Bolivia 30: Life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1960s
Frank T. Darmiento (Bolivia ), author and editor
$24.99 (paperback), $9.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Mark D. Walker (Guatemala 1971–73)
Frank Darmiento, the author of Bolivia 30 provides a unique perspective of life in the Peace Corps in Bolivia by sharing in great detail his own story of the training process in the U.S. as well as when serving in Bolivia with his young wife. His book also includes dozen stories of others who were in his training group, which added to the texture and broadened the diversity of perspectives. Twenty four photos, most of them in color, greatly enhance the stories of places and circumstances we could not imagine.
Darmiento provides a detailed description of the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in a very isolated part of South America. I commiserated with his feelings of isolation and frustration, which were similar to my experience in Guatemala. Frank struggled to learn Spanish while many of those he was living or working with spoke different languages — in his case, Quechua or Aymara.
The book is a delight to read and flows like a diary.
Humor is used throughout the book to contrast the world view of the Volunteers with that of some of the locals on what they considered “normal.” The story about rescuing his cat, “Sancho Gato” from a latrine was a bit gross, but hilarious none the less. And how he dealt with “green meat” to avoid offending his host family while still maintaining his own physical well-being is something most PCVs have gone through at some point in their experience.
The story about how Frank and several other PVVs managed to escalate an inquiry from a local policeman after an evening of extensive drinking is especially funny. By taking the wrong tack and misstating almost everything in their interaction with the Bolivia policeman, they spent a night in jail, but it could have been worse. The author finally called the Peace Corps director at 3:00 a.m. and was told to wait until morning — and the Director abruptly hung up.
Although the author is a mechanical engineer by trade, he also has a very creative side, performs on several instruments, and is a published composer and director of his own Chamber Orchestra. This creative side undoubtedly helps him describe some of the more subtle cultural aspects of Bolivians, including several passages where he plays instruments to relax. At the end of the book he describes how the Peace Corps experience impacted his future as well as that of others in his group and he lists the career of each group member.
The author does an excellent job analyzing the many changes between the Peace Corps then and now. He tells how the U.S. was respected by so many, although many of the more leftist university students were skeptical. He also points out the incredible changes communications technology has made over the years — from waiting months for a letter back then to the almost immediate interaction and satisfaction possible through the various texting and online programs of today.
The second to last chapter “Turmoil” is my favorite, as he provides an overview of the “counter culture” and the feel for the 1960s. He sets the stage by describing the impact of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy’s death (Kennedy was especially beloved in Latin America and the author describes how many Bolivians were distraught by his tragic death) as well as the riots and violence surrounding the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He also shares several stories of his fellow PCVs who were dealing with draft issues and the ambiguous feeling many had about that undeclared war.
As a RPCV from Guatemala who has traveled through, and worked in, Bolivia many times over the years, I was able to confirm the accuracy and veracity of Frank’s story. And as a recently published author of my own memoir, which includes a chapter on my own Peace Corps experience, I found Frank’s story especially rewarding, as it brought back many fond memories as well as a new perspective into my own experience. The book will be a joy to read for both Boomers and those considering entering the Peace Corps or a career in international affairs.
Reviewer Mark D. Walker recently published his own Peace Corps memoir, the creative non-fiction Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond, which is a finalist in the category of non-fiction for the Arizona Author Association’s annual literary awards that will be announced in November.
Following his Peace Corps service he spent fifteen years helping disadvantaged people in the developing world. He managed programs in Guatemala, Colombia, and Sierra Leone with Plan International.
Walker has written and made presentations in both English and Spanish on planned giving, major gifts and global philanthropy at such events as the Hemispheric Congress for Fundraising. He serves on the International Development Committee of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) and is the Past President of the Planned Giving Roundtable of Arizona. His honors include the “Service Above Self” award from Rotary International.
Other organizations Walker worked with include Food for the Hungry, MAP International, World Neighbors, Global Brigades, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation International. Walker was CEO of Hagar USA, a Christian based organization that supports survivors of human trafficking. He founded Million Mile Walker LLC. and is the Vice-President and Senior Counsel for Carlton & Company.
His wife and three children were born in Guatemala.