Peace Corps Colombia Bebé

The following does not represent the views or opinions of the Peace Corps

A small-city Ohio man and a big-city Colombian woman, both fresh out of college. Both were ready for adventure. This is the story of my parents and how the Peace Corps brought them together. Since I will be following in my Dad’s footsteps to join the Peace Corps – Colombia with my significant other, I thought it was a perfect time to share my Dad’s story that influenced me since I was a little girl.  What was most interesting to me was how the PC brought him to meet the woman of his dreams, what his job duties were while serving there, and how he was part of the second to the last PC group to go to Colombia before their almost 30 year hiatus.

Another personal connection of mine to the PC is President JFK’s historical speech on the steps of the University of Michigan student union introducing the idea in 1960, at my alma mater. PC Colombia was one of the first sites inaugurated in 1961.  It was postponed in 1981 due to violence and unrest. PC was brought back in 2010, after an almost 30 year hiatus, with the focus now being on the Caribbean coast. I interviewed my dad about his time in the Peace Corps (June 1978 to August 1980), working primarily in the small town of Tumaco on the Pacific coast of Colombia.

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Tumaco was the site my dad worked at on the Pacific coast, when the PC headquarters were in Bogotá. Barranquilla is where the headquarters are now, and where I will be living for the 3 month training. I still don’t know what pueblo or village I will be staying at for the full 2 years, but it will be somewhere 3-5 hours inland along the Caribbean coast.

The following are 12 questions I was dying to ask him in order to share with all of you:

1) Why did you decide to join the Peace Corps?
I had studied Spanish in college but I wanted to improve my conversational skills. It was also very hard for a liberal arts college grad to find work at the time.

2) What was going on the year leading up to joining the Peace Corps (pop culture, current events, politics, etc)?
Jimmy Carter had beaten Gerald Ford in the presidential election of 1976. There was an administration change in the Peace Corps. The ex-Governor of Ohio was named Peace Corps Director. He came to Bogotá to meet the volunteers. There was a Peace Corps volunteer kidnapped in Colombia the year before I arrived. My group was one of the last few before the government discontinued Peace Corps there.

Peace Corps Volunteers in training: at the top of Monserrate over-looking Bogotá

3) When and how did you meet Mami with respect to your PC timeline?
I arrived in Colombia June of 1978 for the training. They placed us with local families during our training in Bogotá first, where they placed me with Martha’s (Mami’s) Tia Iñez. We met at your great-grandmother Maria Helena’s birthday gathering.

4) What was training like for the PC?
Intensive language training took three months. Malaria Control training took another three months. Training was conducted by the World Health Organization and officials of the Servicio de Erradicación de Malaria del Ministerio de Salud.

5) What was your assignment and what did you spend most of your time working on for the full 2 years?
We were employees of the Colombian Ministry of Health. I spent four months in Caquetá, South of Florencia, in the high malaria transmission zone. We caught anopheles mosquitos and took blood samples in several high transmission locations. They moved me to Tumaco, Nariño on the Pacific coast when the US State Department identified Caquetá as a high risk area for left wing guerrillas.

6) I remember you saying that most of the PC Volunteers in Colombia you started with dropped out. How many and why did they drop out? What helped you stay?
Out of twenty volunteers who started in the malaria control program, I was the only one to complete two years of service. Living conditions were very tough: sleeping in the countryside in a hammock, no bathrooms, and no showers. I would have quit if I had not met someone in Bogotá (your Mami).

Richard with other PC volunteers

7) What happened when you heard the horrible news that Grandpa had passed away?
I had a premonition the day he died. I was in Bocachica (gold country) doing a special project. My friends at Planned Parenthood (Brazilian and Swiss couple) looked for me when I got back to Tumaco. My PC supervisor called me from Bogotá. Uncle Dennis raised holy hell with the US government to reach me. He called our Congressman, the Ohio Senators, and the State Department. Communication was very difficult in Nariño at the time.

Grandma & Grandpa
Marilyn & Lawrence. Grandpa Lawrence passed away at the age of 55 while Richard was in the Peace Corps

8) What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome while in the Peace Corps?
Health, homesickness, and culture shock. I lost 30 pounds. I contracted malaria and intestinal parasites. No bathrooms. Eating rice, lentils, and sardines for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Tumaco was a nightmare economically, socially, and politically. I saw two men fight, then one pulled out a machete and cleaved his face and forehead in two.

Really really skinny Richard with Martha

9) How was dating Mami during the PC? When did the engagement and wedding happen with respect to your PC timeline?
Since my time in Bogotá was limited, I had to rush things along a little. When I finished the training in Bogota, I worked in Caquetá until the Christmas and New Year holidays. I rushed the proposal so much, we do not even remember where and when I proposed to her but it was during that holiday visit. We got married in January of 1980 during the holidays, a little over a year later.

Martha & Richard: wedding in Bogotá January 1980

10) Since you lived there before the internet, how was your means of communication?
I went to Telecom on weekends in Tumaco to call your Mami. The PC sent us issues of Time and Newsweek every week, but mail was not dependable. I devoured those magazines from cover to cover. I also had a short-wave radio until it was stolen. I used to listen to the Detroit Tigers on short wave.

11) What advice do you have for your Colombian-American daughter who is now following in your footsteps and serving in the now reinstated Peace Corps – Colombia?
Take care of your health. You are more at risk than you have ever experienced before. Bottled or boiled water only. You have Kyle (significant other) so you will not have the same homesickness that I had. Focus on building relationships. Do not let frustration affect your relationship with other people. (You are my daughter. You are exactly like your father. I know you more than you know yourself.)

Me with my parents at my 2010 graduation at University of Michigan

12) What are your thoughts about the Peace Corps in present day?
Thank you Peace Corps for bringing me the three people I love more than anyone or anything including the Toledo Rockets, the Michigan Wolverines, chocolate, arepas de choclo, Scottish Ale, a beautiful morning at the lake, the list goes on and on forever. Amen.

I’m excited to embark on my new adventure in Colombia as a millennial, with more advanced technology, with my significant other Kyle, proud daughter of a PC-Colombia returned volunteer, and proud Colombian-American. My dad was my biggest influence and inspiration! Please follow Travel Latina for my periodic updates about my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer, specifically in Community Economic Development for the next 27 months starting this August 2016 somewhere along the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

Click on the link see more photos about my dad Richard in the PC, and the PC at University of Michigan.

Are you interested in doing the Peace Corps? Did your parent or someone you know do the Peace Corps? Comment below!

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