Reviewed by Barbara E. Joe (Honduras 2000-03)
The cover of this book stands out because of a lovely color photo of a smiling blond woman, her pale arms outstretched over a group of bare-chested dark-skinned children gathered under a giant baobab tree. It graphically represents both a contrast and conversion of cultures.
Like me, author Diane Gallagher was inspired by President Kennedy’s Peace Corps’ message in 1961, but wasn’t able to go just then. In 1990, four children and a divorce later, she finally took a leap of faith, joining the Peace Corps at age 53 and enduring the skepticism of family and friends who suggested that a weekend in Vermont might do as well. She was sent to Cape Verde, a small Portuguese and Creole-speaking island nation whose inhabitants are an attractive mixture of Portuguese and African ancestry. Carpe diem, seize the day, was her motto. She soon fell for a local man, Vitorino, with whom she exchanged smoking pipes and frankly shared a bed. AIDS education was one of her duties and since this was before the advent of anti-retrovirals, one only hopes that she practiced, as well as preached, safe sex. Apparently, their relationship was accepted by local people.
“Anyone,” Gallagher ruefully observes, “who thinks being in the Peace Corps is a slice of Club Med with a little action among the locals can guess again.” There were plenty of rough as well as sweet moments. Inevitably, some volunteers left early, but Gallagher persevered. Her motto both when teaching English and learning Portuguese was “when you learn another language, you gain another soul.”
“I never thought I would make it to the end of the journey, but I did,” she confesses proudly. Her return to the States reunited her with her beloved children, but, predictably, the transition was hard. “When I came back to the U.S. [at] the end of December, 1992, culture shock, re-entry-the full catastrophe, as Zorba the Greek would say, pummeled me.”
Both international adoption and immigration requirements were less rigorous at the time, allowing her to go back to Cape Verde to return with Paulino, the malnourished 4-year-old son of a poor, frail mother unable to properly care for him. But her lover stayed behind. She found an adoptive family for Paulino and watched him grow into manhood, graduating from high school in 2003 and getting married in 2011.
The author is a skillful wordsmith who must have kept a journal of happenings occurring more than 20 years ago, as she includes a rich wealth of detail, which occasionally can be a bit overwhelming. I could have done without the miniscule play-by-play of her visits to other countries on her long journey home, seeming almost anti-climactic and a distraction from the main story. The book has numerous color photos interspersed throughout, a rarity in any book, adding a welcome touch.
At the outset, a map of Cape Verde would have helped orient readers unfamiliar with this group of tiny islands off the west coast of Africa, home to only 500,000 people.
In 2011, the author received the Lillian Carter Award recognizing outstanding volunteers who joined after age 50. After her service, she worked for five years as a recruiter in the Boston Peace Corps office.
Barbara Joe, a health volunteer in Honduras (2000-03), joined the Peace Corps at age 62 and wrote an award-winning memoir, Triumph & Hope: Golden Years with the Peace Corps in Honduras (Amazon.com). Now 75 and a great-grandmother, she works as a freelance writer and a Spanish interpreter and translator in schools and hospitals in the Washington, DC, area. A member of Amnesty International USA since 1981, Barbara is Amnesty’s volunteer coordinator for the Caribbean and serves on the boards of several organizations working internationally. She made her 9th post-Peace Corps trip to Honduras in February and March of this year, where she participated in various special projects and medical brigades, including Operation Smile which provides surgery for children with cleft palate and harelip.