John has asked me to write a guest blog post for him, and I am happy to do so – it’s the least I can do to thank John for the incredible hospitality that he showed us, and for making our dream come true of returning to Ligolio with our kids.
Some context: my wife Anne Geissinger and I were Peace Corps volunteers in Ligolio, the same village where John is serving, from 1995-97. The two of us and John are basically the only three Peace Corps volunteers ever to serve in Ligolio (technically there were two others, a couple that replaced us at site in 1997, but since they quit and went home eight days after they arrived, we don’t really count them.). Further, we were in the first group of Peace Corps volunteers in Suriname, and, poetically, John is in the last group of volunteers in Suriname.
We returned to the US 16 years ago and have lived our lives since then, frequently thinking about our friends and our incredible experience in Ligolio, and have often talked about whether or not we could make it back there for a visit. We did return once, in 2000, for a short visit, before we had kids. But then Emma was born in 2001, and Beatrice two years later, and while we kept thinking about going back to Ligolio, the kids were not old enough, or the trip was too daunting, or we were just too worried about the very real dangers that come up when you take American children into the middle of the Surinamese rainforest. We really didn’t think it would ever be feasible.
Then two years ago, we happened to catch an episode of the Food Channel’s Bizarre Foods, filmed not only in Suriname and not only in a Saramaccan village, but with the help of a Peace Corps volunteer, Amber Tris Ray. We found Amber through Facebook, and she told us that there was a new Peace Corps volunteer going to Ligolio, which is how we connected with John.
John made this trip possible. Even with two (if I do say so myself) really well-behaved kids, it would have been impossible to go to the village without having John to set up the basics of housing, water, kitchen facilities, in-country transportation, bathrooms, etc. We just wouldn’t have risked showing up with kids and having something basic like “where will we get our water from?” not worked out in advance.
Even with everything in place, we were still really nervous going into this experience. Our 2000 visit had been OK, but frankly was somewhat boring and underwhelming. Without a role to play in the village, we floundered for the five days we were there. We had no real purpose or point. What if that happened again? We warned Emma and Bea that we might have some long, boring times, and packed extra books. We even discussed the possibility of how we might contact Gum Air to move our charter flight out of the village up a day or two if things got really bad.
Those fears were absolutely for naught. Our time in Ligolio was spectacular, and the days completely flew by. Having Peace Corps volunteers around (and here we have to give a HUGE shout-out to nearby PCV Christina Hansberry, who we also really loved getting to know), and being there with our children gave us focal points outside of our friends in the village. We spent hours and hours talking with John and Christina about the incredible, special, exhausting, challenging, breathtaking, life-changing, maddening experience of being a Peace Corps volunteer in Langu (the section of the river that includes Ligolio and Christina’s village of Stonhuku), and when we weren’t doing that, we could show our kids this remarkable tiny corner of the globe, and delight as they befriended and played games with the children of our Saramaccan friends. It was just a magical week.
In addition to thanking John and Christina for the role that they played in making it possible for us to return, and for hosting us and putting up with endless stories of 1990s Ligolio, I also have to express my deep admiration for them. Anne and I went through this experience together, as a married couple. I can’t begin to count the number of times back then that we said or journaled or wrote in a letter home, “I never could do this without my spouse here.” Sure, our experience was “harder” in some superficial ways. John and Christina have electricity (sometimes) and there is running water in the village (occasionally), and now there is more access to the city and (the big difference) everyone has a cell phone. But, fundamentally, the experience they are going through is at its core the same thing that we went through. And we have the experience to tell you this: it’s damn hard. We did it together, and neither of us thinks that we could have done it alone, even if you gave us a cellphone and electricity and running water. So: “Big ups to John and Christina.” (Yes, that’s an inside joke from our visit.) You two are rock stars, and this will be one of the most challenging things you ever do (at least until you have children!).
But I also know that while this has been a challenging experience for John and Christina — they have given up a lot of creature comforts, and been away from family and friends, and been confused and damp and itchy more than they will be for the rest of their lives — they are going to gain much, much more by going through this than they ever gave up. Being Peace Corps volunteers in Ligolio changed Anne and my lives in thousands of ways, big and small. It changed how we view the world and our role in it. It changed how we vote, what we care about politically, how we think about language and culture and money and relationships. It impacted how we raise our children, and what values we try to teach them. It taught us what we are capable of, alone and together. It gave us an undying love of mangos, a name for our eldest daughter, a direct path to my current job, the opportunity to write a book, perspective to get Anne out of a job she didn’t like, and a secret language that our kids don’t understand (literally and metaphorically). Our Peace Corps Suriname experience permeates every nook and cranny of our lives, and we think about it every day. John and Christina will, too.
This visit continued to change and challenge me. Since we got home from this trip I have been talking a lot with anyone who will listen to me about how different and in many ways better our lives were in the village than they are here in America. We spend a lot of time in the US thinking about stuff that doesn’t matter much at all. Life in Ligolio is a lot simpler, a lot more elemental. You’re tied to the outdoors and to the basic stuff of life every day. People there live and take care of the basics, and don’t do much else, and they do it all with a sense of self and culture, surrounded daily by their family members, in a way that we have gotten pretty far away from here in the US. It’s been a challenge, since coming home, for me to begin to think about how we can have those same priorities and simplicity in our lives here. And you know what? Our culture kind of makes that impossible. We’ve “developed” beyond that, perhaps to our detriment. These aren’t easy issues to grapple with, even 16 years after we left Ligolio. Those who know and love John and Christina need to know that they may struggle with these same issues of reverse culture shock when they return to the US, too.
John and Christina are going to come home this summer changed forever, and we hope they know that they always have a home in Grinnell, Iowa that has its doors open to them.