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Getting to the Corps of it

Tom Boyd

From Senegal to Romania to Africa and South America, young men and women with ties to Vail will be abroad for the holidays this year. They are not soldiers engaged in the War on Terror they are young people on a mission of peace, working to improve the lives of others, learn what they can of other cultures, and act as ambassadors on behalf of Vail and the United States.Trent Ruder, Amanda Tennant, Tony White, David Gelvin and Brooke Franke all joined the Peace Corps at separate times, but for similar reasons. Each of them was trying to learn more about the world they live in, and simultaneously work to make it a better place.A year ago the Vail Trail corresponded with Tennant, Ruder, Gelvin and Franke to find how they were faring over their first holiday season away from home (see last year’s story, “Ambassadors to far away nations” at vailtrail.com, Dec. 19, 2003 edition).A year later we discovered volunteer Tony White through the help of the Peace Corps, and we contacted our other friends in the Peace Corps to see what difference a year makes.After much time away from home, our volunteers all reported that, in their second year, things had become easier and more stabilized. They have learned to feel at home and also how to become more effective volunteers. The way the volunteers communicate, it is clear they have a great passion for the country they live in and they have taken on some of the mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of the culture in which they are immersed.White, for example, wrote to us from Senegal, Africa. In the opening statements of his letter, he apologized for his, “Typing and spelling a year and a half of living here has done a number on my English skills.” Throughout the email he also found himself using foreign terms with ease, then grappling with awkward English translations to get his point across.Amanda Tennant has come home for the holidays from Zambia, where she plans to return for her final months of her first round of service. She is also planning on volunteering for a third year in Zambia.Tennant came to our offices to speak about her life in Zambia but she had some comments about American life as well. In the stark landscape she now calls home, there are no big supermarkets, no electrical appliances (in fact, no electricity at all), and very few of the things we think of as necessary.Tennant entered the valley’s Wal-Mart for the first time only recently. After nearly two years of being surrounded by little more than corn fields, wildlife and grass-roofed huts, she said she was overwhelmed with a kind of agoraphobia in the massive indoor acreage of Wal-Mart. Being surrounded by that much wealth and waste, she said, was stunning.Ruder is in a very different situation than White and Tennant. Stationed in Romania, Ruder is working in a comparably modern country, where email and electricity are far more commonplace than in Senegal or Zambia. Whereas his African counterparts tend to focus on health and nutrition, Ruder is working to develop social change, equality, and cultural development.He is also working, he says, to show the human side of the United States a country that is often misunderstood by those abroad.”I think a key part of what we do here is to try to show people the many faces of America,” Ruder wrote, “to show them we are more than what one sees in movies or on the news.”Franke wrote to us from the heat of Paraguay, which she describes this way: “Hot means sweating before you leave the shower, still perspiring under the fan on full blast, spraying cold water on your sheets before you lay down, watering your cement floor, and never leaving your house without a thermos full of ice!”Franke may have captured the spirit of all volunteers best when she wrote, “The Peace Corps motto is ‘The toughest job you will ever love,’ and I couldn’t agree more. Anyone who has ever volunteered knows that you gain more than you give.”David Gelvin proved to be the most difficult to find and communicate with. He had just departed for an adventure into the Amazon when we tried to contact him in early December.The remainder of this piece is a mosaic of thoughts and stories from our ambassadors abroad. It serves as a reminder of how interconnected our small town is to the rest of the world during the holidays, a time when the term “Peace on Earth,” is often spoken. It shows us what our young people can do when they are motivated and compassionate. Each of them has said that, if it weren’t for the life they experienced in Vail, they may not have the strength of character required for their life of service in the Peace Corps.War and Peace CorpsWhile Peace Corps volunteers are on peaceful missions, that doesn’t mean they aren’t affected by global conflict.White, for example, was moved from his location in Morocco during the Second Gulf War. Death threats against Americans in Morocco forced the organization to relocate their approximately 150 members. White, who is the son of Chris and Richard White of East Vail, arrived in Senegal in mid-September of 2003. His service will last until December of 2005.The world may be embroiled in conflict, but White says the people in his new village, located in the Kaolack region of Senegal, are genuinely peaceful people.”My village is quite big, it has 1,600 people and no running water or electricity, but it has six wells,” he writes. “The people are amazing to me, so friendly, they have hard lives, no opportunity, but have a fantastic attitude towards humanity. ‘Jamm rekk’ is Wolof (the language they speak) for ‘peace only,’ and you hear this said in Senegal more than anything, and the people believe in it.”White didn’t attend high school in Vail, but he spent plenty of time here in Vail snowboarding and skiing.”I honestly think he inherited a little travel fever from Dick and I,” says Chris, who is originally from Switzerland. “Dick was a pilot and I was a flight attendant.”Like many of his Peace Corps companions, the 27-year-old White has plans for more travel after his service is over. He intends to go to Japan to teach English and learn Japanese. With a bit of Arabic under his belt from his time in Morocco, combined with his new knowledge of Wolof, he could be quite the linguist if and when he returns to the United States.”Enjoy life in beautiful Vail,” he writes. “I miss that place a lot. Next to the food, not skiing is the harshest reality of being here. But the Peace Corps experience is indescribable and I won’t trade it for anything.”Looking back on lifeTennant says she wouldn’t trade her life in Zambia for anything, either even better food.Tennant eats maize (or corn) almost exclusively in her small agrarian village, just as the natives do. People own goats, cows and chickens, but she says they rarely eat them except for special occasions.The lack of protein in the local diet is one thing Tennant wishes she could remedy but she’s not the kind of person who believes she can single-handedly change the habits of hundreds of people who have been farming maize for generations.”I live in Vail, I didn’t farm, why should I pretend that I can teach people how to farm?” she says matter-of-factly. “There are a lot of other problems in my town.”Without protein from agriculture, villagers poach wild game which Tennant says is virtually gone.Tennant says the locals are aware that there are other foods they can farm, but old traditions die hard in Zambia.There is more enthusiasm, she says, for improved education. The school in her village had only four grades, and conditions were such that many children didn’t attend school. Once past fourth grade, those who did attend school usually had nowhere to go the nearest school is 20 miles away, too far for children to travel.”It hasn’t happened to me, but I’ve heard of people asking how long it would take to (bicycle) to America, or how long it would take to drive to America,” she says. “A lot of the people aren’t aware that there is no ‘road’ to America.”With the help of the villagers, Tennant made bricks and built a new area for children to learn. She also helped procure a new teacher, so children can attend fifth grade.Tennant says she’s always had the desire to travel. As a teenager she announced to her mother that she was going to Thailand no one took her seriously until she actually came through on her promise. Since then she’s had a strong desire to see the world and learn other ways of living.Tennant is surrounded by exotic circumstances. She took a series of photographs which portray a snake stalking a lizard, striking it, and eating it whole and it happened just yards outside her house.Her house itself is rather Spartan, with a grass-thatch roof re-enforced with black plastic and encased in mud bricks. Her one indulgence is her weekend visits to her boyfriend’s home he is a native white farmer who has a wide variety of food procured from his garden. He offers companionship and something to eat beyond the few variations of maize.Tennant isn’t trying to change the village, she says, as much as participate in its culture aid in the health and education of the people whom she has bonded with in Zambia.”Frankly, I think their life is better in many ways,” she says. “They could do with a little more development, but they don’t need what we have here, malls and shops and the rest.”I don’t think we need it either,” she continues. “It’s too easy, it’s too much of a lazy life we’ve come to live. You go to the grocery store and there’s a whole aisle of chips, a whole aisle for cereal; do you really need 500 cereals?”Dreaming of a white ChristmasFor Franke, the middle of summer comes during the peak of our winter. As a volunteer in Paraguay, Franke works in the very poor barrio of Tablada Nueva. The people are largely Catholic, so they recognize Christmas but sometimes in bizarre ways.”The holiday traditions are very different– they make nativity scenes instead of decorating Christmas trees,” Franke writes. “These are decorated with fresh fruit pineapple, watermelon, melon and coco plants. Each family has their own traditional nativity scene. Most are very religious, although this year I have seen a Pokemon Baby Jesus and a Barbie standing in as the Virgin Mary.”We will stay up until midnight on the night of the 24th and then everybody goes out on the streets and greets everyone else. There are tons of fireworks, noisemakers and shady third-world explosives. It’s like New Year’s. The 25th is a typical lazy day sitting in the shade, drinking Terere (a local tea sipped through a filtered straw) and eating lots of traditional leftovers. Presents are not exchanged on the 25th, but rather delivered by the three kings on Jan. 6.”Franke works with children who have HIV/AIDS, and says the experience has been, “unforgettable.””There are days when the frustrations of living in a third world (one of the most corrupt ones, too!) are exhausting, but I wouldn’t change them for the world,” she writes. “Despite the heat, bugs, smells nothing can replace the feeling of children screaming your name as you walk down the street, or tackling me with neck-breaking hugs. It is an ironic world of two extremes I literally cross the tracks to a different world.”I have walked down my road, dodging trash and rivers of cow blood while eating the sweetest, purest mandarin orange of my life. I have sat with neighbors that live in a cardboard/plastic shack and had unforgettable, enlightening conversations. I know that despite everything that has happened over the last two years, the hardest part will be saying good-bye.”Franke will be finished with her service in a few months, and she plans on coming home to the place she grew up a very different world than she’s in now.”I am looking forward to a white Christmas next year,” she writes, “and the innumerable amenities and opportunities that Vail provides: fresh air, white snow, and spending time with my family and friends. My experience here has filled my ‘corazon,’ and I will always be willing to share a little of Paraguay with anyone willing to listen — I will even whip up a batch of delicious Terere. Feliz Navidad y Prospero Ao Nuevo.”Roaming RomaniaRuder’s work and curiosity have taken him all over the Romanian countryside from remote Maramures to the Prahova Valley, where he is the only Peace Corps volunteer we’ve contacted who managed to ski during his service.”(The Prahova Valley) is home to two of the country’s best-renowned resorts, Sinaia and Predeal,” he writes. “For a Vail local, skiing is rustic to say the least, but I have had a wonderful time cutting up the simple slopes. It brings a new sense of adventure to getting down the hill, and back up again.”Most of Ruder’s other adventures have come through working with social groups. He recently helped organize a kind of “Rock the Vote,” Romania style, where he organized a group to inform oppressed people that their vote counts, and that they should participate in national elections.”The idea is to increase voter and general civic participation among members of the Roma (or Gypsy) community,” he writes. “Roma have a much higher level of poverty and are a highly marginalized population. They are subject to abject racism at most levels of society and often live in squalor, so improving their political voice is a key element in moving forward as a community.”We traveled to many Roma communities and spoke with people about the need to vote and to be informed on whom one is voting for. It was an eye-opening experience for myself, as well as other volunteers, to be able to speak with people living in such poverty and to gain a greater insight into the political processes of this much-marginalized group. Seeing people live in squalor, yet so quick to smile, leaves an impression.”Ruder’s letter to the Trail was lighthearted and optimistic, but showed a kind of introspective maturity that has grown in him in the past year.Here he writes about the core philosophy of his service in Romania.”Peace Corps’ philosophy is that we volunteers strive to catalyze development in the community, and in my time here I feel I have been able to do this. I have always worked to do so as I believe real and lasting development comes when it is done by those who will benefit from it. For me, one of my greatest pleasures is when I see people teaching others what I have taught them and taking things further. In general, my strategy has been to build social structures that will serve to make people feel more agency in their lives while improving the quality of those lives as well. I think Peace Corps’ greatest asset is that it gives general Americans contact with general members of other countries to learn about each other and work together.”Away in the jungle againUnlike his other counterparts, Gelvin is the first and only Peace Corps volunteer to come to his area: an hour east of Georgetown, Guyana, in South America.The Trail’s attempts to contact Gelvin, this year and last year, have been unsuccessful.But Gelvin’s parents report that he has been writing and documenting his experiences in the Corps. He spent Christmas of 2003 in Suriname, and this year he will be deep in the Amazon jungle, where he has been for some time. Deep in the jungle he is out of reach, but we trust that, when The Trail does finally reach him, he will share the unique stories of his adventures with us all. VTFor more information on local peace corps volunteers contact Tom Boyd at tboyd@vailtrail.com, or visit peacecorps.gov, the official website of the Peace Corps.


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