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Don's Peace Corps days in East Pakistan 1962 - 1964
Don's Peace Corps days in East Pakistan 1962 - 1964
Letters from just about as far as it's possible to go from Davenport, Iowa without leaving the planet:
Note: Keep in mind that these letters were written by a very naive 23 year old civil engineer who had only recently graduated from college in his native Iowa, and had never experienced living in a different culture before. The educational, and oftentimes shocking, experiences of living in a foreign land was one of the prime reasons for sending young Americans off to live in foreign countries, of course . . . .
Our training took place in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Our group consisted of 37 nurses (all female), and 7 engineers (all male). After about 3 months training, we took off from New York City just after New Year's Day, 1963 . . .
Jan. 5, 1963
Karachi, West Pakistan
Well, I'm in Pakistan at last even though it's Karachi, West Pakistan. Tomorrow we'll leave for East Pakistan and I'll eventually end up in Mymensingh with two of the nurses, a lovely little redhead and a 6 ft. amazon. They say that Mymensingh is the center of activity for an agricultural outfit from Texas A&M. Today we arrived in Karachi at about 7:00 am, went through Customs, and slept 'till 1:30 pm in our hotel rooms. Then we ate our first real Pakistani dinner which was followed by a lecture on what not to eat, and a 3 hour tour by bus of Karachi. Our bus got stuck in a field when we tried to turn around, but the group is so great that we had a great time pushing it out with the help of a couple of Pakistani cowherders.
We put our dietary training to the test when we ate in the bazar. We had shishkabob (mutton) and roast chicken (spicy hot) and I find my eating tastes less finicky every day. It was very good but we could only eat well-done meats and well-boiled tea -- no pastry. If anyone gets dysentery, we all will.
Yesterday, our plane was delayed so we stayed at a very ritzy hotel in Beirut for about 6 hours. A group of us walked around part of the town and had to beat off taxicabs and a kid selling Chiclets gum.
The beggars in Karachi are often pitiful but the gov't. is discouraging the giving of alms. The bus drivers are very entertaining but I wish we had safety belts. Driving in the U.S. will be rather tame after this. I saw an Iowa auto license plate peeking out behind a Pakistani plate, but no one will believe that. Tomorrow we'll go to church at the airport and take off around 3:00 pm for East Pakistan. The weather here is beautiful -- the 6 months of Heaven. It's nice to be able to run around in a suit or shirt sleeves in January, but the other 6 months are called the 6 months of Hell. West Pakistan is somewhat like Montana where I worked -- dry, no trees, but flat. East Pakistan is supposed to be green with plenty of trees and plenty of people.
(The following was written Sunday, Jan. 6) Just came back from church -- sermon in English just like back home. I get the feeling that we haven't left the U.S. so I may not write too many letters. The radio is picking up qute a few strange sounds including American Rock 'n' Roll on occasion. Went to church in a 1957 Chevy. That's about all I can think of now.
Jan. 10, 1963
Nandina, East Pakistan
Tonight I am in a small town called Nandina, a few miles west of Mymensingh living for a few days with a science teacher (jack-of-all-trades) named Bob Saint. I'm glad to have left Dacca where we stayed for a few days. They say we were living in the worst slums and I can believe it. I was the first to get sick -- just nausea and diarhea from the change of diet. Those frail-looking nurses make me look frail. The smell of curry and the open sewers in the street didn't help my queasy stomach any, but I made it through the day and was interviewed by Radio Pakistan the next day along with three of the girls.
I'm supposed to be looking around for a job now -- a village of my own. The countryside is very nice but flat as a pancake and very dry and dusty. The water buffalo, tropical thickets, and thatched houses are very picturesque, and many people are very friendly. I think we ran into a very likeable chap today -- the kind Pakistan needs. He is scheming schemes on how to make more rupees by irrigating his land and manuring it to obtain 3 crops a year and 50 times as much money. If he carries this through, there will be considerably less famine here. Most (if not all) others blame Allah for their misfortunes, including lack of energy to work the land properly. I'm convinced that corn could be grown here in the winter months and Bob has many good money-making ideas, but there is a great amount of inertia to overcome -- no one will try something new. Perhaps if we convince one farmer, the rest will follow. Fields are often out of use during this dry season while whole villages starve.
On the lighter side -- a few minutes ago a bunch of Pakistani students were laughing at their own voices on my tape recorder as we watched by the light of a kerosene lantern. Earlier we had a few movies in Bengali shown by a projector powered by a gasoline generator. That's the only equipment Bob has besides his bicycle. Tomorrow we're going to Mymensingh for a little holiday to see a movie (mornings only) and two lovely nurses. As usual, I worry about them more than myself since we were warned about the Pakistani men's ideas of American women gained from class B movies.
Jan. 12, 1963: Spent yesterday as planned above. The girls have a nice place with electricity! They even plan on having a rug on the floor and comfortable chairs. They have many new and different ideas to try like keeping everyone in town from running through the operating room during operations, sterilization of instruments, and exclusion of animals from the corridors. They may have a long uphill fight ahead of them. One is a redhead with obvious Irish ancestry. She has found a good friend in one of the volunteers from an earlier group who also loves Irish songs. Every other word we heard yesterday had something to do with Ireland. I'm supposed to learn something called "Brennan on the Moor" on the guitar, and yesterday she sent home for a tape of Irish songs for my recorder. I hope she doesn't make me dye my hair red.
One of the Pakistani US Information Service workers has been to America and was made an honorary Cedar Rapidian in Cedar Rapids (Iowa). I'll have to get the girls over to see his certificate of citizenship. Today Bob and I are going for a bicycle ride out to see a bridge site. I hope they don't ask for a design on the spot. Tomorrow we're going to a village 16 miles away by bicycle. That should be a scenic trip. We might even get back to Mymensingh Hospital in our spare time since the nurses haven't started work yet. Next Wednesday, I'll meet the other two fellows in Jamalpur for a little agricultural training, travel to Dacca 3 days later to spend a day or two, and then to Comilla for a few weeks training.
That's about all that's happening here. I feel great and the food doesn't disagree with me yet except for a little heartburn from too much rice. The weather is still quite nice -- just right for cycling in shirt sleeves.
Jan. 14, 1963
I talked with a farmer from Colorado who is organizing a little agriculture here yesterday. He says sweet corn grown here is the sweetest he has ever tasted. We may get some seeds from him, but will you see if you can send a few packets of them to me by air mail disguised as a book or something. We could also use some popcorn seeds and watermelon seeds. Another thing I need is a tan-colored, paperback Army manual on building wooden bridges, buildings, latrines, etc. which is either in my trunk or on the front porch. See if you can send it to me c/o American Peace Corps, Dacca, East Pakistan. I hope you can stand the expense of sending it air mail or it'll never get here.
I've probably done the most travelling of anyone here since the nurses have been held down to their hospitals and the other engineers to their cities. I've been cycling, travelling by train and jeep to several of the towns, villages, and countryside of the district to see the problem areas and successful schemes around here. One suggested job is to stay at a boys' school in Sirpur where I would have a free hand at organizing my own little CCC camp with about 80 boys. We'd try to make a model farm of the place with irrigated crops of rice, corn, vegetables, bananas, etc. The idea would be to produce young men with practical agricultural experience rather than classroom theory. They (theoretically) would then go out to the countryside to teach new methods (irrigation) to the farmers instead of sitting in Dacca (bad place) drinking tea and giving speeches.
I saw my first elephant yesterday on my way to Sirpur. On that trip we ferried across the Brahmaputra on a ferry built of two old riverboat hulls and powered by an ancient Chrysler engine in good running condition -- no blue smoke coming from the exhaust. It was cooled with water (river water) poured into a 55 gallon oil drum with pipes leading to and from the water jacket. The river is flowing at an incredibly slow rate so it was an easy crossing. River boats and green vegetation made it all very picturesque, and it's a great relief from the dust. We ate a wonderful meal at the Ferguson's (the Colorado farmer) in addition to a genuine "7UP". They have a beautiful place, being rich, but he goes out into the hills (actually the place has fewer hills than Iowa -- none) to get the farmers organized and into action. This is considerably harder than it sounds so it is a great accomplishment every time this man succeeds. If I can copy some of his ways, I may be able to get something done.
Today I saw a few of the "Ugly Pakistanis". Men who do nothing in their high positions and one who laughed in Bob's face when he said the Pakistanis should teach their kids to work for money instead of looking to the U.S. for gifts. The Peace Corps and Ferguson's outfit, AID, give no money but plenty of advice to hard-working peoples. It's hard to believe how poor the people are here while perfectly good land (I could live well on the income from 10 measly acres) is going to waste for more than half the year from lack of irrigation. One kind of plant (mustard Florida broad leaf) could bring in 8,700 Rupees per acre which would be like the same amount of dollars in the U.S. It's still like pulling teeth to get projects started though. The farmers' councils must get together to submit a "scheme" and then rent a pump for a very low cost and do any work needed under the guidance and push of an expert (me?). Someday . . . things may get rolling and I might help start it. The nurses want a picnic with sweetcorn, watermelon, and pink lemonade so please see what you can do.