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The Student Arrives at the Door


I got my Peace Corps application at the post office in Red Bluff, California, put it on the kitchen table, and walked around it for ten days without touching it, as though it were primed to detonate, trying to convince myself that for a forty-eight-year-old farmer the idea of Peace Corps service was impractical and foolhardy.

I had read that a Peace Corps Volunteer would live at the level of the people with whom he worked, and that they would be poor. Well, I could do that; I had been living poor for years. I had read that the Peace Corps was desperate for agricultural people. Good. That's all I knew. I had raised pigs, corn, alfalfa, beans, and pasture, had laid out orchards, leveled land, and put in wells. And I liked farming. I liked being outside; rows of growing corn, cattle grazing on green pastures, the dusty excitement of a grain harvest -- these things were like music to me.

Finally, I filled out the application and sent it to Washington. I was accepted. Sargent Shriver wanted me to go to Ecuador.

Our group, Heifer 3, the third group trained for service in Ecuador -- twenty-four agricultural specialists, as we were laughingly referred to -- left New York from Kennedy International Airport one midnight and awoke about eight hours later as we landed on the Quito landing strip. Five minutes before disembarking we were all struck with terror, not because of any hardships we might be walking into but because we knew that as part of the welcoming ceremony we were expected to sing as a group the Ecuadorian national anthem.

We were met by a bunch of sweet 4-H Club kids who welcomed us with incomprehensible speeches and great bunches of slightly wilted flowers. We also were greeted by all the Peace Corps brass, some semi-high government officials from the Ecuadorian Department of Agriculture, and the old group of Volunteers who had arrived from all parts of the country to look us over.

Then we huddled together like a bunch of sheep about to be slaughtered, took a deep breath, and swung into the Ecuadorian national anthem. Actually we knew the words much better than the Ecuadorians, whose lips we were trying to read. We were magnificent, rolling out the emotion, swelling in volume, gasping for breath in the ten-thousand-foot altitude. Halfway through the song we discovered with a feeling of exultant relief that the Ecuadorians were trying to read our lips.

Before being assigned to a permanent site, we were each sent to live in the village of an experienced Volunteer for two weeks. Our permanent sites remained a secret, not, I think, through any desire to confuse us, but simply because no one knew yet where to put us. I was delivered over to a Volunteer named Byron Bahl, a twenty-three-year-old fellow from Lake City, Iowa, who had been working for the last year in Cariamanga, a town of about five thousand people near the Peruvian border.

I spent the next ten days with Byron in his border town. I followed him around as he worked in the village and in the small rural centers in the hills, where the farmers gathered at the church or in a classroom on the days when they were to meet with the agricultural extension people. We inoculated pigs against cholera, introduced new types of vegetables in community gardens, and Byron gave talks on sanitation and animal nutrition. We visited small farms and a boys' club on the rocky slopes above Cariamanga. There we showed the farmers how to delouse pigs with old crankcase oil and how to treat sick baby pigs with penicillin. We hauled some bags of coffee out of one mountain valley for a farmer who had neither a wagon nor a horse.

In the background of all these activities, the small boys of the town followed us in crowds, chattering and kidding. The girls, who were too shy or too well-bred, stood in the doorways of their houses chanting Byron's name, "Meester, Meester Byron, Meester By-ron," as we passed.

I guess the most touching event was when we delivered the two feeder pigs that Byron had picked up from our Heifer Project organization in Quito for a group of farmers who lived about ten miles outside of town. Months before the pigs were delivered, the group had been coached in a series of weekly meetings on the necessity of a balanced diet and a warm place for the pigs to live. The farmers had organized a pig club and had agreed to build a proper shed. They had done a good job, much too good a job, I thought, constructing a two-room building with five-foot-high walls and an outside pen, all of it of adobe and tile and plastered with cement. It had a cement feeder and a cement waterer, and it must have been built at considerable sacrifice.

We drove out one morning with the extension agent in his jeep, the pigs tied in gunny sacks with just their heads sticking out, both of them furious at this latest indignity. About forty families were waiting for us at the pigpen. It was not a town but simply an open place on the slope of a mountain--a one-room schoolhouse, a football field slanting away toward the valley floor ten miles below, a couple of farmhouses, and a small cabin where the schoolteacher lived.

Wow, what excitement! What exclamations of disbelief as we dumped the pigs into their new home. Eighty-pound pigs at four months? It was incredible; they were as heavy as year-and-a-half-old native pigs, their backs were broad, and there was meat on the hams. They were the first decent animals these people had ever seen, and owning them now, the people lost their cool. Actually, they didn't own them yet. The two pigs were being loaned to the members of the community. The farmers had agreed to feed them properly and care for them according to rules set up by Byron; they were to be paid for by replacing pigs of equal value after the gilt had farrowed. These new pigs in turn would be loaned to another group or another farmer under the same conditions.

My ten days with Byron, ten days in another world, were altogether fantastic, but I wasn't sorry to leave; it was his town, not mine. I was more uncertain than ever of my own role, but in spite of that more anxious than ever to get assigned to a site and start working on my own. There was also a sadness in this cold mountain country that depressed me; early-morning fogs lay fat and heavy in the dry valleys below us, and the thin-soiled rocky slopes, sub-marginal at best, gave no promise of production, no matter what was done to change agricultural techniques.

Early one morning Byron left me at the bus station. "So long," he said. "I've taught you everything I know. Now go on out and save Ecuador." He was a good kid, but he was enveloped in the sadness that brooded over that dark country. As I waited for the bus to leave I suddenly realized with a stab of panic that for the first time there was no one sitting next to me who could interpret my needs to the restless natives; now I was going to have to start learning Spanish.

I thought about the story told of a Peace Corps Trainee who had come to Training the year before and who had learned the first sentence in the Spanish book: "The student arrives at the door, " Los alumnos llegan a la puerta. He went around all day repeating "Los alumnos llegan a la puerta" in answer to all questions put to him. We laughed at this story, but it was uneasy laughter because by the end of our first week of Training, we were all saying stunted things as well in Spanish.

Now I sat there in the crowded bus rolling verbs around in my mouth. An Ecuadorian farmer sitting next to me said something; I didn't want to be rude, so I did the best I could. "Los alumnos llegan a la puerta," I told him, smiling. He looked at me, puzzled by my reply. "Los alumnos llegan a la puerta," I said again.

He grinned, then laughed and said something totally incomprehensible.

I shook my head. Well, I thought, it's a beginning.

Moritz Thomsen (Ecuador)

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