Two stints of Peace Corps service separated by four decades

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(Photo courtesy of Christopher Castelli)

I have been a painter for the past 45 years. I received a bachelor’s in fine arts from The Cooper Union in 1970 during the era of student unrest associated with civil rights and the Vietnam War. Rather than go to graduate school, I wanted to make a positive contribution to society. For several years I had noticed Peace Corps ads in the New York City subways, and decided to apply right after graduation. I was accepted and from 1970 to 1972 served as an Agriculture Volunteer in the Punjab region of northern India. I lived in a small, fairly prosperous agricultural village.

The primary mission of our Peace Corps group was to introduce a variety of improved agricultural practices developed in India and the U.S. This included the use of fertilizer, pest control, tractor-drawn implements and the introduction of high-yield crop varieties, such as triple-dwarf wheat and rice. I also used my artistic abilities to paint signs for the local development office showing the beneficial correlation of fertilizer use to crop yield. Our Peace Corps group was one small part of the Green Revolution, which succeeded in making India self-sufficient in food production. Initially, farmers resisted the new crops because they required increased chemical inputs which small farmers could not always afford. They were reluctant to stray from their familiar successful practices because most could not risk failure with an unproven crop. The Indian government encouraged the farmers by instituting minimum price supports. With a guaranteed price, the farmers were more eager to plant the unfamiliar crops. While several farmers in my village planted the new hybrids as a cash crop, they still maintained plots of traditional “desi” wheat for their own use. They assured me that the traditional wheat made much better chapatis (flat bread).

While I was in Punjab, the first wheat combine harvesters were being introduced. These machines could harvest a variety of grain crops but were not meant to navigate small patchwork wheat fields. Seeing the benefits of a prompt harvest, farmers made adjustments to their fields to accommodate the combines.

In more recent years, the Green Revolution’s initial success has had unintended consequences as intensive farming outstrips the capacity of irrigation, and has required ever more costly chemical inputs that have bankrupted many farmers. In response, “Green Revolution 2.0,” an international program, is working on more sustainable high-yield agriculture: a “greener” Green Revolution. At the moment farmers from Punjab are demonstrating in New Delhi in order to maintain a guaranteed price for grain.

During the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 our entire group was evacuated from Punjab. A Peace Corps jeep arrived in my village the day the war began, and by the time we gathered the other Volunteers in the area it was night. We had to reach Jullundur city to stay with the Volunteer there before heading to New Delhi the next day. But the driver couldn’t turn on the headlights for fear of being seen by Pakistani jets; in fact, there was a total blackout, as even household lights were extinguished. At a railroad crossing, police peered into our conspicuous jeep and opened a door, causing the interior light to go on. The police went into a frenzy. The situation was almost comical, but with everyone on edge, there could have been grave consequences. The police calmed down once the driver was able to explain who we were.

The next day, we proceeded to New Delhi and were housed with Peace Corps staff. No one knew how long the war would last, so we were permitted to travel south, away from the border. Two other Volunteers and I decided to take a two-day train ride to Tamil Nadu to visit another Volunteer and see a more ancient part of India with entirely different languages, customs and cuisine. Fortunately, the war lasted only 13 days, so we were soon able to return to our villages.

My evenings and spare time were typically spent in conversation with farmers and village youth, discussing farming, local legends and current events (like a U.S. moon landing), among many other things. I read extensively, including some of Gandhi’s treatises on nonviolence.

One of my greatest challenges was learning the local language, but I had the good fortune of identifying an excellent tutor who taught at the nearby primary school. Over a period of 18 months, his instruction, along with daily interactions with villagers, gave me a decent mastery of the language. Another challenge was staying healthy, as water-borne illness required constant vigilance.

I am most proud of becoming integrated into the village community, and being able to nurture mutual trust and understanding. The most important lesson I learned during service was to develop personal connections. Having grown up in New York City, my two years in India gave me a broader view of a complex world.

Many years later, my wife Christine and I went on to pursue graduate studies in international development following an NGO volunteer assignment in Nepal, which was offered because of my Peace Corps experience in the region.

In 2014, Christine and I went to Morocco as Volunteers in the Youth Development sector. My second Peace Corps tour was completely different from the first.

Christine and I were stationed in a small Moroccan city with modern amenities. Our primary assignment was teaching English at a youth center, where we used our art background to improvise activities using visual imagery. For example, we created animals-of-the-world worksheets to help children generate simple sentences in English, and had young adults create collages about memorable experiences that they would then explain in English.

The downside of being a couple teaching English is that we had few opportunities to use and improve our Arabic; at home, we spoke to each other in our native language, and our students always wanted to practice their English!

Christopher Castelli was an agriculture Volunteer in Punjab. He was involved in plant protection, tractor maintenance, mechanized implements and new crops. Christopher worked with several farmers to plant test plots of triple-dwarf wheat and painted signs for the Block Development Office showing the correlation of fertilizer-use to crop yield.

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