The Quiet Rebel: A Memoir of My Peace Corps Adventures in Bolivia
by Peggy Dickenson (Bolivia 1965-67)
Reviewed by Barbara E. Joe (Honduras, 2000-03)
The Quiet Rebel is a slender book, 30 short chapters, 150 pages in large type with extra space between each paragraph, and lots of photos interspersed, many showing author Peggy Dickenson in various places and situations during her service. Its title derives from her mother’s description of young Peggy’s decision to join the Peace Corps. The book, appearing now almost 50 years after her service and reportedly requiring five years to write, expresses gratitude for the assistance provided by former fellow volunteers, friends, and family in recalling events, and in editing and publishing the book.
The result is a fast-moving narrative still retaining the wide-eyed freshness and immediacy experienced by an innocent abroad, written in a simple, perky style, as if the youthful volunteer of yesteryear were still addressing her contemporaries of that time. The author, who had never traveled before, was eager for adventure and anxious to explore the outside world after working for three years as a secretary at Columbia University.
The book also provides an intimate glimpse into Peace Corps history. Dickenson was among 27 women volunteering to serve as secretaries for Peace Corps posts in Latin America after first undergoing two months of training in Arizona, where the most fluent Spanish speakers, inexplicably, were required to learn Portuguese for assignments in Brazil, while the rest were taught Spanish. Trainees were subjected to a series of deliberate mental and physical stressors to test their endurance. Three recruits mysteriously disappeared at the end of training, apparently mustered out, and four others left before being sent overseas. The author was one of the remaining 20, all dispatched to different Latin American countries, their actual destinations kept secret until departure. Dickenson and another young woman were sent to Bolivia.
One gets the feeling that in the early years, Peace Corps was trying out different models of service. Certainly the corps has undergone considerable evolution over the last half century, such as once allowing volunteers to drive official vehicles, ride motorcycles, and take young children with them overseas. The Peace Corps secretarial service was among those now discarded experiments. Today, in light of experience, Peace Corps provides only in-country training, prohibits driving except for extending volunteers, and allows no more motorcycles and no more children. But innovations have also occurred, such as offering short-term stints in Peace Corps Response even to those without prior service, communicating regularly with volunteers’ through cell phones and the internet, and, at least in theory, permitting gay married couples to serve in selected posts. Blind, deaf, and octogenarian volunteers, not seen in the first few years, have since served with distinction.
Dickenson was initially inspired by the words of recently martyred President John F. Kennedy, who had warned future volunteers: “Life in the Peace Corps will not be easy. There will be no salary, and allowances will be at a level sufficient only to maintain health and meet basic needs. Men and women will be expected to work and live alongside the nationals of the country in which they are stationed-doing the same work, eating the same food, talking the same language.”
But when Dickenson arrived in Bolivia, although her $100 monthly allowance required her to live alongside country nationals, she and other secretarial volunteers were assigned to work alongside “well-paid, U.S. State Department employees [who] enjoyed an overseas hardship bonus, housing benefits, and live-in domestic help.” As a secretary, first in the Peace Corps office in La Paz (at 12,000 ft., the world’s highest capital city), then in the lowlands of semi-tropical Santa Cruz, Dickenson spent most of her time typing up reports and correspondence and serving as a chaperone when a male doctor examined female volunteers. She also conducted short-wave radio communications between offices since phone connections were unreliable. Dickenson was able to have direct contact with Bolivians only when teaching night classes in shorthand and English.
Outside the office, the author found everything in Bolivia new and surprising: the black market, bull fighting, cold showers, and “Bolivian time,” first encountered when she arrived at the appointed hour only to be greeted by an annoyed hostess still in robe and curlers. She watched in astonishment as a man prepared a beverage sold at the market by stomping on fruit with his bare foot. Although drinking water had to be boiled, it took forever at La Paz’s high altitude. Dickenson experienced an attempted theft aboard a bus and was often sexually harassed. Female volunteers were required to wear skirts rather than the slacks that would have afforded more protection against prying eyes and wayward hands. As a blue-eyed blonde, and from her photos, a very attractive young woman, the author must have created quite a sensation, standing out among dark-haired Bolivians. Even I, as a PCV in Honduras in my sixties with brownish hair, found myself being routinely described as blond and still receiving my fair share of propositions and marriage proposals. I can well imagine the attention that Dickenson must have attracted.
Almost every day provided her with novel and memorable experiences. Among the luminaries she met in Bolivia were Chief Justice Earl Warren making a South American tour and Bolivian President Alfredo Ovando, who visited one of her evening English classes. Her father also stopped by after a trip to neighboring Chile for a piece he was writing for The Reader’s Digest. A photo of her with her father appeared on a La Paz newspaper’s front page. Her mother also visited on a separate occasion. Dickenson reported carrying on a lively conversation, in broken Spanish on both sides, with a good-looking blond young man, a member of a German Peace Corps. The elusive revolutionary Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia while she was there.
The author also led an active social life, falling in love first with fellow volunteer Doug, whom she was able to accompany on a five-day official road trip to the altiplano, high plain-even higher than La Paz- along with several others. Then came Kevin, also a volunteer, and, finally, Lucho, a handsome English-speaking Bolivian from a well-to-do family.
There were frequent side trips to neighboring countries, including to the lost Inca City of Machu Picchu in Peru, as well as to Montevideo, Uruguay, and to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Dickenson and a companion dated a pair of American marines. She also visited several Brazilian cities, including Sao Paulo and Rio. So her Peace Corps life extended well beyond mere typing and shorthand and she was apparently able to stretch her modest living allowance to cover her travel expenses.
All these events move the story right along through two years of wondrous discoveries, with helpful maps provided along the way, and without the obvious typos found in some self-published Peace Corps memoirs. After her Peace Corps service, with her wanderlust thus awakened, the author spent a year in Japan and another in Spain, but describes her time in Bolivia “as the most challenging and exciting of my life.”
Barbara E. Joe (last name courtesy of a Korean father-in-law), a native of Boston and an alumna of the University of California, Berkeley, is a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. From her century-old house on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, she works as a freelance writer, Spanish interpreter, and translator. After joining the Peace Corps at age 62, she served as a health volunteer in Honduras from 2000 to 2003 and wrote Triumph & Hope: Golden Years in the Peace Corps in Honduras (Amozon.com, Kindle & Nook), declared “Best Peace Corps Memoir of 2009” by Peace Corps Writers and winner of other awards. She is now finishing a memoir of her Cuba and other Latin America experiences. In April 2011 she was featured in Woman’s Day and in August 2011 and April 2013 appeared in videos distributed worldwide on Voice of America News. On her blog, http://honduraspeacecorps.blogspot.com, she reports on her humanitarian return trips to Honduras (nine so far) and other topics.