I know Ron Arias (Peru 1963–64) from way back. He is the author of The Road to Tamazunchale, among other books, and was a long-time reporter for People Magazine — or as he told me once with a smile, “I cover the Third World for People!” He is a wonderful guy. I only know his brother Bob (Colombia 1965–67) via emails. Bob is a great defender of people in the agency who I don’t care for, and who I think used the Peace Corps for their own benefit, but Bob “still” likes me! Here’s a piece that sheds light on both of these good guys and great PCVs!

Bob knows peace to the core

At 73, “Peace Corps Bob” Arias Thrives and Inspires

By Ron Arias

The Arias brothers. Bob Arias, left, with brother Ron

IN 2003, MY OLDER BROTHER suffered an acute stroke while driving a car in Salem, Ore. Before blacking out, Bob Arias, then 65, braked and stopped by the side of the street. He regained consciousness days later in a hospital, partially paralyzed, and unable to walk or talk. Doctors doubted he’d live another year. He vowed to fight back, starting a journey of rehabilitation that ultimately would take him to a remote South American town on the upper Paraguay River. There, my 73-year-old brother now works for the Peace Corps as a consultant to Chamacoco Indians and others on ways to promote and profit from eco-tourism. I hadn’t seen him since his stroke, so I went to Asunción, Paraguay to see the rehab miracle for myself — and to cheer him on. We embrace and I joke that he looks shorter. “You’re shrinking,” I say. “No way,” he says, tilting his head back and puffing himself up. “But I did lose sixty pounds after the stroke.”

Thus began, over the next 10 days of my visit, a string of revelations about how he not only rehabbed his body but also resurrected an earlier version of himself, of when he, a Mexican American, first served as a Volunteer in Colombia in the mid-1960s. He’s been so successful at this that the Peace Corps even uses his image in recruiting former Volunteers — especially Hispanics  who’ve completed service and want to serve again.

“Come on,” he says after I check into my hotel, “I want you to meet a potter, see what she’s making for me.” He explains that the idea of putting one big clay pot within another and filling the space between them with wet sand comes from Nigeria. The inner pot is kept cool enough to preserve fruits and vegetables for up to 18 days. They’re called Zeer pots.

Where he works, such low-tech storage is a big deal, since most villages and towns have limited or no electricity. Bob lives in the far north corner of Paraguay near the borders with Brazil and Bolivia. It’s an area of hot, tropical wetlands called the Gran Pantanal. To reach his site, Bahia Negra, it takes him three nights and four days aboard a rustic, 80-foot, diesel-powered riverboat that hauls all kinds of cargo, from passengers to pigs. “It’s like something out of Mark Twain days on the Mississippi,” he says. “You sit on the boxes, bags and crates piled on deck with the motorbikes and livestock. The boat stops at these villages along the way. People talk, sing, sell stuff. Spectacular sunrises, all kinds of birds. I pinch myself. I can’t believe they pay me to do this.” Granted, he adds, his monthly stipend is only about $300, but fortunately he also receives Social Security and a modest pension from his years running Los Angeles County’s first affirmative action compliance office in the 1970s. “I don’t do this for money,” he says. “I do it because I can still contribute, I’m still needed.”

Divorced with a son and two grandchildren, Bob is a Peace Corps Response Volunteer; an experienced former Volunteer responding to a specific host-country request on a 6-to-12-month assignment. About 7 percent of Peace Corps Volunteers are over the age of 50. The oldest volunteer, Muriel Johnston, 86, recently returned to the U.S. after serving  as a health volunteer in Morocco. During her service, Muriel was able to Skype with her great grandchildren.

Before coming to Paraguay, Bob spent a year trouble-shooting the operations of sustainable agricultural projects in Panama. Now, he spends much of his time visiting outlying, riverbank villages, meeting with leaders and merchants, discussing things like Zeer pots, boats for birdwatchers, or raising earthworms to sell to fishermen tourists.

We arrive at the potter’s workshop and are shown the big pots destined for demonstration in the far north. Afterward, we head for a bus to visit the Peace Corps offices. Aside from a slight hitch in his stride, Bob shows no outward signs of his stroke. Eight years ago, what probably caused it was the stress he felt as a security advisor to then-Peace Corps director Gaddi Vasquez, not long after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “My blood pressure spiked,” he explains, “so I took a leave and drove back to Oregon. Two days later I blacked out behind the wheel.”

“Bob is an amazing guy,” Peace Corps/Paraguay country director Don Clark says. “He comes here at 70-plus and goes to one of the toughest, most remote sites we have — after a stroke. He’d already (been) a Peace Corps director in Argentina and Uruguay and had run training camps and language programs. For a guy who’s done as much as he’s done, he still oozes Peace Corps. That’s inspiring for all of us.”

What I don’t know at the time is that a few weeks later my brother will tell me that after his Paraguay tour he’ll probably head for another stint in Colombia. “I can’t wait,” says his email note. “It’s where I started, it’s like a second home.”