Cocha-Banner: Veteran Peace Corps volunteers reunite

10 Dec

Cocha-Banner is a monthly magazine produced by the journalism volunteers at the office of British gap year company Projects Abroad in Cochabamba, Bolivia, with some input from the students of San Simon university just across the road from the PA office.

It is put together by the volunteers, who source and write articles, edit their own and some copy from San Simon and distribute the magazine across the city. It’s a good way for the volunteers to get portfolio built – as most of them are British journalism students – and to delve into the life of the city and of Bolivians, when gap year placement life can often end up revolving around your compatriates and the local Irish pub rather than pushing you to really explore. 

I worked part time on it while I was working at the city’s daily broadsheet newspaper Los Tiempos, helping out the economics and culture editors, doing  a lot of editing and writing a style guide for the editor Ximena. I wrote this piece for Cocha-Banner when another volunteer had filed a piece on the Peace Corps that was basically unpublishable and Ximena asked me to step in. I was dispatched to the American embassy to a reunion of former Peace Corps volunteers who had worked in the area in more politically heady days. Their stories were fascinating.

Veteran volunteers reunite to celebrate 50 years of Peace Corps

In the office of Javier Garza, director of Peace Corps Bolivia, a group of former Peace Corps volunteers compare notes on their observations of the country they last lived 40 years ago. A lot has changed. “There was not much here back then,” remarked Vincente Antonio, a retired university teacher who volunteered as an agricultural extension assistant in Capinota in the mid 1960´s. “Cochabamba has really developed and has a lot more infrastructure now than the last time I was here. When I arrived here last week, I wanted to take the train to La Paz – but someone told me that line stopped working 20 years back.”

They would not admit it, but Vincente and the other 10 or so returned volunteers in Cochabamba last month to celebrate the Peace Corps´ 50th year in Bolivia, played a part in the chain reaction that led to these changes – for Cochabamba city and the department. The agency has stationed well over 200 volunteers across the country over the last 50 years – with a 19- year hiatus following the Corps´expulsion in 1971 on the back of an anti-American uprising – mostly working in rural areas with farming communities and remote settlements, building essential utilities like latrines, teaching locals how to manage their finances, and creating an infrastructure for other strong community development projects.

Many volunteers came from farming communities and families themselves, and were funded by Heifer International, an Arizona-based organisation that has been working to bring sustainable farming programs to poor communities across the world for 60 years. Most of the volunteers were familiar with Heifer from back home, many getting involved through their local church, and had grown up working and living among agricultural work. Starting out though, these 132 fresh-faced, wide-eyed kids leaving their home country for the first time in 1964, fresh from the familiarity of college, friends, families and US culture, and at the beginning of their adult lives, Vincente and his fellow volunteers could not have had any clue what they were about to get themselves into.

I was in my last year at Washington University and I played a lot of football, but in the last year I was injured and could not play. I was really depressed. So my academic advisor told me I should sign up for the Peace Corps, to blow the cobwebs out of my head,” Vincente recalls. “I signed up to be sent to the Philippines since I have a lot of family there – so naturally, they sent me to Bolivia. But at that time, all I knew about Bolivia was llamas.”

On the ground, though, the volunteers found they picked up Spanish and learned local customs pretty quickly, and many now say their current professions and ways of thinking about the world are directly due to their experiences in Bolivia – proof that the Corps´ stated aim of two-way cultural exchange, to help educate Americans about the outside world, really works. “When I went home I was invited to speak a lot at universities and other organisations about my experience, so I got a real chance to tell people back home about Bolivia,” Vincente says.

Allie Hammond, another returned volunteer who joined up while studying at the University of Winsconsin – historically the Corps´ most fruitful recruiting ground – admits she was in it initially for the chance to see some of the world. “I thought working for the Peace Corps sounded like an interesting prospect and I thought volunteering would be an interesting way to travel, for a girl who grew up in a small, close-knit farming community,” head,” Vincente recalls. “I signed up to be sent to the Philippines since I have a lot of family there – so naturally, they sent me to Bolivia. But at that time, all I knew about Bolivia was llamas.”

On the ground, though, the volunteers found they picked up Spanish and learned local customs pretty quickly, and many now say their current professions and ways of thinking about the world are directly due to their experiences in Bolivia – proof that the Corps´ stated aim of two-way cultural exchange, to help educate Americans about the outside world, really works.

“When I went home I was invited to speak a lot at universities and other organizations about my experience, so I got a real chance to tell people back home about Bolivia,” Vincente says. Allie Hammond, another returned volunteer who joined up while studying at the University of Winsconsin – historically the Corps´ most fruitful recruiting ground – admits she was in it initially for the chance to see some of the world. “I thought working for the Peace Corps sounded like an interesting prospect and I thought volunteering would be an interesting way to travel, for a girl who grew up in a small, close-knit farming community,” to find a much quieter Cochabamba than today’s bustling University City, and Peace Corps volunteers were often so far away from the action they simply could not make the trip into town. “We were sort of discouraged by the Peace Corps form having too many parties or coming into the city,” Allie recalls.

“We were assigned to our areas and that was it. There were times when we had to come into town, but I was about an hour away, so I would only come in to do something quickly and go back in the evening.” Cara, being much further away, only came in every few months, usually just to buy some books for the library with money sent from the US. Volunteers simply had to stay in their communities, make friends, gain trust, improve their Spanish and integrate.

This was not always easy. Being Americans in a country whose relationship with its Northern cousins has long been, at best, shaky. At first, accusations of all kinds of dark motives for being in Bolivia were thrown at the volunteers: not least because the Peace Corps had been thrown out of Bolivia before and mistrust was high on the agenda. Every volunteer has a tale about accusations that they were supposedly spying on Bolivians for their President. “I would be riding the bus and someone would come up and ask me if I was with the CIA,” Cara reveals. Vincente adds that a man in his village accused him of the same crime – and when Vincente returned to see the villagers on this reunion trip, 40 years later, the same man accused him again. “I think people mostly just could not understand why we would want to be in Bolivia when we came from the States,” he adds.

That said, neither Vincente, Cara nor Allie believes their nationality really got in the way of their work, or their relationships with the people with whom they worked. They even suggest that having to work on these attitudes meant that the bond of trust created later was that much better – and in turn, volunteers got to enjoy closer friendships with locals than they might have otherwise, and learn so much more about each other’s cultures.

And when the odd stickler would not take no for an answer, a touch of that famous American homestead hospitality came in handy. “I was at a village party and I got on really well with everyone there, because they knew me, but there was just one guy who had just arrived back from studying in Chile who kept telling me I was a spy. After awhile I just said to him, listen, I am not going to convince you and you are not going to convince me.

Why don’t we just dance?”

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