I can never resist anything with the word “road” in the title. There’s the Kipling poem “Road to Mandalay”, Kerouac’s beat generation epic “On the Road”, and Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” I’m also intrigued by any word with the letter “z” in it. It brings to mind such exotic references as the well “Zem-Zem” in Mecca (I have tasted water from this well, brought back by a pilgrim) and the Zagazig puzzle from the Fu Manchu book series, an encrypted message based on an Egyptian town with that name. So when I saw the title “The Road to Zinzin” on the shelf of the local Unique Boutique second hand store, my 35¢ was as good as spent.
The Road to Zinzin by Fletcher Kniebel, published in 1966, turns out to be a Peace Corps book. It is written in an engaging style–lots of characters and conversations–so it’s going to be an easy read. And I have known plenty of Peace Corps volunteers–most recently I dated a guy who had been in western Africa, the setting for this book–so the settings and situations grab me immediately.
Here’s a great snippet of conversation:
“I accept,” said Lew. “Some day, though, when I’ve got a paying job, I’m going to write to you for my board bill.”
“Forget it,” said Stevenson. “Feeding the Peace Corps is one of the few worthwhile things I do.”
May Allah bless all the Stevensons of this world.
Other situations will also be familiar to volunteers. One volunteer (only one?) has an intestinal affliction and must leave the room suddenly. Volunteers use the local expressions and customs when greeting each other. There is a volunteer from Mt. Holyoke. Corruption is rampant in the country: supplies meant for schools get derailed, officials think of reasons to charge locals for non-existent services, and volunteers’ housing is owned by locals with ties to the agencies involved who make a killing on the rents. The narrator’s life in-country gets complicated by someone with local influence.
Other situations are not as easily recognizable. Volunteers have political discussions and criticize the local government instead of being incurious about the country they find themselves in. They drive motorcycles instead of taking public transportation. They live clustered together in one village and not isolated where they can be immersed in the culture. They don’t learn the local language, except for one guy who has “gone native” (doesn’t PC have the best and most intensive language program in the world?). The emphasis is on development, not cultural exchange (this must have been before the wording of the PC goals was officially changed). There is a staffer who drives around and brings their mail instead of having it get lost in the country’s postal system or forgetting it in a corner of the Peace Corps office. And the staffer actually cares about the volunteers’ malfunctioning appliances instead of how many times a week they can get into the embassy swimming pool. The volunteers in the fictional account actually stay in Peace Corps for the whole two years. Although the Peace Corps doesn’t publish its attrition rates, in my experience, at least 50% of real volunteers are gone within a year.
Already there is an inter-racial romance in the plot, quite edgy for the 60’s, but likely to be pretty ho-hum by 2009 standards. But after living through the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, I’m ready to go back in time and peer through this little window to the 60’s. Take me home, Zin-zin road.
Here’s one reflection from a volunteer in the book that isn’t dated:
Maybe in two years out here I haven’t helped Kalya or the U.S. much, but I’ve sure learned a lot about myself and other people, and that’s worth the price of admission.