The discovery of Cat Stevens in late 1970 was a signal event in the lives of fhe Peace Corps volunteers who lived in the vicinity of Kumasi, Ghana.  My friend Michele taught at Kumasi Girls Secondary School, and I taught at Kumasi High School, a boys’ school.  We were the two people out of our group of 75 who were lucky enough to be posted to Kumasi, Ghana’s second city.  We had lots of PCV visitors from nearby smaller towns, in for a little urban R&R, and since Michele was closer to city center, the inevitable parties always ended up at her place.

Michele had inherited a state-of-the-art Sony reel-to-reel tape deck from departing (non-Peace Corps) colleagues, who then proceeded to keep her supplied with the latest US music via occasional shipments of tapes.  It happened that a group of us had gathered at her apartment just after the arrival of a new haul, which played mostly as background music until this oddly scratchy voice started singing tea-tillermana fantastic, never-before-heard song  called “Wild World.”  We all stopped talking and listened spellbound to “Tea For The Tillerman” in its entirety.

That unforgettable episode is a perfect metaphor for the cultural isolation Peace Corps volunteers felt almost universally as they navigated their way on the separate planet that was “the developing world” in the early years of the program.  We had no idea who this Cat Stevens was:  Man?  Woman?  Black? White?  We just knew the music was wonderful.  We lived and died by the international editions of Time and Newsweek and jabbered endlessly about current events (luxuriating in our English fluency after weeks of speaking “special English” with our Ghanaian co-workers) whenever we got together.  When we got off the planes that had delivered us to our various destinations, we entered a world that was virtually closed off from our nearest points of reference back home.  Parents and friends would have to be satisfied with the vagaries of international mail–and our inclinations or lack thereof to write long, newsy letters–to hear from us.  A phone call to the States was a major event, requiring, in my case, the reservation of a phone in the Kumasi Post Office two weeks in advance and a good portion of that month’s living allowance.  Connections, once made, were tenuous and could be cut off.  (For that matter, a mere cross-town phone call in Kumasi was like a long-distance call in the U.S. of the 1920s.  Half the time the connection was never made, and the whole ordeal was so time-consuming and frustrating that Michele and I ended up writing letters just to meet up in town for the occasional dinner.)

In short, young people who joined the Peace Corps in those pre-Internent days were free to a degree unfathomable to our wired, parent-hovered counterparts today.  There was no email.  There were no cell phones.  You were expected to write regular letters so that the Office of Special Services wouldn’t have to send posses out to look for you so they could tell your worried parents you were OK.  You were in a neverland, between cultures, cut from the moorings of family and life-long friends and yet never really an integral part of the culture by which you found yourself surrounded.  Your closest touchstones were fellow volunteers, who were experiencing the same sensations of isolation- cum-freedom as you.  You were cradled in a new culture, the unbelievably nurturing ways of the Peace Corps overseas, which told you you were OK because it had accepted you for this challenge, and then worked to help you succeed.  You were free to try on new identities to see if something might fit better than the one you left behind.  If you were on the fence in your sexual identity, you could try a new one (despite the strictures against homosexuality at the time).  If you were a woman after a man, you could pursue with abandon.  Previous wallflowers became social butterflies, bookworms became chatterboxes.  If you’d never danced before, you danced.   It’s no accident that the Peace Corps discourages newly married couples from jumping into the experience right after marriage: the frailty of these forming relationships can cause them to fail as partners discover their new selves.

It’s reassuring to know that people joining today have the same trepidations and questions as we did 40 years ago.  The observations, the expressions of awe, written by current volunteers are almost identical to the things we wrote.  Still, I wonder how different it would be for me to become a Peace Corps volunteer now, getting on a plane with a laptop that would give me instantaneous contact with the rest of the world.  I’d feel protected and I’d probably be happy that I could stay in touch.  I could twitter a funny thing a student did and my whole world would know about it in virtually the same instant.  Who wouldn’t like that?

Still, that old sense of utter abandon would be gone.  I’d be tied by the deceptively gentle wires of technology.  You kids don’t know what you’re missing, God bless you.  I’m glad my time came in the dark old days.