Peace Corps alumnus revisits the experiences and the country that shaped his worldview.I struggled with my rusty Spanish to understand the president-appointed head of the Chilean Forestry Ministry. We were at a barbecue in Santiago, Chile, last fall, and he was describing the astounding progress Chile had made in the last 50 years growing forestry from almost nothing to a $6 billion industry. And I had helped. Armed with little more than a history degree from Davidson I had overcome a maniacal horse, justifiably suspicious farmers, constant language entanglements, self-doubt, cold sponge baths and bouts of loneliness to contribute.
I joined the Peace Corps in 1966, motivated by career uncertainty, a desire to live overseas, Kennedy-inspired idealism and Viet Nam phobia. I lived for two years in the small village of Florida, about 500 kilometers south of Santiago. Together with 74 others, I was assigned to a program to support a Chilean reforestation project focused on encouraging subsistent farmers to rejuvenate their eroded land by planting pine trees.
Afterwards, I went on to a career in psychology and business consulting that had nothing to do with trees or South America. This was my first time back since 1968.
A little over a year ago, a fellow ex-volunteer decided it would be great to hold a 50th reunion in Santiago. I dismissed the idea. Too expensive, too far, nobody going I knew well. My younger sister, Susan, decided otherwise. She had visited me in Chile years ago, and perhaps motivated by a memory of four male volunteers sleeping on her hotel room floor, thought it would be great to renew old ties. She convinced me, and soon we were on our way to party with 13 ex-Peace Corp volunteers I scarcely remembered.
Volunteer reunions are not college reunions. Although we had trained together for two months, fraternizing among volunteers was minimal once we arrived in-country. As volunteers, we were mostly dispersed throughout Chile in small rural villages. One volunteer, for example, was in a town so isolated that he had to eat beans and macaroni for weeks during the rainy winter until the meat truck could get through the washed-out roads.
So, flying south, I worried I wouldn’t have anything to talk about with the others. I needn’t have.
Flying out of Chile in 1968 I had looked down on a disaster. The country was experiencing its worst drought in decades, something certain to kill pine seedlings. And yet, here we were 50 years later listening to an incredible success story. When I arrived in 1966, Chile had fewer than 300 hectares of forests. Because of soil mismanagement, the central region was marred by vast expanses of eroded land. However, a dozen Chilean foresters, led by Jaime Tohá, had a vision of a central region transformed by reforestation. Thanks to climatic conditions, Pine trees grow twice as fast in Chile as they do in the United States, and falling pine needles replenish top soil. To help implement his vision, Tohá requested Peace Corps support. The result? Over the next 50 years those 300 forested hectares grow to more than two billion. Today, forestry products account for upward of 14 percent of Chile’s exports, and Chile is the only country in Central or South America classified as a high-income country by the OECD—thanks, in part, to the success of the forestry industry.
Not surprisingly, we began our first reunion night talking about the country’s miraculous economic transformation. This quickly transitioned to “war stories” driven by a shared incredulity that we had not only contributed, but survived.
The Peace Corps in 1966 was only five years old, our group only the 23rd to go overseas. During the Corps’ first few years, early attrition was low. However, by the late 1960s, it was ranging between 45 and 65 percent if you counted training attrition plus people dropping out before ending their two-year commitment in-country.
Why? To begin, training had become an initiation ritual designed to weed out non-survivors. This included weekly meetings with psychologists, frequent peer ratings, the beheading of chickens and the castrations of pigs. Our final exam? Fly to Puerto Rico with the name of a town, $50 and instructions to find a place to live and work for 30 days. At least three of us were given the name of a town that didn’t even exist. Small wonder our number was reduced by 37 percent before heading to South America.
Training challenges were just the start. Another 13 percent would terminate early in Chile. Many people in our villages weren’t sure why we were there. It was the height of the Cold War, and many suspected us of being CIA agents—a definite impediment to making friends.
Then there was the language. I had five years of academic Spanish and was considered one of the better linguists in our group. Unfortunately, that was akin to being trained at Oxford in the Queen’s English, followed by a posting to the Louisiana Bayou. One night, as I struggled to be understood, an inebriated Chilean wrapped his arm around me, proclaiming loudly, “Gringo, I know you don’t work for the CIA. You’re not smart enough.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge was that no one, including ourselves, knew exactly what we were supposed to be doing. Job descriptions were vague: “Support the re-forestation effort.” I had been loosely assigned to a Chilean rural extension agency. Not sure what to do with me, an agent took me out to vaccinate oxen, something I was sorely unprepared for. There was constant testing by Chileans about what I was doing in their country and whether I was qualified to do it. We all struggled to find our role. One volunteer was relocated three times before finding a home.
Finally, there was strange food—pig’s brains, cow shins, coagulated sheep’s blood pudding—together with bouts of dysentery and loneliness. While we had Chilean friendships, they were typically not the deep bonds we had experienced in college. There were many late nights of lonely drinking while writing home to friends and family.
Perseverance Pays Off
How did we survive?
Foremost, was the gracious acceptance and friendliness of many Chileans. Spy or not, they opened their hearts and homes to me. It added to my strong drive to make some type of contribution. In a journal I kept during my first five months, I wrote, “Maybe I should give it up and just enjoy myself for two years? But, imagine how I will feel when I turn 70 looking back at my time here?”
I had been raised and educated to be a problem solver, so I kept trying to find a role.
Eventually, I concluded my main job should be to convince as many farmers as possible to reforest their eroded land. Here success could be counted and hopefully appreciated by both the Chileans and me. After thrashing about for months, I slid into a daily routine of cautiously climbing onto my malicious horse and riding into the countryside to convince farmers to plant trees. The second year my Chilean counterparts and I distributed close to two million seedlings.
I have no idea how many survived the drought, but it was clear that the idea had survived, prospered and made a difference.
Reunions always raise the question, “How was I changed by the experience?” Certainly, it built self-confidence and sensitized me to cultural nuances. My struggles with the language made me a life-long active listener. But, I think the biggest impact was the first-hand knowledge that being poor doesn’t mean being lazy, unintelligent or undignified. I wonder, looking back, what if I had been born a subsistent Chilean farmer? Would I have had the imagination and courage to spend my last few pesos to buy pine trees from a Gringo?
Photos by Karl K. Kindel