For years after finishing my stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador, I listed “killing chickens” in the skills/interests section of my résumé—not because of my enduring hatred for the rooster that awakened me every morning at 2 but, rather, because the Peace Corps experience is singularly unshakable. Pretty much every volunteer can list the ways in which Peace Corps changed his or her life—and Santa Fe, perhaps unsurprisingly, is practically teeming with former Peace Corps volunteers. This March marks the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary. In July, the agency will conclude its national commemorative campaign in Santa Fe, in a series of events connected with the annual Santa Fe International Folk Art Market.
I had this wonderful conversation with my father [before I left]. He said, ‘Why are you doing that? Life is work, and you need to get down to it, not do this other stuff that’s just delaying your career and your profession.’ I responded that I didn’t really think that life was going to be work; I thought I was going to enjoy it, whatever it is that I was going to be doing with my life…But if he was right, and life was work, then I wanted to stall it off as long as I possibly could!
George and Dee Gamble
Colombia and Gabon, 1962-64
George: Our training—we went to Puerto Rico first. Everybody went to Puerto Rico.
Dee: The whole idea is, you do this physical stuff that you didn’t think you could really do. You swim for 45 minutes with your arms tied behind your back—
George: And your feet tied together.
Dee: They taught you how. We rappelled off a 250-foot dam. We had to spend the night by ourselves in the rainforest.
George: The theory was, ‘We’re going to put you through some challenges that you believe you are incapable of doing because you’ve never tried those kinds of things. And you will learn that you can do them.’
Dee: And we think it worked pretty well…Every month or so, they sent a group of psychologists down to interview and test us. And people would be selected out—but it wasn’t for the physical stuff.
When we first got in training, I was like, ‘Is this really Peace Corps?’ It was just beautiful. But I was on one of the islands, and it’s very isolated. I think that’s where the hard part comes in: There was no other volunteer within walking distance of me. The plane came once a week, and that was how you got everything. The stores on the island had no refrigeration or anything like that. You’re really tested—you have all this time at first, and you don’t know what to do with it, and you have to figure out all this stuff.
It’s very much a part of me. I have rings that I’ve had since then; I haven’t taken them off. I remember this woman I was friends with, she was making dinner—and she had a relatively good salary; she was a nurse. She had a little tomato can, and she would add water to make sure she got every speck out. I never forget stuff like that. I didn’t grow up with money—I grew up poor—but it just gave me even more of a depth of gratitude for the material wealth—and also for the freedom of expression that I’m allowed to have in my country.