Sunday, November 16, 2008

PCV Reunion in Vermont August 2007

A long time ago in a country far away, a group of new college graduates found themselves learning Malay and finding out how they could adapt to a strange and wonderful culture. In 1970, we first gathered from around the country to a "staging" in San Jose, California to find out about the country where we would spend the next two years as Peace Corps Volunteers. Malaysia was a place few of us were familiar with. In a  short time, however, we would all come to love Malaysia as a second home.

Our flight from San Francisco to Tokyo was aboard a PanAm 747. The first 747s had only recently been introduced six months earlier. None of us had ever seen one let alone flown on one. Our jet dwarfed everything else on the runway. Taking our seats in its expansive interior added to the thrill, and trepidation, we felt leaving the USA for two years of Peace Corps service.

In the early 1970s there were about 400 PCVs scattered across Malaysia. Some of us were sent to isolated kampongs while others lived in major cities such as Kuala Lumpur (affectionately known as KL) and Ipoh. But no matter where you were, you were never far from other PCVs. Phones were not always available and, of course, there was no email. So we wrote to each other or, more commonly, just dropped by unannounced. On weekends, when PCVs got together, we could always find something to do—bike over to Kajang for satay, take a bus to visit Batu Caves, or just find a quiet beach for swimming. After a year in Malaysia, a few of us went on vacation to Thailand: Dick and Roberta, Susan, and me. On that trip we got to know each other very well.

When we finished our Peace Corps service, we thought we would stay in touch but somehow over the years as we went to grad school, got jobs, married and raised kids, moved from state to state or even country to country, we lost track of each other. Within the last decade, however, thanks to the wonders of the internet, we've been successful in finding many Malaysia PCV Group 29 alumni. Susan has been the key organizer in pulling our group back together for mini-reunions. 

In the summer of 2007, Susan began planning a weekend in Vermont for those of us in the Northeast. Dick and Roberta still live in Vermont. Though divorced, they remain neighbors on the same country road. Dick farms and preaches. Roberta teaches. Also invited were Mel and Kathy who live in Pennsylvania. As it turned out, on that weekend, Mel and Kathy were unable to join us and Dick was away in Massachusetts awaiting the birth of another grandchild. Roberta stayed back, however, to be our hostess and show us a little bit of Vermont.

I had not seen Roberta since she and Dick left Malaysia in 1972. Roberta's voice and her captivating enthusiasm had not changed. It was a joy seeing her again after so many years. Although my wife Jee had heard about Roberta and had talked to her on the phone, they had never met. However, when they got together they found they had much in common from teaching to a love of cooking and handicrafts.

Roberta thinks that when she retires from teaching she may rejoin the Peace Corps. While Malaysia is no longer a Peace Corps country, there are many other places Roberta thinks she would enjoy serving as a volunteer. For Susan, who since leaving Malaysia has had a career in research biology, the idea of international living has never gone away. As her husband is from India, she regularly visits family in South Asia and travels to such picturesque destinations as China, Cambodia and Brazil. As for myself, I nearly didn't leave Malaysia. I extended my Peace Corps service in Malaysia an additional year to court Jee.  As Jee is from Penang, an island that remains one of Malaysia's most enjoyable destinations, it was hard to go. But in 1973 we returned to America so I could enter graduate school. My first job after that was back in Southeast Asia, initially in the Philippines and then in Indonesia. Later, Jee and I lived in Cameroon and Somalia. In all, we spent 10 years working overseas before we finally returned to New England to settle.

For each of us at this mini-reunion, our experience in Malaysia has become a touchstone that we use to compare all our lives since that magical time.

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