Review of Taylor Dibbert's Fiesta of Sunset

fiesta-sunset-140Fiesta of Sunset: The Peace Corps, Guatemala, and a Search for Truth
By Taylor Dibbert (Guatemala 2006–08)
192 Pages
July 2011

Reviewed by P. David Searles (CD Philippines 1971-74 & Regional Director NANEAP 1974–76)

TAYLOR HAS DONE A GREAT FAVOR for people like me whose real knowledge of the lives Peace Corps Volunteers lead is based on what took place decades ago, and for those considering Peace Corps service as the next step in their lives.

Dibbert served in Guatemala from 2006 to 2008 as a member of an Appropriate Technology group concentrating on bringing potable water to the poorest of the poor in rural Guatemala. Fortunately for us, he faithfully kept a journal of his time in-country and has now published a judiciously edited version of it in his book, Fiesta of Sunset. Dibbert tells his story with honesty, clarity, some humor, and always with a deeply felt concern for the people to whom he devoted 27 months of his young life.  The powers that be in Washington may wish that some of his tales had stayed safely tucked away in his journal, but for those of us who want to know what it is really like in the field these days, this is the book for us.

Many of the events Dibbert writes about — the administrative nightmare of the application process; the boredom of training; the seemingly arbitrary rules and regulations; the highs, the lows and the in-betweens of Peace Corps service; the challenge of cultural differences; and the myriad of obstacles that make daily life a continuing struggle — will be familiar to those who have lived the PCV life.  What makes the book of such interest to us old hands are the parts of 21st Century Volunteer life that are different. Let’s start with a simple but eye-opening description of his group’s swearing-in ceremony.  “All the guys wore ties and the women wore pretty dresses.” I doubt if either piece of apparel could be found anywhere in the Peace Corps world in the 1970s!

Like many other present-day Volunteers, Dibbert was already a world traveler when he joined the Peace Corps.  He spoke Spanish, had made friends from other cultures, and was well-versed in international affairs. All of this is a far cry from the early days when most had never even been on an airplane, let alone traveled abroad or known something about the Third World and other cultures.

Even Dibbert’s program — Appropriate Technology — is based on a theory that was just in its infancy in the early 1970s. A small group of development theorists had begun to cast doubt on the efficacy of building zillion-megawatt dams as the road to successful economic development. Instead, they proposed an approach that directly and intimately addresses the lives of the poor. Far better, they said, to bring easily duplicated methods, or “appropriate technology,” to remote areas — methods for dealing with the lack of potable water, human and animal waste disposal, poor nutrition and health practices, shortcomings in small business development, and the other deficiencies that doom most of the people in the Third World to lives that are unnecessarily hard and short. Dibbert’s program concentrated on the potable water portion of appropriate technology. Through the training program (even though he does complain about it) this erstwhile AB Generalist became a qualified water engineer and, working closely with local Guatemalans and others from Guatemalan-based NGOs, helped in the planning and construction of a significant number of rural water systems.

Given my own belief that the nature of the job is a major determinate of Volunteer satisfaction, I was pleased to read that Dibbert’s group had a very low early termination rate, and in fact the Volunteer extensions outnumbered the ET rate by a wide margin.  Doing meaningful work has the potential to overcome all sorts of physical and mental challenges.

Dibbert is a bit too modest in laying claim to his accomplishments (as most Volunteers are) but the fact that he was singled out for positions of responsibility by both fellow Volunteers and staff alike suggests that he was a good one.

The author also notes the new emphasis on Volunteer safety and security dictated by Peace Corps/Washington.  Given the recent spate of news concerning the possible lack of sufficient seriousness on the part of Peace Corps toward Volunteer safety and security, it is interesting to read that Dibbert found the new procedures burdensome, and just possibly unnecessary.

Dibbert’s journal entries often include off-hand mentions of cell phone calls, trips to the internet café, watching CNN on TV, and calling home on a regular basis. It never seems to enter his mind that these modern communications devices have dramatically altered the Peace Corps life in the field. For those who remember the often month-long delay between sending a letter and getting a reply, this is an astonishing improvement. Still, as Dibbert records, loneliness and the absence of dear friends are continuing problems for him, and he never does find the soul mate he so eagerly seeks.  Add to this his complaint that he didn’t have a normal bowel movement in 27 months, and his standing as a bona-fide Peace Corps Volunteer is assured.

There are a couple of discordant notes in the book, at least to this reader. I was a bit upset by the very frequent mention of drinking until the wee hours, the awful hangovers, and the fear of having to listen to staff sermons on the dangers of strong drink. Surely Volunteers have used alcohol over the years to ease the rough road ahead (or behind), but this seems excessive. (Just between Taylor Dibbert and me, to the proposition he poses just before “The End,” my response is “No, you shouldn’t.”)  He also suggests that marijuana is used by 90% of serving Volunteers and cites the places in Guatemala where buying it is easily done. I am not really a prude, but maybe this is also excessive.

I think that the book could have used some photos to illustrate the text. It also would have helped if the introduction had included a more detailed description about the make-up of Guatemalan society.  Just who are the “indigenous” people he is serving? and who else makes up the country’s populace?

Perhaps the best way to describe my pleasure in reading the book is that I lament the fact that Dibbert turned down a staff request that he extend for another year. If he had, I would have had another 100 pages or so to read and enjoy. I also confess that I don’t understand the title, Fiesta of Sunset. Dibbert has included quotations from various authors throughout the book, usually with good effect. But, Neruda, the source of the title, I don’t get.

P. David Searles served three years as the Country Director for the Peace Corps in the Philippines from 1971 to 1974, and then spent two years at Peace Corps headquarters as Regional Director for NANEAP and as Deputy Director of the agency under John Dellenback (1974-76).  His career has included work in international business, government service and education.  In 1993 David earned a Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky and published two books: A College for Appalachia (1995) and The Peace Corps Experience (1997) both published by The University Press of Kentucky.

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