after having heard the story read only a couple of times.
How did you put your team together?
First we selected our illustrator. We evaluated submissions from more than 400 illustrators and chose Len DiSalvo as the illustrator. We chose well.
I attended two annual meetings of Book Expo America (BEA), the major book show for publishers and all support personnel associated with the publication of books. By interviewing and networking, I put together a team of professionals recognized in the industry as top tier in their respective areas of concentration. I brought onto our team a marketer, a publicist, a layout and creative specialist, an editor, and a proof reader. It was at BEA where I found a highly ranked national book distributor that was excited about our mission and our products. Through our team, we found a printer who met our printing quality requirements.
What kind of industry reviews have you been receiving?
To date, we have received over 75 industry reviews. All have praised the three books that we have released. Our publicist has commented that she has never seen so many superb reviews come in so quickly. We have had feature articles on Lima Bear Press in major newspapers. I was interviewed on a PBS program that aired in five states. We have been delighted with the reception of Lima Bear Press in the marketplace.
How do does one find the books?
Well, anyone can write directly to Lima Bear Press at firstname.lastname@example.org or just call 800-247-6553.. The books are distributed by Atlas Books, and, of course, available at bookstores, libraries, and online booksellers like Amazon.
Thanks, Tom. Thanks for your time and thanks for your books.
You’re very welcome. Come visit.
Okay, turn on the Coleman Lantern!
Reviewed by David Day (Kenya 1965–66; India 1967–68)
IN THIS ACCOUNT of her initial Peace Corps assignment in rural western Pakistan from 1962 to 1964, and a return visit forty-seven years later, in 2009, Leslie Mass gives us tightly-focused access to the lives of women and a range of attempts to educate them in arguably one of the world’s most dangerous countries. It’s a glimpse not often seen in terrorism-haunted media coverage of this troublesome, strategically important Muslim nation.
As part of her titular “journey,” we are taken — with the aid of numerous excerpts from letters written to George (a close friend and later, husband), and verbatim transcripts from tape recordings of conversations — from the dusty alleys of small villages to the snow-capped peaks of the Karakoram mountains; from cramped, mud-walled rural social centers and countless hours spent with rural women under stifling sun gathering straw for making drawstring basket purses, to high-level meetings and seminars with Pakistani education officials; from endless challenges of life under the gaze of men, to attempts she makes to cope with her dupatta and shalwar-kameez; from misguided community-development ideas to the satisfactions of tackling social problems by involving those most likely to be affected.
Like so many Peace Corps Volunteers in the early days of the Peace Corps, Mass arrives in Pakistan fresh out of college with her liberal arts degree, full of energy, acting, as she says, “on her dreams,” with the vague, generic goal of creating hands-on learning programs for teachers, children and parents in a variety of school settings. Posted eventually to Dhamke, a small village in western Pakistan, it doesn’t take long for frustration to set in, a dark veil of depression so familiar to many former Volunteers; no place to live, no coworker to assist her, and villagers who can’t quite figure out what to do with a young American suddenly plunked down — an alien in their midst.
As a single woman, she realizes she has zero credibility in the eyes of village men. “I was mad at the Peace Corps,” she writes, “for botching up my assignment. But I was determined to figure out a way to work in this village.” In an early letter to George she confides that:
. . . the women are behind the purdah wall and I don’t know what they want — and I really don’t know how to reach them, much less how to get started. I feel completely at a loss and out of my depth. It’s hard to be a woman — much less a change agent — in this culture.
Clearly, the near-universal stages of rites de passages are operating here, phenomena common to PCVs, anthropologists and others attempting to adjust to exotic locales. Her initial euphoria gives way to dismay and disillusionment, mixed, especially in Mass’ case, with a strong dose of culture shock. Fortunately, as she acquires more conversational ability in Urdu and Punjabi, she transitions to an accommodation stage and takes some solace in her formative friendships with local women and the occasional visits of two other Americans. In a moment of candor, after a series of meet-and-greet visits to the households of local women and their many children, Mass is touched when they let her cradle their babies, inquire about her husband, her children, her brothers and even about her underwear!
Occasionally, my underwear would disappear from my courtyard clothesline, and I suspected that my questioners knew more about its construction and style than I did. I sometimes wondered of any of my bras and panties were under the shalwar kameez of my hostesses or hidden in one of their tin trunks.
Such honesty and reflection become a marvelous feature of Mass’ memoir, qualities the reader encounters throughout the journey, as the author periodically holds up a mirror to her quest to find what she feels is her “real work” among local Pakistani women.
As she agonizes over how to find a more effective niche in which to contribute to the education of children, Mass piles up statistics about their education. And they are uniformly abysmal. At the time of her first visit in 1962, for example, Pakistan’s literacy rate was under 13 percent. She tells us that “In the entire country, only 42 percent of the children were enrolled in any kind of primary education, fewer than ten thousand students were enrolled in secondary schools, and the overwhelming majority of students, either primary or secondary, were male.”
This reviewer remembers similar deficits in his village in rural north India in the mid-nineteen sixties. The bias in favor of educating male children stems in part from the villagers’ perception that sons will remain in their natal villages and assist in agricultural chores, while girls marry out and are thus lost as productive units to their natal villages. Rules of purdah — so deeply entrenched in India, Pakistan and much of the Middle East, traditionally militate against women entering the teaching profession. Mass, somewhat immodestly, writes “I wanted to change all this.”
And slowly, painfully, Mass sets about to do just that. But the work proves too slow; she describes the setting up of small women’s social centers for instructions in cooking hygiene, better food-storage techniques, literacy and even a smattering of lessons on modest interior decorating! She arranges to shift to a small nearby city. And here, as a project to turn village women into wage earners begins to show promise (those draw-string purses mentioned above) this nascent cottage industry that might have imparted to the women a degree of financial self-sufficiency, fails for want of straw.
At the end of her stay as a PCV, Mass, characteristically reflective, admits she learned a lot.
The village women were content with things as they were. Those who had met at the social center had learned to use the sewing machine. They had been exposed to a different way of doing household tasks…many young boys and their sisters had learned the English and Urdu alphabet and could now read and write a bit in both languages.
I had made a stab at social change and had grown up a bit in the process. I was disappointed that I was not able to start a cottage industry or a real school for girls and suspected that I had not made much difference in peoples’ life.
Then, almost fifty years later, retired from the directorship of Ohio Wesleyan’s Early Childhood Center, long married — to George, and with a coterie of highly-trained colleagues (including some former Peace Corps Volunteers who had served in Pakistan), Leslie Mass gets a rare second chance to achieve her goal. The remainder of her book describes in often exhaustive detail (thanks again to her tape-recordings and journals), numerous meetings this group of experienced educators has with officials of The Citizens Foundation (TCF), Pakistan’s largest non-governmental organization focused on education. Other sessions are held with a wide range of community development leaders.
The journey the women make from the States to Abu Dhabi, then on to Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad brings the author face-to-face with changes that have overtaken Pakistan in the years since her first stint. Some of these are pleasant, some disquieting. Understandably she is keen on seeing what change has done to the two villages she once called “home,” Dhamke and Sheikhupura. She is “stunned,” and can recognize almost nothing on her whirlwind tour — “nothing looks familiar,” she exclaims, ” and I am dazed.” While she is heartened to see great advances in the attention paid to early childhood education — improved classrooms, broadened curricula, more trained teachers — she is saddened by the deaths of old village friends and the poor health of an especially dear friend. She puts it this way:
More than anything else, Jerry’s ill health marks the end of that era for me. It is time to put the past behind me and concentrate on the present and future of Pakistan.
A few sentences later, she admits that “. . . it is extraordinary now, to think that at age twenty-one I could be dropped among these people and be expected to find something productive to do.” Mass’ melancholy is lightened by the realization that, after all, the people of Dhamke remember her days among them; grateful, too, that after so many years absence, she has come back, despite images of Pakistan as a dangerous place full of terrorists. Reading this, I wondered how it would be for me to return to the two sites in which I served in Kenya and then in India. We share in such an experience vicariously in Mass’ dexterous, emotionally-laden reunion.
Back in Karachi, however, the author and her team, with their Pakistani colleagues, arrange a rigorous agenda of planning sessions and seminars focused on teaching elements of what they call an “inquiry-based curriculum” for instruction in science, especially for women. Throughout their stay, the women must deal with the new realities of constant security checks in government buildings, in airports and hotels. Their visit, after all, follows the beheading of Wall Street Journalist Daniel Pearl, and the death of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto following an assassination attempt.
The author is particularly distressed to find that such a simple act as going out for a late-afternoon run in a park in one particular ellte cantonment is — even in an urban area in 2009 — rendered difficult by the necessity of being veiled and under the ubiquitous gaze and rudeness of men who feel she should be wearing the even more cumbersome burqah. Realizing the current fraught issue of the veil in America and other countries, Mass commiserates with her Pakistani women colleagues who uniformly report the security they feel when wearing the veil in public. It’s now, of course, a fashion item.
Mass’ copious accounts of the visiting American team’s education sessions provides the reader with a virtual vademecum of how to establish and maintain inquiry-based curricula useful in a variety of settings. Such methods are all innovative in this experimental setting, but her Pakistani associates are ready and willing to listen and appear eager to adopt it. Along the way, we are taken on several side excursions — each with a specific educational goal — to the distant towns of Gilgit, Hunza and Murtazabad in Pakistan’s far north (near its border with China). In Murtazabad, for example, the women learn from their host and guide — a Pakistani educated In the USA who had established a Stateside branch of The Citizens Foundation — about the problems of local schools funded with outside money. And the news is sobering. Their host is adamant:
When outside sources give money to the local officials, squabbling and corruption often prevent the school from being built or built well enough to meet the needs of the community. And there is usually no money left, or budgeted for sustainability of the school — money to run it over time.
Teachers are not trained, and the school soon falls into disrepair and eventually the village is right back where it
began — no school, poor quality of local education, and one or two people well off because they have pocketed the money.
The group’s discussions call to mind the schools (in the same general region), made famous by Greg Mortenson in his widely-read (and later criticized) book, Three Cups of Tea.
The educators’ group travels on, taking in a tour of the archaeological ruins of the ancient, formative cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro of the Indus civilization They also re-visit the village where another of the team had been a Peace Corps Volunteer, and are able to chat with members of the marginal local Christian community. Increasingly interested in this particular cohort, Mass makes “a mental note to find out how many Christian students are enrolled in TCF schools and to learn more about the connection between the TCF and the Christians in their respective communities.” While not persecuted, Christians seem to be relegated to menial roles as chowkidars (watchmen, gate-keepers) or ayyahs in most rural villages.
When it is finally time for the group of American women to leave, Mass is satisfied at the progress she sees among local Pakistani teachers and the ranks of college-student volunteers and their eagerness to learn and implement inquiry-based methods of teaching and learning. Ultimately, she insists, it will be educational models created by Pakistanis themselves, that succeed. The exemplary work done under the auspices of The Citizens Foundation and that of an increasing number of NGOs whose efforts she has encountered, give her hopes for the future and earn high praise in these pages. But these efforts are only part of what Mass calls the “unfinished business” of privileged people learning to give back.
This reviewer was hard-pressed to find something in Back to Pakistan that he didn’t like. There were times when I was tempted to pass over the author’s near-ethnographic minutiae of meetings held and the descriptions of recruitment and behavior of TCF teachers. Unless we are ourselves planning a visit to the central office of TCF, is it really necessary for us to know about its floor-plan and office furniture? Or to have at hand verbatim transcriptions of quite so many interviews? It’s rather like learning that there are 525,600 minutes in a year. What do you do with that information?
This minor quibble aside, I was thoroughly impressed with the book’s organization. Both publisher and author are to be congratulated on wonderful photographs (from both of the author’s trips), a handy map of Pakistan and adjacent countries, a few well-crafted footnotes (placed at the end of the book), and a splendid index, a feature regrettably left out of many memoirs in publishing haste or sheer editorial neglect. Finally, given the significance of Pakistan to the United States, one can only hope that those holding the purse strings for funding development projects in the region pay attention to the kinds of successes documented at the local level in Mass’ immaculate account. That we are able to see a bit of ourselves in the needs and aspirations of Mass’ many informants is evidence of the author’s attentiveness, her empathy and a fine listening ear.
Dr. Mass is also the author of In Beauty May She Walk: Hiking the Appalachian Trail at 60 and the former editor of The Thru-Hiker Companion for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
Reviewer David Howard 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, and lives in Rochester, NY.
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