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Peace Corps Amazonia revisited

In 1966, the U.S. Peace Corps sent a newlywed couple, my wife, Sarah, and me, to Brazil. After a week of in-country orientation in Rio de Janeiro, we flew north to Belem, the capital of the Brazilian state of Para, within 100 miles of the equator. Note that Belem is the Portuguese word for Bethlehem.

We spent most of our Peace Corps time in Almeirim, a village 300 miles up the Amazon River, where we ran a health post and taught in the village school.

I’m proud of my work in the Peace Corps. I introduced basketball to Almeirim, organized PE classes and a fun run in addition to teaching English, made a map of the village, which aided the local administration to conduct a census, and assisted Sarah in the health post operation.

But my failures weigh on my memory. I was young, insecure, immature. I was there to be of service, but somehow didn’t consider — on at least one occasion — that I had responsibility beyond the scope of my Peace Corps assignment.

Twice we were summoned back to the state capital for gatherings of Peace Corps volunteers. We flew in the weekly mail plane, a single-engine Cessna that took off from a dirt path in a meadow on the edge of the village. During one of our visits to Belem, we had an unforgettable experience that I have recently described in a poem, “A man on the street in Belem, Amazonia.”

I was a passing foreigner

A man lay on a concrete walk

with frothy lips, a feeble hand

flopping on his chest like a confessing sinner

Drunk? Dying?

Too late now I return to him

his trembling, his flickering eyes

faded threadbare trousers

feet pointing awry in castoff

shoes without socks

I left him, pursuing my errand

which I’ve forgotten now

but the impotent derelict haunts me

Was he unconscious?

Was I?

I knew, upon reflection

I could have sought a policeman,

called an ambulance, asked locals

passing by like the priest and the Levite

Like me

Would I have dared to talk to him

with my flimsy Portuguese? My revulsion?

Might I even have hailed a cab,

taken him to a hospital? No.

I walked on, my privilege intact

What did I leave there in Belem?

Something vital might have been

being born, but I could not bear it

then, not compassion, not the kingdom

Its time is yet to come

In these days of pandemic, political paralysis and natural disasters, we see a spreading recognition of the need to step up and make a difference, in individual lives as well as in society generally.

Jack Seybold is a retired teacher. In his twenty years in Ashland he has performed in more than 30 theater productions, mostly at Camelot Theater. Email 600- to 700-word articles on all aspects of inner peace to Sally McKirgan at innerpeaceforyou@outlook.com.