Boy. That went quick. All my good‑byes had been said, and so had "hello" to Ron and Sandy in San Diego for a six-day visit. Ron was my friend and mentor at a mechanical contractor I used to work for. I was on my way to a five-day “staging” in San Francisco, where Peace Corps staff, trainers, and thirty new volunteers would meet for pre-departure training. Back in Boston it had been busy socially. A lot of lasts of this and lasts of that for a while, and some long last looks, hugs, and handshakes. My last dinner at home? Turkey dinner with all the fixings to symbolize the next three Thanksgivings and Christmases here that I’d miss.
My family saw me off at Logan Airport in Boston. While starting to board, I looked back to see them all framed by the aisle leading to the plane’s door, facing me as if to allow a mental snapshot to carry with me on my long journey. Everyone was fine. We’d all be together again. After all, it’s safer to be a veteran of foreign peace, than a Veteran of Foreign War. For my first time ever flying on a jumbo jet, the takeoff proved powerful, and the landings in Chicago, then San Diego, exhilarating.
If there were a worldwide map of “good eggs”, my friends Ron and Sandy in San Diego would be two of the more prominent dots on it. After the hectic pace of recent weeks, it was relaxing at their house on Point Lomar peninsular. In the morning we had breakfast on the patio, saw several hummingbirds hover and hum, and lounged around in the “ja-cozy”, the outdoor hot tub overlooking San Diego Harbor. In afternoon, Ron took me for a ride in his Mercedes convertible. We soaked up sunshine, glimpsing mountains in Mexico across the border. In the evening we joined their friends for dinner at the George's Restaurant in the relatively ritzy area north of Point Lamar, then went on to the Marine Room Restaurant and met other friends, one of whom acquired a 52' yacht and another who just sold his yacht for two and a half million dollars. In this sojourn to a third world assignment, I was at a juncture of one economic extreme and another.
On November 11th, I crossed the border into Tijuana, Mexico. Aside from a day in Montreal, it was my second time out of the US of A. It was only a fifteen-minute trolley ride to the border where people disembarked through a turnstile to walk to Tijuana center. Simply showed a driver's license and was waived through to the wall of small boys getting first crack at selling trinkets and south‑western pattern blankets. Kids working this way—should it bother me? I had to employ my first use of foreign language skills abroad–“No”—same as in English.
To my amazement, I heard Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” playing. My brother Tommy and I had a favorite in that. I followed the sound. It was being blared from a restaurant to attract tourists. It matched the coupon for a “Free Popper” that one of the border kids had foisted upon me, whatever the hell a “Popper” was. I went upstairs to the outside deck overlooking the Avenue de Revolucion. I ask for my Popper, as was my right—though a right totally unknown and unexercised until that very moment in my life. In fact, I ordered a Margarita as well, the Popper being an undependable mystery, the day being dry and hot, the Margarita being cool, tequila being component, and Mexican ambiance prevalent.
While scanning through my sunglasses, sitting alone, to my utmost surprise, a waiter suddenly appeared and slammed on my table a hand-covered glass of a liquid that began to foam and fizz. With well-practiced movements, like a mugger or bull fighter (I didn't have time to discern), he swiftly stepped behind me, put his arm around my head, placed a wait towel under my chin and lifted, then quickly put the effervescent glass to my lips, skillfully prodding my mouth open like a dentist of thirty years. He proceeded pouring the concoction down my esophagus, gulp after involuntary gulp, as he blew a police whistle for all he was worth, then shook my head vigorously, left and right, and then up and down for good measure, and wiped my mouth with the towel. He walked off without further ado, head held high. That was a “Popper”. I guess I had been Popped. The Margarita was easier. The second Margarita was easiest.
I paid my tab, then departed, walking along the slightly blurry town streets. Most traffic was pedestrian; particularly those street urchins close upon me, pedaling wares to me from all points of the compass. I fended them off mercilessly, but really in self‑defense: one positive signal from me and their numbers and persistence would grow exponentially. I stepped inside a bar—as a young tourist observer of course—that was apparently a strip joint, where Cynthia enthusiastically introduced herself to me, and to my in-seam. It was a thought provoking conversation, for example:
"We go fuk, ya?!" she asked. Her smile had seen 40 years since her birth, I guessed later, though her golden hair had only recently been dyed. She looked ten years younger than that, at that moment, although the dim light and dimming tequila may have been relevant.
"So, where are you from?" I wanted conversation, not the other kind of intercourse, to focus on soaking up a new culture. I was intrigued, though, having never knowingly spoken with a prostitute.
She mentioned some place in Mexico, as unknown to me as she.
"Have you been married?" I asked.
"I have a husband there," she answered plainly. "I want to move to Acapulco. I need money to do. We go fuck, ya?" She looked more wedded to this place than anything else, but she might have been telling the truth. It didn’t seem to bother her—should I presume it did? Is it legal here? Should it matter? Who was I to fix the world?
"Why do you want to move there?" I asked.
"We go now, me and you? We go fuck, ya?"
"Ah, yeah ... What do you want to do? I mean, move to?"
"Anything you want to."
She made eye contact with a man guarding the staircase, who nodded toward us. His brown belly protruded between his potbelly-curved belt and his too-short T‑shirt.
Time to go. I said bye, walked back to the dusty street, and returned to that first club. I had two Dos Equis beers, two dances with valley girl tourists, and took the trolley back across the border.
I needed a ride from downtown San Diego so I called Sandy.
"Where are you?" she asked.
"Not sure exactly ... some Mexican jail, near Tijuana ..."
"Yes. See you at the trolley station where you dropped me off."
I pictured her smile. "That's me. See you soon."
November 14th had me staring into my notebook in a room at the Bellevue—a hotel in San Francisco, that is, not the famous mental ward on the opposite coast. My temporary roommate, John, whose last name temporarily escaped me, was writing, too, communicating with home, possibly for comfort, while I sought my therapy locally by starting my journal. A group of us Volunteers In Training arrived two days ago and we were to depart for Western Samoa on November 18th.
At the initial welcome I learned there were thirty‑some‑odd people in this group. I met a Mickey and three Johns already. Warmth characterized the meetings. We were all here for the "pre‑training" training as well as medical and document checks. On the 13th, we attended "Aspirations for Peace Corps", a participatory seminar exploring our goals. There was a couple in their 50's, Don and Darlene, from Illinois—scratch that, Iowa. I noted that Don was a farm equipment engineer or something. A tall Scott with thick glasses haled from North Dakota. John was ... hmm, from across the hotel hall as far as I knew. And there was a Cindy, possibly from Michigan.
After lunch in Chinatown we launched into information gathering and an overview of Western Samoan and Peace Corps volunteer lifestyles. We divided into groups. In mine were Don and his farming counterpart Brian (Illinois) and Adam (New York, glasses, Northeastern University—my alma mater). We drew a collage of what we were about and presented it individually. I summed it up for us, hoping to develop leadership skills and overcome a latent shyness, and also, like many Bostonians especially, we had JFK for a role model to get involved and to take responsibility and risks. It was fun and funny for everyone and an appropriate mechanism to bond the group that was expected to stay largely intact for the next ten weeks of intensive and stressful training.
After a while, I became adept at associating a face with a first name and a state, like John of Illinois, Cindy of Colorado, and Mark of Michigan. It sounded biblical, like Jesus of Nazareth and Matthew of Galilee, or like Irish surnames indicative of parentage, wherein James McNeill means James son of Neil. We were all making tentative but promising connections from our two or three roommates, our session sub‑groups, our lunch group, and party groups out of the hotel or in each other's rooms.
The next morning everyone went to a federal building to get our World Health Organization shots and the standardized yellow immunization record cards for inter‑country travelers. In the afternoon session there was a presentation, then we broke up into groups of Re‑assessment Teams, with members to test each other’s commitment qualities. We were to write a statement reflecting our commitment to Peace Corps and Western Samoa then have it reviewed and witnessed by our team. Above my dated signature I wrote the following: “The Peace Corps goals will be my top priority. I will do everything that I am capable of to achieve these goals in Western Samoa, and help my brothers and sisters there. Perseverance will be exercised for the difficult times and spreading good will and good times for the other times. I am sure that the sum of what I give and what I receive during this experience will be greater than the two parts. Synergy from love seems to sum it up.” Talk about idealistic, huh?
After dinner we played Bafa Bafa, a cross‑cultural awareness training game. Two teams were selected, the Alphas and the Betas, and each given a culture with all its do’s and don’ts. The challenge lay in that (a) the Alphas did not know the Betas cultural rules, and vice versa; (b) the cultures were fictitious; and (c) the host side could not speak English or any real language as we took turns venturing by twos into each other’s “territory.” My fellow Alpha partner (Susanna?) and I gently made our way into the presence of a dozen Betas, who had various props and positions. We approached and made gestures and guesses as to what was or was not culturally appropriate, looking for reactions to our behavior. We kept asking about male members of their hypothetical family, having learned that some cultures tend to focus on this in initial social contacts. I thought we sounded ridiculous because we kept repeating ourselves, “How’s your father?”, “How’s your uncle?” and so on, and they would only grunt and gesture in positive or negative feedback. At one point we obviously angered them. Afterward, we learned that it was because we had approached forbidden space near their “chief.” It was entertaining, but for many the reality of the challenge ahead began to set in.
On November 15th, we discussed Peace Corps policies then broke into groups. One of the few predictions we could safely make about our future experience was its unpredictability. All of us faced the new, the strange, the hard times. For each of us, it would be unique, and prior experience would not be of precise benefit. In our groups, we predicted what our highs and lows might be and how to deal with them. It would help to look for a familiar element or reaction when faced with the unfamiliar, we were told. Psychologists had shown that people do better in a difficult situation if prepared by imagining how they would feel, and by beginning to adapt to their probable tensions and frustrations.
As part of a staff presentation on health and wellness, we were assigned a sub‑group task of developing a presentation on sexuality. Afterward, we had dinner followed by individual interviews with former Western Samoa PCVs who had been participating in our training. We had the morning off and just relaxed on the 16th. Later, we discussed neo‑colonialism and political systems and values, especially how the projection of American power in the past and the present generates much more resentment than we had ever realized. A five-part case study of “Joe Volunteer” (distinguish “G.I. Joe”, please) helped us delve into the issues.
The last pre-training day, November 17th, was devoted to personal safety, review, and closure. An evening party was announced: a pajama, sunglasses, hat and boxer shorts party. Everyone arrived in the training ballroom dressed bizarrely, having braved the lobby to arrive at the ballroom. Initially, I wore my mask and goggles (and bathing suit and T‑shirt, of course), but soon found them cumbersome and took them off (the mask and goggles, that is). The hotel staff made me take off my flippers. The stares I got from well-attired guests in the lobby checking in, though, gave me a kick. The party was a success with lots of picture taking and milling about, sipping drinks. Mickey, strumming her guitar, sang an original, heartfelt song about moving on. Everyone seemed to relate and reflect in his or her own personal way. In five days we had coalesced as a group.
The party continued for some of us in some of the rooms. I went to bed at 4:30am, and then woke up at 6:00 a.m. with regret and a vague recollection of pillow fights. We packed, met in the lobby, and boarded a bus. I called my mom from the airport before leaving the continent. After enduring the long flight to Hawaii, a one-hour layover in Honolulu was a reprieve, and with open space at the airport terminal we had some of our first breaths of tropical air before leaving America.
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