Ripples in the Pond: Reflections of a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from India
by Michael Stake (India 1966–68)
$17.00 (paperback), $8.00 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Barbara E. Joe (Honduras 2000–03)
ALL PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEERS HAVE a story to tell — a highly personal series of adventures to share. Thankfully, many are contributing to an archive about this unique historical experiment, with which fellow Volunteers can compare and contrast with their own experiences. Michael Stake has added his memoir, dating back to Peace Corps’ earliest days, a very readable book about that heady time when the agency was still feeling its way. Much has changed since, including less-ready acceptance of non-college graduates and no more assignments in India, where Stake was sent as a neophyte Agriculture Volunteer and where President Carter’s mother Lillian also served.
Stake interrupts his college career to join because of uncertainty about its direction, also to avoid the Vietnam draft. (He later earned a doctorate.) He then survives the mysterious and dreaded “deselection process” whereby being one of only 40 of his original 84 fellow Trainees to survive. His first in-country roommate deselects himself almost immediately.
In India –
- Stake soon learns to look out for marauding monkeys after one snatches his box of cookies.
- He is sometimes mocked as a “white monkey.”
- After carrying a sick child to the hospital, in deference to white privilege, he is beckoned to the front of the line of waiting patients.
- Untouchables, he learns, actually shrink from touch, requiring him to lay down money for an egg purchase while his eggs are placed within reach.
- He and his Peace Corps roommate are able to hire a male servant to cook and do chores.
- He soon masters passable Hindi, only one of many Indian languages, though is nonplused when a postal clerk replies to his request made in Hindi: “I speak no English.”
- Despite scant agricultural knowledge, he proves to be a quick on-the-job study whose efforts show tangible success.
- I identified with Stake having had his tonsils removed in India, since, as a teenager, I had my own removed in Colombia.
Stake is a fluid writer, who either kept excellent notes or has a photographic memory, as he convincingly reconstructs local conversations. His story is engaging, moving right along to the inevitable bittersweet departure.
EIGHTEEN YEARS LATER, Stake returns to his original village with his wife and two daughters whom were adopted from Mother Teresa’s orphanages. His wife is astonished when a father of four daughters places the youngest in her arms, asking her to be adopted too. The book’s title is a tribute to Mother Teresa, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone to create many ripples.”
TO ROUND THINGS OUT, it would be great to see more narratives about recent Peace Corps experiences and from older Volunteers, also to see more older, seasoned folks actually joining the Peace Corps, as they have as much to give and receive as younger ones. When I talk to mixed age groups, those over 40 often lament that Peace Corps service has passed them by: “Yes, I thought about joining when I finished college, but now it’s too late.” No, it’s not too late. And those who have already served in their youth can have a new and different experience now. That’s my soap-box declaration as someone who’s actually walked the walk. I not only joined at age 62, but extended my term, and have returned to my Peace Corps country, Honduras, 11 times for humanitarian projects in the 11 years since my service. I also started a new part-time career as a Spanish interpreter in local hospitals. So might author Michael Stake, accompanied this time by his wife, consider a second stint as a PC Response Volunteer? He sounds like someone with a lot to offer.
Barbara E. Joe, MA, a Boston native and an alumna of the University of California, Berkeley, is a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, now working as a freelance writer, Spanish interpreter, and translator in Washington, D.C. She served as a Peace Corps Health Volunteer in Honduras, and wrote an award-winning memoir, Triumph & Hope: Golden Years with the Peace Corps in Honduras. She has returned to Honduras annually to volunteer with medical brigades and other humanitarian projects. In June, she was invited to give a bilingual talk at a public library in Queens, NY, about her most recent book, Confessions of a Secret Latina: How I Fell Out of Love with Castro & In Love with the Cuban People.