Land Without Time: Peace Corps Volunteer in Afghanistan

A Land Without Time cover
A Land Without Time by John Sumser

A Land Without Time ~ A Peace Corps Volunteer in Afghanistan by John Sumser

Oh mercy me, not another Peace Corps narrative, was my knee-jerk thought. Instead, flipping open the book with a seductive title — A Land Without Time,  I was enthralled immediately by John Sumser’s funny, self-aware memoir of working as a volunteer teacher in Afghanistan during the run-up to the 1979 Soviet-led invasion and coup.  For those who slept through the past six administrations,  the Soviets made the same mistake as Prince George Bush who led the USA into the futile rock pile of Afghanistan in the  early 21st century, perhaps in a fantasy of imperial fervor, misunderstanding that the British Empire had actually not succeeded there in the 19th century, nor the Soviets, nor anybody else.          It was deja mess all over again. 

Though a packet of years have slipped by, Sumser inhabits the voice of the young volunteer he was and infuses the story with the perspective of a canny adult living in the political world post-911.  He starts off edgy with a chip on the shoulder attitude towards some of the other Americans in country and wastes no time trying to make Afghani friends.  Of course, he met only Afghani men because the women, then as now, were shrouded in chadors and denied social interaction.

Sumser understood his role as a volunteer, to live within the culture, not try to change it or insult people.  This makes for some funny encounters and as the author spins out his story, he presents an increasingly wiser voice.  Honest about his fears, he tells of living on watermelon and orange soda until mustering the courage to eat in local dives and teashops.  He knows that his presence is inexplicable to an Afghani.  Why would an American leave prosperous family and comfortable home to live as a poorly paid volunteer teacher in Afghanistan?  Surely the volunteers must be spies.  Insights about cultural differences won in late 1970’s by Peace Corps volunteers could have served this century’s beleaguered invaders.

At one point he’s passed a paper sack made of an old magazine page containing sugared almonds.  Sumser notices a photo of Bertrand Russell on the magazine page.  Sumser exclaims that he ‘knows’ Russell.  During the ensuing discussion, the Afghanis determine that Russell is dead and that Sumser never actually met him or shared tea with him. While these men sit in characteristic silence etching the differences in their cultures, Sumser ponders that he knows more about Russell’s life story, his ideas and impact on academia — more about a dead man he’s never actually met —  than he knows of any Afghani including the companions in the tea shop.  To know an Afghani, you needed to be one.

There’s useful advice for travelers.  In one scene while instructing an Afghani houseman who refuses to boil

Map of Afghanistan at time of Soviet invasion. 1985
Map of Afghanistan at time of Soviet invasion.
1985

water for 20 minutes to sterilize drinking water against the invisible bugs the Afghani man doesn’t believe are in the water, someone tells the man that the holy book advises Americans to boil drinking water for 20 minutes.  That bit of cross-cultural fiction is understood by the devout Afghani who then agrees to boil the water for the specified time.  These and other scenes make this book useful for travelers contemplating hard-seat travel in barren lands.

I read this tightly written and well-edited book start to finish, non-stop.  For this serious consumer of travel writing, it was a grand read– laced with humor, tension, adventure, insight, landscapes and sharply defined characters.  I won’t spoil the suspense by revealing the white-knuckle finale of Sumser’s story.

Maybe the secret to writing a great Peace Corps narrative, or any travel story, is to let enough time go by to mature the writer and distill the events with notes of history, wisdom and cultural insight.

Details:

Academy Chicago Publishers.

ISBN: 10:0-89733-543-0

Paperback, 205 pages, 2006.

Goodreads review notes

Reagan with Taliban 1985

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An American in Oz

Jennifer Monahan has written an engaging account of an extended trip around Australia.

An American in Oz

Subtitled “Discovering the Island Continent of Australia” the book offers practical advice for first time travelers in Australia.  From my own experience in Australia, I agree with Jennifer Monahan that you need more than the typical two weeks for a journey Down Under.

Yes, the flight from nearly everywhere else, except New Zealand or Indonesia, is monumental .  Distance is tyranny in Australia — everything is a long way, even when it’s just over there.

I asked the author about her favorite aspect of Australia.  She responded:

“When I talk about my two months in Australia, I’m often asked, “What did you like most about Australia?”
and my first response is always “The people.”  Aussies are the friendliest, most laid back, seriously happy people I have
ever come across. Maybe it has something to do with living on a continent filled with sunshine and surrounded by gorgeous beaches.  I also believe it has a lot to do with the nation’s philosophy to give everyone “A fair go,” which means “Treat everyone fairly and give everyone a fair chance (to do their best).”

Prepare to be entertained as you join Jennifer and her companion during this adventure through Oz.  You’ll learn practical details and how to plan a successful trip.  She started out with a cross-continental train journey and rounded back by driving to the Queensland coast to explore the Great Barrier Reef  and Magnetic Island.  Along the way, they encounter singular characters, surprises and good luck, along with the usual challenges of adventure travel.  All the experiences reported in the book are instructive for other travelers.

Not ready for the big trip to Oz?  Reading this book will take you there vicariously.  Enjoy the ride!

The Cloud Garden

The Cloud Garden
Book Cover

The Cloud Garden

A True Story of Adventure, Survival, and Extreme Horticulture

Tom Hart Dyke and Paul Winder

Lyons Press, 2004

ISBN 1-59228-430-2

Cloth, 323 pages, with 2 maps

$22.95

Attracted by the remoteness of the Darién Gap on the Isthmus of Panama and motivated the possibility of collecting undiscovered orchid specimens, an English botanist named Tom Hart Dyke set off to cross this dangerous patch of jungle connecting Panama to Columbia at the top of South America.  Along the way, in Mexico, he hooked up with an English backpacker, Paul Winder. Dyke was out to discover new orchid species, or at least see as many unusual orchids as he could find. Winder, who had traveled widely between money-earning stints London’s financial district, was keen to explore the famously dangerous Darién Gap.

They head off on foot into the jungle, somewhat haphazardly, occasionally engaging guides, telling people of their plans. Unprepared for the rigors of the terrain — it’s not clear whether they even had proper maps — the men were soon snagged by a group of guerrillas, an off-shoot of the FARC.  The guerrillas saw them as bait for ransom and moved them from camp to camp.  New guards would join and others would leave during the ensuing nine months.

The strangely compelling narrative is told from alternative points of view — Tom then Paul, or Paul then Tom.  The authors, or an editor, have decently shaped what could have been repetitious scenes and each writer presents a different perspective on the events during captivity.  At times, the story devolves to a portrait of idiocy, ignorance and machismo blunders on all sides.  And machismo knows no gender; many of the guerrilla thugs were female.

The guerrillas fought amongst themselves and ultimately weren’t able to reach the men’s families, or anyone on the outside to relay the ransom request. As time passed, their families made inquiries through non-government organizations active in the region, which through the informal communications network must have exerted indirect pressure on the guerrillas to release the men. The Englishmen were a bit thick to have stumbled on purpose into the Darién in the first place, one of the most dangerous places on the planet.  Surely they knew what they were getting into.

Still, the story moves along and I found myself wondering how I’d respond to similar hardship.  These fellows were resourceful, keeping their spirits up through a variety of word games, garden making and calculated deceptions to test their captors’ attention. While camp routines repeat day in and day out, action picks up when the two decide to try an escape. With the end game in mind, they start stealing food and supplies, which they hide around the camp.  Their machete blade is found, foiling plans.  The escape logistics were further complicated because Dyke and Winder weren’t even sure where they were.

During the nine-month ordeal, they nicknamed their captors, the campsites and paths.  The naming functioned as a diversion and also helped them exercise some control over the situation, however illusory.  They called the last camp, where they were held two months, Inspirational Site because that’s where the idea of escape seemed an option for a while.  In the last camp, there was time for Tom, the botanist, to plant a garden.

A few of their jailors demonstrate moments of kindness towards them, but most of the guerillas callously torture animals and humiliate their captives (the two Englishmen and two mestizos who are kept in a separate area of the camp).  The women guerillas sometimes provoke the prisoners with sexual humiliation and one of the mestizos disappears, presumed dead.

My curiosity as to how their peril might resolve drove me to read faster towards the end. There are lessons in this book for other independent travelers who wander the antipodes of the earth.

Indeed their eventual release was also fraught with near slapstick ineptness. Their current set of captors releases them one December day, just sending them off into the forest and telling them never to come back.  Dyke and Winder circle for nearly a week lost in a swamp, not able to find the path their captors had indicated was the way back to civilization.  So the lads ended up returning to the guerilla camp for better directions, though they’d been warned they’d be killed if they returned.  Eventually, they find a ranger barracks in a national park in Columbia and make their way home to England for Christmas.

-L. Peat O’Neil