Only a few weeks into a two-year Peace Corps program, Boulder native J. Grigsby Crawford received a text from his host that read, “Turn off your light and go to sleep. It’s very important that you stay quiet and don’t leave your room.” Outside the house were men in ski masks with guns. They wanted to kidnap Crawford.
Crawford joined the Peace Corps wanting to see the world and do a little good. His experiences there left him wondering if he’d picked the right methods. What he found in nearly two and a half years in Ecuador volunteering on behalf of the Peace Corps is retold in his memoir, The Gringo. The book describes a harrowing kidnapping attempt by the people who were supposed to be his allies, a post-election purge of all municipality workers that forced him out of his second project to become an unsupervised “freelance” volunteer, and a greenhouse project that became his lasting legacy in the region. All of these experiences are intertwined into a scathing criticism of modern Peace Corps, and Crawford’s terse account of loneliness and suffering as a gringo in a country generally indifferent to his presence.
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Boulder Weekly: What were your notions of Peace Corps before joining?
J. Grigsby Crawford: I was completely well read about the critiques, especially in the 21st century — whether it’s still relevant, things like that. It also should come as no surprise that any government agency is a bureaucratic logjam and full of inefficiencies. … It was clear right off the bat, with the training being more of a Mickey Mouse affair than I was expecting, Peace Corps has lost a little bit of its edge. I mean there’s always nostalgia for a supposed golden era, but people are probably pining for an era that never existed.
You were supposed to be helping with an eco-tourism project that, it turns out, never existed. Where was the oversight to see if this was a viable project?
I think that gets to the heart of the problems Peace Corps faces as an institution. I think with Peace Corps and maybe other development organizations, the problem you run into with development, or sustainable development — a term they really like — they think they can sprinkle developmental fairy dust on a place and everything will become better, instead of really examining whether that need is there, and if and how it can work. … A lot of times it’s a carousel of volunteers just replacing each other at the same site, without taking a step back, asking if this is really needed, ‘are we doing an effective job? Were we ever doing an effective job?’
In terms of my project it sounded pretty on paper, and the program manager was pleased to “develop” the new site, and thought it would all magically fall into place; obviously things are a bit more complicated.
At your first site in Ecuador, there was an abduction attempt. You were living in squalor on the first floor of a house that didn’t meet Peace Corps standards, paying rent higher than you agreed upon, and you have thugs come with guns and surround the house. When you told your supervisor, he seemed too proud to get you out of a dangerous situation.
Not to mention it was a lot of paperwork and annoyance for him to go through the process of switching sites. I think he even said that at one point. “You know what a pain this is for me” — this is when I was trying to explain I thought things were taking a turn for the more dark and this probably wasn’t the best site. … I think there were some signs that it was a strange situation and definitely unfit for a volunteer to be there. I guess my intuition was right — things unraveled. Really, the scariness of thugs surrounding the place, plans to abduct the gringo, the people that were supposed to be there and work with me to protect me were doing the opposite. The most unnerving thing in the experience was feeling like I didn’t have an ally.
The physical thing you left behind was the greenhouse for the high school. Do you think that’s still there?
I actually know it’s still there because I keep in touch with people from the community. It’s kind of crazy with how isolated I was that people there are on Facebook and things like that — so I am able to keep in touch with some of the great friends I made there. They keep me up on things like the greenhouse.
That opens up a big theme in the book about isolation.
Of course the book is about my experience in Ecuador as a volunteer, but in my mind as a writer, to me what it was really about was connection and disconnection, and attraction and distraction. I think those come through in a lot of the experiences. Isolation in particular, most volunteers have to deal with it in one form or another, some volunteers get sent to a big city, so it’s less of a big deal, but the overwhelming majority get sent out to these rural areas. Isolation is not even so much a material thing, you can have an Xbox or the Internet out there, but even still just the inherent isolation is one of the toughest parts.You talk about there being no exit strategy for Peace Corps. Why does there need to be one?
Peace Corps can’t decide if it wants to be a development organization or ambassadorial organization. Right now it wants to do both, and it’s doing a poor job at both. … There’s never talk of how or if it’s adapted to new times, new technology and a new world where education levels have risen and a 22-year-old American is in many instances no longer just inherently more educated about certain subjects than people are in certain parts of the world. … I think it’s about Peace Corps figuring out its worth in this new world, instead of running on the fumes of that Cold War era nostalgia.
This is your first book and you don’t take any steps to romanticize anything. How’d you develop that style?
When I set out to write this, I knew that above all I wanted to write something that was gritty and true and above all, honest. … I think we’ve all read the stories about people who’ve gone somewhere to make a difference and they didn’t, and say, “Oh it’s not that big of a deal anyway because I’ve made so many great relationships.” Or we see the most condescending probably ever come out of writing or journalism about developing nations — the old trope that they’re poor but they’re happy — which I find offensive. Some people find it offensive that I’m so blunt about the ugliness of poverty and under-education. I think it’s distasteful to do the inverse, that somehow there’s something noble about the lack of technology or something like that.
Are you still a masochist? You still looking to see what you’re worth?
It’s been two and a half years since I’ve been back and I definitely want to spend a few more years here on home turf. But I don’t think my days of adventure, and certainly my days of living abroad, are over.
I just don’t think I’ll be doing it in as rugged of a way as I did in the Peace Corps. I think personally I passed that test and can close the book on that. But it doesn’t mean I’m closing the book on more adventures.