My Peace Corps Panama cohort stays in touch via a volunteer newsletter called El Bochinche, or “The Gossip”, open to all volunteers who served in Panama, not only our group from the late 1960’s. The latest El Bo, as we called it, had a piece about someone returning to the mountains above Arecibo, Puerto Rico, to find our old training site, Camp Crozier. The Camp is now locked and abandoned, being overtaken by vegetation.
Camp Crozier and the nearby Camp Radley were named for two Peace Corps volunteers who were the first to die in the line of duty.
The training philosophy in those days was heavy on Outward Bound training, including “drownproofing”, which meant keeping your head above water in the camp pool with your hands and ankles tied. As I recall, a couple of people in our group bailed on the first day, complaining that they’d joined the Peace Corps to save the world not run up and down a f***ing mountain — which we also had to do. The training also put us in unpredictable and ill defined situations — like sending each of us on our own to a random village in Puerto Rico where we had to find our way there, find a place to stay for three or five days, and find our way back — that would supposedly increase our initiative and creative problem-solving and lessen our fear of the unknown. Beyond those two core principles, we had five hours of language instruction a day, various classes in the culture of Panama, and hands-on practice with things like tropical agriculture that we might wind up needing for our projects once we were in country.
An ever present reality was “deselection”. We never knew what the criteria were for being sent home, but on a pretty regular basis we’d wake up to find someone in the group gone, sent home by staff whose observations of us had led them to think the person was unsuitable for the role of Peace Corps volunteer as it was then conceived.
Our sole recreation was going to Tomasito’s, a shack across the road that had warm Coke, cheap rum, and an old record player with ancient scratched records that we played nonstop.
That whole concept of Peace Corps training has gone by the boards. People do language training online. They mostly train in-country, rather than in places like Camp Crozier. And rather than “community development worker”, a vague title which basically meant “find something useful to do and do it”, volunteers are now recruited for specific initiatives like malaria eradication or delivering clean water to isolated communities.
When I read the El Bochinche article, I was interested enough to go online and look at pics of Camp Crozier, and read the few pieces written about it by volunteers who trained there. Interestingly, on this most recent trip to Panama, I met a woman who’d been a volunteer in 1964, three years before me, and trained at Camp Crozier before going to Chile. We were both walking the rain forest paths at the Canopy in El Valle, and we got to talking. The mention of Camp Crozier created an instant bond.
Camp Crozier wasn’t like the summer camp experiences that many people remember with fondness. Camp Crozier was far more grueling, and had a different purpose — to separate those likely to be successful from those who needed to go home. All of us who went through there likely have mixed feelings about the three months. They were hard, arbitrary, and may or may not have done a good job preparing us for actual volunteer life.
But the place lingers in memory. If I was in Puerto Rico, and had a way of driving up into the mountains, I’d want to see it again too.