Los Gatos Weekly-Times

Photograph by George Sakkestad

Peace Corps alumni (from left) Roni Love, Sandra Chidambaram and Ron Spofford reminisce about their days in Malaysia.

Fond memories linger at Peace Corps reunion

By Mary Ann Cook

They were young, idealistic and adventurous. They joined the Peace Corps when JFK's flame burned brightest. They taught English as a Second Language in Malaysia from 1965 to 67. Now, 30 years later, 10 of those original 70 met again for a reunion weekend in Los Gatos.

Playing host were Sandra and Kailas Chidambaram of Los Gatos. When they met, she was in the Peace Corps, and he a captain in the British Royal Army Corps of Engineers.

After graduating from Florida Southern with a degree in psychology, Sandra applied for the Peace Corps, was assigned to the class called Malaysia XIII and trained at DeKalb, Ill., for four months in teaching skills and the language, culture and history of Malaysia.

Sandra Chidambaram was sent to three different sites during her two-year Peace Corps stint, the last considerably more primitive than the first two. In the first ,she lived alone in government housing, had a kerosene stove, kerosene refrigerator and indoor toilet. In the second, she lived with a Chinese family (40 percent of Malaysia is Chinese) and in the third, in a small village without electricity, running water or indoor plumbing.

Laundry was done by hand everywhere she landed, and when toilets were indoors they were squat toilets--holes in the floor with a flush chain.

Chidambaram heartily embraced eating Malaysian style and continues to cook that way today. She considered it an adventure to buy live chickens and whole fish, instead of the de-feathered and de-finned version.

Most of the reunion-goers welcomed the food and the adventure of the open market, although some said they thought they could have been better-prepared for day-to-day living, such as dealing with whole chickens and pumping up kerosene pressure lamps.

"I finally figured it out," said Roni Love of Cerrito about the lamp. "But it could have been dangerous." She also thought Peace Corps officials "treated us like children," and others echoed that complaint.

Love, whose parents, Dorothy and George Lerner, live in Los Gatos, encountered wilder life than insects and reptiles. Her quarters were next to a bulky log gate. That gate was the only barrier that kept water buffalo from coming into the settlement where teachers, townspeople and the school sat. One night she forgot to close the gate, and several buffalo wandered into the compound.

Nearly all the reuniting Malaysia XIII continued as teachers, though teaching hadn't necessarily been what they intended to do. But Sandra Chidambaram went home for four months to think over the marriage proposal she had received, then returened to Malaysia to marry Kailas and start a family.

Today that family includes Michael Mahesh Kailas, 25, a TV producer in Bombay, and Patrick Dillon Jehan, 22, a student at UC-Santa Cruz who spent the summer in a language program in Chile. In 1993, he was part of the Amigos, a Peace Corps-like group for Spanish-speaking students to help with health and sanitation in Central and South America.

Other marriages emerged from the Malaysia XIII group, some with other Peace Corps workers, some with native teachers. Alice Douglas Wong of Brooklyn married a native teacher and signed on for a third year of teaching along with her new husband.

"It was a dream job for a teacher," Wong said. "The kids hung on your every word. If you were a Western woman, you were able to do more than they would have allowed their own women to do, such as living alone. I'm sure we must have scandalized them. We taught the children how to do the Pony and the Watusi, and all of us had a ball."

A Malaysian feast welcomed the visitors on the first night of their reunion at the Chidambarams: chicken curry, dahl and zucchini, spiced cauliflower, riata (yogurt, cucumbers and spices), rice and a dessert of iced litchi nuts and an almond gelatin called agar-agar, made from seaweed extract. Malaysians eat with their hands, but that far these guests didn't go.

The reunion offered a chance for the members of Malaysia XIII to relive their experiences in the country they had shared and grown to love. Despite discomforts, loneliness and miscommunications, they consider the Peace Corps years a highlight of their lives. "One of the best things I've ever done," said Ginny Bradley of Providence, R.I.

This article appeared in the Los Gatos Weekly-Times, September 18, 1996.
©1996 Metro Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved