Peace Corps Stories Section:
Main Page (Introduction and Contents)
PCV FAQ, questions about my experience and the Peace Corps in general
I Was (Almost) Tattooed by Headhunters
Quentin, the World Traveler
Stalking Extremely Small Game
The Christians and the Pagans
We Visit the Land Dayaks
Maps of Malaysia and Sarawak
Pictures of Sarawak
Peace Corps Links
Christmas News Letters
90% of the time being a PCV was pretty dull; I planned lessons, gave lessons, corrected essays, cooked, bathed and ate. These are things that happened that aren't really long enough to be stories, in no particular order. They may give you a sense of "What it was like". You can scroll through them or click to jump to:
My grandmother, bless her heart, used to write once a week and send me the daily "Peanuts" comic strip. One week she sent me a clipping from the local paper. "Is this the same place you are?" she wrote -- "it's spelled the same but it sounds different."
The lead sentence in the clipping was "The only white woman in a village full of natives, six hours by Land Rover from the capital . . .". The lady in question had gone to Sarawak for six month as a nurse, and came back with lurid tales of hungry, poverty-stricken people eating things they found in the jungle. The article made it sound like they walked through the jungle grazing, like bipedal cows.
I wrote back to my grandmother, saying there was only one Sarawak, but different people had different views of it. People in Oregon often went to the woods to gather huckleberries, I wrote, and people in Sarawak often gathered food from the jungle. Fern tips, for instance, which they used to make a soup with a pleasant astringent taste. Their staple was rice, which they cultivated. Everybody I knew had a vegetable garden as well. I was the only white person in my village, the second year, and I was eight hours from the capital, except I took the bus, not a Land Rover.
Many weeks later, at term break, I was in the capital. Half a dozen of us PCV's who met while picking up malaria pills at the office went to lunch together. I mentioned the lady. One fellow said "I met her - she was from some rigid church. First they told everybody pork was forbidden, so they had to get rid of their pigs. Then the missionaries were surprised there wasn't enough meat in the diet. She complained a lot."
When I went back to Modesto I looked the lady up and invited myself to her house for slides. (One of your main goals when you come back is finding an audience for your slides, preferably people who won't fall asleep halfway through.) We talked for a bit.
"Did you see much devil worship?" she asked.
"I saw a lot of it."
That was the first I had head of Satanism in Sarawak. (This was 1973, and there wasn't much in California, either.) I asked her what she meant. It turned out she considered Pagans, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists and Confucians all "Devil Worshipers" and had her doubts about Catholics, Jews and Mormons.
Hmmmm. One of my slides showed me helping some people chop up hardboiled eggs, which we put in a hanging basket with some tobacco and betel nut, in case the spirits of the ancestors needed refreshment. I usually said, "This is me helping at a mass, except it's a different religion." when I got to that one. I passed over it pretty quick for her.
(Note: I'm a Unitarian-Universalist. We don't have communion the same way the Catholics and some of the more formal Protestants do. We've had ice cream communions and harvest fruit communions. I would hate to have to explain "drinking blood" to somebody who was thinking about converting from one of the non-Christian religions. I'm not a theologian. That is a gross simplification. I do not mean to offend anyone.)
Term break; such a lovely sound. Our school was built when the prevailing philosophy was to keep the students away from the "distractions" of the town. So there we were, twenty-five teachers, four hundred boarders, a hundred or so Day students and the fellow from Public Works who ran our generator, four miles from town by trail, seven by bus. The town had fifty Chinese shophouses, two coffee shops and a one-room library. The biggest excitement I usually had was getting to the far coffee house about ten on a Saturday morning. The owner was the only one in town who baked bread, and if you got there at the right time the loaves were still warm.
Brian, a friend from my training group, lived in Sibu, a town with paved streets and 50,000 people. He invited me to stay with him for part of my break. I got on the bus early Saturday morning, changed to an express boat in Sarieki, and was in Sibu in time to take him to a late lunch. I had a salad that looked suspicious, but it was the first salad I'd had in three months so I ate it anyway. Brian was a primary school advisor; we met several lady primary school teachers as we wandered around the town, one of them, Mee Ling, quite pretty.
That night my suspicions about the salad solidified, and at three the next morning I was sitting on the toilet while throwing up in a red plastic bucket. My body was getting rid of everything it could as fast as possible, through both ends of the GI tract. About eight I was almost empty and trying to rest when the cramps weren't too bad.
At nine Mee Ling and another primary teacher knocked on Brian's door. I answered it
"Hello", she said, "We thought we'd show you the town."
She looked at me and realized something was wrong. "Oh. You don't feel so well, do you?" It was an understatement. My skin was ashen, damp and clammy, my eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep and I had not showered. I looked like Death warmed over.
There I was with a week's vacation, money in my pocket, film in my camera, and two beautiful lady school teachers offering me a guided tour of their fair city, and I couldn't take them up on it. Arrgghh!!
(No proper Malaysian lady would go out on the town with a gentleman by herself, but as long as there was a group it was acceptable. I didn't have a date in the US sense of the word - going out to dinner or a movie without a chaperone - in the two years I was in Sarawak.)
I explained, as politely as I could, leaving out the messy details, that I'd had problems, I really appreciated their offer, and I'd would take them up on it as soon as I could.
Brian loaned me his bicycle and I peddled down to the local hospital with my trusty red plastic bucket. A lady at the admitting desk started to ask me all sorts of questions so she could fill out her form. I started to throw up in the bucket, pausing long enough to put my identity card on her desk.
"I think I can fill out most of this for you," she said, which was the brightest point in the whole miserable day. How often does a bureaucrat offer to help?
I wanted a pill to stop the vomiting and a pat on the back; the doctor I saw wanted to keep me for three days while they filled me up with sterile saline solution to make sure I wasn't dehydrated. We compromised; I spent the night and he said he'd see what I looked like in the morning.
Morning came, the dry heaves stopped, they took the IV out and I went wandering up and down the corridors. I was trying to spread good cheer and to convince the doctors I was right as rain. I met a missionary couple from Ohio, whose daughter had a fever of undetermined origin. The husband and I talked about life in Sarawak. We compared favorite Chinese dishes and talked about hospitality; no matter how poor a village was, if a stranger came by somebody would offer him tea and cookies within ten minutes of his arrival. Then he asked the question that seemed funny at the time.
(Remember - thoughts number one through seventeen in my mind at that moment were how quick I could get out of the hospital and back to take Mee Ling and her friend up on their offer.)
"Don't you ever get lonesome for white people?"