J. Grigsby Crawford doesn’t pull any punches, whether they’re aimed at himself or others, in his debut narrative nonfiction book, The Gringo: A Memoir, published in December 2012.
Crawford, who goes by the nickname Grigs, recounts his two years of service in South America as part of Peace Corps Ecuador’s Natural Resource Conservation project. His harrowing journey and his gonzo reflections on the volunteer organization that was officially established by President John F. Kennedy in March 1961 are a compelling study in human endurance in the face of government policies that often seem grotesquely amusing.
In his mid-20s, fresh out of college with a degree in political science and English from George Washington University, Crawford joined the Peace Corps in 2009. “I joined for all the reasons most people my age want to join: to experience another culture, to help my fellow man, you know,” Crawford told Pasatiempo by phone from his Washington, D.C., home. “But there’s also that sense of adventure that everyone has, that curiosity to really see what you’re made of inside.”
Crawford wastes no time in The Gringo pointing out the myriad comical frustrations involved in the Peace Corps application and training process. His recollections are as witty as they are revealing. (He suspects the organization bogs applicants down with paperwork in hopes of weeding out the lazy ones — and the ones harboring exponentially more idealism than street smarts — before they get further along in recruitment.)
“I viewed the application and training regimen as a sort of Catch-22 scenario,” Crawford said. It reminded him of Joseph Heller’s Yossarian character in his dealings with military bureaucracy, except Crawford confronted humanitarian-oriented pencil pushers, mental-health professionals, and immunization-happy doctors. (A gorgeous female helping — or hurting — hand was occasionally in the mix.)
“Some trainees cracked,” Crawford writes. “Perhaps they couldn’t take the physical endurance or maybe it was the psychological scrutiny, but in the middle of an exercise, they would announce that they’d had enough and it was the last anyone would see of them. Most, however, passed. They made it through training, swore in, and departed for their country of service, where they practiced a grand total of zero of the martial expertise they’d acquired in the several weeks prior.
“With that in mind, I went into training prepared to kick ass. In a matter of minutes, however, I discovered that training in the twenty-first century Peace Corps had about as much in common with boot camp as did a chapter meeting for the local Cub Scouts. The gradual pussification of the Peace Corps in recent decades had caused a 180-degree turn that took training from a genuinely rugged ordeal to something like college orientation, only lamer.”
Crawford knew what to expect from the process after speaking with people who had been through it before him — from talking to old-timers with Peace Corps experience, he knew things were much different than they were in the early days of the organization. “I had some friends of friends who had done it, so I had some idea. It should come as no surprise to anyone reading my book, or anyone else, for that matter, that government agencies can be inefficient. To me, in the beginning of the recruitment process, the bureaucracy was pure hilarity. But later, when I was in Ecuador, I began to realize what was really at stake and what that kind of inefficiency, and in some cases total ineptitude, can lead to. Obviously, in some cases, things took a pretty dark turn for me, and a mountain of paperwork didn’t make things any more pleasant.”
An intense feeling of cultural isolation is common for Peace Corps recruits who find themselves in places like Zumbi, a remote Ecuadorean village in the shadow of the Andes, and Crawford experienced that while stationed there. It’s the main reason he chose The Gringo as the title of his memoir. “The term itself is already culturally loaded,” he said. “Gringo — you will always be an outsider, different, an alien.” And Crawford had plenty of reasons to constantly remind himself that — despite his genuine interest in bringing agricultural progress to Zumbi — he was always going to be an outsider.
As for the medical wonders encountered in the developing world, Crawford got a pants-load. First, he describes “a throbbing aching feeling of sickness that I can’t shake. (I find out a week later that this is not the result of acute heartache but a combination of amoebas, E. coli, and worms — a triple play of intestinal issues.)” Crawford thwarted kidnappers in his first host village on the Ecuadorean coast and endured isolation and the frustration of watching villagers suffer. Throughout it all, he retained his testicular fortitude — until a jungle parasite attacked his testicles.
“About the physical issues, I remember thinking at one point, if this doesn’t get better soon, I might as well just pack it in and suffer in the comfort of home instead of continuing to do so in the Ecuadorean Amazon. It got pretty close there for a bit. But I looked at it much like the attempted abduction at my first site: it was weird, and totally [messed] up. But I just kept reminding myself that I’m the one who signed up for adventure. And can you really complain when you sign up for adventure and it turns out to be a bit more intense than you thought it might be?”
While The Gringo isn’t meant to be a scathing condemnation of the Peace Corps, Crawford raises questions about the organization’s ability to honor its mission statement these days. Concerning his work writing a grant for — and helping Zumbi villagers build — an educational greenhouse on the grounds of the local school, Crawford said, “You have to ask if it’s necessary to have a carousel of new volunteers filtered into these sites, whether or not the need is still there for them, and whether or not someone has taken a close and thoughtful examination of the projects going on there.
“Should they continue, or is the Corps just cycling in new gringos year after year? And who is that really doing good for? It happened with a lot of projects. It stood out particularly with regard to projects tied to ecotourism, not only for the reasons I already mentioned — the inefficiency of it all — but because it also seemed particularly unfair to the communities where some of these sites were. How fair is it, really, to sort of trick these people into believing that ecotourism was their ticket to prosperity? I didn’t, and I don’t mean to, denigrate a whole cross section of the international tourism industry, but taking a focused look at what I saw — Ecuadoreans being convinced that an impoverished wetland area could become the next Costa Rica — it was a waste of volunteer time and resources.”
There were times when medical problems and turbulent relationships with his host families made Crawford lash out at people in the communities where he was stationed — quietly, of course, and in his own head, to avoid violent confrontations. A feeling of resentment toward a host family or community is a common experience for isolated volunteers, as is a feeling of being underappreciated, Crawford said.
Although “needs improvement” is perhaps an understatement of Crawford’s perspective on the Corps, he admitted that “one of the most rewarding parts of immersing yourself in another place the Peace Corps way is that you’re diving headfirst into unknown cultural complexities.” Just expect a lot of paperwork in both the deep and shallow ends of the adventure pool, he warned.
The months following his return to the U.S. from Ecuador could probably make for a full-length sequel to The Gringo, Crawford said. He experienced extreme reverse culture shock when he got to Colorado, discovering that the U.S. can be just as isolating as Zumbi, but in completely different ways. After living for two years in fear of being kidnapped or otherwise injured, Crawford said, it was refreshing to be out of sleeping-with-one-eye-open mode. “It was nice not being stared at and viewed as an outsider,” he said. “It was nice not to feel that otherness. Digital media kind of scared me for a while, though. Twitter was released a year or two before I left, but by the time I came back, it had really taken over everything. Feeling comfortable in social settings again took a while, too.”
After just a week in Colorado, Crawford hopped in a car and took a road trip to New Mexico, through Texas and Kansas, and back to Colorado. “I needed to hit the road and clear my head,” he said. “Then I drove to D.C., where I live now. Hitting the open road is a cure for pretty much everything, as far as I’m concerned.”
Crawford works for a public-affairs firm in the nation’s capital during the day and spends his evenings plotting his next adventure. And he still has both testicles. ◀
“The Gringo: A Memoir” by J. Grigsby Crawford was published by Wild Elephant Press in December 2012.