Dana was one of the first RPCVs to donate her Peace Corps papers to the Friends of Colombia Peace Corps Archive at American University. When she returned to Piojo in 2008, she wrote the following essay about her experience. It, too was donated to FOC Archives at AU. We print it here through the courtesy of American University. Dana sadly lost her courageous battle with cancer last week.
Return to Piojo
by Dana Dahl Seton (Colombia 1963–65)
Two events in 2007 conspired to help me realize a 43-year old dream of returning to my beloved Peace Corps site of Piojo, Colombia, in the department of Atlantico on the northwest coast. The first was finding an envelope on my hallway floor postmarked 1973 and bearing the return address of a Colombian family with whom I had lost contact later in the decade. The second was receiving news from the organization Friends of Colombia that an RPCV conference would be held in February 2008 in the beautiful resort city of Cartagena on Colombia’s northwest coast.
The envelope showed up one day as I went about my normal household activities. It lay face down, so when I bent to pick it up I assumed it had fallen from the waste basket I had emptied and carried out a few hours earlier. When I turned it over and saw the return address and the postmark, I was stunned. Since my Peace Corps memorabilia was stored elsewhere in the house and was untouched in recent years, and because I had not corresponded with the Lazaro family in more than thirty-five years, how had the envelope landed in my hallway?
Mystified, I decided to consider the envelope’s appearance an omen and to try sending a letter to the return address in hopes of a response from the Lazaros. My hopes were high, but the odds of making contact seemed small. Marta and Enrique Lazaro would now be in at least their late seventies or eighties. Would they still be alive? If so, would they still be living at the address on the envelope?
About a month later, I received a letter from the Lazaros. Both were alive and were still living in the same home. About a year after I returned to the U. S., they had written me about their move to the city of Barranquilla about 35 miles from Piojo. Like me, they hoped we would one day see each other again. Now at last their dreams and mine would come true. I was announcing a trip to Colombia and my desire to visit them.
I had always wanted to return to Colombia. At first, family obligations, and later Colombia’s social and political problems, had prevented me from doing so. I looked forward to the Friends of Colombia conference with great anticipation, thrilled at the thought of renewing acquaintances with some of my fellow returned Peace Corps volunteers. Uppermost in my mind, however, was seeing Piojo. I only hoped whatever change had occurred there would not spoil my memories of a simpler time and place.
The conference reunited many Volunteers who had not been together since their Peace Corps days. Three members of my group, Colombia XI — were able to be there. Glimpses of present-day Colombia combined with nostalgia for those early years provided everyone with a new shared experience and a deeper appreciation of the original. Walking the narrow streets of Cartagena to gaze again at its beautiful colonial architecture and to feel the warm breeze bearing the smells of the Caribbean and of coastal Colombian life, I was transported back to those heady days of my youth.
Conference keynote speaker Carlos Uribe, Colombia’s president, described the country’s current challenges and successes in efforts to improve education, health, and Colombian life in general. We had the opportunity to visit some of the sites in the Cartagena region where Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) and other groups continue the kinds of projects that Peace Corps Volunteers engaged in during their stay. Peace Corps volunteers first served in Colombia in 1961, and were withdrawn in 1981 due to increasing violence associated with the drug cartels.
The day after the conference, I caught a van from the hotel to Barranquilla for my reunion with my friends, the Lazaros. My eyes were glued to the passing coastal scenery. Electric power lines and telephone poles dotted the rural landscape, as did billboards advertising nearby resort areas and homes. Metal signs pointed the way to area towns. The main highway was paved now, as were the secondary roads that branched out from it. An urban feel permeated the countryside.
Once the van reached the outskirts of Barranquilla, the scenery turned more to what I recalled of the city from the mid-60s. I saw the same hustle and bustle, the same throngs of pedestrians, even the same crazy bus traffic, except now the buses were newer and less colorful. In spite of being later models, the buses still coughed diesel fumes into the air.
The van sped through one barrio after another. Lively coastal music and the smell of coastal food wafted out into the afternoon from small stores and restaurants. It seemed hard to believe the van driver could possibly know where he was going through the maze of streets.
Finally we rounded one last corner, and the driver pulled to a stop in front of a blue coastal-style home with louvered glass shutters and wide terrazzo porch with several rocking chairs. At once the front door opened, and out came the Lazaros, Marta and Enrique, to embrace me and hustle my luggage inside.
The years melted away and I was back in familiar surroundings, among familiar faces, now with a few more lines filling them, but with smiles as dazzling as ever. They showed me around the house which their sons, Ruben and Alejandro, had built for them. Their six children had all grown up to be successful professionals. Two lived in Bogota, one in another coastal city, and the other three lived in Barranquilla, not far from Marta and Enrique. They now had 22 grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
I was excited at the prospect of our excursion to Piojo, wondering who would still be there to see “la gringa” return after so many years. A friend of the family drove us in his van. The rest of the entourage consisted of Enrique, Marta, their son Alejandro, son Ruben’s wife, Miriam, and Alejandro’s wife, Telma, along with Ruben’s and Miriam’s two young daughters and Marta’s sister. The distance of 67 kilometers was easily covered in a fraction of the time the bus took in 1963.
We stopped first at the home of another of Marta’s sisters who lived on the outskirts of Piojo. The day was hot, but as we sat in the shade of an, open-sided, thatched-roof kiosk, the breeze was refreshingly cool. In the space of two hours, six buses came and went on the highway to and from town, and electric power lines and poles and several billboards were visible on a nearby embankment. Lunch was a typical meal of chicken soup, with fried plantains and boiled yucca on the side, accompanied by cold beer. As I ate, I listened to the conversation all around me and realized once again that I couldn’t understand most of the words, just as when I’d first arrived here after college! Costeno Spanish takes some getting used to.
After lunch we continued on into Piojo. Each twist and turn of the road permitted a slightly different perspective of what once had been an isolated, sleepy village. Now newer, larger houses, many two-storied with balconies, were evident everywhere, and additional streets branched off the main artery. We drove as high as the main road went, then parked the van and got out. Curious eyes watched us, not unlike in earlier years, to see who we were and where we were headed.
Our first stop in town was at the local library, which once had been part of the municipal complex and the boys’ school. As I peered through the window, I could see several computers, along with videos and books on shelves. Though the electronic age is routine in the States, here I felt a sense of the surreal as my mind flashed back forty years.
Next we set off for the home of Rosa Villanueva, now 97 and totally blind. She and her older sister, Pastora, had owned the small store where I first learned of the death of President Kennedy in November 1963. Rosa’s mind was still sharp as she welcomed me. Her caregivers, two great nieces whom I remembered as youngsters but who were now professors in Barranquilla, were full of questions about my family. Suddenly someone handed me a Christmas photo of me, my husband and two children that I had sent the sisters in 1974. It had been safeguarded all these years.
Next door to Rosa lived Belen Imitola, Rosa’s niece. Still single and on this day sporting a head full of pink hair rollers, Belen seemed not to have aged at all. In 1963, the country girls typically strolled around town on Saturdays with rollers in their hair, a fashion statement that signaled their interest in the young men who congregated in the cantina on Saturday nights. When Belen saw me, she squealed and threw her arms around me, hardly believing her eyes.
Then it was on to Ana and Arturo Imitola’s home. The two were now retired teachers whose wedding I had attended in 1964. Graying and somewhat heavier than in their youth, they were shocked and delighted to see me, embracing me and asking many questions about my life. Ana, too, brought out my Christmas photo from 1974. They took us on a tour of their house, proudly pointing out that each house in town now had address numerals.
As we made our way up the steep and rocky terrain of the town, we were joined by other people who remembered me, and they followed us on the ascent. Our final destination was the public health clinic, my first home in Piojo, now named for a woman who had been the town’s midwife for many years, Judith Ferrer. Once a four-room cinderblock structure with a single waiting room bench and served by an itinerant doctor once a week, the center now sported three wings and was staffed by a full-time doctor and several nurses.
Once again headed downhill, we stopped in at the home of my former neighbor, Nery Villanueva. Nery, and her house, looked almost exactly the same as they had in the sixties. She rushed about with the same pep as before, offering tinto, the sweet, thick, black coffee that is a staple of coastal hospitality, and asking me questions about my family. She showed me the 1974 photo of me and my family that she had so carefully saved in hopes of my return.
After Nery’s, we continued on to the Casa Cural, home to the town’s Catholic priest. Looking at its now faded and peeling paint, I was reminded of the time in 1964 when Padre Robles asked the Bishop to allow Peace Corps to stay in the newly built house. The padre had believed in the Peace Corps mission, and since he only came to town every three weeks or so, he would stay overnight with one of the town families. The current priest was off saying a funeral mass in another town the day of this visit, but his secretary showed us around the inside.
In front of the Casa Cural stood the church, appearing much the same as it had forty plus years earlier. Now, however, it was not the only church in town. During our walk, I had noticed a Pentecostal church on another street, a sure sign of social change in a traditionally Catholic society.
Finally, we said our goodbyes and headed back to Barranquilla. It had been an emotional day for me. What could have been a disappointing attempt to revisit the past had turned out to be a hopeful glimpse into the future. Piojo had not lost its charm. Many people I had known in 1963 and who were still alive seemed content to spend their years in this peaceful place, and newcomers now called it home, too. Electricity, added in the 1980s, was now a dependable fact of life. A clean water delivery system, while not yet perfected, soon would be a reality as well.
Two days before I was to leave for home, I found myself at the center of a birthday celebration I had not expected. At three o’clock in the afternoon, people began arriving at the Lazaro home. A large cake, flowers, cards and gifts were placed on a table in the dining room. A bus arrived with passengers from Piojo. Chairs were borrowed from neighbors on the Lazaros’ street, and drinks of pop, beer and the coastal favorite, white rum, appeared. Suddenly a large tour bus drew to the curb, and out stepped an entire mariachi band to sing and play for what turned out to be a huge crowd.
To say I was surprised and touched by such extravagant entertainment and tribute would be an understatement. The party continued until close to midnight, and at the end tears were shed in memory of the first time two young American women came to stay in an obscure village called Piojo. It had been a wonderful trip to Colombia the second time around, and I was thankful to have been reunited with people who had made such a difference in my life.
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