Talking with Mark Walker (Guatemala)

 

Mark Walker recently published Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond with Peace Corps Writers. Read more about Mark,  his writing and his book.

Mark, where and when did you serve in the Peace Corps?

I served in Guatemala from 1971 to 1973.

What was your Peace Corps project assignment?

My Peace Corps program was a soil fertilization project that operated under the auspices of the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture in cooperation with the University of North Carolina through a contract with USAID. We inventoried soil productivity in our site by taking soil samples and sending them to UNC for analysis. We also tested the productivity of new seed varieties (corn, wheat, beans and potatoes) which were treated with different types of fertilizers.

Tell us about where you lived and worked in-country.

Initially, I was sent to one of the highest points in Central America, Ixchiguan, in the highlands of Guatemala, but soon identified a more livable site at a nearby village called Calapte. I lived in a room connected to the schoolhouse and hiked down into the valley below to implement my fertilizer experiments. Half way through my experience, I fell very ill so the Peace Corps staff sent me to San Jeronimo in Baja Verapaz, which was flatter and less inclement, to implement the experiments.

Initially I’d set up experiments with several varieties of plants, starting with potatoes and wheat, then harvest them afterwards and measure the production level to determine the impact of the new crop varieties with the fertilizers we applied. But during the latter part of my term I joined the Guatemalan government’s rural development team to promote an integrated program of increased agricultural production, agroforestry, animal husbandry, cooperative organization and small business development.

What is your educational background?

I have a BA from Western State University in Gunnison, Colorado, and a Masters from the Institute of Latin American Studies, as well as extensive training in fundraising, which led to being certified (CFRE) some 25 years ago.

Did your college education help you as a PCV?

The first chapter of my book describes how several professors influenced my desire to learn as well as to eventually join the Peace Corps. During my initial college year I also became the coordinator for youth programs and property manager for houses owned by the founder of the Law-Science Academy, which added a new perspective and confidence to what I might accomplish in life.

What have you done since the Peace Corps?

Of course this is the subject of my book, but after 40 plus years managing and promoting the work of a variety of international NGO’s I’m now an author and plan to use the skills and worldview acquired to promote the values true to many RPCV’s — peace, cross cultural sensitivity and respect.

How would you describe Different Latitudes in one sentence?

It is an uplifting insider’s guide to international development, philanthropy and travel that will resonate with idealists and professionals in the development field as well as armchair travelers of all ages.

What prompted you to write your book?

I decided to write about my story to help other RPCVs appreciate the impact of their own experiences and consider sharing them with others. I also wanted to inspire students and young professionals considering a career in international development.

How long did it take for you to write Different Latitudes?

Over a year — that includes eight intense months of writing and learning how to write along the way.

Tell us about your writing process.

As a fundraising consultant working out of my home, I had a fairly flexible writing schedule. Initially I spent a lot of time reviewing various journals, professional reports, photo albums and studies done in the countries where I had worked.

I began taking online classes, which included John Coyne’s book, How to Write A Novel In 100 Days.” John also did an initial very direct and blistering critique of my writing technique.

I reconnected with several members of my Peace Corps/Guatemala team to remind me of details of our initial training and to check my descriptions of the field work. I also connected with several successful RPCV authors, including a fellow RPCV from Guatemala, Ellen Urbani Hiltebrand, who also wrote a Peace Corps memoir, When I was Elena, which was very helpful. Finally a high school buddy who failed at all English related classes he ever attended inspired me when, after a successful career in real estate, he wrote five books of his own, including a series of detective stories.

I interviewed my wife and children in order to remember certain details of our lives together, some of which were difficult to deal with, and my wife, Ligia, who was my editor-in-chief. I tried to do my serious writing in the morning to start the day and since I live in Arizona, often walked around in cut-offs and flip flops.

During the process did you belong to a writer group and share reading and critiquing?

Initially, I shared my manuscript with a number of Peace Corps and professional friends with whom I had worked or who had special expertise in the issue or part of the world I was writing about. I often had breakfast with another RPCV author who served earlier than I did in India. I hired two editors from First Person Editing Service to help restructure and help me properly write my story. Later on through the process I joined a number of professional writing groups like the Arizona Authors Association and Phoenix Writers Club whose members helped review and promote my new book.

What other things are  you doing to promote your book?

Initially I’m focusing on working on the Presentation and Author’s page in Amazon as well as providing all the materials that the Peace Corps Writers imprint needs to promote my book. I also designed a new author’s platform website  at MillionMileWalker.com. I’ve expanded my Facebook page, developed a blog and twitter (although I’m still unsure how to properly tweet). I’ve identified and engaged a dozen “key decision makers and advocates” to promote my book and to share social media materials with. I’ve written a number of articles about the book that will be published in “Advancing Philanthropy”, the “Rotarian” blog and, hopefully, “Worldview” and the alumni magazines of Western State University and the University of Texas in Austin. I’ve also established an agreement to gift a percentage of the royalties of my book purchased by members of several of the charitable groups I’m involved with, including NPCA. I’m organizing a number of “book launching” activities including a book review and signing event with the Phoenix RPCV Book Club. I’ll also begin segmenting my contact list into different interest groups and send out E-Blasts about the availability of the book and why they’ll want to read it.

You use memoir and spirituality to describe your book — what was the spirituality part?

The book starts with a church youth group’s field trip to the poor, rural community of Ignacio, Colorado, which provided some of the values and motivation to make a difference in the lives of those who have been ignored or have been left behind economically. Also, one of my professors at Western State University recommended I read Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain about the journey moving to a more contemplative life. Over the years I worked with Evangelical and Catholic groups who embraced, as well as rejected, my work at times, but I was always able to gain entrance into the halls of many churches to convince them to be part of the programs I was promoting to help those in need. Throughout this process I began to solidify my own beliefs and develop a more proactive approach to applying my Christian values.

How are cross-cultural issues and challenges presented in your book?

From the very beginning of my book I describe how I struggled adapting to many of the cultural norms and beliefs I encountered in the three countries where I lived and worked in during my Peace Corps years — Guatemala (of course), Costa Rica where my group training was held, and Honduras to introduce our experiments with the Ministry of Agriculture.

When I courted, and eventually married, a Guatemalan girl, I was introduced to an entirely new set of norms regarding courting, marriage, family and religion, all of which I had to navigate as I nurtured my own family of three children. Over the years I’d work with international NGOs with activities all over the world, which forced me to continue to learn how different belief systems and worldviews would play out and impact what I was trying to accomplish at the time. With a Latin American wife and many friends and family from around the world, this cross-cultural learning process never ends.

The book scans the globe — what graphics did you use to help the reader follow you through all these places?

The book includes 24 black/white photos taken over forty plus years, two maps — one of Guatemala which is the site of my Peace Corps and early professional career, as well as a “Travel Map” which includes all the places I lived abroad and many of the places I visited or worked in. A Google Inter Active version of this map is also available on my website MillionMileWalker.com. Finally I have a timeline to help the reader establish when something is happening, and a more sophisticated version of this timeline and color versions of the 24 photos are available on my website as well.

Why is your book timely given the attitudes about the Peace Corps and international relations at this time?

Much of what I describe in my book goes contrary to much of the misinformation, mistrust and hatred expressed towards other countries and other cultures. It reflects how long and arduous the process of cross-cultural understanding and reconciliation takes, but how effective and impactful it can be.

What will the reader get from your book?

Knowledge and appreciation of many countries and cultures around the world — the book is a virtual travelogue of how people live, what they believe and what they eat. Many of the “lessons-learned” will be a revelation to students who want to enter the field of international development as well as people interested in foreign relations. Those who have suffered the frustrations and the elation of working abroad will remember their own experiences and want to share their stories with others, and finally, the stories about “Extreme Do-Gooders” and the impact of exceptional organizations will inspire those who want to work for, and become part of, the world community.

Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond
by Mark D. Walker (Guatemala 1971–73)
Peace Corps Writers
April 2017
332 pages
$18.00 (paperback), $5.00 (Kindle)

 

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