Elizabeth Cuadra was in her 60s when she became a Peace Corps Volunteer for two years in Nepal.
“When I was approaching retirement age, but while I was still working, I started doing short-term volunteer stints overseas. Like two, three weeks at a time, mostly with Global Volunteers in places like Mexico, once on the Hopi reservation, and once I retired, I went on a trip that combined several things to East Africa. And part of that was volunteer work with Global Volunteers in Tanzania, central Tanzania.” she said. “So I had had some exploring what was out there, and I knew two or three weeks at a time was only just long enough to start to get acquainted with the people that are there, you’re just starting to be of any use and then it’s time to go home. So I started looking for something longer, maybe a year or thereabouts, I wasn’t quite thinking two years, but there didn’t seem to be anything in between.”
She submitted her application after figuring out what she could contribute as a volunteer, it wasn’t related to her career, but to life experience and a handy hobby.
“My background in horticulture was the only thing in my experience I could find that Peace Corps wanted or might want, because they weren’t looking for engineers, they weren’t looking for lawyers, so I started looking at what hobbies or other experiences I’ve had. And since I’d grown up on a farm in Kansas and we basically survived on what we grew, the animals and huge vegetable garden and all that — I was a depression kid, you know, I was born in ‘32, that was in the midst of depression. So I learned a lot about gardening from my mom in that process.”
She honed those skills when she moved to Juneau.
“After I got to Juneau in 1993, I finally decided to take the master gardener training course, and I was involved, my daughter and I both were involved, in creating the community garden out in Montana Creek, from day one.”
As it would turn out, the gardening gloves she brought would be quite handy.
In a letter to her daughter, she wrote “The one pair of gardening gloves I brought has been doing double duty. Lately I’ve put them on whenever I’ve had to capture a bat inside our living area... All one needs is to get bitten by a bat, and it would automatically mean having to go to K’du for more rabies shots.”
It wasn’t the master gardening certification that Cuadra had been waiting on for her overseas travel, it was everything else.
“I’ve always had the wanderlust but I’ve been prevented from acting on it, because of family responsibilities, being in graduate school or needing to earn a living, or having a husband and a small daughter, various constraints on what i could do,” she said, adding later “When I was practicing law, I felt like I was a prisoner to the next court deadline I had to meet and it was very hard to get any significant amount of time in a stretch, you could get three weeks off if you were lucky, but I vowed that later I would do some traveling.”
The only real ties by then were the husky, Mingma, and the house, she said, but her daughter offered to take care of both while she was away.
“I gave them a while to process my application and in that time I was running around the United States in my Volkswagen camper van with my husky dog — five months and 15,000 miles — but by the time they got it processed, I was invited to go to Nepal to do horticulture… I don’t remember the date I actually left San Francisco, but it was in the early Spring of ‘97, and of course it’s three months of training in the country and then two years of work. I came back in the spring of ‘99.”
Cuadra had been to Nepal once before, on a hiking trip with her daughter in the foothills of the Himalayas.
“I was looking for a place that would be a very, very different culture from ours. I knew enough about their culture from that trip that I knew there were many different languages, different ethnic groups, an incredible variety of people in Nepal, so I knew that I would probably wake up in some place that was strange and new to me.” Cuadra said, “Big differences included religion, language, everyday customs about dos and don’ts and really, really strong don’ts about ways that you eat, things like that, but that was part of our training, a lot of it was language, everyday, the first half of the day would be training in language, and the second half of the day was for cultural training or training specific to what we were going to be doing, like horticulture.”
In the Peace Corps, everyone gets an education. Volunteers might learn a new language and about a new culture, while natives of the country will learn the skills and abilities their country has determined would be useful.
“One thing you learn in Peace Corps, I think you probably learn it no matter where you go, is that nothing works, development doesn’t work unless it’s what the people in that community really want. And finding out what they want, instead of just coming in with what you think they need, is the only way anything’s going to get done.”
Cuadra feels strongly that this policy could be applied outside of the Peace Corps setting. “I kept watching the ins and outs of the US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan and thinking ‘they need the Peace Corps to teach them about this.’” she said.
In many instances, in many countries, Cuadra said, “Development went on for years, just laying on things like big dam projects and things that wouldn’t work because you’d go away and people wouldn’t know how to operate them, weren’t committed to them, that really, I don’t know where I first learned that, but I learned it from books before I ever went with the Peace Corps.”
Overall, Cuadra felt her impact was “positive but small.”
She ended a long-form poem with the following stanza:
multiply me by 125 (for all the Peace Corps Volunteers in Nepal)
and then add hundreds of other aid workers (from Denmark, Japan,
Canada …) all working here. With the immensity of need, if it were
just I alone, you should imagine the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean
and a single raindrop falling onto its surface –
that little splash is me.
But see all those many raindrops
“I never had such an opportunity to meet people from other European countries and Japan, places like that, there were development workers from all over the world there, and it was the most international place I was ever in.” she said of the volunteers in Nepal.
A big part of what seemed to make her experience positive was having help from Nepali neighbors. Whether it was her Tulsipur counterpart who would warn her of danger or her neighbor in eastern Nepal who would always offer food, these interactions stood out.
“Sometimes the Nepali counterpart where I was in my first post, sometimes we would go — there’s not really much way to get anywhere, we had public buses and things like that but nobody’s got motorcycles or anything hardly, I think there was one motorcycle available to that office — we would sometimes go out to visit farmers or a group of farmers together, walking. We’d have a lot of time for talking and he could see that I was very curious and interested in things like, for example, the Pipal Trees, the big trees that have a seating arrangement all around them, and he would tell me a story about that, the customary Hindu story behind that. In fact he even, he and his wife, invited me to their parents home for two or three days when there was a special festival. That was very interesting. I thought that was very special, to be invited with their family like that.”
In addition to inviting her to participate in cultural events, he looked out for her.
“There were times when I would be invited to go out on some trip father West in Nepal with somebody and my counterpart would say, ‘No, don’t do that, that’s a dangerous area,’ so I wouldn’t do it, I knew that they knew what was going on.” she said.
She was evacuated from her first post in Tulsipur after a USAID Jeep was blown up by a roadside bomb, she said. USAID and the Peace Corps moved all their staff and volunteers to new posts.
She wrote home to her daughter, “Well, Babe, it has happened. USAID is shutting down their projects and pulling their people out of Dang District; and the Peace Corps is ordering its PCVs in this district (there are three of us) to evacuate back to K’du. They want us OUT of here within the next couple of days at the latest. I don’t know what they know that we here don’t know (maybe some new event or threat since that USAID MARD Project jeep got blown up by an explosive device planted in the roadway, and then the MARD staffers in the vehicle were shot, in the district just north of here a few weeks ago). But I’ve got to follow PCorps’ orders.”
In her second post, Cuadra lived next door to a Nepali woman.
“When I went to Eastern Nepal, to the second post I had, I eventually found a place to live, a tiny house that was right next door to a Nepali woman who worked in the home handicrafts section office there in that town. She was usually looking after me. If she thought I hadn’t eaten or if she was suspicious I hadn’t eaten she would invite me over to her place,” she said, “It was with her help that I was able to put together a training course for women in one of the farming communities to make these handbags, shoulder bags, made out of — it’s not knitting, it’s not crocheting, they make their own back-strap looms to make the items, it’s a small-scale loom. She helped me to find a good teacher and I found the money. The women in the class had to hike in every day from wherever their farms were, wherever their houses were, and stay out all day, so they had to have something for lunch and we had to buy wool yarn for the handbags and stuff for them to work on. Cooperatively we put that together.”
Since her return, she has not been able to keep in touch with many people from her time in Nepal, unless they could read and write English.
“Mostly the problem is, although I learned to speak and understand the Nepali language, I never learned to read and write it, so I couldn’t write to anybody in Nepali, and if they didn’t understand English — there were some people I was able to communicate with in English, like the school master at the school where I was teaching conversational English, but the people who didn’t know English, I had no way to correspond with them. So I learned what it feels like to be illiterate. Now, they tried to teach us to read and write the Nepali language, but I don’t know how many of us learned.”
The Nepali alphabet is much different from the English alphabet and not particularly simple to learn, “It’s pretty to look at but what the hell does it mean?” Cuadra said with a laugh.
One of the things that made Cuadra stand out somewhat as a PCV was her age, though she said she was not the only volunteer to choose to serve after building a career. She felt her age may have been beneficial, as she and the other older volunteers more closely followed the health and hygiene standards, she noted, and didn’t get sick like many of the younger volunteers. Even with the help and resources provided, many were sent home.
“There are a lot of serious diseases over there. You can be inoculated against a bunch of them, and we were, but some of them you cannot be inoculated against. Some of the parasite diseases you can’t — I got hookworm once.” she said, “They were able to cure it with a pill or two, it wasn’t very serious, but it wasn’t very pleasant to think about.”
Through the whole adventure volunteering in Nepal, Cuadra said she missed her dog the most.
“I missed my husky dog more than anything else when I was in Nepal because I couldn’t communicate with her. There could be letters and email with my daughter, that sort of thing, but there’s no communication with the dog.”
And while it was likely a happy homecoming, she admitted “the biggest culture shock is coming home.”
• Since President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps by executive order on March 1, 1961, more than 200,000 Americans have served in 139 host countries. Today, 9,095 volunteers are working with local communities in 75 host countries. Peace Corps volunteers must be U.S. citizens and at least 18 years of age. Peace Corps service is a 27-month commitment and the agency’s mission is to promote world peace and friendship and a better understanding between Americans and people of other countries. Visit www.peacecorps.gov for more information.