Excerpted from chapters 5, 35 and 36 of The Gringo: A Memoir, published December 2012 by Wild Elephant Press.
Before leaving for Ecuador, a friend back home introduced me to an older man who'd been a Peace Corps volunteer in Central America in the '80s. In addition to serving there, he'd later lived in Ecuador for several years. One night in Boulder, we sat down over beers and he told me about his experience, including the horrors of what training was like in those days. He described a hard-core boot camp-like affair the Peace Corps used to weed out the weak. It even took place on a military base where they could see soldiers doing their own training on an adjacent field. (In those earlier days, training was held inside the United States, and upon swearing in, the volunteers flew to their country of service and went directly to their sites.)
In preparation for building latrines or digging wells in Central America, Peace Corps trainees had to repel down three-story buildings, take aerobic endurance tests, and do simulated drowning exercises. It was almost as if the Peace Corps' intent, he said, was to get as many people to quit as possible. It was literally survival of the fittest.
When they weren't being timed in the mile run or learning jujitsu or whatever else was included, trainees were constantly monitored by a team of psychologists. Holding a clipboard, they would come up to a trainee, stare at him or her for several seconds, jot down a few notes, then walk away.
Some trainees cracked. 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 that 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.
So, here we are in the giant concrete building for our training sessions, where we sit on campfire-style benches and start the day off with a group sing-along.
Here we are treated to a puppet show explaining what we should do in the event of a volcanic eruption (a serious possibility in Ecuador, which has had notable eruptions as recently as the late '90s). Trainees laugh and clap and take pictures while the trainees-cum-puppeteers show off their best Elmo voices. Raucous laughter continues as a gang of talking sock hands describe how quickly we might suffocate on ash or lose our legs to highly viscous molten rock. It's a real gas.
Here's a series of interpretive skits to illustrate what we should do preceding an evacuation scenario (the exact type of event, in other words, that had led to my being there instead of in Bolivia). Inner Peace Mark demands that we sing our script to the melody of Bill Joel's "For the Longest Time." (We absolutely nail it.)
Here we are in small groups breaking into song and dance again to present reports of the mini projects we've done in our training communities. (The winning group got to perform in front of the ambassador.)
Here we are treated to an impromptu crazy dance party, before 9 a.m., and our language facilitators dress up like clowns and spray us with confetti and glitter. (I later find out this is somewhat of an Ecuadorian tradition, but still.)
Here we are standing in a large circle for a diversity session and taking turns explaining what makes us different. One trainee says, inexplicably, "I am Hispanic, though I have the good fortune not to look it." Luckily, the Ecuadorian language facilitators don't hear it, but the few Hispanic Americans in our training group do (and will remain perplexed and offended by the comment, even over a year later).
Here we are beginning the day with a game of Simon Says and the loser has to get up in front of the group and sing.
Here we are playing a version of hot potato for an information session on human trafficking.
Here we are making not an actual composting toilet, but a scale model of one, using nearby sticks and twigs.
Here we are baking cake with our language facilitator.
Here I am asked to dress in feathery chaps and a cowboy hat to help with an indigenous dance routine for a session on Ecuadorian culture.
And eventually: Here we are having our names pulled out of a hat and announced like we're contestants on The Price Is Right. Here we are running over rose petals and through a tunnel formed by human arms. Here we are getting handed an envelope with our names written decoratively on the outside and our site assignments written on the inside. Here we are bursting through the tunnel toward a sign that says, "How Far Will You Go?" Answer: ten feet away toward a giant map of Ecuador taped to the floor where we stand on our cor- responding part of the country. Here we are catching our breath and brushing off the rose petals as we find out where we'll spend the next two years of our lives.
I would be heading for the coast, which in Ecuador referred not just to the beaches, but to the entire western third of the country--a humid flatland squeezed between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean.
Over Easter weekend I traveled to a jungle town about eleven hours north to visit a volunteer who wanted to have sex. She'd been nudging me into visiting her for many months, ever since I declined her invitation to meet for a night at a random place halfway between our two sites. Her calls and texts urging me to come were nothing if not aggressive and uncharming. But I hadn't had sex in a very long time. So I went.
When the new country director arrived in November, he instituted a new Out of Site Policy. Among other changes, it was renamed the Whereabouts Policy. Before, we were able to go anywhere in the country as long as we were back at our site within seventy-two hours. Now the seventy-two-hour restriction was gone, but we were limited to traveling within an imaginary radius of roughly five hours away from our sites. This meant relatively little to me, already being so isolated from everything and everyone else in the country, but some volunteers took this, and other changes, pretty seriously and wrote nasty letters to the office, sometimes cc'ing all 150 other volunteers on their emails. They were the types of letters that included sentences beginning with: "It is imperative that . . ."
In any event, this meant that for my trip up north I had to ask for special permission. I was allowed to go only because it was the holiday weekend. But as a result of submitting my proposed itinerary, Winkler had a pretty good idea that I was traveling a half day for some sex and knew the exact woman that sex was going to involve.
The bus ride through the southern part of Ecuador's Amazon is probably the most pleasing road trip you can take in the country. Going an average of twenty-five miles an hour the entire time, you get to look off to the east and see nothing but jungle. Each town you pass through feels like the final frontier. And when it gets completely dark, you can press your cheek up against the cool glass of the win- dow and see nothing but the stars overhead and a few oil platforms blinking out across the Amazon.
I arrived in the volunteer's town at 1 a.m. on Friday and she met me at the bus station looking drowsy.
As we lay in her bed after our first go at it, she turned to me and said, "I haven't had sex in like a year. What about you?"
"I don't know," I said.
Her long curly hair spread out over the pillow. I was thinking about how strange it all was.
"What's the longest you've ever gone without sex before?" she said. "Eighteen years." For the rest of the weekend we cooked and laughed and listened to music and had a good time. But I wasn't in the mood for any more sex. Part of it was her, and part of it was the shame of feeling as though we were like animals who couldn't go without it. But I joylessly had sex a few more times before the weekend was over, including once when she'd talked me into using a sex toy she kept in the drawer of her nightstand.
Afterward, I didn't even want to think about sex for a long time. As I lay there, I told her I planned on taking the six o'clock bus back to my site the next morning. She let out a disapproving groan and said I should get on a later bus so I could fuck her once more before I left. I mumbled something about how my leaving at six and fucking her one last time weren't mutually exclusive. She persisted on and we went to sleep. At 5:25 I awoke to her pivoting herself atop me. And I was reminded then that there are few things lonelier in life than sex with someone you don't care for.
As the sun rose over the jungle fog, I began the long ride south to my site, winding up and down dirt roads through the green hills, stopping only to buy snacks and use the bathroom at filthy roadside diners. It was Easter morning in the Amazon.
I saw large, morose-looking religious processions in the streets. Pigs getting roasted with blowtorches on the side of the road. Children selling fried chicken and boiled yucca at the bus stops.
I saw papaya groves and acres of deforestation with cows grazing. Roadside shrines to the Virgin Mary surrounded by fresh flowers and Christmas lights.
I saw women bent down doing laundry in stream beds. Shirtless drunks asleep on sidewalks or park benches or facedown in gutters. Other men with two or more missing limbs hoisting themselves into the bus to wobble up and down the aisle asking for spare change.
I saw beautiful indigenous girls listening to bad music on their cell phones. Black people selling coconut milk. Kids playing soccer. Women burning trash. Teens wearing WWF shirts and Yankees hats. And men peeing in the road.
I saw ducks and chickens pecking at the Styrofoam trash that had been flung from bus windows onto the damp ground.
And I saw moms with babies--lots of babies.
I knew that I would look back and feel connected to this jungle and maybe sorta kinda miss it. I saw all the frontier towns and wondered what it was like living there--was it just like Zumbi? Or was it lonelier, or not as boring, or filled with all the same characters who every day kept me laughing and smiling and cursing? I listened to music on my iPod and then sometimes just looked out the window in silence thinking about how naïve it was to imagine I could come down here and wake up one day knowing exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
I thought about how, all things considered, it had been nice to finally hold someone in my arms (and I thought about how just having a thought like that was a sign I'd been isolated for a long time). With the window cracked and music playing and my backpack in my lap and nothing but bumpy open road ahead, I wished bus rides like this would never end.
Sometime around then I'm in Loja for a weekend and I meet a girl. And then I'm in Loja a lot more. Out dancing. Going to dinner. Walking on the narrow sidewalks arm in arm. Getting ice cream in her parents' café. Drinking together in dark bars on weeknights with live music while she smokes cigarettes and leans in for kisses. It goes on like this for several weeks.
She is twenty-five years old and beautiful. Born and raised in Loja, she has traveled to the States and Europe and speaks English. And we always see each other in Loja--never at my site. She is the type of upper-class Lojana who would prefer to pretend that places like Zumbi don't exist. If I ever brought her to my site, it's unclear what exactly would disgust her the most, but she would surely unload an entire bottle of Purell by the time we reached my doorstep.
But she's beautiful and sexy. She's so beautiful that other guys are always staring at her when we walk into restaurants and bars. And she acts like she doesn't know why. She's so beautiful I dig into my U.S. bank account for late lunches on the weekends after nights when we've stayed out late drinking and the next day our clothes still smell like whisky and stale smoke. (She does not settle for pathetic two-dollar lunches with the commoners.) She's so beautiful I tolerate her smoking and even look at the way the plumes of smoke leave her lips and disappear above us in the dim lights of the nightclubs and think it's . . . sexy.
One day we're in one of those nice restaurants with the white tablecloths and the other Lojanos in their very expensive but ill-fitting suits. We're on the far end of town past the old church and on the way to the stadium. I'm tired. I look at the menu and it all looks ex- pensive and unappetizing to me but I order the ceviche, which turns out to be awful and later that day I will take a lonely bus ride over the mountain pass and down into the Amazon on a empty stomach and twenty-five dollars poorer. It's a clear and warm Sunday.
I've been seeing her a few weeks now so I feel comfortable tell- ing her about my epididymal/prostatic infection and the ensuing pain that lasted six months and necessitated trips to Loja and Quito and--yes--multiple testicular sonograms. She listens with vague amusement. I also tell her about how I got pickpocketed but how it wasn't a big deal because I only had like two bucks in my wallet and all the other important stuff was squirreled away in my shoes and other pockets and how I really just missed the wallet.
She laughs, but it's not a ha-ha laugh; it's a pity laugh. She smiles and leans over and kisses me and pours herself another lemonade and barks something else at the waiter and then stares me in the eye and says, "Why are you still in this country?"
weeks later we sit in her parents' living room eating big slices of mango for breakfast. I've just come back from another administrative trip to Quito and I'm stopping in Loja for the night before returning to Zumbi. Hanging on the wall in front of me is a giant painting of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. The painting is so vivid and grotesque it looks as if the blood from his forehead could drip right off the wall and down onto the Persian rug.
Today is the day it ends and we can't be seeing each other anymore and I tell her this. She is surprised when I tell her, which is strange since just a week earlier she told me she had a boyfriend and in a few months would be moving to Belgium to work as an au pair and be with him, which is especially strange since he lives in Holland. She just has to get out of this country that she loves so much but can't stand to live in. She wants to go to the U.S. again if she can, but keeps getting denied a visa. (It turns out that the last time she was there, she worked while on a student visa, which means she'll likely never be allowed to return--a piece of news I broke to her gently.) But this is all just a side note. She's leaving soon for Europe and for some European man she's been talking to on the phone every day this whole time and she's surprised that I'm walking away from it all.
All of this makes my mind race. It races through why I can't manage any long relationships and then it races through all the circumstances (there are always circumstances) and from there it races through all the reasons and I wonder if her (or any woman) not understanding me is still a valid reason for breaking up. (The year be- fore, I'd broken up with another volunteer I'd dated very briefly and when I told her that I couldn't "do this anymore," she said, "You're leaving the Peace Corps?" I paused and continued, "Well, no . . .")
Right now, here on the couch, I think about all this and I feel sick to my stomach. It's 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.) She leans toward me and I'm not sure if she wants to kiss me or tackle me. I just look up at the painting of Jesus, who stares back down at me. Suddenly her cigarette smoking isn't sexy anymore. All I can think is I should have ended this weeks ago on that Sunday when I ordered the bad ceviche.