Read The Gringo: A Memoir Online

Authors: J. Grigsby Crawford

Tags: #sex, #Peace Corps, #travel, #gringo, #South America, #ecotourism, #memoir, #Ecuador

The Gringo: A Memoir

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PO Box 21351

Washington, DC 20009

Copyright © 2013 by J. Grigsby Crawford

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any matter whatsoever without the written permission of the publisher, except for brief quotations included in critical articles and reviews.

Cover design by Sandra Jonas

ISBN: 9780988482272 (print)

ISBN: 9780988482296 (ebook)

Map of Ecuador by Pavalena/Shutterstock

Author photograph by Justin Schoolmaster

In memory of Barbara Crawford

For he said, “I have been a stranger

in a strange land.”

—Exodus 2:22


This is a work of nonfiction. I’ve reconstructed real conversations and events using memory and extensive note taking. The chronology of some minor events has been shifted to improve the flow. In some cases, I’ve changed people’s names because my intention was to tell a story, not to embarrass anyone (although presenting an honest account means that a certain level of embarrassment for the characters involved—me included—is inevitable).


n the walls hung large posters showing light-skinned people and dark-skinned people smiling and working together in faraway corners of the world. The bottom of the photo read, “Life is calling. How far will you go?”

I sat waiting in the lobby of the Peace Corps Recruitment Office in Arlington, Virginia. After sending in my application a few weeks earlier, I’d been summoned for my face-to-face interview. It was January 2008.

Soon a nice young woman—the same one I’d met at a Peace Corps information seminar on my campus in December—came out to greet me and led me back to her office. We sat down and she launched into a monologue about her service in the Dominican Republic and how much she’d learned and how much she missed it and how she
needed to go overseas again.

She began asking me several questions, like how I felt about the need for personal space, how I felt about foreign languages and distant places, and if I had a girlfriend. I thought I was doing pretty well as she nodded intently and typed at her computer. I was wearing my best suit and tie.

Next she asked me for my first choice of region. In the Peace Corps application process, you don’t get to choose anything—certainly not your country—but they at least ask you your regional preference.

I didn’t hesitate. “Latin America,” I said.

I’d fallen in love with that part of the world after studying abroad in Argentina during my junior year and traveling through much of the continent. I became obsessed with the language and culture and knew I’d try to get back there. Here was my opportunity.

My interviewer fretted a little over this. “That’s our most competitive region,” she told me. But then she nodded and said we’ll see.

Somewhere along the way, while I was expounding on my passion for Latin America and my aptitude in Spanish, she stopped and yelped, “Oh shit!”

“What’s wrong?” I said.

“Holy shit, oh my god,” she said. She looked away from the computer screen and back to me. “Gosh, I’m sorry.”

“What is it?”

“I was sending an email to someone,” she said, “and instead of typing ‘Obama,’ I typed ‘Osama’ by mistake.”

I let out a chuckle. “So, the previous ten minutes—were they actually part of the interview? I apologize, I just—”

“No, it’s okay,” she said. “Let’s continue. I’m listening.”

“Maybe if you email them back and explain the typo, they won’t think—”

“No, it’ll be fine.”

The question-and-answer segment of the interview concluded with me admitting, despite my nice-looking transcript and Spanish knowledge and recommendations, that no, I did not in fact have any experience in any areas relevant to the Peace Corps. She kept typing but didn’t respond.

I held my breath.

“Really?” she finally said. “No experience with agriculture or anything with nature?”

I stuttered out something about my mother having written environmental education curricula throughout her career, and the interviewer’s response was, “But do
have any experience?”

Again, I said no. And I assumed that would be it and the ax would soon fall. She’d say the Foreign Service was calling my name, but the Peace Corps, on the other hand, didn’t have any time for novices in the field of agriculture.

Instead she said, “Okay, I’m going to nominate you for a program in Latin America leaving this fall. Sometime between now and then you’ll just need to get some experience relevant to environmental education.”

I felt a wave of relief. “I’ll be in Boulder, so that shouldn’t be hard.” My hometown in Colorado is famous for being a friend to all things nature.

She looked at me confused and said, “Okay, whatever.”

Before I left, we went to a back room for what I considered my final leap of commitment to going forward with the Peace Corps: submitting my fingerprints as part of the standard background check.

As my interviewer took my ink-red fingers and rolled them one by one over the pages, she asked me what I was doing that weekend. We were standing so close to each other I couldn’t turn my face toward hers because I’m pretty sure it would have been a nonprofessional distance. The tone of her question didn’t make it any easier.

“Well,” I said, staring straight ahead at the blank wall, “I won’t be robbing any banks!”

“Huh?” she said.

“Oh, never mind. It’s my brother’s birthday. I think we’ll be grabbing a nice dinner somewhere.”

“Sounds cool.”

We said our goodbyes and I walked back to the Rosslyn metro stop, snot freezing to my face in the cold, but with a slight hop in my step. I was in my final year of college. I was young. It was the twenty-first century. And I was about to get the chance to see what I was made of.


hen I graduated from college that spring, I assumed I’d be departing in a few months, as the Peace Corps had told me. I thought everything was all set.

But one thing the Peace Corps does to weed out applicants is complicate the process. They don’t make the interview or application particularly tough or selective per se—they just make it a pain in the ass.

I’d been writing for a political magazine my senior year and right before graduation I told my editor that I’d be leaving for the Peace Corps. He said, with a chuckle, that the neighborhood where he grew up in Brooklyn could use some Peace Corps volunteers, then wished me luck. By telling him this instead of asking for a job, I’d put all my eggs in the Peace Corps basket. That made my extended application process particularly stressful.

I had made the mistake of admitting on the hundred-question-long yes-or-no portion of the medical application that, yes, I had been to therapy in the previous five years. It had actually been about four and a half years since I’d seen anyone, so I didn’t think it was a big deal. I recall thinking that with the prospect of deep isolation and culture shock, they should be more concerned about the people who have
seen a psychologist.

Still, checking off yes in the therapy-within-the-last-five-years box set off a bureaucratic shitstorm that took several months to resolve. It included ringing up the Boulder therapist I’d seen back in high school so she could fill out fifteen or so pages on the ins and outs of my psyche. (She was shocked and confused to later find out that they had summoned all this information without having me sign a release; she just assumed I had because it would have been nuts and arguably illegal to give them the information otherwise.) It had been so long since I’d seen her that she had to access her storage facility to pull out my records. I eventually got over the frustration of having to do all this, realizing that at least they weren’t letting in the crazies. I faxed over the forms.

But that wasn’t enough. They told me I would have to fill out even more psychological paperwork, including a personal statement guaranteeing the Peace Corps that I had no intention of killing myself—not then or anytime in the future.

It wasn’t the most dignified personal essay I’d ever written.

Then there were more headaches involving doctor’s notes, illegible faxes, and further paperwork, all to reassure them that I wasn’t unstable, wasn’t taking medicine, and was
sure that I didn’t feel like killing myself. Meanwhile, they checked and rechecked my college transcript to make sure I had really taken all the Spanish classes I said I had. (With Latin America being so competitive, they told me, they couldn’t waste their time with people who didn’t already have a solid Spanish background.)

At one point, I was informed that two of the check boxes on my physical evaluation were left blank. The first, “breasts,” was omitted by my doctor because he wrongfully assumed that it only concerned females. The second—“anus”—was in need of revision because instead of a check mark over the “no” problem box, my doctor had written “OK.”

I went back to the doctor, where he determined my breasts were in satisfactory condition. Next, we addressed the second outstanding check box on the form, completing one of the quickest and most awkward doctor visits of my life. With the stroke of my doctor’s pen, my asshole was clear and I was ready for the Peace Corps.

I applied and interviewed, they told me I’d no longer be leaving in September, as originally promised. I was pushed back a few months to January of the following year—a full year after I’d applied—but as a consolation, I’d find out in just a couple of weeks which country I’d be serving in. In late September, I was finally invited to a Peace Corps post: Bolivia.

Though it was landlocked and looked eerily like Afghanistan in parts due to miles of rugged highland countryside, I was excited about Bolivia. It was second only to Haiti for most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere, but I’d been there the summer before and found it charming. I’d even been to the place where our training was to be held—a city called Cochabamba, located roughly in the middle of the country. A friend of mine from college lived there with his family, and I remember getting off the eight-hour bus ride from La Paz and thinking,
is South America

The excitement was short-lived. A few weeks after I received my invitation (and sent off an updated résumé and mission statement to my future program managers in Cochabamba), news developed regarding civil unrest in Bolivia. The U.S. ambassador was kicked out of the country by the Bolivian government and the Peace Corps soon followed.

I later found out one of the main reasons the Peace Corps had to be pulled out of there, despite the fact that the majority of the country was insulated from the civil unrest: During an information session with someone from the U.S. Embassy, a foreign service officer casually mentioned that if any volunteers came across Cuban or Venezuelan nationals in or around their sites, they should report it. The Peace Corps country director quickly interrupted and said that the officer’s directive was completely wrong and also illegal. But apparently a few volunteers rushed to the nearest Internet café and put it on their blogs, only to have their comments catch the eye of some Bolivians and eventually their socialist president, Evo Morales, leading him to go around the country likening Peace Corps volunteers to “little spies.” I’m still impressed that volunteers’ blogs were actually being read.

At this news, I fell into another funk. Once again, I didn’t know where—or when—I was heading abroad. I was so frustrated with the Peace Corps that I would have found something else to do—if that something existed. About this time, the U.S. economy was collapsing, which was awful news for everyone except Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

A month later I finally learned via email that they would be sending me to Ecuador in February. A quick Google search gave me some facts about the country, including its currency (the U.S. dollar) and size (nearly the same, in land mass, as Colorado). I suppose it was a small bonus that Ecuador was slightly less likely to implode politically and socially than, say, Bolivia. I was especially excited because I hadn’t gone there when I traveled the continent two years prior, so here was my chance to fill in a blank on the map.
At least I’m going somewhere
, I thought. By then I would have said yes to any country or any region if it meant finally getting off my ass and leaving.

I sent out notes to my family and some friends telling them about my impending adventure. Everyone said good luck. To most in my family, I suppose it fit in with their idea of me always doing something off the beaten path. My mom, though, kept repeating how she couldn’t believe I was voluntarily subjecting myself to two things I’d never done well with: loneliness and boredom. No one else offered much commentary, but my mother’s words would later echo loudly.

Others wanted to know
. After asking where Ecuador was on the map and what language was spoken there, they wanted to know why I would sign up for over two years of my life. As I’d come to find out from other volunteers, you had the reasons you told others—wanting to help people, see the world, experience a completely different culture. And then there were the real reasons, which you kept to yourself, partially because they didn’t sound as good in conversation and partially because you (at least I did) spent lots of time thinking about it even after you got there, before narrowing it down to something you thought made sense when said aloud.

I went for all those reasons I told people, too, but I really went to test myself. I knew it would be dirty and rough and lonely—and I wanted to see how I’d react. I figured that I’d learn something about myself—some romantic truth I wouldn’t be able to get by sitting at a desk somewhere. This last part was perhaps a bit naïve, but probably no more so than the entire premise of young Americans moving to poorer countries to show the people there how it’s done.

I would be shipping out on February 25, three days after my twenty-third birthday.

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