Everything Happens For The Best: A Cross-Cultural Romance During the Early Years of the Peace Corps
by Philip R. Mitchell (El Salvador 1964–66)
$22.12 (paperback), $36.95 (hardcover), $9.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Bob Criso (Nigeria 1966-7, Somalia 1967–68)
THIS MEMOIR OPENS with Peace Corps Volunteer Philip R. Mitchell returning to his home one night in Bahia, Ecuador when he realizes he is being followed by Leonardo, a disruptive student he kicked out of class earlier in the year. Leonardo, furious at the time, threatened to kill him. Another student informed Mitchell that Leonardo’s older brother had recently been released from prison. Later on, we learn that Leonardo’s mother is a local prostitute whose services Mitchell has utilized. Mitchell takes out his pocket knife, opens the blade and prepares for an attack, but we have to wait until the end of this four hundred and twenty-eight page book to find out what happened that night.
After a suspenseful opening, the story quickly morphs into a Peace Corps cross-cultural love story between a blue-collar boy from Michigan who falls for a naive language assistant during training at UCLA. Bilingual Beatriz, born into a traditional Panamanian family, lives in California and works for the Peace Corps language instruction program. Their mutual attraction is dampened by her family’s (specifically her father’s) conservative values, so much so that she needs permission to talk to Mitchell and then only in an open public place. Any meeting out of public view requires a family chaperone. And no touching. When he leaves for Ecuador, she must ask for permission to write. This kind of relationship seems odd for a former hard-drinking frat boy from Michigan State who earlier in the book talked about being dissatisfied with his relationships with women before joining the Peace Corps. He was hoping to change his ways.
I viewed myself as exploitative and noncommittal. I had no real interest in a long-term loving relationship. Instead my aims were more for physical pleasure and carnal knowledge achieved through guile, deception and clever persuasion. I had grown to see myself as a first-class lecher and all-star Romeo.
Beatriz admits to being “scared of hugs and kisses.” The ardor of their two-week courtship seems more in their heads than real, yet they maintain an impassioned correspondence over the next two years, declaring their love for each other and managing brief visits in Panama and Mexico, always with family present. On a trip to Panama, they “hope to walk alone.” When they have separate bedrooms on the same floor at a hotel in Mexico City, her father insists that Mitchell move to another floor.
Mitchell’s interest in Beatriz becomes a primary focus during his stay in Ecuador and seems to sustain him as he struggles with the frustrations of his assignment. Conscientious and hard-working, he finds an apartment in Bahia, paints it and makes furniture from old wooden crates but has to deal with a leaky ceiling, smelly water, frequent rat intrusions, buzzing mosquitoes, repeated theft by a local “friend,” noisy neighbors and a cat screeching in the night. (The source of his smelly water turns out to be a dead rat at the bottom of his water storage unit.) Recurring problems with diarrhea and dysentery add to his woes. He finds success starting a basketball sports program but gets irritated when students don’t always show up. When he tries to organize a regatta for the sailors in this apparently scenic coastal town, he receives little help from the local bureaucracy. He tries his best and copes with it all, always boosted by a letter or tape from Beatriz declaring her love and planning a future together.
There are numerous delays before Mitchell can start his teaching assignment and he worries that there is not enough work for PCV’s in his region. He resourcefully seeks out teaching assignments at different schools but finds students unruly, frequently cheating on exams and unresponsive to his attempts at discipline. When frustration overwhelms him, he walks out of class and complains to the principal. His letters and tapes to and from Beatriz begin to feel like a lifeline.
PCV’s may find themselves recalling their own Peace Corps experience as they read about Mitchell’s experience. I certainly did. Memories of training on St. Croix and St. Lucia felt like yesterday — meeting peers from different parts of the country, learning a new language (Igbo), keeping up with the rigorous training schedule, worrying about practice-teaching evaluations and, worst of all, the dreaded de-selection process. In Nigeria, adjusting to no running water, kerosene lamps, poisonous snakes, bats under the roof of my house and an unimaginable plethora of insect life took some getting used to — I would literally comb the bugs out of my beard. Alone in an isolated village intensified my bouts of loneliness but also motivated me to get more involved with colleagues at school and locals living nearby.
In some respects, Mitchell’s experience sounded downright cushy. He had numerous Peace Corps staff and volunteers frequently passing through town and eventually got a PCV roommate. Bahia had a local movie theater showing decent films, a reliable postal service, local parties and picnics, swimming at a nearby beach and friendly restaurants and shops in town.
For the most part, I found the book easy to read. Mitchell keeps us interested enough to wonder how the Leonardo threat ended (Spoiler alert – Leonardo apologized) and how the love story will play out (Spoiler alert – Phil and Beatriz have been married for fifty years with two children and three grandchildren.) He also gives us a good sociological picture of Ecuadorian town life circa 1964-6. I particularly enjoyed his brief accounts of the political trouble at the time and wish he had gone deeper into it. The coup, the military presence and the riots in the capital reminded me of much Latin American history as well as the civil war during my time in Nigeria. In telling his personal story, he also compiles an almost documentary-like account of what it was like to be a PCV in Ecuador which has its own historical merits. This becomes both a strength and a weakness however, because of the obsessive detail that he frequently includes while describing his daily activities. In the following, he is leaving for a holiday trip:
My bus left Bahia at 8:30 AM. The six hour ride to Guayaquil was about the same as my many other trips across the arid coastal plains. I walked to the Helbig (Hotel) from the bus terminal and checked in for my one-night stay. After lunch I bought a bus ticket on Semeria for Cuenca tomorrow. It cost 130 sucres. I went over to the TAME to buy a plane ticket back from Cuenca to Guayaquil but they don’t have Monday flights, so I had to get a ticket on Area for the return flight. I also got a bus ticket on Santa for the trip from Guayaqul to Bahia.
I needed checks for my (grad school) applications so I went to the bank and got two for $10 each. I mailed my application for the University of New Mexico with one of the checks. then I went to the Peace Corps office. I found out I could get reimbursed for all the bicycle repairs I have paid for in Bahia…
“I walked, I went, I bought, I got, I mailed.” Frankly, who cares? Although it was written fifty years after it was lived, Mitchell informs us that he kept a diary and many letters from his Peace Corps years. It still struck me as staggering how much minutia he included that could have left out in the service of better storytelling rather than reporting. I also wanted to hear more about Mitchell’s background, his family life (we hear so much more about Beatriz’ family) and any personal connections he made in Bahia. He comes across as a bit of a loner with a laser focus on Beatriz at the expense of developing other relationships. His vacillations between the lech and the ascetic were also striking. He declines to go to a dance and a party out of a sense of loyalty to Beatriz, yet finds a hooker when he needs one. He tries to stop smoking cigarettes, seeing it as a moral lapse, then starts again.
In the epilogue, Mitchell updates us on his present life and notes how some of his views have changed about teaching (he once referred his students as “ungrateful brats,” then became a teacher and counselor when he returned home), women (sounds like a madonna/whore conflict) and Vietnam (from supporting to opposing.) He doesn’t update us on his views of homosexuality after he referred to a flirtatious Bahia waiter as “a total fag and a really sick creature.” I wonder how much research has gone into shifts in PCV social and political views after two years abroad. Saying more about these conflicts would have given his character more gravitas and added to his story. Finally, I wish he had found a more imaginative title than “Everything Happens For The Best,” a phase his mother used frequently. It’s more spin than truth.
Bob Criso (Nigeria 1966-67, Somalia 1967-8) lives in New York City where he writes, reviews plays and dabbles in photography (4 exhibits.) Before he retired, he had a psychotherapy practice in Princeton, NJ and worked half-time at Princeton University. He travels extensively, recently returning from The Emirates and South Africa.