Interview in Transitions Abroad magazine:
Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Extend Their Experience
By John Coyne
Randy Wood and Joshua Berman both Peace Corps volunteers in Nicaragua, 1998-2000, who now write for the Moon Handbooks travel series with Avalon Travel, have been traveling the world since they were volunteers in the Peace Corps. Together they have written two editions of Nicaragua; Joshua also worked on Honduras and co-authored, with Chicki Mallan, Moon Handbooks Belize (for which he won a Lowell Thomas Travel Writing Award).
Randy is an agronomist and engineer, as well as a writer, based in Washington, D.C., and travels frequently throughout Latin America. He is married to a Nicaraguan and recently completed his master’s degree in development economics and international relations at Johns Hopkins’ SAIS. Joshua is a freelance writer, photographer, and trip leader who has spent much of the last 10 years in Central America and the American West. He is currently traveling around the world on an extended honeymoon. Josh and Randy are among the few returned Peace Corps volunteers who have turned their Peace Corps experiences into more or less continuous travel and writing. I wanted to know how they did it.
John Coyne: The two of you served together, right, Josh? What was your assignment?
Joshua Berman: Yeah, Randy and I met during orientation in Granada; we were assigned a room together and he was very proud of the shortwave radio he’d brought down. I wound up serving in La Trinidad, Estelí, a town in the foothills of the Segovia Mountains. My primary assignment as an environmental education volunteer was working with teachers, assisting them to use an eco-themed activity book.
JC: What about you, Randy?
Randy Wood: I was placed in a little town of 300 people (that’s five last names, no more) called San Diego, but I worked as well in an even smaller town called El Hato. They were both in the mountains northeast of Condega, Estelí (Nicaragua). I taught soil conservation, crop rotation, and integrated pest management and tried to convince families to grow vegetables in home gardens for their own consumption.
JC: Why did you join the Peace Corps? Josh?
JB: Peace Corps seemed like the perfect ticket for me to live abroad, learn a language, continue my environmental/service work, and have a life-changing adventure—standard reasons, I’m sure, but I could not have anticipated how the experience would affect my writing aspirations.
RW: Because I thought the engineering track wasn’t going to get me overseas. I like languages, unlike most engineers (I speak fluent Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Indonesian, decent Thai, and Italian), and most engineering firms I worked for had no interest in what languages I spoke. I looked into a lot of organizations but none could really match the experience the Peace Corps promised. So for me the Peace Corps was a way to break out of the engineering rut and have some adventures overseas. It worked out too—I stayed in Nicaragua for just about five years, an additional three years post-Peace Corps.
When did you two decide to write your book? Josh?
JB: As co-editors of Peace Corps Nicaragua’s quarterly magazine, ¡Va Pue!, Randy and I discovered that we worked very well together. We experimented with a few travel pieces as well and always half-joked about writing the perfect guidebook to Nicaragua that did not exist, the book we wished we’d had when we first arrived in Managua. It wasn’t until seven months or so after our return to the U.S., however, that we resurrected the idea, something which we each did independently of each other on the same day! In fact, our emails, in which I was reporting preliminary research on possible publishers and Randy had roughed out an outline, actually crossed in cyberspace. A good sign. We pitched Avalon a month later and soon after that I was on a plane to Managua with a signed contract and a deadline.
JC: Did you sell the book idea to Moon Handbooks before you wrote it, Randy?
RW: We got it sufficiently advanced to have something to shop around, and then started identifying companies that might be interested in the book. I was familiar with—and impressed with—Moon Handbooks because I’d relied extensively on the Moon Handbooks to Indonesia by Bill Dalton when I was living there from ’93 to ’94. What set the Dalton handbook apart from the Lonely Planet equivalent was the depth of insight into culture and history, something which the Moon Handbook (and the travelers who used it) seemed to care a great deal about. So I suggested we start with Moon and then proceed to other book companies. Moon accepted our offer and gave us a tough deadline—full manuscript to be due four months later. Meeting the deadline required a day-and-night effort of writing, researching, and coordinating. Towards the end we were working 16-hour days in a dumpy apartment in central Managua.
JC: How did you go about writing the book, Randy? Did you do separate tasks and then get together?
RW: I was living in Managua where I managed a $2 million Army Corps of Engineers Hurricane Mitch reconstruction program, and Josh was in New York. He came back down to Nicaragua to begin researching, and we both hit the road every chance we could to start researching and writing. Towards the end (crunch time) we were both holed up in Managua in the Pimp Tower, writing, editing, and organizing the maps and photos. It was intense and highly fun. For our present book, Living Abroad in Nicaragua, we’re trying another approach: Josh has been working while on his year-long honeymoon in Asia and India, while I’ve been writing in my spare time while working for the Millennium Challenge in Washington, D.C., with an occasional trip to Nicaragua for fact-finding and research. Thank God for broadband Internet.
JC: Anything you’d like to add, Josh?
JB: Just that after divvying up the country on a bar-top in old Granada, we set off for our assigned regions, traveling by public transport to every corner of Nicaragua, then meeting back up in Managua to write up our field notes, edit each other’s work, and continue our collaboration on the background chapters. It was highly intensive, working day and night for five straight months. We also relied heavily on our network of Peace Corps volunteers throughout the country for an enormous mass of collective knowledge and contacts.
JC: What are you doing now, Josh?
JB: I’m in the middle of a 16-month-long, round-the-world service-learning honeymoon with my wife, Sutay, a Colorado native, registered nurse, and returned Peace Corps volunteer (The Gambia 1996–98). As we complete various journeys and volunteer assignments (Pakistan, India, Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, and Africa) I am posting scenes from our adventures on the Tranquilo Traveler (joshuaberman.net) and also freelancing for a variety of publications, including Yoga Journal, Transitions Abroad, and Outside Traveler. In addition, Randy and I are collaborating once again on a new Nicaragua guidebook for Avalon’s Moon Living Abroad series — the book is an expatriate’s guide to living in Nicaragua and will be on shelves next fall.
JC: And Randy, you’re in the U.S.?
RW: That’s right. I’m a program officer for the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. government aid agency whose mandate is to rethink how we provide development assistance. I primarily focus on Bolivia, but I’ve done a bit of work in Mozambique and am about to move overseas again to run the overseas office of the MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) in Benin, West Africa. That position should provide a nice 2-year warm weather break from Washington’s cold winters! My wife Ericka is Nicaraguan. She’s currently completing her masters in Spanish-English translation at American Univ. We met while she was working for USAID in Managua, Nicaragua.
JC: So you two are a real Peace Corps success stories. Happily married, writing, traveling, and writing books. Could it be any better?
JB: Well, the advances could be more and the sales better.
JC: God, you sound like all writers! Anything more?
This interview is reprinted with permission from peacecorpswriters.org.
John Coyne served as a secondary school English teacher in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from 1962 to 1964. After his tour he became an Associate Peace Corps Director in Ethiopia. In 1995 he returned to the Peace Corps as the Regional Manager of the New York Peace Corps Office where he conceived and edited the first three essay books about the Peace Corps experience: To Touch the World, At Home in the World, and Peace Corps: The Great Adventure.