India 20A - Our Peace Corps Group


Volunteer Selection-1965

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Served 1965 - 1967   

The Mail Tells Our Experience

During our stay in India from 1965 to 1967, we did not have the use of any telephones. Aside from visits, all communication between members of India 20A consisted of letters and occasionally telegrams if the information was urgent.  This page contains letters and sections from letters, written by India 20A volunteers and sent to India 20A volunteers.  From a perspective of almost forty years, they reveal a great deal about the experiences of the India 20A volunteers and India of that time. 


India 20A PCVs Looking forward to two years on-site. Photo taken on the first day in Trivandrum, Kerala - 1965

Note that all the men are wearing shoes. After a week or so every man switched to sandels

because of the heat and humidity (and despite the warnings of getting hookworm by the India 20A public health trainers in Milwaukee).

From the left - George Thompsen, Phil Scholl, Peter Luce, Dave Johnson, Marilyn Martiny


Letter from Marilyn Martiny to Richard Smith - December 16, 1965

Letter from Marilyn Martiny  December 16, 1965

Dear Richard,

We made it here - safe & sound – but thoroughly exhausted as it was 1:30 in the morning when we arrived.  The trip itself went very rapidly since we all slept most of the way. Our Medical Officer who we had met in Trivandrum met us at the bus station with a small truck for our luggage.

Rich – our house is really great. It’s far from being rural. We’re located right on the north-south highway that goes from Trivandrum to Cannenvera (?) . Our house has a bus stop right in front and it’s a ten minute ride to Trichur.  The business section of Ollur is just up the street, so everything is convenient. Werner, Diane, Karen, & Dick are located 12 miles north of us and must also come into Trichur for supplies so we’ll probably be seeing them before too long.  Anyway – our house has all the potential of that place we went to in Trivandrum for the party.  We each have our own room, plus there’s an upstairs room, a living room, kitchen, and two other rooms that can be used as we see fit.   We have a small enclosed front yard and a back porch with extensive walled-in back yard.  There’s an Indian style Kukussa (out house type toilet) attached to the house.  The floors are red tile and we have dark, shiny wood for window frames & doors.  With a white wash job – it ought to look good.

We have many problems, though.  The main one being our open well – it’s located about 15 feet from the septic tank – and…  So it’s boil everything!  There’s no running water but we do have electricity. 

Jerry is temporarily located about 1 & ½ miles from us.  He’s a little depressed since he’s alone and so far from us and the Public Health Center which is right next door to us.  But the Medical Officer is looking for better accommodations for him.

Trichur is as large if not larger than Trivandrum. But from what little I’ve seen of it, it’s not as clean & scenic as Trivandrum – but maybe I just haven’t seen it all.

Today the Medical Officer gave us a car & driver to get into town for supplies.  We concentrated first on kitchen supplies & food.  Jerry called on the other Peace Corps Volunteers in Trichur (India 16 – Poultry) – one came in to have lunch with us.  So that makes 8 of us from India 20A, 2 rom India 16, and one German volunteer in Trichur – ought to be good for some social life.

Trichur is located only about 150 miles north of Trivandrum.  It’s kind of frustrating to think that in the U.S. this would involve a 3 hour car ride at the most, but here… 8 hrs. on a bus!  Eh bien. 

Tomorrow  we are registering with the police, going to the bank, and getting ration cards for rice, sugar, & kerosene – then we’re coming back to clean from stem to stern.  So I can see w’re going to be more than busy these next few days. 

Richard – Please write and let me know how you’re settling in - Say hello to Gay & Dave and ask them to write, too.

Did you get to go swimming yet?


P.S.  Forgot to tell you about some experiences we had today.  We are like freaks in a side show!!  All afternoon about 50 school aged children gathered about our front gate – when any of them would see us, they’d laugh & squeal – they’d follow (all 50) you around the street to the shops, etc.  The staring & curiosity is much more intense here than in Trivandrum, or even Delhi.  Kinda gets on your nerves after a while. 

This morning, the midwife, sweeper, lady health visitor, and education extension worker came to the house to visit. – They know English about the same way I know Malayalam – so we all had an interesting conversation – looked like a game of charades.




From Kathleen Arganbright to Richard Smith - January 15, 1966


So you've taken to the ocean - you old NYC'er. What luck. I've seen it (only) three times since being here. Yesterday we spent shopping in Calicut. Stopped by the part with its fishing flet and carts; wandered back, less Rs 3 with a boy loaded with wood following behind. Blasted imperialists! At first I really rebelled against the role, but now have decided to accept it gracefully – like wearing sandals or eating rice. What is the alternative? Of course, I keep explaining the necessity of accepting this role which probably means that I haven’t – without feeling guilty. Anyway, I suspect that an old middle-class-values revel, like yourself might have experience the same trauma (?) I’d like to get a reaction from Miss Moos. Even the M.P’ers like Linda Eide – so the crew says are well housed, if lonely, sick and isolated.

Nance and I have a 6 room manor with a veranda. All of us eat here – dining on the works of our jolly old British trained cook. (How can we curse the British?) Feasting, running about the countryside on Sunday. You know the scene: visiting the BDO. Etc.

I like this place though! Never been homesick really. Shastri’s death gave a sort of perspective to the thing – as if, all of a sudden, I were standing on a platform – me an American, addressing the Indian people; a sort of kinship I guess; not that the death was taken tragically – it wasn’t. But a sort of sense of the fullness of our position as outsiders transcending the system, but accepted by peoples of all financial levels and castes. Such freedom we never have at home!

But freedom I think is hardest of all entities to handle (a bit of stench just drifted in from somewhere) All my time, my own! Really? Can I accept it? My friend, teaching in France found the same to be true with only a few hours of actual planned time. Do all peoples babble every hour like we do? Well we are in the usual throws of theory here.  The concrete, so far consist of paper plans (good!) and talk foundations (also good!) for a poultry project - George and Phil - not to get off the ground for a while. Meanwhile, a basic school health program (?) hitting use of latrines, clean water and kitchen gardens (all verbal realities of course).

Anyway, does it matter? Yes I’ve decided. What else have we to offer? Our great American genius? (I can’t even get a good fire going for a meal without an hour’s work)

Oh well – the sun is beating down on the mid-morning palm trees. Time for a trip to the Public Health Center to see what the scoop is.

I don’t know about coming down yet. Keep us informed you old statesman.


January 15, 1966




Letter from Dennis Best, PCV stationed in Dabra, M.P. to Richard Smith - January 19, 1966

Dear Dick, “Ess”, Dave & Gay,


Dick, I just opened your letter and it’s great to hear about your setup. I really envy your location over looking the Arabian Sea. My house is situated about 100 ft. from the railroad tracks – that “Bombay Special” is driving me crazy!  Actually, my place is pretty comfortable, although I haven’t received my furniture yet. I’ve been to see the civil surgeon four times, in Gwalior, it’s always “next week” about the furniture. I hope I get it before the seminar.


The View From Kerala-Scenes like this are what most of the Kerala PCVs saw every day


You know, I experienced my first case of “Indian dysentery” on the train from Delhi. It was a very “unpleasant trip.”  When I arrived in Gwalior, a large city of 400,000 and only 23 miles from Dabra, I met 3 other PCV’s all of whom were going to Dabra.  Dabra’s a small place (about 45,000) but it’s got its share of Peace Corps Volunteers. I learn now that there’s a nurse coming later this month.  I’ve spent the past two weeks touring the near by villages, checking out the govt’s nutrition program. Needless to say it’s in bad shape, but with 4 of us working (the others are in poultry and agri extension) we “should” be able to do something.  I qualify that because in my brief experience with the “administrators” things don’t always work out as they should.  That brings to mind the situation at the P.H.C. The doctor here reminds me of Elder* and the pugnacious Indian of the “role playing days.”  This guy is well known for his graft and so far he’s been an all round “Bastard” if you will excuse the expression. I think most of my work will be with the Agri extension Officer.


On the domestic side, I had a heck of a time finding a cook, but fortunately a couple of weeks ago I got a young Muslim, and since, have been trying to show him some American Dishes. It’s not always easy because he speaks no English.  Although that with 4 pcv’s here we might be in the same household, but I’m living alone.  Not for long though, you know I told you about the nurse, well, you’ll never guess who she’s supposed to live with – my long lost sister!!


Since I was stationed alone, I haven’t heard from any of “my” group, but B. Gould said we would have an orientation period in late Jan. (we went directly to our sites with no regional orientation in Dec.) so I’ll see them then. Actually, I was much closer to the Kerala group and sure hope I can get down to see you there.  I was thinking I might take some leave after the seminar depending, of course, on where it’s held. Also, I’m only about 200 miles from Delhi and am anticipating some “official” trips, so if for any reason you have occasion to go to Delhi, let me know.


Well, Dick, I can’t begin to tell you everything that’s happened to me and I know your experiences have been many too. I would like to hear about your activities at the P.H.C..


Hey, “Es” great to hear from you even if you are writing small now! Been to any plays lately? I’d like to hear more about those trips to Trivandrum, remember the “Peace Corps Image.” Ha Ha!

Listen, Dave ‘n Gay, I’m always available for any advice; I’m sure Peace Corps Delhi would give me official leave! Sorry about that Dave! Anyway, I hope I’ll hear from you all soon.


See you all at the Seminar,




* Dr. Joseph W. Elder, Chairman, Indian Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and one of India 20 A's comparative studies trainers.

Richard Smith to Katie Thomas - 1967

Kalady 7/25/67


Dear Katie,

If you start from the premise that there is no God given reason to be living then you are left with three alternatives, 1) kill yourself, 2) live a vegetable type of live, 3) create a reason to be living so that your life has some meaning or take note of that which means something or is of significance to you so that life is at least reasonable.


PCV Jerry Feck in the village of Malayatoor (1967) 

I take the third way out. It boils down to this example: A few months ago I and one other PCV, Jerry Feck from Ernakulam, climbed Mt. Malayatoor during the St. Thomas festival. Along with us were about 200,000 Indians. It was a hot, humid typical Kerala day.  We had no drinking water and struggled to the top along with the beggars, mystics, religious and what have you. ¾ of the way up a rainstorm hit and we got soaked to the skin and finally got some water to drink. We kept going on and finally made it to the top. We rested, then came down & took a country boat back down to Kalady.  When we mentioned to people afterward that we did climb Mt. Malayatoor on St. Thomas day, they just shrugged their shoulders and said “that’s nice.” Hence, meaningful experiences are limited in range to those that experience them first hand. Nobody else will realize or care as to exactly what you are doing or did and tragically sometimes even the person you are experiencing it with does not realize that anything of any significance has taken place. Therefore life is personal, and two people or more that share the same

experience and have it affect them & mean

St. Thomas' footprint captured in stone at the top of Mt. Malayatoor (1967)

something are indeed fortunate. They have perhaps created a “community of spirit.” Unfortunately the big hang up is that I don’t think anyone else thinks this way.


Aug. 22 Tom, Helen, Karen Thornbery and I have train tickets on a through car to Delhi. On Aug. 31st I will be on a plane to Israel. If your next letter won’t arrive before the 22nd then address it in this manner.


Richard Smith

c/o Bill Lyman

Kibbutz Yakum

Closed Post Bag

Tel Aviv





Peace Corps Description of Service

Every returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) received a similar letter.


Peace Corps Volunteers, Richard Smith and Tom Culberston with their cook M.J. David in front of their house in the town of Kalady in the State of Kerala, India in 1967. Note the bicycles which were given to the volunteers by the Government of India and which were their primary form of transportation.

© R.A. Smith