Kay, where did you serve in the Peace Corps?
I was in Peace Corps in Medellin, Colombia from 1962-64 as part of an urban community development project.
Did you join right after college?
Yes, I grew up in Vandergrift, that’s a small town in western Pennsylvania and went to Juniata College in Huntingdon, PA.
And you joined because of Kennedy?
Not only was Kennedy’s call to service resonating with me, I was intrigued with the idea of living and working in a foreign country. It was an opportunity to explore the world as well as perhaps make a contribution in a developing country.
Tell us a story or two from your Peace Corps tour. Ones that sum up your experience.
I have two stories. One is about our Country Director, Chris Sheldon. He was admired and appreciated by all PCVs in Colombia. His pre-Peace Corps experience has been detailed in the movie The White Squall. While most of us had heard bits and pieces of the tragic sinking of the Albatross (his life long dream to own and operate a sailing school), none of us knew the whole story with all its troublesome details until the movie was released in 1996. Chris, as our Country Director, supported 100 percent the initiatives of us, the Volunteers. His approach to our projects and ideas was something like “If you think it will work, try it. There is no harm in trying. What is the worst thing that can happen?” In the presence of PCVs, he was a very quiet personality who was usually on the sidelines observing. And when you realize now that he had just lost his dream, you can appreciate his approach to supporting Peace Corps Volunteers and their programs, particularly when Peace Corps was so very new.
The other story, or incident, happened ten years after Kevin and I completed our Peace Corps service. We returned to Colombia as part of the Partners of the Americas program. While walking across the new campus of the University of Antioquia, a student came running up to Kevin calling “Senor Kevin, Senor Kevin, how are you? Don’t you recognize me?” Kevin had to admit he was clueless as to who this person was. The young man (now eyeball to eyeball with Kevin, who is 6’7″ tall) continues… “You were my basketball coach in Santa Marta when I was in junior high school. Now I am in the University on a basketball scholarship.” This was a total thrill, a small measure of success for a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Are stories like that why you decided to write Wanderlust Satisfied?
The book idea came over time. About eight years ago, I began writing essays as part of a memoir group in my community and to provide stories for my grandchildren. With the 50thanniversary of the Peace Corps, I realized the organization has grown and morphed since its early inception and how the role and position of women has changed within our culture and within Peace Corps.
Added to these elements, when people learn that we lived in Saudi Arabia as a family for five years, there is always a shock element. While there are some hardships with life under Sharia, particularly if you are non-Moslem, the benefits to our family outweighed the hardships. My story illustrates that being a mother and rearing young children in this culture presents similar problems faced when rearing young children in the USA.
Growing up in a small town in western Pennsylvania during the 1950s, the expectation for a young woman was that she would become a schoolteacher, nurse or secretary, marry and raise a family. Instead, the author’s wanderlust leads her to join the Peace Corps in its early days. And then, again, following their mutual love for travel and adventure, she and her husband move their family to Saudi Arabia and live there for five years.
Have you read many books by other RPCVs? If so, which ones would you recommend?
Even though it wasn’t an RPCV who wrote it, I’d recommend American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps by Phillip Weiss. This was eye opening to me about how the Peace Corps had changed from its early beginnings. It is a story that needed to be told. It should never have happened. I would also recommend a memoir entitled Waiting for Snow by Tom Scanlon (Chile 1961-63). It is about the role of a PCV in the first years though today’s projects are more quantitative. Another book, totally different, Thor Hanson’s The Impenetrable Forest: My Gorilla Years.
The Impenetrable Forest is a fascinating story/book not only about the gorillas but also about his experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I read his first edition as we were preparing to visit our daughter who was living in Uganda at that time. We did not go on a gorilla trek but we did go on a chimpanzee trek. The book has recently been updated and re-published, I read the first edition.
Thank you, Kay, for your book recommendations, for this interview, and thank you for your own book, Wanderlust Satisfied, which is a great read.
Well, thank you and Marian for the opportunity to publish with PeaceCorpsWriters.