Reviewed by Ralph Bates (Colombia 1964–66)
This review was first published in the Winter 2016 issue of Friends of Colombia: Newsletter of the Colombia RPCVs
It isn’t often that a person gets to see paths in his or her life intimately interwoven in the journey of another — in my case it is the journey of a dear friend. The author of that journey is Jay Hersch and his story is told in his entertaining book Time Passages.
Jay and I go back to dormitory days at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1960. We didn’t know each other well, but Jay told me a few years later that he voted for me for Student Senate. Probably that revelation when we met, quite by surprise and unknowingly, at Peace Corps training in 1964 at Los Angeles State College, helped create another bond that grew and flourished over all the subsequent years and to this day.
From the first chapter, I was drawn on to his path vicariously since, fortunately, I wasn’t on the vomit-strewn bus in the mountains of Colombia as he first made his way to a rural site — his new home for two years. I was an urban cooperative development Volunteer who infrequently experienced the “Yellow Death”-like terror and nausea of Colombian rural and mountain buses racing to get ahead of a competitor’s bus. Yes, the bus line was affectionately and chillingly called “La Muerte Amarillo” for its bright yellow color.
Even if the reader didn’t work in cooperatives or an isolated rural area, you will relate easily to his stories about dubious local political supporters, promises not kept by government officials, priests in support and not so much, and the creativity and resiliency of la gente — the people who ultimately wanted our assistance and support in their struggles for peaceful social and economic justice. Recall the meetings you went to where no one showed up — at first — or came in numbers deceiving of the potential of rapid progress with their expressed enthusiasm to have a gringo.
The story of his passage, and mine, moves to searching for “how to continue” expanding the threads of dreams lived and new dreams created in Colombia as we thought about returning to our homes. They were in varying glimpses of clarity requiring more experimentation and insight to sharpen and shine. You will recall. So it would be, as the next few chapters of Time Passages reveal, that some of Jay’s learning would find new soil in which to root. Some learning required more learning away from the soil and farmers of Colombia that could only be borne from intellectual pursuits (graduate school), the crucible of Vietnam in the protest movement, and another “real life” set of experiences working in the War on Poverty. All this while searching with his wife Pat to find “honest to goodness” earth and land to root and nurture his bigger personal dreams.
All journeys, and the choice to “Take the road less traveled” is filled, for most of us, with distractions, stops and starts, triumphs and disappointments from which we learn until we enter the comfort of “ahh, I think I now have gotten to the place I want to be.” And guess what? When you look at the threads you brought from Colombia, strengthened afterward, discovered anew in your quest, you’ll find they all make sense in your special mosaic of life.
I have been privileged and honored to have this nearly lifelong friendship with Jay (and a bit later including Pat). Our roads have intersected, and been traveled often hand-in-hand, but I would add a footnote about my friend: His determination and focus to find farm land to build a cattle operation that later morphed successfully into his food business, and the land a retreat harkening to his days living in the rugged but beautiful mountains of Colombia, has been accomplished by his unwavering tenacity that made him a successful agricultural marketing Volunteer in those years from 1964 to 1966. I am personally humbled to be a part of the living narrative.