Post-retirement adventure: Joining the Peace Corps at 65

As if rising northeastern temperatures weren’t warm enough, Wilton resident Richard “Dick” Chaloux set out for an even hotter climate on Wednesday, June 26, journeying to Benin in West Africa for the next two and a half years. “I found myself, as do many other people who are post 60, as kind of casting around for something to do in the next chapter of my life,” Mr. Chaloux said about his reasons for joining the Peace Corps. “There’s another side of it too,” he added. “It’s going to be really nice to be a part of something that’s much bigger than myself.”

His desire to join the ranks of Peace Corps volunteers working to promote sustainable development in underprivileged areas of the world was not a spur-of-the-moment decision for Mr. Chaloux, who had been all set to make the trip to West Africa over a year ago. “I would’ve gone to Mali at that particular time but because of safety concerns they decided to terminate the program,” he said.

In contrast to the tumultuous political climate in Mali that in part prevented Mr. Chaloux from beginning his journey last summer, Benin is a relatively stable democracy. However, it still suffers from endemic poverty and, like other developing countries, suffers from technological and economic disadvantages that prevent business and the economy from thriving.

Mr. Chaloux hopes to help the country and the people gain greater business acumen, working as a community economic adviser dealing with the growth of infrastructure and business in Benin. This is not his first foray into the economic world of West Africa, as Mr. Chaloux has already racked up some experience in the area. “In my early career, I did have a brief engagement with the World Bank in Washington,” he said, “and at that time, I did go on a mission trip to West Africa.” He embarked on this trip about 30 years ago, which is, funny enough, the average age of the volunteers Mr. Chaloux will be working with throughout his stay.

Despite the age difference, Mr. Chaloux looks forward to having the opportunity to act as a mentor and a surrogate parent figure to younger volunteers while overseas, something he said Peace Corps blogs describe as common and necessary intergenerational relationships. Mr. Chaloux added, “In all the reading I’ve done, of various people’s blogs, on Facebook and all these other communication devices, there really is a real fraternity that comes out of all this. Everyone is very supportive of one another.”

Considering the living conditions Peace Corps volunteers face, this fraternity is a crucial part of these development programs. After the initial three months of training undergone by all volunteers, particularly language immersion training, the majority of volunteers live in the same conditions as the locals they seek to help, with little or no access to running water or regular electricity. Many volunteers also suffer from intestinal illnesses and drop 20 pounds on average during the first few months.

In preparation for all of this, Mr. Chaloux has decided to appreciate the comforts of home while he can, taking the advice of current volunteers. “On these various blogs and Facebook pages and so on, everybody says ‘Look it, whatever you do the last few months before you go, don’t diet, don’t over discipline yourself, just enjoy yourself because once you get there, you’ll start to miss certain things,’” he said, laughing about the notion of dieting and adding “nature will do that for you!”

His actual preparation for the trip has been very simple. “As long as you have a passport and a yellow fever vaccination, probably some rubber-soled shoes, and glasses if you wear them, you’ve got everything that you really need.”

But Mr. Chaloux will also be bringing a laptop and camera in the hopes of accumulating a nice photo portfolio and documenting his trip on his comically named blog, a name partially inspired by the urban dictionary definition of “hot mess.” “It means when someone, either a person or a situation is kind of in total disarray but has an enormous amount of appeal,” he said. “I have a feeling that it is pretty much what West Africa will be like. In other words, it will probably be totally dysfunctional but totally charming at the same time. And that may just be a very romantic notion but that’s how I’m approaching it.”

He hopes this blog can be part of a pending liaison program with Madame Berliet’s French students at Wilton High School. If it is approved, the program would start next fall and would expose students to a primarily French-speaking country that is still distinctly influenced by French culture.

Though he certainly hopes to finalize this project, right now, Mr. Chaloux anxiously awaits what he calls the “serendipity” of what may happen during his time in Benin, hoping for a new perspective and one incredible journey. “I’d just love to encounter something that steers me in some direction that I’ve never thought of before. I think it’s just something that you go with the flow, go with the force and see what it does and in many ways have the adventure of your life.”

For more information, visit Mr. Chaloux’s blog