Last June, I returned again to Saipan, the Pacific island where I served as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years in the late 1960s. What brought me back this time was the sixtieth anniversary of the World War II battle for Saipan: in exchange for a speech, I got a plane ticket and a hotel room on the invasion beach. Previous returns had been propelled by magazine assignments, by my employment at a constitutional convention in the islands, by ghost-writing gigs for island politicians, or by the simple fact that I was somewhere in the neighborhood, like Manila. But the Peace Corps is what started it all.
I told the Peace Corps I wanted Turkey or Ethiopia. I'd been reading Greene, Waugh, Durrell, and yearned for the exotic. They sent me to Saipan. The Peace Corps and this island would have little or nothing to do with the rest of my life, with the work I did, the money I earned, the person I became: so I told myself.
I couldn't have been more wrong. By the time I left Saipan in 1969, my life had been changed. The only way I could manage leaving at all was by promising myself that I would return as long and as often as I could, and that no trip would ever be called my last. Part of my life was out in those small places; not to go there would be a kind of death.
When you go to the kind of obscure place the Peace Corps sends you to, and especially when the small place is an island, you believe that life is simpler, closer, and more intimate in your new home. And you quickly learn that the opposite is true. Proximity breeds complexity, reticence, even duplicity. You develop what I call island rules: (1) that everything is connected to everything else, and (2) that issues die down, not out, and nothing is forgotten, nothing is ever over, and (3) that everything that happens, however abstract and principled it may appear to be, is, and probably ought to be, taken personally.
My personal habits changed in ways that are hard to shake. I learned to love sleeping on the floor, especially in hot weather-nothing like a cool linoleum expanse or an outdoor wooden sleeping platform. Also, I learned that you should work no harder than the people around you, and if you insist, you'd better be careful about it, as if you're doing it for the merry hell of it. How you do things-your style, grace, and humor-matter more than what you do. I learned that most food worth eating tastes better when you eat it with your fingers, and this applies most particularly to fish, mangoes, and canned corned beef.
I learned you should never kid yourself about what you're doing and how much it means. "The same tide that carries them in, carries them out": an old saying about people who show up on islands. We were outsiders, our days were numbered, our importance limited. We were there to be used, sometimes abused, as Americans; we were transient and dispensable. That's one thing I learned: get the terms of engagement down right. Also: the first person to befriend you, usually the one with good English, was often not the person in whom judgment and power resided. There were important people who might not speak English, might not speak much at all, but they were always watching.
I became a different kind of traveler. Thanks to the Peace Corps, I am unable to enjoy resorts, luxury cruises, sound and light spectacles, "traditional dance shows," intercultural tours, bus tours, study tours. Itineraries that involve daily movement from place to place insult the visitor and demean the visited. The Peace Corps taught me to hunker down. It takes time, months and years, to learn an island, a small island. Speed is arrogance.
Maybe the best lesson was about memory. Though the Peace Corps began as a closed-ended episode, it has carried through the years. There are people on two or three islands-Palau, Pohnpei, Saipan-whose lives I wonder about. When I return, when we meet, we talk easily and long, way into the night, "talking story." And there are certain places, too, that I cannot be separated from. There's a little park in Koror, in the Palau Islands, where I sight across a channel at a flotilla of limestone islands that extend for miles, in an intricate pattern of land and sea, all the way down to a place called Peleliu. At dawn and dusk, I go there. On Saipan I need to see the cobalt blue waters off Banzai Cliff, where Japanese soldiers and civilians hurled themselves into the sea. I can see death in those waters. On Ponape, I need to sleep in a thatch hut, listening to the way it rains at night, going from hard to harder, to hardest, and then . . . then . . . into another, mightier gear that's off the charts.
So students come to me, three or four a year, asking whether I think the Peace Corps makes sense for them. I talk to them about their ambitions. If they want to be secretary of state, say, by the time they're thirty-five, they'd better get a move on. But if, like many liberal arts graduates, they're still wondering about life, two years in a place they've never heard of might work out fine. I ask them about their skills, because the Peace Corps likes people who can do useful things. I offer a few warnings, a little perspective. The life they change the most, I tell them, will be their own. And then I tell them to go.
P.F. Kluge, Kenyon's writer-in-residence, has written about the Pacific Islands of his Peace Corps days in the Edge of Paradise: America in Micronesia.
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