A former Peace Corps volunteer recalls his South American tenure in the 1970s in this debut memoir.
In the mid-’70s, America was in upheaval, with the Vietnam War and then Watergate dominating the news. But Kendellen did not volunteer for the Peace Corps in response to the bad mojo that gripped the country: “I had no job lined up and no plan in the pipeline after taking five years to graduate with a degree in liberal arts….I looked at the Peace Corps as a low-paying job requiring a two-year commitment. The idea of ‘service’ was irrelevant.” The decision, he notes dramatically, changed his life. The author initially went to Venezuela to coach baseball and expand youth participation in sports. After six months, feeling unfulfilled, he wanted to quit, but the corps encouraged him to join AZUPANE, a program dedicated to children with mental and physical disabilities. Kendellen does not view his years with the corps with rose-colored glasses. During orientation, he was warned that he “would suffer from ‘a change of bowel habits’…in the months ahead.” He continually fended off questions and accusations that he and other corps volunteers were covert CIA agents. He charts Venezuela’s devolution from a nation of “promise and hope” to one that in 2016 was named “the most dangerous country in the world.” He writes evocatively about the lush countryside and teeming cities (including a standoff with an ice cream vendor who demanded 10 pesos for a cup of vanilla). He also etches indelible portraits of his fellow volunteers and locals. But at times in his thorough memoir, which includes black-and-white photographs, he tends to get lost in the weeds. At one point, his parents came to visit after a two-year absence and he gratuitously outlines all his itinerary options. When he quotes his mother’s journals that he uncovered following her death, they are generic travel observations (“Arrived at the airport around 7….Good to see Mike”). The epilogue focuses primarily on the 1976 kidnapping of American businessman William Niehous by radicals (“Researching the kidnapping while writing this book gave me insight into a side of Venezuela I knew nothing about”). Kendellen himself rates only an “As for me” in the concluding paragraph.
A meticulous and immersive account for service-minded readers, armchair adventurers, and former Peace Corps volunteers.