Saturday, February 9, 2013

Book Excerpt: The Gringo: A Memoir by J. Grigsby Crawford

J. Grigsby Crawford, author of the book The Gringo: A Memoir, stopped by to share with us an excerpt from his book.

First it’s the heat. The heat is what hits you first.

La Segua sits about an hour inland from the coastline and be- longs to a large wasteland of sweaty, beaten terrain that gets pounded, in intervals, by heat and rain. Winkler had remarked that it was the Wild West of Ecuador. To me it felt like swamplands in the Deep South—the antebellum South.

The province of Manabí is the anti–bread basket of Ecuador. It’s low, if not the lowest, in all the statistics you want to be high in—literacy, production, health—and high in all the ones you want to be low in—poverty, domestic violence, hunger. The people there wake up every morning and get kicked in the face by life. Every day is a battle and they’re losing.

As a Peace Corps site, it was perfect. You name it—plumbing, running water, stable electricity, post–elementary school educations—and they didn’t have it. The bar was so low that the possibilities for improving the quality of life seemed endless.

Approaching La Segua from the north, you pass a giant landfill between the highway and the ocean. The toxic runoff from the fill drains down toward a shrimp farm leading out to sea. Wisps of smoke and sick-looking pelicans perch atop the mounds of smoldering gray waste in a postapocalyptic image.

The chief export of Manabí, technically speaking, is bananas. But if you ask anyone else in Ecuador, the chief export of Manabí is laziness. It’s the unique brand of stereotype that, if true, is at least forgivable. On either side of the highway, I saw an endless landscape of potbellied men swinging from hammocks, with a machete in one hand and a beer in the other. In the heat and with so little going on, their sloth is understandable—not to mention that with every meal being a variation on rice and plantain, there was literally a finite amount of energy your body could exert.
It is a strange place with strange stories. But mostly, it is a land of distrust.


Before we left Cayambe for our short visits, our program managers gave us a batch of information about our sites and the people we’d be teamed up with, known as our counterparts.

These locals were described as heads of organizations or the community. Among other things, they were in charge of finding us our initial housing for the first few months. In addition to working with us, they were, in a sense, responsible for our well-being. For instance, if we ever left our site—even for a day—we were supposed to notify them when we left and when we returned.

Throughout training, counterparts had been described to us as figures of authority, so you can imagine my surprise when my “boss” turned out to be a child.

I stood on the dirty sidewalk of the bus station and called my counterpart to tell him I’d arrived.

“Where are you?” he said.

I told him I was standing over in the corner of the parking lot. There was a pause. “Oh, I see you,” he said. “I’m walking toward you now.”

“I don’t see you yet. Are you sure you see me?”

When I said this, he was standing about five yards away—directly in front of me. Expecting to see an adult, I’d been looking right past him.

He was twenty years old (and fresh off a university degree in tourism—a fact he wasn’t about to let me forget, ever), but he looked no more than fifteen.

He wore flip-flop sandals, short shorts that rose uncomfortably high on his thighs, a Fidel Castro–style green hat cocked to the side, and a green tank top that read in English, “Ca$h Rules Everything.”

He was about five foot six and 120 pounds. In addition to the initial shock that my boss was younger—and indeed looked so much younger—than I, his appearance startled me. Everything about him was grossly out of proportion.

His nose was enormous, and this is something I can say with- out feeling bad, because my own isn’t exactly petite. His, though, was crooked, leaning to one side just enough to make me wonder if it caused him respiratory problems. His nostrils, however, had a permanent flare to them that must have made up for any inhalation deficiencies caused by the crookedness. His neck was too big for his head—like a wrestler’s, but worse, since it wasn’t balanced out by large muscles elsewhere on his body.

He had easily the largest Adam’s apple I’d ever seen on a human being. It bobbed up and down enthusiastically, as if doing calisthenics, every time he spoke. And, because the picture just wouldn’t have been complete without them, he had a set of pointy elfin ears shoot- ing out from his head.

When he removed his Fidel hat, he revealed a glistening helmet of hair slicked back with ungodly amounts of gel into an aggressive faux hawk. His hair and ears formed three towering, sinister peaks that all seemed to point directly at me no matter where I stood—like the eyes of the Mona Lisa.

When he spoke, every vein in his neck bulged out, causing a disturbance that made it seem as though talking even at an indoor volume caused him pain. He would tilt his head at an angle and the rope-like veins and hyperactive Adam’s apple caused a commotion. As for his voice, there may be an actual medical term for it, but the best I can do is say he sounded like Kermit the Frog. Along with the neck’s peculiar components, it all combined for a perfect storm of verbal and physical cacophony.

His feet were also large—noticeably larger than mine—particularly the toes, which is not insignificant since I was about half a foot taller. But it was his hands that got me the most. They were fit for a man twice his size. They were absolutely massive. Really—I can’t stress enough how truly gigantic and out of place his hands were. They were so disproportionately large for his body that, after a while, they were all I could look at. On top of their excessive size, he used them—in conjunction with his permanently puckered lips—in a manner that can only be described as effeminate. They were giant ogres of hands that moved daintily through the air and into pockets and across cell phone keypads as if they were scared of injuring the air around them.

The combination of all this would horrify me for weeks to come. This was my boss. His name was Juan Mendoza.

About the book:

Within weeks of arriving as a Peace Corps volunteer in a remote corner of South America, Crawford gets a lot more than he bargained for: a narrow escape from a kidnapping plot hatched by the people he was sent there to help.

Then things only get stranger.

In his quest to find adventure, Crawford undertakes a savage journey of danger, drugs, sex, and alarming illness. When anyone else would have packed up and quit, he endures—despite the unbearable pain and isolation. What resulted is The Gringo: one part literary tale of two lonely years in the Amazon jungle and one part gonzo-journalism account of a government agency wandering aimlessly through the twenty-first century.

Crawford doesn’t glamorize the darkness or poverty he encounters. Instead, with fragility and toughness, he delivers a memoir of life abroad that is unlike any other. Filled with sharp humor and eye-opening observations about the human condition, this is an unforgettable story that grabs the reader and doesn’t let go.

About the author:

J. Grigsby Crawford grew up in the Great American West. He graduated with honors from the George Washington University with a degree in Political Science & English. Upon graduating, he joined the Peace Corps. His nearly two and a half years in Ecuador—first on the coast and later, after a failed abduction attempt, in the Amazonian region—provided the material for his first book, The Gringo. As a journalist, Mr. Crawford has covered everything from presidential primaries and politics to murder and local mosquito populations. His writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, Congressional Quarterly, the Colorado Daily newspaper, Mile High Sports Magazine, and various blogs, ranging in topics from sports to men's fashion. He lives, somewhat peacefully, in a cozy little neighborhood tucked in Northwest Washington, D.C.

Visit his website for more information:


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