Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Carl Michael "Mike" Waag, April 28, 2021

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:05 - Background/introduction to Peace Corps

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Partial Transcript: Alright, we're all set, we're recording...

Segment Synopsis: Waag describes himself before joining Peace Corps as a struggling along to get through college. He shares that in the beginning, he was not the best student but worked his way through college. He attended the University of Arizona in Tucson. He began on a pre-dentistry track, but after about a year he became a Spanish major with a few science minors. In the summer of 1966, Waag began working in a copper mine in Nevada. He did not enjoy the experience of living in a company town. Waag remembers walking through the student union on campus and being handed a card with information on the Peace Corps. In his spring semester, he received a telegram from Peace Corps inviting him to serve in Brazil. About a month later, it was suggested that he switch to Ecuador since he already spoke Spanish. The following summer, Waag flew to Montana for training.

Keywords: Card; Colleges & universities; Company town; Majors; Student union; Summer jobs; Telegram; Work experience

Subjects: Air travel; Brazil; Copper mines and mining; Dentistry; Ecuador; Education--Higher; Language and languages; Lifestyles; Minors; Montana; Nevada; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Ecuador; Spanish; Students; Tucson (Ariz.); University of Arizona

00:06:54 - Peace Corps training

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Partial Transcript: So tell me, what do you remember from your training?

Segment Synopsis: Waag remembers keeping an open attitude and learning as much as he could during his Peace Corps training. He explains that those lessons included castrating calves, rowing beets, raising rabbits, and attending lectures focused on agriculture. The Spanish classes he attended were aimed at teaching the volunteers how to speak Spanish rather than reading the language, which he found rather helpful. Each weekend, they would hike up the Rocky Mountains of Montana and camped outdoors. Waag explains that those trips prepared him well for his time in Ecuador. He remembers his weekend assignments where he would be dropped off in a small town in Montana on the railroad. Waag would stay in a house for two nights and would work with a rancher there. The second weekend assignment, they went in pairs and stayed in a hotel in a different city. Waag remembers wandering around the city and buying tickets on the Northern Pacific Railroad to get home. The townspeople had some idea of what Peace Corps was and many were very friendly. Waag remembers other types of lessons like music, which he thought were very fun.

Keywords: Assignments; Attitude; Fun; Hotel; Lessons; Rancher; Speaking; Weekends

Subjects: Agriculture; Beets; Camping; Castration; Communication and culture; Cows; Ecuador; Farmers; Hiking; Language and languages; Learning; Lectures; Montana; Mountains; Music; Northern Pacific Railroad Company; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Ecuador; People; Rabbits; Railroad; Reading; Rocky Mountains; Spanish; Teaching; Tickets; Train; Training; Voluntarism; Volunteer workers in community development; Volunteers; Work

00:16:20 - Arrival in assignment site

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Partial Transcript: Alright let's . . . let's move to the big day, right you find you're accepted to Peace Corps.

Segment Synopsis: Waag remembers feeling excited and a bit anxious to begin this adventure. He recalls that he shared his plans with his mother to volunteer with the Peace Corps while still considering enrolling in dental school. Waag then shares details of traveling to his site, feeling euphoric while exploring new places along the way. He was given a bus ticket and was met at his bus stop by the regional director and they had lunch together. Waag remembers spending his first afternoon in his assigned site walking around town and meeting different people. That evening, Waag stayed in a house on stilts which had a palm thatch roof and an unsteady floor. Waag remembers the people there being so gracious. When it got later, Waag walked down a narrow trail to a nearby town where they met three other volunteers who were building a school. What he most remembers from that night, and what set the tone for his time there, was a woman wailing over her dying child. Waag stayed there for a few weeks and became attached to a different project which focused on developing leadership skills. He remembers being alone in their shared house and helping a child remove a fishhook that had gotten stuck. Waag felt a great sense of satisfaction in helping remove the hook and being able to help someone.

Keywords: Adventures; Assignment; Bus stop; Bus tickets; Bus travel; Construction projects; Dental school; Fish hook; Injury; Plans; Project; Regional director; Skills

Subjects: Children; Communities; Construction projects; Death; Ecuador; Housing; International travel; Interpersonal relations; Leadership; Mother; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Ecuador; Schools; Suffering; Travel; Traveling; Villages; Voluntarism; Volunteer workers in community development; Volunteers

00:32:13 - Small group discussions/leadership program

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Partial Transcript: What happened? Did you stay there, did you get off to your own project, and, how did you...

Segment Synopsis: Waag explains that another Peace Corps volunteer was organizing a program which involved discussing problems in the town with the locals to understand the needs of the community. Understanding community needs helped the volunteers to design helpful solutions. Waag recalls that they also watched movies together. Waag remembers that locals especially enjoyed movies about indigenous people. Waag describes the development of the leadership program, which had been operating for about a year before he arrived. In discussions with indigenous people, Waag recalls that some topics brought up were practical things like carpentry, and how to address community problems. A major concern of the locals was losing their land. A tea company in the early 1960s had a cut a road through the area and peasants had come into the area looking for land. Waag describes a law which was intended to deal with interactions between land renters and their landlords. He recalls the landlords at one point evicting all of the renters off of their lands. The issue of land ownership came up in almost every community they traveled to.

Keywords: Community needs; Land dispute; Land ownership; Leadership programs; Locals; Movies; Renters; Skills; Solutions; Tea company

Subjects: Carpentry; Communities; Community development; Ecuador; Eviction; Hobbies; Indigenous people; Land use; Landlords; Law; Leadership; Logistics; Native Americans; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Ecuador; Poverty; Programs; Recreation; Teaching; Volunteer workers in community development; Volunteers

00:50:54 - Conversing in Spanish and Quechua/comuna land ownership

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Partial Transcript: The highland volunteers . . . they had learned Quechua, right?

Segment Synopsis: Waag explains that many of the volunteers had a 'smattering' of Quechua although there was no formal training in the language. He shares that most of the community meetings were in Spanish and that many locals were able to speak Spanish, especially the men. Though he was among the top in training, Waag recalls that speaking in meetings was initially intimidating as the others were very good at speaking Spanish. Within six weeks, he felt he was totally fluent and he would go several weeks without speaking any English. Waag became somewhat of a broker for other projects, where locals would come to him to help communicate with the volunteers who were not as fluent in Spanish. His skills in Spanish put him in a good position in the work volunteers did on behalf of land defense. Waag remembers the collusion he saw and how illegal the entire issue of land ownership was in the area. He shares that towards the end of their time there, everyone moved into a Catholic church for two weeks. Waag and the other volunteers were able to live, eat and learn about Comuna law. Because of his work in protecting the land of the Comuna, Waag shares that he received death threats, including an encounter with the principal instigator of the land ownership dispute.

Keywords: Collusion; Comuna; Fluent; Instigator; Land disputes; Land ownership; Language training; Native speakers; Projects; Speaking

Subjects: Catholic Church; Communities; Corruption; Ecuador; English; Indigenous people; Land use; Language acquisition; Language and languages; Law; Meetings; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Ecuador; Quechua Indians; Spanish; Threats; Voluntarism; Volunteer workers in community development; Volunteers

01:01:45 - Explaining Peace Corps/chicha

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Partial Transcript: So, how did you explain the Peace Corps to people?

Segment Synopsis: Waag reveals that explaining what Peace Corps was doing there was rather difficult, but it was helpful that there was a school-building project underway. He explains that people could understand that but that he did not gain any popularity by defending land ownership on the Comunas. People were always questioning why he was going to hang out with those "Indians" on the Comunas. He then describes a drink common to the people there named Chicha, which is made out of manioc, which is also known as yucca. Waag also explains the process by which Chicha is traditionally grown and consumed.

Keywords: Amount; Bowl; Comunas; Enzyme; House; Land disputes; Land ownership; Local cuisine; Manioc; Purpose; Traditions

Subjects: Alcohol; Carbohydrates; Chicha; Communities; Construction projects; Crops; Culture; Ecuador; Fermentation; Food habits; Gardening; Indigenous people; Interpersonal relations and culture; Land use; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Ecuador; Popularity; Saliva; Schools; Starch; Sugar; Volunteer workers in community development; Volunteers; Women; Yucca

01:07:03 - Working with the Comunas/land title incident

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Partial Transcript: We do that two weeks section, in the...

Segment Synopsis: Waag remembers helping the community to hold an election and believes that this practice has continued. He explains that they rented a house where they would go each weekend during the discurso (speech). After the speech had concluded, the others went their separate ways and Waag was the only Peace Corps volunteer remaining. Because of that discurso, Waag explains that he gained great knowledge of the area was able to stay in the same house. Waag shares that he would often stay in the Comuna with locals who offered him a place to sleep. He explains that he worked closely with the presidents of the Comunas and they became good friends. He remembers one incident that occurred early on in his experience, where a government official in the colonization plan came to investigate the land dispute. The official asked for the title and ended up losing it while it was in his possession. The locals realized the title was missing and Waag explains that they believed it was all a big plan to steal their land. Waag was informed by a local official who told them that only a copy of the document was missing. Waag scraped together his Peace Corps stipend to buy bus tickets to Quito to obtain another copy of the title.

Keywords: Bus; Bus ticket; Colonization plan; Comunas; Election; Government officials; House; Land dispute; Land ownership; Locals; Lost; Stipend; Weekend

Subjects: Communities; Corruption; Ecuador; Elections; Indigenous people; Land titles; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Ecuador; Presidents; Quito (Ecuador); Rent; Speech; Travel; Volunteer workers in community development; Volunteers; Voting

01:21:42 - Other projects

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Partial Transcript: So, most of the time you were really involved with a lot of these land disputes, right?

Segment Synopsis: Waag explains that the well project was one that he inherited from a man called Jerry. Jerry had amassed the necessary components and Waag continued the project. Waag remembers two men appearing at his door, who told him they had run into a large boulder while digging the well and asked for his help. He went to a local mechanic for tools and then rode the bus and walked several hours to the site of the well in the evening. Waag recalls using a rickety ladder to get down to the well and was standing in about a foot of water. He began chiseling away at the boulder and did not make much progress. Waag looked up out of the hole and saw people looking down at him. One of the onlookers shouted down and suggested they use dynamite to clear away the boulder. The well project taught him a new way to view community development and changed his mind set on these types of projects. He recalls another Peace Corps volunteer who established a nursing program. Waag shares that he also built a bridge over a river which is still there today.

Keywords: Arrangements; Boulder; Friendly; Ladder; Land disputes; Land ownership; Mindset; Nursing programs; Projects; Well projects

Subjects: Bridges; Communities; Community development; Construction projects; Culture; Dynamite; Ecuador; Indigenous people; Infrastructure; Interpersonal relations and communication; Mechanics; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Ecuador; Tools; Volunteer workers in community development; Wells

01:41:10 - Leaving Ecuador

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Partial Transcript: We have twenty more minutes, at the most, okay?

Segment Synopsis: Waag shares a few details of his return to the United States, remembering that it was one of the hardest things he has ever done. He recalls that it was difficult for him to leave his bridge project unfinished. Waag shares one story he remembers from Ecuador of a couple approaching him and another volunteer, asking for help for their baby who was born with a cleft palate. The other volunteer had some nursing experience and took the baby to a hospital in a major city in Ecuador. The baby stayed in the hospital for several days and eventually the other volunteer returned to find the baby had died of pneumonia. The hospital initially would not return the cadaver and the other volunteer ended up going to the morgue herself and bringing the body back in a shoebox. They buried the body in a local cemetery and Waag was greatly impacted by the futility of the situation. He remembers it as a powerful experience, explaining that he was incredibly naive before joining the Peace Corps.

Keywords: Bridges; Burials; Cadavers; Cleft palates; Deformities; Healthcare; Hospital; Local cemeteries; Morgue

Subjects: Bridges; Communities; Construction projects; Death; Ecuador; Emotions; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)-Ecuador; Pneumonia; United States; Voluntarism; Volunteer workers in community development