Early in 1966 I had a decision to make; consent to being drafted into the army or accept a last minute invitation to training for a two-year Peace Corps assignment in Venezuela. I had just gotten my Associate of Arts degree after two plus years of junior college and had no immediate plans to attend a four year institution. About a year earlier I had filled out a 16 page application form for the Peace Corps because the romance and adventure of it appealed to me, but had heard nothing from them since, so I had pretty much forgotten about it.
Although the war in Viet Nam was heating up, and going into the army meant very likely ending up there, this was not as easy of a decision as many would think. The Peace Corps was only a deferment of my service obligation and I knew I’d be subject again to conscription upon my return. Also, I had gotten used to the idea of going into the army and had taken some tests that indicated I might be able to get into officer training school.
Ultimately, I decided upon the Peace Corps because it was different from that which my peers were doing and I thought it would look more interesting on a resume one day. So, in March of that year, at 20 years old, I found myself at the University of Arizona in Tucson, along with 60 others from across the country, to begin a three month training course.
We quickly divided up into our natural groups; the drinkers and non-drinkers, idealist and adventure seekers, married and un-married, men and woman, jocks and non-jocks. Ultimately, it seems to me, that the adventure seekers/drinkers had the better experiences and the idealists/non-drinkers had the more difficult.
Our training consisted of intensive Spanish classes and, as our group was focused on “Directed Recreation”, courses in teaching sports. In the beginning we were tested for language skills and assigned to study groups based upon the results. Most days began with two hours of Spanish study, an hour of
recreation and back for two more hours of “Castellano”. Many of us started speaking Spanish in our sleep. Although I worked hard to learn, my ability in Spanish ended up about average for the group. Afternoons were spent learning how to coach sports, often taught by members of the University of Arizona athletic department.
After a couple of months of this we were all sent down to the states of Michoacán and Jalisco in México to spend a couple of weeks in villages where we were to practice our new language skills and experience living in a third world
country. It was hoped that this trip would replicate that which awaited us in Venezuela and we, and the Peace Corps management, could determine whether it was appropriate for individuals to move forward.
I was assigned the remote small mountain village of Pichataro in Michoacán. In order to arrive there, I had to take a train, bus and finally hire a horse and young guide for the last, overnight segment of my journey. However, I have always suspected that, had I spoken the local lingo better, I might have found an easier way there. The people were lovely and very hard working. I struggled with communication and the isolation, but look back upon it with fondness. Interestingly, many of the villagers did not speak Spanish well, as Tarascan was the native language.
Many long-term friendships were formed during these three months of training and for me it was one of the best parts of my entire Peace Corps experience. At the end about 10 of us decided not to continue and another 10 were “deselected” by the administration. Several of these “deselections” were very unpopular with the remainder of the group.
So, now there were 40 of us off for the big adventure.
We gathered in Miami with another training group of volunteers for a late night flight south to Venezuela’s capital, Caracas. The pilot initially welcomed us aboard and wished us luck in our new adventure. Later he had to come on the speaker several times with dire threats if we didn’t put away the liquor bottles we had smuggled on the airplane.
Once in Caracas, we spent a number of days sightseeing while the administration got us organized and gave us our site assignments. I was asked to
work in a Catholic run elementary school called Fe y Alegria in Puerto Ordaz, Estado Bolívar. The school had a large fenced-in recreation area that included a couple of basketball courts and a soccer field, ideal for teaching physical education, running after school programs and organizing sports competitions. There had been a couple of volunteers there before I arrived who were well thought of.
At that time Puerto Ordaz had about 100,000 inhabitants, but was growing fast due to the many new jobs on offer. The Venezuelan government was investing a lot of their oil revenue into developing the infrastructure of the area, including massive Guri dam, to exploit the large quantities of mineral deposits found in the vicinity, as well as to support the development of heavy industry. Orinoco Mining Company, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, was already there, along with a number of American technicians and a country club for management level employees.
Puerto Ordaz is located about 400 miles to the southwest of Caracas in the middle of their great plains, the llanos. The city is set at the confluence of the Orinoco and Caroni rivers. As it is only 7 degrees north of the equator, the climate is often hot and humid, especially during the rainy season. The new metropolis of Ciudad Guyana was eventually formed by joining Puerto Ordaz with another city across the Rió Caroni, San Feliz. Combined they now have a population approaching one million.
So, for two years I would open the Fe y Alegria playing fields after school for the children and young adults of the
surrounding barrio to play ball games or just hang out. Occasionally we would have basketball, volleyball and soccer tournaments. We even had a track event. During the day I would teach physically education classes at the primary school and/or walk a mile over to the Escuela Secondaria Catolica and teach a period in third year English. I remember that I would arrive in a sweat for this 8:00 am class, due to the torrid climate.
Evenings would often find me up the hill, towards the center of town, where there were some lighted basketball courts and games usually in progress. Walking home in the evening I would marvel at the stars. With little ambient light to compete, they were brighter and more numerous than I have been able to see in most of my city-based life. At that low latitude, Scorpio and the Southern Cross dominated the constellations in the heavens.
One year I ended up in charge of taking the State of Bolívar’s men’s basketball team up to the national tournament in Caracas. We were hopelessly out-manned and lost all our matches. It didn’t help that I knew little about coaching a real team.
After I had been in Puerto Ordaz for about 6 months another Volunteer was assigned there with me. Although I was looking forward to the companionship, he and I never bonded. He was very enthusiastic and committed to integrating himself into the community. He was also very Catholic and much of his work was centered around and through the church. I certainly respected the effort he put into being a volunteer, but he and I sort of only co-existed without any significant personal relationship. After the Peace Corps I heard he chose to stay in Venezuela and, according to one source, renounced his United States citizenship.
I suppose the most typical plate of food there was carrajotas negras, arroz con pollo y platinos (black beans, chicken and rice with fried plantains). I had this combination countless meals and enjoyed it every time. The brand of beer I drank was Polar. One custom I always found curious was that working-class men there would stop drinking a bottle of beer once it became less than very cold. So, in a bar you would see a group sitting around a table filled with half drunk bottles, this in a country where every Bolívar was hard to come by?
When I joined the Peace Corps I weighed about 180 lbs. When I returned I tipped the scale at 158. And, I wasn’t the only one, as all the men had a similar experience. I suppose it was a combination of work, more basic foods and, in my case, loss of appetite due to the climate. Interestingly, my son Timothy, who spent two years in Bolivia as a volunteer, had a similar experience.
During my time in Venezuela I was able to do a bit of traveling. Fellow volunteer Bob Buffin and I hitchhiked across the Northwest corner of the country that
included the northern most extent of the Andes. I was always a little jealous of the volunteers in these higher-altitude, cooler-temperature cities of Caracas, Maracay, Valencia and Merida. I also was able to travel by motorized launch out into the Orinoco Delta to visit another friend, Doug Stufflebeam, who was saving lives among the Warao Indians with his navy corpsman experience.
I enjoyed a couple of visits north to Playa Colorada on the Caribbean coast where I body surfed and enjoyed oysters for the first time.
Joe Bette was an American working for the Orinoco Mining company in Puerto Ordaz at that time, who had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in India a few years before. He and I flew to Trinidad for Carnival one year. It was one of the great adventures of my life. 40+ years later and I can still hear the steel drum music and taste the dark rum.
I left Venezuela disappointed that I had not put more effort into creating additional activities, programs and events at Fe y Alegria. No excuses, but over time, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, I lost motivation and interest. After the first year, with some exceptions when I would have a spurt of activity, I just went with the flow and did only what was required of me. Towards the end I was counting the days until the completion of my assignment, as it was important to me to finish my two year commitment. As it was, I got a lot more out of my experience than I believe did the Venezuelans. Of our group of 40, that had arrived “in country” 24 months earlier, about 20 stuck it out to the end. I am proud to have done so.
Additionally, I felt I could have put more effort into learning Spanish. I was “OK” at the end of two years, but it was not until long after that, with some serious study back home, that I ever reached a proficiency with which I was content.
In June of 1968 I completed my service and returned to the U. S. via Bogota, Colombia. My first stop back home was New York City where I visited another returning volunteer from our group, Bart Briefstein, who lived there. We ended up going to an off-Broadway production of a new play everyone was talking about named “Hair.” This was the 60’s, and for the last two years we in Venezuela had been hearing continuous reports about anti-Viet Nam war protesters rioting in the streets of American along with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I was not sure what to expect when I got home again. I went through quite a return culture shock that evening, watching this new type, counter-culture play with actors appearing nude on stage. Maybe my country had changed in my absence?
It had, and so had I.