Review: Memoir of Colombia RPCV Paul Arfin

Portrait of a Peace Corps Gringo by Paul Arfin, self-published with BookSurge in August, is reviewed here by Honduras RPCV Barbara E. Joe, author of Triumph & Hope: Golden Years with the Peace Corps in Honduras, selected as Best Peace Corps Memoir of 2008 by Peace Corps Writers and Best New Non-Fiction Finalist, National Indie Excellence Awards. Barbara works as a Spanish interpreter, translator, and freelance writer in Washington, DC.

portrait-pc-gringoPortrait of a Peace Corps Gringo
by Paul Arfin (Colombia 1963–65)
August 2009
378 pages

Reviewed by Barbara Joe (Honduras 2000–03)

In Portrait of a Peace Corps Gringo by Paul Arfin, I looked forward to becoming reacquainted with Colombia, where I’d spent two teenage years.

This book, however, turned out to be more autobiography than Peace Corps memoir. Peace Corps service is often valuable in shaping young people’s future. For Arfin, this pattern held true. While the author credits his youthful service with shaping his later life and career, his time in Colombia occupies only one chapter, along with others entitled My Family and My Childhood, My Public Service Career, and My Life Today. These headings provide a foretaste of both the book’s contents and chronological, no-frills style.

Arfin grew up in New York City suburbs, survived a childhood bout with polio, was bar-mitzvahed at 13, and recounts getting his first car, first kiss, first drink. He never seemed able to please his perpetually disapproving father. In college, he frankly admits, “My study habits were poor, as were my grades,” though he did manage to get one “A”, in Spanish. After mostly playing hooky on reserve duty and becoming a “nervous wreck” over the Cuban missile crisis, he volunteered for the Peace Corps to evade active military service.

Appearing among various family photos are several of his time in Colombia, including one of his all-male group’s arrival in 1963, exiting a Pan Am plane wearing suits, ties, and business hats. His first glimpses of abject poverty moved him to tears. Rats, scorpions, and cold showers were part of his daily routine.  He and his associates had no luck courting local women or female Volunteers, so they frequented “whore houses . . . where we would drink a lot, dance, and have sex.” Volunteers were permitted to drive jeeps, which led to the tragic death of a fellow Volunteer. Given a vacation allowance for travel to neighboring countries, he and his fellows ended up in Venezuela where a vehicle breakdown obliged them to wire Peace Corps for more money. While waiting for repairs, Arfin admits they lived “high on the hog.” Back in Colombia again, after a night of heavy drinking, the author drove his jeep into another car, injuring a woman passenger (no wonder most Volunteers are now forbidden to drive). He was then put into “house detention” in Bogotá and given what he calls “a dishonorable discharge.” Applying for work for at Peace Corps headquarters back in Washington, he learned that “I had been black-balled as a ‘trouble-maker.'” So, he took a job with Arvis car rental. After losing that job and experiencing unemployment, he started working with disadvantaged youth. Following another bout of unemployment, he earned an MSW, worked for the YMCA, then directed a child care organization that eventually branched out into elder care.

Arfin’s parents had been relieved when he’d returned from Colombia without a “native” bride. He proposed to his “secular” Jewish wife just two weeks after meeting her. Their two daughters’ births were duly filmed by the proud father to show as slide shows to friends and relatives. He and his family made two nostalgic trips back to Colombia. After a 2004 heart attack and emergency treatment, he changed his diet and began traveling with his wife and spending more time with his adored grandchildren.

This is a solid, honest portrait of a slice of recent history, written in an ingenuous, fresh style, with scant dialogue and no literary pretensions. The large-sized type is somewhat distracting, making the book seem longer than it really is and highlighting typos, such as Cuzco and Cusco (referring to a Peace Corps side trip) appearing on the same page.

Arfin says that now, at age 69, he is sustained by “many sweet memories of my life in Colombia.” This is a personal story of a largely conventional life, whose highlight was Peace Corps service, written more for family and friends than for the reading public. It includes 15 testimonials from Peace Corps associates and others, including one from “Paul’s Lifelong Friend and Tennis Partner.” Most of all, Arfin seems to be telling his now-deceased father, “See, Dad, I made good after all.”

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