Book 15; Continent: South America

The Gringo by J. Grigsby Crawford

  • 240 pages (238 pages excluding Acknowledgements)
  • This sarcastic and frank memoir of the author’s Peace Corps experience seems like a quick break from First World problems, but takes some time to digest after reading

This book is a memoir of a recent experience, and I typically avoid books covering events fewer than ten years old. However, its twenty-something author’s stint in the Peace Corps provides some interesting food for thought about this program dating from JFK and perceptions of America from the Third World.

Author J. Grigsby Crawford is a white, college-educated American male who has done some traveling abroad. With no definite career plans, he enters the Peace Corps with plans to work on a project somewhere in South America. The experience is eye-opening, but not necessarily in the way the brochures might indicate.

First, he discovers that the Peace Corps’ bureaucracy is glacially slow and requires stacks of paperwork, some of it redundant or ill-conceived. Among the things he is required to submit is a detailed form from a therapist who treated him in high school. The therapist dutifully complies but is shocked to later learn that Crawford never signed a release for the private medical information she was asked to disclose.

Second, his acceptance into the Peace Corps makes him a “trainee”, meaning that he must attend a number of sessions structured like college freshman orientation: goofy getting-to-know-you exercises and small group training classes. Along the way, he is trained to build a composting toilet, dig irrigation ditches and a host of other things that he will never need to do once in country. Some people won’t make it through the full stint and will have an “Early Termination”, he is told. Others will be asked to leave the program for violating the rules (rules are routinely violated, it would seem). Despite the ridiculously trivial degree of training Crawford tells us about, the program’s administrators seem to be hinting that the Peace Corps isn’t just joining hands and singing “Kumbaya” with the locals for a couple of years. He finds out after the crazily slow process of assigning him a site.

At last, he arrives in a poverty-stricken region of coastal Ecuador, where he has been sent to assist in developing a wetland for ecotourism. Ecuadorians he meets in Quito and other cities have been telling him that the area is lawless, but these traits seem to support the idea that the locals need assistance. After many hours of bus travel, he arrives ready to meet his counterpart, the local with whom he is meant to work. A counterpart is generally the one who applied for a Peace Corps volunteer in the first place. Crawford’s counterpart is twenty years old, lies routinely, and has “a Napoleon complex”. He has lied about Crawford’s accommodations while staying with his family. His counterpart has also lied to the Peace Corps about who actually owns the wetland to be developed. While the lies are problematic, what finally forces Peace Corps’ security to remove him from the site is a kidnapping attempt perpetrated by one of the would-be wetland guides with whom Crawford is expected to work.

Once in a new site, in a different part of Ecuador, Crawford gains a new set of problems. His new host family includes a hostile elderly woman and her fortyish daughter who comes on to him routinely. The government-run daycare to which he is assigned doesn’t have a real use for him—the women who work there had applied to the Peace Corps specifically for a male volunteer without specifying a skill set or project for him. They giggle and flirt for a while, and then send him home early with nothing he can report as an official project to his site manager. Apart from what would amount to sexual harassment in the U.S., the lack of a real project worries him. And then, just like that, the entire staff of the daycare is fired after the incumbent mayor loses reelection. Now, he doesn’t even have a local he can legitimately call a “counterpart”. When he reports this development to the Peace Corps, his site manager’s reaction is decidedly unhelpful: he basically tells Crawford that he’d better come up with something.

Eventually, the author does find a project, which he performs to completion and for which he even receives a plaque from the community. However, very little of the book is about the project itself. Most of the content describes lamentable living conditions, a vast cultural divide, and a bureaucratic mismatch of resources and ideals versus needs. Controversial material? Possibly, but Crawford lays out his own questions about whether or not the Peace Corps is able to fulfill a mission of improving the living conditions and cultural understanding of the Third World. His book invites the reader to consider the gap between Peace Corps (and, more broadly, any First World-based organizations working abroad) in the twenty-first century and the populations they are meant to serve.

Photo credit: Christian Cadena / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

2 thoughts on “Book 15; Continent: South America

  1. I assume you have read the very fine “The Ugly American” — Leon Uris. It’s a bit dated; I think that I read it in high school. It was the height of the Cold War and had an unforgettable scene. The U.S. Peace Corps people could not speak the local language. As massive amounts of U.S. food aid was arriving, a Soviet operative was systematically stamping each in over-sized letters: “A Gift for You from Russia”, in the local language…

    • Yes, I thought about that book often while reading this post. I read “The Ugly American” while in high school (not on the school’s reading list, of course), and its story is only dated if we have stopped making its mistakes.

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