Going Away to Grow Up: A Reflection on Volunteering with the Peace Corps
by Bobbie Hobbs
Our trek started at 4 a.m. from a lush hot spring. Journalists from Ibague, who organized the trip, give the young guide with the tiny transistor radio their gear to pack onto mules. The ubiquitous bambuco rhythm Colombians love for dancing yields this Good Friday to Bach’s “St. John Passion” and “St. Matthew Passion” and Beethoven’s “Christ on the Mount of Olives.” The kid hates this. The journalists talk about how the transistor will radicalize Campesino life.
Just Kids in the Andes
We insist on carrying our own packs, but an hour into the slippery climb along and through waterfalls, we offload our packs onto the mules. I retch up the pan (“bread”) and café con leche. I think the cause is the wet dead fly I’ve nearly swallowed.
After climbing for 12 hours, huddled in my leaky poncho by a trailside waterfall, I plead for everyone to go on and let me sleep.
At 13,000 feet, we reach the paramo, a desolate, windswept plain above tree line. Verdant green gives way to frost-misted grays, vast bogs, and wetlands dotted with a variety of unearthly plants called frailejones stretching off in every direction. Gathered under a plastic tarp the Colombians keep muttering we are lost, “¡Qué Lío! ¡Qué Lío!” (“What a mess!”).
Now we panic. We trusted them. We wish we had taken more control, had a map, asked more questions. They have us going on word-of-mouth directions.
Greg is mumbling that the only way out is a two-day walk straight ahead. Why can’t I tell him that’s ridiculous and we’ll go back the way we came? Finally, one of the Colombians locates the thatched roof shelter.
In Colombian cities, grills across household windows and doors keep would-be burglars from entering. Surrounding walls are spiked with broken glass. Here, at the end of the earth, this shelter is open for anyone in need.
Shaking wet, chilled, and exhausted, I unroll my sleeping bag onto the dirt floor and immediately fall asleep. Never mind the hot soup the journalists invite us to join in sipping. Greg dips in. Out of the boiling kettle he fishes up a sock that’s dropped from a drying perch over the fire.
In the middle of the night a man looks in on us and silently goes on his way. The next morning, sun evaporates steam from the thatched roof of the shelter. We talk of Tiro Fijo (“Sure Shot”), founder of FARC, a communist guerilla organization. Could he have been the midnight visitor?
A Family in the Mist
Out of the gloom we see a man leading a mule bearing his young wife, who cradles their crying, sick child swaddled in a ruana.
She pleads for help. I am helpless to their needs. My survival Spanish consists of, “I want,” “I have,” and “Where is?” Usually, I struggle for translation. I comprehend her fear immediately in my gut; I know the universal language of hope.
The husband wears Campesino garb: black hat, rubber boots, and a machete strapped to his side.
Several in our group are preparing to scale the deadliest mountain in Colombia. The Colombian journalists turn their backs and continue preparing for their climb. The little family disappears into a foggy desert.
I went by the hospital in Ibague before we started our hike. People on stretchers waited outside in the rain to get into the emergency room. Trash from the hospital piled on the street, discarded syringes, drip bags, used gloves. I worry for the baby.
The Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso beautifully says all of us have the same feelings for our children. We nurture and protect them the best we can.
Today, 43 years later, Colombia ranks 22nd in the World Health Organization’s health care ranking. The U.S. is 37th.
Novios in the Corps
Always polite, the Colombians welcome us to their country in September 1967. Greg and I are newly married. They joke about us being novios and turn the dancing music up.
In “The Milagro Beanfield War,” VISTA volunteer Herbie Goldfarb is oblivious to the subtle double-entendre of a small northern New Mexico town. I laugh at how they are laughing at him. He tries so earnestly to fit in.
I feel like Herbie.
I am a newly minted speech therapist from the University of Northern Colorado. My Peace Corps assignment is to help the hearing impaired through a program at the National University in Bogotá. The program ends suddenly after I’ve been in the country for three months—the Colombian professor in charge wants to charge tuition and the U.S. government intends that poor people be served. USAID pulls the equipment I need.
I volunteer at an orphanage for deaf girls started by a Catholic nun in a poor barrio south of downtown. She encourages my work, glad for any help she can get. Other volunteers say I shouldn’t be doing this because it is a church school.
Gastric distress seems to be a favorite topic among volunteers, “You ate the strawberries, and you deserve the amoebas.” I join Greg on many Jeep rides into the lowlands and up to Amazon headwater high in the Andes.
His assignment is to bring superintendents of rural school districts out of the capitol city, where they politick, to visit teachers and see the students.
Volunteers working with Colombians at a production studio in Bogota beam out educational television programs for use in mostly one-room schoolhouses. The teachers have so few materials to work with. I admire what they are able to do. I help put on teacher education workshops—ideas on how to incorporate television programs into their classrooms.
The children sit on wooden benches, write on slates, and recite in unison. We help them paint the map of the world on school walls or help figure out how to use natural materials for class lessons.
Events Back Home
Hosting an African American volunteer at our apartment in downtown Bogotá, we switch on the short wave radio after dinner while we play cards. It is 1968 and spring back home. Martin Luther King is dead, the announcer repeats. Abruptly saying goodbye, all that our fellow volunteer can say is, “They’ve killed the wrong guy.”
FARC’s revolutionary fervor turns to kidnapping and assassination fueled by the cocaine trade in the United States. In 1981, the Peace Corps withdraws from Colombia, not returning until 2010.
The contents of the book locker the Peace Corps sent with us to Colombia are still with us. I treasure Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22,” the “Fanny Farmer Cookbook,” and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Conrad described colonials firing aimlessly into the bush.
We were kids wandering into the Andes. We had to come back home to grow up. D
Bobbie Hobbs was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Colombia from 1967 to 1968. The Peace Corps is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.