The Unofficial Peace Corps Handbook
by Travis Hellstrom (Mongolia 2008–11)
Advance Humanity Publishing
Review by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras, 1975-77)
HELLSTROM’S GUIDE IS OF THE MYSTICAL GENRE, much like Zen In the Art of Archery, for this is a book about acceptance. Unlike recent guides which outline application, training, service and homecoming, this book offers very few lists. It offers comfort. “The happiest Peace Corps Volunteers are the ones who make peace,” explains the author.
Be forewarned that if you are concerned about our voracious appetite for paper and the disappearance of forests, the format might disturb you: it contains 97 blank pages (more than one third of the book). The blank pages are for volunteers to write on. Of the pages with print, many contain less than 20 lines like a poetry book. I imagine that the author’s intent is akin to poetry — to recreate an essence rather than an x-ray.
Organized in a similar manner to other recent guides, it explores the mysterious selection, arduous training, work as a stranger in a strange land and re-adapting to the homeland. However, treatment of these topics has little to do with nuts and bolts but a state of mind “created to act as a companion on your adventure.” No outline. Just a series of epiphanies. The author wrote this book while serving as a Volunteer in Mongolia and the cultural osmosis is apparent. The ger (home) of this book is a wandering spirit liberated from neurotic cravings. “Be patient, be flexible and have as few expectations as possible,” counsels Hellstrom.
For the prospective Volunteer eyeing travel posters, the first 72 pages of this book will be enlightening. Aside from sound advice about research, it includes detailed suggestions about application and interview. This may be the most authoritative source on the subject.
The tone and mood of the book are heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. The words “patience” and “flexible” are repeated. The plain white cover bespeaks a book devoid of commercial influences and reading it reminded me of how Peace Corps guide books have changed. The early ones like The Complete Peace Corps Guide (Hoopes, 1961) and What Does a Peace Corps Volunteer Do? (Lavine, 1964) were almost heroic Nordic sagas which explained almost nothing. More recent ones (The Insider’s Guide to the Peace Corps: What to Know Before You Go, Banerier, 2004, 2009), offer much more precise instructions and lists. Hellstrom’s book is like a prayer wheel to strum during trying times. “Are you connecting?” asks the author.
While certainly true that numbers often create a fog around truth, sometimes a manual works better than a poem. Would you use a haiku to assemble a table? Likewise, when dealing with many topics like health, safety and welfare, the prospective (or even current) Volunteer might augment this book with other sources.
Proceeds from the sale of this book fund Peace Corps projects around the world via the Peace Corps Partnership Program which is a tax deductable way to help with specific good works.
Lawrence F. Lihosit is the author of ten books and seven pamphlets some of which have received note. His latest, Peace Corps Experience: Write and Publish Your Memoir, is now available on Amazon.com.