February 07, 2013

The Gringo by J. Grigsby Crawford

Since I plan on joining the Peace Corps one day, I figured I needed to read a book that talked about negative aspects of the program just as much as I needed to read the positive ones. And this book fit that bill. Grigsby had several less than optimal experiences as a volunteer, and outlines them in this memoir.

Fresh out of college, Grigsby joins the Peace Corps and is placed in Ecuador. There he spends a few months in a coastal town that quickly proves dangerous and ineffective at the program they're trying to implement. After a kidnapping rumor, he is moved further inland to another town, where the program is dead on its feet and he does much of nothing all day. During this time he develops an illness that will persist through his entire service. And finally in the last part of his service, he works on a project that is actually effective.

Grigsby is not kind in his descriptions of the Ecuadorian people. There are only a few he seemed to like and I'm not sure if he just didn't encounter that many good people or if his personality was just not compatible with the culture of the Ecuadorians. I certainly don't want to believe that a whole people and culture are as terrible as he describes them. But at least he tries to tell things as they are without sugarcoating it. And the few people he does like are warmly described. And he doesn't really get anywhere with his projects in the Peace Corps which seems to be largely because of an ineffective coordinator and management system in Ecuador. This could have a great bearing on his views of the Ecuadorian people. If you see bad all day, it becomes the whole experience for you.

Despite everything he goes through, Grigsby does insert some humor into the book. Anyone who can complain with such cheer about pain in his testicles for extending periods of time has some moxie. And he writes in an engaging way, you have to keep reading to see if things turn out any better. I should warn that there are descriptions of genitals, cussing, and other things in this book that some readers may not enjoy. If you are a person who enjoys less graphic encounters with books, this is not one you should read. The overall message of his experience isn't positive, which is disheartening. And while I disagree with his view that perhaps the Peace Corps should retire, I respect him for telling his story and arguing some good points. It would seem that some areas of the system do need an overhaul, especially in Ecuador. But from everything else I've read on the subject there are positives to the Peace Corps program and I take the optimist view that if it makes the difference in one person's life, it was worth it.

I do have to note that there is one section in this book that I didn't really like. Grigsby tries out one of the local hallucinogens and has a very bad trip. Now I'm not against the mention of drugs, but rather the way it was presented in this book. While everything else is largely clinical in the book, this particular chapter delves into the incoherent ramblings of a drug induced mind. And reads as such. It just didn't fit with the rest of the book and was tedious to read.

Not the most comfortable of reads, but a good one if you're interested in the Peace Corps and want to know the not-so-good side of things. Because if you're doing something that big with your life, you need to look at it from all perspectives.

The Gringo
Copyright 2013
225 pages

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